This is a Digest. Much of it is scan and paste from other works—with permission, of course. The rest is mine. I have made every effort to give everyone proper credit. If I erred, I apologize.
I was a Troop Carrier pilot, although I did not participate in the D-Day flights. I flew in most of the other actions in Europe that followed, and I have worked closely over the years with many Troop Carrier veterans and professional historians to preserve our history.
I have two thoughts in mind here: (1) To bring forth, all in one place, some of the more interesting historical records of the Troop Carrier D-Day flights—and (2) To revive and collect some of the more representative stories of dedication, bravery, and accomplishment of Troop Carrier and Airborne forces serving together. We were indeed a great team.
There are tales-a-plenty about this, but only those that can be fully documented and accurately labeled as history are included in this chronicle.
San Francisco, CA 94123
6 June, 2001 — The 57th Anniversary
There are two versions of the Troop Carrier D-Day flights into Normandy still circulating among us today. The first is based on the works of recording historians like Dr. John Warren, Col. Charles H. Young, Donald vanReken, Harvey Cohen, Martin Wolfe, Robert Callahan, Neal Beaver, Arthur Een, Michael Ingrisano, Joseph Harkiewicz, and others. There are also official records of the 82nd Airborne Division debriefing sessions, and excerpts of reviews from high-level commanders like Generals John Galvin, James Gavin, Mathew Ridgway and Paul Williams. And this only scratches the surface.
The second version is based on relatively recent oral reports gathered by "pop historians" writing best sellers—or producing TV documentaries. They appear to be working from limited research, and at least one has leaned heavily on the memories of a relatively small number of airborne troops, telling what they remembered, the way they remembered it 50 or more years earlier. These are sincere reports, but very few of these oral histories appear to be documented. Sometimes whole segments are left out. In researching the book D-Day, for example, author Stephen Ambrose chose not to interview any of the 821 Troop Carrier flight crews, even though access was offered.
Everyone who has studied the D-Day flights—even casually—knows that the mission didn't come off exactly as planned. Fifty seven years have passed since the event, and we all need to be very careful about who we listen to and what we accept as history. The first version, the one from the early historians, speaks of superb planning and a flawless execution of the flights—right up to the French coast. The second, the one from the "pop historians," tends to overlook the effects of the weather, and blames individual Troop Carrier pilots for almost everything that went wrong with the whole mission.
It is right to honor the paratroopers and glider soldiers, as most everyone does—but it is also right to honor the Troop Carrier crews who risked (and sometimes lost) their lives to deliver their troopers to their assigned drop zones. They salvaged the mission as best they could on their own initiative—in weather conditions that took away much of their visibility—and they did this without regard for personal safety. This is what they were ordered to do, and it is well documented by the professional historians that this is what they did.
I hope to encourage everyone involved here to think of the Airborne forces, and the Troop Carrier forces as brothers-in-arms serving together in a common cause. We were all in this together, fighting the same enemy in the same war.
WW II Troop Carrier Pilot
Recording historian—61st Troop Carrier Squadron
There was a great debate going on in the high command about whether the airborne troops should be used at all. Air Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory, a prominent Wing Commander in the Battle of Britain, predicted that 50 to 70 percent of the Troop Carrier aircraft would be shot down in the assault. Leigh Mallory asked Eisenhower to cancel the American Airborne phase of the invasion.
Eisenhower quietly agonized over his air advisor's request against Bradley's revisions. Bradley, who had the support of the American Airborne commanders, acknowledged the risks, but thought them necessary for the overall success of the invasion.
In the end, after many agonizing hours of self-debate, Eisenhower agreed to continue the airborne assault. We know the rest.
From the Troop Carrier point of view, the historical cost of all this confusion is enormous. It is also understandable. The pilots fully understood the problems caused by the weather—while the paratroopers in the back could only speculate. There are no flight instruments back there—no altimeter, no airspeed indicator, and no way of determining position. Most paratroop veterans realize now that they couldn't have possibly known how desperately the pilots were trying to save the mission—nor was there any way of knowing that some of the pilots were sacrificing their lives to stay with their airplanes. Lt. Marvin Muir of the 439th Troop Carrier Group, for example, received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) posthumously for giving his life, and the lives of his crew, for holding his burning C-47 level so his 101st Airborne paratroopers could jump. Some troopers also learned later that some of the flights that were judged harshly from the ground were manned by other crew members reported to have been reaching for the controls over dead or disabled pilots.
