It all started at an air show in California last fall when two strangers bonded on the tarmac over a love of aviation.
Bob Lange told Bill Linn he’d love to jump out of a plane over Normandy, France, for the 75th anniversary of D-Day this year, and the two retired lieutenant colonels — one a soldier and the other a Marine — starting formulating a plan to make it happen.
“He said, ‘I’ve got a credit card and you’ve got a plan, let’s see how far we can get,” Linn told Military Times.
Fast forward eight months, and the duo has grown to a team of five American and two French paratroopers, who just jumped out of a World War II-era C-47 to commemorate history.
“I sent a blast out to about a dozen people and these six people were the only foolish ones to respond,” Linn joked, speaking to Military Times via phone from France.
The team of experienced jumpers, all of whom Linn had met at different points in his career, had been physically preparing for the 1,500-foot jump for months. In April, they traveled to Oklahoma for three intense days of training with the WWII Airborne Demonstration Team to get certified.
“We had to have a qualifying jump within 180 days in order to be able to jump into Normandy" — which basically meant they each had to jump out of an airplane at least twice without breaking anything, said Ret. Army Maj. Gen. Edward Dorman III, who has more than 200 jumps under his belt.
Another requirement was that they look the part, so the men scoured antique stores and internet sites like E-bay for World War II uniforms, helmets, boots, patches and other items from the 1940s.
“We were in the business of doing things that served the memory of the original paratroopers,” Dorman said.
One of those original paratroopers was Tom Rice, a 97-year-old veteran who also jumped out of an airplane this week, much like he did 75 years ago, and was signing people’s uniforms.
“He’s 97 years old, and he’s still wearing his uniform that he wore back in the day. He’s alert, he’s as sharp as a tack, and he’s very passionate about this,” Dorman said.
Rice was thrilled to be able to jump again.
“It went perfect, perfect jump,” Rice told the AP after his jump. “I feel great. I’d go up and do it all again.”
Dorman said it was humbling to meet Rice and other World War II veterans, as well as French citizens, who had been in Normandy on D-Day.
“To me it was absolutely amazing and very emotional for me and very impactful,” he said. “(I’m) looking at the same houses that were there then, I’m talking to people on the ground who were small children during the war, who were liberated — literally — and are still thankful. They understand the sacrifice and the need to serve the memory of this greatest generation of men who came here and did this.”
Linn said although the actual jump wasn’t anything new for him, the flight over the English channel, wing tip-to-wing tip with more than 30 other World War II-era planes over the same houses, churches and countryside that his predecessors would’ve seen was “enthralling.”
“Your mind did race back to all the history you’d read, the veterans you’d spoken with, the movies you’d seen about what it must have been like,” he said.
The only thing missing was the gunfire.
When asked if they’d do it again, Linn, Dorman and the others didn’t hesitate.
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.