Eyewitness to History

World War II
The Troop Carrier D-Day Flights
By Lew Johnston
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.
A Pilot's & Co-Pilot's Story
A Pilot from the 32nd Troop Carrier Squadron tells us how it was

The narrator is Harvey Cohen. The airplane is # 43-30715.

 
On D-Day, Blake Craig and Bob Freeman (left) were the crew for Lts. vanReken and Cohen (center).
On D+2,Charles Schloser and Raymond Layfield were the crew for the same pilots
 

"As we walked into the briefing room, there was an undercurrent of nervous chatter throughout the room as the crews looked at the large map and observed the course. Could that be our Drop Zone? We had guessed wrong—thought it would be Calais! How long would we be over land? How much ack-ack did they have? Will we drop at night or during the day? How long would the flight be? A thousand questions were flying around the room. The briefing answered them all."

"First we were introduced to the Commanding Officer of the American Airborne troops and he explained his Battalion's particular mission and then the general strategy for the invasion armies. Two great armies were to strike in France and the men we were to carry were to spearhead the attack. We were all amazed at the immensity of our own part in the invasion. Troop Carrier planes would be dropping airborne troops for five whole hours!"

"The briefing continued about how we were to form, the navigational aids along our course, the weather forecast for the route, the disposition of enemy troops and their antiaircraft defenses, the alternate airports for use in emergency, ditching procedure, methods of escape and evasion in case we were shot down, and even the clothing and equipment we should carry. Nothing was left to chance as we filed out of the briefing room."

That Old Devil Weather

We were ready to go, but because of weather conditions, the mission was postponed for 24 hours. All of us congregated at the Officers' Club to discuss this latest development. Generally we felt let down. The boys made wisecracks that 'Heinrich' had not had enough time to prepare for our coming and that was the reason for the postponement. Yet, despite the apparent jolly attitude of the men, we all felt worried because of the delay. What if the news leaked out? These thoughts pervaded the atmosphere all the next day until the time came when we reported to the planes. This time we were going!

The troopers in our plane, chalk No. 41, were relaxing in the cabin when we boarded the plane. They asked me how high they would be dropped from, the speed the plane would be flying, and how many planes would be behind us. I tried to reassure them by telling them I would slow the plane to 100 mph, and that there were no planes directly behind us so they had no worries on that score. I went over the ditching procedures again and wished them "Godspeed", and told them I'd treat for a drink in Paris."

I made a final check with my crew chief, T/Sgt. Blake E. Craig of Elkton, Michigan, and my radio operator, Sgt. Robert M. Freeman of Bellaire, Ohio. I put on my parachute harness and Mae West (life preserver) and took my place. We started our engines and followed our lead plane to the takeoff position. It is hard to describe the feelings I had as I taxied my plane past our operations and jerked my thumb up to the men standing there.

Within a few minutes we were gathering speed as we moved down the runway and then we were airborne and moving into position on the right wing of our element. After circling while we formed, we started on our course—sixty airplanes in two serials, carrying 950 men to France.

It was easy flying as we followed the course marked by plainly visible beacons—like a highway across the face of England. We left the land and started across the Channel to France. At this point I went back and put on my flak suit. Below us we saw the first ship, and I felt once more the greatness of this combined operation. At this point we also saw the first planes coming back. They appeared scattered and I became apprehensive. They must have met a great deal of ack-ack.

Twenty Minutes to Go

Soon we were turning towards land on the last leg before the run-in to the Drop Zone. I sent my crew chief to the rear of the plane to give a 20-minute warning to the paratroopers. Then I adjusted my flak helmet. At this time we noticed the Island of Guernsey on our right—our first glimpse of enemy territory. I felt a hard knot in my stomach, similar to the feeling one has before the opening kickoff in a football game. I closed in tightly on my lead plane, observing that a bank of clouds lay over the Cherbourg Peninsula where we would cross the coast.

