Louis R. Emerson, Jr.
1st Lieutenant - Pilot - 83rd Troop Carrier Squadron - 437th Troop Carrier Group.
On June 1, a strange thing began.
The ground crews started painting wide black and white stripes called
invasion stripes on the wings and fuselage of the airplanes and
On June 2, aircrews and glider
pilots were assembled in the briefing room, and we discovered that
D-DAY was about to happen. We learned that we would be towing a
British Horsa glider, that we would take off near midnight and head
for Normandy for a night glider landing near the town of St. Mere
Eglise, and that there would be a small lighted cross on the fields
designated for glider landings. The lights would be placed there
by paratrooper pathfinder groups flying about an hour ahead of the
We learned that any aircraft not having the black and white "invasion"
stripes would be immediately attacked and shot down by our fighters
or anti-aircraft guns.
Our mission briefing started
about 16:00 hours and lasted about an hour. First was the navigation
briefing. We were supposed to navigate as intently as though we
were alone, because there was always the possibility that we would
be separated from our leader.. Next came the weather briefing which
was forecast to be clear at the drop zone with a full moon Then
there was the A-2 or intelligence briefing. We were told that the
Germans did not know where our drop zone would be, and they did
not know the exacf date of the invasion, but they did know that
we were coming. We were also totd what to do if we were shot down
and captured: Do not tell the Germans anything but name, rank, and
serial number. Finally, there was a pep talk by the Commanding Officer,
Col. Donald French, who would be leading the Group in person He
flew about every other combat mission. Col. Luke Powell, the Executive
Officer, flew the others. The lead ship carried a navigator, but
none of the rest of us did.
Each Troop Carrier Group would launch a maximum effort of 72 airplanes
towing 72 gliders in a column of 18 elements of four airplanes with
gliders in a right echelon formation. In order to get 72 airplanes
towing gliders into the air in a reasonable amount of time, they
had to be pre-assembled in the proper place and sequence on the
runway, packed as tightly as possible, and with towropes attached
and coiled so that there would be no tangle. As soon as the glider
ahead of us began to move, we were to count off five seconds, take
up the slack in the towrope, go to full power, and take off.
The headquarters squadron leading the formation was responsible
for getting us to the Troop Carrier Group assembly point exactly
on time. That also worked amazingly well. At the assembly point,
we turned off our navigation lights and turned on the formation
lights at low intensity. These were hooded dim blue lights set three
on each wing, could not be seen from above, and could be seen from
behind at no more than a 60 degree angle from the side. This was
to prevent any possible sighting by German fighters.
We could have no personal papers with us, but we were issued 100
francs of French "invasion" money... Nothing like the
official French franc. We were required to wear our dog tags, and
we were reminded that if shot down and captured, we should reveal
only our name, rank, and serial number. Nothing else. We could and
did wear a shoulder holster with our Colt 45 automatics in it, at
least until we got into the airplane. It could not be worn under
the flack vest.
Because it was fundamentally a civilian airplane, there was no escape
hatch in the C-47 for the flight crew. There was no room in the
seat for a parachute. We each had a parachute harness that had been
custom tailored for a tight fit. If the leg straps were loose, major
damage to our manhood would result when the chute opened. We wore
the harness under the flack vest. The harness had large metal rings
fastened to the harness shoulder straps in front and up near the
shoulder. The canvas bag holding our parachute canopy was to be
clipped into these harness rings. The canopy was hanging from a
hook in the passenger cabin on the bulkhead between the crew compartment
and the passenger cabin. To bail out, we had to get out of the cockpit
seat, get to the back of the flight deck, remove the parachute from
a wall rack, clip it on to our chute harness, and run 65 feet back
through the fuselage to the only exit door. We were to do all this
with the airplane out of control and throwing us all over the cabin
as we tried to get back to the door. The good news was that we flew
with the door removed. The bad news was that this did not help.
GOOD LUCK! The crew chief and radio operator might make it, but
the pilots had no real chance. There is no record of any pilots
able to bail out and only a few crew chiefs or radio operators made
Military aircraft had self-sealing
fuel tanks... That is there was a sticky coating on the inside of
the tank that would fill up a flack hole if not too large, and stop
the leaking of fuel. Since this was a civilian aircraft, we had
just plain old fuel tanks...not self-sealing. If hit in a fuel tank,
there was about a 9:1 chance that we would bum.
