A little known World War II story of bravery and camaraderie turned what would have been a quiet birthday celebration into a festive, international affair.
It was a connection from “past to present” and “country to country,” said LTC G. Brent Cummings, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, commander, as cadre members celebrated their regimental birthday July 30 with 12 French nationals who journeyed to Fort Benning especially for the occasion.
“It’s important for us because we did a film about the 507th named Papa said, ‘We should never forget,’” said author and historian Dominique François, who organized the trip.
The film tells the true story of more than 150 507th PIR Soldiers who found themselves behind enemy lines on D-Day, 30 kilometers from their targeted drop-zone.
“In unfamiliar terrain, it is natural for men in the dark to gravitate towards high ground,” said SFC Robert Contratto, chief instructor for Airborne School. “This brought many of the men from the marshes to the church at Graignes (France), which sits on a hilltop overlooking the surrounding fields. The German army had flooded these fields so most of the equipment bundles were lost along with individual paratroopers equipment. The ranking officer … MAJ Charles Johnson … decided Graignes would be defended and ordered all troopers to dig in.”
The townspeople of Graignes — only about 250, François said — chose to aid the paratroopers, despite their food restrictions and the threat of German retaliation. A few days later, SS troops attacked.
“The troopers were outnumbered 10-to-1,” Contratto said. “The Germans executed everyone at the aid station. They then began to execute anyone they suspected of aiding the Americans and burned the town down, leaving only two buildings and the center shell of the church.”
But ultimately, the majority of the paratroopers escaped with their lives because of the help of the French civilians, said Contratto, who has visited the village four times.
“All that stands now is the center of the church with a memorial to all of those who were executed during the battle and a few houses around the church,” he said. “It is a very somber place and it is unfortunate that what happened there is mostly forgotten.”
Although the Airborne festivities, which marked the 68th anniversary of the unit’s activation in 1942, would have been more understated, the event became more meaningful with the arrival of the special guests, Cummings said.“It’s extremely unique and satisfying to have our guests who have come from France and have a lineage of liberation that this regiment and the men before us fought for,” he said. “It’s about recognizing the legacy of those before us, those with us now and those that will be in the future. To have them here with us is a great honor.”
To observe the occasion, the battalion’s youngest Soldier, 18-year-old PFC Thomas Queen, and Anya Colomb, the lead role in Papa said, “We should never forget,” cut the cake with a World War II bayonet created the same year the unit was activated. Also invited to the ceremony were on-post liaison officers from France, Canada, Germany and Italy.
The ceremony ties together past regimental Soldiers, who volunteered for the Airborne so they could defend freedom overseas, and present paratroopers, who are still fighting for freedom, Cummings said, “because today … with our great coalition partners … we do everything together to help liberate those who are oppressed throughout the world."