Glancing at my instrument panel, I checked all my instruments carefully, remarking to my co-pilot that we would have to lose 1,200 feet before reaching the Drop Zone, to get down to the drop altitude of 700 feet. Soon we were over the coast heading toward the cloud layer and some scattered fire coming from the right. It was then our flight plunged into the clouds and I was pressed to follow my element leader who made a diving right turn.

The next few minutes seemed to fly by. My element leader and I had become separated from the main formation and I was chasing him through the clouds. We had given our troopers the warning red light, when I sighted large amber "T" identifying the Drop Zone about 4 miles to our left. The lead plane must have seen it because he turned toward it and within a few seconds was dropping his troops. I chopped the throttles and gave the troopers the GO signal.

Then I followed him as he dove to the 'deck' and headed toward the coast. He was turning wildly to evade machine-gun fire coming up from both sides. Following him, I was caught in the crossfire, and although I kicked and turned the plane violently, I was caught in it for what seemed like an hour. I felt the ship get hit and then smelled smoke, and I yelled for the crew chief to check the damage and to the co-pilot to check the instruments. By this time we were over the water and headed for England. I stayed above the water for some time paralleling the land, especially when we watched the strong flak and machine-gun fire coming from what should have been Cherbourg.

Check the Damage

Within a few minutes we started climbing to 3000 feet and I turned the plane over to the copilot in order to check the damage. We had received a 20mm burst just behind the cargo door and the rear cargo section had approximately 30 bullet holes. This had been the crew chief's station at the time of the drop, but luckily, Craig had just moved forward. Returning to the cockpit, I noticed several other groups heading towards France, and then passed two large glider trains. Again I was impressed with the large part the Troop Carrier Command was playing in the invasion.

The planning for D-Day, in retrospect, seems incredible. The airborne segment alone, which is 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 assigned 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 0214 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 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 checkpoints 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 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) and the scope of the entire mission. They also had to be fed. At the same time the paratroops had to leave their own barracks areas and had to be moved to various Troop Carrier bases. These men too had to be fed and provided with facilities for personal needs, so that they could assemble equipment, and arrange the loading of the airplanes, including the parapacks on the underside of the plane."

All of these matters and concerns were planned with great accuracy. The planning and logistics of the D-Day invasion were incredible—and good. The problems of the resupply mission on June 7, 1944, D+1, were caused, not by the planning, but by the weather.

The officers who commanded the paratroops were aware of the problems of Troop Carrier aircrews and very soon after D-Day, wrote letters of appreciation to the Commanding General of Troop Carrier Command. Excerpts of these letters appear later here.

A Co-Pilot from the 32nd Troop Carrier Squadron shares his story

The original story came from a D-Day Co-pilot of the 62nd Troop Carrier Squadron, 314th Troop Carrier Group, who chose to keep his identity to himself as he wrote it. This undoubtedly added a bit of interest, and I left it that way until the end — then I tell you who it is. And it isn't hard to see that the mystery writer was not only an experienced Troop Carrier pilot, but also a vital American with a fine sense of humor. I left that in too.

This, by the way, is the only narrative view of the D-Day flights by a Co-pilot that I know of. It is also unique in its candid descriptions of the human side of everyday life in a Troop Carrier squadron.

The original report was in two parts — the following one about the Co-pilot and his experiences and feelings — and the other about the flight of Captain Charles Cartwright and his crew on the same mission. Both are interesting, but since Cartwright's flight has already been documented earlier in the Intelligence Report, it has not been repeated. Please refer to page 49 of The Troop Carrier D-Day Flights. The Co-pilot's background information also applies.

Our Co-pilot starts his story at the end of a weeklong stay at an Army Air Forces rest home in southern England. He, and two pilots from the 32nd Troop Carrier Squadron, and one from the 50th Troop Carrier Squadron were waiting for transportation back to Saltby. They talked about the up-coming invasion. They had not been moved from the Mediterranean to England for nothing; and even the newest pilots had eleven hundred hours of flying time, 700 of it overseas. They also had two invasions for experience, and the never-ending night training formations since March. They were ready and able—willing too—although no one looks forward to being shot at. It was their duty, and they would have missed it with mixed emotions had D-Day occurred while they were in the rest area.

The same weather that could prevent the occasion of D-Day was keeping the C-47 that would come for them on the ground at Saltby. The long train ride back was boring, but the Co-pilot was going home to his friends and the only family he had known in the three years with the Army Air Forces. He thought about making a run to town, but that would have to wait until the next day. No flying was scheduled, the guys on the flight line were busy putting on the pararacks and painting black and white stripes on the wings and fuselages.

June 2nd was not a day to go down in history, unless you count the promotion of the Co-pilot to 1st Lt. He was invited to attend the promotion party for Major Wilson at the Senior Officers Mess. No one noticed that the Co-pilot was wearing borrowed silver bars but he enjoyed the meal, and they do have a better supply of Scotch at Group. Great evening, but he really had planned on going to town. Oh well, the girls can wait another day.

Damn! June 3rd arrived and so did the MPs; they're all over the place. Everyone is restricted and will attend the briefing. They must be getting serious, checking the roster and ID's when going into the briefing, lines on the map going south and then east to that little peninsula. Time, course, altitude, 62nd will lead the Group; Col. Stiles will fly lead ship to Drop Zone "N" and the 314th will be followed by the 313th Group from Folkingham. It's called the Cotentin Peninsula, a part of Normandy, and it's all laid out on a sand table. The Co-pilot never saw one of these before, but he's heard about them. Here's the route past the Channel Islands, Guernsey and Jersey. Germans there. Remember that Granddad had cows by that name. Must be where his cows came from. Ah Ha! The Initial Point is on the shoreline, and there's our Drop Zone. Nearest town is Ste Mere-Eglise. Never heard of it.

The crews returned to squadron operations, and in checking the aircraft assignments, the Co-pilot was just a little miffed to see that Ray Roush, Operations Officer, had him in the right seat of 074 with Glenn Grimes as Pilot, Vic Palumbo, Navigator, Billy Hensley, Crew Chief, and Emanuel Wodinsky, Radio Operator. The Co-pilot was wondering why Ray assigned him to fly right seat considering he was a brand new First Lieutenant. Two Second Lieutenants were assigned as pilots. Three others had not made First Pilot until after he had, way back in Kairoun. Must have done something that teed off his good friend Ray Roush. It was true that he arrived at operations a little late some days. He did take advantage of their friendship—not a few times but on a regular basis he tested the friendship to the limit. He knew it would do no good to complain. Ray Roush would not change the assignment and Major Tappan would back Ray all the way, and he and Grimes were flying Tap's right wing.

All Experienced People Up Front

That's it, Tap or Ray decided that there should be four experienced people in the two aircraft flying formation with Major Tappan. Some of the others had newly assigned pilots with less time and no combat experience. Maybe Ray was looking after the Co-pilot as well, and wanted to make sure that he had good people together at critical positions. Sure, that's why P.J. Warren is flying with Tap. One of the best, that P.J. Same thinking went into the assignments on the lead element. Col. Stiles has Downhill and Poling. Suppose Flight Leaders are expendable; they have one experienced pilot per wing while leading an element. What the hell, if the Co-pilot has to fly with someone, it might as well be G.(Boliver) Grimes.

Nothing to do now but wait. The airborne forces have yet to arrived; we have the 82nd again. Dropped 505th and the 504th in Sicily and Italy; wonder who we will have on this trip. Kind of funny, the Air Force gets paid extra for flying, paratroops get paid extra for jumping. They don't like airplanes but have to use them to do their job. The crewmembers want no part of jumping out of airplanes if there is any chance of a safe landing. Takes all kinds of people and everyone thinks he has the best deal.

The word is that the mission is on for tomorrow night—take off late on June 4th. That will make D-Day on 5th. Might as well hit the sack, long day tomorrow, and a longer night.

The Co-pilot could sleep in any day of the week. The best days were when the weather was bad and no flying. The other days started with Paul Cook opening the door, calling out names and announcing breakfast at six, flight line at seven. So what was the Co-pilot doing awake at the crack of dawn with no place to go. Of all the days that he could use a little extra sack time, he's wide-awake. Might as well get dressed and go to the mess hall.

The mess hall, shared with the 50th Squadron, was not only full and buzzing with conversation, but there was a long line. The line moved a bit slower today, fresh eggs any way you wanted them, sunny side up, over easy or burn 'em. The Co-pilot observed that rations improved when missions were scheduled. Was it the fresh eggs that brought everyone to the mess hall, or was it the excitement of D-Day?

The 62nd Operations was full. The pilots were checking the board for changes in personnel or flight position. All the same as yesterday. Some of the pilots were giving Capt. Roush a hard time for not scheduling himself. They just wanted to make him explain again that when Major Tappan was on a mission, he had to remain behind—can't take a chance of losing all the good men at once. "We understand that, Ray, but how come you are not going on the mission?"

1st Lt. Richard D. Stevens had been a Flight Leader since l June. He was not scheduled to fly while the other two newly appointed Flight Leaders, Don Broaddus and Ed Bohnsack were leading elements. "How come you're not going, Steve?" "Because that damn Roush won't change the schedule. Doc put me in the hospital for nothing, and they set up the flights while I was gone. All I had was an ingrown hair in the wrong place."

Jessie "Jiggs" Russel Paints the Stripes

Out on the flight line, Master Sergeant Jessie Russell was checking with the crew chiefs to make certain that all aircraft were ready and that the invasion stripes were well covered. Communications Chief Bill Watson was also on the job, making sure those radios work. Even if we had "radio silence", they have to be in working order. Most important is the navigation system.

June 4th is dragging on. The weather is not the best. Possible postponement of the invasion. Eighteen 62nd Glider Pilots have been sent to the 53rd Troop Carrier Wing based in the group of fields west of London. Ramsbury, Membury, Welford, Greenham Common and Aldermasten. Flight Officer Louis H. Zeidenschneider, about 5'6", 120 pounds when wet, was in this group. No one called him Louis or Lou. Few or any knew what the "H" stood for; he was just Zeidenschneider—a friendly little guy looking for a poker game or a crap game.

The Co-pilot was relieved, but only for a moment, when word was passed that the invasion was postponed 24 hours. Another long day and evening, he would just as soon get it over with and if all went well, the restriction would be lifted and he could enjoy the social life in Nottingham.

For the first part, June 5th, 1944 was much the same as yesterday and the day before that, except that the sun was shining. The hours slipped by and the Co-pilot fund himself again at Operations hoping someone might have been removed from flying for any reason and he would find an empty left seat. No such luck. Glenn Grimes and all the crewmembers were checking the aircraft and watching the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment get their equipment on. Must be a hundred or more pounds on each. Some have a spare chute, some don't?

The Colonel Starts the Takeoff Run

June 5 was 23 hours and 20 minutes old when Col. Clayton Stiles released the brakes and started rolling. The two wingmen on either side rolled with him as the other element leaders followed with their three aircraft. Nine aircraft would be rolling or airborne by the time Col. Stiles cleared the taxiway 6,000 feet on the other side of the Saltby Army Air Base. Without interrupting the timing or spacing, Major Arthur Tappan followed with the second nine aircraft of the 62nd.

The Co-pilot watched the airspeed, pulled the wheels up, adjusted the cowl flaps and milked the wing flaps up while keeping a lookout for other aircraft. Grimes flew formation; Palumbo unfolded his charts; Hensley watched and listened to the engines, and Wodinsky tuned in to the static.

Col. Stiles was checking with Lt. Col. Thomas Shanley, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, as Fred Evans made a wide slow turn to allow the other elements of the 314th to catch the first nine. The pilots had done this so often that it took no more than ten minutes from take off till they were a tight group of 60 Gooneybirds. Easy with all the lights on—navigation, formation and the amber recognition. Fred fell in five minutes behind the 315th Group and maintained 133 miles per hour ground speed and 1,500 feet altitude to the Severn River.

Not much for the Co-pilot to do: keep his eye on the gauges; watch the formation ahead and an occasional light on the ground. He tightened the parachute straps and watched the English Channel approach as the formation descended to 500 feet. The Co-pilot decided it was a good time to use the biffy; and made his way to the tail. It was a nice smooth ride and the 508th troopers were relaxed, talking and for once, not airsick. On the way back to the cockpit the Co-pilot climbed up and looked out the astrodome. What a view in the moonlight! C-47's as far as he could see to the front and rear. Hundreds of them and this is just from the 52nd Wing. Strapped himself in again and reminded Grimes that it was time to turn off the navigation lights. Grimes nodded OK.

Flatbush and Hoboken—But not New York

The next 56 miles from Flatbush, the Marine Lighthouse on the Isle of Portland, would take the Co-pilot to two ships in the Channel marked with a green signal light. Somewhere in this area, Capt. Clyde "Pappy" Taylor was now on board a ship with crew and members of the Pathfinder troops that had departed North Witham with eight other aircraft. Pappy was bumped by one of the other Pathfinders and required to ditch—the only 62nd crew that did not complete their mission. Made sense to Pappy that if you had to put it in the water, land close to a ship. They never even got their feet wet. Fortunately, there were three planes assigned to each Drop Zone by the First Pathfinder Group to arrive 30 minutes ahead of the main body.

Col. Stiles made the 90-degree left turn at Hoboken and the Co-pilot watched the amber recognition lights being turned off, as they started the run to the Initial Point. Just off the right wing the Co-pilot could see the channel islands of Guernsey and Jersey in the bright moonlight.

A little over two hours into the mission, a minimum of conversation had been exchanged between members of the crew. Navigator Lt. Victor Palumbo had been keeping his log on time and distance and was now standing between the pilots. His first combat flight, Vic had questions as he looked at the closest of the Channel Islands. "Why don't they shoot?" The Co-pilot had no answer but was content with the fact that they were out of range of the fifties and perhaps too low for the heavy anti-aircraft. The cloud bank at the Initial Point that would scatter later formations, drew the well disciplined crews of the 62nd and other squadrons of: the 314th together as they closed formation, the better to see the nine little blue formation lights. Grimes stayed close to Major Tappan as they descended and found clear visibility moments later in the moonlight.

View from the Right Seat, The Best in the House

Vic Palumbo's question was answered as the Co-pilot watched and became absorbed with how slow the tracers rose from the ground and then suddenly went by quickly out of sight. The view from the right seat is the best in the house; you can see it all, as Major Tappan would approach a line of fire and quickly rise over the tracers. When Tap went up, Grimes would go under. So far so good, but the real problem is the five rounds in between each little red ball and those red balls are close together. Five hundred feet is not a good altitude when you are dodging hostile ground fire. Troop Carrier Command always referred to "hostile fire" in the General Orders, or in the awarding of air medals and other decorations. They also used the terms, unarmed, unarmored, unescorted. The Co-pilot had time to think about a lot of things between the Initial Point to the Drop Zone.

The 508th had been standing and ready since the Initial Point; they were more than willing to get out of that airplane and on the ground where they could shoot back. The Co-pilot was relieved to see the lighted "T" on the ground and the formation was slowing to a hundred and five. One problem—several guns are holding their fire steady over the Drop Zone and waiting for us to fly through. The Co-pilot had his hand on the switch for the green light while watching the troops leave the first nine aircraft. If that "T" is in the right place, the troopers will be on target. The Co-pilot looked at his watch—2:08AM—flipped the green light and counted the troops as he felt each step out the door. After number nine went out, the parapack loads were released.

