Joe Thornton served in the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Company F during World War II. He said, “I went to a baseball game at Ponce de Leon Park (home of the Atlanta Crackers) one day. I saw this guy at a distance who had on the sharpest looking uniform I had ever seen. As I walked toward him I thought ‘I think I know that guy’. The closer I got the more I knew it was Lewis Hinson, a grade school classmate. I told him how good he looked in the uniform and found out he was a jump master at Fort Benning where he trained paratroopers. Then I found out paratroopers got $50 per month more pay than regular army, and I knew I wanted to join the airborne. I saw Lewis again after the war and found out he had been assigned to the 101st Airborne when they came through jump school at Fort Benning. Lewis said his war lasted six hours before he was captured and spent the remainder in a German POW camp.”
Joe joined the 508th for basic training at Camp Blanding, FL. He said, “You know about half or more of the guys who started basic training washed out. If you missed a day of training for any reason, they washed you out. I had the bloody piles one time. It was so bad the blood was running into my boots when we marched. Some of the guys insisted I should go to the hospital. I wasn’t about to go because I knew if I missed a day, I’d be washed out and sent to the regular infantry.
Joe survived basic training then went for jump training at Ft. Benning, Ga., advanced training at Camp MacKall, North Carolina, and maneuvers in South Carolina and Tennessee, After this, he went with the 508th PIR by train to New York City where they debarked on the ship USAT James Parker for Ireland on December 28, 1943. They arrived at Belfast, Northern Ireland on January 8. 1944 and trained in Ireland through March 13, 1944. They then moved through Scotland to Wollaton Park near Nottingham, England and began training for the Normandy invasion. The 508th was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division in May 1944.
Joe made combat jumps in Normandy (behind Utah beach) on D-Day, and at Nijmegan, Holland during Operation Market Garden. Books were written and movies made about both these events. "The Longest Day" was the movie about the Normandy invasion, and "A Bridge Too Far" was the movie about the Holland operation. Joe, along with other Alabama and Georgia Normandy veterans, received a special invitation to attend a dinner and the grand opening of “The Longest Day” in 1962 in Atlanta. He and Gloria attended the gala affair.
Joe also participated in the Battle of the Bulge when the 82nd Airborne was trucked in to help stop the German advance through the Ardennes.
D-Day and Normandy
The 508th‘s mission on D-Day was to (a) seize and destroy bridges over the Douve River at Etienville and Beuzeville la Bastille, and (b) occupy the high ground of Hill 30 near the western end of the Chef du Pont causeway over the Merderet River.