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News > D-Day remembered: 442nd Troop Carrier Group members describe "longest day"
 
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D-Day
82nd Airborne members check their equipment before boarding a 442nd Troop Carrier Group C-47 bound for Drop Zone "T" near St. Mere Eglise in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The 442nd Troop Carrier Group launched 45 C-47s with approximately 20 soldiers in each aircraft. The 442nd TCG was the World War II predecessor of the 442nd Fighter Wing, an Air Force Reserve Command A-10 Thunderbolt II unit based at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. (Photo courtesy of the Herky Barbour estate)
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D-Day remembered: 442nd Troop Carrier Group members describe "longest day"

Posted 6/12/2009   Updated 6/12/2009 Email story   Print story

    


by Master Sgt. Bill Huntington
442nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs


6/12/2009 - WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- The 442nd Fighter Wing flag is adorned with battle streamers reflecting the unit's accomplishments through its history. One streamer, a simple blue ribbon with two words embroidered in white on it, reads "Normandy Invasion."

Sixty-five years ago, in the early hours of June 6, 1944, the 442nd Troop Carrier Group launched 45 C-47 Skytrain transports, laden with 700 members of the 82nd Airborne's 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, destined for the French countryside just northwest of the small town of St. Mere Eglise.

The journey to Normandy and "Drop Zone T" on D-Day began only nine months before at Sedalia Army Air Field, now Whiteman Air Force Base, as the Group formed from a collection of veteran aviators, volunteers and draftees under the command of then-Major Charles M. Smith. Major Smith organized four flying squadrons, the 303rd, 304th, 305th and 306th Troop Carrier Squadrons, each commanded respectively by Robert G. Whittington, Jr., Kenneth L. Glassburn, John A. Crandall and Royal S. Thompson. Also assigned to the 442nd were the100th Service Group and the 464th Air Service Group, with additional subordinate units.

The Group trained around the central Missouri area flying the C-47 and the Waco CG-4A combat assault glider. Before their departure to Europe in March 1944, the Group also trained in Alliance, Neb., Baer Field, Ind. and Pope Field, N.C.

Landon Cozad, a 24-year-old first lieutenant, and a C-47 pilot, came on board with the 442nd in November of 1943 when the group was at Alliance, Neb., and was assigned to the 303rd TCS.

Cozad said of Alliance, and of the subsequent locations, that all of their training had a greater purpose than just being good pilots.

At Pope Field the group would work with the airborne paratroopers based at nearby Ft. Bragg to gain a sense of what it would be like to drop them when D-day arrived.
"We were at Pope for two months in training," said Bill Silberkleit, a navigator with the 305th Troop Carrier Squadron. "We doing practice drops and getting to know the people we would be flying with."

As a navigator, Silberkleit, assigned to the 305th Troop Carrier Squadron, had to take a different training path and had joined up with the 442nd after it arrived at Pope Field.
The air echelon of the 442nd flew the C-47s across the Atlantic by way of South America Ascension Island and Africa while the rest of the Group departed New York City aboard the refitted-for-war ocean liner, the Queen Mary.

The dangerous nature of their business hit the Group in North Africa when they lost one C-47 in a crash landing.

"There was a hell of a sandstorm that day and even though we flew at high altitudes, which was unusual for us, there was still sand at that altitude," Cozad said. "They lost an engine and I think the problem with a single engine landing is that you are afraid you won't make it to the field. As a result they overshot."

The crash claimed all but one person aboard the aircraft as it plowed into tall tree stumps from a recently logged area off the end of the runway. Despite the losses, the 442nd moved northward.

Both air and ground components of the Group arrived within a day of each other at the 442nd's new duty station at Fulbeck, England, a rural air field 120 miles north of London.
As the group settled in to their new surroundings Bill Silberkleit received temporary duty orders.

"I was there about three weeks when I was assigned to North Witham for pathfinder training," Silberkleit said.

Even though he'd been at Fulbeck a short while it was long enough to get a sense of how many other airfields were in the area.

