Eyewitness to History

World War II
The Three-One-Five Group,
and the Troop Carrier D-Day Flights
By Bill Brinson
These stories are not copyrighted unless noted but we request anyone using them for other than personal use to credit the author and the museum.

This report is taken from the book "THE THREE ONE-FIVE GROUP", written in 1968, and published in 1984, by now-deceased Bill Brinson. It is now being expanded for reissue late 2002.

The last week in May, Group Engineering received numerous gallons of both black and white paint. Confidential instructions were issued to the four squadron engineering sections to be ready on short notice to mark all aircraft. Three white and two black stripes, each stripe two feet wide, were to be painted around the aircraft fuselage just forward of the tail section. The same pattern was to be painted on the top and bottom of each wing. Once the aircraft were painted, they were grounded until further notice. The "GO " signal for the painting to commence was received on 3 June, and the squadron engineering personnel, chided into competition by Sgts. George White and Sollie Grasmick from the Group Engineering Section, worked continuously until all aircraft were marked.

Airfield Sealed

On 1 June, the airfield at Spanhoe was "sealed:" No one was allowed off the base, all passes were cancelled, and all personal telephone calls were prohibited. Non-official mail was placed in bags and stored. Paratroopers from the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, stationed near Leicester , began arriving at Spanhoe two days later. They set up cots in one of the hangars and strung barbed wire around the area of the airfield allotted to them. Around the same time, 315th crewmembers scheduled for the upcoming mission were issued "escape kits "containing special instructions, cloth maps, and a limited amount of French francs. These kits were welcomed. Not welcomed were a set of special coveralls, impregnated with an oily and strong smelling substance, which were supposed to be worn on the mission. The impregnated suit was said to offer protection against certain types of gasses that the enemy might use.

The weather forecast for 5 June postponed the planned operations for 24 hours, but on the evening of 4 June, General Eisenhower made the decision that the invasion of France (Operation OVERLORD) would take place on the 6th. The paratroops, advanced guard of the Allied Forces, would take off from English airfields on the evening of 5 June. The mission of the 82nd Airborne Division, of which the 505th PIR was a part, was to secure the western edge of the bridgehead by capturing the town of Ste. Mere Eglise , a key point on the road to Cherbourg.

The Briefings

Early in the afternoon of 5 June, the pilots, co-pilots,and navigators assembled in the Pilots ' Lounge. (The crew chiefs and radio operators were briefed separately.) Maj.Gen.Matthew B. Ridgeway, who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division, and who was scheduled to jump with the 505th was present. When all were present, Col.McLelland announced that the long expected mission was scheduled for that evening. Lt.Col.Gibbons then revealed the map on the wall and pointed out the destination —a drop zone northwest of the town of Ste. Mere Eglise on the Cherbourg Peninsula in Normandy . Over 800 American troop carrier aircraft would participate in the mission, airlifting over 13,000 U.S. paratroopers and glidermen. Additional planes from the British 38 Group and 46 Group would take in the British airborne troops. All necessary information concerning the mission of the troop carriers was fully covered and few questions were asked at the briefing 's conclusion. Pilots went from the briefing to meet and have discussions with the jumpmasters on their respective planes.

The total load for the 315th's 48 aircraft was 844 paratroops and 41,236 pounds of equipment. All that was left to do until the balloon went up later in the day was to wait.

Channel Crossing

A final crew briefing was held at 2030; no major changes were made to the instructions issued earlier. The one serial* of the 315th was to be made up of 48 aircraft —each aircraft carrying 19 to 20 paratroopers, and five to six parapacks of equipment fastened with shackles under the wings.

There was a lead flight of three planes followed by five Vee of Vees , consisting of nine aircraft each. The leader of each nine-plane element was to fly 1000 feet to the rear of the preceding flight. The wing element leaders were positioned 200 feet behind, and 200 feet to the right and left respectively of the rear planes in the leading element. For night flying, this was not a loose formation.

The weather was not too good, but it was not too bad. The skies were expected to be free of clouds over England at the altitude the formation would fly, and only scattered clouds were forecasted for the coast of France.

By 2130 most of the aircrews, paratroopers, and some maintenance men had assembled by the individual planes parked on the hardstands surrounding the airfield. Some were making last minute checks of their planes and equipment;some talked quietly;others remained silent with their own thoughts;all were wondering about what might lie ahead in Normandy . The German forces had worked on "Fortress Europe "for almost four years. Would it be as formidable as the enemy advertised it to be?