Only seconds had elapsed when he realized that all the troops were out of the first nine planes except for Charlie Cartwright, who was leading the right element. Charlie's wingmen went for the deck and he made a right turn and had his navigation lights on. The Co-pilot was still counting the last of the paratroops and watching Charlie make a one-eighty and the tracers were following him and not firing on the rest of the formation. Charlie flew out of sight and Grimes hit the throttles and headed for the deck, and the beach, and the water. All of the eight planes in front were out of sight.

All the Co-pilot wanted now was to cross that beach and get out over the water. One problem suddenly appeared, a large dark dome, a pillbox on the coast. Grimes kicked rudder and flew around it. "Got it made," thought the Co-pilot, when a sudden bright flash filled the cockpit.

The Co-pilot, not knowing the condition of Grimes' night vision, grabbed the controls and pulled for altitude. As their vision returned, Grimes and the Co-pilot looked at each other and asked if the other was all right. Satisfied that Grimes was not injured, the Co-pilot relaxed his grip on the controls, placed his hands in his lap and found a small knob. He wondered what this was from and then realized that it was off the altimeter. Looked to his left at the hole in front of Grimes and discovered there was no altimeter. Checking the rest of the instruments, he found only that one tachometer was out and that all engine instruments were indicating normal operation. No problem, half the fuel remained and a shorter route to Saltby and lots of airfields in between.

During the 45-minute flight from Utah Beach to checkpoint Gallup, where they would turn north to the coast of England, the Co-pilot noticed that his left foot inside of the paratroop boots was warm and wet. He reached down and discovered that his pants leg was also damp, his thoughts turned to the fact that he was bleeding and yet he did not hurt, sniffed his fingers and wondered what blood smelled like, took another sample and tasted it. That's not blood, it's oil, it's hydraulic fluid, looked at the gauges and found both on zero. Now we have a problem - landing gear, flaps and brakes would not operate. Flaps and brakes we can do without, but it would be nice to have a landing gear.

Engineering Gets the Gear Down

The Co-pilot had not flown much with Grimes but they had been friends since early flight school days; and now were about to work together on a small problem. Both knew that Capt. Lennart (NMI) Wuosmaa, Engineering Officer, had on occasions passed on information to pilots - "On combat flights, don't use the cabin heater, might have a hole and you could be asphyxiated". "If you lose your hydraulics, get the gear down and the safety pin in, any way you can. Three point that bird and the gear will bind and hold." As they approached Saltby at the return altitude of 3,000 feet, it was time to test Al Wuosmaa 5 second suggestion. Grimes cleared the area and went into a power dive, and as he pulled out, the Co-pilot dropped the gear and tried the lock pin. It went in. The rest was routine, fly the pattern, advise the tower, fire a few vary pistol shots and sit light in the seat while waiting for the gear to collapse. Five people aboard 074 held their breath as the tires squeaked and the cockpit was a flurry of hands as throttles, mixture controls, gas selector valves and switches were turned off. Al was right, the gear does hold, and Grimes turned off the runway and rolled to a stop near Base Operations. Mission completed.

Three Lieutenants and two Staff Sergeants walked to the front of 074, fully expecting to see a large hole in the nose of the aircraft. They stood there and found no evidence of damage until someone said, "There it is", and they found one small hole from a rifle bullet. If the German soldier had been a better marksman, he would have missed the altimeter and picked off Glenn Grimes. The Co-pilot thought there was a lot to be said for the right seat as they walked to Squadron Operations.

NOTE: This document was originally unsigned — but the author is easily identified now as: David Mondt, The Co-pilot Dave currently (6/13/02) lives somewhere in Iowa.

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