The Normandy pilots and crews were fully committed to completing the mission—and they were determined to do so. Official airborne records also show that the airborne troops in general were dropped close enough to their objectives to allow all three airborne divisions to accomplished their major missions by the end of the first day.
The spirit and dedication of all this is exemplified by the briefing Col. Charles H. Young, Commander of the 439th Troop Carrier Group, gave his pilots on 5 June 1944, Col. Young flew as lead pilot of the 439th Troop Carrier Group.
"The main thing we're interested in tonight, even above our own safety—repeat, even above our own safety—is to put a closed-up, intact formation over our assigned drop zone (DZ) at the proper time, so these paratroopers of ours can get on the ground in the best possible fighting condition. Each pilot among you is charged with the direct responsibility of delivering his troops to the assigned DZ. Their work is only beginning when you push down that switch for the green light. Remember that."
Yet even today, the authors, the publishers, and the producers of the TV documentaries still tend to blame the pilots entirely for erratic flights that some of the paratroopers reported. In a History Channel presentation on April 8, 2001 of 101st Airborne Division activities, the clouds and fog that caused the loss of effective control of the formations were mentioned only in passing. The heroic efforts of many of the Troop Carrier crews attempting to salvage the mission on their own initiative were not recognized at all.
The paratroopers were among the first into action, and the first to be relieved from the front lines. The rough ride some of them got was the reason for the quick judgments they carried with them into battle—and there was no way to cross check the details in that short time. It was also the impression many carried with them back to the streets and pubs of England. Reporters and correspondents, eager for sensational stories, jumped on these impressions, and passed them on to their editors—quite often without documentation. It was much too early for the refinements and filtering of the bull sessions and debriefing conferences that followed later.
The general views of Troop Carrier performance in Normandy vary widely between veterans of the 82nd Airborne Division and veterans of The 101st Airborne Division—with the most critical judgments coming from the 101st. There are still strong differences of opinion about this between veterans of these two divisions, but there are also many other well-documented records to supplement these opinions. Normandy was the first combat action for the 101st, while the 82nd had trained and fought with these same Troop Carrier units in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. It may be that they just knew a little more about what to expect.
A more likely reason for the difference is the relative time of arrival over the French coast. The first Troop Carrier serials in the lineup carried the 101st Airborne Division from airfields in Southern England, and this is when the fog and the clouds were the thickest. And this is also when and where the breakup of the formations was the most severe.
This gets even more confusing when one considers that it took five hours for the full formation to cross the French coast. The weather varied widely during those five hours—and each Troop Carrier pilot flew into the weather conditions that were there at the exact time he crossed. In the ways of war, there were some bad encounters and some equally bad flight experiences—but these were a relatively small percentage—and not one of them is at all typical of the full five-hour mission.
Many of the first reports from the paratroopers on the streets are still with us, appearing in popular books and in commercial World War II TV documentaries. The full story of these flights can't possibly be told accurately and professionally without input from the flight crews—and this is what is lacking in much of the more recent material we read and view today. This is a serious omission in any D-Day report labeled History.
It is easy to understand the resentment of paratroopers for the rough ride some of them got—but it is also hard to understand how individual pilots can still be held responsible for the French weather—or for the command decisions that ordered them to fly in it. More detailed information about this is available in most libraries, and in reliable history websites on the Internet.
There has been other speculation (and it is just that) that the Troop Carriers might have continued through the fog in formation if they had been trained better for instrument flight (not so)—and that they might have been able to cope with flak and ground fire had they been trained to fly through it. This was, in fact, tried with disastrous results later in 1944 in a 349th Troop Carrier Group training exercise from Pope Field, North Carolina. This was scheduled in response to the suggestions of the 82nd Airborne commanders in their official debriefing conference. Three C-47s were lost in rain and fog out over the Atlantic before the mission could be aborted. It was tried again four weeks later in better weather. The conclusions were: It is impossible to fly tight formations in the clouds—and anti-aircraft fire programmed to miss is not realistic training. It cost fifteen lives to learn this.
