As a young World War II paratrooper, Richard Falvey stood at the edge of an open airplane door, anxiously waiting to jump into the darkness behind enemy lines.
Falvey, the second man out the door, watched as two other planes packed with paratroopers exploded just before he jumped."And all I could think of was, `Let me out of this airplane and give me a fighting chance,' " he recalled.
Falvey was one of thousands who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day to help the invading Allied ground forces.
He now is among a group of 38 former paratroopers returning to France to mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day by re-enacting their jumps. A 39th veteran is going with them but decided not to make the jump.
On Sunday, they will leap from World War II planes into the northern French village of Ste. Mere-Eglise.
"I'll be thinking of all the men we left behind," Falvey said Wednesday, wearing the same lace-up boots he jumped in 50 years ago. The veteran, who now lives in Hammondsport, N.Y., was just 22 on June 6, 1944.
Some of the paratroopers jumped on D-Day, while some jumped in other World War II battles. The veterans, ranging in age from 68 to 83, all had to renew their skills by making at least three practice jumps before they could participate in Sunday's event.
"We're ready to go back," said Thomas Rice, 72, of San Diego. "We left part of our youth in France. We want to try it all together, to complete the cycle, to get part of our youth back."
Back in 1944, the paratroopers made their jumps under cover of darkness. There was no such secrecy surrounding their trip back to France.
The group left Houston on Wednesday amid patriotic pageantry, complete with miniature American flags, a red carpet and a military band.
All were dressed in the same new, tan, military-style uniforms, maroon berets and tall, lace-up boots. Now living in 18 states, they reunited in Houston to make the trip.
Plans for the re-enactment began in 1992 with a meeting between Col. Emile Gueguen, a former French paratrooper and commander of the French Legion of Honor, and Richard Mandich, former U.S. paratrooper from the 101st Airborne Division.
The two founded the Return to Normandy Association and circulated letters to veterans groups in search of former D-Day paratroopers willing to re-enact the jump.
When they jump Sunday, they are assured a warm greeting on the ground. Fifty years ago, they faced only gunfire.
"There were no heroes. Nobody was thinking about heroism," Falvey said. "There was a job to be done, it had to be done and we did it."