Photos, Articles, & Research on the European Theater in World War II
This is one of a series of G.I. Stories of the Ground, Air and Service Forces in the European Theater of Operations, issued by the Orientation Branch, Information and Education Division, ETOUSA... Brigadier General M. M. Beach, commanding the 53rd Troop Carrier Wing, lent his cooperation. Basic material was supplied to the editors by his staff.
M. M. Beach
Brigadier General, Commanding
Suddenly, one glider broke loose and appeared to circle for a landing when the wings buckled and the engineless craft plummeted earthward, carrying all of its occupants -- glider crew and airborne troops -- to instant death.
But this was friendly terrain below. Many miles ahead trouble was scheduled to begin. Trouble spelled -- E-N-E-M-Y.
For, only a few scant hours before, hand-picked, battle-wise veterans of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery's British Commando forces had pushed off from the west bank of the Rhine, landed across the river and were forging ahead towards a small town where the northern bridgehead was to be secured by paratroopers and glidermen of the 17th Airborne Division.
Lt. Col. Ben. A. Garland, Waco, Tex., 434th Group CO, flew Maj. Gen. William M. Miley, 17th Airborne Division Commanding General. Now it was the gliders' turn -- the gliders transporting the main body of the 17th. Co-pilots of the two lead gliders, Flight Officers John
The aircraft continued in semi-perfect V-of-Vs formation, a tribute to Troop Carrier's air discipline and so vital to the success of airborne operations.
Three hours previous in Central France, where the Wing had been stationed following a year's operation from English bases, these same planes lined runways of 53rd Wing airdromes. At one station, the marshalling Was something new -- an idea tried in combat for the first time. Two runways, at right angles to each other, were bordered with gliders, aligned just outside the edge and facing the center of the strip. Powered aircraft were staggered down the line, in position with the CG-4As they were to haul in the first dual glider-tow in combat history.
At the 436th Group base, lead tow-planes and gliders, out of necessity, took off on only 2500 feet of runway.
Glider take-off time was 0823. Fields of France now were far behind. Col. Donald J. French, Astoria, Ore., 437th Group Commander, and pilot of the lead tow-plane, instructed his radio operator, S/Sgt. Harold L. Atkins, Danville, Va., to flash the red aldis lamp 10-minute warning signal to Maj. Willis T. Evans, Pitcairn, Pa., and 1st Lt. George R. Burris, Pueblo, Colo., pilots of the first gliders to land in Germany.
Not all glider crews came through unscathed. Second Lt. Harry G. Dunhoft, Erlanger, Ky., power pilot converted to a GP for this mission, returned to tell of machine gun bullets shredding the front of his flak suit:
After cutting across my front, the bullets zipped into the side of my pilot through the open part of his flak suit. "It's all yours," he said. And that's when I got scared. Just behind me, an airborne boy had his kneecap shot away. I put the nose of the glider down and headed for the ground, landing safely. After we got some sort of cover, I talked with an airborne colonel who had been one of my passengers and he congratulated me on the landing. I told him I hadn't thought it wise to tell him before, but this was the first time I had ever landed a glider alone!
For the first time in airborne operations, glider pilots of the 53rd Wing organized to perform definite tactical missions -- holding certain crossroads northwest of Wesel. Not only did they successfully accomplish this mission in the "Battle of Burp Gun Corner," but they also repelled a German counter-attack the night of March 24. Although outnumbered, the glider pilots -- ground soldiers pro-tem -- beat off a company of approximately 140 Germans whose attack was preceded by two medium tanks, each towing a 20mm dual purpose gun. Flight Officer Elbert D. Jella, Rolla, Mo., firing a bazooka for the first time, scored a direct hit on one tank, forcing it to wheel about and retreat.
Second Lt. Sven B. Berg, Milwaukee, Wis., turned medic when every man in his glider except himself was hit while landing or shortly after. The lieutenant, who had gained the shelter of a water tank, crawled back to the wounded glidermen to give them first aid. Spotting several airborne troopers, Lt. Berg signalled and three came over to help. In attempting to rush a house concealing snipers, two troopers were killed, the third wounded -- another patient for the officer who crept to the glider to rescue two men pinned in the wreckage while a 75mm howitzer blasted the house. While Lt. Berg was bandaging one of the trapped men, snipers, who later were silenced by the howitzer, fired at him.
