As we lead up to the climax of D-Day, we learn about the early hours of June 6, 1944, and the soldiers who executed a mission so dangerous, they expected death.
Who was James Eads? And why did he find himself in such danger in the early hours of June 6, 1944? Turns out he was spearheading a mission of such danger that neither he nor his comrades expected to come out of it alive.
Welcome to Season 3 of Unknown History: D-Day Stories. I'm your host, Giles Milton, and today we're talking about one of the most brilliantly executed operations to take place on D-Day.
In the last episode of Unknown History, we heard about how a daring band of British troops were dropped behind enemy lines in the hours before the D-Day beach landings.
They were not alone in undertaking a mission of extraordinary danger. In the countryside that lay inland from Utah Beach, in the heart of rural Normandy, American paratroopers had been tasked with an operation of equal peril.
James Eads and his young comrades from the 82nd Airborne Division were on a mission to capture the town of Sainte-Mère-Église. It was an operation of such importance that failure was not an option. Sainte-Mère-Église had to be captured if the seaborne landing on Utah Beach—due to begin at the crack of dawn—was to be a success. Eads and his men had just a few hours of darkness to achieve their goal.
James Eads was a 21-year-old engineering student from Illinois, one of 13,000 American paratroopers to be dropped into Normandy shortly after midnight on June 6. For those tasked with the specific goal of capturing Sainte-Mère-Église, the jump had been terrifying.
It was like jumping off the 80th floor of the Empire State Building, a terrifying but mercifully short jump.
“Stand up and hook up.” That was the cry of the jumpmaster. The red light started flashing and the men got in line. “Jesus Christ,” said one of the 21 paratroopers on board. “We don’t get paid enough for this.”
“Check equipment.” But there was barely time. The red light flashed to green and the jumpmaster pushed them out. “Twenty-one. Okay. Twenty. Okay. Nineteen. Okay.”
Except that nothing was okay. The men were flying at 118 mph and at a height of 750 feet. It was like jumping off the 80th floor of the Empire State Building, a terrifying but mercifully short jump that was made under heavy German gunfire.
James Eads, Robert Snyder, Edward Krause—all involved in that mission to capture Sainte-Mère-Église lived through hell as they jumped from the plane.
One of their comrades, Ken Russell, knew he was in trouble before he even left the aircraft. There was a fire in Sainte-Mère-Église and it was lighting the night sky and turning the men into sharply defined silhouettes—perfect targets for the Germans.
In those long seconds in the air, Russell had a bird’s-eye view of those who had jumped before him. He saw one of his comrades hit by machine-gun fire while still in the air. Unfortunately, the lad was armed with powerful gammon grenades and the resulting explosion was as harrowing as it was catastrophic. “He was blown away. Instantaneously. I looked around and there was just an empty parachute coming down.”
Russell himself felt shells and bullets jerking at his chute as he drifted towards the ground. He once again looked down and got another shock. The heat of the fire was sucking the parachutists downwards and pulling them into the burning building.
One of his friends was dragged into the heart of the inferno. “I heard him scream. I saw him come down into the fire and the chute come down. He didn’t scream any more.”