Military aircraft had armor plating around the crew seats to deflect
flack. We had nothing. My crew chief did scrounge some armor from
a crashed B-24 and welded it under my seat and the copilot seat.
There was a Very flare pistol in a bracket in the cockpit. Under
the pilot's seat were stored about a dozen Very pistol flares for
signaling purposes. The end of the pistol barrel was exposed to
the outside. The cartridge was about like a shotgun cartridge except
about twice as big, and the flares it fired were similar to Roman
We wore flack vests, steel helmets over our cloth helmets, and goggles.
The flack vest was a vest made of overlapping steel strips to give
it flexibility, and there was an apron over the genital area. The
regular aviator goggles were to be pulled over the eyes when enemy
action was encountered to protect them against flash fire.
On the night of June 4, every one was in place in the aircraft and
on the ground ready to start engines when the signal came that the
invasion had been postponed. A let down but not a relief.
Things were quiet in quarters.
I spent some of the time writing a letter to Marilyn to be posted
if I were killed. I also wrote a letter to Dick (my as-yet-unbom
son) for the same reason. I also wrote one to my parents. All of
these were gathered and picked up by headquarters for safekeeping.
(We wrote similar letters before each combat series) I then started
dressing. First, underclothes of course, then flying coveralls,
and make sure dog tags are around the neck. Invasion money in pockets.
Pencils... watches... my good 21 jewel Hamilton and the GI Hack
Watch... one on each wrist. 45-caliber Colt automatic and shoulder
holster... What else? I looked down into my footlocker and saw a
GI magnetic pocket compass, picked it up, and put it into one of
the zippered pockets in my flying coveralls. Then combat boots.
They were high top shoes, rough out, with buckle closed leggings
attached and about 8" high. They were not GI, but they were
for sale in the PX, and almost every one wore them while flying.
After all was done, checked, and rechecked, I lay down on my bed
and tried to doze. Not a chance. I began imaging the mission. What
was flack really like? What to do if hit. What to do if the glider
is hit. What to do if I'm hit. Am I frightened? (I still don’t
know). Like every one else, I was sure nothing was going to happen
to me, yet????
Finally, the announcement came of the PA speaker in the hut to report
to squadron operations (about a mile away). There was a 6x6 truck
waiting in the area, we climbed in, and we were taken to the squadron
(83rd) ready room. Capt. John White (squadron Commanding Officer)
was waiting there. He checked everybody and everything, then we
were back into the trucks and out to the airplanes and gliders which
had been marshaled on the runway for about 4 days.
We waited. Waiting is the tough time. Suddenly you realize that
you have not been tested. You don’t know how you will react.
I did not exactly feel fear, but I did have a strong sense of apprehension.
Waiting in the airplane, I realized that the die was cast and that
I would shortly be facing death for the first time in my life. I
did not know how I would react. I kept wanting the signal to start
engines to be given. The longer the wait the greater the anxiety.
Suddenly, there was a flare shot from a jeep beside the runway.
Finally, this was the signal to start engines. I worried that the
engines would not start. I looked at the left engine and saw Kreutter
beside it with a fire extinguisher. I shouted, "Clear left”,
spun up the inertia starter and engaged the starting clutch. The
engine caught immediately. Kreutter moved to the right engine and
we repeated the sequence. It started. Kreutter then removed the landing
gear pins which prevented the landing gear from being retracted
accidentally and climbed into the airplane. We were flying with
the back half of the cargo door removed so that after the invasion,
we could start flying combat cargo. One by one, the aircraft came
to life. Each pilot reported “ready”.
