The D-Day Experience – Saint-Côme-du-Mont, Normandy, France

Lt. Col. Robert Wolverton

5 June 1944. Lt. Col. Robert Lee “Bull” Wolverton, CO 3/506 PIR, checking his gear before boarding the C-47 “Dakota”, 8Y-S, “Stoy Hora” of the 98th Troop Carrier Squadron, 440th Troop Carrier Group at an airfield in Exeter, England. Original US Army press release photograph colourised by Johnny Sirlande.

On the evening of 5 June 1944, Lt. Col. Robert Lee “Bull” Wolverton, Commanding Officer of the 3rd  Battalion, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division,  gathered his men in an orchard adjacent to what is now Exeter airport, and said:

“Men, I am not a religious man and I don’t know your feelings in this matter, but I am going to ask you to pray with me for the success of the mission before us. And while we pray, let us get on our knees and not look down but up with faces raised to the sky so that we can see God and ask his blessing in what we are about to do.

“God almighty, in a few short hours we will be in battle with the enemy. We do not join battle afraid. We do not ask favors or indulgence but ask that, if You will, use us as Your instrument for the right and an aid in returning peace to the world.

“We do not know or seek what our fate will be. We ask only this, that if die we must, that we die as men would die, without complaining, without pleading and safe in the feeling that we have done our best for what we believed was right.

“Oh Lord, protect our loved ones and be near us in the fire ahead and with us now as we pray to you.”

Then, his ‘stick’ of 15 paratroopers boarded a C-47 “Dakota”, nicknamed “Stoy Hora” for the flight to France. The invasion of Normandy had begun. But, within hours of that famous speech, Wolverton (aged 30) was dead. His feet had not even touched French soil. He was killed by ground fire around 00:30 hrs and left suspended by his parachute in an apple tree just north of Saint-Côme-du-Mont.

Stoy Hora C-47 Dakota at Exeter Airfield 05 June 1944

Paratroopers of the 506th PIR prepare for their flight aboard the C-47, 8Y-S ‘Stoy Hora’ at Exeter airfield. 05 June 1944. Of the 15 paratroopers in the ‘stick’ that flew in this aircraft, 5 were killed in action on D-Day, 8 were captured and 2 were missing in action.  Photo colourised by Paul Reynolds

In 2015, Dead Man’s Corner Museum curators Emmanuel Allain and Michel De Trez, opened the next section of their museum in a large hangar just behind the original Dead Man’s Corner building. Previously called the D-Day Paratrooper Historical Center, the now renamed D-Day Experience encompasses both museums. Co-curator, Belgian collector, historian and owner of D-Day Publishing, Michel De Trez is well known in the collecting fraternity. He is the author of several collector reference books on WW2 US airborne equipment, assisting Steven Spielberg with Saving Private Ryan and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. This second exhibition space reflects those interests and looks at the campaign from the perspective of the US paratroopers.

Upon entering the museum, visitors are briefed by a 3D hologram of Lt. Col. Wolverton at an airfield in Exeter on the day before the invasion. They then board the “Stoy Hora”, a C-47 Dakota of the 98th Troop Carrier Squadron, 440th Troop Carrier Group for the ‘flight’ across the English Channel to Drop Zone D, south of Vierville on the Cotentin (Cherbourg) Peninsula.

Pilot of the IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group

Pilot of the IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group just before departing England. Photo: Julian Tennant

The seven minute ‘flight’ in the “Stoy Hora” is a great introduction to the exhibition space. Whilst, I am more of an ‘old-school’ kind of guy, more interested in examining original artifacts, the ride was a nice entry point which definitely appealed to the missus and the other visitors on board the simulator with us, particularly those with kids. The idea was born out of the Band of Brothers when Spielberg had transformed a real C-47 into a studio-space for the making of the series. The result is a high-tech simulator with 3D window screens, sound and amplified movements as the aircraft departs England for the bumpy ride, avoiding flak as it crosses into France to deposit its passengers into the exhibition space.

