Making a Difference: Robert L. Williams
World War II Veterans
D-Day was probably the most defining day of the 20th century, because it was the turning point. … if it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have the life we have today.
Robert L. Williams – World War II veteran
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in KET’s Visions magazine in 2007. Mr. Williams still resides in Northern kentucky and continues to talk about his experience in World War II.
For 50 years, Robert L. Williams didn’t speak much of the war. But all that changed in 1994 when, at the age of 71, he joined with other paratroopers in the skies above Normandy, France, to re-create his dramatic jump into history.
A Northern Kentucky native, Williams (featured in the 2007 KET production Kentucky WWII Veterans: In Their Own Words) enlisted in the Army in 1942 at the age of 19. Sent to Georgia, he trained at Camp Toccoa, where the young recruits got into the best shape of their lives by running three miles up a mountain every day before breakfast. After more training in Tennessee and Kentucky, it was off to New York to board an English passenger liner across the Atlantic and join the now worldwide fray.
At midnight on June 6, 1944, Williams and 12,000 other members of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were already in the air aboard C-44 troop carriers, waiting to drop into the skies. Below, troops were hitting the beaches at Utah and Omaha. D-Day.
Loaded with 100 pounds of gear, Williams parachuted behind enemy lines into a swamp created by the Nazis for the very purpose of bogging paratroopers.
“It was very dark, a partly moonlit night,” Williams remembers. “You couldn’t see where you were going to land, and I had no idea I was going to land in water.”
Fifty years later, it was a very different scene on Utah Beach. “It was daylight, nobody was shooting at the airplane, and when we walked off the field, there was a huge crowd greeting the old guys.”
That jump was Williams’ brainchild—something he’d been thinking about during those 50 years of silence. His vast collection of wartime memorabilia had been tucked away in the attic and basement—a war diary kept by buddy “Jokin’ Joe Jones” Slosarczyk, who never saw his Wisconsin home again; newspapers; dog tags and pinup girls, photos, booklets, memories.
But the silence was broken when Williams—who persevered through Pentagon red tape to arrange the commemorative jump—saw just how much his plunge into the darkened French skies meant to people 50 years later. When he saw how a grateful France pulled out all the stops to celebrate the anniversary of D-Day. When he saw the crowds cheering the “old guys.”
“It was a grand way to bring attention back to the guys who made the sacrifice. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it.”
There was the tribute, and of course the excitement. But what Williams didn’t expect was the visceral memories that would emerge when the former soldiers strapped on their parachutes once more.
“When the pilot started up the engines on that old C-47 transport, that’s when the guys got quiet. Fifty years disappeared. The smell of the plane, the sound of the engine. It all came back to me,” said Williams, his face betraying the emotion the memory evoked.
“We were all laughing and joking beforehand, but as soon as that engine started, all their expressions changed.”
And so today Williams visits schools, where children born 50 years after his first historic jump listen closely to his story. He signs his book, Return to Normandy; he displays his wartime collection.
“The life we have today is the most easy, comfortable life that’s ever been invented,” he says. “It’s all possible because of the defining days of World War II. D-Day was probably the most defining day of the 20th century, because it was the turning point.
“There were 5,000 ships out there in the English Channel; there were 900 planes full of paratroopers. It was the biggest sea-air invasion the world has ever seen. And if it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have the life we have today.”