At exactly 23:00 hours, there was another flare and the lead ship
started moving. In tum, each C-47 taxied at a moderate pace until
the tow rope was tight...then full throttle and a little prayer
that we would get airbome OK, because that available runway was
awful short. We broke ground, sucked up the gear, and started our
climbing tum to cut across the circle and catch up with the Group
which was circling the airport over the light ring. By tuming left,
our wingmen could catch up. It was a slow go, and it took nearly
an hour to get everybody off the ground and into formation. Even
at 100% of power, there was not more than about 95 mph available
to climb and catch the group. After joining the formation, we could
reduce power from 52” manifold pressure and 2, 700 propeller
RPM to 45” and 2,500 (about 90% power) which would give us
the necessary 100-mph in level flight to maintain formation. We
then headed for the assembly point Our course was around the north
end of the Normandy peninsula to the southwest coast, over the islands
of Jersey and Guemsey to just northeast of St. Mere Eglise to the
LZ's. Unless it was grounded for maintenance, each pilot flew the
same airplane he flew across from the US for all flights. This particular
night, my regular airplane, tail number 576, was grounded for maintenance,
and I was flying a spare. This airplane had been equipped with an
experimental radar receiver called Rebecca Eureka. It was a very
primitive instrument by today's standards, but almost magical to
us. It was a black rectangular box about 8 inches square by 15 inches
long. There was a 3-inch scope in the end. When tumed on, there
was a vertical trace across a calibrated vertical reticule. If a
radar signal was being received, and if we were on course toward
the source, there was a cross blip with equal arms on each side
of the reticule which showed the distance to the ground transmitter.
If the blip was unequal on the sides, a tum toward the short side
was required to get on course. It was calibrated in one-mile segments...
A total of 10 miles. We were told that there would be a radar transmitter
on the LZ.
As soon as I saw the glider ahead of me begin to move, I added power
quickly to take up the 300 feet of slack in the 2" diameter
hemp towrope which was attached to a bridle fastened to the wings
of the Horsa. As soon as I felt the tug of the glider, I pushed
the throttles to full open. We accelerated slowly until I felt the
glider lift. Then the acceleration was much quicker. I lifted off
and raised the landing gear almost the instant we were airbome so
that we would accelerate more quickly, and we were on our way.
A lot of skill was required to be a good glider pilot. For this
mission, I towed a British Horsa that was actually larger than the
C-47. Its wingspan was 98 feet as compared with 95 feet for the
C-47. It carried almost twice as many troops as the CG-4A... 26.
Poorly flown by an unskilled pilot, the Horsa could cause enough
drag to keep the C-47 from taking off, or if flown improperiy could
drag it into the ground.
Our formation assembled without
incident and we headed out over the English Channel. We knew there
were thousands of boats under us heading to the same place. Our
cruising altitude was 1500 feet and our airspeed was 100 mph. Everything
was going smoothly until I noticed that there was a cloud deck building
under us. This could be a real problem if it was over Normandy.
We were to pass directly over the islands of Jersey and Guernsey
on a compass heading of 69 degrees, let down to 500 feet to the
LZ just past St. Mere Eglise.
When we tumed to cross over Jersey and Guernsey, we saw they were
almost completely obscured by the low cloud deck. We were in our
proper position, following closely behind and slightly above the
flight ahead. Without waming, the flight in front of us dimmed their
formation lights, and as we dropped into the clouds, I lost sight
of them completely. My wingmen were tucked in tightly as they should
be and I turned my formation lights to bright so they could keep
me in sight. At that moment, as far as I know, I was leading the
rest of the invasion airbome assault!
My crew had the little radar box tumed on but we were too far away
to get a signal. We continued the letdown, staying exactly on 69
degrees, and broke into the clear at about 800 feet, but because
of the cloud cover, there was no significant moonlight. After a
few more minutes, my crew chief shouted that he had a signal on
the radar and that the LZ was dead ahead eight miles. We were right
on course, more by good luck than by good planning.
As we dropped below the bottom of the overcast, suddenly, the sky
lighted up around us with tracer bullets. The anti aircraft guns
had found us. I shall never forget that sight. Tracers would blossom
in front of us in a lazy stream like a Roman candle, then would
suddenly tum directly toward us and disappear. When the radar said
we were over the landing zone, we spotted the Halogen signal light
marking the LZ. We signaled our glider and he cut off. The other
three gliders in my flight “C” followed. He made a safe
crash landing (normal in combat), as did the other three in the
proper field. Neither the glider pilots nor any of the airbome were
injured in my flight.
