Dropping from the Heavens
To Liberate A French Town
Thomas McGowan says the paratrooper who was hung up on a church steeple in the movie, The Longest Day, was in his regiment in the invasion of Normandy.
The paratrooper who was portrayed in the film by actor Red Buttons was part of the 82nd Airborne Division, which was dropped behind German lines on June 5, 1944, the night before the mass amphibious landing on Norman beaches.
However, the units of the 82nd were mistakenly dropped into the middle of a village by transport planes which were flying blindly in the darkness.
The paratrooper became snagged on the church spire in the village square and was suspended there for more than two hours with Germans taking potshots at him before he was rescued.
McGowan was in the 508th Parachute Infantry and it was the 82nd Division which liberated the first town in France, Ste. Mere Eglise, the village in which the paratrooper became snagged on the spire.
"We took off from England, from Nottingham on June 5 around 10 or 11 p.m.," McGowan recalled. "We jumped just before midnight, so actually we went in on the fifth. It was right off the coast where we Jumped, about five miles off the beach."
McGowan said the Germans put up some anti-aircraft resistance, but not as much as he expected.
Between 12,000 and 13,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Division were dropped that night, McGowan recalled,
and the resulting condition on the ground was confusion.
"We were pretty well screwed up and dispersed," be said. "Everyone was split up all over the place. It took us maybe a week to get back to our own outfits.
"But we did our best and assembled in groups with another regiment or
battalion until we could rejoin our outfits."
One of the aspects of the battle which helped prevent casualties among the Allies, McGowan said, was the relatively light resistance put up by the Germans on the night of June 5. "It was when they (the Germans) got organized and they got into the hedge-. rows that's when it got tough," he said.
McGowan, like many other veterans .who dread the memories of the hedgerows which separated the fields in Normandy, added, "You were fighting each other from 25 yards away and nobody even could see each other."
McGowan, recalling the fierce fighting in the battle, commented, "I don't think we took prisoners for the first 20 days or so. We killed all of them." And although he expressed respect for the German's abilities, McGowan was very proud of the accomplishments of his division.
"The 82nd Division is the only division in World War II that never relinquished any ground it captured," be said.
One of the most famous captures the 82nd made was Ste. Mere Eglise, which occurred about four days after the assault began.
Asked what kind of a reception the Allies received from the French villagers when the fighting was over, McGowan said, "The way things were going, we didn't have any reception."
McGowan now lives at 1111 Marion St. He worked for 30 years in the Scranton Fire Bureau and served as fire chief before his retirement.
[The Times-Tribune, Scranton, PA, 06 Jun 1984, Wed, Page 66]