Howard Huebner has been to France five times. He first visited the country at the age of 21 when he jumped out of a C-47 with an M-1 and about 100lbs of gear. His most recent trip was exactly 65 years later and considerably more comfortable.
This time he flew commercial and instead of sleeping on the ground and carrying a rifle, he brought his family and slept in the soft beds of appreciative French residents.
This last voyage was a 22-day tour that coincided with the 65th anniversary of the invasion. For his role in the D-Day invasion and the battle of the La Fiére Causeway, Huebner was awarded the French Legion of Honor, the highest decoration bestowed by the French government.
Established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804, the Légion was open to men of all ranks and professions. Only merit or bravery counted.
Festivities included parades through the French towns, bands, and an official ceremony on the French coast near Omaha Beach. D-Day vets healthy enough for the trip were in attendance along with thousands of grateful French residents, family members, celebrities like Tom Hanks and Steven Speilberg and four heads of state including U.S. President Barack Obama and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
President Obama said, “When asked why he made the trip, Howard said, ‘It’s important that we tell our stories. It doesn’t have to be something big. Just a little story about what happened, so people don’t forget.”
June 6, 1944: D-Day
The doors of his C-47 transport were off and Huebner recalls his comrades of the 507th Paratrooper Infantry Regiment (Attached to the 82nd Airborne Division) singing and praying on the night of one of the greatest invasions the world as ever seen. The private from Saginaw, Mich. had been through roughly a year of military training, but was still shocked by the massive invasion fleet of Navy ships racing across the English Channel toward the French coast.
“Unbelievable,” Huebner said. “It looked like someone took a bunch of corks and tossed them in the water.”
The planes were completely dark except for the glint of a full moon. Thick fog signaled land and enemy flak confirmed their suspicions. For America, the European war was beginning.
With enemy fire bouncing off the fuselage like pebbles against a steel drum, Huebner’s jumpmaster, a large staff sergeant from Texas yelled to the pilot, “Raise this cotton picker up so we can get outta here!”
The green jump light blinked and Huebner was the third man out of the plane.
“Now how high we were, I don’t know,” he says. “All I know is that that chute opened up and I was on the ground.”
Landing on French soil, the young man was no more than 200 yards from the enemy and listened to their chatter as he cut himself from his chute and sought cover.
“Mach schnell, tout schwett, Americanos,” they said in German and French. “Hurry up. Hurry up. Americans!”
Scanning for landmarks, Huebner had no idea he landed three to five miles from his drop zone. Over the next 65 years, he would only reconnect with four men from his plane.
In the darkness, he linked up with some members of the 506th PIR, the unit made famous by the Stephen Ambrose novel and HBO mini series “Band of Brothers.” The Germans began surrendering and by morning Huebner and his ad-hoc unit marched 50-75 German POWs onto Utah Beach that morning.
As German artillery cratered the beach a captured German officer said, ‘We’re all gonna get killed!” Private Huebner turned to the man and said, “You son of a bitch, you started this…we’re all gonna die together.”
June 7 – June 9: La Fiére Causeway
Private Howard Huebner slept on Utah beach that night and the next day linked up with the rest of his unit, Charlie Co. They continued east toward a German stronghold at the town of Cauquigny.
The Germans spent four years flooding the French countryside in attempt to keep any foreign militias from reclaiming their new property and a 500 yard road, La Fiére Causeway would soon become the spot of the bloodiest small arms battles of the entire European Theater.
The intersection served a number of military objectives. Under German control the causeway would serve as an artery for the German Panzer division to counterattack against the invasion. In American hands, the intersection would enable the entire VII Corps to link up and continue their advance into France and Belgium. The job of securing the causeway fell to members of the 507th PIR.
On the night before the attack, Huebner and eight or nine other men waded to the German side for some reconnaissance.
“We weren’t over there to kill them,” Huebner said. “Unless we had to, but we went over there to survey and see what the hell they had over there.”
On a website dedicated to D-Day, Huebner wrote:
We relieved the 505 Para. Inf. there and Gen. Gavin gave my Co. Commander Bob Rae orders to take the causeway. We did June 9, 1944, with the 325 Glider troop, they started and we finished but it took a lot of lives around 500 fellows died there for about 1/4 to 1/2 miles of road which was flooded on both sides as most of Normandy was flooded.
Howard Huebner admits he no longer dwells on the horrors of war.
“Back then, it was something that all of us felt we had to do. Nobody wants to go to war. Even the Germans didn’t want to fight, but it was something we all had to do.”
He knows how Hitler came to power and hopes the world will never allow the same misfortunes to happen again.
“He (Hitler) cherished those kids, gave ‘em rides in his car, gave ‘em candy. He loved them and brought them up to what they were – grownups ready for war. Germany was in a depression just like the United States back then. Things were rough, real rough. I remember. We ate a lot of potatoes; we ate a lot of cabbage. We ate a lot of soup. You would be surprised what you can make out of potatoes and cabbage.”
Today his emotions from World War II revolve around the gratitude of the French people and the shrinking number of men who share his experiences.
He also reflects on what the world would be like if Japan never bombed Pearl Harbor and Lucian Islands.
“I don’t know.”
Today, Howard Huebner resides in Leesburg, Florida but makes several trips to the Keys each year to visit with his children: Pam Steadman and Roger Huebner.
Local filmmaker tackles D-Day
He examined the fury of Mother Nature with his film, Wilma the Witch. He delved into the human psyche with Mike Puto: Roasted. Now local filmmaker and part-time attorney Richard Warner is in post production of his largest film to date: Howard the Hero.
Spanning two continents and mixing archival war footage with recent video of 65th Anniversary of D-Day, Warner is depicting the big picture of World War II through the perspective of Howard Huebner.
Warner was with his uncle-in-law in France this past June when Huebner was treated to a hero’s welcome during the D-Day celebrations.
“He made 3 to 4 personal appearances everyday,” Warner said. Acting as a chauffer, personal assistant and fan, Warner was astounded by Huebner’s status in France. “He was kissed by no few than 2,000 ladies – everyday. It was like a rock star going on his victory run.”
Lugging massive cameras around the French countryside, Warner had no idea he was making his next documentary until the French people demanded to see the product, “because Howard is our hero,” they would say in broken English.
Warner plans on premiering the film in France next June 6, followed by an American premier shortly thereafter.
In a released statement, he wrote, “The French are already keyed and on track for a great premier party over there. The Germans are not invited.”
D-Day paratrooper Howard Huebner shows his French Legion of Honor badge to his daughter, Pam Steadman, and local filmmaker Richard Warner. The medal is the highest honor bestowed by the French government and the subject of Warner’s new film.
An early release of the Howard the Hero movie poster. The film is in post-production and set for a June 6, 2010 release date.