Hollywood's D-Day Tributes Forget Invasion's U.S. Civilian Hero
“D-Day was a completely incredible experience and one that I haven’t yet been able to write about satisfactorily. So much of it is a matter of feeling and sensation that you don’t write when you’re writing for a newspaper or a magazine. I suppose I’ll have to break down and write a book to get it off my chest.”
– Bill Walton Letter, July 26, 1944
Hollywood’s portrayal of the Allied invasion of Normandy that took place 70 years ago today to rescue France from Hitler’s grip, notably includes Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), transforming Robert Capa’s poignant photos of the Omaha Beach landing into motion pictures.
Then there’s the Oscar-winning Darryl F. Zanuck film, The Longest Day (1962), and Tom Hanks’ Emmy-winning Band of Brothers (2001), brilliantly portraying paratroopers going in during the early hours of June 6, 1944, to take key locations at the start of D-Day.
Of those 24,000 paratroopers, just one was an American civilian. His name was William “Bill” Walton. He was a Time-Life correspondent.
Working out of the London bureau as “Operation Overlord” kicked into high-gear, he knew he’d have difficulty getting credentials. A mere fraction of some 550 journalists covering the war would get them, i.e. three per news organization division, plus three photographers. Ships filled to the gills with troops going ashore would have little room.
So he vowed to find another way to get the story. He soon learned Major Barney Oldfield of the 82nd Airborne had offered to train correspondents willing to jump or glide into Normandy—promising them a spot with the 82nd Airborne.
As Oldfield braced for the crush of journalists, just one—Bill, then 34, signed up. In January 1944, waving off his boss’ concerns, he entered Jump School in England—a three-week training program, including jumps with paratroopers.
“Four hours of exhaustion are rounded off by a three-to-five-mile run,” wrote Philip Bucknell, Stars and Stripes staff writer of the experience. Little wonder Oldfield had only one recruit—along with British journalist Bob Reuben, the 101st Airborne’s lone recruit.
Bill’s attempts to do Oldfield’s exercises—walking and quacking like a duck going uphill, and walking and roaring like a bear—elicited gales of laughter. But no one knew how badly he had injured his right ankle on his first jump; he was mum, lest he be disqualified. Bandaging it up, he made four more jumps in excruciating pain—completing the requisite five.
A nearby scenic village overlooking Bristol Channel provided some respite from the rigors. At night, under the “blackout’s” total darkness, social life was restricted to two pubs—having plentiful beer, no whiskey, darts and conversation. Nor, he wrote his mother on January 30, 1944, could he read in his “barren room (with) two canvas cots and nothing else.”
By the end of February 1944, he was both a qualified parachutist and inspiration to the younger men. “If a 34-year-old correspondent could endure the regimen, so could they,” Mary Hackett wrote in William “Bill” Walton: A Charmed Life.
“For his efforts, Bill could now strut around with wings on his chest... But, like all young men, he was naive about what lay ahead... Some events he would never discuss.”
On June 5th, he and his fellow paratroopers waited inland at airfields across southern England, wiling away the hours playing poker as Allied planes, black and white insignia painted on wings and fuselage, waited expectantly outside.
Then, as the weather cleared, General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the order to proceed, high waves notwithstanding—starting with the pilots and paratroopers, 50-75 percent of whom were not expected to survive. (Though far more survived.)
Meanwhile off the coast of Normandy, thousands, their uniforms drenched, jammed into some 1,500 windswept and water-soaked flat-bottomed craft and continued to wait.
Big steak dinners, coffee and doughnuts were served to the paratroopers—too spun up to sleep—while jazz bands played tunes like Tiger Rag to keep spirits high. But, mostly they sat pensively as B-17 aircraft were loaded with thousands of leaflets for scattering over the countryside in the early morning prior to the invasion, warning the French citizens to stay away from railroads and highways, along with essential information for identifying their Allied rescuers.
An hour before the operation commenced, experienced all-volunteer paratroopers jumped into the Cherbourg area. Their mission: Designate the zones for the drop; cut all telephone lines, preventing the German units from communicating; and divert the enemy as the warships moved into position.
Finally, it was time to board the C-47s—General James “Jumpin’ Jim” Gavin telling them as they did: “When you land in Normandy, you will have only one friend: God.” Even General Eisenhower was on hand to boost morale.
“When Bill was boarding,” wrote Hackett, “an officer noticed that he did not have a hunting knife, so he strapped one to Bill’s boot.”
The 82nd Airborne he was jumping with proudly wore their double A shoulder patch—dubbed “All American,” a double entendre also indicating they hailed from all 48 states. Bill would fly with General Gavin, who wanted the 82nd Airborne’s death-defying feats reported.
With all the preparations complete, at midnight, under a clear sky, some 16,000 paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st divisions, and half as many British paratroopers, began taking off at roughly 3-5 second intervals—in a 300-mile long formation, nine planes wide. Mid-air collisions were their biggest fear.
Most of the pilots lacked combat or instrument weather or night flying experience. They were flying nearly incognito, only two small white lights on either side of the aircraft nose, along with a small red flashing light on the belly, signaling their presence; and were flying low to reduce detection and lessen time descending, when they would be subject to enemy fire.
As the last plane took off, Eisenhower departed, fighting off the tears.
Arriving in Normandy, roughly 24,000 paratroopers began parachuting into the darkness—taking incredibly high-risk jumps. Upon reaching the coastline, it was zero visibility. Suddenly they were under attack. The planes hit were heading down—men anxious to jump to evade the crossfire, even if the enemy waited below.
After Bill jumped, typewriter strapped to his chest—in addition to other paraphernalia doubling his weight—he landed in a pear tree a few feet above ground, hanging helplessly, his parachute harness having tightened over the knife now in his breast pocket. None of them had quick-release harnesses, later standard issue. Many lost their lives because they were dropped miles from the target area or dropped too low, their chutes only partially opened.
Soon, greeted by a soldier with a friendly Midwest accent, Bill called out “Flash,” and heard “Thunder,” signaling he was, in fact, a friend.
The small group finally located General Gavin about four o’clock that morning and proceeded to complete their mission—wresting control of Ste.-Mere-Eglise from the Germans, the most critical contribution of the 82nd Airborne to the war effort. The only road from Cherboug went through the town and was critical for transporting reinforcements to the Normandy beaches.
Afterwards, seeing saw some soldiers resting in their parachutes, Bill joined them for a long, much-needed snooze. Later, a soldier awoke him to give him their new orders, only to discover the others were RIP.
Getting up, Bill surveyed, the “fields among the daisies and Queen Anne’s lace,” now blighted by the signs of war: holes riddling homes and barns, trees cut down, equipment demolished, and the animals—cows and horses—stinking and mostly dead, as he wrote his mother on June 30, 1944.
“Now battle-hardened,” wrote Hackett, “he sat at his Hermes typewriter, on a makeshift table, and recorded the events of the past three days… Bill had his story, well aware he was lucky just to be alive. It would be the last large-scale nighttime paratrooper drop. The price had been too high, the loss too great.”
As for writing his book, he never did. The experience, and its aftermath—all the raw emotions—were better left untapped. Though he did edit and write, respectively, two books later in life, A Civil War Courtship: The Letters of Edwin Weller from Antietam to Atlanta about his grandparents; and The Evidence of Washington, about the nation’s capital, which he had played the most significant role in transforming, next to President Theodore Roosevelt.
An amazing man, whose story just might make it to the silver screen, as well.
Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based writer. She edited "William “Bill” Walton: A Charmed Life," published in fall 2013 and is currently writing a book about 12 legends of Hollywood for publication in spring 2015.