His C-47 transport plane, shot up by the enemy and engulfed in flames, hit the ground before he did. Yet, as John Cipolla parachuted into Holland 60 years ago Friday, a pretty young woman passing by on a bicycle caught his eye, and he whistled.
"I don't know what the hell ever possessed me," he said. "I wanted to ask her, `Where are the Germans?' Or maybe I wanted to flirt with her. She pedaled away as fast as she could."
Over the next 10 weeks, between furious skirmishes and scenes of horror, there were many other occasions when Cipolla witnessed the joy of the Dutch as the Allies liberated their land from the terror and starvation of Nazi occupation.
Along with two dozen fellow Army veterans of the elite 101st Airborne Division, Cipolla went back to the Netherlands this week, for the first time, to commemorate a brutal campaign memorialized in Cornelius Ryan's 1974 war epic, "A Bridge Too Far."
At the invitation of the Wings of Liberation museum in the city of Best, the old soldiers will lay wreaths, tour battlefields and watch paratrooper jumps recalling history's biggest airborne assault on Sept. 17 and 18, 1944. On Sunday, they will celebrate Mass in Veghel.
Cipolla floated down into a field of cows outside the southern town after witnessing his crewless plane ram into the ground about a mile away. It was the start of Operation Market Garden, a British-led campaign that captured key bridges on the Rhine River near the German border but stalled disastrously at Arnhem _ a bridge too far.
In Veghel, "we were marching down through the town, the Dutch people are coming out, offering us beer and milk, cookies, anything," Cipolla said. "My captain says `be careful, never mind eating, we're in danger here,' but the Dutch people were elated."
"That was about the biggest happening in my life," said Hendrika Van Lieshout, who was 17 when the Americans entered her hometown. "We were excited and, on the other hand, scared because we knew heavy fighting would come. We really hoped it would be the beginning of the end."
Within hours, the Germans showed up, Cipolla said, "and from then on it was all fighting."
The 101st captured a canal bridge the next day in nearby Eerde, but the British found themselves trapped and outgunned in Arnhem. Their defeat _ 1,500 British troops were killed _ delayed the Allied invasion of Germany until spring 1945.
Cipolla had many close shaves. His patrol ran smack into a German unit and he found himself in hand-to-hand combat with "a giant of a man." Slashed in the arm, Cipolla thought he was about to get killed when one of his comrades ran the German through with a bayonet.
Near the end of the Dutch campaign, Cipolla was hit in the jaw by shrapnel and was laid up in a hospital in France for three weeks. A D-Day veteran, he recovered in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle of World War II. He later made it all the way to Berchtesgaden, Adolf Hitler's mountaintop tea house in southern Germany.
"We used to take turns sitting at Hitler's desk and putting our boots up on his desk," he said, laughing heartily.
Cipolla came home from the war, worked as a metals finisher and raised three children. The 82-year-old widower keeps an "Army room" at his home in the Rochester suburb of Greece, a shrine dominated by photographs of his comrades and dozens of mementoes _ his polished jump boots, the parachute that took him behind enemy lines in Normandy, three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for bravery for helping to destroy a mortar nest.
Van Lieshout and her husband, Leon, both 77, read about Cipolla's war exploits in a local newspaper last week and invited him to their dairy farm in Barre, 30 miles west of Rochester. The couple, who emigrated to America in 1956, still have relatives in Veghel who plan to meet up with Cipolla this weekend. "I feel honored," Cipolla said.
"I seen a lot of my buddies getting killed," he reflected, his voice thick with emotion. "I saw civilians that were slaughtered in the houses.
"I'm proud of what I did over there, but I don't say that I loved war. I hated it. We were frightened. You're fighting for your life. The more frightened we were, the better we fought."