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D-Day: Sam Gibbons and the First Two Schlitz Beers in Normandy

“My equipment was typical for the jump that night,” wrote Capt. Sam Gibbons of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles” in his memoir I Was There. “Two parachutes – one main on my back and a reserve on my chest in case the main malfunctioned – both camouflaged green and brown and made of nylon (a brand new substance in those days). We had used some silk ones in our early training. We all wore a Mae West, inflatable-type, life jacket because we crossed 150 miles of ocean and jumped near a river. Many were used that night.

“We also wore an equipment harness and ammunition belt with thirty rounds of .45 caliber pistol ammo and about one hundred rounds of .30 caliber rifle ammo, two hand grenades, a .45 caliber pistol [M1911], loaded and cocked, a .30 caliber folding stock rifle [M1A1 carbine], loaded and cocked, a ten-inch-blade knife strapped to the … calf for hand-to-hand combat, a canteen with one quart of water, one spoon and canteen cup used as a cooking utensil, some water purification tablets, a combat first aid kit tied to the camouflage material that covered our steel helmets (special helmet liner required so helmet wouldn’t be blown off in jump), special first aid kit containing two shots of morphine, sulfa drugs and compress bandages to stop bleeding. In a leg pocket we carried a British-made anti-tank mine because there were plenty of tanks nearby … an equipment bag containing a raincoat, a blanket, toothbrush, toilet paper and six meals of emergency K rations – a combination shovel and pick for digging in; maps, flashlight, compass; also an ‘escape kit’ containing a very small compass, small hacksaw blade, a map of France printed on silk and $300 worth of well-used French currency. This kit was enclosed in a waterproof container measuring four inches by six inches by one-quarter inch – everyone was encouraged to hide it in a different place on the body – I carried mine inside my sock, just above boot top on my right leg…

There were also two non-issue items Gibbons jumped with that night: In his gas mask case, instead of the gas mask, he had placed two cans of Schlitz beer.

“We wore our identification (dog tags) on a light metal chain around our necks, taped together so they didn’t click or rattle. And at noontime before the invasion we had received our last surprise: A “cricket.” This was a metal device made partially of brass and partially of steel. When you depressed the steel it made a snapping sound or a “crick.” And when you released the steel part, it would crick again. This was something we had not counted on and had never heard about, but it was to be our primary means of identification between friend and foe during the night assault. We cricked them a few times and rehearsed (we were to crick once and wait for a response of two cricks) – laughing all the time…”

There were also two non-issue items Gibbons jumped with that night: In his gas mask case, instead of the gas mask, he had placed two cans of Schlitz beer.

Capt. Sam-Gibbons, 501 PIR

Former Congressman Sam Gibbons was a member of the U.S. Army’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, serving in Europe on D-Day and during the Battle of the Bulge. Photo courtesy of WUSF Public Broadcasting

“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.’” Gibbons, from Tampa, Florida, was 24 years old.

Millions of words have been written about June 6, 1944, scores of films and hundreds of television documentaries have been made. It was the day when the Allies began to take the European continent back from the Nazis. Of all those stories, whether the “big picture” histories of the strategies of opposing sides or the more recent, personal stories being told, 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.”

“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.”

Like the thousands of other paratroopers of the 101st, 82nd Airborne “All Americans,” and British 6th Airborne thumping to the ground that night, Gibbons checked himself for all his component parts, got out of his parachute harness, and began to search for other paratroopers from his unit. After 45 minutes of crawling over and through hedgerows and ditches, with the sound of gunfire rattling through the night, Gibbons saw the distinctive outline of an American helmet silhouetted against the sky, and after taking cover and raising his carbine, cricked his cricket.