Authors like Stephen Ambrose, Max Hastings, and the writers for the History Channel who refer to the Troop Carrier pilots as being unqualified and careless need to look again at the facts, now that they are so readily available. They haven't yet considered the lengthy training sessions in England to hone the night formation skills of the pilots—nor is there any apparent awareness of the intensive night practice drops with the paratroopers during the same period. For many weeks, this was the top priority in all Troop Carrier Groups, and very little else took place. Many of the pilots were combat veterans of North Africa, Sicily, and Italy—and all but the newest replacements had 500 hours or more in the air. Some had many more.
The most formidable enemy of the troop carrier airdrops on D-Day was the weather. And the most formidable enemy of historical truth everywhere is hazy memory and uncertain speculation.
and the Air-borne pathfinders stayed to fight the war
The role of the Pathfinders was critical here, and must not be overlooked. The IX Troop Carrier Command Pathfinder Group (Provisional) was formed within the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing, under the command of Lt. Col. Joel Crouch—to provide accurate guidance for the airborne troops to their drop zones and landing zones. This group was the outcome of numerous meetings held in Comiso, Sicily between senior American and British commanders to critique the disappointing results of the airborne landings there.
It was clearly established that the use of assigned drop zones, marked in advance of the arrival of the main body of airborne troops, was sound thinking. In addition, the idea was that even if the pathfinders missed the zones a bit, and the zones were improperly marked, that at least the main body of the paratroopers would be dropped together. This would avoid the tragic scattering we experienced in Sicily.
Specially selected troop carrier crews and airborne troops were trained for specific pathfinder duties. The Rebecca-Eureka radar transponder system was utilized as a navigational aid for in-coming troop carrier serials. Eureka was a portable responder beacon that was placed on a drop zone or landing zone on the ground. And after it was activated, it indicated it's approximate location on a receiver called Rebecca, in the cockpit.
Army Air Forces navigators also relied on Gee, a primitive electronic navigational system that worked to a degree, but was complex and time consuming to use. It required special training, and many crews found it awkward in combat. Some crews used it successfully, however.
The Pathfinder training, which had to do with the Army Air Force crews, was but a small part of the whole story, and should in no way be confused with the special training of the airborne path-finder troops. They learned the proper ways to operate their special equipment, including long-wave radio, Rebecca-Eureka sets, smoke signals, holophane lights at night, fluorescent panels by day for marking landing areas and wind direction in the form of large "T"s laid out on the ground.
These troops learned to jump with all this equipment, and how to set it up once on the ground—all of this in 15–30 minutes in the dark—before the incoming serials began arriving. The Army Air Forces Pathfinders were only a means of transportation and delivery. That job accomplished, they immediately returned to their home base, leaving their airborne friends on the ground to fight the war.
Just before 10:00PM on June 5th, twenty C-47s of the 9th Troop Carrier Command Pathfinders Group took off from the base of North Witham, near Grantham, England. Each carried its elite pathfinder paratroopers and their equipment. The weather also scattered those who were to mark the DZs. Their destinations: Ste Mère Eglise and Ste Marie du Mont. These crews and their men were the first to know the exact place of the Normandy landings, and theirs were the very first flights. Multiple pathfinder teams preceded the main assault, but some missed their destinations by as much as 1-1/4 miles. They set up their transmitters where they landed, and this is why there were some conflicts between the visual sightings of the drop zones and the Rebecca signals.
Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch piloted the lead plane, following his preset itinerary without any further radio communication. He crossed the English Channel, flying as low as safely possible, flying over the French coast just after midnight.
These pathfinders were absolutely essential to the success of this mission. Their job was to mark the proper DZs (drop zones) and LZs (landing zones) with luminous panels in the shape of Ts in predetermined places that were visible from the air, but not from the ground. In addition, smoke generators were also to be placed near the panels to indicate the wind direction. Radio direction finders beacons were also to be placed as homing beacons.
