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Former paratrooper reflects on meaning of Veterans Day

POSTED: December 2, 2008 5:00 a.m.
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James Sapp speaks last month to members of the 2/504 Parachute Infantry Battalion, the unit he served in during World War II.

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Young paratroopers, some just back from the front lines of the global war on terror in Iraq, listened intently as James Sapp talked about his early days in the airborne infantry.

Sapp, a Rincon resident, was a special guest of honor last month as the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment welcomed a new commanding officer at its Fort Bragg, N.C., headquarters.

“It was a real honor for me to go up there,” he said. “Those young troopers rolled out the red carpet for James Sapp.

From the 82nd’s commanding general (Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti) on down, they really honored me while I was there.”

After the change of command for the battalion, the same unit Sapp served in as a member of the mortar platoon throughout World War II, Sapp took part in handing out medals to paratroopers just back from Iraq.

“I had a chance to talk to them and thank them for what they’re doing,” he said.

Sapp’s path to the 504th and the 82nd Airborne Division took several twists and turns. He signed up for the Army Air Force, but the slots were full. So he and his father’s half-brother asked for the coast artillery, the precursor to the anti-aircraft artillery. He wound up in Army Air Force basic training in Miami Beach, eating in the same cafeteria with movie star Clark Gable and Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg as they underwent their training.

After being sent to rigger school, learning how to pack the parachutes properly, he requested front line duty. With the 504th — “the White Devils” as they’re known, since the paratroopers carry the moniker “Devils in Baggy Pants” — Sapp saw combat in Sicily, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Germany.

Today’s Effingham County Veterans Day observance will be held at 10 a.m. at Veterans Park in Springfield, a place Sapp holds in great esteem. Ironically, he won’t be there this morning — he’s taking part in a Beaufort, S.C., parade with other members of the 82nd Airborne Division Association and later, they’ll go to the Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina to pay their respects to the late Maj. Gen. Reuben Tucker. Tucker was the 504th regimental commander throughout World War II.

Other 504th commanders include the late Gen. William Westmoreland, Gen. Hugh Shelton, Gen. John Abizaid — former commander of the U.S. Central Command — and current CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus.

More than 16 million Americans served in World War II. Today, according to the Veterans Administration, barely more than 2 million remain alive.

“Some of the World War II veterans are thinning out,” Sapp said.

But he tries to keep stories alive, talking to schools and church groups throughout Georgia. He recently spoke to the men’s club at First Baptist Church of Springfield and talks to students ranging from elementary to high school age.

“Veterans Day is almost a sacred day to me,” Sapp said. “If it wasn’t for our veterans from the Revolutionary War to today, we wouldn’t be here. They fought and died for our freedom.”

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