things about the aerial INVASION OF NORMANDY on D-Day have been told - the preparations,
the training, the planes, the paratroop divisions, the aircrews, the route to
Cherbourg Peninsula, etc. I shared the honor with more than 1,600 fellow pilots
who flew that historic Mission. My name is Julian A. Rice, S/N 0679800, 1st
Pilot, 37th Sqdn, 316th Troop Carrier Group. Our crew included Co-pilot Lt.
LaRue Wells, Crew Chief T/Sgt. Thaddeus J. Urbaniak, and Radio Operator S/Sgt.
Harold C. Gondolfe. My assignment was clear and simple - fly the plane, keep strict
radio silence, stay in tight formation, deliver 21 paratroop passengers on time
to drop zone "O" northwest of St. Mere Eglise. Our assigned position
in the formation was right wing B-Flight, plane #42-24328, Chalk#41. Our group
was to carry the 2nd & 3rd Battalions, 505th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment)
of the 82nd Airborne from Cottesmore Airfield in the midlands of England to the
Cherbourg Peninsula in northwestern France.
purpose in writing this article is to refute certain negative entries in a book
written by Mr. Stephen Ambrose, a well-known American author who specialized in
researching and documenting historical events. In his "D-Day" Book (pp.
198-ff. 1995), he accused me, and my fellow pilots who participated in the flight
to Normandy, as being "untrained and afraid." Furthermore, he
wrote, " pilots took evasive action to avoid flak pilots
dropped troops at high altitudes (1,500 ft) pilots dropped troops at high
speeds (150 mph) pilots dropped troops in flooded areas, some of whom drowned,
many others were scattered in wrong places." Most of this information was
gleaned from Major Dick Winters, 506th PIR, who headed up Easy Company of the
101st Airborne, and who gave many extensive interviews to Ambrose - after which
Ambrose wrote the famous "Band of Brothers" movie, which featured Major
Winters and his heroic men of Easy Company.
Some of these unfortunate events did happen. Some paratroopers actually experienced
these unforeseen, and in some cases, tragic events. Those who survived were quick
to report what they considered to be failures of the Air Corps pilots. Even one
failure is one too many. Nevertheless, they happened, and the troopers who survived
being dropped into flooded swamps and other wrong places were quick to vent their
anger and complaints against the troop carrier pilots. Fortunately the misplaced
para-drops were small in number compared with the total 10,000 PIR personnel who
jumped from the C-47s the morning of June 6th. Upon review it was determined that
the Mission objectives were not compromised as a result of these misplaced drops.
In fact, it was learned that the scattered drops caused considerably effective
confusion among the German defenders. We fault Mr. Ambrose for giving broad, bold
and negative brushstrokes to the complaints about these drops without taking the
time or bother to interview and question the aircrew members to get their side
of the story. As a result, the entire body of troop carrier pilots was castigated
by the dramatic text coverage published in his "Best Seller" book.
a pilot who was part of the 316th TCG carrying General Ridgway's 82nd Airborne,
3rd Bn, I would like to relate what I saw and did, and what I believe was done
by the 316th Troop Carrier Group formation to Drop Zone "O". In response
to Mr. Ambrose remarks, I submit the following:
"Untrained?" I certainly didn't feel untrained. I had 18 months of technical
and academic training, which included 400 hours pilot time before I joined the
316th Troop Carrier Group in Sicily in late 1943. By D-Day I had acquired over
800 hours of total flight time. Some of this involved miscellaneous supply missions,
but was primarily devoted to close day-night formation flying, practice drops
of paratroops, glider pulls, short field landings, instrument flight training,
etc. We all knew the Invasion of Europe was coming and we concentrated on perfecting
our skills on a daily basis. Pilots were rigorously trained and routinely tested
to maintain their eligibility for a green card Instrument Rating - which was required
of all 1st pilots.
Hell yes, I was afraid! Who wasn't? So was every mother's son who was aboard that
chain link of planes headed for Normandy. Who knows what lie ahead? Thoughts cross
your mind - thoughts that you try to ignore. "Is this going to be my last
moment in time?" SCARY? You bet!!! Nevertheless, we were each and everyone
trained and committed to execute the job that had been assigned to him, and do
it to the very best of his ability.
briefing in the Operations Room for the Normandy Invasion (code name "Bigot
Neptune") was thorough: A favorable break in the weather was expected. The
target for our 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) was the town of St. Mere
Eglise in Normandy on the Cherbourg Peninsula. All the compass headings en route
to the various checkpoints and the final heading to the Drop Zone after crossing
the Cherbourg coastline were carefully noted. Our Drop Zone (DZ) was coded "0"
and was ½ mile northwest of the town. The pathfinder flight aided with
radar would locate and drop into the designate DZ; there, they would setup a lighted
"T" marker to guide the incoming flights to their respective drop zones.
