By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
Not long after midnight more than 66 years ago, a young Texan named Sgt. Bob Bearden was in a C-47 that buzzed over England.
Bearden's plane was one of hundreds that circled the sky that night, the formation growing with each pass as the 82nd Airborne Division gathered for what Bearden said last week was the "biggest show ever staged."
Today at Fort Hood, Bearden will be presented with the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, Prisoner of War Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one Bronze Service Star and Bronze Arrowhead Device, World War II Victory Medal, French Fourragere, Expert Badge with Rifle Bar, Basic Parachutist Badge with one Bronze Service Star and Honorable Service Lapel Button-WWII.
Among those awards is the Combat Infantryman Badge, an honor he was denied until today.
Bearden talked about D-Day, his injuries, his capture by German forces two days later, life as a prisoner of war and eventual liberation Friday at his home near Stillhouse Lake. He wrote a book about his experiences: "To D-Day and Back: Adventures with the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment and Life as a World War II POW: A memoir."
Bearden and the crew chief took off the plane's door and he looked below. The moon lit the English Channel, which was full of "nothing but ships," Bearden said.
It was an awesome sight to see, and Bearden then realized the magnitude of what was unfolding.
"This is some kind of show they're fixin' to pull," he recalled thinking.
Bearden, who led a five-man, 60 mm mortar squad, stuck his M1 rifle down into his parachute reserve, and soon after, jumped to his fate with others from the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment's H Company.
Bearden's recount of what happened in the following days borders on legend - a story that the best Hollywood writers could only dream of putting on paper.
But, as Bearden's wife, Debbie, said Friday, "This is not fiction."
Bearden tells of the time when he and another soldier tossed a grenade into a house to root out German soldiers.
He and one of his sons returned to the French village 50 years later during a commemoration and sought the house. Bearden, wearing a jumpsuit, recognized huge wooden gates that opened to a courtyard. He recognized the house.
"I think this is it," he said.
Two well-dressed gentlemen also in the area for the celebration saw Bearden and his son and one asked, "You were here?"
"Yes, sir, I was here," Bearden said.
The story goes, one told him, that on D-Day, two paratroopers came into this courtyard and threw a grenade into that window right over there.
Bearden said he almost fainted.
He simply replied, "Yes, sir, that's right."
Bearden has returned to France a handful of times to re-visit sites like the village house and say hi to friends who rest under white crosses at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
One of those friends was Pvt. Joseph McClain, one of Bearden's soldiers who was thought to have died by enemy gunfire on D-Day. In his visits to the cemetery, Bearden would put his arms around McClain's tombstone and apologize.
"Man, I'm sorry I didn't train you good enough to keep you from getting killed, but I did my best," Bearden said. "I always felt this sense of guilt - just felt like if (I had) done a better job he wouldn't been killed by some German rifle fire."
He later learned that McClain died of a broken neck when he attempted to exit the aircraft that night. Bearden was there. He remembered a soldier slipping and his neck getting caught between his rifle and the aircraft's door. Bearden was the one who lifted the rifle and thought he sent the soldier on his way toward battle.
"Interesting these things that come about," Bearden said, thinking about McClain and shaking his head. "Such a shock."
Bearden said Friday he always learned something new during trips back to France or conversations with fellow veterans and historians.
Bearden, who is 87, said he was no hero.
"I was trying to get back to Killeen, Texas, to my mommy," he said with a smile while describing a seemingly heroic fight that involved him, Germans, grenades and gunfire.
"I've never been a hero and I ain't today," he added.
Instead, Bearden insisted the heroes were the ones who didn't make it home. He said there was only one way he could accept today's awards and honors.
"I can do it in all humility knowing that the heroes are under those white crosses," Bearden said.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at email@example.com or (254) 501-7547. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.
To learn more about Bob Bearden or to order his book, "To D-Day and Back: Adventures with the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment and Life as a World War II POW: A memoir," go to www.boblbearden.com.