St-Mere-Eglise on the 71st Anniversary of D-Day

On this day, 71 years ago, my grandfather, Lieutenant Robert G. Burns, jumped out of a plane with a 180-lb pack over the French town of St-Mere-Eglise in the famous “Night Drop” in the wee hours before D-Day. He was part of the 502nd Infantry Regiment in the 101st Airborne, known as the Screaming Eagles - a nickname he'd given the 101st football team that stuck. Over 20,000 paratroopers dropped behind targeted beaches code-named: Sword (English), Juno (Canadian), Gold (English), Omaha (American) and Utah (American). Their mission: Disrupt German defenses, seize critical objections and protect Allied forces arriving by sea.

A few weeks later, my grandfather wrote this letter home to his mother:

 “Somewhere in France”
June 221944

Dear Mom,

They have finally broken down and permitted us to enlarge a little on our experiences, so I’ll try to give you a running account of a kid who was scared to death and scared to move.

My regiment was the first American or English force to land on French soil in this invasion.

I was one of the first (100) men of the millions now here. My regiment also drew the main mission of the invasion and accomplished it before we were supposed to. General Eisenhower was at our airport at the take off because our battalion was the first to go. I shook hands with him and he told us (the officers) when the 1st man from our planes hit the ground the news of the invasion would be flashed around the world, which is a great honor we considered to be leading all forces in the invasion.

In spots it was terrific and in others pretty soft. Some were knifed in their chutes, some were killed coming down and some never had a chance to jump. I was very lucky and lit O.K. Needless to say I had gone to confession and communion, so I was ready if the need be.

Personally I killed 15 Germans, but the main thing is I promised Dad I’d get one for him. Well a German captain and I met in hand-to-hand combat and needless to say my boxing experience really came in handy. I knocked him out and just as I stuck my trench knife in him, I said out loud – “This one’s for the Ole’ Man” – I cut off his German Insignia –he was a paratrooper too – he was among a bunch of Germans sent in to wipe us out.

I was wounded – got 2 broken ribs in an air raid, 3 days after “D” Day. I was evacuated to a beach hospital –but after 1 day in bed, I got up and reported back to my unit. I’m O.K. now and going strong. I have been recommended for some awards, but won’t say which—until I get them (if).

My regiment to the 502nd received the Presidential Citation for outstanding services in action. There have only been 4 other units that have received it since the war began—one was a Marine unit at Guadacanal. It is a blue and gold ribbon worn on the right breast.

Well Mom, this is all the news. I can’t say about our casualties, except for a time I was the only officer left in our Co.

Bye Bye


At the Airborne Museum we saw life-size mannequins set up like this famous photograph of Ike sending off the paratroopers. My grandfather was right there and jokingly complained he had been cropped out of this photograph that went around the world.

Another report of my grandfather's involvement came is described in the book Night Drop:
Item Company was down and out. Flattening when the bombs fell, its men could not rise again, save for a sturdy half dozen, whose first thought was to evacuate the worst of the stricken. The great number fell victim to the deadly drowsiness that overtakes infantry after calamitous shock losses. They had no interest in what had happened to them; they expressed no curiosity about who had been hit. Lieutenant Robert G. Burns found he could not keep his men awake no matter how he tried. Some were in heavy sleep within two minutes of the bombing. It confused Burns; he could not tell which were the sleepers and which the wounded and dying. He saw men who, having tumbled down the bank, lay still with their bodies half in water. He went to them, thinking they had been hit, then discovered they were sleepers who had rolled down the bank and had not awakened when they slipped into the frigid marsh. Others lay there in their jump suits, wet through and through, yet sleeping the torpid sleep of utter exhaustion. Officers gave over any attempt to rouse these men. Item Company had become a cipher in the column. Burns, a burly, redheaded bruiser who had served as division athletic officer, saw far more than he understood, which but made him wonder more why none of the experts came forward to explain it to him. Burns said, "By God, it's funny. Here I had just been worrying about how we would get some sleep." 
What remained of Item Company had come forward because Lieutenant Burns wouldn't quit. When the farm fight opened, his little band was just behind Bridge No. 4. They heard the noise of battle up ahead. But in the same moment, the German machine-gun fire again engulfed the iron gate, and bullets struck fire from it as on the evening before. The men of Item ran for the narrow opening amid this hail of steel. They did it one man at a time, heads down. The lucky ones who got through then jumped down to the protection of the embankment. 
Lieutenant Burns and Gleason, the last two officers, were hit trying to get through the gate. So were 7 of the 21 troopers who had survived the ordeal on the embankment. The few who made it went on leaderless, attaching themselves as individuals to any group they could find. Item, as a company, no longer operated. 
Excerpt from Night Drop by S.L.A. Marshall (1962)

