Pulling into the parking lot at Air Adventures in Clewiston, Fla., Bill Priest is already getting sweaty nervous. The prospect of jumping out of an airplane with a parachute can do that, of course, especially to a man 70 years old. “I’m all shook up,” he says. “But I’ve got the adrenaline going.” Once in the air, he moves without hesitation to the plane’s open door. On command he lets go of the handhold and whooshes out into space 12,500 feet above the ground. Three minutes later he lands softly in a field and lets out an exultant shout. “Air-borne!” bellows Priest, a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division. “I had a ball up there!”
They are a little thicker of waist and thinner of hair than they were 50 years ago, but for the past several months Priest and 38 of his fellow paratroopers who helped liberate Europe—ranging in age from 68 to 83—have been readying themselves for what may be the ultimate reunion tour: parachuting into Normandy as part of the D Day 50th anniversary ceremonies on June 5. A quixotic—even crazy—stunt by aging warriors, many of whom haven’t hit the silk in half a century? Not at all, they insist. For them the jump will be a tribute to their fallen comrades. Of the 17,000 paratroopers who jumped on D Day, 1,700 were killed or wounded. “We left an awful lot of guys behind,” says Dick Falvey, 72, a retired railroad conductor who served with the 101st. “Maybe this will let people know we haven’t forgotten them.”
The principal organizer of the event is Richard Mandich, 69, a World War II paratrooper who did not jump on D Day but who began mulling the reunion idea several years ago, after suggestions from several fellow vets. “The more people I talked to about this,” says Mandich, “the more I started to believe it could really happen.” Mandich tracked down the World War II paratroopers through veterans’ groups and ads in military publications. But when he first broached the idea with the Pentagon earlier this year, officials seemed cool to the proposal. Undeterred, the crafty old vets tirelessly lobbied Congress, shamelessly courted the media and even threatened an unauthorized jump if denied permission. Last month the Pentagon finally gave its blessing.
To allay concerns about the vets’ safety, Mandich asked that they complete at least three practice jumps before the ceremony and that they get medical approval. The practice jumps went off without mishap, and even Carl Beck, 68, who has had two angioplasties, was able to convince his cardiologist he was fit to jump—after passing a grueling stress test.
Convincing their families was sometimes more difficult. Falvey recalls that when he told his daughter Sandy of his intention to jump, “She said, ‘Dad, you’re getting too old. Suppose you kill yourself?’ ” But Falvey explains that the same bravado that earned him and his buddies through that longest day 50 years ago is as powerful now as it was then. “I’ve been a positive thinker all my life,” he says. Fellow jumper Gordon King shrugs off the danger as well. “I keep myself in shape,” says King, 70. “Besides, there’s no such thing as an ex-paratrooper. Once one, always one.”