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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Through the dark, they clicked
Before the D-day invasion, Sam Gibbons and his fellow paratroopers struggled to regroup on night jumps. On the 61st anniversary, he has one of the last toys that saved Allied men on France's shore. Separated by Germans ...
By BILL DURYEA
Published June 6, 2005
[Times photos: Chris Zuppa]
Tampa's legendary former congressman Sam Gibbons.
Gibbons keeps his clicker in a shadow box next to his dog tags. He has declined museums' requests for it.
TAMPA - They passed them out to the men at lunch on the fifth of June. They were brassy little gizmos, the size of a small matchbox with a dent where a thumb could nestle.
Pinch it and it made a little click. Like a cricket.
"We didn't know what the heck they were," said Sam Gibbons, Tampa's legendary former congressman who was a 24-year-old captain in the 101st Airborne Division when the Allies launched the D-day invasion of France on June 6, 1944.
Sixty-one years and a day ago, Gibbons first held the child's toy that would save the lives of an untold number of paratroopers in the chaotic first hours of D-day. He can't put his hands on it now.
It's tacked to a bed of brilliant red felt in a shadow box of his war memorabilia, right next to the dog tags and the campaign ribbons.
People want to get their hands on it, put it in this museum or that. Gibbons won't part with it. Not yet.
That night they were going to board C-47s, 17 men to a plane. They were going to drop, 6,600 of them, into the fields behind Utah Beach. Block the Germans from sending reinforcements to the beaches, help take the port of Cherbourg if possible.
But first they had to survive the jump.
"Gen. (Maxwell) Taylor realized we were having a terrible time getting together when we jumped at night. We'd tried everything you can imagine: cowbells and bugles, clashing cymbals, lights on poles, flare guns," Gibbons said. "The only problem is, anything you do to attract your own folks is going to attract someone else, too."
So less than a day before the most dangerous jump of their lives they added a dime-store novelty to their packs. Who knew if it would work?
Click once, the men were told. "If he clicked back with two clicks, you knew you had a friend," Gibbons said.
Gibbons landed in a pasture. He was not alone.
"I estimated there were about 15 Germans. They were shooting at the planes. I figured they'd seen me. But they must have been blinded by their own muzzle flashes.
"I cut myself out of my two chutes. Dumped my life jacket. I got that clicker out real quick. I held it in my right hand against the stock of my carbine.
"I slid on my stomach until I got out of that field. It took me 30 minutes."
When he got to the road, he saw "somebody moving ahead of me."
"I didn't want to run up in case it was a German.
"I clicked and he clicked back. We rushed and hugged each other. It was so startling. It worked."
Gibbons didn't know the soldier. A third of the men from Gibbons' plane were missing. Right away, 1,500 paratroopers from the 101st were killed or captured.
He used the cricket one more time that night. But he doesn't remember it with any detail, not like the first time.
By dawn, he had gathered about 50 men and they were headed southwest toward the Douve River.
That's when Gibbons heard another click.
"All of a sudden I heard a sound to my right - a bolt action and a bullet entering the chamber.
"I looked and I saw a muzzle pointing out of the bushes right at me. The bluing had worn away from being firing so the muzzle was shiny.
"I jumped right at him, under him really. He could have taken a shot at me if he'd stood up, but he didn't want to do that. I sent a grenade his way and I didn't hear any more from him."
Gibbons spent another 35 days in Normandy before he and his men were shipped back to England.
"We never used the crickets again after that night." They jumped into the Netherlands and were trucked into Bastogne, but the cricket was history even before the war ended.
"Somehow it got back to England with me," Gibbons said. "I threw it in a footlocker and I brought the footlocker home."
He came home and as a young lawyer was elected to the Florida Legislature in 1952, serving 10 years. The Democrat was elected to the U.S. House from Tampa in 1962 and served 17 terms, retiring in 1996.
He didn't think anymore of the clicker until Secretary of the Army John Marsh called him up in the 1980s. It might have been around the 40th anniversary of D-day, and Marsh wanted a clicker to show VIPs at the ceremonies.
"He asked me did I have one of those clicker things? I said I think so, but I don't know where. I called my son. He said, "Dad, that thing's in a purple box in the basement up on the shelf."'
Turns out the clickers are pretty rare.
"Steve Ambrose" - the author of histories of D-day and World War II - "said to me, "Gibbons, you're the only one I can find who's got one."'
Ambrose wanted it for a D-day museum he opened in New Orleans.
"You've written so many nice things about me, I'd like to give it to you," Gibbons told him. "But I can't."
The Army's Airborne museum at Fort Campbell has asked for it. Gibbons has said no to them, too.
"I always said I'd give it to my sons. I've got three sons. How do you give one cricket to three sons?"