In April we moved to RAF Upottery, which was closer to the coast. The British were operating their fighter planes there, and we were at an airfield where we were operating only the C-47s of the 91st, 92nd, 93rd, and 94th Squadrons—about 70 planes. We were put in groups of three to six airplanes, and we were scattered over the 500-acre area. We were told that, if we were scattered, the Germans couldn’t come in and take out our complete group.
We went to London every once in a while. It had been bombed very badly, but the British didn’t act like anything was wrong. They seemed to think, ‘Well, so what? This has happened, we’ll live through it.’ And they did.
The Germans also had V-1 “buzz bombs” that came in and, as long as we could hear the buzz bomb above us, we had no worries. When the buzzing stopped, though, it was time to start worrying.
We did some heavy training at Upottery. We were getting ready for the big push—Operation Overlord, the invasion of France. The paratroopers were at our airbase by the middle of May, so we knew that sometime, somewhere soon something was going to happen.
On June 2, barrels of black and white paint arrived. The paint was to go on the airplane wings and fuselage in alternating stripes of black and white that went completely around the wing and completely around the empennage (the tail part of the airplane).
The reason for the striped painting was that, during Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily), the troop carrier group was coming in with paratroopers in C-47s and some trigger-happy U.S. Navy gunners thought the C-47s were enemy bombers. They started shooting and many C-47s were shot down.
Painting our planes right before the invasion made them easy to distinguish from the German planes. I remember we used paintbrushes and brooms to paint the stripes. All of us painted the planes—all of the crewmembers, all of the mechanics. Everyone worked on painting the ships.
Our paint jobs must have been acceptable because the flight crews and paratroopers were all put into a heavily guarded restricted area on June 4. During that time, we could have anything—as many cigarettes as we wanted, unlimited candy bars, all the steak we wanted to eat.
This reminded me, the country boy, of beef cattle being put in a holding pen where they were given all the best quality food they could eat because they were being fattened up for the kill. We were definitely in the fattening pen. I guess when it came right down to it, they believed that most of us were eating our last meals.
We were finished with our pre-training. On June 3, we did a pass-in-review of all the big wheels who had come to watch the 439th. I remember being in the parade and staying in step, but I had no idea why we did this.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower was in charge of the invasion. We didn’t know this at the time, but the former prominent Wing Commander of the RAF told Eisenhower that he thought 50 to 70 percent of the troop carrier aircraft would be shot down in the upcoming Allied airborne assault.
Aircraft, including the C-47s being used as jumping platforms, had to fly low and slow, making them easy targets, as the tow ships and the gliders would be. They were unarmed, had little or no armor plating, and were without self-sealing fuel tanks.
Furthermore, because of the stiff German opposition on the ground, those who succeeded at landing, according to the RAF Wing Commander, would be quickly overwhelmed by the German ground forces.
After hearing this, Eisenhower still believed that plans for the invasion needed to proceed. Later, as the invasion began and Eisenhower watched the planes taking off for the French coast, he prayed, “May the Lord have mercy on their souls.” He believed the troop carriers, flying 600 feet above the ground and at only 110 miles an hour, would lose 70 to 85 percent of their C-47s and crews.
The weather was really bad, so we stayed all of June 5 in our restricted area with nothing much to do but eat and sleep. We were waiting for Eisenhower’s chief meteorologist, Captain J.M. Stagg, to figure out when the invasion could begin. Finally, Stagg told Eisenhower that we had an opening of a few hours for the invasion. Otherwise, it would probably be two or three weeks before weather would improve enough to launch the invasion.
Scattered across England on 13 airfields were 801 C-47s and more than 13,000 paratroopers waiting to take off. Scheduled to depart 30 minutes before the main force were 20 C-47s. They would carry an advance group called “pathfinders” and would fly low—too low for radar detection. They would drop the pathfinders with lights, radio beacons, and brightly colored tarps that were used to create Ts or arrows to mark drop zones for the airborne force behind them.
During the hour before midnight on June 5, the sea was choppy, the wind was rising, and the clouds were beginning to form over the French coast.
At approximately 11:15 pm, our C-47 crews at Upottery began the final checklists and warm-ups. After that, the cockpit lights were turned off, and the pilots put on their wrap-around red glasses to help their eyes fully adjust to the darkness. After 15 minutes, the glasses were removed, the takeoffs began, and 81 heavily laden C-47s roared into the black night sky from Upottery.
We had practiced for months, taking off and circling above the field while another bunch of airplanes took off and caught up with the ones already in the air. The need for quick assembles and tight formation had always been stressed. We had practiced and practiced, and now we hoped our intense training would pay off.
We were scheduled to tow gliders and release them over Normandy; we would not be carrying paratroopers.
It is hard for me to describe how I felt and what I saw during the invasion of Normandy. It still seems amazing that this large mass of airplanes took off and ended up at their objectives at the right time. With what little navigation equipment and radios we had at that time, Operation Overlord is something that should have never succeeded.
One member of our squadron, John R. Phillips, described the invasion better than I ever could. He wrote, “My recollection of that night is really quite vivid. I remember, after briefing, being driven to the airplane where our sticks [the line of 18 paratroopers—maximum—within the plane] were already assembled and prepared for takeoff.
“Lieutenant John North was platoon commander, and we discussed jump speed and altitude. Since a group [the pathfinder planes] led by Charles Young had gone ahead, we had to have an altitude of greater than 1,000 feet above ground level. North requested that, if possible, we would descend to 500 feet above ground level (normal altitude for our jump was 600 feet) so his stick would have only one swing before landing.
“I agreed, with the provision that I would not break formation. The rest were informed by both me and North. North, of course, was the jumpmaster of the stick that was in his airplane.
“Just as we made landfall, turning into the DZ, we encountered low clouds and rain. My flight maintained good formation, but we lost visual contact with Morton’s right wingman. My navigator, Larry Wiles, saw that we were on instrument conditions and rapidly calculated our arrival time at the DZ. We broke out of the clouds but were unable to see Morton’s formation. Morton was leading another set of three….
“I asked Wiles where the pathfinder team was … and I put a lighted ‘T’ to show us which direction to go and where our drop zone was.… Wiles gave me an estimated time based on our airspeed to an approximation to the ‘T.’ When he told me we were two minutes out, I throttled back to 1,500 RPM, dropped down with my two wingmen to 500 feet, turned on the amber light in the cabin, and Wiles said, ‘This is close.’ I turned on the jump light and the sticks went out.
“My crew chief, Milton Wolf, was in the astrodome and confirmed that all the sticks in our Flight A were out. Just prior to the green light, I added power to the right engine, leaving the left engine at 1,500 [RPM]. The left engine was the side that the jump door was on, so we wanted to leave the left engine with no prop blast coming back on the paratroopers.
“We came under intense ground fire, and I saw Marvin Mirror being hit, and the right engine caught fire. He turned out to the left as we were told to do and descended for a night crash landing. When he turned out and I could see how badly the plane was burning, I broke radio silence and said, ‘Jump, Marvin! For God’s sake, jump!’ He didn’t, and I was horrified to see the plane hit the ground and explode.