Capt. Eugene R. Poe, Cape Girardeau, Mo., was recording the flight by movie camera when he was forced to bail out after his C-47 was raked by flak. After gaining his balance in mid-air, Capt. Poe photographed the remainder of his descent. Captured while landing by a German patrol, the captain was released when the 53rd's glider company pounced on the patrol a short time later.
While glider pilots and bailed-out power pilots fought it out with enemy forces, the first serials of C-47s returned to home bases in France, sweeping low over the fields, making short approaches and coming in to land against a sharp crosswind. Squadron intelligence personnel checked the planes rolling down the runway into dispersal areas.
But the operation was a success and 53rd Wing had accomplished what previously had seemed impossible -- a long distance dual-tow of gliders into combat, climaxing a string of tactical achievements which had mounted on the records since D-Day in Normandy.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower glanced at his watch. It was 2235, less than a quarter of an hour before the lead plane would take off for Normandy laden with airborne troops in the spearhead of the long-awaited invasion of Europe. The Supreme Allied Commander turned, exchanged a few words with grease-painted, smudge-faced paratroopers, entered his sedan and departed for another base several miles away.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, then commander of the Ninth Air Force -- the invasion air force -- had arrived at 53rd Wing headquarters in Berkshire, England, and watched the first Troop Carrier plane, Belle of Birmingham, with Col. John M. Donalson and Lt. Col. David E. Daniel at the pilot and co-pilot controls, lumber down the runway at 2248, lift into the air and circle the field before finally heading for the Channel.
From Wing Headquarters base, the Air Chief went to another 53rd station to watch the first glider serials take off, departing for his CP at 0200, June 6, with the knowledge that the invasion was launched by 53rd Wing's main-column attack, led by 438th Group's two serials totaling 81 planes, airborne at two-second intervals.
Navigators bent over small tables and checked their reckonings many times. Months of navigational and radar training now paid off. Crew chief of the lead paraplane, Sgt. Harry D. Chalfant, Pittsburgh, glanced down at the English Channel and noted, "It was packed with every type of ship imaginable -- a solid bridge of vessels from England to Normandy."
First German anti-aircraft fire came up over the coast of Normandy. From there to the drop zone, ack-ack continued relentlessly. As the No. 1 plane slipped into the drop zone, S/Sgt. Woodrow Wilson, Selma, Ala., was wounded slightly by flying shrapnel, but remained at the controls of his radio to keep contact with other planes in the formation.
Some way, somehow and despite ground fire, each plane homed-in on the correct area. Airborne pathfinders had set up ground signals and tense paratroopers edged towards open doors of C-47s.
Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, 101st Airborne Division Commander, later reported he landed within 10 feet of his pre-designated command post. But it took superb airmanship by Gen. Taylor's pilot to accomplish it. "We're on single engine," Col. Frank J. MacNees, St. Paul, Minn., 435th Group CO, told Crew Chief S/Sgt. Michael Borish, Homestead, Pa., after a short whine developed in the port engine of his C-47 as he whirled away from the DZ. Col. MacNees nosed the plane upward, climbed to 3000 feet, continued the journey across the Channel on one engine.
It was 0119. In the darkness preceding the dawn of D-Day, Gen. Brereton's eyes followed a tug-ship down the runway. A nylon rope jerked taut and a glider Was pulled into the air as the 434th took off with the first glider serial of the Normandy operation. Piloting the lead aircraft was Group Commander Col. William B. Whitacre, Western Springs, Ill., while Brig. Gen. (then Col.) M. M. Beach, Detroit, Wing CO, was command pilot for the C-47 armada which roared down the strips on the way to France.
Long, sloping streamers of deadly flak swam up at planes and gliders as the Normandy coast was reached. There was no chance for evasion. The 53rd Wing flew on, never wavering. The mission was not to try for escape but to "hit the deck and get the hell home!"
The entire formation received a terrific barrage from ground defenses as the Skytrain flight droned onward. Behind each huge C-47 trailed a hundred-yard rope at the end of which rode a glider loaded with airborne fighting men and their equipment. Once over German lines, Lt. Col. Mike Murphy, Lafayette, Ind., pilot of the lead glider -- The Fighting Falcon, presented to the AAF by students of Greenville, Mich., -- cut loose from his tug and dived downward, making the first scheduled glider landing on a postage-stamp field near Ste. Mere Eglise, Normandy.
Surrounded by hedgerows much bigger than were anticipated, the landing zones not only were short but also protected by intensive ground fire and obstacle poles planted in the ground by the enemy to insure glider landing crashes.
