Parachuting into Pandemonium

I can’t begin to imagine it. But for a twenty-five year young captain from Arkansas, today was one that forever changed his life.  For after having enlisting in the infantry, J.W.’s talents quickly propelled him to a leadership role.  He arrived thus in England in January 1944, becoming the unit commander and jumpmaster of his parachute company, the 501st Regiment of the famed 101st Airborne known as the “Screaming Eagles.”

It’s clear that he was well prepared thus for the spearhead mission he received some five months later. For the plan was to parachute behind enemy lines near the French town of Saint Côme-du-Mont, and then secure a bridge across the Douve River so that the Germans couldn’t blow it up before the Allies could use it.  But by the time that the pilot pushed the green jump light, the plane had already overshot the landing spot by ten kilometers.  “I saw the river pass by,” he said, “but there was nothing that I could do.”

In turn, J.W. and his men came down in an orchard occupied by enemy soldiers where in the midnight moonlight, two-thirds were shot before they could ever get out of their parachutes. And after playing cat and mouse for hours, J.W. himself was captured and became a prisoner of war.

His first task was to help load the wounded onto a German ambulance, but as he did so, he noticed that he could probably fit under the vehicle and so he quickly slipped down, held onto the frame with his hands and feet, and rode along for several miles before dropping off while the truck went slowly up a hill.  He then wandered around France for three weeks until being captured again, and accused of being a spy, had a noose fitted around his neck until a German commander intervened and he was taken instead to a camp, OFLAG 64 in Poland, becoming Prisoner 80792.

But J.W. was a tough one and managed to escape a second time, only to be recaptured when German soldiers wandered in to sleep in the same barn where he had hidden himself down in the hay.  He was smoked out and returned to camp.  Until finally, he escaped a third time, and wisely decided to head east through Poland and Russia, walking three months until he was finally able to board a British freighter and return to the Allied side.

After the war, he stayed in the Army, and fought as well in the Korean War where he was with the first American platoon to reach the Yalu River.  But like so many of that Greatest Generation, J.W. never thought of himself as a hero at all.  Remembering the thousands who died on that same day that he was captured, in fact, in his words, “the real hero was the plain old gutty doughboy that hit the beaches and climbed the cliffs.”

And that’s very true indeed. But on this seventh-fifth anniversary of the D-Day Invasion that changed the world, you couldn’t convince me that Lieutenant Colonel John Wesley Simmons, whom I was honored to call my father-in-law, wasn’t a hero as well.

Even if he never did make it to the right side of the Douve River.

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11 Responses to Parachuting into Pandemonium

  1. Patty Ergenbright says:

    Truly amazing-indeed what an honor to have known him. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Gail McClendon says:

    I love reading your posts and this is one I am honored to read. For if not for all the men and women who fought and helped during WWII,I might not be reading this today. We are truly blessed for those who gave their lives and those who fought so valiantly.

  3. Wes Whiddon says:

    An amazing story, Pastor. It took guys and gals like your father-in-law to win that conflict. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Joe Mireur, Walk 83 says:

    There are good men everywhere whose stories are seldom told. They don’t care about heroes though, just about surviving. Thank you for sharing this story we would otherwise never have heard.

  5. Brandye says:

    Wonderful story. I pray we honor these brave souls by continuing to share their stories.

    My great uncle was a radio operator that landed on one of the Northern beaches on D-Day His regiment was one freed by Patton during The Battle of the Bulge. He made it home to Georgia after the war and became a well-respected lawyer in Atlanta, passing away at 90.

  6. pastorheidimcginness says:

    This is most moving Chap because he was a hero and because he is your father-in-law . Blessings, Heidi

    Rev. Heidi McGinness 720-984-4488


  7. Elizabeth Lobdell says:

    Amazing story! Thanks for sharing it!



  8. Alice Segers says:

    A wonderful story to share on the 75th anniversary of D Day

  9. Jack Adair says:

    Awesome story, Pastor Temple. Truly a member of the Greatest Generation.

  10. Cheri Wilson says:

    I’m with you “I can’t begin to imagine it”. Such bravery being captured not once, but many times. He must have thought his life was over more than once. I am so thankful for his service that allows us to have the freedom we have today and for you sharing his poignant story.

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