'It was unbelieveable that I would live through this night'
Louis Venditti's perilous entry into the Second World War started in the cloudy, moonlit sky over Normandy, France, just after midnight June 6, 1944.
He plunged, parachute and pack on his back, from the small plane, a C-47, as soon as the green light inside its cabin popped on.
Go, it told the paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division.
Venditti jumped onto the backs of Germans who'd been living on France's northern beaches. He was the sixth to hurl himself out of his plane.
He watched for the red smoke sent up for his company's landing in Drop Zone C.
His comrades snagged on trees and buildings and hung as easy sniping targets. He saw the dead everywhere, American and German both.
Survival, said Venditti, 88, depended on one's own individual initiative. Command and control vanished during the invasion's first hours.
"We were trained to act alone," he said.
It was the longest, most terrifying six hours of Venditti's life. He'd drop into other battles, spend his career as a firefighter. All the rest paled.
"The drop was so bad that we were separated and in the wrong place, but we knew what we had to do and did it.
"It was unbelievable that I would live through this night."
The night before, Venditti got a pep talk from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who went plane to plane encouraging the men. The message: Your missions are so important. You have to complete them.
For Venditti's group of 18 troopers, that included wrecking German communications before news spread of the invasion.
"I was scared. I was petrified. First time in combat, you don't know what to expect. I didn't expect what I did find when we got down there."
He landed in a field, more than a mile away from the target. Nothing looked like it did in training. Panic set in. He and the others picked their way to their own drop zone, fighting small bands of Germans. They were all over the place, shooting, no matter where he twisted or turned.
Venditti came to a spot where a lot of dead paratroopers hung from their chutes. He and others cut them down.
When he got to his drop zone, there were only 200 paratroopers.
There should have been 600.
Two hours' fighting captured the town for the Allies. The air force was bombing the beach. It was getting light and there were ships and ships choking the water, approaching the shore.
Then orange smoke grenades went out, signaling to the 4th Infantry that it was time to come ashore, time to invade France.
Read their storiesRobert Burns