The pathfinder force arrived over the beaches after an uneventful flight across the Channel, but after they made landfall they ran into problems. The lead C-47 ran into a bank of low-lying coastal cloud and disappeared from the view of the pilots in the rest of the formation. The loss of visual contact completely destroyed the essential integrity and the discipline of the formation that had been drilled into the pilots during their training. Some pilots elected to climb above the clouds, while others tried to go below them, and others tried to stay together. The disorder caused the formation to break up, and the force scattered. Then, to compound the problem, German flak came up to meet they low-flying C-47s as they crossed the coast. Many of the pathfinders were dropped away from their programmed destinations.
At 01:30AM, the planes carrying the 101st Airborne Division arrived over Normandy and began dropping their troops. In part because of the failure of the pathfinders to find their objectives, their planned drops were also scattered.
As a matter of general interest, one report states that the first person to land on the continent of Europe during the invasion was Captain Frank Lillyman of the 101st Airborne Division, an airborne pathfinder. Less than an hour after landing, Captain Lillyman heard the engines of the main body of IX Troop Carrier Command C-47s arriving from the west. They were carrying paratroopers of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions—a sight that captain Lillyman hadn't time to enjoy. Lt. Col Patrick Cassidy, battalion commander of the 1st Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, ordered Lillyman to set up a roadblock near Foucarville.
And once again, we can be thankful for the American ingenuity that largely saved the day.
These Groups of The IX Troop Carrier Command flew from England to Normandy in the following order—from the following locations:
The Pathfinders went first, and made their drop at 0020.
The Pathfinders were followed by serials from the 438th Group at Greenham Commons — The 436th Group at Membury —The 439th Group at Upottery — The 435th Group at Welford Park —The 441st Group at Merryfield — and The 440th Group at Exeter.
All of the above groups airlifted units of the 101st Airborne Division, and flew from the above airfields in Southern England. They had the shortest distance to fly, and the most severe weather conditions.
The 82nd Airborne Division was carried by the following Groups, moving into the stream of traffic in this order:
The 316th Group at Cottesmore — The 315th Group at Spanhoe — The 314th Group at Saltby — The 313th Group at Folkinghan — The 61st Group at Barkston Heath — and The 442nd Group at Balderton.
The 434th Troop Carrier Group at Aldermaston, and the 437th Group at Ramsbury towed gliders on their first NEPTUNE missions.
Bill Brinson, Historian, 315th Troop Carrier Group
Author - The Three One Five Group
it was also a day of reckoning for the planners and the ground crews.
It was also the day of reckoning for the Troop Carrier Command operations officers. These men had carefully devised an extremely complex plan to assemble 821 C-47s into a workable formation. This needed to be launched and assembled precisely into a pattern that would deliver troopers and gliders to their specific drop zones and landing areas—on time and on the button.
Harvey Cohen, writing in the history of the 32nd Troop Carrier Squadron, comments about the amazing logistics of the mission:
"The planning for D-Day, in retrospect, seems incredible. The airborne segment alone (the only part being considered here) was awesome. All the thousands of men and machines had to be moved about, many from the USA, and all of them had to be at exact locations at specific times.
In the case of Troop Carrier, with its function of dropping paratroops, this involved working backwards from the time of the planned paratroop drop, in our case at 2:14AM on the 6th of June. The route of each unit had to be plotted and the number of miles had to be accurately determined so that calculations at prescribed air speeds (C-47's carrying paratroops flew inbound at 140 miles per hour) could be made. Still working backwards, each of the Groups, which came from three different Wing areas in England, had to be over check points at specific times so that there would not be several Groups flying through an airspace at the same time. And working still further back, the takeoff times and the assembly times had to be determined for each squadron of each group.
Before all these events could take place, there had to be the fueling and last minute maintenance of hundreds of airplanes. All the aircrews had to be briefed on the scope of the mission, and then the details (e.g. flying in V of Vs, drop speed of 110 mph, return speed of 150 mph, no evasive action over the Drop Zone). At the same time the paratroops had to leave their own barracks areas and moved to various Troop Carrier bases. They had to be fed and provided with personal needs—and facilities they would need to load the planes."
June 6, 1944 was also the day of reckoning for the ground crews who serviced the airplanes. They also worked with the airborne troops to see that the correct materials were loaded onto the proper airplanes. Mortar ammunition, for example, would have been of no value to a rifle platoon. This was a logistics accomplishment of great magnitude, and no one could allow for any mistakes on D-Day.
