MARSTON — Seven cadets of the Richmond Senior High School Army JROTC Raider Battalion and a few others conducted a small memorial ceremony and cleaned up around the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion’s monument near Lake Kinney Cameron on Saturday — 75 years after eight members of the unit perished in the lake during a training jump.
The informal ceremony was narrated by instructor Lt. Col. Jon Ring and took place around the actual memorial marker.
“While we can sit in the classroom and research, read, watch films, discuss, and have guests speak with us, there really is nothing like feeling with all senses the places and events as they occurred in history,” Ring said. “Much of the history of Airborne forces was built right in this area — there are remnants of the intense training that was centered around Camp Mackall all around us. We can see much of it as we walk through the woods in the game areas. Much training still happens around here.”
Ring went on to give the history of the unit:
“They were an independent, separate parachute battalion constituted with the initial contingency mission of ridding the Caribbean Island of Martinique of the Vichy French — or Nazi sympathizing — government. The 800 paratrooper-strong battalion was sent to Panama to prepare for the eventual operation. As the day approached, the Vichy French government stepped down and the 551st returned to the U.S. They were moved here, to Camp Mackall — much like the majority of the other parachute units of the U.S. Army. They prepared for employment into other contingency areas such as the European Theater of Operations.
“Something that we should take a moment to recognize is that all of the paratroopers of the 551st — and every paratrooper, for that matter — were volunteers. That is correct. While the majority of those who fought and served in World War II were drafted into service — including many paratroopers — each had to volunteer to be a paratrooper. Each had to make the conscious decision to perform the hazardous duty of jumping from an aircraft in flight, carrying everything that he would have for several days, into an area where they were sure to be surrounded and outnumbered by the enemy who was fighting in their backyard. Every day along the road to qualification and employment required the paratrooper to recommit and continue volunteer for the hazards presented. They were paid a little more than others, but they certainly earned it.
“The 551st was deployed to Europe in 1944 and executed a combat jump in southern France on 15 Aug. ’44 as part of Operation Dragoon. They were successful in achieving their objectives and assisted in the liberation of Nice. They fought in the French/Italian Alps through the fall of 1944 and then were moved to assist in the Ardennes, or the Battle of the Bulge. The 551st Parachute Battalion fought gallantly through the campaign — taking the fight to the enemy. When down to 250 paratroopers, on the 7th of January, the GOYAs of the 551st were ordered to attack another town. There was dissent, but they did their duty with honor and lost many more. For this action, they were eventually awarded the Presidential Unit Citation …”
“… I believe it is very fitting that the Paratroopers of the 551st who met their demise around the globe be honored here at Kinney Cameron Lake. As the battalion made final preparations for deployment, they were conducting a night Parachute training operation in this area. During blackout conditions, the navigator of the C-47 Dakota that was on final approach to their planned drop zone turned on the green light over the wrong place. Paratroopers did what they do and exited the aircraft. Unfortunately, eight of those brave warriors landed in the lake, were soaked and unable to release themselves from their equipment, and drown. These eight men volunteered to serve in this hazardous duty and were aware of the immense danger. They perished as they lived — facing danger — just as their brothers did overseas.”
Ring then named off those who died at the site:
- Pfc. Shelly C. Ferguson
- Tech. Sgt. John F. Hoffman
- Pfc. Kenneth D. McGrotty
- Sgt. Benjamin Preziotti
- Pfc. Zollie Ramsey
- Pfc. Norval L. Reed
- Pvt. John L. Wafford
At the conclusion of the ceremony, each person in attendance placed a penny on top of the stone in keeping with tradition to let others know about the visitation.
“As we conclude this ceremony,” Ring said, “… take a moment to consider the freedom and liberty that the members of the 551st provided to those in Europe and to us.”
Cadets then took the opportunity to clean up around the area, picking up a bag of trash and raking pine straw from around the monument.