An Unforgettable Day

Today’s post comes from Mitchell Yockelson, an Investigative Archivist with the Archival Recovery Program at the National Archives. This year marks the 75th anniversary of D-day

Weighed down by hand grenades, a compass, entrenching tool, canteen, knife, rifle, pistol, ammunition belt, first aid kit, and two parachutes (main and reserve), Maj. Philip Gage jumped from a C-47 transport plane into the pitch black sky over Normandy in the early hours of D-day, June 6, 1944.

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Photograph of paratroopers just before they took off for the initial assault of D-day, 6/6/1944 (National Archives Identifier 12003986)

That morning turned into a life-changing event for 32-year-old Gage. In a matter of moments, he went from serving his country as a career officer to becoming a disabled veteran. Proud and strong-willed, Gage accepted his predicament as only a minor setback

Named for his father, a West Point graduate who retired as a brigadier general, Gage naturally followed in Philip Sr.’s footsteps. He entered the Military Academy in 1932 and afterward served at one Army post after another until the attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the war. Gage then volunteered to become a paratrooper.

Paratroopers were paid an extra $50 a month but had to endure strenuous training for the additional money. Like all parachutists, Gage attended the grueling Paratrooper School at Fort Benning, GA.  Over four weeks he ran five miles twice a day in the sticky Georgia heat and made fives jumps, including a night drop.

In late 1943, after more training at Fort Bragg, NC, Gage sailed to England with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Division. For the next several months the paratroopers prepped for D-day.

The D-day airborne mission, which preceded ground troop amphibious landings by a few hours, would be especially dangerous. The 13,000 paratroopers were the vanguard of Operation Overlord, the code name for D-day and the long-awaited liberation of Europe. After jumping into Normandy, the 82nd and 101st soldiers were to secure the roads and bridges inland from Utah Beach and disrupt the surprised German forces. The Fourth Infantry Division would then assault the beach and link up with the paratroopers.

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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order of the day, “Full victory, nothing less,” to paratroopers somewhere in England just before they board their planes to take part in the first assault of the invasion of France. (National Archives Identifier 12003938)

Preparing for a likely Allied invasion, the Germans had fortified the Normandy coastline with obstacles, such as long poles and mines. Concrete and steel machine-gun nests pointed toward the beaches, and they manned the villages and surrounding countryside with plenty of skilled, well-armed soldiers.

Overlord commander Gen. Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower had been warned by his chief of the air forces, Air Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory, that landing paratroopers behind enemy lines was risky and to expect heavy casualties. He urged Ike to scratch the airborne operation from the attack plan. Eisenhower mulled over this difficult decision and ultimately rejected Leigh-Mallory’s advice.

Taking off around 11 p.m. on June 5, 1944, from air bases throughout southern England, an armada of C-47s crossed the English Channel, flew between the Channel Islands, and reached the Normandy coastline two hours later. “There’s something hypnotic about the shimmering ocean waves under a brilliant moon,” Gage later wrote after looking out the plane’s door, “when seen from 800 feet.” Approaching the drop zones already marked by pathfinders, jump masters aboard each plane ordered the paratroopers to Stand Up, Hook Up, and Jump Out!

As the men drifted toward the drop zones, the Germans below reacted with a flurry of firepower. Hundreds of paratroopers were wounded or killed before they landed. Many drowned in rivers or marshes, and some got their parachutes tangled in trees and were shot. At least one paratrooper became hung up on a church spire and managed to survive by playing dead. Gage was one of the lucky paratroopers; he landed smoothly and without a scratch near the village of Carentan.

Gage’s luck quickly ran out, though.

Three hundred yards in the distance he saw silhouettes and stopped. Wondering if they were “friend or foe,” he pulled a metal cricket from his pocket and clicked it twice—a prearranged method employed by the 101st Airborne to communicate in the dark. If Americans were nearby, they’d reply with a couple of clicks from their crickets.

Gage received no response and decided to risk heading forward. “It was like being in a cemetery at midnight,” he remembered, “alone and frightened, wondering whether the tombstones would suddenly move.”

The decision to approach the silhouettes almost ended his life. Two men came toward him and stopped 20 feet away. When they spoke in German, Gage drew his pistol and fired. He missed. The German soldiers returned fire, and one bullet tore through Gage’s diaphragm. Another shattered his right arm just above his hand.

Suddenly, Gage’s hand “was on fire,” and his “belly burned with a lesser pain.” Too weak to tear open his first aid packet, he thought “I’m going to die.” Nearby in a pasture, a cow chewed its cud. As he laid in agony, Gage couldn’t believe the animal had no concern about his well-being. The Germans hovered over him, searched his pockets, and placed Gage on a two-wheeled cart. He fell off, and they roughly lifted him back on the cart. Much like the cow, they were unsympathetic to his pain.

Gage ended up at a church converted into a German field hospital. A doctor gave him two morphine pills and placed a tourniquet around his arm. In the afternoon, Gage was operated on; when he awoke, he saw his hand had been amputated at the wrist.

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German hospital form for Major Philip Gage, 6/12/1944. (National Archives at St. Louis)

A few days later, the Germans trucked Gage and other wounded soldiers to another hospital. By now Gage had adjusted to his disability. One month after being wounded, his diary records: “I almost forgot I ever had a right hand. I swept half the ward after lunch and supper.”

At the end of July 1944, the Allies had finally broken through German-held Normandy, and the battle to liberate the rest of Europe was under way. The D-day airborne assault had been successful. Even though many paratroopers landed far from their drop zones, most objectives were taken on June 6. Casualties were also far less than Leigh-Mallory predicted, and he apologized to Ike.

On August 1, Gage and other wounded soldiers were freed from the German hospital by American troops, and he sailed to England to convalesce. He hoped to rejoin his unit, but with his disability, Gage could no longer jump and had to accept that his days in combat were over.

The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, and he returned to the U.S. for further treatment at Walter Reed Hospital. While driving in Washington, DC, after discharge from the hospital, a policeman pulled him over for swerving and scolded Gage for not wearing a hook.

The Army gave Gage a prosthetic, but he rarely wore it in public. “It hindered him,” his son John remembered. Gage used the hook to aid with home repairs and carpentry, or when he built an electric train display for his kids. Eventually he put it aside for good. Gage shrugged off his disability and wouldn’t let it hold him back. “There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do,” his daughter Ginger recalled.

Gage retired from the Army in 1946 and worked for General Motors in Buffalo, NY. Because his family hated the cold, he moved with them to Atlanta and took a job in a print shop before ending his career with an insurance company.

He passed away at the age of 96 on April 29, 2009. Maj. Philip S. Gage left a legacy as a remarkable role model for today’s men and women in uniform, who like him, became disabled as the result of battlefield wounds.

See Gage’s oral history interview at the Atlanta History Center:

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy we are having a special D-day document display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from May 23, 2019 – July 2, 2019.

One thought on “An Unforgettable Day

  1. My late husband, William Andrews Wheeler, shared much of Philip Gage’s story. Although he was one of the many who were dropped in the wrong place, he spent the first three days alone, destroying bridges and Nazi installations before being left for dead and later rescued by American forces. He was his unit’s only survivor and spent 14 months in hospitals before being discharged. He lived with pain, nightmares and memories of dead comrades, but led a fruitful life as a psychiatric nurse and beloved friend, neighbor, husband and father.

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