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World War II Paratrooper Shares Normandy Memories

They're often called America's Greatest Generation - the men and women who served during World War II. Some of the most recognized World War II veterans are those who parachuted into Normandy on June 6, 1944.

He's 84 years old and seems to remember everything about his experience as a D-day jumper - in some cases down to the minute. He recalls what time he left the US for Normandy, the time at which he parachuted on D-day; and he knows how many men did not come back from the mission. Don Jakeway is one of the Army's original paratroopers. Jakeway said being in the Army and jumping out of planes was not something he had planned to do.

It was Jakeway's senior year at Johnstown High School when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place. He received the outstanding back fielder award for Licking County a few months. And he said that did not sit well with a rival football player. Jakeway said Paul Potter came up to him at a local ice cream parlor and challenged him to join the Army.

"He come up to me and says OK tough guy, he says, how about joining the paratroopers. I had no idea what a paratrooper was of course. I was 18-years-old. And I said, sure, let's go. And that's what we did," Jakeway said.

So in October 1942 Jakeway went to Columbus and enlisted as a paratrooper. He trained in Georgia, Florida and West Virginia. But he came very close to not being able to apply what he learned. Jakeway developed the measles in late 1943 and put in the hospital. But Jakeway, called "Jake" by the men in his company, had a strong will.

"One of my buddies comes up and stuck his head in the window and says, hey Jake, the company's moving out today. So I went up to the nurses' station and told 'em I wanted to get out of there, and they wouldn't let me. So I had my pajamas on and everything, I climbed out of the window, run back to the street to the first sergeant and said you guys aren't leaving without me," Jakeway said.

Jakeway left New York Harbor in December 1943. He trained in Belfast, Ireland then was shipped to England for more training. Jakeway said he knew he would play a part in World War II when he joined the Army. But it was not until he arrived in England that he found out he would be a D-day jumper.

"One day they called us all together and loaded us up on trucks and took us to the airport, Folkingham Airport. And they fenced it in, and we were in there about two weeks reading the sand tables; we knew we were going to Normandy," Jakeway recalled.

Jakeway said he and his buddies knew there was only a 15 percent chance they would make it out of Normandy alive. In the days leading up to D-day he said anxiety caused several injuries.

"There was a young guy who pulled a pin on a hand grenade and he couldn't get it back in and he throwed it toward the entrance of the hanger and wounded four or five guys. Another guy cleaned his M1, pulled the trigger and put four or five holes through the ceiling, so we were nervous," Jakeway said.

Sixteen men boarded the plane with Jakeway on June 6, 1944. Jakeway said the mood was somber and few men talked.

"Did you think when you stepped on that plane I'm not gonna come back? Absolutely," Jakeway said.

Jakeway said he was one of the first in his group to land after parachuting. He said he landed in a tree and had to cut himself from his tangled chute. Jakeway said he waited for a few hours before he decided to push forward. That's when he heard people walking toward him and instinct took over.

"I jumped over that stone wall, which is something you're never supposed to do because you don't know what's on the other side. Slid down this bank and of fall things I slid right through a big fresh cow pile. About that time there was like a platoon size group of Germans walk by. But if I'd stayed in the path they probably would've gotten me," Jakeway remembered.

It was ten days before Jakeway would reunite with his squad. He said he hid during they day and traveled at night, stealing potatoes and carrots from various cellars.

Jakeway said being alone in a war zone was not his worst military experience. He said that day came on July Fourth when he stumbled across a wounded paratrooper who refused help.

"He wouldn't let me take him out. And I tried to pick him up and he fought me, he said no your not, I'm not going, you go on. Why didn't he want to go? I don't know why. To this day I don't know why. So I tried to pick him up, but he still fought me off. So I scrambled back. Got back to my unit and told them about him being down there. I don't know whether they ever found him or not," Jakeway said.

Jakeway said only eight men in his squad of 24 survived that day's battle.

Jakeway made it through Normandy without being wounded. But his luck ran out when he got to Holland.

"My face got burned, my arms got burned, I got a bullet still lodged in my head, I got my lung shot out, I got a hole through my leg," Jakeway said.

Like many men in World War II Jakeway lost many comrades.

"The worst thing about that whole thing is if you trained with the guys, if you started with them, and you train with them all the way through and all the way up until the time they got killed, you're just like brothers, you know," Jakeway said.

It was almost 40 years before Jakeway spoke openly to anyone about his experience as a World War II paratrooper. Of the roughly 12,000 paratroopers who jumped on D-day only about a quarter survived. One of the survivors was Paul Potter, the man who challenged Jakeway to join the Army.