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D-Day vet fights to keep memory of sacrifice alive


WHEATLEY CHRISTENSEN remembers struggling onto the C-47 wearing 150 pounds of equipment - including D- and K-rations, two parachutes, gas mask, Mae West, entrenching tool, an assortment of explosives and 168 rounds of ammo for his tommy gun.

The flight was uneventful until it reached the French coast. A cloudbank and then anti-aircraft fire, he learned later, disrupted flight patterns for many of the aircraft in the force. He remembers the plane was bouncing up and down when the red light came on and the 18 men on board - called a "stick" - struggled to their feet and fastened their parachutes to the static line overhead.

And then the green light came on.

Cpl. Wheatley T. Christensen of Eastport, an assistant squad leader in Company G, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, jumped out of his plane at an altitude of 600 feet. He landed in Normandy, shortly after 1 a.m. June 6, 1944. D-Day.

He was lucky. Unlike many of the thousands of paratroopers stumbling through the darkness, Christensen and his mates formed quickly, using toy crickets to identify one another. Shortly before sunrise, they reached their objective, Ste. Mere-Eglise. "It was the first town liberated in France," Christensen says proudly.

He was fortunate in another respect: He had combat experience, having jumped into Sicily and Salerno. He says jokingly that he went airborne because of the extra pay, $50 on top of base pay of $21 a month. A more likely motive: "I was a little gung-ho at that time."

Did he have any sense that he was a member of an elite force? "Oh, definitely. We were the best and we knew it."

Being the best frequently meant being the first. The 82nd jumped behind German lines into Holland in September. Although the 505th succeeded in its mission by capturing two bridges at Nijmegen, the overall operation, code-named Market Garden, was a near disaster.

In December, units of the 505th were trucked hastily into the Battle of the Bulge. "The damn cold" is what Christensen remembers of that battle. "Cold, cold, ice and snow."

He also remembers how many days he was in combat in each of his engagements. There were 63 days in the Bulge. After speaking of each engagement, he repeats another figure: "We suffered well over 50 percent casualties."

Stewardship of the memory of those casualties is important to him.

"G Company alone during the course of the war received over 600 replacements," he said. "The regiment suffered over 700 KIA [killed in action] or died of wounds in their six campaigns in Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany."

He writes and e-mails old comrades; he contributes to commemorative Web sites; he continues to write of his exploits for his four grandchildren; and he has visited several of the old battlefields.

"European kids know more about World War II than our graduates," he said. "Schools here should have invited some of us veterans to come and talk. That would have been a simple thing to do."

The delays attending construction of the national World War II memorial annoy him. He gets distressed when he see trash blowing around the state's World War II memorial on Pendennis Mount outside Annapolis.

"Some of us still try to keep in touch, but we're steadily dwindling down," he said. There will be a reunion of the 505th in Las Vegas this fall. "God willing, I'll be there. There's just a handful of us left, of the guys."

A photograph hangs by Christensen's door, Company G of the 505th, back in the states before going to war. There are 109 of the guys in the picture, lean and tall and vital in their Class A uniforms and bloused boots.

Christensen estimates 15 to 20 of them made it back home on their feet. Several others, nonambulatory wounded, followed.

The rest lay in the ground in France, Belgium, Holland.

Let's remember them, and others lost, tomorrow. And not forget.

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