MINNETONKA, Minn. (WCCO) — President Barack Obama will place a wreath at the American Cemetery at Normandy Friday, marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in France. Among the returning veterans will be a former Army paratrooper from the Twin Cities.
Rollie Daniel, 91, was part of the airborne invasion that landed behind enemy lines. Now, he’s getting back into uniform to pay respects to those he fought alongside.
On a softball field in the Twin Cities, Daniel leads pre-game exercises. Despite his many years he is still sharp as a tack — athletically active, trim and fit.
Daniel shouts from home plate, “come on, come on. I’ll hit whatever he throws!” But it’s the battlefields of Normandy that cause him flashbacks to his youth.
It was in the early hours of June 6, 1944 that Daniel found himself among the Army paratroopers who were about to jump into history. They would be part of the largest Allied invasion force ever amassed, to begin the liberation of the European mainland from Nazi-held Germany.
Daniel recalls loading into C-47 aircraft as the 82nd Airborne Division troops prepared for the dangerous flight from England to France. As the waves of planes approached the Guernsey Islands, German anti-aircraft fire erupted in the skies.
Once over French soil, pilots flew deliberately low to make for a speedier assault. Daniel says he was no more than 250 feet above the ground when paratroopers deployed. When it was time to jump, Daniel recalls, there was barely time for parachutes to open before soldiers hit the ground.
Their landings marked the first boots on the ground as Allied forces began taking the war to Germany in what was named, Operation Overlord.
“It was probably midnight or something. We didn’t jump until 2 or 2:30 in the morning,” Daniel said.
Daniel was assigned to B Company of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment. It was one of four airborne regiments comprising the 82nd Airborne Division. The 82nd was tasked with landing troops behind German lines on D-Day to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the fortified beaches where 156,000 allied troops were making their water landings.
“Here I am on my first combat jump. You don’t even know if it’s real or not. Maybe I’m dreaming this,” Daniel said.
He quickly discovered the jump was no dream. The first explosion he remembers was actually his unit’s supply chute as it hit the ground. Apparently, a soldier placed detonating caps among the supplies instead of carrying them with him. When the large pack landed the caps detonated the boxes of ammunition, mortars and grenades.
“All our equipment went up and mortars, all the equipment we had. That’s what you depended on, you know,” Daniel said.
Daniel and his fellow paratroopers would spend the next few days fighting hedgerow to hedgerow with grenades and bullets they carried with them until getting resupplied from other units.
In less than a week, General Dwight Eisenhower told them they were to meet up with American forces, who would be advancing after making their beach landings.
“We were not in 6 days, we were in 35. And every day I kept thinking, well, maybe it’s going to be me this time,” Daniel said.
But Daniel would be among the fortunate soldiers whose wounds were not fatal. Now, 70 years after he jumped into battle, Daniel is returning to Normandy.
Of the 9,387 brave soldiers who lost their lives during the D-Day battles, there’s one paratrooper’s grave in particular he hopes to visit.
“Alazares, Fidel Alazares,” Daniel said, choked with emotion.
He operated a Browning automatic rifle alongside Daniel, but was killed when he was hit by mortar fire.
When he recalled back, Daniel wiped at his eyes and simply said, “even now I get emotional.”
On Friday, Daniel will squeeze into his old uniform, still decorated with his jump wings, bronze star and purple heart. His visit will be a solemn and fitting tribute to the white crosses of the young men who died in battle 70 years ago.
When thinking about the impact the visit will have, Daniel said, “it probably will hit me here. I’ll start thinking about all these young guys that I knew, buddies of mine, and they’re not here. They’re buried there.”
Buddies and brave soldiers who never got the chance to come home and raise families — or grow old playing ball. It’s for them that Daniel asks that we teach all future generation to never forget.
“Do you know anything about a place called Normandy? And ask them what these soldiers were doing there in the first place,” Daniel said, tearing up.
Besides going back to Normandy, Daniel also made a trip to Nottingham, England where he thanked the English people. He said without their resolve in holding off Hitler, the D-Day invasion would never have happened.