On 75th anniversary of D-Day, remembering the Army's first jumping chaplain
East Lyme — Seventy-five years ago, Raymond Hall was among the first to parachute down on France on D-Day.
But the story of how Hall, an Episcopalian priest, ended up jumping out of the plane that led the main airborne invasion on D-Day begins with an assignment at Fort Benning, Ga., where Army paratroopers trained.
Hall, of Lynn, Mass., enlisted in the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, and in January 1942 was assigned to the Parachute School at Fort Benning. More than 8,000 men were part of the Chaplain Corps during World War II, serving as spiritual leaders and advisers to various military units, but also as soldiers.
Shortly after arriving at Fort Benning, Hall was asked by those going through paratrooper training whether he was going to jump too. His reply, "of course," was intended as a joke, but he soon learned the men expected him to do just that.
Hall went to the commander of the 101st Airborne, Gen. William. C. Lee, to ask permission. He argued that there would come a day when a chaplain would be needed on the battlefield, and that he'd be better at advising the men if he went through the same experience they did.
"It was tough to communicate because he didn't know what they were going through, so he decided if he was going to be effective, he had to do the same thing they did," his son, Raymond S. "Pete" Hall, 83, of Niantic, recalled in an interview last week.
Lee told Hall there was no requirement that chaplains undergo paratrooper training and that, at nearly 34, he was too old. Eventually, Lee got the OK from officials in Washington to let Hall, who'd never been on a plane before, go through the grueling, five-week training.
"The first about 11 times that he ever was up in a plane, he never landed because he was doing the jump training," Pete Hall said. "The first time he was ever in a plane he had to jump out."
Hall had to jump five times to qualify. His fourth jump was a close call. As he was descending, he noticed that he was passing the others very quickly. He looked up and saw what appeared to be a big dent in his parachute. One of the lines from the chute was around his neck. It turns out he fell through his parachute, which had been turned upside down. He made a rough landing but ended up unscathed.
The incident drew fanfare — thousands of letters from boys aspiring to be paratroopers — and earned him the nickname "Jumping Jesus," signifying his achievement as the first chaplain to qualify as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army. He joined the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.
More people started showing up to church as a result. Initially, some 10 men attended his service. The Sunday after the parachute incident, a crowd filled the chapel.
Hall would go on to jump out of the C-47 Dakota transport known as "That's All, Brother," which, on the eve of D-Day, led more than 800 C-47s that dropped more than 13,000 paratroopers behind enemy lines in Normandy. Lt. Col. John M. Donalson, who piloted the plane, chose the name to send a message to Adolf Hitler that his reign was over.
Press dispatches from the time describe how Hall, after the D-Day jump, refused to leave the front line, "holding shattered arms and legs, injecting morphine and adjusting splints under fire." He told a reporter on June 12, 1944, "It's hell down there; I know because I've been with those kids for several hours."
In July 1944, Hall's eye was injured by shrapnel from a German grenade. He spent time in England recuperating. When his unit invaded Holland in September 1944, Hall wanted to jump, but the Army wouldn't let him. He convinced officials to let him fly in by glider instead.
Within days, he was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Posen, Poland, where he spent four months. He escaped when Russian forces began advancing on the camp, and eventually returned to the U.S.
Hall, who died in June 1970 at the age of 61, had three sons with his wife, Mary, through whom future generations of the family learned of Hall's service.
"My grandmother reveled in memories of him and we always thirsted for more" said Jeff Hall, of Chandler, Ariz., one of his grandsons.
A big part of Hall's legacy — the plane he jumped out of on D-Day — was almost lost. "That's All, Brother" was weeks from being converted to a turboprop plane when a historian with the U.S. Air Force Reserve came across it. The Commemorative Air Force, a preservation organization, spearheaded a crowdsourcing campaign to restore the aircraft, which including the purchase of the plane, at a cost about $3 million, according to Leah Block, vice president of marketing for CAF.
The plane, which is currently in Normandy as part of an event marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day, now features a plate above the seat in which Hall sat prior to the D-Day jump. Jeff Hall and his brother, Dan Hall, of Gainesville, Fla., contributed to the restoration campaign and received naming rights to their grandfather's seat.
They requested it be inscribed: Maj. Raymond S. "Chappie" Hall.