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An Airborne veteran jumps back in time

Now in the ripeness of his 70th year, Bill Priest has time for the good things in life: playing with his grandchildren, tinkering with his boat and jumping out of airplanes.

Priest will float to Earth under a parachute three times this week so he can qualify to join a few planeloads of 70- and 80-year-old veterans of the 101st Airborne Division for a jump into Normandy, France, exactly 50 years after they did it the first time on D-day, June 6, 1944.

A visitor of advanced years listens to these plans and then, fastening a rheumy eye on Priest, asks, "Haven't any of you people heard about brittle old bones breaking at the first hard fall?"

"Sure, bones do grow brittle," Priest says with a shrug. He doesn't seem to think the subject has relevance. "But these guys are in great shape, and they've kept jumping."

Priest has kept jumping. Since the end of World War II, he has made almost 200 parachute jumps. He was injured only once, and it wasn't because of brittle bones.

"We jumped in 18-mile-an-hour winds," he says. "You're not supposed to jump if it's rainy or thick-clouded or if the wind is over 8 miles an hour. But everything looked fine when we got into the plane. We didn't notice the wind until we were already on our way down."

The jump was two years ago at a commercial air field in Zephyrhills.

"The Army cancels jumps at the blink of an eye. But this was civilian-run. Also, it was a re-creation of World War II jump, so we were using the old-type parachutes that you can't steer and control like the new ones."

Priest was blown off target, and he hit the ground with a thump, breaking his shoulder. The chute dragged him across the field.

"A guy on a motorcycle came after me and dived on the chute to hold it still. Then I could get out of the harness with my good arm."

He drove himself to a hospital, got the shoulder set. Not well enough, it turned out. Later he had an operation to repair the damage.

Almost two years of rehabilitation followed. His jumps, this week, will be his first since the accident.

Priest's outfit was one of the first into Normandy. He was a scout with a parachute artillery battery in the 101st Airborne; his landing bridged the final minutes of June 5, 1944, and the first hours of June 6. The full force of the invasion hit the beaches several hours later.

In September 1944, Priest made his second combat jump _ into Holland. "A couple of months later," he says, "they took us by truck to Bastogne in Belgium for the Battle of the Bulge."

Priest went back to Long Island, N.Y., after the war to his old job at American Express.

Later he put in 28 years with the city of New York as a junior mechanical engineer. "Make sure you put in that word "junior,' " he says. "I don't want the guys back there to think I'm putting on airs."

He and his wife, Joan, had six children. They retired in 1982 and bought a house on Snell Isle in St. Petersburg.

Priest's Normandy Beach jump in June will be only the first of his 50th-anniversary jumps. In September he will parachute into Holland for the fourth time: in 1944 when he did it under war conditions, in '84, '89 and soon '94, for the fun of it.

"We drop into the same field as in '44, and it's kind of wonderful because the land is the same, and the same farm families still come out to welcome us.

"They love us to death. Not like the French, who couldn't care less. The Dutch people treat us like it was still yesterday, and there was still a war on."