"You get significantly higher pay, a special uniform -- boots, caps - and were promised to be roughest and toughest," Vannatter, 90, recalled last week at his home in Kottinger Gardens. "The extra pay meant I could send more home to Mom."
Raised in a coalmining town in West Virginia, he dropped out of high school to work loading coal to support his mother and six younger siblings after the death of his father. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army, and was assigned to the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd American Airborne Division.
Vannatter fought on D-Day in Normandy, in the Battle of the Bulge, and when the Allies entered Germany. He was awarded two Bronze Star Medals for heroism.
Today Vannatter was named a "Chevalier" of the Legion of Honor at the French consulate in San Francisco for helping to liberate France.
He recalled being sent to England in December 1943 and the friendliness of the British. D-Day plans were top secret -- until the night of June 5-6, 1944.
"Then we were moved to an airfield, briefed and shown maps. They said, 'Here's where you're going to land, here's what you're going to do. Take this town.'" Vannatter was radio operator for the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Edwin J. Ostberg.
"Our primary objective was an important bridge. We had to preserve the bridge so our troops could cross the river and proceed inland," Vannatter said. "It was hard to take -- the Germans were defending it furiously."
He recalled lining up to make the jump: "The leader gives the command: 'Stand up and hook up, check gear, stand in the door, go.' Someone called out: 2:38. It was a historical time."
"It was dark," he continued. "You couldn't tell where you were going to land. I wasn't afraid. I was anxious to get to it. We'd been stationed in England, waiting, waiting."
He landed on his back in three to four feet of water, weighted down with 150 pounds of weapons, ammunition, a gas mask, K rations, and his radio. He managed to tuck his feet under his body to lift his nose out of the water and then to flip onto his side and struggle to his feet.
"The radio never did work, it was soaked," he said.
He saw the flashing light planted by the path finders that had jumped before him, and Lt. Col. Ostberg was there. They continued on to Chef-du-Pont.
"We were basically unopposed through the one-street town until we came within about 200 feet of the bridge. At that point, the Germans opened fire," Vannatter wrote in memoirs he composed at the request of World War II researchers. "They were in foxholes lining both sides of the road .... Sharpshooters were picking our men off from homes on a high knoll to our left."
After hours of battle, a soldier told Vannatter that he'd seen the colonel lying partway in the water, not moving. They pulled him into a small brick building, found that he was alive and left him for the medics, then returned to the battle.
"We fought the Germans hedgerow by hedgerow," Vannatter said. "We ended up with 40% of our regiment killed, captured, or still lost."
On the sixth day of battle, his company was moving along a paved road when it was suddenly attacked by a long row of the powerful German 88mm gun.
"It was the only time during the war that I was resigned to dying," Vannatter wrote. But then "a godsend American light tank appeared from nowhere."
After 32 days of combat, driving the Germans deeper and deeper into France, the 82nd Airborne Division was returned to England. It returned for the Battle of the Bulge in late December, trucked to outpost positions since the weather precluded flying.
What Vannatter remembers most about this battle "are the extreme cold, the almost continuous bombardment by German artillery, land mines, booby traps," and the fact that his commander and the communications chief were blown up when their jeeps ran over land mines. Vannatter was promoted to staff sergeant and become communications chief.
On March 24, the 507th was the first parachute regiment on the ground in Germany during Operation Varsity. Vannatter found himself landing in the trees.
"The chute had snagged on an upper branch however, and brought me to a soft spongy stop with my feet about twenty feet above the ground. 'Damn it,' was my natural thought of disappointment," he wrote.
He maneuvered to five feet off the ground and was figuring out how to load his carbine, when he noticed a lone German soldier on the ground. He managed to bluff the man into not only surrendering but cutting him down from the tree and accompanying him through artillery fire to join the Allies.
Vannatter was in Essen, Germany, when the war ended.
"The non-fraternization rule ended and we went out looking for women," Vannatter said with a laugh. "We had a pretty good stay in Essen. There were a lot of breweries. We were trading cigarettes for beer, we treated them fairly. The Red Cross made sure we had plenty of candy bars, we were giving them to kids."
He was sent to another division of the 82nd Airborne, which occupied the American section of Berlin toward Potsdam.
"There was terrible destruction," he recalled. "Potsdam was mostly destroyed."
When his train to Berlin stopped for the soldiers to eat, a mess worker informed him that they'd filled his large duffle bag halfway with coffee.
"I got to Berlin with all this coffee and I went to Potsdam. I could have owned that place," he said.
He returned to the States where jobs for GIs were plentiful and went to University of Dayton. He moved to San Diego to work as an engineer, and retired in Sunnyvale in 1987. Meanwhile he'd married and had three children. His wife died in 1975.
"I forgot about the war," Vannatter said. Then a few years ago he was invited to be a guest of honor in the Pleasanton Veterans Day Parade.
"I said, 'No way,'" he recalled. "Then I called my family and told them and they said, 'Do it!'"
His daughter lives in El Dorado Hills, one son is in Scotts Valley and another in Southern California. They are accompanying Vannatter to the French Consulate today.
"My family gets a big kick out of it, they're really thrilled," he said. "They're calling their friends, and they're coming from Phoenix and Portland."
"I had mixed emotions," he added. "I was thankful but not overly impressed."
He said he appreciates the Bronze Stars he earned by his actions, but pointed out that other recognitions are only because he was there -- and he is still alive.
But he noted his respect for the French people.
"Citizens sheltered, fed, and hid lost troopers who had landed far from their intended drop zones, at a great risk to their own lives," he wrote in his memoirs.
On his wall hangs a certificate of a star named after him.
"The daughter of the colonel I saved bought me a star ... a star named Robert L. Vannatter," he explained. He seemed pleased with this honor.