Aerial photos were screened on the wall to point out the location of anti-aircraft
defenses. All paratroops were to be dropped on or as near as possible to the designated
drop zones. "Caution - watch your airspeed at the DZ - Your planes are carrying
overloads up to 1,000 lbs - Airspeed below 110 mph could cause a fatal stall.
NO paratrooper is to be returned to England that night unless disabled or killed
by anti-aircraft fire. Any paratrooper refusing to jump will be court-martialed.
Only lead planes will have navigators on board. It is imperative that all planes
without navigators stay in tight formation throughout the mission. (Really?? What
if something Forget It, I thought; Just stay tight and follow the lead ships
all the way in!)
Concluding the briefing,
316th Group Commander Lt. Col. Washburn looked around at the roomful of pilots
and said, "Gentlemen, you will be taking part in the largest airborne armada
ever created. The 316th Group will be putting 72 planes in the air from here,
and 13 more identical groups will join us en route to complete the 2-hour 51-minute
flight to our drop zone in Normandy. Let's do the job you have been trained for.
Keep the formation tight; give your troops a good trip to the DZ. Good luck. Let's
By 2130 hours (09:30 pm) the various
"sticks" of paratroops had marched out to their respective planes, which
had been identified with large chalk numbers next to the left side door. They
clambered aboard with their heavy equipment load, assisting each other up the
portable metal steps, and sat down to wait on the long cold aluminum side benches
inside. The Jumpmaster, a big man with black smudges covering his face was an
impressive sight. He must have weighed well over 300 lbs loaded down with equipment.
He looked to me like he could win the war single-handed. He was anxious to get
started and reminded me to do everything possible to jump his stick at 700 feet
altitude and at 115 miles per hour. I assured him that I didn't anticipate any
problem doing that. (Little did we know what lie ahead.) We climbed aboard.
few minutes later the Cottesmore airfield shook with the loud rumble of 288 Pratt
Whitney (C-47) engines coming to life. We taxied in turn to our position on the
perimeter leading to takeoff runway "50". While we sat and waited for
the green "go-light" from the tower, I went through preflight cockpit
check (for the 3rd or 4th time - I also threw in a prayer or two).
precisely 2300 (11pm) hours, the green flare signal illuminated the Control Tower.
The Invasion was ON! The Group Leader in first position on the runway began his
takeoff roll. One by one the following flights climbed into the night sky.
turn had arrived. I taxied off the end of the perimeter strip to the runway, locked
the tail wheel in position, called for 15 degrees flaps and shoved the twin throttles
"to the firewall". A moment later the heavily laden ship staggered into
the air. Co-pilot Lt. LaRue Wells pulled up the landing gear into flight position
while I fought the sudden impact of the twisting vortex of prop wash from the
planes ahead. Reaching 500 ft LaRue closed the flaps and I began a 180-degree
climbing turn left where I slid into the right wing position in B-Flt. As we reached
1,000 feet, the 316th Group had gathered into a tight 72-ship formation and headed
for precise checkpoints where we would collect and blend into our position line
with 13 other groups arriving from different airfields. Try and imagine if
you will - multiple groups of 72 aircraft taking off from scattered airfields
in England and flying through the dark night to various check points - arriving
at the same altitude - no radar - no radio communication - just dead reckoning
navigation and straining eyesight by lead pilots and navigators looking for the
dim amber wing lights of the other groups. Imagine if you will this huge armada
of over 800 planes merging successfully that night, wing-inside-wing, without
one collision. (Mr. Ambrose was apparently unaware of the training that enabled
us to complete this very difficult task!)
southern England, we were now assembled into one long sky-train carrying over
10,000 paratroops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne headed for Normandy. I recall
our last warning: "Remember - only 10% of the planes have navigators on
board. The Group and Squadron Leaders and some secondary backup Flight Leaders
fly these planes. Therefore, the rest of you orphans better hang in close and
tight so you don't lose your way!"
left the southern English coastline at the "Portland Bill" heading.
The night sky was still dark despite occasional streaks of moonlight coming through
the receding clouds. The air was reasonably smooth. Strict radio silence was maintained.
For a while the amber wing lights on each plane helped keep the pilots in good
position. Crossing the channel, the lead ships flew at a low altitude (500ft);
squadrons and flights following were staircased upward to avoid the twisting prop
wash. A short distance after departing the English coast, all normal amber wing
lights were turned off according to plan. Guiding us now were four small-cupped
blue lights installed along the top fuselage spine and mid-upper wing surface
of each plane. Keeping these four small lights in view required the flight leaders
and wingmen to keep their Vee formation tightly in position. This was critical.
Losing sight of the blue lights left only the hazy moonlit silhouette of the adjacent
plane. Sweat time.
