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Connellsville veteran remembers hum of D-Day planes taking off for invasion

Laura Szepesi | for the Daily Courier - Jesse Ridgway, 89, and Dorothy, 86, his wife of 62 years, have plenty to smile about. The Connellsville couple raised three children and has seven grandchildren who they adore. Jesse, whose nickname is “Woody,” remembers the D-Day invasion, including Gen. Dwight Eisenhower visiting the paratroopers who dropped behind enemy lines before the beach invasion of Normandy, France, 70 years ago.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Laura Szepesi  |  for the Daily Courier</em></div>Jesse Ridgway, 89, and Dorothy, 86, his wife of 62 years, have plenty to smile about. The Connellsville couple raised three children and has seven grandchildren who they adore. Jesse, whose nickname is “Woody,” remembers the D-Day invasion, including Gen. Dwight Eisenhower visiting the paratroopers who dropped behind enemy lines before the beach invasion of Normandy, France, 70 years ago.
Submitted - Jesse Ridgway, during World War II
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Submitted</em></div>Jesse Ridgway, during World War II
Submitted - Jesse and Dorothy Ridgway, married 62 years
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Submitted</em></div>Jesse and Dorothy Ridgway, married 62 years

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Facts about D-Day — ‘The Longest Day'

• D-Day occurred on the beaches of Normandy, Northern France, on June 6, 1944, nearly five years after World War II began.

• The war officially started on Sept. 1, 1939, when dictator Adolph Hitler ordered his German troops to invade Poland (eastern Europe).

• From then until D-Day, World War II was fought in Eastern Europe and the Far East. Japan bombed the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, and the United States entered the war.

• Before D-Day, Allied troops — U.S., British, Canadian, French and others — had fought in Southern Europe (mostly Italy and Sicily) and in North Africa.

• D-Day took more than two years to plan. U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was named Supreme Commander, assisted by Gen. Omar Bradley and British Gen. Bernard Montgomery (commander of ground forces).

• Germany knew Western Europe would be invaded because their intelligence (spies) were aware of a vast build-up of troops in England.

• The Germans, though, were tricked. They believed the invasion would be at Calais, France, at the narrowest part of the English Channel (only 21 miles across).

• An artificial (toy) army was placed at Calais to fool the Germans, and it worked.

• Not only did the Germans believe the toy army was real, they believed it was led by Gen. George C. Patton who, at the time, was training the U.S. 3rd Army in England to conduct a mop-up invasion following D-Day.

• The code names for D-Day were Operation Overlord and Operation Neptune.

• It occurred at five beach landings that were code-named Omaha, Utah, Sword, Gold and Juno.

• All of the landings were successful, although Omaha Beach — manned by the United States — had terrible casualties. Nearly 1,500 were killed and thousands more wounded.

• The D-Day invasion was the largest amphibious invasion in history, involving more than 156,000 troops, 5,000 ships and landing craft and more than 10,000 planes.

• By mid-June 1944, more than 300,000 Allied troops had landed in Western Europe, pushing eastward as Russian troops pushed west toward Germany.

• Allied troops liberated Paris from the Germans in August 1944.

• The Allies' eastern mission eventually joined with the Russians' western push on May 8, 1945 — known as V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. In August 1945, V-J (Victory in Japan) Day was celebrated after the Japanese surrendered following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

— Compiled by contributing writer Laura Szepesi

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By Laura Szepesi
Friday, June 6, 2014, 2:41 a.m.

That smile.

After 62 years of marriage, Dorothy Ridgway still loves her husband, Jesse's, grin. Just call him “Woody.” That's his nickname.

Dorothy was a nurse at Connellsville State General Hospital (now Highlands Hospital) when she met Woody by chance on a “Friday the 13th” in 1951 at Dorothy's home in Normalville. It was her lucky day, she said.

“He had that smile on his face,” said Dorothy, 86, “and it was love at first sight!”

At the time, Dorothy didn't realize Woody had participated in one of the world's most important events: D-Day — the Allied invasion that, coupled with the Russians' westward push, helped to end World War II.

Remembering D-Day

Woody graduated from Connellsville High School in 1942. He was working at Anchor Hocking Glass Corp. in South Connellsville when he was drafted into the Army Air Force 438th Troop Carrier Group in 1943. He was trained in Colorado and Florida and eventually ended up in Indiana, where he was fortunate to be accompanied by several guys from the Connellsville area.

“It was comforting to be with people I knew,” he recalled.

Ridgway's unit shipped out of New York bound for Scotland. It was a long journey. Seasick across the Atlantic Ocean, “I ate a lot of lemon drops,” he said.

The troops disembarked at Glasgow and were driven by buses south to England.

Ridgway was stationed in a unit that participated in the scheduling of paratroopers for the invasion of Normandy, France — D-Day.

“We tracked the plane activities. We knew when they left and when they came back,” he explained.

Attached to 82nd Airborne

Ridgway's unit was attached to the 82nd Airborne, which, along with the 101st Airborne, parachuted into France behind enemy lines the night before the D-Day beach invasion on June 6, 1944.

He witnessed Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower (later, President Eisenhower) speaking to the paratroopers before they flew across the English Channel to France.

“All you heard was a steady hum of the engines of the planes,” Ridgway said, explaining that 131 planes (towing 50 gliders) went out with the 82nd's first wave into Normandy — and all of the planes made it back, although one was heavily damaged by enemy fire.

The paratroopers leaped from the planes about 500 feet, according to Ridgway. Their behind-the-scenes mission helped to keep the Germans in check, thereby enabling D-Day to succeed.

After the invasion, Ridgway was transferred from England to France.

“When we flew over France, I saw the aftermath. It was terrible,” he said. “I felt lucky that I didn't have to jump. I wouldn't want to fly through that (flak). They were some really brave guys.”

Unit was commended

Woody's unit was presented with a Presidential Citation and a Distinguished Unit Badge with seven Bronze Stars.

After the war, he worked at Anchor Hocking for more than 40 years. He will celebrate his 90th birthday in July. He and Dorothy have three children, seven grandchildren and still live on Connellsville's South Side.

After their children grew up, Dorothy worked for the late Dr. Joseph Forejt.

“Once a nurse, always a nurse,” she joked.

And always a wife with a soft spot for Woody's grin.

Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.

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