“Instantly the response came back with two cricks,” Gibbons wrote. “I felt a thousand years younger and both of us moved forward so we could touch each other. I whispered my name and he whispered his. To my surprise, he was not from my plane. In fact, he was not even from my Headquarters group. He was a sergeant and lost, too.” In fact, most of the 101st and 82nd Airborne troopers had been dropped miles from their objectives. Some groups of paratroopers managed to reach and attack their objectives that night; many more were too far away, but decided to move toward the nearest objective and start their war there. The drop zones were so scattered that it caused the Germans more confusion than it would have had the jumps gone off without a hitch. The Germans couldn’t make any sense of where the main concentrations of paratroopers were or what their objectives were.

101st Airborne, Carentan

A captured German “Kubelwagen” is used by American paratroopers of the 101st Airborne, touring the streets of Carentan, France, June 14, 1944. National Archives photo

The two moved off, collecting more paratroopers throughout the night, including two more officers, as they moved toward St. Come-du-Mont, which was at least one of the regiment’s objectives, finally halting at dawn to hold a war council on the best method of attacking the 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.”

Some time later that year, Gibbons returned with his family to Normandy, where they drank those two cans of beer and left them sitting on the road as a monument of a different sort, in the same place where five decades earlier, a 24-year-old captain and a few American paratroopers finished their shared beer, got back to their feet, checked their weapons, and moved toward their objective.

In the following hours and days Gibbons and other paratroopers would fight a series of small unit actions as well as a major battle at Carentan. He and the 101st would go on to seize four of five bridge objectives during Operation Market Garden, hold Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and capture Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” facility.

When the war in Europe ended, Gibbons returned home, went to law school, and served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 consecutive terms.

JFK and Gibbons, Tampa

President John F. Kennedy, flanked by Congressman Sam Gibbons, arrives in Tampa, Nov. 18, 1963, four days before his assassination in Dallas, Texas. Gibbons served for many decades in the U.S. House of Representatives before retiring. National Archives photo

In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Gibbons general chairman of the 50th Anniversary of Normandy commemoration committee.

At a White House dinner, Gibbons was brought two cans of Schlitz beer on a silver platter. When the dinner was over, Gibbons took the two cans with him, unopened.

Some time later that year, Gibbons returned with his family to Normandy, where they drank those two cans of beer and left them sitting on the road as a monument of a different sort, in the same place where five decades earlier, a 24-year-old captain and a few American paratroopers finished their shared beer, got back to their feet, checked their weapons, and moved toward their objective.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-33923">
    WALT HEIMERT

    JUST 24 YEARS OLD,AND HE WAS PROBABLE ONE OF THE OLDER BOYS, WHAT THESE KIDS ACCOMPLISHED IS NOTHING SHORT OF A MIRACLE. WE NEVER ASKED ANY COUNTRY FOR ANYTHING EXCEPT A PLACE TO BURY OUR DEAD. 24 YEARS OLD HELL, I’VE GOT LEFTOVERS IN THE FRIDGE OLDER THAN THAT.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham bypostauthor odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-33926">

    You’re right, he was one of the older ones, and college educated by the time the war came along.

    And throw those leftovers out, will you?

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-55695">
    Robert F. Dorr

    This is a wonderful story in part because it includes Gibbons’ voice. I’m thinking about his postwar role. In the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, we were surrounded by men in their thirties and forties who had done so much during World War II, and too often we failed to encourage them to tell their stories, I’m the author of several books about World War II including “MISSION TO TOKYO” featured elsewhere on this site, and to me it’s incredibly rewarding to be reminded what these men did and to hear about it in their words. You don’t need to buy 100% into the “Greatest Generation” pastiche to know that what these men did was nothing less than to save the world. And then they came home, took off their uniforms, and built a prosperous American society that never wanted or needed a permanent warrior class. These men were citizen soldiers and you gotta love them.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-56015">

    I was 6 years old it was sunday eary afternoon, i was playing with the little girl next ,her mother eas sitting on the stoop readng the sunday paper. my father came out of our house and shouted “the japanese are bombing Pearl harbor” the little girls mother started to cry and the lttle girl ran towards her mother asking what was wrong? me i went up to my dad and asked “whats a pearl hrbor”

    the rest is history