Two things Ray Batten remembers about D-Day: It was postponed a day, and when he finally did get to France, he spent his initial time up in a tree.
“I remember the anticipation, the waiting, waiting, waiting,” said Batten, a Spokane resident who was a member of the 101st Airborne that parachuted into France 65 years ago, in the early-morning hours of June 6, 1944.
The paratroopers, who had been confined to their marshalling area in England for weeks, geared up to leave on June 5, but the weather was so bad the Allied invasion of Europe was put off for a day.
Twenty-four hours later, packing the explosives he needed to blow up German communications stations and rail lines, Batten headed for the transport plane. “I had so much weight on me I couldn’t get into the plane by myself,” said Batten, now 85.
Getting out of the plane wasn’t as difficult. When the signal light went on, the paratroopers stood up, hooked to the “static line” and moved to the open hatch. The light changed, and they stepped out into a black night punctuated by anti-aircraft artillery flashes.
“It was like jumping into the middle of a big fireworks show,” Batten said.
He floated down, but didn’t hit the ground. Instead, his parachute caught in a tall tree, and he hung there. For how long, he’s not even sure.
“There was fireworks going all around on the ground, and here I am swaying back and forth in a tree,” he said. Even a round that only grazed him could set off the explosives. “My only hope, I thought, was to play dead.”
Batten, a Virginia native, left school in early 1942 and enlisted in the Army at 18. He volunteered for parachute school, and later trained as a forward artillery spotter. Until a few months before D-Day, he was an instructor in the United States, but as the Allies began concentrating forces for the invasion, he was sent to England to join the 101st Airborne, which was to be dropped into France hours before the amphibious landings on the Normandy beaches.
The night before the invasion, the paratrooper units were given their missions and their “drop zones,” or landing targets.
“You never land in your drop zone – that’s the bite,” he said.
But Batten had an even bigger problem. He didn’t even land on the ground. He played dead for what “seemed like ages,” until the ground below him got quiet, then he unhooked his parachute harness and lowered himself down a rope.
He reached the end and still couldn’t see the ground.
“I remember saying a short prayer, and dropping.” Not so far, as it turned out, and there was no one around.
Batten linked up with other paratroopers, many of whom had similar experiences, and they began to make their way between the fields, and around the areas the Germans had flooded to trap invading forces.
The soldiers were so far from their intended targets that their commanders had to gather up whomever they could find and improvise. Batten doesn’t think he blew up any of his intended targets, but he and the paratroopers he was with made their way to Ste. Mere-Eglise, the city inland from the coast that was the gathering point for the 101st. They suffered heavy losses in fighting through Normandy until mid-July, when they were sent back to England for rest and training for another mission.
Batten parachuted into Holland later that September in a joint mission with the British known as Operation Market Garden. He was at the Battle of the Bulge that December, where he was wounded and suffered frostbite in his feet from so many days in the snow. He was sent to a hospital in Paris for three months, and was supposed to be sent home.
“I ran away from the hospital, to go back to my outfit,” he said. “I wasn’t through with the war yet.”
When the war ended in May, they were in Berchtesgaden, Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat, searching for Nazi leaders. He drank some of Hermann Goering’s stash of wine when the unit captured the air marshal’s private railroad car.
“Looking back, I’ve often thought I hide the things I don’t like to remember. I had buddies die in my arms,” he said. “But the things I remember and like to preserve are the fun things.”
When the war ended, Batten was shipped back to the United States.
He tried to re-enlist when the Korean War started, but the Army turned him down. He worked for Standard Oil, helped build the Yellowstone Pipeline and became a consulting engineer and a contractor, building defense projects and service stations. Of all the places he worked throughout the West, he liked Spokane best and settled into a house he built on the South Hill, where he’s lived for more than half a century.
When he watches Hollywood depictions of D-Day and the battles in Europe, he adds his own personal commentary to the television set. Some are very true to life, such as “Band of Brothers,” a book made into an HBO series about the 101st Airborne’s 506th Regiment, a unit he spent some time with. But some of the depictions are “a bunch of crap” and he’d like to write his own book to straighten things out.
The biggest misconception he thinks exists about soldiers on D-Day: “That we even knew what we were doing.”