Jumping out of a plane into a war zone is a job few would willingly
But the chance
to serve his country in an elite military unit - and the additional
$50 a month he would receive as a paratrooper with the U.S. Army
in 1942 - was enough to entice Elmo Bell to sign up for what would
later prove to be a jump into history.
As a member
of the Army's 82nd Airborne, Bell and his comrades took part in
one of World War II's most dangerous missions during the dark, early
morning hours of June 6, 1944--a parachute landing inside enemy
territory to help insure the success of D-Day, the initial invasion
stage of Operation Overlord--at Normandy, France.
mentally prepared. I thought we all were," said the now retired
Gen. Bell, a Hattiesburg resident, in recounting his and his fellow
paratroopers' mindsets in the days before the drop. "They had
a lust for excitement and adventure. They were a cool bunch of cats,
and they were up to the task."
60 years after he and thousands of other Allied troops helped initiate
the downfall of the Nazi war machine with the invasion at Normandy,
Bell will return with a group of University of Southern Mississippi
students and faculty and members of the Hattiesburg community to
visit the site where World War II history was made.
is one of several offered through Southern Miss' popular British
Studies Program, which gives students a chance to earn academic
credit while enriching their studies through international travel.
The Southern Miss Center for International and Continuing Education
oversees the British Studies Program.
Elmo Bell involved in this program will help students understand
what happened at Normandy in way that can't be reproduced in the
classroom," said Dr. Ken Panton, director of the British Studies
Program."Going to Normandy and having a veteran there to help
explain what happened makes history more relevant."
The D-Day paratrooper
mission is one Bell would have never been a part of had he followed
through with his original plan for military service.
to join the Marines," Bell said of his entry into the military.
"I came to Hattiesburg to sign up, and I met an Army recruiter
coming out of the post office."
the soldier where the Marine recruiting office was. After giving
directions, the recruiter invited Bell to have a cup of coffee.
He then asked Bell if he had ever heard of the of the Army paratroopers,
describing them as one of the Army's elite fighting units.
the status that came with being a paratrooper, the additional pay
members of the unit received compared with other soldiers--$50 more
a month--was very appealing.
$50 per month, that really got my attention," Bell said. Otherwise
he was looking at making $21 a month. "I knew I was in for
some lean means (without the extra pay)," he said.
school and other training, and a successful drop at the invasion
of Sicily in 1943, Bell and his airborne cohorts were prepared for
their next mission, which they knew could always be their last.
D-Day was no different in that respect.
Most of the
paratroopers concluded they wouldn't live to make it back home,
Bell said. There was a high attrition rate among their ranks, and
a life consumed with near-daily combat and killing produced a fatalistic
mindset--death was like a shadow following a soldier.
matter if you died next month or next year, there was nothing to
look forward to in the interim," Bell said, but a sense of
duty, mostly to each other, inspired the men to press on. "We
knew that the eyes of the world were on the Allies," he said.
The goal of
relieving the suffering of those living under Hitler's Nazi tyranny
provided plenty of motivation to do battle with the enemy. But the
soldiers' primary inspiration came from the camaraderie that existed
among the troops. "The bond between us was indestructible,"
soldier (who survived a battle or parachute drop) felt they had
been saved a dozen times, so everyone felt a sense of obligation
(to their fellow soldiers), he said.
the early morning hours of June 6--D-Day--it was for Bell and more
than 10,000 paratroopers like him to secure the causeways and bridges
ahead of the invasion of the beachheads at Normandy.
Wiest, who will lead the group from Southern Miss, said Bell and
the other paratroopers were lightly armed, and the drop zone was
inundated with German soldiers. In addition, the landings took place
in total darkness and in stormy weather. But the element of surprise
under such conditions was critical to the success of the operation.
not a big, coherent division of paratroopers," Wiest said of
the operation. "A lot of the guys (paratroopers) dropped in
rivers and lakes and drowned, and the few who made it had to seize
the bridges and causeways in the area."
in many cases the paratroopers had to take the initiative in securing
the bridges and roadways, as many of their commanding officers had
been killed in the initial fighting.
way to get out of Normandy was through these causeways and bridges
(further inland), and the paratroopers had to seize them, because
the important job at Normandy was to get off the beaches, not to
get on them," he said. "If they didn't take and hold the
bridges, Normandy would have been a failure. Our forces would have
been stuck there on the beach."
But on their
way to Normandy, a close call had Bell and his unit believing their
time had finally run out.
As their plane
made its way to the drop site, the aircraft was hit by artillery
fire, and began dropping several hundred feet. Though the pilot
managed to gain control, Bell said the plane "vibrated terribly."
think it (the plane) could stay together. Everyone was thrown to
the back of the plane in a big tangle," he said.
Bell said the
temptation was strong to go ahead and jump, since the plane had
been damaged, but he knew the plane was too low, "just treetop
high." Bell and Sgt. Herman Zeitner, the jump master, screamed,
"We're too low!" to the men rushing the door to make the
repeated warnings, the other paratroopers continued trying to get
out the door, even as Bell and Zeitner, arms locked, blocked the
door. At this point, Bell realized that with all the noise the men
thought he was yelling, "Go!" instead, as in giving the
order to jump.
we said, 'Stop!' and they realized then we were too low," Bell
But the prevailing
concern among the unit was "to get out of that crippled bird,"
Bell said, and not about landing at the assigned drop zone.
however, continued, producing one of the few light moments of the
mission. Zeitner asked Bell to give him the word when he thought
was high enough
for the jump. Bell kept an eye on the ground and monitored the altitude.
