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Montana dentist parachutes into Normandy to reenact D-Day on historic anniversary

July 01, 2019

By David Burger

 
Togetherness: Dr. Annette Dusseau and her husband Shawn Modula smile before Miss Montana takes off.
Normandy, France — Doing what no woman could have done in 1944, Dr. Annette Dusseau jumped out of a World War II plane June 5 over Normandy, commemorating the actions of the heroic paratroopers who spurred the Allies’ epochal 1945 victory in Europe.  

The Montana dentist and her husband, Shawn Modula, were among the more than 200 people from around the world who jumped out of WW II-era planes over what was once a French war zone to honor the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944.

“I am still tingling,” Dr. Dusseau said three weeks after the event, in which she wore a WW II paratrooper uniform replica and jumped from a Missoula C-47 plane, dubbed Miss Montana. Once owned by the Johnson Brothers Flying Service of Missoula for smokejumpers, the aircraft was built in 1944.

Jumping out of perfectly good airplanes is nothing new for Dr. Dusseau, who served as a U.S. Army dentist for 13 years and once underwent airborne training in Fort Benning, Georgia. It was at Fort Benning where she met her husband, who was an Army Special Forces commander at the time. He also donned a replica uniform and jumped out of the Miss Montana immediately after his wife.

The two of them run the Family Dental Clinic in Missoula.

“She’s always game for stuff,” Mr. Modula said of his wife, who was deployed to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. “She’s a trooper.”

The duo’s special parachuting trip came about when their Montana neighbors told them about it in the spring of 2018. Knowing Dr. Dusseau and Mr. Modula’s history, the neighbors had signed up for the mission and encouraged the two to apply, and to their delighted surprise, were accepted.

Meanwhile, the Museum of Mountain Flying in Missoula began preparing the Miss Montana for flight after being dormant since 2003. The group in charge of the reenactment, Daks Over Normandy, was recruiting as many Dakota C-47 aircraft as possible to drop the volunteers inland beyond the shores of Omaha and Utah beaches — just as paratroopers had done in the hours before the land invasion.

“It was a very ambitious plan,” Dr. Dusseau said. “There was an amazing amount of work to make ready to fly at all, let alone fly across the Atlantic. Most of the restoration work was done by volunteers, like rebuilding the engines.”

It came down to the wire, but two weeks before the trans-Atlantic trip, the Miss Montana made it into the air for the first time in nearly two decades.

After leaving the dental practice in good hands, Dr. Dusseau and her husband met the plane in Duxford, England, in early June. The 200 parachutists planned a practice jump as part of an airshow on June 4, but the weather was too inclement for a jump. The original D-Day was also delayed a day because of bad weather, Mr. Modula noted.

But the next day the weather took a turn for the better, so the mission was back on.

“All of us parachutists were rigged up with our gear and walked along the flight line to our assigned aircraft,” Dr. Dusseau said. “It was almost a quarter of a mile walk to Miss Montana on the flight line. The crowds were cheering and clapping. It was very moving.”

To mark the occasion, Dr. Dusseau carried a picture of her mother under her helmet, an Army nurse during WW II, and her husband brought with him a picture of his father, who was a pilot trainer during the war. Dr. Dusseau also brought memories of her uncle Bob, who was wounded in WW II in Germany, and her uncle Floyd, who was killed in Italy during the war.

The flight  to Normandy took a little over two hours, and when 1,000 feet near the landing zone — near the site of the famed battle for Pegasus Bridge — the two jumped and landed in a barley field slightly off target. Dr. Dusseau crashed into a tree to avoid hitting the assembled crowd and their cars, but was uninjured. Mr. Modula remarked that as a home beer brewer, he was actually happy to land in barley.

“There was a huge crowd of spectators for our parachute reenactment,” Dr. Dusseau said. “As we recovered our parachutes, many of the spectators came up to tell how awesome it was to see that many parachutists. Many wanted photos with us.”

After the trip, the Miss Montana traveled to Berlin, Germany, to mark an anniversary of the 1948 Berlin airlift, while Dr. Dusseau and her husband visited a range of sites where Allied soldiers had fought and died 75 years ago, including Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc (a cliff separating Omaha and Utah beaches) and Sainte-Mère-Église, the first French town liberated.

“We got to meet to meet some veterans of D-Day that were attending,” Dr. Dusseau said. “Whenever you saw a crowd of people gathered, you knew there was a WW II veteran at its center. It was as honor to meet the true heroes of D-Day.”