Throughout World War II, two American soldiers’ lives ran parallel, though they never met.
Norwood Thomas and Dan McBride spent 44 days on the same ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean with 5,000 troops, headed for England. On Dec. 6, 1944, both men jumped into Normandy as part of the 101st Airborne Division, and continued to fight tangentially throughout Europe until the war was won.
In 2017, the two men came face to face for the first time at the Frederick Regional Airport.
“To meet again someone who was there, it means so much to me,” McBride said of connecting with Thomas. “You can’t describe the feeling.”
The pair has kept in touch, meeting up several times in Frederick and around the country at events honoring WWII vets.
On Tuesday morning, they sat in the airport hangar, watching as men and women from across the country ran paratrooping drills in the very uniforms they’d worn 75 years earlier.
These students are part of the WWII Airborne Demonstration Team’s (ADT) fall jump school. After a week of rigorous training and successfully completing five jumps, the students will graduate today during the team’s Open Hangar Days, where a handful of WWII veterans — including Thomas and McBride — will be on hand to pin ADT’s newest members.
“When we started (the jump schools), we had a vet pinning each graduate,” said Steve McGarry, ADT Jumpmaster and Senior Parachute Instructor. “Now we’re down to just a few.”
Even at 97 and 95, Thomas and McBride are sharp.
While chatting with friends Tuesday, they recalled making jumps into Holland and receiving medical care from nuns during the Siege of Bastogne in Belgium.
“It was an all-expenses-paid tour of Europe,” joked McBride, who was awarded three Purple Heart medals by the time victory was declared.
“I’ve got enough steel in my leg to make a new Chevy,” he added.
“You’re getting old, you know it?” Thomas teased his friend, two years his junior.
“That’s what I hear,” McBride responded, smiling contentedly, his weathered hands resting atop his walking cane.
Even as they bantered, Thomas smiled wistfully, his eyes surveying the nostalgia-soaked hangar in a slow sweep.
“There are some memories I would like to forget,” Thomas said. “But there’s no way to do it.”
Sunday was Thomas’ 97th birthday. When he turned 88, he made a bucket list, and at the top was his wish to parachute out of an airplane again.
Every year since, Thomas has jumped tandem out of a plane to celebrate his birthday.
“This year, he had to make a choice,” said Thomas’ son, Steven Thomas, who traveled with his dad from their home in Virginia Beach, Va. “We can spend an afternoon in Suffolk or a week in Frederick.”
Thomas didn’t have to think long at all.
On Sunday night, courtesy of ADT, Thomas went on his first night ride in a Douglas C-47 Skytrain since D-Day.
“He was pretty quiet,” Steven said. “I think it was pretty emotional for him.”
For Thomas, it was the cherry on top of an incredible week, one he said he’s extremely grateful for.
“Taking part in these operations here, it means more to me than anything,” Thomas said. “I’ve been overwhelmed since I got here. These people all feel like my family.”