Guy Whidden couldn’t keep his eyes off the sky. It was like the Fourth of July. Except he wasn’t looking at fireworks and it wasn’t a holiday. And he really didn’t have time to enjoy the show.
It was shortly after 1 a.m., and 20-year-old Pvt. Whidden of Wyncote, Pa., had just jumped out of a plane somewhere over Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. D-Day.
His mother was definitely getting a letter about this.
In his book, Between the Lines and Beyond: Letters of a 101st Airborne Paratrooper, Whidden reveals almost 300 letters written to his parents about his time in World War II. But unlike many other books about that era, it isn’t a war story. What started as a way to keep his mother from worrying turned into a detailed chronicle of Whidden’s coming-of-age, of sorts.
Saturday marks the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings on Normandy. (The military often uses the phrase “D-Day” to declare the first day of a major operation, in this case the first day of the Allied invasion of German-controlled Normandy.) President Obama and other European leaders will attend ceremonies in France.
It’s a day that veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, still contemplate every year.
Like many young men his age, Whidden, now living in Frederick, Md., rushed to the military recruitment offices shortly after the Pearl Harbor attacks in December 1941.
Having already spent time in the Pennsylvania National Guard, he figured his request for flight training would be approved swiftly. Not quite. “They would promise you something, then send you somewhere else,” he says.
After a stint as a topographer, he was transferred to an infantry unit in South Carolina. He hated it: “I was the young Northern boy and often got into fights with the soldiers.” Skills he learned as a wrestler in high school kept Whidden’s bullies at bay, but he soon turned to another skill — writing. Whidden offered to write letters home for soldiers who needed help with reading and writing.
“They were pretty good — I didn’t realize how good [until he got feedback from his comrades] — and that’s what got me in good with [fellow soldiers].”
After transferring again to “jump school” to train as a paratrooper, Whidden and the 101st Airborne Division shipped out for London in September 1943. He spent nine months jumping out of planes, training for some unknown task.
“They weren’t telling us much of anything in those days. They never do,” he says.
And since he didn’t know much about his mission, there wasn’t much to tell home. So Whidden wrote about girlfriends, food and his friends, though “we all assumed that we’d be in the European theater at some point. So we just trained and waited.”
The waiting ended in the last week of May 1944. In a barbed-wired fenced-off area, Whidden and his fellow troops learned their mission: to jump inland of Utah Beach, knock out German artillery and clear the roads for Allied soldiers. Finally knowing exactly what was happening, “we were locked in for days.”
When later writing to his parents about the action, Whidden wasn’t sure his parents needed to know how he boarded the plane at 8 p.m. on June 5 and could barely stand up. Or how many of his comrades voted to smoke on the plane, so he could barely breathe. Or how some took Dramamine to help with motion sickness and alternated vomiting and sleeping during the whole flight across the English Channel to France.
“It was terrible,” he said. “But, boy, was I excited.”
He couldn’t tell his mother how once he landed behind enemy lines, he was nicked in the neck by shrapnel. “I just let it bleed. What was I going to do? Yell for help?”
Or say that the reason why he was staring so intently at the “fireworks” in the sky was because he was waiting for his weaponry bundles to be released from the plane. He got one. It crashed into him and knocked him out cold. And when he came to, he found that it didn’t even have what he needed.
“The first few hours [of D-Day] were filled with confusion, adventure and the unknown. We surprised the Germans, but we were surprised, too.”
After several weeks in Normandy, the 101st went back to England, then prepared for another jump in Holland. After being seriously wounded from mortar attacks in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, Whidden was sent back stateside to recover and was discharged.
After the war, Whidden went on to become an elementary school teacher, marry and have two sons.
Whidden says his letters are a constant reminder of what he went through. He went back to Normandy in 1994 to pay his respects to lost soldiers — and to what he considers a lost society.
“There’s no question [D-Day] was the deciding factor that [turned the war in our favor], but I like to think of the people who died so young.
“We had a different mentality then because of how we grew up through the Depression. We did things with honor.
“You could get money from the bank with a handshake. That’s not happening today.”
(Photos courtesy of Whidden family)
Tina Johnson-Marcel is news editor of AARP Bulletin Today.