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Friday, Aug 22, 2014
Steve Otto Columns

D-Day, when men jumped into the black sky to make history

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Published:   |   Updated: June 6, 2014 at 05:55 AM

June 6, 1944 — We're running out of people who were there, witnesses who can draw upon what it was like — the noise and smells — the power and horror of it all.

D-Day, 70 years ago today, was many things to many people. The great majority of us can only imagine the magnitude of this day in history.

In the spring of 1967 I was part of a small group of Air Force security people who flew into Greenham Common, about 50 miles west of London. The job was to reopen and secure a portion of the old World War II base as a depot for American material from France.

The French had decided to go their own way in those Cold War days and were demanding that U.S. forces leave their country ASAP. What I don't think they expected was that we would take everything, including the metal lining from the runways, with us.

It was a logistical challenge, and Greenham Common appeared to be the perfect facility.

Flying in on a rainy afternoon, I could see a herd of sheep at one end of a runway.

A couple of days later, driving a Ford with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car and the gas pedal where the brakes should be, I managed to drive down the still-abandoned runway to where the sheep were grazing off to the side.

I wanted to tell the sheepherder that in the coming days there were going to be a lot of aircraft coming into town and it might be a good idea to keep the flock in the field.

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I don't remember the details, only that it was a drizzly day and the two of us huddled under a shed just off the runway where he struggled to light his pipe.

I don't even know how we got into it, but the sheepherder started talking about that night in June. He wasn't a sheepherder in those days. He lived in the nearby village of Newbury and watched as the great armada came together.

Greenham Common would be the launching platform for the thousands of paratroopers who would load up in C-47s and gliders for the journey into France.

This is where Gen. Eisenhower would make his historic “the eyes of the world are upon you” remarks and make his way through the lines of paratroopers waiting for the moment.

This is where a young lieutenant by the name of Sam Gibbons, who would later become a longtime Tampa congressman, decided to take out his gas mask and replace it with two cans of Schlitz beer to take into France.

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The sheepherder remembered how the skywas like a moving black cloud of aircraft that created a drone that never ceased. All night and into the next day the aircraft continued to come.

The sheepherder added that he could still hear that steady drone of aircraft and the voices of the men on certain nights.

After a few nights of meandering around the deserted base, its massive hangars and bunkers empty, you wouldn't have gotten any argument from me the place was haunted.

But it was a different, stirring feeling that something momentous had happened in this place and that so many Americans had willingly come here — with little idea of what was about to happen — and gone off into the night to jump into history.

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