Looking out the window of an aircraft flying high over the French coastline, Forsyth County resident Jim Phillips knew he was doing something that not many people get to do.
It was June 5, 2019, one day before the 75th anniversary of D-Day and as the plane grew closer and closer to its destination, Phillips’ thoughts turned to the thousands of allied soldiers who once made the same flight, under very different circumstances.
"I was imagining what those real paratroopers in WWII were going through,” he said later. “They were loaded down with twice as much equipment as we had, they were packed in there like sardines and they knew that they were going to be getting shot at as soon as they went out of the plane."
Taking a deep breath and remembering everything he was taught as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, Phillips followed his 18 crew mates one by one as they jumped from the plane that once carried troopers in World War II.
According to Phillips, about 5,000 people from all over the world made the jump this year, decked head to toe in historically accurate paratrooper uniforms in honor of the soldiers who died during the legendary assault.
The retired Forsyth County veteran said that in his mind, it is the weight of the sacrifice made by soldiers during the D-Day assault keeps drawing people back year after year.
"This means a lot to veterans because the sacrifices that were made over there, people here nowadays do not have any idea of what they went through when they hit the beaches at Omaha or any of those beaches," he said. "The paratroopers were the first ones in, they landed about 30 minutes after midnight, so they were there by themselves, behind the lines ... knowing right away, you’ve gotta get the rifle out and get it loaded and you gotta get ready."
Phillips said that he first has the idea to do the jump when he and his wife were vacationing in France in 2014 and a tour guide told him about the annual event.
As soon as he got back to the states, he contacted a jump school for retired paratroopers based in Florida and started going down to jump with other veterans, refreshing his skills and getting ready for the 75th anniversary.
"I went from 1976 until 2016 in between jumps," he said remembering his first jump at the school. "So that first jump was hard, but the muscle memory caught up and I had a good landing."
Fast forward three years and Phillips was floating down to a landing zone in France, marveling to at the beauty of the countryside, something he had always wanted to do.
"When I was in the Airborne, we always heard about what happened in World War II …That was the jump I always wanted to make when I was a paratrooper," he said.
On both sides of the English Channel, Phillips said that he and the rest of the jumpers were treated as heroes by the hordes of happy spectators watching the display.
"They were all clapping and hollering and giving us all kinds of encouragement. I couldn’t believe it," he said. "It felt like you had won the war; it felt like you had done something that a lot of people wouldn’t do."
As he reached the ground, he said that they barely had time to gather their parachutes before they were mobbed by people.
"All these little kids came out in Army uniforms, little French kids," he said. "It took me 40 minutes to reach the assembly area, because I had to walk that road over to the cemetery and everybody wanted a picture, everybody was shaking my hand, everybody was giving me something to drink."
Now that he’s back in the states and has had some time to think about his experience, Phillips maintains that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
He's already been invited to the 80th-anniversary jump, but he's going to hold off making a decision on whether he'll make the jump until closer to that date.
"To be quite honest, I don't think my wife wants me jumping again," Philips said with a chuckle.
When he's not jumping out of airplanes or coaching football, Phillips presides over the Veterans Alliance Honor Guard in Forsyth County.
Over the last 15 years, he has served as the group's president and according to him, each year the group provides military funerals for about 160 veterans in the north Georgia area. The group covers military funerals in a six-county area, providing ceremonies with a flag folding, a trumpeter to play “Taps” and a seven-gun salute, all totally free.
He said that this free service the group provides a military family is unparalleled.
"It means a lot, people don't understand, unless you’ve been there and seen it,” he said.
Recently though the Veterans Alliance Honor Guard has found its membership numbers dipping, he said, leaving them with a dedicated core group of people and desperately needing new members.
He said that anyone interested in getting involved in the honor guard can find out more by calling him at (678) 471-0140."It's very rewarding and it's all voluntary,” he said.