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Military

By USAF SSgt. Austin M. May

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Mildenhall Special Operations Airmen Commemorate D-Day Landings
(June 12, 2010)

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A French child assists a member of the 321st Special Tactics Squadron in packing up his parachute after a high-altitude, low-opening jump June 5, 2010, in Normandy, France, commemorating the 66th anniversary of D-Day. The 321st STS is from Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England.
A French child assists a member of the 321st Special Tactics Squadron in packing up his parachute after a high-altitude, low-opening jump June 5, 2010, in Normandy, France, commemorating the 66th anniversary of D-Day. The 321st STS is from Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England.
 NORMANDY, France (AFNS - 6/10/2010)

The sky above Normandy billowed to life June 5 as hundreds of parachutes slowly descended on a field just outside St. Mere Eglise, a town near Utah Beach.

Beneath the chutes was a mix of American, English, French and German paratroopers, all landing in the field known as the "Iron Mike" drop zone, with the same mission: to commemorate the 66th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings of World War II.

Among the jumpers were members of Royal Air Force Mildenhall's 321st Special Tactics Squadron, which has participated in the D-Day commemoration almost every year since the mid 1990s. Five 321st STS Airmen jumped from a static line, where their parachute is deployed automatically upon exiting the aircraft, while another 14 performed a high-altitude, low-opening jump.

Capt. Steven Cooper was one of the Airmen who made the static-line jump, but with a twist -- he and the other four were delivered to the drop zone by a German aircraft.

He said it was nice to see the different nations, who were at one time bitter enemies, come together to commemorate the historic events that took place there.

"One reason we do this is to make sure horrific things like what happened in World War II don't happen again," the captain said.

Captain Cooper said he wanted to participate in the static-line jump for the historical significance of it.

"Even though it wasn't the same time of day or the same weather as the original jump, it was surreal to think we were landing in the exact same spot as the Allies on D-Day," he said.

Captain Cooper said one of the neatest aspects of the jump was the connection between those who jumped into a Normandy under Nazi occupation and the men who went in on June 5, 2010. He explained how many of the jumpers on D-Day were Army pathfinders, a precursor to modern-day Air Force combat controllers.

"The pathfinder elements went in ahead of the main assault force to prepare the battle space and scout out the best routes," the captain said. "On D-Day, Army pathfinders from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions went in a few hours before the main jump to set up drop zones, but they were using rudimentary night markers and didn't have the best accuracy, and as a result lots of paratroopers were dropped off target."

For the 66th Anniversary jump, combat controllers from the 321st STS were able to talk to the pilots of the aircraft, relaying wind conditions and other necessary bits of information, all of which contributed to the jumpers landing precisely where they wanted.

Staff Sgt. James Hawkins, a 321st STS aircrew flight equipment Airman, has been jump-qualified for fewer than six months, but can already claim to have jumped into the famous "Iron Mike" drop zone as one of the five static-line jumpers from June 5, something that took a moment for him to fully realize.

"When you first jump from the plane, your training takes over and you concentrate on that," he said. "It doesn't really hit you that it's the drop zone from D-Day until you're on the ground."

The sergeant said marching into St. Mere Eglise after the jump was an awe-inspiring experience of its own.

"I tried to play it cool, but couldn't help but smile," he said, referencing the thousands of cheering locals waiting for the American, British, French and German servicemembers in the town center at St. Mere Eglise.

"With all those people cheering and thanking you, it feels like you're a rock star," he said.

Following their customary Friday football game, this time played out on the wet sand of Utah Beach, the group dropped to the ground for memorial pushups in honor of those who fought and died in the line of duty.

"We do 10 sets of four-count pushups, then one for teamwork and another for fallen comrades, but our form must be absolutely perfect," Captain Cooper explained. "It's important because it reminds us that no matter how much we've done, no matter how tired we are, we haven't given even a fraction of what those we're honoring have given.

"Even though things were much more difficult back then, by participating here we at least get some understanding of what those assaulters went through," Captain Cooper said.

In the days preceding the jump and celebration, the 321st STS Airmen observed the anniversary up and down the Normandy coast, from a small ceremony in the town of Picauville to a squadron trip to the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer.
Article and photo by USAF SSgt. Austin M. May
100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Copyright 2010

Reprinted from Air Force News Service

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