Although The Fighting Falcon was the first glider scheduled to land in Normandy, Flight Officers William K. May, Wilmette, Ill., and James M. Lauri, Rome, N.Y., claim to be the first glider pilots to hit French soil. Said Flight Officer Lauri, "We landed eight to ten minutes before the others. Our tow rope broke before we neared the LZ, and we landed while the lead group was still in the air!"
The pair also claims to be the first glider Pilots returned to England after D-Day by glider and the first GPs to carry mail in a glider in the ETO.
Hundreds of glider infantrymen and thousands of pounds of their equipment poured from the aircraft which dotted pasture areas of Normandy as small arms and mortar fire tore and ripped the gliders.
Particularly commending 53rd Wing personnel for outstanding achievements in the glider operations over Normandy, Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division, congratulated the unit for its D-Day success. "I know it will interest you to learn that within the first few hours the Division secured and held its initial objectives, inflicting heavy losses on enemy ground troops while under heavy attack", he said.
Aboard more than one 53rd aircraft, quick thinking saved the day. Returning from the drop zone, one C-47 was hit by flak just after its stick of paratroops had jumped. With 100-octane gasoline gushing from its fuel lines under the steel flooring, the plane in which T/Sgt. Joe Porto, Riverside, N.J., was crew chief became a potential torch. Crawling under the floor, Sgt. Porto linked the torn strands of the tangled fuel lines with his bare hands, securing the flow of the highly volatile fluid to the devouring engines. Although his fingers turned waxy-white from the cold, he held them in a pipe-like position from France, across the English Channel, and over England, until the Skytrain landed at an emergency airstrip. This display of heroism earned for Sgt. Porto the first Distinguished Flying Cross to be awarded by Ninth Troop Carrier Command headquarters to an enlisted man.
To repair a broken control cable during his plane's flight, T/Sgt. Jurgen D.A. Rasmussen, Alameda, Calif., spliced a wrench into the break.
Still young in age as a tactical unit, the 53rd overnight became a veteran in achievement, successfully executing one of the most dramatic and most difficult assignments in aviation history -- spearheading the invasion of Europe.
Flying low, often at tree-top level, and braving ack-ack guns blazing below, 629 unarmed and unarmored 53rd Wing Skytrains and 412 gliders were dispatched to Normandy between June
One week after successfully flying at the head of his group over the fields of Normandy, Col. Cedric E. Hudgens, CO, 437th, died suddenly at Ramsbury, England.
Late in the day, hundreds of flying personnel boarded planes, along with a minimum of administrative personnel, and approximately half of 53rd Wing's aircraft roared down the runway and headed seaward.
Less than 48 hours later, the aircraft touched down on mountain strips in Western Italy, where preparations immediately were begun for the invasion of Southern France. Tents were pitched for living quarters and offices; personnel changed uniforms from olive drab to khaki; faces became sunburned in a few hours.
Swimming in the Tyrrhenian Sea was a far cry from slogging in England's mud. But all was not pleasure during those early days along the seaside. Intelligence personnel labored indefatigably with map overlays, plotting appropriate drop and landing zones.
Operations sections drew up schedules to determine who would fly in the various elements of the combat lifts. Supply men requisitioned personal equipment for the fliers, engineering mechanics overhauled aircraft, and personnel chiefs worked on records. This was the 53rd Wing's ground echelon in action preparing the flying component for the job ahead.
An order passed down to the groups. Maj. (then Capt.) Harold E. Mott, Ft. Smith, Ark., combat intelligence officer, reported to his group commander: "The base is sealed sir." An over-all restriction had taken place. To keep strangers from learning anything
Several times, German observation aircraft spotted Wing bases. Flights of bombers passed over but none of the bases was hit.
Despite a heavy blanket of fog which shrouded the invasion coast, the 53rd dispatched 385 powered aircraft and 125 gliders to drop on landing zones near Le Muy on the French Riviera. Only three C-47s and three gliders failed to complete their missions; no airplanes or air crews were lost in flight.
This achievement gave the Wing an average better than 99 percent fulfillment of missions in its first two combat operations -- a record difficult to equal. The 53rd's score card on the invasion of Southern France spoke for itself.
In the wake of the French Riviera invasion came a reorganization in England which placed the 53rd Troop
From this reorganization, which placed ground and air components necessary for an airborne attack under a unified command, came orders to prepare for another assault. Enemy-occupied Europe and the world tensely waited during the months following D-Day for another front to be be opened in Northern Europe, Meanwhile Gen. George Patton's tank forces sliced across France towards Belgium.
