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Celebrating the 'greatest generation': Re-enactment marks 100th birthday of WWII veteran

Jim “Pee Wee” Martin’s unit, a part of the regiment famously portrayed in the acclaimed HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” first saw action behind enemy lines on D-Day.
World War II paratrooper veterans Jim \"Pee Wee\" Martin and Dan McBride walk across the drop zone at Pee Wee's Jump Fest in Xenia, Ohio.
World War II paratrooper veterans Jim "Pee Wee" Martin and Dan McBride walk across the drop zone at "Pee Wee's Jump Fest" in Xenia, Ohio on April 23.Luke Sharrett / for NBC News

XENIA, Ohio — Three vintage World War II transport aircraft sputtered to life on the tarmac of a small airfield outside Dayton, Ohio.

Clouds of blue exhaust streamed from the C-47’s radial engines as each plane’s propellers sliced through the cool early morning air Saturday. Dozens of parachutists wearing World War II military uniforms, steel pot helmets and bearing round canopy parachutes strode across the tarmac at the Greene County Regional Airport and clambered inside the old warbirds.

After one last check of their engines, the three planes taxied to the end of the runway and took to the skies above central Ohio. A lush patchwork of farms and pastures spread toward the horizon beneath the flight path of the historic aircraft.

Members of the WWII Airborne Demonstration Team wait to board a vintage C-47 before parachuting into Pee Wee's Jump Fest in Xenia, Ohio.Luke Sharrett / for NBC News
Members of the demonstration team ride inside Placid Lassie, a vintage C-47 Skytrain.Luke Sharrett / for NBC News

As the planes penetrated the airspace above their target, one by one the parachutists onboard catapulted themselves out. Soon, the space above the drop zone was filled with dozens of round canopies silhouetted against the overcast sky. The rumble of the three warbirds faded in the distance, quickly replaced by the gentle rustling of nylon parachute canopies fluttering above the drop zone.

More than a thousand feet below, hundreds of spectators had gathered to witness the dramatic scene. Seated in the VIP section of the event was the guest of honor: World War II veteran Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, a longtime resident of Greene County. The re-enactment was in celebration of his 100th birthday.

D-Day Doll, a vintage C-53 transport plane, in flight over Xenia.Luke Sharrett / for NBC News
Static line parachutists jump from a C-47 Skytrain.Luke Sharrett / for NBC News

Martin, who turns 100 Thursday, entered the military in 1942 and volunteered for the 101st Airborne Division. He completed his paratrooper training at Camp Toccoa in the middle of the hot, humid Georgia summer. Upon earning his pair of coveted silver jump wings, Martin and the rest of his comrades deployed to England in preparation for the invasion of Normandy, France.

Martin’s unit, a part of the regiment famously portrayed in the acclaimed HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” first saw action behind enemy lines on D-Day. Following their combat jump June 6, 1944, the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment fought the Germans amongst the hedgerows of France. Later in the war, Martin would jump into the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden and hold the line in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.

Joining Martin at the celebration Saturday were five other World War II veterans from the 101st Airborne: Tom Rice, Vince Speranza, Dan McBride, Al “Doc” Blaney, and Robert Izumi.

Dubbed “Pee Wee’s Jump Fest,” the event was organized by W and R Vets, a New Orleans nonprofit dedicated to supporting U.S. military veterans.

World War II 101st Airborne veterans, from left, Tom Rice, Vince Speranza, Al “Doc” Blaney, Dan McBride, and Bob Izumi.Luke Sharrett / for NBC News
A parachutist exits D-Day Doll over the drop zone.Luke Sharrett / for NBC News

As the parachutists descended, there was a celebratory flyby. The three transport planes circling the drop zone, That’s All, Brother, Placid Lassie and D-Day Doll, had all dropped paratroopers into Normandy and were World War II veterans in their own right.

The crowd applauded as the jumpers finished their descent and landed in the grassy drop zone. Those who jumped included members of the WWII Airborne Demonstration Team, the Round Canopy Parachuting Team, and the Liberty Jump Team. Gathering up their chutes, each jumper walked off the drop zone to pay their respects to Martin and his fellow Screaming Eagles, as the 101st Airborne is known.

Now well into their late 90s, the veterans walked with canes or came in wheelchairs,traveling from all over the country to attend. While their mobility may not have been what it once was, a sense of deep pride was visible on each man’s face as they posed for photos, shook hands, and signed autographs for the adoring crowd.

While the sun will soon set on the last of the World War II generation, the community surrounding Martin and his Screaming Eagle brothers has set out to make sure their stories of courage and service will not be forgotten.

Spectators take photos as parachutists descend on the drop zone.Luke Sharrett / for NBC News
A World War II re-enactor waits in line to eat lunch.Luke Sharrett / for NBC News
World War II re-enactors walk through an encampment.Luke Sharrett / for NBC News
Members of the WWII Airborne Demonstration Team line up for a manifest call before making a parachute jump.Luke Sharrett / for NBC News