|Clarence Hughart's role in the
D-Day invasion ended shortly after the 13th
parachute jump of his life landed him smack into enemy territory a dozen miles
east of Utah Beach.
Cut off from his unit, the
24-year old paratrooper was making his way through
Normandy's fields and hedgerows when a German bullet shattered his right
thighbone. Three weeks later Hughart was liberated from a POW hospital in
France and on his way back to the United States.
As World War II combat stories go, the Arvada resident's tale is a short and
But 54 years after D-Day, Hughart now has a vast audience for his story,
thanks to a young Virginian's efforts to preserve the legacy of WW II
paratroopers and glider corps of veterans on the World Wide Web.
"One of the themes of our project is lost legacies," says Pat O'Donnell,
founder of The Drop Zone Virtual Museum Oral History Project. "When Civil War
veterans from both the North and South had a reunion at Gerrysburg in 1913,
there really weren't any historians on hand to talk to them and get their
"And that's a shame," he says. "Think
of the stories they could have told."
O'Donnell wants to make sure that at lest some of the personal stories of
the war, which are sometimes overlooked in the vast scale of history books,
Web site looks at uncovered aspects of War
Two years ago he launched the Drop Zone Web Site to preserve and share the
legacies of WW II veterans of American's airborne services.
It's a simple concept: Track down and interview surviving veterans,
corroborate facts such as unit numbers and operations theaters, then put their
stories on the Web site - www.thedropzone.org -
for others to read. You get
"I've interviewed about 400 veterans during the last
six years, and we've
gotten about 100 of their stories on the Web Site so far," says O'Donnell, a
senior consultant with Coopers & Lybrand who lives in Fairfax Station, Va.
"We also have 200 veterans hooked up via e-mail, which is like a virtual
reunion. "Their recollections just cascade," he says. "It
really jars their memory."
For the 28-year old O'Donnell, the Web site sprang from a long-standing
interest in a conflict that convulsed the globe for six years.
"I've always had a keen interest in World War II history, ever since I can
remember," he says. "I had some relatives who were paratroopers and
was a combat glider engineer.
"We've gone into some of the uncovered aspects of World War II, such as the
Triple Nickel paratroopers, which was a unit made up of African-American
soldiers," O'Donnell says. "They had to fight a lot of prejudice and
segregation, and wound up being used in the Pacific Northwest to fight forest
Hughart got involved as the secretary-treasurer of the 507th Parachute
Infantry Regiment's veterans group. The 507th was attached to the 82nd
Airborne Division during the Normandy invasion. O'Donnell, ever on the lookout
for more wartime reminiscences for the Drop Zone roster, contacted Hughart and asked for
stories. And that's why today you can log on to the Drop Zone Web site and learn how
on D-Day, Hughart hurled himself out of a C-47 transport plane flying low over
the dark fields of Normandy.
"We all got scattered and after I landed I was looking for my unit," he says.
"It was tough going, because you had the hedgerows, deep drainage ditches and
the treelines. I couldn't see very far and couldn't hear very far, either."
German soldiers jumped him and a bullet splintered his right femur. Hughart
was captured and taken to a field hospital, where doctors were unable to set
the bone. Today the leg is bent and shortened. "But I'm amazed it healed at
says Hughart, who is retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He was at a hospital in Cherbourg on June 27 when Allied soldiers liberated
the French city. "I saw two American infantrymen come up and recognized them by their
Hughart says. "I though, 'Ah-ha - the war's over.' Well, at least for me
The Drop Zone site might be getting busier.
There are signs that new interest is stirring in what author Studs Terkel
called "the last good war," one in which monumental sacrifice was matched by
This summer will see the release of "Saving Private Ryan," Steven Spielberg's
D-day movie that stars Tom Hanks and Matt Damon. Terrence Malick's much-
anticipated "The Thin Red Line, " based on James Jones' Guadalcanal novel, is
due later this year.
Hollywood's interest is viewed by some as a bellwether, a sign that the
children and grandchildren of WW II veterans are confronting and examining the
enormity of what the Allied victory cost - and meant.
All of which Hughart sees as a good thing, since he's concerned that many
Americans are only dimly aware of what this country's citizen soldiers
"A lot of folks don't have much connection to World War II," he says.
"People sacrificed their lives for a cause a lot of people take for granted.
"The cream of the crop of the youth of those days was the bulwark that went
into combat to fight against tyranny."
Denver Post - Monday, May 25, 1998