The cockpit is dark except
for the fluorescent reflections from the instrument panel. The left seat I sit
in feels different because of the flak cushion pad under my butt. In addition,
I wear a parachute harness, which seemed to me to be a meaningless gesture. The
small sausage shaped parachute bundle is tucked under my seat. If my plane becomes
disabled and it is necessary to bail out, I have to grab the chute, find and attach
its metal connectors to my harness, climb out of the cockpit, run back through
the fuselage to the side door, (assuming none of it is on fire) and jump. Good
luck, I thought!
Crossing the Channel,
we passed the various checkpoints on time: "Flatbush" "Gallup"
and "Hoboken," etc. Shortly before reaching Guernsey Island, our 82nd
PIR formation turned to 135 degree heading to the Cherbourg Peninsula; the 101st
PIR split off slightly to an approach heading of 140 degrees. As we passed just
east of Guernsey, some enemy anti-aircraft fire was seen, but caused no damage
to our formation that I could see. Below us the English Channel was striped with
the wake of thousands of ships heading for the landing beaches of "Omaha"
and "Utah". The Germans heavily defended these beach areas with gun
emplacements in concrete pillboxes along the top edges of the cliffs. The troops
that we carried to the inland drop zones beyond the beaches were charged with
sealing off the bridges and roadway accesses around the nearby town of St. Mere
Eglise to prevent German army reinforcements from getting through to aid the German
soldiers defending the beaches.
At this point,
2-1/2 hours into the flight, everything had gone smoothly; nevertheless, I was
perspiring from the strain of keeping the cupped blue lights in good sight. In
the background of my mindset, I'm not ashamed to say, I could hear some quiet
praying going on - Lord keep us safe keep us safe
the murky gloom ahead, the darker outline of the coast began to appear. Our group's
lead pilots were going in low at 500ft levels, whereas the following squadrons
and flights were stacking up to 1,000 ft. Our airspeed had slowed to 120 mph in
preparation for the upcoming drop zones, some 18 to 20 miles ahead where we would
slow to 115 mph for the planned jump. "Remember! When the heavily overloaded
C-47 approaches the DZ, the pilot must maintain careful control of the airspeed
- anything under 110 mph could be critical and lead to a fatal stall and spin
without enough altitude left for recovery."
without warning, the "s . hit the fan!" Just as we started
to cross the beach area, we flew into a 1500 ft high wall of heavy land fog that
blanketed our entire portion of the formation. Not only did the critical blue
lights vanish from sight, but also the entire planes in the formation disappeared.
It was impossible for me to see my own wing. Now the fear of enemy fire was secondary.
The immediate concern was mid-air collisions from the planes all around. In the
darkness of the cockpit, the green fluorescent needle-ball-airspeed, altimeter
and artificial horizon instruments demanded immediate attention. This is where
another part of pilot training automatically kicks in. Emergency Dispersal
Procedure!Spread out! I shoved the fuel mixture to rich - boosted
throttle setting and rpms to climb mode - synchronized prop pitch - kicked hard
left rudder - pulled back the yoke to a climb rate of 500 ft/min. Forty-five seconds
later I leveled out at 1400 ft, still locked inside the pitch-dark fog. I continued
to hold the approach leg compass heading to the DZ, and prayed no other planes
were in my path. It was eerie in the dark listening to nothing but the heartbeat
of my plane's engines. Although I could see or hear nothing through the fog outside
the windows, I could sense the nearness of other planes. CONCENTRATE! I glued
my focus on the instrument panel and kept a tight grip on the controls. More sweat
Meanwhile, the other unfortunate pilots
without navigators were stuck in this "soup" flying blind on their own.
No wonder some Groups lost their bearings and missed there drop zones. They had
no fancy satellite GPS system; no radar, no navigator - they were flying the "Model
T" airplanes of yesteryear! If they managed to avoid collision and emerge
from the soup safely, they now had to grope their way down to try and find their
scheduled drop zone. (Unfortunately, Mr. Ambrose and his "second guessers"
weren't sitting up front in the cockpit with them to tell the "untrained
and scared pilots" what to do).
few minutes in the soup felt like eternity in a blindfold. When we finally
broke out of the fog, there were scattered planes left and right and in front
of us. I breathed a sigh of relief - but not for long. We had little time
to get the plane back down from 1,500 to 700 ft for the upcoming drop (and
don't build speed going down - we need 115 mph at the DZ). I cut back the
throttles and started down, but that's when all hell broke loose. A heavy barrage
of enemy anti-aircraft shells burst right, then left. Black-gray flak clouds were
everywhere. Machine gun tracer streams were searching us out. Staccato rat-a-tat
of bullets pierced the tail assembly, which upset the elevator controls, and we
started downward. I pulled back on the yoke and readjusted the elevator trim wheel.
