June 06--José Jiménez was the last paratrooper to jump out of a burning C-47 as the airplane headed for a crash landing in Normandy at about 1:30 a.m., several hours before the Allied coastal assault of June 6, 1944 -- D-Day.
With less than 200 feet between him and the ground, his parachute opened just in time to save his life.
Jiménez landed in a farm field that German troops had flooded in a defensive action. His M1 carbine got wet and wouldn't work. Within seconds, a German sniper situated in a nearby tree began firing at him. Jiménez made his way to a dead comrade, grabbed his Tommy gun and blasted the sniper out of the trees.
For the 19-year-old from Chupadero, World War II had begun.
What followed was three intense days of combat and at least two months of mop-up operations. And death. Around Jiménez, friends fell under the guns of German combatants. Jiménez learned to kill to stay alive.
"You get used to it," he said Thursday, during an interview in the living room of his Tesuque home. "Somebody kills your buddies, you don't care if you get killed. It's habit forming. It's your job. It's how I was trained."
Now, on the 70th anniversary of the invasion, seen by many as a turning point in winning the war in Europe for the Allied forces, the 89-year-old wonders if anyone gives a damn.
"When one wants liberty and freedom, you pay a price," he said. "We accomplished something. But after 70 years, people don't really know what happened. They don't remember D-Day. They don't remember Pearl Harbor. Kids have computers and television, and they don't know anything."
Before the war, Jiménez attended school, delivered mail via horse and wagon for his postmaster uncle, and explored the nearby hills with his brother. There, he practiced throwing knives into aspen trees, a skill that would come in handy when he pulled the same trick to silence a German guard one night in Normandy. Even with a knife in his side, the guard didn't go down easily. He managed to smash the butt of his rifle into Jiménez's mouth, knocking out a lot of teeth in the process. That was one of three wounds that earned Purple Hearts for Jiménez. He also took two bullets in his right leg.
And yes, he finished off the German guard with that knife. "Either you're dead or he is," Jiménez said.
He was in the 11th grade when he joined the Army in June 1943 at the age of 18. "I was afraid," he recalled. "Everybody was afraid." He trained at a number of Army forts in the States before taking an intelligence test. Higher-ups marked him as an airborne ranger capable of collecting military information from the enemy.
"They said I was pretty intelligent, but really they wanted me to do the dirty work," he said, adding a hearty laugh.
Early in 1944, he boarded a troop transport ship to the United Kingdom. On the third day, the waves really got rolling, and right after lunch, everybody threw up.
More training in England followed. He said he learned how to fire all sorts of weapons and studied French and German. He was serving with the 101st Airborne Division -- the so-called Screaming Eagles. Military historians estimate the 101st suffered about 1,240 casualties during the D-Day invasion.
On the morning of June 6, he was carrying a hand-drawn map of the airborne invasion area. Reviewing the map Thursday, he recalled landing somewhere south of the French city of Sainte-Mère-Église, separated from many of his paratrooper buddies, who were spread out all over the place.
The Germans knew something was up, but they didn't know the extent to which the Allied forces would go to take France. Jiménez recalled that before they made their fateful jump, Allied fliers parachuted dummy soldiers into the area to throw off the Germans.
"The German soldiers brought them to their officers, but they didn't know what we were up to," he said.
On the third day of the invasion, Jiménez finally joined up with surviving members of the 101st and 82nd airborne commands to continue a mission of confusing German soldiers, clearing or destroying bridges across waterways and paving the way for ground forces coming in from the various beach fronts: Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, Sword.
Jiménez had it rough, but he said the guys who came off landing craft into the deadly fire of German guns along the beaches had it worse: "We were safer than them. The Germans were waiting for them."
Jiménez said he captured a German colonel who was floundering in a watery canal on that third day. He used some cowboying talents to lasso the officer and drag him to shore to gather information from him. Otherwise, there were not many prisoners taken during the invasion: "We couldn't capture prisoners during Normandy. You had to put them all down. Until it quieted down."
And even when it quieted down, it didn't. He spent June and July helping the Allied forces clear out German nests of resistance. Flame throwers were used to burn German soldiers out of deep-set bunkers. Jiménez wouldn't elaborate on the details.
The Normandy campaign lasted through the summer of 1944. After that, Jiménez kept fighting in military engagements in other French cities, making his way to the German border in battle after battle before the war in Europe ended in May 1945.
How did he survive? "I have faith in God," he said.
He returned to New Mexico to a construction job at Los Alamos before briefly relocating to California to build 1947 Chevys for General Motors. He came back to New Mexico in 1948 to marry and to build the house in Tesuque where he still lives. Work at the Los Alamos lab and the state penitentiary followed until he retired. Both of his wives have passed away. He has a son, a daughter and a stepdaughter.
He lives alone but still drives, particularly to nearby casinos. "I'm a gambler at heart," he said. He likes to walk in his neighborhood but packs a pistol in case unsupervised dog packs decide to attack him.
His daughter, Veronica, said it is important for her father to tell his stories so his grandchildren and great-grandchildren understand the sacrifices that military veterans made for this country. Jiménez said there was a time when he didn't want to talk about it. "I came back with what they called combat fatigue. Now they call it PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Now that I'm old, I have nightmares," he said. "Especially when it comes near June 6th."
Looking back on D-Day, Jiménez said, "I'm proud. I fought for my country. But most people don't even know."
According to the New Mexico Department of Veterans' Services, there are no formal events scheduled to commemorate D-Day on Friday, though a Rio Rancho veterans group is planning a ceremony Saturday in that city.
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or email@example.com.
(c)2014 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)
Visit The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) at www.santafenewmexican.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original headline: D-Day veteran: Bloody battle for freedom nearly forgotten
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