Novelty Toy Saved WWII Paratroopers Lives

By PHIL DAVIS
AP
TAMPA, Fla. (June 3) - Capt. Sam Gibbons knew his mission was in trouble when he hit the ground in the early hours of the D-Day invasion 63 years ago. The future congressman's 101st Airborne troops were scattered far from their intended drop zone. And the only nearby soldiers he could see where German.

"People are always talking about behind enemy lines. Hell, there ain't no lines in combat," said Gibbons, who was 24 when he parachuted into Normandy on June 6, 1944. "We jumped right on top of the Germans."

On the ground, in the dark, the scattered American soldiers relied on a children's' novelty toy to sort things out.

Gibbons, now 87 and retired after serving 17 consecutive terms in Congress , is one of the few Operation Overlord paratroopers who held onto his military-issued "cricket," a brass and steel version of the cheap tin prize from a 1930s Cracker Jack box. The soldiers called the signaling devices "crickets" because of the sharp "crick" sound it made when pressed.

The crickets were lifesavers for American paratroopers scattered in the dark on a morning when using a flashlight to check a map or shouting in English meant instant death.

"The cricket was a stroke of genius," said Michael Gannon, a retired University of Florida history professor. "How else would you know who you bumped into in the dark? If you came across somebody, you clicked. If he responded in kind, you were friends. If he didn't, you shot him."

Gibbons landed in a pasture at 1:26 a.m. A group of Germans less than a football field away were firing furiously at the sky full of planes and parachutes and didn't see him. It took him half an hour to crawl out of the pasture.

Then he crept down a road, holding the cricket against the stock of his carbine rifle.

"The first American I picked up, I picked up with this," Gibbons said, demonstrating the cricket. "I gave him a click and he responded with two clicks. Boy, was I glad to see him."

He used it for the next few hours to draw more U.S. soldiers out of the woods and form a combat patrol to engage the Germans while the main invasion force hit the beaches.

By dawn on D-day, the cricket's mission was over.

"We only used it that night," Gibbons said. "The Germans were picking them up off people they'd captured and people they'd killed, so it wasn't a secret device anymore. And, frankly, we lost about 60 percent of the people we took into Normandy. So there went 60 percent of them right away ... these just became curiosities. I threw mine in some baggage I had and it survived the rest of the war and all these years since then."

The crickets were handed out at lunchtime on June 5, a tiny last-minute addition to a hefty 70-pound pack that included rifles, ammunition, hand grenades and assorted survival gear the 12,000 paratroopers of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions carried into battle on D-Day.

The little clicker gets a bad rap in the epic 1962 war movie "The Longest Day." In the inevitable showings this week, poor Pvt. Martini will again mistake the clack of a German rifle bolt for a response to his cricket. Movie buffs like to point out the German kills Martini with two shots from a single-shot rifle.

A less known fact: the cricket sounded nothing like a rifle bolt.

Few original D-Day crickets are still known to exist.

"I have been in the airborne museum business for 30 years and I've only seen a couple," said John Duvall, director of the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville, N.C. He said collectors have offered to sell him original World War II crickets for up to $500.


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