NORMANDY, FRANCE — Surrounded by adoring French residents and paratroopers in vintage World War II uniforms, three former Eden brothers reunited on a drop zone in France during the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing at Normandy, France.
George A. “Al” Ferguson III, now a High Point Police Department lieutenant, was one of 300 paratroopers from X-35 Airborne in Dunnellon, Fla., participating in the historic event.
His younger brothers, Robert “Rob” Hunt Ferguson of Webster and Charles Martin “Marty” Ferguson of Ft. Collins, Colo., waited more than three hours with thousands of other people to witness the drop.
Al texted them from England that he would be in the third plane in his group, and the eighth person out the door. Actually, he was the last person, called a pusher.
Marty and Rob counted the planes, then the paratroopers and watched as Al floated down, losing sight of him before he hit the ground. They started running to where he was landing. About 30 minutes later, they saw him on the side of a field, surrounded by people taking pictures. Marty joined the photographers. Al spotted him first, with Rob arriving a few minutes later.
“I got very emotional when I saw my brothers,” Al said, adding some French townspeople had come to congratulate him and took the paratroopers to a smaller crowd of people.
“Everybody was shaking my hand, and the girls were hugging us. I looked out and saw my brothers. We hugged each other and got teary eyed.”
From the pocket of his fatigues, Al handed his brothers two coins, one from his original unit, and one he had commissioned.
The reunion was short-lived since the paratroopers were scheduled to go to an assembly area in Caen. The brothers and Marty‘s wife, Jessica, met the next day at an American museum at Pointe du Hoc. They got together that evening with Al and other X35 participants providing first-hand stories over dinner.
Marty, Rob and Jessica spent four days touring Normandy, including the little town of Sainte Mere Eglise (Church on the Sea) where they learned interesting World War II and paratrooper history.
Al was especially excited that he was assigned to “That’s All Brother,” a restored replica of the C47 that led the D-Day invasion in 1944 with more than 800 other aircraft behind her.
“My group was fortunate enough to jump from her, and that added a great deal of significance,” Al said.
Dressed in replica 1940’s World War II Allied uniforms worn by the D-Day paratroopers and equipped with World War II military-style parachutes, they took off from Oxford, England, and crossed the English Channel to Drop Zone K at Sannerville, France. Al wore a M-1942 U.S. Army paratrooper uniform, like one worn by U.S. paratroopers on D-Day.
“We took off in England and retraced the steps,” Al said. “It was very special because not everyone (of the reenactment group) was able to get across the channel.”
When the plane first took off, a loud cheer of “airborne” erupted from the men, but, then, “it very quickly became quiet,” Al said.
“It started to really hit us about the significance of what we were doing. We were there to honor the history and the courageous actions of the men who had done it 75 years before.”
Looking out the windows on the two-hour flight, they saw their sister C-47 aircrafts, all loaded with hard-charging paratroopers being escorted across the channel by P-51 Mustangs and British spitfires.
About 10 minutes from the drop zone, the jump master began giving commands, and “very quickly we were jumping out the door,” Al said. “As we are standing there hooked up and ready to go, the significance of this event washed over everyone. … What the men must have been thinking back in World War II … the courage those men displayed was just phenomenal.”
Since they were dropped a little past the drop zone, Al came out over a highway. They did not land on the beaches as the original paratroopers had done 75 years earlier, but at Sannerville, about 15 miles inland.
“I was just thinking how amazing this is to be retracing the steps of the men who did it 75 years ago on D-Day … what an experience it was, and I started looking for a place to land.”
At 6:30 in the morning on June 6, 2019, they actually were standing on Omaha Beach, 75 years to the day and time when the men landed on D-Day.
“That was extremely emotional,” Al said. “We saw the sun coming up. It was a beautiful day, and to just look down the beach and think about what happened 75 years ago was overwhelming.”
Later, the family members toured Pt. Du Hoc, Maisy Battery and other places. At each, Al carried an original U.S. World War II-era 48-star flag, believed to have been carried by a lst infantry soldier during the war.
“To carry it back to Normandy was very special. I carried it in my left cargo pocket during the jump and my entire time in Normandy,” Al said. “I like to think that flag saw some places it had seen before.” He plans to frame the flag and hang it in his Oak Ridge home.
Rob was impressed with the town of Sainte Mere Eglise, where there was a lot of World War II paratrooper history.
On D-Day, when the 82nd Airborne jumped into the little town, one paratrooper’s chute got caught on the steeple of a church, and the townspeople rescued him.
Rather than having angels on the stained glass windows, this church has paratroopers, Rob said, adding “Walking into that church and looking up at the stained glass windows there. …They see the paratroopers as their angels.”
He described the American cemetery as the most awe inspiring part of their trip because “it was just so expansive … just incredible.”
Al was in uniform the entire time, and everywhere they went, they were treated like celebrities.
“The French people in Normandy really teach their kids the history of World War II, and everyone wanted to shake our hand or hug us or talk to us,” Al said. “It was really an amazing feeling that they know the history of World War II. They take great pride in it.”
“I am glad Al got to do it, and so glad we got to watch him from the ground,” Rob said last week in a telephone interview from his Colorado home. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I’ll never get to see anything like that again or have those same feelings again.”
“The fact that Al was involved in the reenactment of such a historical event made me really proud,” Marty said. “It was just super meaningful for us to experience it with him.”
Seeing how emotional his brother was made Marty thinks about how it must have for the men who jumped on June 5, 1944 … not knowing what they were facing — whether their buddies were alive and able to meet up on the ground in Nazi-occupied territory — had to be incredibly emotional for them as well.
“This experience made me think more specifically about the individuals involved,” Marty said. “I don’t think anybody can imagine being in combat like that to comprehend what it is like unless you have actually been through it. That was so impactful for me.
“I no longer think of it as one big historical event, but instead think about the individuals and their personal experiences.”