It was the shot seen round the world, a man with scraggly blond hair and a potbelly, his arm outstretched in a Ku Klux Klan salute in Charlottesville on Saturday. He was flanked by others like him, and they were all decked out in camouflage and Confederate flags.
But what made this photo different from others was the man’s cap — with the AA emblem of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, the unit that fought the Nazis in Italy, Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and into Germany. These paratroopers helped liberate Europe.
“Would LOVE to know the name of Mr. 82nd Airborne Division here rendering Hitler’s Nazi salute. The 82nd jumped into Normandy on D-Day,” tweeted Brandon Friedman, a deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Barack Obama.
For the record, the man was doing a Klan salute, which looks like a Hitler salute but is done with the left arm.
Friedman’s photo, tweeted after the 82nd celebrated its 100th anniversary last weekend in Orlando, Florida, was liked 30,000 times and shared 23,000 times by Wednesday evening; it elicited strong reactions from families of veterans who served in World War II.
“My dad (Army inf.) was captured by the Nazis in the Ardennes b4 reinforcements arrived. POW for the rest of the war. Hated Nazis till he died,” tweeted Robin Rose.
Celebrities like Julia Louis-Dreyfus also tweeted family photos of World War II vets, responding to Trump’s comparing of Nazis to their opponents — an equivalence that many Americans found morally repulsive. Trump also referred to the “alt-left,” a trumped-up term coined by right-wing bloggers.
“@realDonaldTrump @GOP Here’s my grandpa, Pierre Louis-Dreyfus, fighting in the resistance against the Nazis in occupied France. Alt left?” tweeted the actress.
Battle of the Bulge, Dec. '44: "I'm the 82nd Airborne and this is as far as the bastards are going." 82nd AB fighting against Nazis. pic.twitter.com/zXNSkDDjrR— Dan O'Donnell (@danothebeach) August 13, 2017
For Kenneth “Rock” Merritt, 94, who fought in the D-Day invasion, the white nationalist in an 82nd Airborne cap was a stain on the memory of those lost on France’s shores more than 70 years ago.
“What I remember most from Normandy was that my entire chain of command was wiped out,” he says. “That’s not a very good morale booster for a 20-year-old corporal who’s a squad leader.”
But he persevered and earned a Silver Star for his courage on the battlefield; he helped obliterate German combat units head-on. By the time he returned to England six weeks later, less than half his fellow paratroopers had made it out alive.
Reflecting on such battles, Merritt says he’s appalled by the man sporting an 82nd Airborne cap while associating himself with Nazis.
“I think it was absolutely wrong of him,” Merritt says. “I’m 100 percent against Nazis, the Klan and David Duke. They stand for everything we fought against.”
Integration in many ways
Merritt was also on hand when President John F. Kennedy sent in the paratroopers to protect James Meredith when he became the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962.
“I remember that day vividly,” he says. “I was made a sergeant major that day. When a reporter asked the president, why did you send the 82nd Airborne Division to get one man integrated into college, he responded: ‘When you want the job done right, you get the asset you have, and for us, it’s the 82nd Airborne Division.”
So the 82nd is a legend in American history, which is why so many people felt that its reputation was being sullied by any association with the Klan.
“About one-third of our division are either African American or Hispanic," says Sgt. Maj. Louis Gutierrez. “That tells you and me that the division is very integrated and features all types of nationalities, and I believe that it’s the only division that consistently has that high a percentage of minorities. That tells you how good it is. It bothers all of us that we’re now associated with a white supremacist in Charlottesville.”
The legend of the 82nd is what drew Jonathan Schwam to sign up for the army when he was 17.
“I was a fat Jewish kid from Long Island,” he says. “I specifically wanted to join the 82nd so I could jump out of the planes like the paratroopers who landed in Normandy and liberated Europe.”
Schwam had been in Orlando celebrating the division’s 100th anniversary when the events in Charlottesville unfurled; he didn’t hear about the viral photo until he returned. “It was upsetting,” he says. “It’s an outrage and an insult and goes against everything we stand for.”
As the 82nd’s Twitter account put it about the viral image: “Our WWII Airborne forefathers jumped into Europe to defeat Nazism. We know who we are. We know our legacy.”
“Our division has been representative of the country in ways that other units have not,” says the tweet’s author, Army Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino, the spokesman for the 82nd. “I don’t know if the guy in the picture realizes it but AA stands for All Americans and goes back to the idea that in 1917, when the division was formed, this was the only unit in the country that had soldiers from all 48 states, and 22 percent of the division were immigrants.”
Though it was started as an infantry division it became a paratrooper unit, recruiting from just about everywhere. “Across the division, we speak more than 200 languages, and this division was integrated in 1947, a year before President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the U.S. armed forces,” Buccino says.
“We integrated a unit called the Triple Nickel, an all-black paratrooper company, which forced the integration of the rest of the military the next year and paved the way for the American civil rights movement.”
The people in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville over the weekend shouted anti-Semitic slurs like “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi refrain “blood and soil.” They also spouted anti-immigrant and anti-black sentiments and carried clubs, guns and tiki torches, evoking the Nazis marches in Germany in the 1930s.
It was an eerie spectacle that ran counter to the values of the 82nd and was something World War II veterans never expected to witness back home.
Jumping behind German lines
Joseph Morettini was just 19 when he boarded a transport plane — a Douglas C-47 Skytrain in Dover, England — with gear that was heavier than he was.
“It was after 11 P.M. when they pushed me onboard,” he says. “When I was flying over the English Channel, it was nice and calm, then when we hit the French coast, the plane was rocking back and forth, and I thought, I hope I don’t have to jump out into this turbulence.”
But he did.
“It was about 2:10 A.M. when we were told stand up and hook up,” Morettini says. “And then the green light went on and out the door we went.”
He discovered it wasn’t the weather that was making his plane rock, it was German anti-aircraft tracers. One whizzed by his head to his right and knocked his helmet off.
“On my left, I watched a plane go down in flames,” he says. “There were so many flames lighting up the sky, it was like Fourth of July fireworks. I thought my life was over, but then I landed in between two trees about six inches above the ground, rocking back and forth like I was on a swing.”
Morettini landed about 16 miles inland from the Normandy coast, behind German lines. He saw Germans in a building, threw a few grenades at them, but decided to head back to the beach until daylight when he could see what was happening. When the sun rose, he headed back to help overtake the hill and was met with heavy fire and lots of casualties.
After holding his ground for five days, he suffered a gunshot wound to his arm and trench foot — “when there’s moisture in your boots and your toes turn blue.” He saw colleagues blown to smithereens by his side and was eventually taken to a field hospital to recuperate.
“When I returned, it was all replacements; that’s how bad the losses were,” he says. “I’m proud of the 82nd Airborne; what we accomplished. It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of self-sacrifice.”
When asked about Trump’s comments on Tuesday in which he referred to “some fine people ... on both sides” regarding Nazis and their opponents, Morettini paused. “There’s no such thing as a good Nazi,” he said. “I suppose a good Nazi is a dead Nazi.”
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