Jim Carroll jumped into the middle of World War II on June 6, 1944 — D-Day.
That momentous day, the young U.S. Army paratrooper took his first combat jump, landing 13 miles inland from the beach at Normandy with orders to cut off enemy troops trying to repel the Allied beach invasion. He went on to fight in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands and in the Battle of the Bulge.
For his service in some of the war's fiercest battles, Carroll was honored with several medals. Now, 70 years later, the 91-year-old Bloomington resident is being honored with another very special one.
On Sunday, France will honor Carroll as recipient of the Knight of the Legion of Honor Medal. It's the highest honor that country can bestow on a foreign national for remarkable deeds on French soil, according to a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Klobuchar and French Honorary Consul Christina Selander Bouzouina will recognize Carroll in a ceremony on Sunday afternoon at Bloomington City Hall in the presence of his son and daughter. It's the second time Klobuchar has awarded the Legion of Honor Medal to a Minnesota veteran. Since its inception in 1802, thousands of Americans have been honored with the medal.
"I am quite pleased that the French recognized some of us American military people," Carroll said in an interview on Friday. "I was happy to hear about that. There are not too many of us left."
Jilted, homesick, in peril
Carroll grew up in St. Joseph, Mo. Wooed by an Army film highlighting paratrooper training, he and three buddies vowed to enlist together the next Monday. The 18-year-old hadn't even finished high school.
Carroll was the only one to show. He enlisted in November 1942. After five training jumps, he earned his paratrooper wings.
He trained in Georgia and other parts of the South, then shipped out to Europe as a private first class to serve in the 101st Airborne Division, nicknamed the Screaming Eagles.
"I was homesick," he said. "I had gotten engaged before I went overseas to a girl I went to school with. Right away I got a 'Dear John' letter from her."
It was devastating at the time, he said, though later "that worked out OK because I married a wonderful lady that lived in Minneapolis."
Carroll recalled training in Britain and studying maps of the French countryside in preparation for D-Day.
"We knew that we were training for a hazardous mission which was jumping into Normandy at strategic points of entry and repelling the German reinforcements," he said.
Of D-Day, he said: "I will never forget it."
Down into the hedgerows
On June 5, the eve of the offensive, "it was still light at 11 p.m. … as they loaded the planes," Carroll said.
Nearly 900 C-47s were involved, with about 15 paratroopers per plane, he recalled. Each man wore more than 100 pounds of gear on his back, including a rifle, a belt of extra ammunition and three days of rations.
"We were side by side on both sides of the airplane," Carroll said. "I remember when we hit the coast of France, the anti-aircraft [fire] and tracers starting coming up from the Germans. Some of our planes got hit."
He landed next to a canal in a French countryside crisscrossed with canals and hedgerows used to contain livestock — tricky, maze-like terrain.
"I got separated from our squad," he said. "I joined up with a bunch of other troopers that were in the same category I was in. We all knew what our mission was."
Together, they soon secured a bridge.
In September, he parachuted into Holland for Operation Market Garden, and two months later, he helped hold the line in the Belgian town of Bastogne against the German army in the Battle of the Bulge.
'I never forget …'
Almost miraculously, given the long and brutal battles he was part of, Carroll was not wounded. He eventually returned to Great Britain and in November 1945 was shipped back home to Missouri.
"I had a job waiting for me. I was a miller. I ground feed for cattle and livestock," he said.
He eventually moved to the Twin Cities, where he worked as a machinist, married, and adopted two children. He and his wife, Effie, were married for 57 years until her death in 2007.
Carroll has lived in Bloomington for 70 years, 60 of them in the house he still lives in.
Carroll says the French medal stirs memories. "I never forget things about the war," he said.
Of his years in Europe, he adds, "They were interesting; I wouldn't want to do it again."