I have a personal reason to be thankful Nick Kastrantas survived his harrowing jump from a plane into the little French village of Ste. Mere Eglise on June 6, 1944, D-Day.
After the war, Nick married Anita Pranis, a union that produced a remarkable daughter, Ann-the woman who's now my wife. Nick also went on to become a commercial artist, doing ad and promotional work for agencies and retailers, more recently spending most of his time producing portraits, paintings and murals.
Nick was one of the lucky ones. Of the 10,000 paratroopers who jumped in the predawn hours of D-Day, about two-thirds were killed or wounded. "This hero did nothing," said Nick, insisting that he was just another soldier doing what had to be done. "Most of the heroes actually are dead."
But Ste. Mere Eglise will always be known for several events-for being the first town liberated in France, for the ar-rival of the paratroopers and especially for the fate of one of those soldiers.
I've heard some of the war stories before, recounted when Nick gets together with my own father, John Serafin, whose Army outfit arrived in Europe later in 1944 to operate a hospital train.
Recently, Nick and I met for lunch in one of the Detroit Greektown restaurants that displays his artwork. It was clear that D-Day events remained vivid 50 years later.
A sergeant, he was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and 24 years old when D-Day began. Before the invasion, Nick's skills at drawing were put to use making maps of the planned drop zones around Ste. Mere Eglise.
Once on the ground, the troops' assignment was to disrupt German troops in any way possible.
The C-47 transport carrying Nick and 18 other paratroopers took off from Southampton, England, for the 3-hour flight to Normandy. The transport planes encountered German anti-aircraft fire as they came over the French coast. Nick remembers that one of the paratroopers, a Swedish ex-journalist who had joined the outfit in England, spent the time reading a book titled "So Little Time." Another man had brought along a chicken he had stolen, as a sort of mascot.
In Ste. Mere Eglise, shortly before midnight, a fire flared at the house of the elderly Mlle. Pommier. The men in Nick's plane were supposed to land outside Ste. Mere Eglise, but when they made their jumps at about 1 a.m. on June 6, they mistakenly ended up dropping right into the village where the fire had wakened both the townspeople and the troops there.
"The pilots were supposed to slow down for us to jump out, but they were zooming out because of the ack-ack, the antiaircraft fire," said Nick, who was one of the last to jump out of his plane. "So by the time you went out the door, you were practically at the tail of the airplane."
"The first thing I saw when I came out of the plane was tracers coming from near the steeple of the church, and I saw next to the church a burning house. Then one of our troopers landed right on the burning house.
"I saw him going right into the flames. We used to carry gammon grenades in our pants pocket-when he landed in the burning house those things exploded."
The explosion lit up the night. He saw another soldier's parachute snag on the church steeple. That paratrooper hung there for hours but somehow survived, and his plight was immortalized in the film "The Longest Day."
"It was scary. They were shooting at me, too," said Nick. To avoid landing in the burning house, he kept swinging and pulling down on his left front riser, which enabled him to drift somewhat north of the church. Finally, he landed in the back yard of a small house.
"While I was laying there getting my gun together, I looked up and saw our C-47s releasing gliders [carrying more troops] right over town. The Germans were shooting at them. The glider operation was a great disaster-most of them were shot down."
Nick expected German soldiers to arrive in the garden any moment. Instead, the back door of the house opened, and the couple who lived there, along with their daughter, came outside.
"They asked me, `Are you hurt?' I said `No,' and I told them I was an American," said Nick, who was fluent in French. "They took me in the house, and I stayed there all night."
During the night, German troops pulled out of the village. In the morning, Nick was able to join up with entering American troops.
Nick's group went to where the German headquarters in town had been. "There in the courtyard, I saw these fellows from our plane, one with a bullet through his temple, one with a knife in his back. They just had them lying there, one next to the other."
The troops engaged in bitter fighting over the next month, holding the town and the surrounding area until other Allied forces could secure the coastal areas.
D-Day was the third jump into combat for Nick and the other members of the 505th, which earlier had gone into Sicily and then made a second jump into Italy, south of Naples. Their fourth jump was made into the Netherlands about three months after D-Day.
Nick resumed his art career after the war. He studied art at the University of Pittsburgh, and in 1950 he went to Detroit to work for Brown Art, which later became Detroit Art Services. Among the projects he worked on were Ford Motor Co. catalogs and other work for Ford agencies J. Walter Thompson USA and Kenyon & Eckhardt. Eventually, he became a free-lancer.
This June 6, Nick plans to attend a D-Day commemorative ceremony at Selfridge Air Force Base in Michigan.
"I'm going to ask some of the fellows who are going over from my outfit to make some search for the people whose house I stayed in," Nick said. The couple's daughter was about 18 in 1944.
"When the people came out of the house, I told them the parachute was nice silk and they could use it to make dresses," he said. "It would be nice to see if there's anything left of that parachute, a little piece maybe to make a scarf."
Mr. Serafin is Detroit bureau chief of Advertising Age.