Vigil at 'Iron Mike': Paratroopers Pay Tribute to Fallen Comrades at Iconic Normandy Memorial

Master Sgt. (ret.) Russ Battiato reads a memorial for 99-year-old paratrooper Sgt. Maj. John Brown at the Iron Mike monument in Normandy, France on June 6, 2024. Brown died three weeks before the 80th anniversary of D-Day but his ashes were spread at the monument after they were airdropped into nearby La Fiere. ( Stilwell)

NORMANDY, France -- John Brown was 20 years old when he joined the Army Air Forces in 1947. World War II was over, but he still wanted to serve, eventually finding himself with the Army's occupation force in Japan. It was the start of nearly 30 years of service. He would become a counterintelligence expert, deploying during the Korean War and Vietnam War, among other secretive destinations. The most outstanding moments of his career are still classified.

Brown turned 96 years old in 2023 and intended to visit Normandy to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day alongside his fellow Army veterans. Unfortunately, he died on May 2, 2024, three weeks before his scheduled trip. But his buddies didn't forget about him: they brought his cremated remains to France and carried them on a jump into Normandy on June 3, 2024.

In the early midnight hour of June 6, they spread Brown's ashes near the "Iron Mike" memorial, in an annual ceremony meant to honor those who are no longer among their ranks.

Master Sgt. (ret.) Russ Battatio holds the story of Sgt. Maj. John Brown and a container of his remains before making a static line jump into Normandy's La Fiere drop zone on June 3, 2024. ( Stilwell)

"We come here to do a ceremony to honor our greatest generation, especially the paratroopers," Sean Lockhead, director of veteran affairs for the nonprofit All Airborne Battalion, told ahead of this year's event. "In a few minutes, at midnight, we try to imagine what these heroes felt as they dropped in. It's our way of commemorating the sacrifice they made, with so many men who lost their lives on the initial jump and then the following days here at La Fière."

    On the morning of June 6, 1944, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne were assigned to capture a key bridge across the Merderet River, west of Sainte-Mère-Église. By dawn that morning, La Fière Bridge was in American hands, but the Germans were being reinforced with men and armor.

    Over four days, the paratroopers were outgunned, outnumbered and low on ammunition, but they were able to hold the small but critical bridge until reinforcements arrived from nearby Utah Beach. Some 250 paratroopers died fighting in "probably the bloodiest small unit struggle in the experience of American arms," according to the National World War II Museum.

    Just down the street from the bridge, a statue was erected featuring Iron Mike, an unnamed airborne soldier meant to represent all airborne troops.

    "It basically represents the battle that was fought here, the Battle of La Fière Bridge," Lockhead said. "Their success here made a huge difference for all the units coming in from Utah Beach."

    The original Iron Mike statue, unveiled in September 1961, is at Fort Liberty, North Carolina. The Iron Mike at La Fière is exactly like the original, except it was dedicated to Lt. Gen. James "The Jumping General" Gavin, the only American general to make four combat jumps during the war.

    The "Iron Mike" Memorial statue at La Fière in Normandy France. ( Stilwell)

    At the stroke of midnight on June 6 this year, the gathered paratroopers observed a moment of silence, said the names of veterans like Brown who died in the past year, and offered a toast of whiskey and Calvados (a locally made Normandy brandy) to the departed. They then performed a rousing chorus of "God Bless America."

    "It's our honor," said Lockhead. "Everything we do is focused on our veterans. Don't get me wrong, the jumping is cool, it's fun, but it's far down on our list. We focus on World War II, but for us, it's also how we embrace current-day veterans and the issues they're having. The combination of these things helps us in our mission of improving the lives of all veterans."

    A member of the All Airborne Battalion wearing a World War II-era paratrooper's uniform speaks to the crowd at the Iron Mike Memorial on June 6, 2024. ( Stilwell)

    The La Fière region has since become hallowed ground for not only American paratroopers, but paratroopers from all over the world. The ceremony included airborne troops of all ages, from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

    "They come here to celebrate the greatest generation because they are not going to be around for very long," Lockhead added. "And now it's not even a matter of if they're Normandy veterans. It could be anyone associated with World War II; the Pacific, North Africa ... It doesn't matter because our time for honoring these men and women is fading very quickly."

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