A Duck on D-Day

Members of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. Sullivan is on the front row, far left.
(Photo courtesy: Walter Romanow, The Memory Project, Historica Canada)

Private Bob Sullivan was three years removed from high school and five thousand miles from home when he stepped through a door in the rear of a C-47 in the middle of the night and opened his parachute. Below him lay the sandy beaches and rolling pastures of Normandy—as well as several thousand German troops, all of whom would gladly shoot him on sight if they saw him. Sullivan, and the rest of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, had spent an entire year preparing for this moment. However, in the near-pitch-black darkness and in the middle of a country he’d never been to before, Sullivan was dropped miles from his intended drop zone—and to make matters worse, instead of landing silently so as not to alert the watchful Nazis, he hit a house on the way down.

This is how D-Day began for then-University of Oregon sophomore Bob Sullivan ’49.

Bob Sullivan ’49 enjoys an audience with Prince
Charles at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary
of D-Day. (Photo: Pat Sullivan)

In 1942, Sullivan—“Sully” to his friends and “Pops” to his children—graduated from Salem High School and followed his best friend and high school classmate Tom Kay ’47 south to the University of Oregon, where the pair pledged Phi Delta Theta and lived in the fraternity house on Kincaid Street.

A former state high school boxing champion, Sullivan had a feisty reputation and was known to get into what Kay likes to refer to as “unscheduled fights.” When the United States got involved in World War II, Sullivan—then a sophomore at the UO and a self-described “red-blooded lad”—decided it was his patriotic duty to enlist. There was just one problem, however: he wanted to be a pilot, but the US Air Force wouldn’t take him because he was colorblind.

“A friend of mine went to Canada and was a pilot,” Sullivan said. “He said he didn’t have any difficulty, so I could go. I joined the Canadian Army in Seattle and went across the border. There were seven of us, but only I wasn’t taken—because I was colorblind. I decided to stay in Canada, and the closest thing I could find to being a pilot was being a paratrooper, so I volunteered to do that.”

Basic training with the newly-formed 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was anything but for the paratroopers. The battalion trained in Shilo, Manitoba, before spending five days on an unaccompanied crossing of the Atlantic Ocean aboard the RMS Queen Mary, avoiding German ships on their way to England to be brought under the command of the British 6th Airborne Division. Training from early in the morning until late at night, Sullivan and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion spent a year jumping from scaffolding in Canada and from balloons and through hatches in the floors of Albemarle bombers in England, and learning to use weapons ranging from STEN guns to explosive devices. Sullivan, who had never flown in a plane prior to enlisting, jumped out of one on his very first trip, and flew 13 times before he ever experienced the jolt of wheels touching down on solid ground.

Life in England—complete with 10-mile marches that sometimes lasted for 50 miles—was hard but had its perks, as the battalion trained near one of the world’s most famous historic sites, providing opportunities for impromptu sightseeing.

“We were at a place called Bulford, outside Salisbury,” Sullivan said. “I remember two or three times we ran from Bulford for ten or twelve miles out to Stonehenge. All of us stood around Stonehenge wondering what it was. In those days there were no guards—we could just go and wander all over the place and nobody bothered us.”

Sullivan qualified as a parachutist on October 18, 1943, and as the British spring inched closer to summer in 1944, Bulford was replaced by a new training location, one on the southeast coast of England surrounded by razor-sharp barbed wire to prevent any unauthorized entry or exit.

Bob Sullivan in his graduation
attire in the Oregana.
(Photo: UO Libraries)

“We knew we’d go to Normandy sooner or later,” Sullivan said. “Most of us got sent down to Bournemouth to a new camp. We had meetings every day, and there were tables with sand models of Normandy, right down to the machine gun nests. They’d have the whole beach represented there, so we knew where the invasion was going to be. We knew what was going to happen.”

As a member of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion’s A Company, No. 3 Platoon, Sullivan was assigned to drop in behind enemy lines and first capture Pegasus Bridge, to prevent any potential German counterattack from the east; and then take, and defend the left flank of, the crossroads at Le Mesnil. The crossroads were a vital strategic point, as they were on high ground and gave their occupiers unobstructed views of both allied and enemy troops in all directions, and not only gave the Nazis a route to send reinforcements to the cliffs overlooking the Normandy beaches, but also cleared the way for the British to advance toward Paris should they be successful at the beachhead.

The initial attempted departure, on June 4, was aborted due to bad weather—“It rained so hard we had to get out of the tents and dig a moat,” Sullivan recalled—but on the evening of June 5 the weather cleared and the battalion boarded its planes in preparation for the flight across the English Channel.

Operation Overlord was officially underway.

Next page