But the day soon came when armored units no longer could continue their drive. Sept. 17, a seemingly peaceful Sunday afternoon, English churchgoers watched 53rd Wing C-47s streak through the skies, headed for the German northern flank in Holland.
There were three major drop and landing zones -- Nijmegen, Arnheim, and Eindhoven. Into these three sectors, the 53rd spilled more than 11,000 airborne troops -- more than one complete airborne division, plus full equipment.
The Holland raid was costly, scores of power planes and gliders falling prey to flak and ground attacks, but the missions were successful. The 53rd Wing, with less than four months of combat flying time behind it, once more had delivered the goods in the Allied Airborne Army's first large-scale offensive.
Thrown headlong out of the door of his flaming, bullet-riddled C-47 before he had a chance to don a parachute, T/Sgt. Bela E. Benko, Detroit, descended safely by looping the 'chute over his arms and holding his hands to his side. "By doing this I managed to pull the ripcord and keep from dropping out of the harness," he explained later.
Radio Operator S/Sgt. Lewis H. Pierard, Cherry, Ill., rendered first aid to an injured air crew after its Skytrain was shot down.
Sgt. James N. Quinn, Jr., West Hanover, Mass., forced to parachute from a burning craft, landed safely. Seeing little activity, he paused to light a cigarette only to discover he had no matches. "Hey, bud," he called to a passing American. "Got a match?" Gen. Brereton smiled and obliged.
After the Holland operation, Maj. Dan Elam, Duncan, Okla., group operations officer, was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, highest decoration yet received by a member of the 53rd Wing. With the left engine of his plane on fire, the tail structure partially shot away, and the entire left side of the plane in flames, Maj. Elam continued In formation. The fire had spread rapidly by the time the drop zone had been reached. After the paratroopers had jumped, the major ordered his crew to bail out. The plane nosed into a wooded area on a crash-land attempt and exploded.
Radio operator S/Sgt. Reginald P. O'Connor, Needham, Mass., jumped with the paratroopers after his C-47 caught fire. "As I descended, I watched the plane streaking for the ground, nothing but one huge mass of flames!" Sgt. O'Connor landed on his knees but
A glider pilot, Flight officer George E. Law, Clear Lake, Ia., was listed as "Missing in Action" in the Holland raid but returned to tell of experiences as a substitute member of an airborne anti-tank gun team. He had stayed with the airborne crew for a month -- a month longer than he should have. AWOL charges were preferred against him, but the court decisioned: "Not Guilty."
Troop Carrier sorties over Holland were history-making; they laid the basis for more dramatic action in the months to come. Along the notables carried by the 53rd Wing into the Netherlands were Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor and Maj. Gen. (then Brig. Gen.) Anthony C. McAuliffe, who also had been aboard 53rd planes in the Cherbourg invasion and later were to gain fame in the defense of Bastogne.
Never before had there been a re-supply mission of such proportions. This was a day to remember -- a day when the 53rd Wing, in a last-minute change of orders, scrapped a schedule for the transportation of airborne men to the front lines in order to execute the greatest and most dangerous re-supply operation in the entire European war.
Laden with parapacks containing ammunition, food and medicine, 53rd Skytrains rose into the air with engines roaring in a mighty crescendo. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt's famous late December drive was at its height. Skytrains streaked for Bastogne, Belgium, with the urgent mission of re-supplying the beleaguered 101st Airborne Division.
The mercury hovered near zero, snow blanketed the Western Front as airborne troops, tossed into the line as foot soldiers, stubbornly resisted von Rundstedt's piercing salient in the Ardennes area.
Gen. McAuliffe, acting 101st commander, had replied, "Nuts," to a German surrender ultimatum. an expression typical of the skytroop general whom Wingmen remembered well. Addressed as "Sir" while boarding a 53rd plane during the Normandy invasion, Gen. McAuliffe had replied:
"Listen, Joe, I'm No. 3 and my name is Tony. Now, what do you want?"
Lt. Col. Rufus K. Ward, Pittsburgh, Pa., Wing operations chief, cancelled the personnel movement schedule with scant time to spare. Hundreds of air cargo men began the job of loading parapacks and fastening them into place along the bellies of the Skytrains. In squadron operations rooms, pilots clamored for the chance to fly supplies to the men they had carried on two airborne invasions.
