Fort Benning

Scattering ashes at Normandy is the final tribute to an old paratrooper

Lt. Col. Jimmy Hathaway spreads the ashes of Tom and Christine Zouzas at Iron Mike Drop Zone in Sainte-Mere-Eglise on June 6.
Lt. Col. Jimmy Hathaway spreads the ashes of Tom and Christine Zouzas at Iron Mike Drop Zone in Sainte-Mere-Eglise on June 6. Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

When Lt. Col. Jim Hathaway was selected to do a ceremonial jump into Normandy commemorating the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, he immediately thought about a family friend back in Kansas.

Tom Zouzas, a sergeant and paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, jumped into World War II. And when he was in his 70s he went back in 1994 and jumped again as part of the 50th anniversary.

Zouzas died in 2015, and Hathaway called his mother, MaryAnn, in Ellsworth, Kan., and asked her to see if the Zouzas family had anything they wanted him to carry as he jumped on June 6, 2016.

What happened next led to Tom Zouzas’ final jump.

“The first thing we thought about was his Purple Heart,” said Zouzas’ daughter, Morea Charvat. “Then the more I thought about it, I wanted him to jump with the obituary card that we handed out at the funeral.”

Zouzas’ wife of 66 years, Christine, also died in early 2015. Christine died in January at 90 and Tom died seven weeks later, almost to the minute, at 94.

As they got the obituary and Purple Heart together, Neal Zouzas asked his sister if she had any ashes left from their parents. She did, stored in a jelly jar in her home. It was left after most of her parents’ remains were interred.

“He said, ‘Let’s send some of those,’” Charvat said.

Charvat put them in a plastic bag labeled “Chris and Tom Zouzas” with a happy face, then gave it to Hathaway’s mother. She made a special trip from Kansas to Columbus to deliver the package to her son.

The morning of the ceremonial jump, Hathaway put the ashes, still in the plastic bag, in the left cargo pocket of his trousers.

Hathaway jumped into the Iron Mike Drop Zone at Sainte-Mere-Eglise with French and German soldiers. When he landed, Hathaway gathered his chute and began looking for a secluded spot. He handed his cellphone to another soldier who jumped and asked him to take a picture as he scattered the ashes of Tom and Christine Zouzas.

“The whole time I was thinking, ‘Don’t mess this up,’” Hathaway said. “It was more about him returning there than me.”

For Hathaway — who has been deployed five times — it was important to honor the memory of Zouzas. Now Veterans Day is an appropriate time to share this story, he said.

Hathaway would not talk publicly about the jump in June, though the photo of him jumping did make some social media posts.

“I was reluctant to talk about it, because the only reason I did it was to honor him,” Hathaway said. “He and those like him did their jobs, came home and got on with their lives. There is something to be said for that. Maybe we all can learn something from their selfless service.”

Fighting, then moving on

Like so many of his generation, Tom Zouzas went to war in the 1940s.

He was working in California at Sacramento Air Depot, taking a semester off from Kansas State, where he played football. With the war underway, he enlisted and went back home to Kansas to await orders. They never came, so he contacted a general in Nebraska about speeding up the process.

It happened quickly. He went to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., then Camp Walters in Texas for basic training, and finally to Fort Benning for parachute training.

After completing his training at Fort Benning, he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne and first went to Africa, then to Anzio, Italy, in 1943.

Zouzas’ unit was not part of the original D-Day invasion in June 1944. He jumped in September as part of Operation Market Garden into the Netherlands. By December, he was in the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of the war. He finished his tour as part of the occupying force in Berlin.

When the war ended, he returned to his hometown of Ellsworth, Kan., a small cattle town of about 3,000 people, roughly 90 miles northeast of Wichita.

He settled into a comfortable life, opening a sporting goods store that sold guns, hunting and fishing equipment, a lot of Tony Lama boots and a lot of beer. The business also had a few pool tables and doubled as a pool hall.

“It was a respectable one,” Charvat said. “It’s the only one they would let advertise in the school newspaper.”

Christine was a stay-at-home mom with four children — Mark, Morea, Neal and Diana — until the children were raised. A registered nurse, she went back to work as a school nurse.

As was typical, Zouzas came home, moved forward and didn’t talk much about his war experience.

“When we were growing up, he would talk about the funny stuff, but he would never talk about the serious stuff,” Charvat said.

But in June 1994, Zouzas was one of 41 World War II veterans who went to Normandy to jump in a 50th anniversary commemoration of D-Day. He trained in California for the jump.

“That was a great, great experience,” Zouzas said, according to a 2000 transcript interview by a high school student in Ellsworth. “It really makes you appreciate freedom. After 50 years, those people were just as exuberant as the day they were freed during the war. ... They were shaking our hands, wanted autographs, offering us drinks and food. They had tears in their eyes. We were a symbol of freedom. The 41 of us didn’t win the war, but we were a symbol of the war being won and them being free.”

Zouzas came home from that experience a changed man, his daughter said.

“He started to talk about it,” Charvat said. “Before that, he never had anyone to talk about it who understood. He started going to reunions and became friends with the people he met on that 50th anniversary jump.”

He also spearheaded an effort to honor those veterans from Ellswoth who had died in combat with a memorial at the country courthouse.

“That was important to him,” Charvat said.

The final jump

Hathaway and Tom Zouzas met briefly in 2002 when Hathaway was between deployments, assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Hathaway’s cousin was getting married in Ellsworth and he attended. Someone introduced Zouzas, a longtime family friend, as an old paratrooper.

Hathaway, now the executive officer with the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade assigned to Fort Benning, doesn’t remember much about the conversation, but he walked away with great respect for a man who had jumped before him.

That is what led him to think of Zouzas as he prepared to jump into Normandy.

After the ashes were scattered, it didn’t take long for the Zouzas family to see the photo that showed Hathaway, his chute in a pack on his back, spreading the remains in the grass.

“When I saw the picture of Jim spreading the ashes, it made me cry — and I still do when I see it,” Charvat said. “We are honored by what he did. It is a huge tribute to not only my dad, but to all veterans who have been to war. It was a huge honor.”

For Hathaway, it was about honor and service.

“Tom Zouzas and the others are the ones who came before us,” Hathaway said. “They are the ones who led the way. They fought and put their lives on the line. If you don’t honor and respect that, you can make some of the same mistakes that were made. It is important to keep their memory alive.”

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams