Special Troop Carrier D-Day Flights
Each Troop Carrier squadron has its own D-Day story. This one was written by Martin Wolfe, a radio operator in the 81st Troop Carrier Squadron of the 436th Troop Carrier Group, based at Membury in southern England. It is a chapter in Marty's book GREEN LIGHT, and it is reproduced here with permission. The paratroopers were members of the 101st Airborne Division.
Historians of D-Day agree that up to the point we crossed the Cotentin peninsula and headed toward the drop zones that the pilots flew a flawless formation under difficult circumstances: It was a tribute to training that the outward flight west of the Cherbourg peninsula was executed according to plan and without incident. This is the judgment of the Official Air Forces history, and other historians and journalists agree.
As we turned southwest from our corridor over the channel and toward Normandy, the feeling grew that this monstrously complicated operation was clicking along perfectly. This feeling was strengthened when we saw that the anti-aircraft fire from the German-held Channel Islands (Guernsey and Jersey) was short, as we had been told it would be.
A few minutes later, as we reached the western coastline, disaster loomed up at us; we slammed headlong into a dense cloudbank. Nothing had prepared us for this. The weather briefing had not foreseen it; our flight over the English Channel had encountered only scattered clouds. The cloudbank was thicker in some spots than others. For some of us it was so thick that it was as if we had stopped flying through the air and were now flying through a grayish soup. (James Gavin, then commanding a regiment of the 82nd, and flying in another serial, reported that he couldn't even see the wing tip from the open door of his C-47). The pathfinders had also flown through these clouds, but because of the orders for strict radio silence, they had not warned anyone of this terrible danger.
Flying in almost zero visibility, wing tip to wing tip, at the assigned altitude of 700 feet and level at 110 mph, the pilots suddenly had to decide how to save their crews, the paratroopers, and the planes. Immediately, pilots flying in the number two and three positions in each V pulled away, back, right or left to minimize the imminent danger of colliding with their leader. Some pilots climbed, getting out of the cloudbank at about 2000 feet, and some pushed their planes' noses down and broke out of the clouds at around 500 feet. A few bulled their way through at 700 feet, the altitude they had been flying before hitting the clouds. All miraculously escaped smashing into other planes. In a few tragic moments, without the discipline and control of the formation, the prospects for a concentrated paratrooper drop had been demolished. Meanwhile, our Drop Zones were coming up in ten or twelve minutes.
A terrible responsibility now fell upon the shoulders of every pilot and every navigator (in planes that had them). The murderous cloudbank thinned out as we flew east over the Cotentin peninsula—and soon we could begin to see some features on the ground. Each pilot knew that in the preceding formation breakup he could have strayed many miles off course. The Cotentin peninsula is only 23 miles wide, and we had about six or seven minutes left before our Drop Zone was to come up. Decisions had to be made quickly. Each pilot—now essentially on his own—had to climb (or descend) to 700 feet, the best height for the paratroopers to jump from; and he had to slow down to 100 / 110 mph to avoid too much stress on the parachutes.
Looking down you could begin to spot a few landmarks—a town, a railroad, and a river—that might or might not correspond to the checkpoints we were briefed to look for around our Drop Zone. And as if things were not bad enough, we now saw that the "Eureka-Rebecca" radar beacon system was not fully in place to guide our flight leader to the correct Drop Zone. And crews of the few planes that had the more sophisticated "Gee" radar location device didn't find them useful under these conditions.
The pathfinders had also been hampered by the fog and had been unable to find the right locations to set up their holophane "T" lights and radar beacons. All that remained for most of the pilots and navigators was to try to recognize some landmarks in the darkness—and give troopers the green light when there was a reasonable chance of their jumping close to our Drop Zone A.
And now, in my plane, the red light at the door is on—four minutes to go! The paratrooper jumpmaster yells out "Stand up! Hook up! Sound off for equipment check!" The troopers yell back, in sequence from the rear, "Sixteen OK! Fifteen OK! Fourteen OK" Then the jumpmaster screams out "STAND IN THE DOOR." And the troopers squeeze forward against each other, their right hands on the shoulders of the man in front. One last jump master yell: "ARE WE READY? ARE WE FRIGGING A READY?" There is no answering yell; everybody is waiting for the door light to change to green.
Mercifully, up to this point the paratroopers had no way of knowing we were in big trouble. But now pilots in some planes, already badly rattled by the loss of formation control, began to see flak and small arms fire coming up at them. They dove and twisted under the upcoming arcs of tracer bullets while the heavily laden troopers struggled to stay on their feet. Some planes whipped around badly, forcing troopers down on their knees. Barf buckets were knocked over and vomit spilled out, causing a dangerously slippery floor. Crew chiefs and radio operators in the rear screamed at the pilots to keep the planes steady.
"Watching the tracers come up at us made the hairs on the back of my neck feel as though they were standing up and it's still hard to laugh about things like that. These things are stamped indelibly in my mind: the rattle of flak fragments against our plane; the sight of flak and tracers above us, some seeming right on the mark for planes in front of us; the stark terror in some paratroopers' eyes, their vomiting into their helmets and forgetting to empty these helmets when it came time to "Stand Up! Hook Up!" as they prepared to make possibly their final jump." (Ben Obermark, crew chief)
When the pilots finally snapped on the green light it must have been a kind of momentary relief to the paratroopers, as they went out the jump door, heading for uncertain but presumably solid ground beneath.
"After we were in those clouds a few minutes some bright searchlights came on; the way they lighted up the clouds almost blinded me. Flak and tracers were everywhere. One of our squadron's planes was taking such wild evasive action that he almost drove me into the ground. It took every bit of my strength and know-how, plus that of our co-pilot, Doug Mauldin, to prevent a collision." (Don Skrdla, pilot)
The instant before the lead trooper jumped, the heavy door bundles had to be pushed out. In the plane piloted by Don Skrdla the awkward bundles jammed the door space with fiendish perversity, thwarting every effort of the crew and the troopers to push them out. There would have been no time for Skrdla to drop his troopers short of the English Channel. He flew out over the water, turned right, came back over land again, and made another pass at his drop zone—but the door bundles were still malevolently stuck. Skrdla had to make yet a third pass before the bundles could be freed and his troopers could get out. For this exhibition of skill and cool judgment he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the only one granted to our Squadron.
Asked what was going through his mind at that time, Skrdla said, "Nothing much, apart from how scared I was"; and he claimed much of the credit should go to the crew chief, Dick Nice, the one who managed to clear that door. Pressed further, Skrdla added, "It just wasn't in the book for me to go back with paratroopers in my plane." After his plane was headed home over the Channel, Skrdla got a shock when he looked back and saw one of his passengers still sitting there, but it turned out he was not a paratrooper but a newspaper reporter who had no intention of jumping.
Francis Farley (Operations Officer of the 81st TCS) was the leader of the second flight of nine planes. When we went through that famous cloudbank that hung over the Cherbourg peninsula, we were in a V-of-Vs of nine planes. Col. Brack was the leader of the other flight. As soon as Brack saw that cloudbank he went down to get through it; he figured he would still have enough altitude for the paratroopers underneath it.
But Farley, for some reason, thought he saw Brack turn to the left. So he also took his serial down under the cloud bank and turned our planes to the left. But we went too far north, and as a result we came out very near the top of the peninsula. We found ourselves only about five miles from the port of Cherbourg; and of course immediately we ran into heavy flak and other ground fire.
When we started to receive anti aircraft fire we were at a railroad junction some ten miles south of Cherbourg. Farley asked for a new heading to the Drop Zone. When we turned to a 180-degree heading, we were over land; we did not fly over the coast, but sighted some burning buildings at Ste. Mere Eglise and dropped our paratroop stick. By this time only 3 planes remained; the others lost us in the descent through the clouds.
We had hits in our vertical stabilizer. There was a hole big enough for a man to crawl through, but fortunately none of the main controls were hit. We also took hits in one of the main gas tanks and lost a large amount of our fuel.
"It was a close thing getting back to base. We were coming in with the indicator showing no fuel in the tanks. As we made our final approach, Lt. Greg Wolf, just ahead of us, landed and almost immediately went up on his nose because his tires had been shot out during the drop. We managed to pull up into the air just enough to clear his plane and immediately landed at a nearby base. When we got out the smell of gas was overpowering; it had sprayed over the entire fuselage." (Bob MacInnes, navigator)
In addition to the big hole in the vertical stabilizer in Farley's plane, we got our left wing tip shot off, and there was a really big hole in the fuselage where the door load had been before it went out. This must have been from one of those small explosive shells the Germans were using. It sure made a mess of the floor and a part of the sidewall. I also got a little piece in my wrist, but I didn't know anything about this until two days later when it began to get sore and infected. Doc Coleman dug it out with a large needle.
If those shell fragments had hit there before the door bundle went out, it would have been good-bye. The door load, all 1,100 pounds of it, was mortars and mortar ammunition. It had been resting on the floor directly above the shell hole.
"The door load and the first paratrooper went out of the door as one. Everyone else in the stick went out in seconds. Major Farley acknowledged my yell of 'All out!' and made a sharp turn to get away as I began to pull in the static lines. These were fifteen foot long tapes made of heavy webbing that were attached to the parachute rip panel and pulled open the chute when the paratrooper jumped. So there were eleven sets of static lines plus the two from the door load. Getting that sort of stuff inside the plane was not easy. Before I got them half way in, the navigator, MacInnes, and Chick Knight, the radio operator, had to come give me a hand." (Howard "Pat" Bowen, crew chief)
"After the drop, we had some bad moments. Of course by then we were all alone. Out over the Channel, I called "Hello Darky" (a British direction-finding system) to get a steer home. The fix they gave me didn't seem right but I figured they knew what they were doing. I made about a 180-degree turn; but pretty soon I saw all those lights and gun flashes, and I saw that I was damned near over Cherbourg again! So then I turned around and headed back home. By the time I got in, they'd given us up for lost." (William "Rip" Collins, pilot)
In my (Marty Wolfe) plane, piloted by Jack Wallen, we began to yell and thump each other on the back as soon as the wheels touched the runway at Membury. The release from that frightful tension made us all a little giddy.
Crews walked in a glow across the field toward the Operations room. One plane after another came in, most with little damage. When the last plane's wheels touched down, about 0400 (June 6), the crews all broke out in crazy yells and whistles. For this, our first combat mission—and a very dangerous one—we had sent out eighteen planes and returned eighteen planes. The contrast between what we had been led to expect, and what actually happened was stupefying.
We got boisterous, almost hysterical, congratulations from the men who had been waiting for our return. While we were being debriefed we were given a medicinal double shot of rye by Jesse Coleman, our Flight Surgeon, plus the usual post-flight coffee and sandwiches. Later we all trooped over to the Group Theater for a critique by our Colonel Williams. He told us that none of the Group's ninety planes had been shot down, though three planes had been hard hit by bullets or flak. Colonel Williams told us he was proud of us. Who could blame us for thinking the first D-Day mission had been a great success?
We were not alone in this delusion; the diarist of the 82nd TCS wrote, "The mission was successful—all planes dropped on or near the 'T' and there was very little opposition—some small arms fire and almost no flak." The diarist for the 79th TCS stated, "On this mission all planes discharged their troopers over, or at least very near the appointed 'drop zone' and returned without loss of either personnel or aircraft."
It wasn't until much later, when we heard rumors of complaints from paratroopers dropped far from their assigned drop zones, that we began to wonder about the scheduling of the mission, and the problems created by ordering us into questionable weather. We also wondered how we might have done better under the circumstances." (Marty Wolfe)
Not everyone experienced the same thing.
Two examples of how the truth was often lost
There is no direct connection between this partial page and the book GREEN LIGHT—it just fits here. Differing views just can't be ignored, and in our effort to be objective, we quote the following parts of Letters to the Editor from the November 2000 issue of THE MARAUDER THUNDER (The Marauder pilot's newsletter). Two B-26 pilots were writing in response to earlier editorial comment in Thunder about the Troop Carrier D-Day flights.
I wanted to comment on the item in the last issue of "Thunder" which took Stephen Ambrose to task about his statements in the book. "D-Day: June 6, 1944" about the ineptness of the C-47 crews that flew the airborne troops of the 82nd and 101st into Normandy on D-Day. I believe it has been documented elsewhere that the C-47 guys did goof badly and scattered the paratroopers all over the terrain, and not in the areas they were targeted to land in.
Frankly I am surprised that this fiasco did not get wider publicity. I recall listening to Calais German propaganda broadcast while enroute to second D-Day mission and heard about the reckless way the parachutists and gliders had been dumped in and around the channel that morning. I put it down to propaganda, but did observe what looked like a mess down there.
Shortly after D-Day, we were on pass in London when we encountered some Airborne troops who spotted our 9th Air Force patches and wanted to fight us on the spot. After calming them down, we found that they took us to be the transport pilots who had carried them into combat. After telling them that we were in fact bomber crews, they proceeded to unload re: the quality of the pilots. According to stories we heard, they were mostly airline pilots on temporary duty who had never seen flak before, and when the stuff started burning all around, they rang the bells and got rid of their loads and/or tows.
The Thunder editor printed the full letters from his members, with the firm reminder to all that the statements were not documented—nor were they likely to be. Many of the Troop Carrier Group Commanders were Reserve Officers who had been called back to active duty from airline careers, and all had flown in the Troop Carrier campaigns in Africa, Sicily, Italy, and southern France. The great majority of the First Pilots had 1,000 hours or more, the co-pilots 500 or more, and the senior enlisted crew members were all experienced veterans of the earlier campaigns.