"One thing interesting about Fulbeck is that there were three airfields within three miles of each other, he said. "Many times people would come in for final approach and find out they were coming in at the wrong air field. They were all that close together."

Indeed with the sheer number of installations across the countryside, it could almost said that England had become one huge airfield.

For Jack Prince, a 303rd TCS C-47 pilot, life at Fulbeck was a continuation of what had been practiced at the stateside airfields.

"We did a hell of a lot of shooting landings, towing gliders and formation flying at Fulbeck," Mr. Cozad said.

Prince concurred .

"We did do a lot of formation flying, some practice parachute drops and we practiced pulling gliders there," Prince added. "We were just doing what we would be doing when we got to (Normandy)."

It wasn't all work for the Airmen and when off duty the 442nd members visited nearby towns and villages.

"We went a couple of times to Nottingham and had some fun there," Cozad said of the town made famous by the exploits of English legend Robin Hood.

While group members did visit historic sites in their off duty times more often than not, they took advantage of local pubs, gatherings and dances for entertainment.
Almost exactly a month after arriving in England, the 442nd experienced another loss on April 25, when a 303rd TCS C-47 crashed after takeoff from Membury Airfield - a Troop Carrier base halfway between London and Bristol - killing all 14 aboard the aircraft.

On the ground English farmer, Ernest Huzzey, was farming the same field where the crash occurred.

"It was banking," he said. "It was flying over the woods. It clipped the top of a tree and brought it down. It exploded when it hit the ground, not far from where I had just been working. There were 14 or 15 of them."

Fourteen members of the 442nd TCG - most from the 303rd squadron -- died in the crash, the single largest loss of life in the history of the unit.

A group of 303rd TCS members, led by Colonel Smith, with Maj. Whittington, 303rd TCS commander, attended a funeral service for the men on Saturday, April 29, at Brookwood American Cemetery near Bagshot, England. One of the Airmen, because of his religious faith, had been buried at the same cemetery two days earlier. The next day, a memorial service, led by Group Chaplain Robert Tindall, was held at the chapel back at Fulbeck.
As D-day preparations progressed through into May, Colonel Smith, kept the unit on task meeting their training requirements and focused them on being proficient in dropping paratroopers. The glider pilots sensed that they might not be part of the initial assault. Still, they worked to be sure the Group was ready, and many times they worked in areas outside of flying.

In glider pilot Jim Clark's journal he made the following entries.

June 1, 1944 - Up early to make sure all things are going well at transportation. Many things tell me that the invasion is getting closer every day.

June 3, 1944 - Things are hot now - I spent the day overseeing that our tow ships are properly marked. We put black and white stripes two-feet wide on each wing and the fuselage. Each plane is equipped with life rafts, life preservers, flak suits and ammunition for all firearms.

June 4, 1944 - A rainbow appeared in the sky this evening - a good omen. It doesn't look as if our gliders are going to be used in the first assault and we are disappointed.
Despite the disappointment, Clark spent the day working on the tow tropes and intercom connection wires to ensure all was in good shape when they were called upon.
While Clark pursued his task, over at Witham, navigator Bill Silberkleit learned that the invasion was at hand, or so they thought. As it would turn out, weather in the English Channel prevented the June 5th assault and Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower put the operation on a 24-hour hold.

"On June 4th, they briefed us about D-day, which was supposed to happen on June 5th, and sent us back to our units with the instructions not to tell anyone what we knew," Silberkleit said. "Of course it was delayed a day and I had to sit on that."

"We had a mock run through of going every day for a week or so and we never were told which day that we were going to go," Kozad added. "We'd march down to the flight line and the paratroopers would be lounging around in the grass under the wing, sometimes to be in the shade. Then we'd all board the airplane but we never went.

"One day we marched down there and they took us into a meeting room and they said, 'Today's the day.' We all set our watches and I took some notes," he said. "We were given maps and escape kits with a little American money in them."

"When they decided it was a no-go, they quarantined everybody and you couldn't go anywhere," Prince said. "So we just kind of hung around waiting for them to say it was time to go."

