Tampa native Sam Gibbons was 24 years old the night before D-Day when he dropped into German-occupied France as a young captain of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles.”
The former Florida lawmaker and 16-term member of the U.S. Congress died at age 92, peacefully, in his sleep.
In Gibbons' memoir I Was There - he described his experiences in WWII. It is peppered with details like how he replaced his gas mask with two cans of Schlitz beer before the D-Day drop.
“So with all this gear on me (the same for about 12,000 others), I was the third man to step out of plane #42, and dropping 800 feet to start what some have called ‘The Longest Day.’"
The story of how the paratroopers were dropped off course and scattered across the French countryside is widely known. Gibbons and a few other paratroopers managed to pull together and planned an attack on a nearby town.
“At the end of this council I brought out my two cans of beer, which we shared,” Gibbons wrote. “When the cans were empty we decided to leave them in the middle of the road as a monument to the first cans of Schlitz consumed in France and moved on.”
Chuck Oldham of Defense Media Network wrote that Gibbons' story of the Allied landing in Normandy has always stuck with him:
Of all those stories ... Gibbons’ story, written in a self-deprecating tone as it was in I Was There and popularized in Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, remains one that has always struck me as somehow being indicative of the American paratroopers’ fight during that early morning of June 6, 1944, with a young captain abruptly thrust into an unexpected leadership role, he and his men dropped far from their objectives, lost and improvising their way through a night of combat, and ‘marching toward the sound of gunfire.’
The young captain was with the 101st as it helped hold Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and captured Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” facility.
When Gibbons returned to Tampa, he went to law school, served as a state lawmaker and then for 16 terms in the U.S. Congress. President Bill Clinton named Cong. Gibbons general chairman of the 50th Anniversary of Normandy commemoration committee.
When Gibbons returned to Normandy for the 50th anniversary - he had with him another two cans of Schlitz beer - which he drank and left sitting on the road again - as a monument of a different sort.
Over the years, I had the opportunity to report on Sam Gibbons as an elected official and as a veteran. He will be remembered as a "true American hero" who returned phone calls.
And, if you happen to have a can of Schlitz handy tonight, lift one to the old warrior who battled among the hedge rows of Normandy and bridged the aisles in Congress to make this a better country and world.