“Within 30 seconds, we sustained a hit from the ground fire, and I felt my left foot feeling rather warm and squishy inside my shoe. I told [Bill] Ogletree, my co-pilot, to take the airplane, which he did.
“After we were out of enemy fire, I went back to the navigator’s table, took off my shoe and found my sock was quite bloody, and there was a hole in my foot. I put the sock and shoe back on since the bleeding was minimal at that point, but was beginning to hurt.
“Ogletree had turned back toward Upottery and flew the airplane until we had the field in sight at which point he said, ‘Sam, I can’t land it.’ So I tried a little pressure on the left rudder bar and found I could do it. We entered the pattern and I landed the plane, taxied to the wounded abort area, and was assisted by my navigator Wiles and Wolf to be taken to the 67th Hospital.
“The next morning I was operated upon and numerous bits of bullets and parts of the left rudder pedal were removed. Some of the material was so deeply imbedded that the surgeon was unable to remove some of the smaller pieces. Today, I still have a foot full of shrapnel and left rudder pedal.
“To deny fear would be a lie. Yes, I was afraid that we all would die, but to succumb to that fear and lose control of my airplane and my flight is bullshit.”
We made it back safely to Upottery. On June 7, we hooked up with a CG-4A glider; I don’t know what was in the glider. If the glider had a jeep, there would have been at least six men in it. If the glider had a trailer for the jeep, that trailer would probably have been loaded with ammunition or supplies along with six or eight men. Or, the glider could have been completely loaded with ammunition. We didn’t like to know what was in the gliders because, if it was a load of ammunition and got hit by a shell, it would make quite an explosion behind us.
We were one of 821 airplanes, lined up in five different groups, with the 439th being one of them. We were coming in three abreast with the lead plane in the middle, the left-hand wing, and our C-47 flying right-hand wing. We were all towing gliders. As we flew closer to the French coast, we began following another group of C-47s and gliders.
When our gliders landed, they were going to have some problems. The Germans had been expecting a glider and paratroop invasion, and they had flooded much of the land. Most of the open land not flooded was covered with “Rommel’s asparagus,” which were booby-trapped poles and stakes tied together horizontally and diagonally. Our gliders would have trouble finding safe places to land.
We joined a line of airplanes as far as I could see. Then I looked left and saw another big group of airplanes, probably the same size group that we were in. Another group of airplanes was moving in from the right and pulling into the same line we were in. Farther back behind this group was another group of airplanes, joining us in an ever-growing show of force. It was a sight that I’ve never forgotten.
The timing was so good, and the preparations were so good, that all of these airplanes could come in and line up and drop their gliders into these fields—some that were safe for landing and others that weren’t.
We released the gliders (the glider we were pulling could be released by the glider pilot or from inside the tow plane), and we had not been shot at. We then dropped low, and Al turned our C-47 back toward Upottery.
The tow rope, of course, was still trailing behind us, and we didn’t want to bring it back to Upottery, so Al said, “Elmer, this is your chance. Be a bombardier, release the tow rope, and see what you can hit.” As Al was buzzing over the treetops and houses, I found a target, reached up, and pulled the handle that released the tow rope. I don’t know if I hit the target or not.
We returned to Upottery and loaded our plane with food, ammunition, and first-aid equipment wrapped in parabundles. Then we strapped six parabundles to the belly of the airplane and flew back to France.
We flew two more missions on June 7 to resupply the troops. I remember flying toward the French beachhead and seeing many barrage balloons along the coast. There were ships near the coast, and many ships were unloading.
I remember movement on the beach, too, but most of the time I was busy with my job and had no time to think about anything else that was happening during Operation Overlord.
We spent the next few days resupplying our troops in France. There were days when we couldn’t fly, but we stayed busy whenever the weather was decent enough to fly.
On Saturday, June 24, we loaded up with resupplies and some nurses. Our mission was to land in France and take off again. They had bulldozed and leveled an area in a good-sized field. The field was wet and mushy, so they had laid metal planks—Marston mats—and hooked them all together for the length that was needed to land the C-47s.
We unloaded our supplies, and there were some wounded soldiers who came back to Upottery with us. We carried them into the plane on litters; sometimes we had two or three tiers of litters strapped to the inside of the plane. Some nurses stayed in France, and a few stayed with us and tended to the wounded.
Sunday was a repeat of Saturday. When I had time, I helped take care of the wounded as we evacuated them back to England. This went on into July.
On September 8, 1944, our 50th Wing was ordered to move to France, near Reims, to supply General Patton’s Third Army. We weren’t in France for many days, though, before we were ordered back to England.
We knew another big operation was coming, but we weren’t put in the restricted area this time. The Allied commanders probably believed that the Germans knew what was happening anyway. What was happening was Operation Market Garden, the invasion of Holland.
OPERATION MARKET GARDEN
On Monday, September 18, we took off at 10:30 am with paratroopers for the Holland invasion and drew fire as we hit the coast. Plenty of flak, all of it too high. Ruca was hit once but not bad. Just before we reached the DZ, we drew more fire. Some ships were hit hard but all returned.
The antiaircraft gunners determine at what altitude the airplane is flying and, at that altitude, the shell will explode. Because we were flying so low, the Germans didn’t have time to get an accurate aim, and the flak was all exploding too high. We were moving quite fast over the ground and canals—at about 160 miles an hour—and at perhaps 800 to 1,000 feet.
We picked up one bullet going over Holland. It was a 30.06, and it had come up through the tail of the airplane, ricocheted around for a while, and finally ended up on the pant leg of a paratrooper sitting in the airplane. He picked the bullet up, and it was hot as blazes. He was sitting there, blowing on it, and all the paratroopers hollered, “Get that damn door open!” As soon as we got hit with that bullet, I pulled the jump door out real quick. I often wondered if that paratrooper took that bullet back to the United States.
Some of the ships were hit once or twice, but nothing was too bad. Before we reached the drop zone, we drew more fire—flak and 20mm this time—and that was pretty heavy stuff. Flak makes one heck of a big puff of black smoke and, out of the black smoke, there might be nuts and bolts and razors and sharp metal flying in every direction.
We were so low (and this was scary) that we could actually see the Germans who were shooting at us. They were running around on the ground, picking up their clips of shells, and loading them into their guns. Then the bullets came flying past us, but we only saw the fifth or sixth ones. They were the markers, or tracers, so they could see where they were shooting.
We were pretty darn lucky that we got through there. Some ships were hit pretty hard, but the C-47 was a good old bird, and we all returned. One pilot was hit through the lungs, and one plane was hit through the hydraulic system, but they all got back to Balderton. We had no problems with the paradrop.
We were scheduled to have Wednesday off, so Al and Joe decided to go out and celebrate on Tuesday night. In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, however, we were told that we had a mission early that day. We had the parabundles filled, and we had our gear inside the airplane, but when we were ready to go, Joe Fry was so hung over that we had to help him into the airplane.