Diving into D-Day: Deputy to replicate family member’s historic Normandy jump
GOODLAND, Minn. — Warren Johnson thought about the weather 75 years ago in the Normandy region of France.
“It was kind of like this — cloudy and wet,” the 32-year-old said outside his home last week, his cheeks flush from a breeze. “They had to postpone the raid for 24 hours because of the weather.”
Johnson knows a lot about World War II after four years of researching his family’s involvement in the war, which included the service of his late grandfather and five brothers.
Warren is named after his grandfather, Warren Eugene Johnson, and delving into the family’s WWII service has yielded new friends throughout the country and Europe.
And in exactly a month, Johnson’s relentless curiosity will lead him to the opportunity of a lifetime — when he plays the part of a paratrooper in a large-scale reenactment coinciding with the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
On June 5, Johnson will join jumpers aboard nearly 40 authentic warplanes as they take off from Duxford, England, cross the English Channel and jump 10 miles inland from the beaches of Normandy. The kicker: Johnson will jump from the exact plane his granduncle, Lambert Johnson, parachuted from as part of the Allied invasion of Normandy.
“I can’t imagine it,” Warren said. “It’s going to be just a little glimpse of what it was like, but it’s as close as a guy can get to reliving what they went through.”
Johnson is a deputy with the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office. Married and a father to three children between ages 3 and 7, Johnson’s dives into the rabbit hole of research unfold in the family’s rural home.
“I’m really proud of him for various reasons, but especially this,” Elizabeth Johnson, Warren’s wife, said. “It’s really fun to see someone you love when their eyes light up with this kind of passion.”
The June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion helped turned the tide against the Nazis. That day, tens of thousands of Allied troops attacked Normandy’s coastal beaches while 23,000 Allied troops landed behind enemy lines by parachute and glider. The region has been hallowed ground since.
“Normandy is mecca for Airborne paratroopers,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s investment in family history hit paydirt when his research keyed in on his granduncle’s time with the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The Airborne is renowned and there’s a ton of information about it on the internet. Plus, Lambert went on to be a cop after the war, a connection that drove Johnson to dig hard into the angle. It led him to a man from New York, who shared a flight manifest for the C-47 airplane that carried Lambert and 18 others.
“He was No. 11, Lambert L. Johnson, and when I got the manifest I was just choked up thinking about it,” Johnson said, getting corroboration from Elizabeth.
“It puts a lump in his throat when he thinks about it,” she said. “He’s honoring their sacrifice.”
The manifest featured the names of all the paratroopers and the tail number of the plane, 43-30732, which Johnson used to trace it to Sweden, where it was still in use as touring plane named “Daisy.” The folks there were thrilled to learn the plane had actual history with D-Day, and shared information about the upcoming reenactment with Johnson.
When he found out from organizers last May that the flyover retracing the route from Duxford to Normandy would also feature some 300 paratroopers reenacting the jump, Johnson was hooked.
“I was like, ‘What?!? What do I gotta do to do that?’ ” said Johnson, who served briefly in Iraq with the Army and later with the Minnesota National Guard and the 34th Military Police Company based in Stillwater.
As these pursuits do, one thing led to another and last October Johnson spent a week in Dunnellon, Fla., at the X35 Airborne School at the National Parachute Test Center, where he has gone back and forth to reach the 10 jumps required to take part in the reenactment.
Johnson took well to jumping from 1,500 feet under the tutelage of a hardboiled, retired Marine major. Paratroopers, it’s important to note, aren’t skydivers.
“It’s a round canopy, static-line type of thing and you hit the ground pretty hard,” Johnson explained. “The static line opens the canopy as you jump out. Feet and knees together, that’s the number one rule.”
Fully committed now, Johnson has assembled the full uniform and regalia of a WWII paratrooper. The clincher that brought the uniform together was the canvas flight jacket, which he tracked down in California where it was in storage after having been a costume in the 2001 HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.”
“You can’t beat that,” Johnson said.
In addition to preparing for his reenactment jump, Johnson continues to learn more about Lambert and the men who jumped alongside of him. As far as Johnson can tell, the men are all gone now. But he’s communicated with family members of several of the paratroopers. He’ll be wearing dog tags shared by a family member of one of the other men.
“It’s not just about Lambert, it’s about all those guys — every single one of them,” Johnson said.
On that fateful day in history, their plane was part of the last wave, reaching Normandy after 2 a.m. One man was shot and killed within hours of the jump.
“The whole Airborne idea was to jump 10 miles inland to make sure the Nazis couldn’t get reinforcements to the beach,” Johnson said. “Their coastal defenses were insane along the whole seaboard. That’s why they developed a plan to have the Airborne jump in behind it.”
Lambert survived the day. Seven months later he was struck by machine gun fire multiple times during the Battle of the Bulge.
“That was the end of the war for him,” Johnson said.
All six brothers survived the war, and Warren’s great grandfather, Frank Oscar Johnson, once received a letter from the governor of North Dakota acknowledging the family’s service.
“This is an outstanding record; North Dakota is proud of these fine boys who are taking an active and an important part in the defense of liberty and justice,” the letter said.
On the day he spoke about his upcoming anniversary jump, Johnson, originally from Staples, Minn., had taken part in a sniper competition among sheriff’s office deputies. He brought home a second-place trophy — exhibiting skills he acquired while growing up hunting prairie dogs with his late father.
“I’ve always loved precision, long-range shooting,” Johnson said, after changing out of his county uniform and returning with the one he’ll wear for his paratrooping adventure.
“I’m just humbled and excited,” Johnson said. “These guys deserve it.”
Support for Deputy Johnson
To read more about Warren Johnson’s adventure and to help support his upcoming travel expenses, visit the online fundraising page for his D-Day memorial jump at plumfund.com/travel-fund/D-day-jump