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Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Isle vet returning to France for reprise of D-Day jump


Surrounded by memorabilia, Zane Schlemmer poses with a
photo of a sign from a street in France that is named for him.
He will be returning to France this week for a D-Day

For nearly 30 years, D. Zane Schlemmer tried to hold back the memories of his first combat jump into Normandy 60 years ago.

"I tried not to think about it," said Schlemmer, 82, who has lived in Hawaii for more than three decades, "but it kept cropping back up."

"In 1974, I made my first trip to Normandy and it was the best therapy I could have gotten. The people we liberated were so grateful."

Schlemmer, accompanied by his son and three grandchildren, will return to France this week to participate in the 60th anniversary celebration of D-Day. The invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, turned the tide of World War II, paving the way for an Allied victory.

Re-enactors on Saturday will recreate the 82nd's jump near the town of Sainte Mere Eglise, which was the heart of the American airborne operations.

"I would have loved to make that jump," said Schlemmer, "but the Army said I am too old, but they will allow us to march in with them."

Schlemmer was a 19-year-old sergeant from North Canton, Ohio, when he joined the 17,000 paratroopers of the 82nd "All American" and the 101st "Screaming Eagles" airborne divisions in the drop near Sainte Mere Eglise and Carentan.

But many of the three C-47 Dakota troop transports were driven off target by darkness and German anti-aircraft fire. A member of the 82nd's 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Schlemmer landed at 1:30 a.m. in an orchard in Picauville more than a mile away from his drop zone.

"My helmet covered my eyes," Schlemmer said, "when I moved it above my eyes I could see the tracers coming up at me red, yellow, and white. It looked like the Fourth of July."

Besides landing in the midst of a German division, Schlemmer said the Army didn't prepare the soldiers for the size and height of the hedgerows. "They were huge barriers."

The town of Sainte Mere Eglise, where the first American flag was raised in Europe, to this day still honors its liberators, Schlemmer said.

"They try to keep it in the same way. Every year there are American flags everywhere. It's a heart-warming experience."

Schlemmer landed in Picauville, west of Sainte Mere Eglise. The town named a street Rue Schlemmer after him.

Schlemmer was wounded on July 3 and taken to England to recuperate. "Of 2,100 soldiers in my unit who jumped with me," Schlemmer said, "only 915 returned to our base camp in England."

In September 1944, Schlemmer made his second combat jump with the 82nd into Holland and fought at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge.

On Saturday, Schlemmer made his annual Memorial Day pilgrimage to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific to honor his colleagues buried there, including retired Col. John Battkin, who served in his regiment in the 82nd Division.

"This was such a memorable and wonderful Memorial Day," Schlemmer said, "especially with the dedication this weekend of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C."

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