I got up on the navigator’s stool and, because we were in the front of the formation and were heading back, I was able to see the planes still trying to drop their gliders. I saw a plane get hit, and the left engine immediately caught fire. One crewmember jumped, and his parachute opened right in the flak. Two more jumped out, and their parachutes opened halfway down. One crewmember never came out, and the plane exploded the second it hit the ground.
Then I saw another plane blow up in the air. (I found out later that this plane was piloted by my buddy, Joe Fry, who had been my co-pilot since the past March when I arrived at Balderton Field, but on this mission they needed more planes and pilots. Joe was made first pilot and was placed in slot 13. Joe came back later, burned, but he and his crew all bailed out safely.)
John Hill, piloting the glider being towed by Joe Fry, later wrote, “About eight miles from the LZ, we started getting small-arms fire and, as we got nearer to Bastogne, the ground fire became heavier. I could hear the bullets hitting the heavy ammunition I was carrying, and I was praying that they would not hit the detonators that I had hanging next to my seat!
“Then something turned loose on us from underneath. It sounded like large antiaircraft fire. The towship then caught fire under the belly, and it blazed up suddenly over the whole back end. We flew for about three or four miles farther with the blaze getting larger all the time. It looked as though the towship would blow up any minute, it was burning so furiously.
“I realized Joe was trying desperately to get me over the LZ. Flames were leaping back halfway down the towrope. Two ’chutes came out through the flames. After another mile, I thought I could make it to the LZ. Around the time a third ’chute appeared, I cut loose and cut across to the LZ.” Hill’s glider made it safely down.
Our mission on December 27 successfully delivered 70 percent of the cargo destined for Bastogne, but it came with the highest percentage of losses for any mission flown during the war. Of the 50 C-47s that took off from Châteaudun that morning, 13 were shot down, one crashed, and two were damaged beyond repair. Another 15 ships were damaged but eventually flew again.
Eighteen C-47 crewmembers lost their lives, and 21 became POWs. Three glider pilots died, and 14 glider pilots became POWs. Fourteen C-47 crewmembers were injured but returned to Châteaudun on December 27.
Colonel Charles H. Young later wrote about the mission to Bastogne, “Troops on the ground [at Bastogne], their eyes fixed on the drama taking place a few hundred feet above them, held their breath as pilots followed each other doggedly into the murderous German flak concentration, now locked in on the narrow column.”
Later, a captain who had witnessed the carnage, stated, “No ‘show’ I have ever seen, or will ever see, compares to this spectacle, and this includes the armada of Normandy on D-Day. Nothing compares to seeing those fellows marching headlong through that intense flak.”
After this adventure, I was transferred to B-24 school back in England. I didn’t much care for B-24s; most of them had leaky gas tanks, and that gas dripped down into the bomb bays. Before landing, the bomb bay doors had to be opened hydraulically to remove the gas fumes before lowering the landing gear. If the landing gear was lowered first, it created electrical sparks that could ignite the gas fumes in the bomb bays. I had seen a B-24 pilot lower his landing gear with the bomb bay doors closed, and his plane blew sky high.
Once my training was done, it was back to Châteaudun, but I was returned to my C-47 group and not assigned to B-24s. Soon we were preparing for Operation Varsity, which occurred on March 24, 1945, and was the last major airborne assault in Europe during World War II.
Varsity was also the largest airborne operation in history to be conducted in one location on a single day—with more than 17,000 paratroopers ,836 aircraft, and 1,348 gliders involved. Varsity’s goal was to establish a stronghold on the east side of the Rhine River and support the Allied troops as they crossed the river.
We had been put in the restricted area again, so we knew something big was going to happen. I was on guard duty at the compound on March 22 and 23. We took off at 9:30 am on March 24.
As we were flying along, the new engines, because we hadn’t had time to break them in properly, were heating up. The air-cooled engine of the C-47 has cowl flaps that could be completely opened, completely closed, or left halfway open. These engines were “in trail,” meaning that our air speed dictated the position of the cowl flaps.
I told the pilots that they had to get the cowl flaps open or the engines were going to blow up. They said, “Well, if we do that, we’re going to burn too much gas.”
I shot back, “If you don’t open those cowl flaps, our engines are going to blow up, and you’re not going to need gas. Open those cowl flaps and get those engines cooled down.” They complied and we made it to the landing zone.
As we flew toward our LZ, there was plenty of sweating going on, and plenty of shooting, but no hits on my airplane. We were very lucky, because we were pulling two loaded gliders at only 90 miles an hour.
Talk about ships going down and burning on the ground! I had never seen as many airplanes burning on the ground as I did during that flight. That was because many of our pilots were flying C-46s, and the C-46s are controlled by hydraulics. (The C-47s are controlled with cables.) When the hydraulic lines of the C-46s were hit, the pilots lost control of their planes. When they lost control, there was nothing they could do but crash.
Later I heard that, once the tow planes starting coming in with their gliders, it was three hours of nonstop formations before everyone had passed by. Like we did at Normandy, everyone stayed in close formation, and it was an overwhelming sight.
After we dropped our gliders, no one had enough gas to get back to our base, so we all landed at alternative airfields. A number of planes landed with no rudder, some didn’t have elevators, and others had holes in the wings that you could stick your head through. Many had holes in their fuselages.
Many C-46s would have crashed—and did—with these hits, but our dependable C-47s kept on flying. Many called the C-47 the “workhorse of the air.” A number of planes that landed at the airports didn’t leave for quite a few days or even months, depending on the repairs they needed to be flyable again.
Varsity was my last combat mission, but we still ran resupply and evacuation missions. As the war came to a close, we usually flew two flights a day into Germany, and we saw some terrible things while we were picking up prisoners of war. In some camps, the prisoners were nothing but skin and bones, and their clothes were hanging on them. We had to carry some of them into the plane and strap them in litters. Others could walk okay but needed some assistance. In other camps—maybe the actual POW camps—the guys were in good shape. All of the prisoners were pretty darn happy to be free.
After the war ended, I returned to the States. Even though I had liked the job I had—I loved being an airplane mechanic and I loved flying with the pilots—I thought that I had had enough. I was discharged on September 16, 1945, as a Tech Sergeant with a base pay of $135 per month, plus flight pay.
When I think back to my time in the European Theater, I sometimes remember the many close friends who died. We all made close friends, we lost some of them, but we had to keep going. We had an important job to do, and with the next day came the next mission. Our ground forces were counting on us to deliver the supplies they needed, and we all worked together to defeat Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Now, we have the time to remember our friends, who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. They should never be forgotten.
When we landed the C-46 for the last time on July 20, 1945, I walked away, determined to never fly again. Seeing my buddies shot out of the sky, and praying with every mission that our C-47, our Ruca, would safely return to the airfield, was still too vivid in my mind. That day, however, I didn’t realize that my fascination with flight was still very much alive.