The Airborne Museum – Sainte-Mère-Église, Normandy, France

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Private John Marvin Steele, second from right, who along with John Ray, Philip Lynch and Vernon Francisco comprised F Company, 505 PIR’s 60mm mortar squad, just before D-Day at camp Quorn, Leicestershire, England. John was the only one of the four to survive the war.

In the early hours of 6 June 1944, Private John Marvin Steele, an American paratrooper from F Company, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division jumps over Sainte-Mère-Église village on the Cotentin Peninsula, Normandy as part of Mission BOSTON. His unit’s objective is to capture the village, a crucial communications crossroad behind UTAH Beach and block German approaches from the west and southwest.

Unfortunately for Steele, a house in the village is on fire after being hit by a stray bomb and the usually quiet town square is filled with German troops who are trying to extinguish the blaze. The flames illuminate the square and many of the paratroopers are killed as they descend. John Steele is hit in the foot and his canopy catches on the village church’s bell tower. He tries to free himself but drops his knife and is left dangling helplessly for a couple of hours. Eventually, two German soldiers climb up to cut him down and take him to an aid station. Three days later Steele escapes and crosses back into Allied lines. He goes on to jump in Holland, participating in the liberation of Nijmegen and later the Battle of the Bulge. John Steele survived the war and returned to Sainte-Mère-Église several times to commemorate the landings before finally succumbing to throat cancer in 1969. His D-Day experience, hanging from the chapel bell tower has been immortalised in the movie “The Longest Day”.

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Sainte-Mère-Église church continues to feature a dangling US para in remembrance of the events of the early morning of 6 June 1944. Photos: Julian Tennant

Sainte-Mère-Église was captured by the 3rd Battalion of the 505th at 04:30, not too long after Steele was taken to the aid station and the village became the first town in France to be liberated by the Allies on D-Day. The German counter-attacks involving infantry and armour began at 09:30 and after eight hours of fighting only sixteen of the forty-two paratroopers holding village were still alive. But the American paras held their ground and on 7 June tanks from UTAH Beach finally arrived. The beachhead was secure and the link-up between air and ground forces had been achieved.

There are several points of interest commemorating the battle in the town along with a few militaria dealers. Many of the local shopkeepers also recognise the historical importance of the event and some include small displays of their own, so it is worth setting some time aside just to relax and explore. I would recommend buying a copy of Major & Mrs Holt’s D-Day Normandy Landing Beaches battlefield guide and using their walking tour as a way of exploring the area.

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Waiting for a haircut in Sainte-Mère-Église. Photo: Julian Tennant

However, the start point of any visit to Sainte-Mère-Église should be the Airborne Museum, which is located metres away from the church and is actually on the site of the house fire of that fateful night of 5-6 June 1944.

Opened in 1964, the original museum building was designed by architect François Carpentier to reflect the shape of an open parachute canopy. Since its inauguration the museum has had several additions and currently consists of three exhibition buildings. The original museum building is referred to as the WACO building. Its centerpiece is an original Waco CG-4A glider surrounded by various uniform, weapons and equipment displays.

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Patches of the American units involved in the D-Day Landings on the 6th of June 1944. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Photo of Jack Schlegel from the 508th PIR. Note the British parachutist qualification on his right forearm sleeve. Photo: Julian Tennant

The second gallery is referred to as the C-47 building and features the Douglas C-47 Skytrain ‘Argonia, which was flown by Lt. Col. Charles H. Young, CO, of the 439th Troop Carrier Group during Operation NEPTUNE. The aircraft was also used for the drop during Operation MARKET GARDEN, but in this display, it is used as the focal point for a scene that is loosely based on General Eisenhower’s visit to the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division just before they departed for the Normandy.

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Centerpiece of the C-47 Building is a reconstruction of a scene showeing General Dwight D. Eisenhower visiting paratroopers of the 502nd PIR, 101st Abn Div at Greenham Common airfield on 5 June 1944. Photo: Julian Tennant

The newest exhibition building, named Operation NEPTUNE was opened to the public for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and uses several life-sized diorama displays combined with sound and lighting effects to give the visitor an impression of the paratrooper’s D-Day experience.

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Panorama view of the displays in the “Operation NEPTUNE” building

In May 2018 the museum introduced the HistoPad, an augmented reality tablet device that allows visitors to manipulate a series of 3D virtual relics and artifacts, see inside of aircraft, virtually operate and manipulate full 360-degree views of equipment, compare scenes today to how they appeared in 1944, view unpublished photographs and extracts of archival films. It is provided free to all visitors over six years old who are not part of a group tour. You can view one of the museum’s HistoPad promotional videos below or visit the creator’s website to see more pictures and details of the Airborne Museum’s HistoPad experience.

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Using the HistoPad in the Waco Building. Photo courtesy the Airborne Museum.

In addition to the exhibition spaces, the Airborne Museum also has conference rooms for hire and gift shop. The shop, is definitely no match for Paratrooper shop at the D-Day Experience and Dead Man’s Corner Museum in Saint-Côme-du-Mont, but it does offer some interesting books and DVD’s along with the usual reproduction souvenirs aimed at the (non-collector) tourist.

At the time of writing (June 2020) the Airborne Museum has just reopened to the public, so visiting is possible, however there are new visitor requirements to take into account the COVID-19 pandemic. The current restrictions are outlined here.

The Airborne Museum
14 rue Eisenhower
50480 Sainte-Mère-Eglise
France

Website: www.airborne-museum.org/en/
Email: infos@airborne-museum.org
Phone: +33 (0)2 3341 4135

Open: Every day. From May to August, the museum is open from 10:00 until 19:00. October thru March the museum is open from 10:00 until 18:00. April to September, the museum is open from 09:30 until 19:00.  Note. Last ticket sales are one hour before closing and check their website for updated COVID-19 visiting restrictions

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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.

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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.

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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

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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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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every weekend and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

 

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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.