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Taking the plunge

About 50 veterans or relatives of men who served in the 506th Airborne participated in a memorial reunion Thursday.

About 50 veterans or relatives of men who served in the 506th Airborne participated in a memorial reunion Thursday.

August 16, 2002|by STACEY DANZUSO

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

Warren Eichelberger swore Thursday was the last time he would jump out of an airplane. It took all day, but he finally did.

The 71-year-old Greencastle, Pa., man said it was time to focus on activities that he can share with his wife, Mary Ann, like riding their Harley-Davidson motorcycles and snowmobiling in Canada.

Eichelberger was one of about 50 veterans or relatives of men who served in the 506th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, who were to jump during a memorial reunion Thursday.

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Multi-colored parachutes dotted the sky above the Chambersburg Airport as Army veterans and other thrill seekers jumped from about 4,000 feet above the earth, two at a time.

Eichelberger and Fred Wishard, 77, of Williamsport, who served with the 194th Glider Infantry 17th Airborne Division in World War II, arrived at Chambersburg Skydiving Center at 7 a.m. to begin training.

Training continued until about 4 p.m., punctuated with breaks for lunch and a memorial service that included the honor guard from Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1599 in Chambersburg.

Already behind schedule, rain and winds further delayed the jump until 5:30 p.m. More bad weather kept Eichelberger out of the skies until 8:40 p.m., but he finally got to jump and landed right on the mark.

Earlier in the afternoon, Bill Harris, director of the Franklin County Office of Veterans Affairs, praised the veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam for honoring their brothers.

"You will take to the sky and carry the names of your fallen comrades," he said.

After a final briefing from instructors at the skydiving center, they finally took to the skies in four "sticks" or groups of about 10.

Chambersburg resident Charlotte Salmon came out for the memorial service and to watch the jumpers, specifically Wishard.

Although she had never met him before, she wanted to support him after reading about his plans to jump for the first time in 58 years in a newspaper story earlier this week.

"I'm amazed after so many years he would still jump," she said.

Wishard made five qualifying jumps to become a paratrooper in 1944, but never jumped in combat. After just a few months he became a German prisoner of war for three months before he was released to the Allies.

Late in the day, Wishard decided he would jump in tandem with an instructor and simply enjoy the free-fall, rather than worrying about steering the parachute and landing. However, when Wishard's group finally began the ascent to 13,000 feet to begin a free fall Thursday evening, lightning strikes forced the plane back down before he got to jump.

Wishard said he was disappointed.

"I felt I was going to do something and never got to. But I did let people know there was a 17th Airborne. I accomplished that," he said.

Eichelberger spent 27 years in the Army as a paratrooper and made 360 military jumps.

He retired in 1974 as a command sergeant master.

Since then he's made jumps periodically, the last one in June 2001 at Fort Bragg, N.C.

"Once it gets in your blood, it stays there. But I'm sure this will be my last jump," Eichelberger said, looking up while the first planeload of jumpers floated to the ground.

"More or less I had to judge my way coming down. It was great because I landed right on the mark. I couldn't have done it better in the daylight," Eichelberger said after the jump.

About 500 people turned out for the memorial service and to watch the jump, which was the biggest the Currahee Association has put together so far, said organizer Jim Nemeth.

Nemeth said most of the jumpers were Vietnam veterans, and he believed Wishard was the oldest.

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