Late in the evening of June 5, 1944, small groups of young Americans from the All American and Screaming Eagle airborne divisions began boarding C47 aircraft for a short flight from airbases in England to lead the invasion over Adolf Hitler’s Atlantic Wall in France.
Captain Frank Lewis Lillyman, commander of the Pathfinder Detachment of the 101st Airborne Division, had been training young paratroopers the art of jumping behind enemy lines to set up lights, smoke, radar, and luminous panels with the intent of guiding in planes and gliders to their appropriate drop/landing zones. These tactics and techniques were refined after the parachute insertions during Operation Husky in Sicily.
I had the unique opportunity to talk to Mrs. Jane Lillyman in 1994 prior to the 50th Anniversary of D-Day. As the unofficial historian for the 101st Pathfinder Company, I wanted to try and get to know the American who lead the invasion over Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and begin to break his hold on Europe. Mrs. Lillyman regaled me with tales of her husband filling his canteens with something other than water prior to the jump, capturing a German soldier in his bed clothes, and liberating a bottle of champagne on that historic morning. Captain Lillyman, who would be wounded fighting in the hedgerows and who was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, always jumped with a cigar in his mouth.
On June 4, 1994 I was able to fulfill the dream of jumping into Normandy after a rough landing on Amfreville drop zone in France, and taking part in the anniversary of Operation Overlord. I was able to meet some of those young Americans paratroopers, now not so young in years but still young in spirit, and was honored to stand with them and listen to their harrowing tales. Most people remember D-Day as the vivid images the allies fighting their way off the beach, actually called Operation Neptune, but few remember that at 00:15AM scores of young men fell from the sky to help liberate people they didn’t know effectively jumping over the wall that Hitler built.
They were the greatest generation of Americans and men that I wish to emulate.
COL Frank L. Lillyman, who died in 1971, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Section 53 with his wife Jane.
Photo Attribution: Trigger Time Forum