We dropped our towrope, pushed the nose down and the throttles to
50 inches of manifold pressure and headed home. We were not required
to maintain formation but we were to just get home as quickly as
we could any way possible. I got so close to the ground at 300 mph,
we neany hit some rocks on the coast as we passed over it. We had
two flack holes, both in the rear of the fuselage, and both large
enough to have been made by 20 mm cannon shells that did not explode!
D-Day : Shot down on the second mission
At 1:00 PM, the aftemoon of June 6, I was awakened by someone vigorously
shaking me by the shoulder. I Ieamed I was to fly another mission
with a 4:00 PM take off. This time I was to pull a CG-4A, the American
Waco glider. It would be flown by my friend and best man at my wedding,
Flight Officer Glen McFarren of The Dells, Oregon. It seems that
some of the paratroopers and glider infantry had gotten in trouble
and wanted some artillery. There were to be 28 gliders on this mission
flying the usual 4-ship echelon to the right, totaling 7 rows. Our
LZ was north and east of St. Mere Eglise in the same general area
as the moming mission. I wondered where they found a field with
enough room. All open space was probably already filled with gliders.
This time it was daylight and I could see the water. There were
so many boats in the channel that it seemed as though one could
walk across it and not get a wet foot. I leamed later that there
were more than 5000 boats involved in the Normandy landing.
This time our course was to fly straight across Utah Beach to the landing
zone, only about 10 or 12 miles inland. About 3 miles before landfall (the
beach), German 88 mm anti aircraft fire from coastal installations began exploding
near us. A near miss hit us with shrapnel and ignited a fire in our right
engine. It quit developing power immediately. We did all the single engine
things including activating the fire extinguisher on that engine, but to no
avail because it continued to bum merrily. There were plastic windows along
the right side of the fuselage, and they began to melt from the heat of the
buming engine. We were unable to feather the propeller (turn the blades so
that they did not rotate in the slipstream and create a great amount of drag.)
With the propeller not feathered, we were able to almost maintain
our altitude and 100 mph with full power on the good engine.
There were two pilots in my glider, two airbome artillery soldiers,
and a 105 mm howitzer artillery piece. I knew if we cut the glider
loose, it would land in the water, and sink like a rock. The people
in it would not be able to save themselves. I made a quick management
decision and decided that we could make it to the LZ and still have
about 300 feet altitude. This would give our glider a reasonable
chance for a successful crash and survive, and with a little luck
we could get back to the coast, ditch beside a ship, and if I did
a good ditching job, we might not even get our feet wet. That is
what we tried.
We successfully got the glider
to its landing zone. Single engine piloting protocol dictates that
all tums are made toward the good engine. I started a medium tum
to the left (into the good engine) around the center of the village
of St. Mere Eglise to head back toward the coast. I looked down
the left wing and I was looking straight into a pair of machine
guns on a platform on top of a building. I think it was a church.
As I was looking, the gunner opened fire, and his aim was excellent.
His first burst knocked off most of the cowling on the good engine.
His second burst knocked the cylinder heads off the engine top cylinders,
and his third burst knocked the dome off the propeller. Propeller
pitch control was immediately lost, and the blades flattened out.
The engine ran away, broke, and stopped turning completely. Now
I was flying a glider.
I stopped the tum, leveled the wings, and set up the glide. We were
over a thickly forested area, but ahead I could see two possible
clear landing fields, one too close and the other too far away,
and both too small. If I tried to stretch the glide to the more
distant field, we would stall, the airplane would hit the ground
nose first at a sharp angle, and we would all be killed. A poor
prospect. If I tried to land in the near field, I would have too
much airspeed to land and get stopped before we hit the hedgerow.
I called for flaps and landing gear to slow us down, but they were
not available. The hydraulic system had been destroyed by the anti-aircraft
fire. At this point, I concluded there was no real chance of survival.
The axiom that there are no atheists in a foxhole also applies to
doomed airplane cockpits. I made a quick prayer, “Dear God,
take care of my wife Marilyn, and our unborn child."
I decided I would not give up
without a fight, and I went to work. I pushed the airplane down
below the tops of the trees in the forest we were flying over, and
used the friction of the airplane striking the tree limbs as a crude
brake to slow us down. I flipped the bail out bell switch to on
which started a loud bell ringing and yelled, “Prepare for
crash landing!” Kreutter and Briski, who were in the cabin,
sat down with their backs against the bulkhead between the cabin
and the flight deck. The last time I looked at the air speed, just
before we crossed the border of the field, it indicated 120 mph.
I slammed the airplane against the ground in an effort to slow it
down, and it bounced.
Looking ahead, I could see slightly off to the right, a break in
the tree line about 25 or 30 feet wide. I dragged the right wing
tip on the ground, and with great good fortune was able to swing
the nose (where the cockpit was) around far enough that when we
hit the tree line, the nose was in the opening and was not damaged.
The wings absorbed the inertia of the crash. The control wheel came
back and hit me in the chest. If I had not had on the flack suit,
my chest would have been crushed. As it was, ribs were broken. My
seat and Gilbo’s seat were broken loose from the cockpit floor.
Gilbo, my copilot, turned sideways in his seat just before the crash
and suffered a compound fracture of his upper left arm, and was
It seemed as though the crash
was endless. The airplane reared like a wild horse. The sound of
metal being crushed was overwhelming. Suddenly, there was complete
silence. I could not see anything until I realized that my goggles
were shattered and opaque. I raised them, opened the side window,
and looked out. There was nothing to see but shattered trees. The
right side of the airplane was engulfed in flame. The Very pistol
flares stowed under my seat began explode. I could actually feel
the skin on the back of my hands begin to blister. Both Kreutter
and Briski had been catapulted through the bulkhead onto the flight
deck. Briski reached up between our seats and opened the escape
hatch above us. We got Gilbo’s seat belt unlatched and pushed
him up through the hatch and off the side of the fuselage. Next
I went through and then Kreutter and finally Briski. We were all
safely out. The airplane fuselage was broken in two pieces just
aft of the door with the tail section at an angle from the rest
of the fuselage.
We dragged ourselves about 50 feet away from the airplane. Briski
went back to the airplane, reached through the door (now at ground
level) into the fuselage, located a first aid kit on the wall, and
brought it back. I had worn two wristwatches. One was an issue hack
watch and the other was a 21 jewel Hamilton that my parents gave
me for graduation. The hack watch was still on my wrist, but the
Hamilton was gone forever. I looked to see what time it was and
it was 21 minutes after 9 PM. There was double daylight savings
time in England at that time so it was still daylight. We began
to assess the damage. Without waming, the entire airplane erupted
in flame, and we quickly retreated into a gully about 100 feet from
Up a slight incline, perhaps 100 feet away was a farmhouse. There
were several people on the porch. They did not offer to help in
any way. We could have used some help...even if just a drink of
Gilbo was in great pain. His arm fracture was a compound one, and
there was bone visible. We did not have anything from which to make
a splint except a trench knife sheath. I removed my undershirt.
We made bandage strips from it and used these and the knife sheath
to immobilize his arm as well as we could. There was morphine in
the first aid kit, but we did not want to do anything that would
dull our senses. By this time, my chest was beginning to pain, and
I could have used a shot of morphine. The people on the porch of
the farmhouse just stood and watched us.
Why I picked up that compass in my foot locker, I'll never knom
but I'm glad I did. We held a council of war to decide what to do.
Daylight was fading fast. Our retum course, if flying, was 69 degrees.
It would take us over Utah Beach. Knowing that we were only about
10 miles from the beach, we decided to use the compass and try to
walk 69 degrees as close as we could.
We stood up. As soon as we exposed ourselves, we began taking fire
from a German submachine gun on the other side of the clearing.
We immediately dropped back into the depression. There was nothing
to do except wait until dark. The shooter could have easily captured
us because all of our weapons were being destroyed in the burning
airplane. He did not, and for that, I am extremely grateful. While
waiting for dark so we could move, I fell asleep.
During the pre-mission briefing, we had been told that although
there were dirt embankments and thorn trees acting as boundaries
between the fields, and that there would always be a gate through
which farm machinery and animals could be moved from field to field.
