D-Day: Jumping into History

Staff Sgt. Bruce Baker

‘Longest Day’ Turns into Long Haul for Father of Publisher

BLYTHEWOOD – Shortly after my dad, Bruce Baker, enlisted in the Army on Oct. 6, 1942, to serve in World War II, he learned paratroopers were being paid $100 a month more than the regular infantry, so he opted for the higher pay and the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division. While he had never even flown in an airplane, much less jumped out of one, he saw parachuting as an easy way to earn extra money for his wife and their growing family back in Texas. In the predawn hours of June 6, 1944, he might have been rethinking that easy money as he scrambled to make his first combat jump out of a low-flying C-47 troop transport plane over Normandy, France under the most harrowing of conditions. The day was D-Day – and that jump was the last one he would ever make.

The 10,000+ paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were an integral part of the Western allies’ massive plan to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation and stop Hitler’s advance toward the west and, potentially, the world. The paratroopers were assigned what has been described by some as probably the most difficult task of the initial operation — a night jump behind the enemy lines five hours before the coastal landings. It was the greatest airborne assault in history at that time. After making landfall, the paratroopers were to destroy vital German supply bridges, capture causeways and prepare the way for thousands of allied ships, aircraft and infantrymen that would arrive on the heavily fortified beaches at dawn.

While the first paratroopers were dropped largely on target, the planes carrying my dad and other paratroopers in the 508th were hindered by a dense cloud cover and increasing anti-aircraft fire, causing the troop carriers to break formation and stray off course. At the same time, the enemy began moving into the drop zones, delaying the pathfinder troops in marking those zones and causing the pilots of the troop carriers to overshoot the zones as they frantically searched for markers. My dad later told my mom how, when the green jump light flashed that morning, he and the other paratroopers on his plane dropped out of the open door of the aircraft into unimaginable chaos – dark skies, dense clouds, tracers everywhere and enemy fire. Plus, to avoid being hit by the enemy, the pilots of the troop carriers had to maneuver at greater speeds than would afford a good jump. My dad and many of the other paratroopers in the 508th landed widely scattered over the Normandy countryside, far from their jump zone and their well-planned assignments.

On July 24, my mom received a telegram informing her that my dad had been reported missing in action on June 11. My brother was 2 years old and I was due to be born two months later. My dad later recalled how he and a buddy from Texas and several other soldiers had been dropped into an area virtually surrounded by German troops and were captured five days after their boots hit the ground. The Germans marched the captives for several days to a train depot where they were loaded into unmarked open-slatted railway cars that were strafed repeatedly by the Western allies as the prisoners were transported to Stalag 12D in Berlin, one of two prison camps where my dad would be held until being liberated by the Russian allies on Jan. 31, 1945.

Of the 2,056 paratroopers in my dad’s 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1,161 were either killed in action, injured or captured. While my dad survived the full blown, gut-wrenching glory that was D-Day and missed almost entirely the combat of the war, he did not escape the subsequent misery of starvation and other forms of deprivation and mistreatment he and his comrades endured as prisoners of war.

Shortly before the war ended in Europe in May 1945, my dad was joyously welcomed home by his family and friends. My brother was 3 years old and I was 8 months old. It was the first time my dad had seen me.

My dad never appeared to carry much emotional baggage from his experiences in the war and, for the most part, picked up where he left off before enlisting – hunting his wolf hounds and coon dogs by night and working in the oil fields by day. Some summers, he played baseball on a team with other men in our town. In 1982, he died in Young County, Texas where he had lived his entire life, and almost everyone in our town attended his funeral. While he never talked much outside his family about his experiences on D-Day or in the prison camp, I grew up with the vivid realization that my dad was revered as a war hero by the 200 or so folks in our small Texas town.

He was a favorite son in the truest sense. They knew what he had done, and they were proud and thankful to him. It was not until I was older that I realized that sense of gratitude extended beyond our town.

As will be recalled on Friday, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the whole of Europe, Great Britain and America was proud and thankful to my dad and to all the soldiers who helped save us all from the unspeakable evil that had spawned the war and threatened the world.