Climbing into the plane that would take him to Normandy, Eugene Deibler had no idea what to expect. The 19-year-old had joined the paratroopers to avoid being a radio operator, trained for months and survived a broken ankle in jump school, but had yet to see combat.
Gathered at Merryfield Airfield in southwest England, the paratroopers had already gotten geared up to jump the night before, and then the operation was called off due to bad weather. All that pent-up energy had to go someplace, and Deibler remembers troops getting into fights.
The second night, it was a go. Climbing into the plane, Deibler told himself that if his buddies could do this, so could he.
“If you weren’t scared, something was wrong with you,” he said. “Because you’re just a kid, you know?”
As they arrived at the French coast, he remembers heavy antiaircraft fire and tracer bullets from machine guns lighting up the sky like fireworks.
“We said ‘Let’s get the hell out of this plane,’ ” he said. The jump light went on, and out they went.
On the ground, their job was to secure a series of locks on the Douve River to prevent the Germans from opening the locks and flooding the fields. But they ran into such fierce resistance trying to secure another objective — a set of bridges — that they had to fall back.
Deibler went on to fight across Normandy, Holland and Belgium, in the Battle of Bastogne.
This will be his first time back to Normandy since the invasion, and he’d like to see what’s changed. At his Charlotte, North Carolina, home, the 94-year-old retired dentist has a collection of World War II books. He’s afraid that the great conflict will be forgotten.
“How many people remember the Civil War? How many people will remember World War I? And now it’s the same with World
War II,” he said. “World War II will fade away also.”
Of all the medals and awards that Steve Melnikoff received as a 23-year-old fighting his way across Europe, the Combat Infantry Badge means the most to him. It signifies the bearer “had intimate contact with the enemy,” he said.
And Melnikoff certainly did. When he landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day-plus-1 — June 7, 1944 — victory was far from secure. His unit was part of the bloody campaign to capture the French town of Saint-Lo through fields marked by thick hedgerows that provided perfect cover for German troops.
He remembers the battle for Hill 108 — dubbed Purple
Heart Hill — for its ferocity. His job was to take up the Browning Automatic Rifle should the man wielding it go down. The Germans had shot and killed his friend who was carrying the BAR, and Melnikoff picked it up. About an hour later, he, too, was shot. As he went down, he looked to the side and saw his lieutenant also come under fire.
“He’s being hit by the same automatic fire, just standing there taking all these hits. And when the machine gun stopped firing he just hit the ground. He was gone,” Melnikoff said.
“That is what happens in war,” he said, speaking from his Cockeysville, Maryland, home.
For decades he didn’t talk about the war and knows some men who went to their graves never speaking about it again. But he feels an obligation now to talk about what he and others went through. In his hundredth year, he works closely with The Greatest Generations Foundation, which helps veterans return to battlefields where they fought. This year on June 6, he’ll go back to the cemetery and pay his respects.
“This prosperity and peace that we’ve had for all these years, it’s because of that generation,” he said. “It can’t happen again and that’s why I go there.”