My grandfather went on to do five combat jumps, first on the eve of D-Day into Sainte-Mere-Eglise, then in Operation Market Garden, and then again in the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded from schrapnel in the buttocks. He would say laughing, that he was "shot in the ass in the face of the enemy." Here are his medals.

This past week, I've visited many sites, museums and memorials dedicated to WWII with Christian and Xavier and Georgia, great-grandchildren of the "Greatest Generation." We needed much more time. Visitors and re-enactors are all arriving for the week of commemorations and festivities. Many towns have liberation picnics and there will be commemorative jumps and celebrations to honor the soldiers who fought here. I've learned so much.

·      Pegasus Bridge, named for the British Airborne who took this bridge.

·      British Cemetery

·      Juno Beach and the Canadian Museum

·      Canadian Cemetery

·      Arromanches, where they built “Mulberry B” the huge artificial port, which was the supply chain after D-Day. The huge scale of this operation is simply impossible to imagine, even with the excellent museum models and films. They even created artificial fog to hide the lights as they worked around the clock to build a port that equaled the size of Le Havre.

·      Crepon, a small village liberated by the Green Howards, a regiment from England. Here we found the memorial for the British Green Howards sculpted by James Butler. James’s wife is my friend Angie Butler, whom I’ve sailed with several times to Antarctica. We stayed with Angie and Jim last May at their farm in England and saw his studio, gallery and several works in progress.

  • Omaha Beach - so vast.

"Ever Forward"

·      US Cemetery

·      Utah beach

·      And finally, we visited St – Mere-Eglise, where my grandfather dropped, and the excellent Airborne Museum. From the church steeple in town hangs a paratrooper from his parachute, permanently commemorating the soldier who was caught on his way down. We walked through a dark tunnel, an intense simulation where you felt like you were standing in the open door of the plane, hundreds of white parachutes all around you, the town of St-Mere Eglise far below, while engines roar and a voice yells “Check your equipment!”  

We met some re-enactors who come over every year.

Then we met some real soldiers, Rangers from Fort Lewis in Washington State where my older brother Patrick was stationed in the JAG Corps.

In the same little café, we also met James, a Vietnam veteran and 30-year jumpmaster in the 101st. He too is here to take part in the memorial jumps. He told us they expect only 30,000 visitors this year, compared to the 100,000 people who came last year for the 70th Reunion. We shook their hands and thanked them for their service.

My grandfather now lies in Arlington Cemetery. But here he is with my father on the 50th Anniversary of D-Day. Thank you for your service Grandpa. We are so proud and so thankful.


  1. Hello,

    When I was searching the internet for photos of Arromanches 2015 I came across the photo with the reenactors. I am one of them.
    We talked for a moment and got a photo with your little son.
    If you don't mind I saved the photo on my PC to share it with the other guys on the photo.

    Many thanks to you and greetings from Holland


  2. Hi Jesper, What a fun coincidence that you happened upon my blog and found that great photo of you and your friends. I regretted not getting your contact info that day to send to you, so thank you so much for writing. We enjoyed meeting you and thanks again for making Xavier's day!

  3. That's no problem at all Sarah.
    When I sent the photo to the others they knew exactly who I was talking about, so you where still very fresh in their memories too.

    No thanks at all. I want to thank you for the very nice comment and for making that day even better than it already was.