The Flaming Jump
“If anyone thinks the silk is not safe,” T4 James C. Bailey said to his interviewer, “send them around to see me. If a man can make a safe parachute drop through the burning floor of a C-47, he can sure do it anytime, anywhere.”
It was fall 1945. Bailey was seated at his assigned post behind the reception desk of the 82nd Airborne Division Museum in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It was a post far different from the one he’d held only a year before.
Bailey was recounting an event he had experienced on September 17th, 1944 while he was a Corporal in the 82nd Airborne Division/504th Parachute Battalion.
On that day, he and eighteen other paratroopers were seated in the belly of a C-47 military transport plane as it flew low over the English Channel towards the flooded fields of Holland.
They were not alone. They were one of the hundreds of troop transports that formed a vast flying armada, code-named Market, the spearhead of the Allied two-pronged invasion, Operation Market Garden.
Market’s mission was first to establish bridgeheads across enemy-held rivers, opening the way to bring in the ‘Garden’ ground force segment of the assault to outflank the Siegfried Line. Secondly, they were to take Germany’s industrial heartland and finally, as most troopers wanted to believe, be home by Christmas.
The 82nd’s specific mission was to take control of the bridges at Grave and Nijmegen.
The C-47s bounced along towards their drop zones, maintaining strict compliance with orders for an orderly formation and flying at a fixed altitude and speed.
It took thirty-five minutes for the entire armada to lumber past any given point on the ground, thirty-five minutes for the expert German flak batteries to place these juicy targets directly inside the crosshairs of their deadly eighty-eights.
As the planes came into range of the defenders’ guns and the flak explosions popped around them, thousands of men in those cargo bays each dealt silently with their fears and contemplated their fate.
Corporal James Charles Bailey was one of those thousands.
Crunched in his seat between fellow troopers in the mid-section of the hold, he could get a tiny glimpse of Belgium through the open doorway and see a sky grow increasingly cluttered with deadly black puffs of exploding flak shells.
He felt a familiar tightness in his stomach, the same tightness he had experienced on similar C47 flights carrying him into harm’s way. He specifically remembered the first one of those flights. It had been on July 9th, 1943.
On that night, he had ridden in another C-47 as it sped low over the Mediterranean Sea towards Sicily and his first combat mission. That was the first time he had ever really said a genuine prayer.
“Well,” he reasoned, “at least this operation is in daylight, and I will be able to see the landing zone.”
He was jolted back to reality by a nearby explosion and a loud grunt from the Lieutenant seated in the jump seat next to the door. Bailey watched him keel over to the floor, grimacing in pain. Flak shrapnel had slashed the Lieutenant’s legs.
Dull thuds signaled more flak piercing the C47’s skin. The pilots somehow managed to keep the plane on course. Two other curses indicated someone else had been hit. Daylight shone through holes where the plane’s metal skin should have been.
Almost immediately someone yelled, “We’re on fire!”
“Hook-up,” the Lieutenant demanded as he writhed on the floor.
Everyone sprang into action and began the practiced routine of hooking up their static lines to the overhead bar, which would hopefully pull open their parachutes if they had to jump.
They aligned themselves in a single file facing towards the jump door near the tail of the plane. Bailey was fourth in line to the door. His buddy Private Ford was directly behind him.
Dense, choking smoke filled the air. The troopers pressed into each other as they inched forward, anxious to reach the door and escape to the fresh air beyond.
There was no panic as the highly trained men awaited the inevitable command to jump.
Suddenly there was a thud. Immediately, the three men sandwiched between Bailey and the door became engulfed in flames. A second later, they disappeared through a hole in the transport’s shattered floor.
Bailey momentarily tipped over face-first into the flames before he could right himself with his static line. His eyebrows and lashes were gone, singed from his face. He could hear the three men’s yells and curses quickly fade as they plummeted towards the ground, and then he heard the familiar “slap” of their static lines as they reached full extension.
It was a good sound. He hoped the lines had done their job and opened the fellow’s chutes
The Lieutenant was gone, too. His static line had not been hooked up. The thought prompted Bailey to verify his hook-up and the integrity of the bar. All appeared well.
The heat was intense, the air too acrid to breathe. Now he couldn’t see anything through the smoke. The plane began to shudder, signaling an imminent end to its ability to remain aloft.
He thought, “Is it going to break up?”
He knew time was running out.
His mind raced with options.
“There’s gotta be a hole where those guys were just standing”, he reasoned to himself. “But is it big enough for me to jump through?”
He forced from his mind the chilling thought of being impaled by the sharp metal and burning to death.
“And even if I make it through,” his mind raced, “Will this fragile silk chute survive the heat?”
He quickly made a decision.
He shouted over his shoulder to Private Ford, still crowded close behind him, “I think there’s a hole there,” nodding towards the flaming floor in front of him. “I’m gonna jump through it. If I make it, come behind me.”
