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.