CARRIERE — All Jim Livaudais has left from his service with the 82nd Airborne are his garrison cap, his decorations displayed in a shadow box and a few photos of him in uniform.
But to be honest, the 98-year-old Carriere resident doesn’t need much more to retell how he lived through one of the most important events in world history — D-Day.
With the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings today, Livaudais sat in his dining room and recalled he was one of the lucky soldiers to survive World War II.
A Jefferson Parish native, Livaudais was drafted into the Army in March 1942 and, after a short stint at Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, was shipped to Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, and shortly thereafter began his career in the airborne.
“One day, they put us out in the street and said, ‘We need airborne troops,'” Livaudais said. “They took this division and they formed the 82nd Airborne. The other half formed the 101st Airborne. That’s how the Airborne was started, at Camp Claiborne.”
Although Livaudais was initially a member of the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles,” he was later reassigned to the 82nd Division and stayed with the “All-American Division” through the duration of the war.
As a member of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, Livaudais’ mission on D-Day was unique. While other forces stormed the beaches of Normandy below, the 325th flew over the battle and landed several miles inland with the task of taking St. Mere Eglise.
Flying over the beach in a contraption made out of tubular steel and canvas wasn’t any cakewalk.
“Shrapnel and machine gun fire comes through it — tick-tick-tick-tick,” Livaudais said, pointing in the air as if visualizing the barrage.
“Now, a glider doesn’t have any brakes. How do you stop it? You hit something,” Livaudais said matter-of-factly. “We hit a hedgerow probably going 110 (miles an hour). So we landed in Normandy. You just had to get your behind out of there because of machine-gun fire and all this other stuff.”
Surrounded by family portraits at his dinner table seven decades later, Livaudais rattled off instance after instance of comrades being killed alongside him during Operation Market Garden and other skirmishes with Nazis.
“Would you believe it if I told you how old I am? Ninety-eight,” he said. “I wasn’t a good soldier; I was a lucky soldier. I had to be. I had so many friends and people killed alongside of me, it’s unbelievable.”
Several years ago a “history man,” as Livaudais put it, with the National World War II Museum in New Orleans asked him about a deadly assignment his unit drew called the Merderet crossing.
“I would say there was a dead or wounded soldier every 6 or 8 feet. It was pitiful,” he said. “The history man asked me how I crossed it. I said, ‘I’ll have a bad time trying to tell you. All I know is I hit the ground, I got up, I hit the ground, I got up and kept running.’ Coming out of the dense forest, it was maybe 200 yards of swamp on both sides and the Germans had machine guns mowing you down. I sometimes believe some of those shots when I was running went through my legs. I don’t know.”
Livaudais received a number of decorations for his service, including the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart after he got frostbite during The Battle of the Bulge.
Livaudais thumbs an old group photo of him with four friends in uniform.
“I often think this — Hitler took Poland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium, France. He took all of that. OK,” he said. “We took back France. We took back Belgium. We took back Holland. Now we’re in Germany. What did he think was going to happen? If he threw in the sponge, we could have saved 100,000 poor fellas.”
It’s during those what-if moments that Livaudais feels the most fortunate.
“A lot of guys were different, but I always said, ‘I’m going to make this. I’m going to make it back home,'” he said. “I just had the belief I was coming back. Many, many days I thought differently, but what’re you going to do? War is hell and all I can say is you had to be lucky.”