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Camden man remembers tragic 1943 parachute jump

Posted: August 7, 2014 3:51 p.m.
Updated: August 8, 2014 5:00 a.m.
Gary Phillips/C-I

A memorial to the 505th’s Parachute Infantry’s jump stands along INVISTA’s walking track by U.S. 1 in Lugoff.

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“It’s in my mind and I’ll never get it out. I stood there on the bank and watched them pull them out dead.”

That’s the recollection of 86-year-old Freddie L. Wilson of Camden, who watched a tragic military parachute exercise that went horribly wrong on March 29, 1943, when Wilson was 14. The massive jump included more than 1,000 soldiers and was the largest in military history at the time. It took place along the Wateree River near where the INVISTA’s Lugoff plant now stands.

Wilson said his main reason for being there that day was to get a meal.

“I was down there with the 34th Infantry. They took boats and built a temporary bridge across the river and they had a mess hall,” he said.

The exercise by the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment -- the first regimental mass parachute jump in U.S. Army history -- was in preparation of a planned invasion of the Italian island of Sicily, which took place July 9, 1943. Wilson said the first wave of paratroopers jumped, but a second line of planes followed at a lower altitude and collided with three of the first jumpers.

“They didn’t have this radar like they do now. The way the planes came in, they came in and dropped them and then other planes came in lower and hit the parachutes They dropped, and then the other planes came in below them and cut the parachutes. It was just a mistake,” he said. “Mr. King -- he’s dead now; he was from Louisiana, but he used to run a barber shop here -- he was one of the paratroopers and he said, ‘I dropped and when I was coming down they just missed me.’ Me and him became good friends. I was the last one living who saw it.”

Wilson said some of the dead fell into the Wateree River and their bodies were recovered from the water.

The April 9, 1943, issue of the Fort Bragg’s newspaper, “Static Line,” declared the exercise a huge success, despite the unfortunate deaths.

“It was extremely regrettable that the lives of three men were lost, but when operating under realistic combat conditions happenings of this nature are often unavoidable. It is felt that the lessons learned in this problem will be the incentive for the Army to give the green light to extensive future Airborne Operations,” Static Line reported.

Wilson lost a brother in WWII, received his draft notice when he was 17 and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is still heavily involved in local veterans groups and is the chaplain for the local Marine Corps League and KershawHealth.

“It was good for me,” he said of his military experience. “I don’t regret it and I’d do it all over again.”

He said witnessing the 1943 event kept him away from the site for the rest of his youth, but he now returns every year for a memorial event honoring that fateful day where a monument stands along U.S. 1 near the INVISTA plant.

“I didn’t know at that time how many got killed, I just saw them drop in the river,” Wilson said. “That was the last day I was down there with the 34th Infantry. That was more than I could handle. I didn’t go back after that.”

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