There was one group of men whose fate that June evening was not in Normandy , but on the base at Spanhoe. A few minutes before the aircraft were to be boarded, one of the paratroopers standing alongside Flight Officer Weston Harper 's aircraft dropped a grenade. It exploded and sprayed metal fragments in all directions. Two paratroopers were killed instantly and one died later. Fifteen others were wounded, including the aircrew radio operator. The plane received major damage and was pulled from the mission. The handful of paratroopers not wounded, and some who were, tried to get aboard other planes parked nearby at the same time that engines were being started and other planes began to roll to takeoff position. It was reported that one or two succeeded. Such was their training and esprit de corps.

Ninety-Four Engines start up Ninety-four engines began turning over at 2250 and in the order briefed, slowly moved along the taxi strip toward Runway 260. Six aircraft took formation position on the runway, while the others waited to move forward in their turn. Most base personnel not on the planes had an inkling that this mission might be what it happened to be and were assembling on the grass between the control tower and the active runway as if saying "Good luck and Godspeed to all aboard. " At 2306 with ten to fifteen minutes of daylight still remaining, the lead plane of the 315th, piloted by Col. McLelland, started down the runway.

Each five-second interval thereafter, another plane followed the preceding one. The pilots tucked the planes into formation as the serial made a wide sweep of Spanhoe at 1200 feet before taking up a course for " Atlanta , "the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing Assembly Point about 20 miles east of the midlands city of Birmingham . There were two serials from the 316th Group just ahead of the 315th's planes, and seven serials from the 314th, 313th, the 61st, and the 442nd Groups following close behind. These ten serials of 368 aircraft carried the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne to Normandy.

After darkness, the moonlight above became discernible through high scattered clouds, and on the ground below specially placed light beacons marked the route to the coast every thirty miles. The formation flew southeast until it reached the head of the Severn Estuary, near Bristol , where it turned southward for Checkpoint "Elko. "At Elko, the groups of the other two troop carrier wings moved into the stream at their designated time. After passing the coast over Portland Bill, a descent was made to 500 feet to delay discovery by German radar. Twenty minutes from destination the jumpmaster on each plane was alerted and the formation began a gradual climb to 1500 feet. An unexpected cloudbank was hanging over the western part of the Cherbourg Peninsula that required the 315th to climb a few hundred feet more to get above it and to change course slightly.

As the cloudbank moved away from beneath the formation, the beacons placed on the drop zone by the Pathfinders were identified and shortly thereafter the "T " of green lights was sighted. (The "T, " 30 x 20 yards, was lit shortly before the first serial arrived.) Ground fire was observed off to the right from what appeared to be the town of Etienneville , and one flak burst struck a plane wounding seven paratroopers. Speed was reduced to 110 mph and four minutes before the drop, the jumpmaster standing at the rear of the fuselage received the red lights to stand up and hook up the parachutes to the static line.

As Drop Zone "0, "about three quarters of a mile northwest of the village of Ste. Mere Eglise , was reached, the green lights signaling "Go "were switched on, sending 816 paratroopers floating earthward from the planes of the 315th. The time was 0203 hours, 6 June 1944 . Immediately after the paratroopers were dropped, the planes descended to 200 feet and maintained this altitude until well beyond the east coast of the Cherbourg Peninsula and to the St. Marcouf Islands. Somewhere in this last few miles over the mainland, a 309th aircraft was struck by machine gun fire coming from a house along the route. Lt. R. T. Slater, flying as co-pilot, was slightly wounded and the plane received some damage. Neither Lt. Orien Clark, the pilot;nor Sgts. Prentice Stucker and Rives Graham, the crew chief and radio operator, were injured. Another 309th aircraft, piloted by Lt. Rodney Bemis, received a burst of flak in the fuselage, wounding several paratroopers, three seriously. On the return flight, Lt. Bemis landed at the first English airfield he sighted to obtain medical attention for the wounded.

Climbing to 3000 feet and returning over the Channel, the crewmembers were aware of the tremendous invasion armada spread out below them and moving toward the Normandy beaches. By 0440, 45 aircraft had returned to Spanhoe, and the other two planes had been reported as having landed at other airfields. Twelve of the C-47s had received damage from enemy fire. For the 315th aircrews, at least, what later became known as "The Longest Day " was over.

NOTE:

This is one of several additional accounts that supplement The Troop Carrier D-Day Flights. Other Troop Carriers are encouraged to submit their own D-Day records. If they are appropriate, they will be considered as additions, in running order.