Our planes had no self-sealing gas tanks in the wing. A tracer going through that
area would be fatal. The sky was now a smoky yellow haze. Exploding shells filled
the air with turbulence, which jerked our plane up and down like a yo-yo. I saw
other planes catch fire and go down. We passed over the town of St. Mere Eglise
where there was heavy fighting going on. A large fire was burning in the Northern
edge of town. While this pandemonium was going on outside, LaRue clicked on the
red warning light to ready the paratroops for the jump. Meanwhile, I was very
busy manhandling our plane to get back down to the 700 ft jump altitude and 115
So? Just step on the brakes,
right? What brakes???? To reduce the speed of a C-47 in a hurry, you get resourceful
quick. Co-pilot Wells extended the flaps and lowered the landing gear to help
produce drag, while I kicked the rudder and yanked elevator and aileron controls
around to slow the descent. The resulting ride down was rough. It may have
caused anger among the paratroops. Somebody may have suggested to Mr. Ambrose
that scared pilots were taking "evasive action" from the flak. They
were probably thinking, "What the hell is he doing up front?" Sorry
guys. There was no other way to descend low enough for the drop.
couple of minutes later, chutes billowed out from planes ahead of me. Then I saw
the lighted "T" the pathfinders had placed on our DZ "O".
A few seconds later we turned on the green jump light. With flaps down and landing
gear extended we had managed to slow the descent airspeed to 118 mph at altitude
of 750 ft. This was slightly fast and slightly high, but it was the best recovery
possible from the dense fog and short recovery distance to the DZ. Thirty seconds
later the troops were out the door and on there way down to liberate the town
of St. Mere Eglise.
The C-47 is a rugged airplane,
a dependable airplane - but it is not a smooth riding airplane, particularly at
low altitudes. To those paratroopers who spent many hours doing training jumps
from the C-47, you know what I am talking about. But, perhaps you may not know
what a pilot sometimes has to do to make the plane conform to certain unpredictable
conditions. When you suddenly find yourself plunged into a total blackout with
hundreds of airplanes around you, you had better spread out and spread out fast.
In our case we turned and climbed to a safer height. When we broke out free of
the fog, we then had to hurry back down to reach a safe jump altitude. With no
brakes to stomp on, we did what we could to slow the plane down by cutting back
throttles, dropping flaps, dropping landing gear, and jerking the controls around
to increase drag. This is what happened.
sorry that Mr. Ambrose implied that the pilots were untrained and afraid. I guess
he was half right, because I certainly remember being scared. But - the suggestion
that the "pilots took evasive action to avoid flak" is totally ridiculous.
The fact of the matter is that no lumbering, overloaded C-47 can do any fancy
quick twists and turns for any reason, let alone avoiding flak. That would be
a magic act. We were just pilots flying primitive World War II airplanes - not
As the world knows now, the
air invasion of Normandy was successful. The scattered airdrops did not fail the
Mission. In at least one case I personally know of, a misplaced drop saved lives
because the designated drop zone was alive with multiple enemy machine gun nests.
Troopers floating down there would have been slaughtered before getting out of
their chutes. At the end of the long day, all assigned Mission objectives were
accomplished. In conclusion, all elements that participated in the aerial Invasion
of Normandy were successful - including the bus drivers and crews of C-47s and
Gliders who for the most part managed to deliver the personnel and supplies, and
who were fortunate enough to avoid collision in the fog, survive the anti-aircraft
flak and machine gun fire, and get the C-47 back to the airfield to be patched
up and ready for tomorrow - to fly and fight another day.
Band of Brothers was a moving portrayal of Major Dick Winters and his "Easy
Company". They and all members of the 82nd and 101st PIR did an outstanding
job. They gave their all - some gave more - some gave their lives. They deserve
all the honors and respect that can be given them - now, and forever.
Troop Carrier Wings were merely support arms. We helped train paratroopers. We
helped get you there. We didn't leave you unattended - we resupplied your needs
in Africa, in Normandy, in Bastogne, in Holland, in Wesel, Germany. We evacuated
your wounded. Our dedicated pilots, navigators, radio operators and crew chiefs
crashed and burned along side you. We lost many friends, as did you, in ways too
terrible to describe here. I took the time to write this piece to shed some light
on our side of the story - a side that was overlooked by Mr. Ambrose. It is our
hope this will help subdue the harsh criticisms expressed by some of the paratroopers
all these years. Your courage was tested to the core. We were tested right there
along side you, over and over again. You gave your all to perform your duty well,
and so did we. The way I live with my memories of Normandy and the horrors I witnessed
is to focus on the heroism so nobly displayed by so many. Let's let the peace,
the peace we all fought so hard for, give us all peace of mind as well. We are
proud to have served with all of you, and we hope that you might remember us in
the same way.
Peace to all who served.
A. Rice (31 August 2008) S/N 0679800, 1st
Pilot, 37th Sqdn, 316th Troop Carrier Group, WWII