On the eve of June 6, 1944, thousands of paratroopers braced themselves for the first step in the invasion of Europe. Among the ranks was Berrien Springs resident Rex Welch.
Welch is now 92 years old. He looks through old books and photos and can easily recall the details of the days, weeks and months that followed D-Day. Many of his former friends and soldiers passed away over the past 70 decades, but Welch never wants to forget them.
His story starts in 1939; Welch was 17 and enlisted in the United States Army with the consent of his mother. For three years Welch was a cook and pastry chef that decided to sign up for the airborne infantry after Pearl Harbor.
"President Roosevelt came on the radio and informed us of the dastardly attack of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and he extended everyone in active duty for the duration of the war," explained Welch.
Welch trained and qualified to join the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the 82nd Airborne Division. His unit traveled to Africa and made drops into Sicily and Italy before the full Western Allied Invasion on D-Day.
The first jump Welch ever completed was way off course, landing in Sicily his unit landed roughly 35 miles away from its intended drop point. Luckily, the 505 made it to its intended position for D-Day.
"I had received all this instruction on how to pack a parachute, survive being dragged along by a 25-30 mile per hour wind, and all the aspects of jumping: coming through wire, coming through a tree, we practiced that," said Welch. But no practice could've completely prepared him for what he would encounter in the largest paratroop drop and invasion in history.
At around midnight, Welch's unit landed on the turf of France around the village of Sainte Mere Eglise and set up a defensive parameter. They assembled their M-1 rifles and rolled up the stick of jumpers.
"The firing got a bit fierce and the first three days there we lost 12 members of my unit," the first night Welch said they were able to set up and were treated to coffee and apple pie by a nun from Sainte Mere Eglise--a much needed treat after dropping through mortar and artillery fire.
Unlike so many others, Welch survived the war relatively unscathed.
When a mortar round exploded within a few feet of another soldier Welch said it blew holes in the man's helmet and head. Medics ultimately decided the soldier was unable to be saved and moved on.
"I saw him pulling the parachute off his head and I said, hey leave that parachute around your head, your brain is oozing out and flies are buzzing," but realizing in hindsight how harsh he sounded, Welch acknowledged that war forced him to be callous.
From D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge Welch continued to fight until the end of the war in Europe.
Welch remained in the Army to serve and train soldiers in Korea.