POLSON — His memories of D-Day come in fits and starts.
Ed Seifert was a young Army staff sergeant from Polson. As such, he said Wednesday, he must have been the last of 20 paratroopers to jump at night from one of hundreds of C-47s onto fields of western France.
“Oh, yeah, I was all nervous,” Seifert recalled. “When we jumped at Normandy we didn’t even know where we were going.”
He was among some 13,000 Allied troops who parachuted out of more than 800 Douglas C-47 Skytrains, or Dakotas, in advance of the beach assault against dug-in German troops on June 6, 1944.
They’ll all be on the minds and in the hearts of men and women from around the world who on June 5 will reenact the historic air drop in France to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
If all goes as planned, at least 15 of them will bail out of Miss Montana, the 1944 DC-3/C-47 that’s being outfitted at the Museum of Mountain Flying at the Missoula airport to join the United States’ D-Day Squadron in Connecticut next month. They’ll in turn join similar aircraft from other countries in Daks Over Normandy.
Seifert turned 97 on Sunday. He celebrated with his three children and their families in a vacation rental down the hill from the Polson Health and Rehabilitation Center, where he’s made his home for the last year and a half.
In 1944, Eddie Seifert was a strapping 6-foot-1 farm kid from Reservoir Valley west of Pablo. He was captain of the Polson High School football and basketball teams and vice president of his senior class of ’42.
He became Edward Seifert, at least in press accounts, when he went away to war and became part of the 101st Airborne Division. Seifert jumped into Normandy just after midnight on June 6, 1944, and into Nazi-occupied Holland that September. He shivered his feet off with the rest of the 101st Airborne in a besieged Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge before Gen. George Patton and the 3rd Army relieved the 101st on the day after Christmas.
“He stated that he had visited the ruins of Hitler’s Bergestaden (sic) home and that he had taken part in several dress parades before General Eisenhower, whom he termed a ‘fine, congenial fellow with his men,’ ” the Flathead Courier of Polson reported upon Seifert’s homecoming in February 1946.
Jumps went well
Seifert is largely wheelchair-bound these days, his knees finally giving out after jumping out of airplanes and off training towers in his youth.
“I enjoyed jumping but during the war I didn’t like it very well,” he admitted.
Ten of his 18 jumps came during training at Fort Benning, Georgia. None of them, stateside or in Europe, went badly, to his memory.
He joined the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment a couple of years after it became part of the 101st Airborne, the famous “Screaming Eagles.”
“The first thing they did (after training) was send us over to England,” Seifert said. “Well, I come home for a week and then, it was about 15,000 people on that Queen Mary. It wasn’t long after we got to England, why, they put us on those old C-47s to jump over at Normandy.”
According to a history of the “Five-O-Deuce,” found online at ww2-airborne.us/units/502/502.html, the regiment flew out of two bases west of London in the first wave to depart. Its drop zone (DZ) was inside enemy lines behind Utah Beach.
Seifert said the night-time ride across the English Channel was rough going. He was heavily laden with grenades on both sides, a semiautomatic pistol and an M1 rifle.
“I remember those old C-47s. Every once in a while you’d have an air drop and stuff like that,” he said. “We made it over there and we jumped. We didn’t jump real high, about 1,000 or 2,000 feet.
“We had to roll our own chutes after we jumped and we spread out. I’ve never seen so many people that drowned or got killed from, well, the Germans were shooting all the time, those big shells and stuff.”
The 101st Airborne’s mission was to overtake the French village of Saint-Martin-de-Varreville and destroy a coast-artillery battery near there.
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“In the predawn hours of D-Day a combination of low clouds and enemy anti-aircraft fire caused the break-up of the troop carrier formations. The scattering of the air armada was such that some troopers jumped while still over the English Channel and drowned,” the 502nd history says. “Consequently, the sporadic jump patterns caused most (of the) battalions to land far afield of their designated DZ.”
The confusion inland was mutual and crucial to the success of the Allied beach landings. The 101st succeeded in taking Saint-Martin-de-Varreville and, in the next few days, in overrunning the German Wehrmacht at Carentan to the north, helping seal off the coast to a counterattack.
Details on the ground were fuzzy and remain so for Seifert.
“The thing was, we didn’t see how much war we was in when we was jumping, to see if we could root the Germans out of there,” he said. “Everything is all turned around. You can’t remember much of anything.”
His 502nd Parachute Infantry and the 101st Airborne spent the rest of June fighting as infantry before they were relieved and sent back to England. In September they landed in Holland and Seifert was part of the Operation Market, the airborne component of Operation Market-Garden and the largest airborne operation ever undertaken. While it gained 60 miles of ground, liberating a number of Dutch cities and towns and eliminating German rocket launching sites, the Operation failed in its objective to secure a foothold over the Rhine into Germany.
A long winter of 1944-45 loomed.
“They sent us to the Battle of the Bulge,” Seifert said. “We couldn’t jump because it was Christmas time and there was about three feet of snow.”
As shells flew overhead, the troops of the 101st were loaded into trucks and made their way to besieged Bastogne, Belgium.
It was the last major German offensive on the western front, and lingers as a time of pure misery for Seifert.
“All we had for Christmas was those cans of C-rations,” he said. “We had to dig big old foxholes. We couldn’t light a fire or the Germans would know where we were at, so we’d get some branches and put 'em over there to try to keep warm. But I froze my feet, the soles of my feet. The Army didn’t have good clothes.”
The siege lasted from Dec. 20 to Dec. 27.
“Patton took a long time to rescue us,” Seifert said, shaking his head.
It’s not fleshed out, but one Drop Zone option for the Normandy-bound, Missoula-based jumpers to get in some “currency” jumps is in Seifert’s “neck of the woods” near Polson, Al Charters said.
It’s one of many connections and coincidences that add such deep texture to the Miss Montana story and inspiration to those who’ve devoted the last 10 months to see its successful conclusion.
“Everybody’s got a personal thread through this,” said Charters, the Missoula jumpmaster for the Normandy venture and a retired Green Berets high-altitude jump specialist.
Living D-Day survivors like Seifert are few and far between.
Katy Anderson is an organizer of a sendoff gala and fundraiser for Miss Montana on May 11 at the Museum of Mountain Flying. On Thursday, Seifert became the third D-Day veteran to accept an invitation to attend. John Nelson, 95, of Lolo, was an Army engineer who stormed Utah Beach. Verland Lauder, 93, of Rexburg, Idaho, was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne whose experiences at Normandy, Market-Garden and Bastogne appear to closely parallel those of Seifert.
Seifert married Ruth Westfall in Missoula in 1948, a bond that lasted 53 years until her death in 2001. Most of their lives were spent at the family ranch in the Polson area. Seifert isn’t reluctant to tell what he can about his World War II experiences, but he doesn’t broadcast it. He said it’s never before been the subject of a published story.
“Good memories, bad memories,” he said. “A lot of bad memories. I hate to see so many people pass away. I kind of miss a lot of the guys, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”