The Airborne Museum

St Mere Eglise Parachutist Caught on Church RoofSainte-Mère-Église — an iconic name to airborne aficionados. We think of John Wayne in the movie “The Longest Day.” From the same movie we remember images of a hapless paratrooper landing on a church roof, sliding down steep gray slate tiles. He falls until his parachute becomes caught up on the gutter, leaving him hanging over the side of the church — a sitting duck. German soldiers shoot at him. He slumps and pretends he’s been hit. Chaos reigns below him as a fire breaks out next to an old town square and frantic villagers form a bucket brigade stretching from the old rusting town pump to the nearby fire.

The first town in France liberated by allied forces, Sainte-Mère-Église seems so much larger than life because of the extensive film and literature coverage it’s received. If you stand on the cobblestone square at Sainte-Mère-Église, looking around at the bustling little town you’ll see that its legendary aura does not diminish when you visit in person. It’s tangible. It’s visceral. The pump is still there. Tall stone memorial monuments dot the square. A uniformed model of a paratrooper hangs from the church roof by his white parachute. The towering old medieval church of gray stone so typical of Norman buildings still dominates the square. It now has beautiful multi-colored red, green and blue stained glass windows of paratroopers inside, just above the enormous ancient creaky wooden doors.

The Town Hall has a small museum dedicated to its liberation by the Sky Men. The D-Day landings and airdrops are now a deeply ingrained part of this town’s history. Even the many souvenir shops lining the square with racks of key rings, books, uniforms, helmets, caps, postcards and uncountable other airborne memorabilia do not detract from this shrine to U.S. Airborne forces. I’ve seen old paratroopers who landed here on 6 June 1944 break into tears as they remembered combat scenes that I hope my generation never has to witness.

Walk around the town to soak up the atmosphere before visiting The Airborne Museum. A stone’s throw from the square, brass commemorative plaques to the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions are mounted on 6-foot high stone walls at the museum’s entrance. Walk inside and sprinkled around the beautifully tended large 3,000 square meter green-grassed park you’ll see a Sherman tank standing guard, a U.S. Army half-track and an American anti-aircraft gun.

Two large buildings of very different architecture totaling 32,000 square feet face you. The Waco Building (“Planeur Waco”) shaped like a large white parachute shroud, features a Waco glider as its centerpiece. The other rectangular building, the C-47 building, houses an authentic C-47 airplane, complete with white invasion stripes painted on its wings. Paratroopers jumped from this plane on D-Day. Both buildings display a fascinating array of authentic airborne equipment, weapons and other memorabilia, including some very historic pieces donated by members of the 82nd and 101st Airborne.

The Waco building’s exhibits include long rows of glass-covered counters around the inside perimeter of the parachute shaped building, crammed with medical kits, photographs, weapons, books by and about paratroopers, German Wermacht dinner plates, helmets, uniforms, plaques, letters, documents, etc.

Model glider men sit inside the Waco, anxiously waiting for the controlled crash landing. Of the 295 Waco gliders landing on D-Day, most were destroyed in landing accidents or by German fire; 97% of all gliders used in the operation were abandoned in the field because of the damage — statistics that today’s airborne forces would consider unacceptable.

The C-47 building features larger dioramas of uniformed model airborne soldiers with weapons, in scenes typical of the D-Day landings. Two airborne soldiers greet a Frenchman at his front door, asking where the Germans are. An airborne officer keeps lookout while a machine gunner sets up beside him. A 20-meter long line of 6-foot high glass cases features dozens of models wearing the entire range of airborne dress and combat uniforms.

Along another wall a series of large bulletin boards display dozens of photographs illustrating various airborne operations. Another glass cabinet shows the variety of rifles used by paratroopers. Brightly colored allied flags hang from the wall high above. Beneath the C-47 stands a green U.S. Army tractor; an airborne messenger on small collapsible motorcycle rides off on a mission.

There’s a second floor in the C-47 building where visitors will find rows of glass-topped counters crammed with more memorabilia and an excellent view looking down on the C-47. A well-produced film “Combat pour la Liberte” (Fighting for Freedom) tells about the events from the German occupation to the liberation of Sainte-Mère-Église. This museum leaves you appreciating the fact that the French still remember the allied sacrifices to liberate them in 1944 — enough to create such a fine museum in their honor.

THE AIRBORNE MUSEUM (14 Rue Eisenhower, 50480, Sainte-Mère-Église, Frankreich, France; phone +33 (0)2 33 41 41 35, www.musee-airborne.com) is open daily from February 1 to March 31, and October 1 to November 30, and during Christmas holidays from 9:30 a.m. to noon, and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. (closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day); from April 1 to September 30, the hours are 9 a.m. to 6:45 p.m.
Admission is adults, €7; Children 6 to 16, €4. There is no charge for children up to six years; disabled; WWII veterans, or military and firefighters in uniform, whatever their nationality. Allow two to three hours, plus one or two more hours to explore Sainte-Mère-Église.