In the final hours of June 5, 1944, Sgt. Chester Brooks and thirteen other members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division waited in a plane flying above Normandy, France.
With parachutes on their backs and 300 pounds of gear strapped to their bodies, the troops watched for the cabin’s red light to turn green, their cue to jump out the door.
But before that ever happened, the plane banked in one direction, then back in the other way, sending Brooks and others out the door and into the night sky.
“Up to this point I had been surrounded by comrades in my war with the German enemy and the enemy within me — fear. Suddenly I was hanging in the sky all alone,” Brooks later wrote in a memoir for his family.
“I crumpled up with very little landing impact,” Brooks wrote. “Then the fun began.”
As a paratrooper in the 101st, Brooks and his fellow soldiers were responsible for cutting off German access to the French beaches in preparation of a massive invasion by Allied forces on June 6, 1944 — D-Day, the landing of Allied forces in France to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany in World War II.
Hours after Brooks and the 20,000 other paratroopers landed, at least 90,000 more Allied troops crossed the English Channel, landing on beaches where they were met by the gunfire from thousands of German troops.
But drive proved successful and marked a turning point in the European theatre of WWII.
Although Brooks died in 2007 at 89 years old, his story will continue to be told at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior where he’s represented by a mannequin parachuting into the museum, suspended from the building’s ceiling and surrounded by a display exhibiting his uniform, medals and stories.
Brooks’s daughter Nancy Sailstad, of Duluth, stood beside the display 75 years to the day after her father’s jump into Normandy as staff and volunteers put the finishing touches on it before events Thursday marking the D-Day anniversary.
“It’s pretty awesome,” she said.
Brooks' widow Ebba, 100, also still lives in Duluth.
For Bong curator Briana Fiandt, the exhibit is a way to ensure local veteran stories continue to be shared.
“Our World War II vets are passing so fast now and it’s really important for us to capture their stories now,” Fiandt said.
For years, Brooks didn’t openly share many war stories to his family, Sailstad said.
“I think a lot of them were too hard,” Sailstad said.
But that changed just before the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
Sailstad said that when “Schindler’s List,” a 1993 movie about Jews saved from the Holocaust, was released shortly before the 50th anniversary of D-Day., her daughter asked Brooks if he had served in WWII.
“So he thought, ‘I’d better write some stuff down so they know what went on there,’” Sailstad said.
Additionally, volunteers at the Bong recorded more than two hours of audio and video of Brooks telling his stories. Those proved helpful when museum staff needed a local veteran to illustrate its paratrooper display.
“We had the paratrooper exhibit but we needed a local paratrooper. So I looked through the collection and found Chester's story and listened to it, and it was such a good story,” Fiandt said. “He's so articulate, and he was a historian himself after the war. He really gave a very powerful oral history that I thought fit really well with the exhibit.”
“I felt like I knew him,” Dave Schmidt, a volunteer at Bong, added.
Schmidt came up with the idea for the paratrooper exhibit about a year and a half ago.
“The reason why this museum exists is to remind people to keep the history of our armed services in mind,” Schmidt said.
After World War II, Brooks went on to earn his Ph.D. in history from the University of Minnesota and spend his career in the National Park Service, eventually serving as the superintendent Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado before retiring to Duluth.
Asked how her father, a historian, would feel seeing himself honored in a museum, Sailstad said, “Oh, he would just be amazed. … He would be pretty awesome and excited.”
If you go
What: 75th Anniversary D-Day Flag of Remembrance Ceremony and Open House
Where: Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center, 305 Harbor View Parkway, Superior
When: June 6 at 5:30 p.m.