Gary Fox, a professor emeritus at the School of Art at Northern Illinois University in Rockford, Ill., remembers jumping off buildings and high objects as a youth growing up during World War II.
He wanted to be a paratrooper. He sort of is today at age 65.
Fox is a re-enactor for World War II's most decorated parachute infantry battalion, the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion. His re-enacting duties include touring the country in the unit's World War II uniform for events commemorating paratroopers.
His most recent event was Saturday at Camp Ripley for the camp museum's salute to service of America's airborne forces and Minnesota's airborne veterans from World War II to the current wars in the Middle East. The camp also hosted its bi-annual appreciation day.
Gary Fox, a 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion re-enactor from Rockford, Ill., was among several veterans Saturday who toasted past and former veterans during Camp Ripley's Minnesota Military Museum's salute to the service of America's airborne forces and Minnesota's airborne veterans from World War II to the current wars in the Middle East. Fox was wearing an authentic World War II uniform from the unit. (Dispatch Photos by Clint Wood)
"(Being a re-enactor) is the only way I can think of to pay tribute to these guys," Fox said.
He was able to attend one of the unit's reunions in Las Vegas recently. He brought photographs of his visits as a re-enactor.
"(The unit soldiers) were so incredibly honored," he said.
One of Fox's fellow re-enactors, Doug Holloway, learned how much the French appreciated this unit in World War II. He said he walked from Sword Beach to Omaha Beach off the coast of Normandy (the site of the World War II D-Day invasion by the Americans) and was given free meals, free museum admissions and inexpensive room and board.
Jeff Metheny, an 82nd Airborne Division Gulf War veteran, rigged a full parachute on Ken Tollefson of Elk River. Metheny, who rigged several guests, made 98 jumps in his tour of duty.
This unit, the first U.S. airborne unit to deploy overseas arriving in Lands End, England, June 10, 1942, has several honors.
It executed the lowest altitude mass parachute jump in history, exiting the aircraft at 143 feet in England during June 1942 rehearsals.
It conducted five combat jumps during World War II: three into North Africa, one into Italy and one into Southern France.
Fox said this unit suffered 70 percent casualties during World War II. Of the 3,000 soldiers, 1,750 were awarded the Purple Heart, he said.
A Ohio Air National Guard Lockheed C-141C Starlifter took off from Camp Ripley's airstrip Saturday after transporting an Ohio Army National Guard armor unit to the camp for annual training. This was the first time a C-141C, whose cargo could include five Humvees or one AH-1 Cobra helicopter, landed at the camp.
The unit was disbanded after the Battle of the Bulge with only seven officers and between 40 and 45 enlisted soldiers, Fox said.
The 509th was reconstituted May 12, 1947, in the regular Army as Company A, 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion.
After several redesignations over the years, the battalion is now the world's premiere opposing force for light infantry and Special Operation Forces at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La.
Also attending the museum's salute were Bub Olum, St. Paul, who made four combat jumps with the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, and Glenn Dahl, Wayzata, who was a member of the first Airborne Ranger Infantry company during the Korean War.
Olum jumped at Normandy, Sicily, Salerno and Holland. A historian said Olum was fortunate to survive one jump let alone four.
Dahl's company was Special Forces qualified and the first to train the first-ever Special Forces during the Korean War.
He began his military service joining the Marine Reserve at age 16 before the Korean War. When his two-year enlistment was up, he requested to become an airborne ranger.
He said the Marines told him there was no such unit in their service but they could arrange it.
"The next day I was in the Army," Dahl said. "Oh, well, I'm going to be a paratrooper."
Dahl said he remembers the word going out for rangers who had prior military service to serve behind the Korean lines.
He said once he said he was a Marine, he was chosen quickly.
Dahl is the only survivor of his airborne ranger platoon, which was fighting in the Korean War. Because he was on guard duty for several hours before his platoon went on a patrol, he was told to stay back at the base camp. All of the platoon members were killed during the patrol.
Dahl, who was wounded in battle, spent 21 years as a Wayzata motorcycle police officer after his discharge.
He said he escorted every president and actors, including Bob Hope and Natalie Wood.
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