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NEW YORK – Every night at dinner when I was young, my dad fought World War II all over again. He'd parachuted into Normandy with the 101st Airborne on D-Day, went on to fight in Holland and Belgium, and he loved to tell war stories.
But as a kid, I didn't care. I grew up in the 1960s and '70s, when anti-war sentiment about Vietnam was strong. It wasn't cool having a dad whose biggest accomplishment was being a soldier.
It was only as an adult that I wished I'd paid more attention to those dinnertime tales.
Fortunately, I have some extraordinary mementoes. Dad, who died in 1993, was interviewed on radio shows in 1944, shortly after D-Day, then in 1945 at a military hospital, and finally on local TV for the 40th anniversary of D-Day. This year I digitized the old-media recordings — 78 RPM records and a 1984 videotape.
When I played them for the first time in years, I heard what I hadn't heard as a kid: how tough he was, how hard it was, how brave these soldiers were.
Here, in his words, is what it was like to jump out of a plane shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944, land on a beach loaded with enemy soldiers, and help launch the offensive that ultimately defeated Adolf Hitler.
"We hit French soil just a little over six hours before the first ship hit the beach," Cpl. David Jackendoff said on a show called "An American Eagle in Britain," taped by the BBC on Aug. 26, 1944. "I was in plane No. 5 that went over to knock out coastal batteries that were trained onto the beach. Our plane was hit by some of that German 20 millimeter flak. We had to bail out as soon as we got into French territory."
Once on the ground, he said, "a group of us got together, nine to be exact." As they headed toward their target, "we were hampered, I'll say, by some German machine-gun nests."
With four men on one side of him and four on the other, "I told them to crawl up as close as we could. And when I whistled, everybody was to throw a grenade," he recalled in 1984 on WNBC-TV. "When we got there, all we saw was a lot of wrecks and dead Germans."
He won a Bronze Star for leading the charge that silenced the nest, without regard to his personal safety. But his account 40 years later hinted at the fear and regret.
"You didn't know what was around you," he said. "You didn't know where you were. You didn't know if the fellow next to you was friend or enemy, all in blackface."
He got back to his command post four days later, but not everyone made it. "A mortar shell landed amongst four of the fellows including our top sergeant and killed them all," he said. "As you go along, you pass bodies, and you just have to keep going."
Dad fought with the 101st for 37 straight days in France. In September 1944, he went to Holland, to Operation Market Garden, a battle depicted in the movie "A Bridge Too Far." In December, they dug in for the siege of Bastogne, Belgium, part of the Battle of the Bulge.
He earned a second Bronze Star, two presidential citations and a Purple Heart. His 1945 interview with WOR was done at Halloran General Hospital, an Army hospital on Staten Island, New York, as he recuperated from a bullet wound that crippled his right arm.
Looking back, he seems to me like a character straight out of a black-and-white World War II movie. He smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish and lived every day like it was his last — which is one way to prepare yourself to jump from a plane into a war zone. For the rest of his life, his war buddies were his best friends; nobody else could understand what they'd been through.
And he loved Calvados, the French apple brandy he first tasted in Normandy.
Listening to the recordings now, I'm struck by his nonchalance. As he described encountering machine-gun fire, he said, "That held us up for a while." When the interviewer asked, "One vital question: Did you get them?" he answered simply, "Yes, sir." And there was this memorable aside: "I love hand grenades."
I have a 16-year-old son now, about the age I was when I didn't want to hear my father's stories. My dad died before this boy was born, and as we listened together to his grandpa's voice, I could see the look of amazement on his face.
"Your dad was cool," he finally said.
Yeah, he was.