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Fmr. Rep. Sam Gibbons Remembers D-Day Invasion of Normandy

Aired June 6, 2000 - 1:28 p.m. ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Our other top story is the official opening of the first major U.S. museum dedicated to the D-Day invasion. Today is the 56th anniversary of the allied attack in Normandy, the largest amphibious assault in history, and a major turning point of World War II.

Some of those gathered for today's ceremonies say the museum is long overdue. The National D-Day Museum is located in New Orleans, where the box-shaped landing boats used in the invasion were built.

Former Congressman Sam Gibbons was a paratrooper in the first wave of the D-Day invasion. He was in the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, the Screaming Eagles. That was the same regiment as Private Ryan, later immortalized in the movie, "Saving Private Ryan."

Sam Gibbons joins us from Washington.

Hello, Sam.

FMR. REP. SAM GIBBONS, D-DAY VETERAN: Well, good afternoon. How are you?

PHILLIPS: Terrific. Great to see you.

GIBBONS: Thank you. Glad to be here.

PHILLIPS: I want you to take me back, OK? It's June 6, it's noon, you're geared up, you're on a mission, what happened?

GIBBONS: Well, first of all, I started off in the wrong place. I was about six miles from where I was supposed to be when I was dropped. But we finally picked out the mission that we could perform that day, and that was capturing some bridges across a river that was to be our boundary line to keep the German tanks out of the invasion area.

And about this time of the morning, I was getting my fanny shot off. We had moved from our rather impromptu assembly area down the main road between Paris and Sherbourg (ph), towards Sainte-Croix-du- Mont, a little town right on the river. And we were suppose to grab those bridges and hold them to keep the German tanks out.

And we thought the town was in safe hands by that time. That was the plan. But when we got there, there was a huge German force there, outnumbering us by great odds. And we had a tough fire fight with them, and I got out alive.

PHILLIPS: Sam, there were 50 of you, 3,000 Germans. What were you thinking when you were dropped and you saw all these guns and heard all this gunfire?

GIBBONS: Well, we had been prepared for it as best you can by telling people about it and by training for it. We knew it was going to be confusing, we knew it was going to be a tight situation, but we didn't realize it was going to be as tight as it turned out to be.

PHILLIPS: Could you see or hear anything from the beach?

GIBBONS: No, we were only about eight miles from the beach and I had been told about all the heavy bombing that was going on and about all the naval artillery bombardment that would take place, and I had thought you could hear it at the distance we were. But, frankly, we couldn't hear it. There were no American planes in the sky, we heard none of the invasion preparation. And I kind of thought at one time that maybe they've called this darn thing off and forgotten to tell us about it.

PHILLIPS: Oh, boy. That was a change.

Well, June 5, the day before, Sam, when you were getting prepared and you guys were shaving and getting dressed in the morning, what was going through your head? What were all you guys talking about as you got on a plane and you were getting ready to go?

GIBBONS: Well, we said, we guess this is the day. You know, we had ammunition issued to us and we had all the last-minute stuff, counting your last rites. And we said -- you know, we had gotten up to that stage a couple of times before and they'd had to cancel it because of bad weather. But it looks like this was it. The weather was clear and the day was cool. And we weren't as cool as the day, though.

PHILLIPS: Tell me about your combat patrol formation. How'd it go?

GIBBONS: Well, I landed a little after 1:00 a.m. in the morning of June the 6th, and I landed some six miles from were I was suppose to be. A little out of the ordinary, but, you know, some landed even further away. I had to move around very quietly for about 40 minutes in order to find anyone else from my unit. There were plenty of Germans, but no American parachutists. And finally I found someone in about 40 minutes. And then in about an hour and a half or two hours, we had about 25 people. And by daylight, we had about 50 people together. We were not -- we were of the same regiment, but not of the same units of the regiment, and we had not practiced together before, or we had not trained together before, only we were sort of pickups. We were scattered people who came together for a common cause.

PHILLIPS: Did you think you were going to survive?

GIBBONS: Oh, I always thought so. You know, at that age you just think that life will go on forever. But, you know, there were sometimes when we all worried about it.

PHILLIPS: Do you think you were prepared? I mean, you were telling me earlier on your radios weren't even working. Did you have the right weapons?

GIBBONS: Well, the radios didn't ever work in World War II, you know, particularly the ones for the infantrymen down at the small unit level. We had something called the 536 about the size of two cartons of cigarettes. It wasn't very reliable and wasn't very clear even when it worked. But we didn't even have any of those.

PHILLIPS: Well, Sam, we've got to wrap up, unfortunately, but I have one more question. You have got to tell your famous story about the two cans of beers.


GIBBONS: Well, I had been training with the Navy in order to help in the fire support for our invasion. They were going to be our long-range artillery. And they gave me a case of beer. By the time the invasion got started, I was down to two cans. So I just tucked those two cans in my gas mask, carried them in with me. About 10:00 in the morning, I halted my little patrol, I shared my two cans of beer with a couple of fellows that were very close to me and we left them stacked in the road. In the evening when we had to come back that way in order -- still looking for other Americans, the cans were all gone. So I guessed we got credit for trashing the French countryside with American beer cans.


Pretty early in that.

PHILLIPS: You left your mark, Sam.


A true soldier. Thank you so much for joining us.

GIBBONS: Certainly.




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