Unfortunately in real life, Lt. Colonel Wolverton did not survive his jump, he was killed by ground fire and left suspended by his parachute in an apple tree just north of Saint-Côme-du-Mont.  The exhibition, however continues in his voice. He describes the men, their training, fears and (as all paratroopers would know, sense of immortality, giving a very human and somewhat sobering perspective to the exhibits.

D-Day exp 502 PIR Coles boys-01

The white scarf and armband identify this paratrooper as a member of the 3rd Battalion 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. Photo: Julian Tennant

Pfc. Jack N. "Hawkeye" Womer. HQ Co. 506 PIR. 101 Abn Div.

Pfc. Jack N. “Hawkeye” Womer. HQ Co. 506 PIR. 101 Abn Div. A member of the ‘Filthy 13’, Jack landed in a swamp near St-Come-du-Mont and after extracting himself would end up fighting with the 501st PIR at Hell’s Corner. Photo: Julian Tennant.

Pathfinders 82nd Abn Division

Pathfinder of the 82nd Airborne Division. These men jumped in to mark the DZ northwest of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, one hour after the 101st drop. At the time there were around 300 qualified pathfinders and according to the caption, the Pathfinder camo suit that this individual is wearing is the only original of its type left in the world. Photo: Julian Tennant

The layout of the museum is superb, captions are bilingual (French/English), making it easy to navigate with good contextualisation of the content. For decades prior to the opening of Dead Man’s Corner Museum and the D-Day Experience, Michel de Trez had been travelling to the USA, interviewing and cultivating relationships with US Airborne veterans. This long-term engagement with the subjects of the museum has resulted in exhibits that are both unique and personal. Visitors can view objects and also discover the identities of the soldiers that used them. Unsurprisingly there are several items attributed to Dick Winters and his ‘Band of Brothers’ of  Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, but also several other unique pieces such as a leather jacket worn by General Eisenhower, items from Pfc. Jack N. “Hawkeye” Womer, one of the legendary “Filthy 13” and a jacket worn by 1st Lt. Wallace C. Strobel who featured in the famous pre-invasion press photo talking to Ike just prior to boarding the aircraft.

blouson-du-general-eisenhower

Leather jacket worn by General Eisenhower whilst a 4 star General from 1943 until December 1944. Note the rank insignia detail. Photo courtesy of the D-Day Experience management team.

Pathfinders 101st Abn Division

Pathfinders of the 101st Airborne Division. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Waco CG-4A Glider pilot. Photo: Julian Tennant

Lt James C. Cox. 1st Pl, C Co. 326th Airborne Engineer Bn.

Detail of the jacket belonging to Lt James C. Cox. 1st Pl, C Co. 326th Airborne Engineer Bn. His parachutist badge features both the ‘invasion arrowhead’ and combat jump star. Photo: Julian Tennant

d-day_paratrooper_museum-28

Parachute badge with rigger’s “R” worn by Staff Sgt. Russell F. Weishing leader of the parachute maintenance & rigger section of the 1st Platoon, C Company, 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion. Photo: Julian Tennant

The selection of exhibit material supported by good informative (and at times blunt) explanations makes this a really engaging museum for collectors. If your interest is airborne militaria, I suggest setting aside at least half a day to visit both exhibitions on the site. If you have a car, the museum’s Historical Trail map  outlines a 40km circuit featuring 13 key sites in the battle for Carentan and takes about 3 hours to cover. When combined with the time spent at the museum, this is a good one day itinerary for the area. But, regardless, if you are planning to visit Normandy, the D-Day Experience should be high on your agenda, it is, in my opinion, the outstanding museum that I visited on my trip, surpassing even the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Eglise, which was another ‘must see’ and will be covered in the near future.

D-Day Experience
2 Vierge de l’Amont
50500 Carentan les Marais
France

Website: www.dday-experience.com/en/
Email: contact@dday-experience.com
Phone: +33 (0)2 3323 6195

Open: Every day. From October to March, the museum is open from 10h00 till 18h00 (the ticket office closes at 17h00). From April to September, the museum is open from 9h30 till 19h00.

 

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Circuit_historique

D-Day Experience Historical Trail map covering 13 key sites related to the fight to secure Carentan. It can be downloaded from the museum website, see the main body text above for the link.