As a paratroop officer during the Korean War, the paratroopers of WWII provided a powerful inspiration for me, especially those who parachuted in on D-Day June 6, 1944. Among them was a hero of the greatest generation, then a 24-year old Captain in the 101st Airborne Division, Sam Gibbons.
On this Veteran’s Day, November 8, 2008, I knew nothing of his experience. I found myself chatting with an 88-year old standing in the shade as we waited on the ferry that would take us to Egmont Key. I was to be Master of Ceremonies for the 150th Egmont Key Lighthouse Anniversary ceremony and he was to be honored. On the boat ride to the event we chatted and found we had both been paratroop officers. He jumped with the same parachute I learned to jump (T-7) and from the same kind of planes, C-47s. Perhaps I can empathize with his service better than most as a result of common experiences. He was in the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. I served eight years later in the 11th Airborne Division. He entered the Army in 1941. I joined in 1951. In both cases we were not yet 21 years old.
Gibbons was one of 12,000 paratroopers who dropped into Normandy in the early morning before the beach landings. They jumped from nearly 1,000 C-47s with 18 or so in a plane. In all, 100,000 men came into France that day and 10,000 died. Many books and many movies focus on the heroic feats. He landed seven miles away from where he should be among Germans at 1:30 am. Paratroopers scattered all over the country side, used children’s toy crickets to re-unite in the dark. Soon Captain Gibbons had 25, then 35 and then 50 men together, from various units. He went on to lead them to achieve their mission.
One of my favorite historians, Stephen Ambrose, mentions Captain Sam Gibbons in two of his books. In The Victors-Eisenhower and his Boys: The Men of World War II, Ambrose notes Gibbons stuck two cans of Schlitz beer in his gas mask before the parachute drop (page 75). In Ambrose’s great book , D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II, some of Gibbon’s exploits appear on pages 191, 205, 235-36, and 304-5. He won the Bronze Star and the French Medal of Valor.
His accomplishments after the war proved to be heroic, too. Who could know in 1944 that the tough paratrooper would become a long-time Congressman after gaining his law degree in 1947? He served 43 years in the State Legislature and Congress. He chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He created the University of South Florida and earned the sobriquet Father of USF. He established the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The Courthouse is named for him. He fought to eliminate wasteful and deficit government spending. He won the 1981 Silver Medallion Humanitarian Award. He was the first President of the UF Foundation.
For lighthouse lovers, he spearheaded an “invasion” in 1988 that did not involve guns, but did turn out to be one of the largest joint military and civilian projects undertaken in Florida. The three-day event joined 31 agencies, local governments and community organizations, eight military units and more than 500 volunteers. The goal: clean up and preserve Egmont Key. U.S. Congressman Sam Gibbons brought all these organizations together and encouraged public stewardship. He appointed Susan Kessel as co-chair of a steering committee. Egmont Key, from these efforts, became a State Park in 1989. Susan Kessel became the first President of the Egmont Key Alliance. Later she traveled to the White House for a ceremony to receive, on behalf of the group, the National Take Pride in America award for the project.
Jim Spangler, current Egmont Key Alliance President, said at the ceremony, “had it not been for this project 20 years ago and Congressman Sam Gibbons’ leadership then, we would not be here today.”
Now the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, in their budget cuts, proposes to withdraw from Egmont Key as a State Park. With all the heroic efforts of the past 20 years, such a move would be a tragedy, even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife owns the island and has a presence there
The proposed cuts require approval of the governor and the Legislature (during the 2009 session, which starts in March). State parks are tourist attractions, especially for families looking for vacation spots closer to home to save gas. The State should close parks only as a last resort. Egmont draws 170,000 visitors a year. Perhaps imposing a park entrance fee to offset costs might be one alternative. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed closing 48 state parks, but later removed the closings from the budget after public outrage.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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