The ground crews for any combat mission have one of the worst jobs of all—the long wait for the mission to return. A crew chief, for example, will have told his assistant what to do with his personal belongings—if he didn't make it back. No one expected this to happen, but empty C-47 parking revetments at the end of the day were silent evidence that it did. Life goes on, of course, but the loss of good buddies and true friends is never easy.
For the crews and airplanes that returned, major repairs were often made far into the night to make the airplane flyable the next day. Sometimes this was possible, and sometimes it wasn't. A pilot with a good crew chief and a good radio operator, considered himself blessed" — especially if they were well-supported by other squadron maintenance types.
Troop Carrier pilots were all very well trained in the fine art of flying in close formation, and most of their missions were flown that way. To the uninitiated, this may look difficult, but formation flying soon becomes second nature. It can be done precisely, only if the pilots can see the other airplanes clearly—and a paradrop could not be flown accurately in WW II if the pilots could not also see the ground.
On D-Day, General James Gavin reported that he could not see the wingtip of the C-47 he was riding in (let alone the ground) while standing in the door—and neither could the pilots in that particular serial. This is why the airplanes scattered, and this is the reason some of the paratroopers were also scattered.
The training days were now over. Almost everyone involved in the flights on 6 June 1944 started in a briefing session in a chilly shelter somewhere in England. Here they were told what their part of the mission was to be, and how they were expected to carry it out. The one noticeable difference from the earlier Troop Carrier briefings for the North Africa, Sicily, and Italy missions was that the enlisted crewmembers were included—and as a result, much of the Troop Carrier history has been written by Sergeants like Martin Wolf, Bob Callahan, Bing Wood, Arthur Een, Michael Ingrisano, and others.
We've all seen the Hollywood scenes of dramatic commanders like John Wayne or Gregory Peck standing before maps or sand tables briefing their troops. "This is it men;" the scene goes, "Synchronize your watches. Five, four, three, two, one, HACK! Good luck." The benches shuffle, and everyone moves out.
Some version of this took place in all the 18 aerodromes of the IX Troop Carrier Command—and in the staging areas of the troops they were to carry. These were scattered throughout the English Midlands and south and west of London at colorful places like Cottesmore, Merryfield, Folkingham, Saltby, Spanhoe, Ramsbury, Nottingham, Membury, Welford, Greenham Common, Exeter, Meryfield, Upottery—and others. It was finally the big day—following endless formation training and practice drops. Temporary numbers were chalked on the sides of each C-47 to tell paratroopers which plane to get on.
All in all, 821 Troop Carrier crews participated in the D-Day mission, and they were all loaded and launched as planned. In his book Into The Valley, Col. Charles H. Young describes the take-off and assembly of his 439th Troop Carrier Group:
"The Skytrains, upon take-off, turned in a closely held well-practiced formation, passing back over the airfield as the last airplanes were taking off. As the last crews formed up on their flight leader, the formation flew toward the Bill of Portland, a checkpoint on the English coast checkpoint, headed southwest and turned off the red and green navigation lights. Then, 47 miles later, at the point where the formation turned southeast toward Normandy, downward recognition lights were turned off, and the blue formation lights on top of the wings and fuselage were dimmed until they could just barely be seen.
Serials of aircraft, made up almost entirely of 36 or 45 planes, flew as nine-ship Vs on Vs in trail. The leader of each nine-airplane flight kept 1000 feet behind the rear of the preceding flight. Leaders of the Wing elements in each flight were 200 feet back, and 200 feet to the right or left. Within each three-plane V, wingmen were to fly 100 feet back and 100 feet to the right or left of their leader. This was a tight formation at night for aircraft approximately 75 feet long and 95 feet from wing tip to wing tip."
Each formation serial crossed the coast of France at different times, but the experiences of the 439th Troop Carrier Group were typical. The clouds that the Pathfinders had encountered had materialized, and the enemy ground positions were on full alert. No lighted 'T' was visible in the Drop Zone, and the Eureka beacon had been set up only a few minutes before the serials arrived. Enemy fire became intense about eight miles from the DZs, and three airplanes of the 439th were shot down. The crew of one of them, piloted by Lt. Marvin F. Muir, got it's troops out at the expense of their own lives, by holding the aircraft steady while the paratroopers made their jump (Warren-97, 40)."
