Luck has been on the side of D-Day, Battle of the Bulge hero


U.S., French and German paratroopers jump into Sainte Mere Eglise, France, June 5, 2016, to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of D-Day. The U.S. soldiers, among the 320 paratroopers from the three countries to participate, are assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.

A couple of times a month, retired Col. John Gaynor leaves his home in Palm Bay to go out to sea, at least for a few hours, as he tries his hand at the slots of Victory Casino ships.

It’s not surprising that Gaynor often comes out a winner, for luck has been on his side ever since the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, when a 17-year-old Gaynor jumped out of a C-47, one of the 149 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division sent to Normandy ahead of the Allied Invasion. 

They were supposed to be dropped on fields surrounding Sainte Mere Eglise, but miscalculations during the dark night made the drop over the tiny town, where most of the paratroopers got snagged on trees and houses, easy targets for the Germans. 

Out of the 149, only nine survived. Luck was on Gaynor’s side, as it was when he later took part in the Battle of the Bulge. 

Gaynor returned to France two years ago in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day. 

Through an all-expense paid trip hosted by the College of the Ozarks, he spent two weeks touring the once-battle-scarred towns of Sainte Mere Eglise in Normandy and Bastogne, near where the Battle of the Bulge took place in Belgium. 

“I didn’t recognize much about Sainte Mere Eglise, because we were dropped in the dead of night and we marched out by the time daylight came,” said Gaynor, who spoke about his return to Normandy to a group at Palm Bay Library.

He does still vividly remember struggling to get out of his parachute’s harness, and he will never forget the tiny church, primarily because his buddy, Jack Steele, got tangled on the steeple. The canny Steele played dead for hours while other paratroopers who struggled to get out of the trees in which they had landed were mowed down by the Germans. Steele, by the way, shared Gaynor’s good luck and made it through the war.

On June 6, 1944, a Sainte Mere Eglise girl named Juliette was to get married. Gaynor and his fellow Americans put a hold on those plans, but the young woman was so grateful for the liberation of her town that she struck up a correspondence with Gaynor, even though she had never seen him. 

When he returned to Normandy, he visited her, now a frail old woman with Parkinson’s. Through a translator, the two pen pals finally met. During the visit, Juliette kept motioning to her face until Gaynor asked the translator what she wanted.

“She told him she wanted me to kiss her on the cheek,” Gaynor said.