WWII Silent Heroes Brought To Life By Younger Generation

Omaha Beach in the background where Pvt. Leo Chalcraft is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on September 27, 2013, at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (Photo by Warrick Page - American Battle Monuments Commission)

Omaha Beach in the background where Pvt. Leo Chalcraft is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on September 27, 2013, at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (Photo by Warrick Page – American Battle Monuments Commission)

Army Private Leo Kenneth Chalcraft was a green-eyed, brown-haired teen from St. Petersburg, FL when he was killed in action in World War II.

It happened just six days after his 19th birthday.

Today, his grave is among the 9,387 military dead buried in France at the Normandy American Cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach. There, 72 years ago this June 6, U.S. troops stormed the beaches on D-Day, marking the beginning of the end of World War II.

“He was so young and I feel like he didn’t get to experience a lot of his life,” said Konner Ross, a 17-year-old who lives in Largo, near St. Petersburg. Continue reading

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WWII Veteran of D-Day and Battle of the Bulge Passes

Former Congressman Sam Gibbons was a member of the U.S. Army’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, serving in Europe on D-Day and during the Battle of the Bulge. Photo courtesy of WUSF Public Broadcasting

Sam Gibbons at age 92 died peacefully in his sleep Tuesday his son told the Tampa Bay Times.

The Tampa native was 24 the night before D-Day when he dropped into German-occupied France as a young captain of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles.”

In Gibbons’ memoir I Was There – he describes his experiences in WWII. It is peppered with details like how he replaced his gas mask with two cans of Schlitz beer before the D-Day drop.

“So with all this gear on me (the same for about 12,000 others), I was the third man to step out of plane #42, and dropping 800 feet to start what some have called ‘The Longest Day.’”

The story of how the paratroopers were dropped off course and scattered across the French countryside is widely known. Gibbons and a few other paratroopers managed to pull together and planned an attack on a nearby town.

“At the end of this council I brought out my two cans of beer, which we shared,” Gibbons wrote. “When the cans were empty we decided to leave them in the middle of the road as a monument to the first cans of Schlitz consumed in France and moved on.”

Sometime in the evening of June 5, 1944, a “stick” of heavily loaded 101st Airborne paratroopers board their C-47 transport before their jump into history in the skies of Normandy. Capt. Sam Gibbons of the 501st carried a couple of additional non-issue items along with him. National Archives photo

Chuck Oldham of Defense Media Network wrote that Gibbons’ story of the Allied landing in Normandy has always stuck with him:

Of all those stories … Gibbons’ story, written in a self-deprecating tone as it was in I Was There and popularized in Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, remains one that has always struck me as somehow being indicative of the American paratroopers’ fight during that early morning of June 6, 1944, with a young captain abruptly thrust into an unexpected leadership role, he and his men dropped far from their objectives, lost and improvising their way through a night of combat,  and ‘marching toward the sound of gunfire.’

The young captain was with the 101st as it helped hold Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and captured Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” facility.

When Gibbons returned to Tampa, he went to law school, served as a state lawmaker and then for 16 terms in the U.S. Congress. President Bill Clinton named Cong. Gibbons general chairman of the 50th Anniversary of Normandy commemoration committee.

President John F. Kennedy, flanked by Congressman Sam Gibbons, arrives in Tampa, Nov. 18, 1963. Gibbons served for many decades in the U.S. House of Representatives before retiring. National Archives photo

When Gibbons returned to Normandy for the 50th anniversary – he had with him another two cans of Schlitz beer – which he drank and left sitting on the road again – as a monument of a different sort.

Over the years, I had the opportunity to cover Sam Gibbons as an elected official and as a Veteran. He will be remembered as a “true American hero.”

And, if you happen to have a can of Schlitz handy tonight –  lift one to the old warrior who battled among the hedge rows of Normandy and bridged the aisles in Congress to make this a better country and world.

Recalling the D-Day Invasion and Other Memories

WWII D-Day Invasion. Photo courtesy U.S. Army.

WWII Veterans are scheduled to share their personal D-Day recollections of the largest military invasion in world history Saturday at Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, Florida.

The invasion of Normandy is one installment of the theme attraction’s six-part series: Legends & Legacies Symposium. The series invites WWII aviation heroes and their families to offer a glimpse of what it was like to fly in the heyday of aviation as they protected their country. WWII veterans who served on the ground protecting and supporting the men and women in flight are also featured. 

Throughout the weekend, WWII heroes Richard Ortega, Clifford Kantz and Howard Huebner, will share personal stories and recollections of the D-Day invasion and the grueling weeks that followed.

D-Day, Normandy invasion June 6, 1944.

Richard Ortega served with Easy Company, which was portrayed in the 2001 HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers and 1992 book by Stephen Ambrose.

Howard Huebner, a paratrooper, fought with Easy Company after members of his company missed their drop zone by several miles and became separated dangerously close to German barracks. His story is portrayed in the film D-Day Down to Earth – Return of the 507th.

Major Clifford Kantz retired in 1963 after 20 years in the Air Force. He flew 16 combat missions during World War II, the first of which was on D-Day, when he piloted a C-47 to drop paratroopers over Normandy. The significance of the event wasn’t lost on the young pilot, who on D-Day was only 20 years old.

Additional topics for the  “Legends & Legacies Symposium Series”; “The Pacific War: Power and Pursuit,” June 10-11; and “The Great Escape: Heroes Underground,” Oct. 14-15.

General admission is required to attend symposiums. However, during the month of May, Fantasy of Flight will give free admistion ot active duty military with proper identification. For details, visit the theme park’s website: http://www.fantasyofflight.com/.

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