SHAKO: The Night Before D-Day (40 Years Later)
Old D-Day Story – With a Twist.
All the attention and remembrances that the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France is getting recently jogged my memory about another D-Day story I uncovered 30 years ago – for the 40th anniversary of history’s biggest amphibious invasion.
Your 4GWAR editor was South Bend, Indiana correspondent for the Associated Press when someone told me about a priest then serving at the University of Notre Dame who had a great D-Day story. Monsignor Francis L. Sampson had been an Army chaplain serving with the 501st Parachute Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. (The same division but a different regiment from the one featured in the book and cable TV series “Band of Brothers.”)
Sampson parachuted into Normandy along with the 101st the night before D-Day, was captured by the Waffen SS and almost shot on June 6. After the Germans realized he was only a chaplain they let him return to the barn where he had been tending wounded paratroopers too badly hurt to be moved. He and an Army medic tended both German and U.S. wounded until American forces overran the area and captured the Germans who had captured Sampson.
He went on to jump into Holland in late 1944 in Operation Market Garden (“A Bridge too Far”), was captured again at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and liberated from a grim German POW camp by Russian troops in April 1945.
Pretty good story, I thought. As I pitched it to my editor in Indianapolis, he told me about a Frenchman, now a local business magazine publisher who was a small boy in Normandy on that night in June, 1944. Bernard Marie, now in his mid 40s, was offering a free lunch in Indianapolis to any U.S. vet who could prove he was in Normandy on what became known as “The Longest Day.”
We decided to combine both men’s stories after I interviewed them and also put them in touch with each other. Here is the beginning of the story that ran in U.S. newspapers on the afternoon of June 5, 1984:
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – On the night of June 5, 1944, Bernard Marie spent his fifth birthday huddled in a cellar 25 miles from Omaha Beach. Monsignor Francis L. Sampson flew through German anti-aircraft fire over Normandy, convinced he was going to die.
The story had some humorous and harrowing anecdotes. My favorite was when the first U.S. paratroopers broke into little Bernard’s house. He thought their four-letter-word cussing sounded like German (think about it). And was terrified the Germans had come to get his family. But when he saw the American flag patch sewn on every trooper’s sleeve he knew things were going to be all right, he told me.
Back to 1984: Press photographers captured the embrace of the 72-year-old Catholic priest and the grown up French boy – even though they had never met before – amid scores of applauding WWII vets.
But the story doesn’t end there. While trying to find a complete copy of the original story, which so far hasn’t happened. I came across Monsignor Sampson’s obituary in the Des Moines Register (he was a native of Iowa). I learned that he had stayed in the Army rising to the rank of major general (two stars) and had served as the Army’s Chief of Chaplains from 1967 to 1971. He died in January 1996.
But what really got my attention was a sidebar in the obituary, that noted an action Sampson performed in the days immediately after D-Day, may have inspired – at least in part – the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” See for yourself, here.
For more on this remarkable career that spanned three wars and a lot of souls in need, click here.
To learn more about D-Day, click here for the Defense Department’s 70th Anniversary page.
SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.
Entry filed under: National Security and Defense, SHAKO, Skills and Training, Traditions. Tags: "Saving Private Ryan", 101st Airborne Division, D-Day, Monsignor Francis L. Sampson, paratroops in World War II, World War II.