Editor’s Note: This story originally was published in the Sun Herald on June 6, 2012. It is in an interview with Adelchi Pilutti about his experience as a paratrooper during the D-Day invasion.
Sixty-eight years ago today, Allied forces launched the D-Day invasion, pouring more than 100,000 troops onto French soil with the goal of driving the Germans from the country and destroying Adolf Hitler's regime.
Paratroopers had dropped into inland areas to knock out enemy communications lines, clear areas of German soldiers and reinforcements, and perform other operations in the hours leading up to the massive beach invasion. Ocean Springs resident Adelchi Pilutti, one of the few surviving local D-Day veterans, was with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and parachuted into France about 30 miles north of where the beach would be invaded by tens of thousands of troops several hours later.
Pilutti remembers being a 22-year-old standing in the door of the plane, which was flying about 500 feet above the earth about 1:30 a.m. June 6, 1944, waiting to jump as he watched German anti-aircraft rounds light up the night sky.
"Even after volunteering, I started wondering to myself while standing in the door, just what in the heck am I doing here," the 90-year-old Pilutti said Tuesday from his Ocean Springs home. "You could see all that (anti-aircraft fire) coming at you. That was very unnerving … You knew you had it to do it, to jump, but the guys were all dreading it at the time."
A couple of months before D-Day, Pilutti had married Alice Yelverton of Taylorsville, whom he met after he joined the Army in 1940 and was sent to Camp Shelby. They would be married for 61 years and raise three children, living what Pilutti, now a widower, recalled as a "great" life together in Ocean Springs. But instead of coming back from a honeymoon and settling into married life, there he was for an intense seven seconds or so, falling to the ground, one of about 13,000 Allied D-Day paratroopers. They came from the U.S. Army's 82nd and 101st Airborne, British 6th Airborne Division, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion and other attached units, according to the Army.
"We had no concept of how large (the invasion) was," Pilutti said. "We hadn't been told."
Many paratroopers were killed or injured during the jump. Others were scattered and many lost their equipment. The paratroopers were remembered for fighting tough and keeping German commanders confused, while keeping the enemy troops occupied.
About 6:30 a.m., a few hours after Pilutti and other paratroopers made their jumps, the beach assault began. The first waves landed at five sectors along the coast, code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Many soldiers wading shore were killed by the steady barrage of bullets -- a terrifying ordeal, as portrayed in the film "Saving Private Ryan" and others.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation on D-Day, offering his now-famous "D-Day prayer."
"Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor -- a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity," Roosevelt prayed. "Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith. They will need thy blessings. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph."
It's still unclear just how many died that day, as official death tolls vary greatly. Some say as many as 6,000 Allied troops were killed and wounded. At Omaha beach alone, some estimate as many as 3,000 died. But it's hard to know, because many were literally blown to pieces and couldn't be identified, many drowned or were lost and in some cases those keeping the records were killed and their documents lost there beside the bodies and the blood.
By the end of the day, the Allied forces had a foothold. Once German counterattacks fizzled, troops hauled in supplies.
Over the next couple of months, the reinforcements helped the invading forces move farther inland. In the days after the invasion, Pilutti and others began trying to reunite to begin the task of knocking out communication lines, cutting off enemy supplies and hunting down German soldiers hiding in nearby towns.
"We had to go house by house and make sure there were no Germans left behind," Pilutti said. "Those who resisted, we had to take care of them."
About a month after the invasion, Pilutti, who was born in Italy and grew up in East Liverpool, Ohio, about 20 miles west of Pittsburgh, was sent back to England, where he became a U.S. citizen. In September 1944, he was wounded by shrapnel after making a jump in the Netherlands, but his harness helped prevent his injury from being worse. He was treated and went back to fighting.
All told, Pilutti spent 33 years in the military, including active duty and time with reserve units, retiring as a command sergeant major. He said he had been thinking about the invasion, and the friends he made and those who had died there, almost all day Tuesday as the anniversary approached.
"It was quite an experience," he said. "I wouldn't take a million dollars for it, but I wouldn't go through it again for a million, either."