“Go, go, go!” Ford yelled, sharply slapping Bailey on the back with approval.
Bailey closed his eyes as tightly as he could, tucked his chin into his chest, and quickly said the second genuine prayer of his young life.
Then he leaped into the cauldron.
The fuel-stoked hellfire singed the hair from his hands. His rifle briefly snagged on something, careening him to the right. He let go of it and watched it fall towards the ground. His only concern was his immediate survival, not the protection his rifle might provide later.
A welcomed rush of cold air told him he had cleared the death trap. Then, in quick succession, he felt the familiar jerk of his static line deploying his chute and the welcomed jolt from God blowing open his chute canopy.
He immediately looked up to see if his chute was damaged. It was perfect.
He glimpsed who he assumed was Private Ford floating down above him. Good, he thought. At least one other man has followed me through the hole. He hoped the others were as lucky.
His skin burned like he was lying in a bed of hot coals. He was afraid he might pass out. His smoldering shirtsleeves were nearly burned away. His pant legs had big charred holes in them and the exposed skin was badly blistered.
He tried to brush the hot ashes from his arms but his hands and arms were so badly burned he couldn’t cope with the pain it caused.
The front of his parachute harness had been so heated by the flames that the nylon straps had partially melted and seared away his shirt behind them. His skin was blistered along the harness path from his groin to his shoulders.
He briefly considered what the consequences would have been if they had burned through but his thought was interrupted when he saw in the distance his flaming plane splash headlong into a flooded field and erupt into a ball of fire.
“Hope they all got out”, he thought.
But he had little time to dwell on the fate of his companions. Any other paratrooper would probably have been counting his blessings now. After all, hadn’t God provided the escape hole and opened his chute?
But James Charles Bailey’s challenge was just beginning. And this immediate challenge posed a far greater threat to his survival than even his burns or his descent into enemy territory.
As a defensive measure the Germans had flooded the area and it produced a huge lake. Only widespread small clumps of tree-tops were visible.
He began to panic. He looked in every direction for dry land and spotted a raised roadbed about a half-mile behind him. It stuck only a couple of feet above the water. The tops of the submerged telephone poles running alongside it were barely visible.
Unable to use his scorched hands, he tried to direct his descent towards the raised roadbed by swinging his body, but the pain was unbearable. He stopped struggling and settled in for the short descent to his destiny.
He began to pray for another miracle.
As he all-to-quickly descended towards what he was sure would be his watery grave, he flashed back to the day he had joined the Army.
Since childhood, J.C. Bailey, the only name he had ever gone by until he enlisted, had wanted to become a soldier. Joining the US Army was, as he saw it, the only solution to escape the poverty and nomad lifestyle he and his family endured on the red clay farms of Georgia and Alabama.
So after a brief stint in the Civil Conservation Corp and as soon as he came of age, he had solicited an uncle to help him enlist in the army.
He remembered his Army recruiting sergeant’s frustration when he quizzed, “J.C. Bailey, huh? What does the J.C. stand for?”
“It don’t stand for nothing, sergeant,” Bailey had replied.
“It’s gotta stand for something if you wanna be in this man’s army, son,” the sergeant threatened.
Bailey quickly said, “It stands for James Charles, sergeant.”
James Charles? There was no reason for his choice. He didn’t even know anyone named James Charles. It was just the first names that came to mind.
He was surprised at how easily the sergeant had accepted those names, and how proud the former J.C. Bailey, now Private James Charles Bailey, felt to be in the US Army.
During his basic training, a stint with the mumps put him in a Fort Benning, Georgia hospital bed for a week. There he lay every day, watching the paratroopers train through his hospital room window.
The respect that these elite troops received, sweetened by the fact that they received fifty-five dollars a month in ‘jump pay’, had convinced him he wanted to be a part of it.
But his enthusiasm to become a paratrooper had overridden his normal high moral standards and prompted him to lie during his interview about his ability to swim, a skill required of all paratroops.
Today he may be paying with his life for that lie. He now regretted his decision on that Fort Benning riverbank to use his six-foot height to bluff his way through the paratrooper swimming test.
And now he could only watch as the distance to a watery grave became feet, and the feet became inches. His fear of drowning swelled within him, exceeding even the pain of his burns.
He stretched his body height to its fullest and hoped his toes would touch a bottom he prayed was there.
When his toes pierced the water he instantly struck the bottom. His legs folded under him and he collapsed like a rag doll. The water was only knee-deep.
Once again God had answered the prayer of James Charles Bailey.
As he struggled to stand, the elation of not being underwater was quickly replaced by the pain that even the slightest touch caused his burns.
He quickly looked around, hoping to find someone to help free him from his chute harness… No one.
C-47’s still passed overhead, some very close. He saw the faces of the soldiers standing in the doorways. He wanted to signal them but the pain of raising his arms was too great.
