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Released March 30, 2004

By David Tisdale

HATTIESBURG -- Jumping out of a plane into a war zone is a job few would willingly choose.

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.

"I was 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."

This summer, 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.

The opportunity 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.

"Having 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.

"I intended 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."

Bell asked 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.

Along with 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.

The recruiter's pitch succeeded.

"The extra $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.

After parachute 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.

"It didn't 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," he said.

"Every 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.

Landing in 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.

Dr. Andrew 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.

"It was 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."

Wiest said 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.

"The only 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."

"We didn't 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 jump.

Despite 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.

"Then we said, 'Stop!' and they realized then we were too low," Bell said.

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.

Miscommunication however, continued, producing one of the few light moments of the mission. Zeitner asked Bell to give him the word when he thought the plane

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.

"I called 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.

"Zeitner 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 from."

Miraculously, 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."

Bell agrees. 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.

"The German 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.

"Their 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.

After three days, amphibious Allied forces relieved Bell and the paratroopers at the bridge.

The efforts 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.

Essentially the success of the D-Day invasion hinged on the actions of a few men--those like Elmo Bell.

"On Omaha 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 said.

Today, Bell 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.

"Since 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.

"You talk 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.

"When 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."

In addition, the Normandy program will include a visit to Duxford Air Base outside of London, and a tour of London itself.

Wiest noted 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 Generation."

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.

"They (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."

Six decades 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.

"Maybe 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.



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April 2, 2004 2:58 PM