JOHNSTOWN — Don Jakeway of Johnstown can rattle off 40 reasons why he shouldn’t be alive, starting with the events that took place 75 years ago on June 6, 1944.
Twenty minutes after midnight and just a few hours before troops stormed Omaha Beach, Jakeway, then a sergeant in the U.S. Army, dropped into the dark sky of Normandy out of a C-47 airplane, landing in a tree where he hung from his parachute just 50 yards away from German troops.
Out of the 6,000 members of the 82nd Airborne Division only 15 percent were expected to live, but over half actually made it. However, only 39 out of the 130 men in Jakeway’s company lived.
“You can’t really explain it like it was. You can talk about it, but you can’t explain what it was like,” Jakeway said, recalling that night and the months of combat that followed. Jakeway spent the next 37 days in the French countryside with only enough supplies to last him three days.
A little over three months later in September of 1944, Jakeway found himself in the Netherlands, where his efforts helped liberate a Jewish family. Jakeway was wounded during Operation Market Garden from shell fragments of a blast.
Four months later, Jakeway fought in the thick of the snow-covered Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge, where he was critically wounded by a gunshot through the chest. As his luck would have it, the ambulance he was in lost control and rolled over the edge of a mountain into a river. Jakeway was the lone survivor on board.
“I don’t know why, but I’m blessed. I’m still hanging around,” Jakeway said.
The feats that Jakeway accomplished in his 102 days of combat led him to receive roughly 27 medals and honors, all of which he keeps in a room in his house, filled with hundreds of photos and memorabilia. Some of the honors include a Purple Heart, a few Bronze Stars, and an induction into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame.
Jakeway’s story is one that demands attention, and rightfully so. He is often requested for interviews and invited to speak at different events honoring D-Day, including an appearance at a “veterans voices” event today at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in downtown Columbus.
Out of the 39 members of his unit that survived that fateful June day, Jakeway believes he is the only one alive today.
“It’s hard to think about these guys as the happy go-lucky guys that they were, because now they’re all gone,” Jakeway said.
Jakeway says that despite the fact that he’s losing his eyesight and he can’t get around like he used to, he’ll be reflecting on how thankful he is this year for his and his family’s health. Their son, Kim, suffered a stroke in November, and Jakeway is thankful that his family has able to come together to support him on his road to recovery.
“I’ll be reflecting on the fact that I’m here, and that my family is here and doing well,” Jakeway said.
A born-and-raised Johnstown local, Jakeway continues to live in town with his wife Joyce of 73 years.