One-one thousand. Two-one thousand. Three-one thousand. Four-one thousand. Check canopy.
The words etched into my mind, on repeat, accompanied by the distinguishable hum of the C-47 engines. Sitting in an airplane over the historic battlefields of Normandy, France, I was silently rehearsing the first five seconds of my upcoming jump like a broken record. My words were to be my comfort, calm my nerves and put me in the zone. It worked before and surely it would work again. That is, until I looked up.
There I sat, in awe of the visual remnants of a war that cut through the very shell of this aircraft 66 years earlier. My concentration was broken and my goggles filled with fog and tears. I was on my first memorial jump, in an original World War II aircraft, and as far as I knew, I was the first American civilian woman and granddaughter to make a static line parachute jump in Normandy.
The bullets that scarred this plane were intended for him, my grandfather, as he jumped into darkness with countless others to save a continent. My purpose was not just a tribute, but to keep the history alive—a history of men (and a few women) who jumped to fight, as matter of life or death, victory or defeat.
The resounding call of the jumpmaster to stand up shook me from my thoughts, though one remained. This jump was certainly not about me, nor would any subsequent jump ever be.
My grandfather, Thomas Porcella, a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient, served in the 82nd Airborne Division’s, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
On June 6, 1944, he landed three miles from where I did the day I made my first Normandy jump, and through the technology of today, I called him from the drop zone using my dad’s cellphone. Neither of us knew what to say.
In the 1970s, my grandfather returned to Normandy to reunite with those who were so kind to him during the war, and there began his love affair with the people. My grandparents returned nearly every year after, until they were no longer able to travel. Now I’m continuing their tradition.
My grandfather’s affection for the people of Normandy was returned when they named a street in his honor and displayed his uniform in the Airborne Museum. On the 65th anniversary of D-Day he received the Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, the highest award France can bestow on a noncitizen.
Four years after my first jump in Normandy, I was given the greatest honor. I was the first American out the door of the C-47 during the 70th anniversary D-Day jump over Utah Beach in 2014.
I flew with ghosts that day. In my pocket were black-and-white photographs of my family from 1944—a paratrooper, a pilot and a navigator. In my heart, I carried with me the memory of them all.
Allison Porcella is the granddaughter of Army Private Thomas Porcella, a D-Day veteran.