He heard at least three anti-aircraft guns firing in the distance. Now his greatest fear was being spotted by German soldiers. He was defenseless.
“I have to find some cover and some help”, he said to himself, pointing out the obvious
He painfully removed his bayonet from the sheath on his belt and gingerly hacked away the parachute harness. Then he began the agonizing trudge through the knee-deep water towards the road, crouching low in an attempt to hide.
The friction of the water unmercifully scraped his tattered pants across the skin of his blistered legs.
A dozen yards into the journey the ground under him suddenly fell away and he completely sank into the water over his head.
He scrambled to retreat to higher ground and discovered he had stepped into a ditch hidden by the high water.
“If I had landed in that ditch,” he would later recall, “I probably would have just gave up and drowned.”
He eventually found a narrow section of the ditch that he could step across. More aware now of possible underwater dangers, he carefully explored his way along a shallow water route and a half-hour later made it to the road.
He took cover in a small clump of hedges at the edge of the road. Even the foliage caused him pain when it touched his burns.
Minutes later he heard whispered American voices. He peered out through the bushes and saw Reardon and Woodstock, two of the paratroopers who had fallen through the belly of the plane, entering the road from the water. They had survived unharmed. They were startled when he called out to them.
They had not seen Private Ford or any other Americans. It was becoming obvious that no one else on the plane had survived the crash.
The three of them made their way down the road towards a small village and were quickly joined in route by two resistance people, a man and a woman who led them to refuge in a small vacant two-story house and then left to search for other survivors.
Bailey stationed Woodstock at an upstairs window and Reardon at one downstairs. He wished he had a weapon himself and silently wondered if he might have been able to hold on to his rifle for just a second longer when he had jumped from the plane, but realized that he wouldn’t be able to use his burned hands to fire it anyway.
His eyes were nearly closed by his blistered swelling face. They anxiously waited, hoping to see other friendlies but instead, Woodstock spotted a group of five German soldiers making a house-to-house search and headed their way.
When the Germans walked directly by the downstairs window, Reardon fired his pistol point-blank at one of them but the windowpane deflected the bullet and it missed.
The Germans darted for cover and began lobbing grenades at the house. Within minutes several other Germans joined them.
After four explosions rocked the house, Bailey realized they were heavily outgunned. He called on his common sense and ordered Reardon to wave a handkerchief and surrender.
James Charles Bailey was a prisoner of war.
He never received medical treatment for his burns. For weeks following his capture he fitfully tried to sleep with his arms raised to ease the pulsating pain of his burns.
Other POWs fed him his ration of bread, he couldn’t feed himself. He never took his boots off for fear they would be stolen by his starving comrades to trade for bread.
In late fall 1944, after nearly seven months in captivity, he and thousands of other POWs were forced to march in the snow for thirty-six days over 400 miles to a camp at Bad Orb, Germany.
During the march, they were each given only two slices of bread a day. He lost 40 pounds off his already slim frame.
At night they slept in the open where they had stopped. He often slept directly in the snow, but he was never sick. The cold was brutal.
He witnessed German guards assassinate two British soldiers when they simply tried to build a fire to keep from freezing.
The exhaustive months of airborne training had hardened him for the ordeal and he would later credit that training with saving his life.
About two weeks after his arrival in Bad Orb, General George Patton’s advance liberated him.
Good fortune was not just with him again, it had never left.
He returned to the states, was discharged, and ninety days later returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to promptly enlist for three more years.
With a wry smile, he would often end the story of his ordeal by saying, “Going through the bottom was all right in an emergency, but me? I’ll hit the silk through the door. It’s cooler!”
James Charles Bailey married Virginia Mae Jones in October 1945. They chose her hometown of Wilson, North Carolina for their home. They had one child, a son, in 1947.
James completed his military obligation at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 1948.
His choice of careers was what many would consider an unlikely choice for someone who had nearly died from fire; he joined the Wilson, North Carolina Fire Department in 1949 and fought fires for the residents of that community until his retirement 30 years later.
On his days off, when he wasn’t piddling in his workshop or working part-time jobs re-filling fire extinguishers or painting houses, he was hunting in the woods or fishing at the creek. He loved hunting squirrels and cottontail rabbits and was in constant pursuit of the trophy bass.
J.C., James Charles Bailey, husband, father, sportsman, fire-fighter, paratrooper, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and POW medals recipient, succumbed to lung cancer in May 1991 at the age of 73.
He never learned to swim.
ABOUT THE STORY
James Bailey’s son, Johnnie, wrote the Flaming Jump in August 1996. It was compiled from notes made in 1945 by an anonymous interviewer, from James’ verbal account to Johnnie and, from James’ autobiography.
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Great great story! Thank you for sharing ❤️How proud of a real warrior…. Thank you for your everlasting service!!