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

| Friday, June 6, 2014, 2:41 a.m.
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.
Jesse Ridgway, during World War II
Jesse and Dorothy Ridgway, married 62 years

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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