The French Underground had advised that many of these gates had
been booby trapped with grenades. Since neither Gilbo nor I could
climb any fences, it was going to be necessary to trust a gate each
time we went from one field to another. As commander, it was my
responsibility to open the gates. I do not know how many gates I
opened, but I do know that I expected each one to blow up. It was
a difficult task.
Finally, about 3:00 AM, as we were walking along a hedgerow looking
for a gate, we heard a rustling on the other side. We froze into
immobility. We had been given three things to help in survival on
the ground... the challenge (thunder), the countersign (welcome)
and a toy noisemaker called a cricket. One cricket chirp was a challenge,
and an answering two chirps was the countersign. After a long moment,
we heard a chirp. I immediately answered with two chirps. After
a pause, a man's voice whispered "thunder" and I replied,
“Welcome”. We had come upon an American paratrooper
acting as a sentry for a group in a nearby barn. We were overjoyed.
The paratrooper escorted us to
the barn. There were about 25 enlisted paratroopers there. They
had captured the building late in the afternoon and moved their
wounded into it. Their corpsman dressed GiIbo’s arm. He had
no tape, but he tightly wrapped my ribs with a gauze bandage, and
that eased the pain considerably. We were about 5 miles from the
beach, but none of the invasion force had made it this far inland.
About 10:00 AM (this was June 7), a lone recon half-track circled
through the farmyard. They were alone. The road to the beach was
not secure. Regardless, we decided to try to make the beach as soon
as possible. The paratroopers had captured the German equivalent
of a Jeep and there was a farm wagon with steel tired wheels in
the farmyard. About 10 of the paratrooper wounded were unable to
sit up. We covered the floor of the wagon with straw and placed
these wounded in it. We hitched the wagon to the German Jeep. Kreutter,
Briski, and I secured folding stock carbine rifles from the bodies
of dead paratroopers together with all the ammunition we could stuff
into our pockets. We and the other walking wounded found places
to sit on the German Jeep and the wagon. Our caravan started for
the beach. We were under sporadic fire and had to fight all the
way to the beach; and we were late aftemoon getting to it. Fortunately,
none of us was wounded. There was a first aid tent on the waters
edge with a Red Cross painted on it. All four of us headed for it,
because Kreutter and Briski both had some serious burns on their
arms and hands.
Gilbo and I found a couple of unoccupied stretchers and gratefully
lay down on them. Shortly, a corpsman brought us each a canteen
cup of hot coffee, a can of C-rations (pork and beans), and four
cigarettes. I still remember that as one of the most welcome meals
I have ever had. We had not eaten since noon the day before.
About midnight, our stretchers were loaded onto a DUKW (amphibious
jeep). We were transported to a dock with an LST serving as a hospital
transport anchored about 100 yards from the dock. When we came along
side the LST, our stretchers were fastened to a line from an overhead
crane on deck. We were lifted what seemed to be hundreds of feet
into the air, swung over the side of the ship, and lowered into
the LST’s hold. Our stretchers were placed in racks along
the side of the hull.
After about 24 hours, we arrived at Southampton and were transported
to the 1st General Hospital there. I was a mess. I had not shaved
in two days, all exposed skin was covered in smoke, grease, dirt,
and everything else, and I could even smell myself. I knew that
a nurse with whom I had become acquainted in North Carolina had
been transferred to this unit. I inquired of her. Within a half-hour,
she was at my side. It was wonderful to see a friendly face. She
helped me clean up. She did help me to the showers and to get a
clean hospital gown. She saw to it that I got a good meal. What
I was able to send an immediate message to my Commanding officer
advising that all of the Very pistol flares should be relocated
in some place other that the cockpit, which they were.
I finally saw a doctor the next day and my chest was x-rayed. The
ribs had already began to knit, so there was nothing to do but properly
tape my chest and send me back to my unit. Two days later, I was
back with my unit, and 10 days later I was flying re-supply missions
to the beach.
About a month after D-day, General
James Gavin (commanding officer of the 1st Allied Airbome Army)
held a parade with all the Troop Carrier personal of the 1st Allied
Airbome Army taking part. There I was awarded the Distinguished
Flying Cross and Purple Heart. Later I was also awarded the Air
Medal and one silver Oak Leaf Cluster signifying the award of 5
more Air Medals.
We were the first crew to survive
a combat crash in a C-47!