Finally, in the late evening hours of June 5, aircrews and paratroopers alike made their way to the C-47s, each silhouetted by the full moon, and loaded up for the mission.

"They all had about three-hundred pounds of equipment on them and they couldn't even get on board," Silberkleit said of the paratroopers. "We had to take two of us to sort of push them up piggy back to get them into the aircraft. They just had so much stuff on them.

"They were gung ho they were all really ready to go," he said. "I didn't see any of them that were reluctant; they weren't frightened, that's for damned sure."

At 19 minutes after midnight, Mission Boston, serial 26 - comprised of 45 C-47s of the 442nd Troop Carrier Group - took off into the night sky to begin what became termed as the "Longest Day."

After the Group formed up the serial turned south and in the lead ship, with Colonel Smith at the controls, navigator Bill Silberkleit guided the group over the darkened English countryside.

"We flew from Fulbeck down towards southern England to a jumping-off point down there near Bournemouth," Silberkleit said. "From there we would fly down toward our destination flying right between the two Channel Islands coming in to the Cherbourg Peninsula."

"We came in over and between the Jersey and Guernsey Islands on to the west coast of the peninsula," Prince added. "The closer we got the cloudier it got. There was just a layer of clouds right at the altitude that we wanted to fly, around 1,500 feet. So we dropped down a little ways and tried to get under it."

"I had radar on board my aircraft and as I approached the coast I was able to pinpoint myself along the coast line," Silberkleit said. "As soon as we crossed the coast line, the sky was sort of lit up (with antiaircraft fire). There were tracers and everything coming up that you could think of. (To me) it was not a frightening thing, it was very fascinating. You don't think of those things that might happen or what is involved, you are intrigued with what you are doing at the particular time"

Driving inland toward drop zone T, the Group prepared to drop its "sticks" of paratroopers. Some of the Group was still on course while others ran into a thick cloud bank and lost sight of the formation.

"We were flying at about 450 feet above the ground and we didn't see any fog," Silberkleit said. "To us (in the lead ship) everything looked perfect. I was astounded later to find out that our unit was stacked up (because of fog) and that there were a lot of aircraft in the clouds and above the clouds that could not see where we (were).

At 2:44 a.m., the green jump light was switched on in Colonel Smith's aircraft and each ship, in turn, disgorged its heavily-laden paratroopers over Normandy.

In 2008, at a reunion of 82nd Airborne soldiers from D-Day, Silberkleit was able to talk with one of the paratroopers who had jumped from his plane that night.

"He told me that we dropped him right on the area where he was supposed to go," Silberkleit said. "It made me feel really good. I do know that we had some aircraft in our unit that dropped theirs (paratroopers) miles away. They were the ones that experienced the fog and the overcast. One of my navigator friends told me they had to come back around a second time to make their drop. They had missed it the first time in."

As soon as each plane dropped its paratroopers, the aircraft went to full throttle and quickly descended to avoid anti-aircraft fire as they headed for the coast of France and then England. Even with that, the night was not without losses for the 442nd.

"Our planes returned at about 0530," Clark later wrote in his journal. "We apparently lost three and some others had holes from flak and machine-gun fire, but the mission had to be rated a success."

One of those losses was Mr. Prince's plane, and although he managed to walk away from the crash landing, he and his crew had to spend the next more than two weeks in hiding until the Germans were driven from the area. Their arrival back at Fulbeck created quite a stir among those who had feared the worst for the missing Airmen.

"Everyone in the squadron assumed they were held captive or they were dead until one day they showed up in the Mess Hall (back at Fulbeck) with long scraggly beards," Cozad said.

The group would fly three more missions over the Cherbourg peninsula in the days following D-day. On June 10, the Group was ordered to leave Fulbeck for a new airfield in western Britain which would put them closer to France and the missions to come.

Following the night of nights that was their D-day, the 442nd TCG would go on to lead or participate in every major airborne operation in the European theatre of war.



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