The D-Day invasion began with a dangerous attack by American paratroopers. Dropped behind enemy lines to soften up the German troops and to secure needed targets, the paratroopers knew that if the accompanying assault by sea failed — there would be no rescue.
Departing from Portland Bill on the English coast, the 101st and 82nd U.S. Airborne Divisions were dropped on the Cherbourg peninsula. From that point, the 101st was to secure the western end behind UTAH and head off an eastern German advance. The 82nd, landing farther inland, was to seize the bridges and halt an advance from the west.
Risky Operation, Heavy Losses
Heavy fog and German guns proved formidable challenges. The pilots were unable to drop the paratroopers precisely as planned.
The 101st Division suffered great losses. Only one sixth of the men reached their destination points. The first regiment of the 82nd Division fared better, but the second suffered heavy supply losses — much of the division was left without sufficient arms. Still, both divisions managed to form smaller improvised squads, and organized themselves to wage a fight. By 0430, the 82nd had captured the town of Ste-Mere-Eglise.
A Weight on Their Shoulders
Paratroopers carried an average of 70 pounds of equipment. Officers averaged 90 pounds of gear. With the parachute, men weighed in at 90 to 120 pounds over their body weight.
The paratroopers were jumping into unknown territory and needed to be prepared for any encounter or conditions. Here's what they took:
Standard Parachutist pack
M-1 Garand Rifle with 8-round clip
cartridge belt with canteen
parachute and pack
anti-flash headgear and gloves
.45 caliber Colt automatic pistol
(British, but similar to American officer pack)
spare magazines with 9mm ammunition
2 lb. plastic high explosives (HE)
2-36 primed hand grenades
two full belts of Vickers
basic equipment webbing
48 hours' worth of rations
cooking and washing kit
Spread throughout pockets
loaded .45 automatic pistol
2 additional lb. HE
additional personal items
4 pieces of chewing gum
2 bouillon cubes
2 Nescafe instant coffees, 2 sugar cubes, and creamers
4 Hershey bars
1 pack of Charms candy
1 package pipe tobacco
1 bottle of water purification (Halazone) tablets to purify water. "To use: Put two tablets in canteen full of water (approx. 1 qt.) and shake briskly. Wait 30 minutes before drinking water. If water is dirty or discolored, use 4 tablets."