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From 2007: Sam Gibbons on parachuting into Normandy on D-Day

Vintage photo of a soldier in uniform
Gibbons Family
/
Courtesy
Sam Gibbons, a Tampa native and former U.S. representative and state legislator, was part of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division that parachuted into France on June 6, 1944.

The late Sam Gibbons, a former Florida congressman, was in the 101st Airborne Division that was part of the invasion that changed the course of World War II. He shared his experiences in a 2007 WUSF-TV documentary.

Thursday is the 80th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France during World War II, also known as D-Day.

It was one of the turning points of the war as thousands of Allied soldiers and naval personnel invaded the beaches of Normandy.

Among those was Army Capt. Sam Gibbons of Tampa.

Gibbons, who would go on to become a Florida legislator and U.S. congressman, was a captain in the U.S. Army's 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, that parachuted into France on June 6, 1944.

Gibbons, who died in 2012 at age 92, shared his memories of D-Day with "Tampa Goes to War," a 2007 WUSF-TV documentary.

You can see the companion documentary, "Plant City Goes to War," by clicking here.

France at the time was occupied by Nazi Germany.

"The whole 101st Airborne Division only had about 12,000 people in it," Gibbons recalled. "So we were really no match for 80,000, 90,000 (German soldiers).

"But you know, troops get spread out, the Germans got spread out, we just happened to land right on top of them in the thick of it. And that’s an experience you never forget."

READ MORE: Tampa Bay organizations commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy

Gibbons said he landed about six miles from his intended destination.

"I landed, oh, roughly 70 yards, maybe 50 yards from about 15 German soldiers shooting up in the sky at the airplanes above us. That saved my life," Gibbons said.

"They could hear the airplanes, they couldn't see me because of the camouflage that I wore, and because they were night-blinded by having fired so much into the darkness."

More than 4,000 Allied troops were killed on D-Day, including 2,501 Americans. More than 5,000 were wounded.

By the end of the war, Gibbons had been promoted to Major. Despite his service on D-Day and then at the Battle of the Bulge, he refused to call himself a hero, only saying he was proud to serve as a member of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment.

Two older men sitting together at a table
Steve Newborn
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WUSF
Sam Gibbons, left, chats with John F. Germany in 2012.

""I don't think the average combat soldier acts heroic at all, you know some of the things we do turn out to be heroic, but it's a sense of duty, it's a sense of training, it's a sense of not letting your fellow soldier down," Gibbons said. "Those are the kinds of things that run through your mind."

Gibbons received the French Medal of Valor in Normandy in 2004, the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

After the war, Gibbons returned to Tampa and became a lawyer before getting into politics.

He first served in the Florida House from 1953-1958 and the Florida Senate from 1959-1962 before being voted into the U.S. House, where he was reelected 16 times, serving from 1963-1997.

While serving in the state legislature, Gibbons, along with Gov. LeRoy Collins and fellow WWII veteran, John F. Germany, was one of the lawmakers behind the creation of the University of South Florida.

To commemorate the anniversary, the Tampa Bay History Center is holding a Living History Saturday event on Saturday from 12:30 to 3 p.m. featuring local historians. Admission is $16.95.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.