After a while, Bell noticed the plane gaining altitude, climbing
higher and closer to an acceptable jump point.
his name (Zeitner) to let him know that we were gaining altitude,"
Bell said. But Zeitner misunderstood, instead thinking Bell had
given him the go-ahead for the jump. "I had no intention of
us jumping at that point."
Bell felt obligated
to follow Zeitner out the door, since he believed he was responsible
for making him think it was safe to make the jump. The other troopers
followed Bell out the door.
told me his chute opened and in the same instant his butt hit the
ground," Bell said, laughing. "It was that close. He was
certain that was the lowest parachute drop a man had walked away
the entire group landed safely, despite the short drop - and very
close together, allowing the group to assemble "in a matter
of minutes," according to Bell.
Since the Germans
weren't expecting the paratroopers, it helped them to quickly overtake
many of the strategic passageways, but the mission was far from
over. "The problem was holding them," Wiest said. "Once
the Germans knew we were there, they threw everything at us. The
key was getting the soldiers off the beach to relieve the paratroopers."
He said his unit took their objective, a bridge across the Merderet
River, with minimal resistance. "The bridge was lightly defended
to start with, and we seized it without difficulty," he said.
But Bell and his unit would soon have to stave off two separate
enemy counterattacks aimed at retaking the bridge, one of which
involved the use of captured Allied paratroopers forced to march
as human shields ahead of a group of German soldiers and tanks.
infantry crowded behind the tanks, and they kept coming across the
bridge (with the captured paratroopers ahead of them at gunpoint),"
Bell said. "We knew we had to fire sooner or later."
In a bizarre
turn of events, a shot fired by an Allied soldier using an anti-tank
gun hit the tread on the lead tank, disabling it, and causing the
tank behind it to roll over it.
infantry then ran for cover," Bell said. "The third tank
backed up down the road. The road, then, was effectively blocked,
and they knew their mission had failed."
But the disabled
tank was still able to continue firing rounds. Shots fired at the
tank failed to pierce its armor plating. Finally, one of the paratroopers,
Joseph Fitt, dropped a grenade in the tank, killing its crew.
days, amphibious Allied forces relieved Bell and the paratroopers
at the bridge.
of the paratroopers ensured the success of the Utah Beach landing
point--barely. Further east, the Allied effort to take Omaha Beach
had run into serious trouble that very nearly derailed the entire
invasion effort. The very real prospect of failure on "Bloody
Omaha," where German resistance was the strongest, would have
prevented the important link up of the five invasion beaches, thus
causing a domino effect, Wiest said.
the success of the D-Day invasion hinged on the actions of a few
men--those like Elmo Bell.
Beach and in the parachute drop zones, D-Day came down to the actions
and bravery of individual soldiers, against impossible odds. In
such cases a very few men stood strong and compromised the German
defenses, making victory possible on 'the Longest Day'," Wiest
still considers himself one of the lucky ones. He said he lost many
friends among his paratrooper colleagues, some whose bodies were
never recovered. When he travels this summer for the first time
back to Normandy, he'll say goodbye to those friends, and others
he never knew but who also didn't make it back.
Wiest is heading
his 16th British Studies tour to Normandy with this summer's 60th
anniversary trip. He and his students plan to help Bell locate his
soldier buddies at the cemeteries near the battlefield.
Elmo lost so many comrades, it will be impossible for him personally
to say goodbye to them all. My plan is for everyone to find the
gravesites of his friends and say goodbye for him," Wiest said.
about making war and its costs immediate...each person (taking part
in the program) will have a chance to say goodbye for Elmo to his
lost friends. It will also give us a chance to pay homage to the
bravery and sacrifice of these men and simply to say, 'Thank you.'"
Such an experience
helps students truly understand the horrors of war, Wiest said.
I teach war in my class, the hardest thing to get across is the
reality of it," he said, "what it's really like, the terror,
the sounds, the smells. You never know what war is really like until
you've experienced it, seen it, touched it, smelled it, and going
back with a veteran is as close to understanding what it's like
short of participating in it."
the Normandy program will include a visit to Duxford Air Base outside
of London, and a tour of London itself.
that for the first time, the Normandy trip will be open to non-students
and all interested members of the community are cordially invited
to come and share in a once-in-a-lifetime chance to walk in the
footsteps of and pay honor to what's popularly known as the "Greatest
The tour is
July 14-22 for non-students. The deadline for enrollment, which
is on a first-come, first-served basis, is April 17.
(students and others traveling to Normandy) are going to get a world-class
tour of the battlefield, with the help of a true hero of the battle
like Elmo Bell to show them around," Wiest said. "You
can't beat that."
after D-Day, Bell expects the trip to be an emotional one for him,
but looks forward to sharing his experience with the students and
others making the journey to Normandy.
if we can learn more about war, we can learn better how to avoid
it," Bell said.
For more information
about the Southern Miss British Studies Program at Normandy, or
other Southern Miss summer study-abroad programs, call (601) 266-4344.