With Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in control of most of mainland Europe, the Allied powers knew it was essential to establish a foothold in the west to drive back Axis forces. Their plan, “Operation Overlord” – the largest amphibious attack in history.
Forces from Canada, Great Britain, the United States crossed the English Channel and landed on five beach-heads in Normandy, France on June 6th, 1944. The massive attack consisted of some 6,000 landing craft and ships and over 13,000 aircraft totaling over 150,000 troops. The first of those soldiers to land at Normandy was Captain Frank Lillyman of Skaneateles.
Lillyman, a paratrooper and commanding officer of the 101st Pathfinder Company (Provisional), 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, was the first soldier of the Allied invasion to hit French soil just after midnight on June 6th. After jumping out of a C47, piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch, at 120mph with a lit cigar in his mouth – his “pet superstition” – Lillyman led an 18-man unit onto Utah Beach.
“On my first jump I happened to have a cigar,” Lillyman explained. “So I’ve done it ever since. Now the boys attach a lot of importance to that cigar.”
According to The First Jump: How The Band of Brothers Was Aided by the Brave Paratroopers of Pathfinders Company by Jerome Preisler, the Pathfinder Company’s goal was to “jump behind enemy lines and mark the drop zones and landing zones for the main waves of airborne troops to follow.” Under heavy enemy fire, Lillyman led his men in defense of the drop zone and provided cover for the follow-up waves of Allied Forces. For 47 minutes, those 18 men were the only Allied forces at Normandy. Lillyman later explained, “that was the longest 47 minutes of my life.”
When a 50-caliber machine gun spotted them through the bushes, he sent two men to kill the German gunner. “Damned annoying it was,” Lillyman said of the shots being fired in their direction. “Finally I sent two men to convince him of the error of his ways. Pretty soon, I heard a grenade go off, and then everything was lovely and quiet.”
Lillyman wouldn’t go unscathed, however. He was shot in the arm by a machine pistol and, as he fell, he caught a mortar splinter in his face. “We engaged the enemy and some joker got me in the arm,” he said to the Syracuse Herald American in August 1944 while in Syracuse recovering from his injuries.
His leadership and bravery earned him multiple decorations, including the Distinguished Service Cross.
Lillyman went on to have a long military career, which began in 1933. First serving in Hawaii and China followed by recruiting in Syracuse. He eventually went on to serve in the Korean and Vietnam War before retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1968. He passed away on March 6th, 1971.
The morning of the invasion, Syracuse reporter E. R. “Curly” Vadeboncoeur had a colorful message for Adolph Hitler, which you can read a part of below.
The Allies would be victorious, eventually leading to the liberation of France by the end of August 1944 and German surrender the following year.