Col. Young reported later that the 439th Group lost three aircraft that day—with seven others damaged.
"Despite the large number of Troop Carrier serials that flew into the unpredicted cloudbank just off the western Cotentin coast, and despite the lack of electronic aids for night formation, the 439th continued on. In the final count, 35 to 40 percent of the paratroopers dropped that night landed within one mile of their intended Drop Zones, while approximately 80 percent landed within five miles." (Warren-97, 58).
Col. Charles Young also reminds us that we just can't ignore the effects of the weather here, and the large part it played in the outcome of this mission.
"The American Troop Carriers executed a nearly flawless performance right up to the French coast when they were swallowed up in the unexpected fog and clouds—and before they lost all visible control of the formation.
Planners knew that there were clouds in this area three out of four June nights, but did not make suitable adjustments. According to Dr. John C. Warren, author of the USAF Historical Studies: No. 97, Airborne Operations in World War II, European Theater; this "must be rated as a serious planning error." Some vital contingency planning for the Normandy airborne operations, possibly due to the confusion among SHAEF staff in the last 1-1/2 weeks, may simply have been forgotten."
According to USAF historical analysis: 'Time and again in big and little exercises during the past two months, and in several previous missions, wind and low visibility, particularly at night, had scattered troop carrier formations, twisted them off course or spoiled their drops. Yet the halcyon weather in EAGLE [the major practice mission for NEPTUNE] seems to have pushed all this into the background.
"The field orders for EAGLE had contained full and specific precautions against bad weather. Those for NEPTUNE were notably lacking in such precautions. Even the requirements of security and the need to send in the NEPTUNE missions under almost any conditions cannot fully explain this neglect." (Warren-97, 59, 26).
"Air navigation, though much maligned at the time, compared favorably with the sea navigation of the Navy, which missed Utah Beach by a mile and a half." (Warren 97, 201). "Formation flying at night had not advanced into electronics. Pilots who were back in a formation kept their eyes glued to the shape in front of them, focused on the faint blue lights mounted on top of the wings, or on the glow of the exhaust stacks and flame dampeners. If they hit clouds, mid-air collision became an immediate concern.
Nevertheless, with all the difficulties in mounting such a massive airborne assault for the first time at night, and in marginal conditions, the effort was a success. At the close of D-Day, all three airborne divisions were able to report that their major missions had been accomplished. In fact, "the airborne phase of the Normandy landing was the first truly successful large-scale use of the new vertical flank—over the top of the enemy. Because it spearheaded the invasion of Europe, it has remained the most well known air assault of them all. It was in Normandy that the airborne concept came of age." (Galvin, 155-57)
In his book Green Light, Martin Wolfe points out that none of the difficulties the pilots faced were evident to the Airborne troops in the back of the airplane. He goes on to say:
"American paratroopers were some of the most Gung-Ho soldiers we had. They were convinced they could lick any bunch of "Lousy Krauts" with one hand tied behind their backs. No one thought much about this at the time, but the troopers were left literally and figuratively in the dark during the flights. There was very little information to go on from that time on. Many of the airborne troops were purposely kept in a supercharged state of physical and emotional awareness. They were a tough bunch—not to be messed with. All they wanted to do was to jump and fight Germans."
With everything considered, and given the circumstances, both the Airborne Forces and the Troop Carrier pilots did a superb job. 82nd Airborne commanders in their official debriefing conference reported that, in spite of the breakup of the formation and the loss of its precision control, many of the flights were carried out as briefed, and many of the objectives were taken as planned. The pilots, flying on their own initiative in the patchy fog, deserve their share of the credit for this.
We must also acknowledge here that we were supported on all sides by fighter aircraft that discouraged the Luftwaffe from attacking the C-47s and gliders. We must also acknowledge the support of the Eighth and Ninth Air Force bombers that softened up the air defenses on the ground. This was the kind of support that raised many glasses in the Troop Carrier Officers Clubs, and the NCO Clubs the next night.