Fifteen minutes past midnight on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Capt. Frank Lillyman of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, became the first soldier of the Allied invasion force to land on French soil. Leading a 15-man Pathfinder group, he jumped out of a C47 that had slowed to 120 m.p.h. Because the emphasis was on speed and stealth, the drop was from a low altitude. This conferred two benefits: Bulky reserve chutes could be left on the plane; if the main chute didn’t deploy, the jumper would hit the ground before he had time to deploy another. And jumping from a low altitude gave the men less time to think about how vulnerable they were.
The men had one other thing going for them: Capt. Lillyman was jumping with a lit cigar clenched in his teeth, as he had on his previous 47 jumps; the good luck provided by the cigar was appreciated by every man on the team, and by Lillyman’s wife, Jane, as well; she frequently sent him cigars from Skaneateles to supplement his Army ration.
Jane was born in Skaneateles, and it was here that she waited for news of her husband, and read his many letters. But at 0015 on D-Day, Capt. Lillyman’s thoughts were not of our village, but rather the village of St. Germaine de Varreville where he had just landed, about a mile from Drop Zone A. There was not enough time to trek a mile to the original target, so Lillyman found a wide, treeless pasture behind a church and the group began to deploy battery-powered lights to mark the field for the incoming paratroopers.
Somewhere in the dark, a lone German with a machine gun was firing short bursts, probing for the intruders. “Damned annoying it was,” Lillyman later recalled. “Finally I sent two men to convince him of the error of his ways. Pretty soon I heard a grenade go off, and then everything was lovely and quiet.”
Now, all the men had to do was wait for the paratroopers to arrive. “That was the longest 47 minutes in my life,” Lillyman said. “Those lights never looked bright in training, but that night they looked like searchlights.”
A German bicycle patrol saw the men, but quickly rode away, discretion being the better part of valor. After the paratroopers landed, Lillyman and his men hiked seven miles cross-country to another site to prepare a landing field for gliders. German soldiers were hiding in the hedges along the way, covering the roads carefully. But the Pathfinders were not on the roads. At the end of the hike, the score was USA 18, Germany 0.
However, while helping out an isolated glider that was under enemy fire, Lillyman was shot in the arm and caught a mortar splinter in his face. He was sent back across the Channel to recover, but talked his way onto a military transport and was back at the front eight days later. At the end of the war, he had spent 10 months in combat, had been wounded three times and decorated eight times.
Lillyman returned home to Skaneateles, and garnered one more measure of fame. To keep himself going in Europe, he had jotted down ideas for a dream week in New York City, at the best hotel. He saved $500 for the vacation, and wrote to the hotel he had in mind, asking them if they could fulfill all his wishes for that sum. They replied that they could, but it would be “on the house.”
The December 3, 1945, issue of Life magazine ran a feature on the family’s dream vacation. Soon afterwards, the Captain returned to duty and was posted elsewhere. In all, he served in the U.S. Army for 25 years. He died in 1971, a hero with a sense of humor.