Seventy years ago today, about 160,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France — with more than 4,400 of them lying dead by the end of that “longest day.”
But the casualty list would have been even longer if not for U.S. Army pilot Jim Fall and others like him, whose rockets, bullets and bombs destroyed German shore batteries before they could prevent the beachhead that signaled the beginning of the end of World War II’s European Theater.
For Fall, now a 91-year-old retired Marion, Indiana, dentist, the war ended four days later when ground fire forced him to eject from his P-47 Thunderbolt, landing him in a prisoner of war camp for the duration. But although seven decades have dimmed Fall’s eyesight, his memories of D-Day and the following 10 months of internment-driven despair, hope and faith remain vivid.
A resident of Rochester, Indiana, before the war, Fall was a student at Manchester College but enlisted in the Amy Air Corps because he knew he would have to serve and had always wanted to fly. He might have regretted that ambition while on a search-and-destroy sweep with the 366th Fighter Group on June 10.
“I heard a dull thud and knew I’d been hit. I could see the (Allied) armada on the coast, and I thought I was home free. But my radio was out, there was a hole in my left wing and I knew I had to bail out,” said Fall, who at the time was a 21-year-old second lieutenant with 20 missions under his belt. His relief at leaving the plane safely ended when bursts of light from the ground made it clear he was the target of German soldiers — a realization that caused him to partially deflate his parachute for a faster, presumably safer descent.
He hit the ground without being shot — but at such a high speed that his left leg shattered on impact and he was easily captured by a squad of very young German troops. His parents were notified he was missing in action, but didn’t find out for another month that he was still alive and being held prisoner by the enemy — an imprisonment that had little in common with the slapstick of “Hogan’s Heroes” or even such gritty films as “Stalag 17” or “The Great Escape.”
The real great escape, in fact, happened at Stalag Luft III near what is now Zagan, Poland, not long before Fall arrived in the summer of 1944. More than 600 prisoners had helped dig a tunnel through which 76 men escaped, with most being recaptured. Immediately after being taken prisoner, Fall had been sent to the Luftwaffe’s interrogation center near Frankfort and was at Stalag 7-A near Moosburg, Germany, when troops under the command of Gen. George Patton liberated that and other camps in April 1945.
“I lost half my body weight (as a prisoner),” said Fall, who weighed about 200 pounds when his ordeal began. “A Red Cross parcel was supposed to last one man a week, and we got half parcels. They had powdered milk, instant coffee, some kind of meat, like Spam, and other things,” he remembered. And sometimes we got German rations, potatoes, bread or soup.”
Most of the time, he said, prisoners were treated relatively well. During an early interrogation, however, a guard told Fall he would be shot if he did not cooperate. It was about then that, while in his cell, Fall felt a firm touch on his shoulder and a voice reassuring him that he would see his parents and loved ones again.
“My leg was hurting and I was feeling sorry for myself, missing Mom’s cooking, but I know the Lord had his hand on my shoulder more than once. I know God was talking to me, and I never doubted I would make it home.”
The years after the war were good ones for Fall and the fiancee he had known since grade school, Ethel Mae. They married in 1946 and have three grown children, and Fall earned his dental degree at Indiana University with the help of the GI Bill. But he knows the man he became, and remains, was forged by the fire of war.
“I thank God for the experience. I didn’t have much direction before the war. I was going to be a fly boy, live high. The Lord put me in that place for 10 months. He saw where I was going, and didn’t like it,” Fall said.
His enduring memory of D-Day remains how the English Channel looked that day: choked with a flotilla too massive to number — or, ultimately, to defeat.
“I’m thrilled to have been part of it, such a big operation. I’ll be the first to admit that I had it far better than those poor devils trying to get to shore. But in my own way, I did my part,” he said, with a humility that belies his courage and sacrifice.
But that’s how true heroes are, never seeking to glorify themselves. With just 1 million or so World War II veterans left, and more than 550 dying each day, that’s all the more reason to thank and honor them — while we can.