It was evening but not dark, cloudy but not stormy, breezy but not windy.
Each of some 280 parachutists and 115 crew members on the 23 Douglas DC-3s/C-47s who spent 15 minutes re-creating history Wednesday will have his or her own tale to tell.
But there’s a good chance they’ll say it was perfect.
A broken, multi-hued sky formed the backdrop for the long-awaited D-Day commemorative parachute jump of 2019, 75 years after the start of Europe’s liberation from the Germans in World War II.
This one began not in the early-morning darkness amid German antiaircraft fire, as on June 6, 1944, but at 7:15 p.m. France time on June 5. It was eight hours earlier in Montana, where followers of Miss Montana and her inspiring resurrection story cheered on the old Johnson Flying Service workhorse.
As N24320, the airplane had dropped smokejumpers on fires but never paratroopers on World War II battlefields, as was intended when she rolled out of a factory in Long Beach, California, on May 3, 1944 — barely a month before D-Day.
Now she was in Normandy, flying in a group of 10 airplanes, and videoed live by Tia Komberec, wife of pilot Eric Komberec, who instigated the ambitious project less than 15 months ago. Her feed on the Miss Montana to Normandy Facebook page helped distinguish Miss Montana from the others in the formation by the plane’s two bright headlights — “Randy’s amazing lights,” she said, referring to chief maintenance man Randy Schonemann of Neptune Aviation.
Wednesday was also Al Charters’ time to shine, he and 14 others who signed up, qualified and trained to jump from Miss Montana in the Normandy event. Many of them had been part of the volunteer corps that worked at the Museum of Mountain Flying hangar to get Miss Montana airworthy through one of the coldest Missoula winters on record.
“Amazing visuals. Fighter escort,” Charters texted when all had landed safely in the green fields outside the village of Sannerville, Normandy, in west France.
Miss Montana dropped them and four other jumpers, 19 all told, in two formation passes. The rumbles of warbirds shook the countryside and lines of parachutists filled the sky. Most were decked out in World War II-era paratrooper uniforms, and a few wore or carried memorabilia from their fathers or grandfathers who jumped into war in 1944.
All had the round, hard-to-guide parachutes of yesteryear, hooked to static lines that ran the length of the ceiling of the airplanes. The lines tugged open their chutes a few seconds after they left the planes. The descents lasted less than 2 minutes.
Charters, of Missoula, is retired U.S. Army Special Forces. The project offered him the opportunity to share the airspace his father, Gilbert Charters, flew three times on D-Day in a B26 bomber, photographing German artillery emplacements and bridges.
Charters’ wife, Kim Maynard, jumped, too. She was one of the first female smokejumpers for the U.S. Forest Service in the early 1980s and one of eight current or retired smokejumpers approved to jump in Normandy.
They were one of three couples scheduled to jump, joining neighbors Shawn Modula and Annette Dusseau of Missoula and Bryan and Sarah Morgan of Texas.
Dusseau and Modula run Missoula Family Dental Clinic in Southgate Mall. A photo posted on the clinic’s Facebook page after the jump showed a smiling Dusseau in combat helmet, jump boots and uniform. She kneeled with her repacked chute, holding a 6-foot sapling.
“Just landed in Normandy. Everyone is fine. Annette had to prune a tree to avoid landing on a van. Lots of very friendly people waiting for us in the landing zone,” the post related.
All those in the planes and in the sky rearranged their lives to pay this tribute to the warriors at Normandy in 1944. The 75th anniversary is almost sure to be the last big commemoration of the invasion that turned the tide of World War II in Europe.
One who stayed back in Montana was wishing he hadn’t.
“I’d jump now if my knees were real good,” Ed Seifert, 97, said Wednesday afternoon from his room at the Polson Health and Rehabilitation Center.
Seifert, who grew up on a farm west of Pablo, was a staff sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division that dropped behind enemy lines that dark June morning. Their target was Saint-Martin-de-Varreville above Utah Beach, the westernmost landing spot of five along a 60-mile stretch of coast.
It’s an hour-plus drive from there to Sannerville near Gold Beach, the most easterly of the five.
“When we jumped Normandy, we all jumped at night from those C-47s,” Seifert recalled Wednesday. “There was about 20 guys in each plane. Them pilots, they had contact all the time, and they took us back quite a ways from where the Germans were.
“We jumped and just started fighting our way back. The ground was harder than heck.”
Seifert, who later suffered frostbite at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, said he lost half a dozen buddies at Normandy.
In all, some 13,000 Allied troops parachuted out of 800 or more “Dakotas” in advance of the beach assaults on June 6.
“I was proud to be a paratrooper who jumped at Normandy and finally come out alive,” Seifert said.
Miss Montana, just 24 days after flying for the first time in 18 years, made two successful trips across the English Channel on Wednesday.
“The invasion, er, liberation, of France has begun. Cherbourg has been taken without resistance,” quipped pilot and spokesman Bryan Douglass in a text at 1:40 a.m., MDT, after the airplane landed on the Cotentin Peninsula.
The crew dropped off luggage and passengers and boarded the first load of jumpers for a short flight to Carentan, between Utah and Omaha beaches. That commemorative jump, at shortly after 8 a.m. Montana time, entailed some 250 parachutists, including 97-year-old Tom Rice of San Diego. Rice, who jumped strapped to a partner, had parachuted into the same general area in 1944.
Just 30 other American D-Day survivors are expected in France for D-Day 75 ceremonies.
“I kind of wish I was over there,” Seifert said.
Next for Miss Montana is Thursday’s presidential flyover at the Normandy American Cemetery. The plane from Montana is one of 14 civilian aircraft invited along with French military planes and U.S. Air Force C-130s, which Douglass has been told is an extremely rare combination. President Donald Trump and President Emmanuel Macron will be on hand at the ceremony, set to start at 4 a.m. Montana time.
Douglass said he and his family were extremely moved when they visited the American cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach in 2004 for the 60th D-Day commemoration. More than 9,000 Americans are buried there.
“It’s a must-see for every American,” he said. “I call it holy ground.”