Seventy years ago this week, Jim "Pee Wee" Martin was among the thousands of brave young men who parachuted down over Utah Beach into Normandy, France with the 101st Airborne Division — beginning the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. On Thursday, at 93 years old, Pee Wee jumped once again.
Upon landing, Martin told reporters, "It didn't compare, because there wasn't anybody shooting at me today." Even back in 1944, Martin at age 23 was surrounded by teenagers, being one of the "oldest" soldiers to make the jump. "Pee Wee" was also the smallest soldier in the regiment, weighing only 130 pounds.
In a video interview for the Army, Martin said:
"When they started this thing, (paratrooper school, in July 1942) it was strictly voluntarily. They could not draft you into parachute troop - you had to ask to be in. 6,500 people signed up. It was tough. By the time we went to jump school, there were 1,650 left. The discipline was terrible, the food was awful. Not much of it. Any infractions at all, and you were gone."
In May of this year, Martin worked with the Army to record this video about D-Day.
Pee Wee boarded a ship for a 10-day sail to England in September, 1943 with the 506th Infantry and stationed in Wilkshire County upon arrival. For the next 8 months, they prepared for their mission — invading occupied Europe. He says they made their initial jump [from a C-47] into France at 12:30AM on the the 6th of June.
The C-47, a modified Douglas DC-3 used for parachute jumping during WWII. Photo by the author, Paul Thompson.
Martin said when they jumped, they lost most of their equipment because the pilots didn't slow to 90 miles per-hour due to the flak. They jumped at 150 MPH. His unit was assigned the task of securing two bridges in order to keep the Germans from reinforcing their beach positions as the Allied armada of ships arrived. The unit had lost their communication equipment, leading to the assumption from base that their unit had been wiped out. The bridges were ordered to be bombed from the air, while Martin's unit was still nearby.
"Here come these Air Force planes, P-47s with machine guns going, dropping bombs. You see the ground just erupting around [the two soldiers on the bridges]," said Martin. One soldier was lost due to friendly fire.
Pee Wee Martin at paratrooper school, Camp Toccoa, Georgia. 1942. Photo posted to Flickr by Doug Barber with CC Commercial Use
"Everybody was scared all the time. Anybody that tells you they weren't is full of crap," he told CNN. "But you do what you had to do, regardless of it. That's the difference." In regards to his return to Normandy, he said, "People think you come back and you're all emotional about it, and I'm not that way about it. I enjoy the people. But I'm kind of humbled and embarrassed at the adulation because I don't feel that we did any thing we weren't supposed to do, or anything exceptional."
After his landing at Normandy on Thursday, Martin told reporters, "I'm fine. It was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. What made me to it today? A little bit of ego, because I'm 93 and can still do it. Also also because I want to show all the people that you don't have to just sit and die because you get old." Right on, Pee Wee!
Martin is still very active, at age 93. He even has his own YouTube channel, on which he posts videos related to his military service and speaking engagements.
Douglas C-47 Skytrain "Whiskey 7" by Airwolfhound on Flickr, with CC Commercial License
In another D-Day commemoration, a Douglas C-47 Skytrain known as "Whiskey 7" was flown back to Normandy and participated in the commemorative jump on Thursday, while also carrying a 90 year-old man who had been on the same plane on D-Day, Leslie Palmer Cruise Jr. Cruise told the New York Times he preferred low altitudes and slow speeds of Whiskey 7, because "jets fly too fast to see the countryside." Whiskey 7 was used on the original D-Day, dropping members of the 82nd Airborne. The plane is based at the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, New York.
Top Photo: Jim "Pee Wee" Martin at a weapons cache in Austria, 1945. Posted to Flickr by Doug Barber. Used with CC Commercial License.