Visibility was poor as the procession of planes soared over the coast of the Continent. The soup was getting thicker. Navigators fretted over the possibilities of missing the drop zone and releasing parapacks over enemy terrain.
Damp, impenetrable fog shrouded the formations. First Lt. Theron W. Miller, Akron, O., described the weather as "so bad that the birds wouldn't even walk."
As planned, the 53rd Wing swept into the drop zones at altitudes near the 300-foot mark. Hundreds of vari-colored parachutes fell earthward with precious ammunition, food and medicine. At one edge of the DZ, a dough could be seen making his way across the field, his foot tracks dotting the snow behind him. Darting back to cover after picking up his bundle, he looked up and waved.
He could have been one of hundreds of airborne men in the area that day -- and he could have been S/Sgt. Wilfred Harrow, LaPorte, Ind., a member of an anti-tank battalion, who wrote to a group of the 53rd, "We stopped fighting the Germans when your C-47s came over. It was a beautiful sight to watch the multi-colored 'chutes float down almost into our arms. It wasn't such a bad Christmas after all!"
S/Sgt. Andre Mongeau, Kanakee, Ill., a radio operator, bailed out of his flaming aircraft at the incredible altitude Of 350 feet and landed in an evergreen tree. Hearing, hushed voices, and assuming Nazis must be headed towards American lines, he moved towards them. He soon was halted by two Yanks and taken to the headquarters of Lt. Col. Samuel Hogan, whose task force was completely surrounded by the enemy.
Mongeau worked with his newly-found buddies, fought with them and repaired their radio communications equipment. It is now a well-known story -- how Col. Hogan, 400 of his men and S/Sgt. Andre Mongeau trudged 20 miles in the night, through enemy emplacements, over extremely difficult terrain.
For three days, re-supplying Bastogne operations continued. Battered defenders gradually beat back the Bulge as the salient shrank, finally shriveled up completely. Canny von Rundstedt made a "strategic" withdrawal. The re-supply of Bastogne was over, and 53rd Wing added another bright chapter to its story: first to drop parapacks to the beleaguered forces.
The box score of the re-supply carried by the 53rd read: 319 pieces of artillery, 8626 gallons of gasoline, 1,263,007 pounds of ammunition, 177,411 pounds of food and 356,089 pounds of various combat materiel.
Despite the fact that 53rd Wing had borne the brunt of Ninth Troop Carrier Command's skytroop missions over enemy territory ten months after the airborne assault on Normandy, the Wing had carried more than 150,000,000 pounds of supplies through skies to Allies fighting on the Western Front -- 150,000,000 pounds of sub-operational freight, as distinguished from the combat freight hauled into drop and landing zones on attack days; 150,000,000 pounds of critically-needed materials flown to airstrips often less than half a dozen miles from the front lines; 150,000,000 pounds of supplies -- more than one pound per person if every man, woman and child of the United States personally had transported the cargo to front line doughs.
Not only was the 53rd first to achieve the 150,000,000 pound mark, but it also was the first to record a total of 100,000 patients evacuated by air from front line strips.
On March 27, 1945, the first Troop Carrier aircraft to land in Germany was guided in by 1st Lt. Marvin Cable, Cedar Vale, Kans., who evacuated the 250,000th patient to be transported by Troop Carrier from the front. Three days later, 1st Lt. Edward G. Little, Northeast, Pa., was at the controls of the first plane to supply the ground forces in the heart of Germany.
Activated at General Mitchell Field, Cudahy, Wis., Aug. 1, 1942, under the command of Brig. Gen. (then Col.) M. M. Beach, the Wing moved to Ft. Bragg, N.C., and then to Ft. Sam Houston, San Antonio, Tex., where it conducted the first large scale airborne maneuvers with Troop Carrier planes.
The results of the maneuvers were written into combat records in Normandy, Holland and Bastogne when the 53rd performed tactical sorties with some of the same personnel which attended the Ft. Sam Houston mock airborne assaults -- men like Gen. McAuliffe of Bastogne fame.
From Texas, the Wing switched northward to engage in maneuvers at Sedalia, Mo., with the 17th Airborne Division, the same unit the 53rd transported into Germany
At Pope Field, N.C., the Wing employed a V-of-Vs formation for the first time to drop paratroopers of the 11th Airborne Division. Here, also, the Wing was the first to use a static hook-up for glider take-offs.
First pilot to make a C-47 flight from Natal, Brazil, to Dakar, North Africa, was Maj. Curtis Frisbie, Roxbury, Kan.
One year after it had received its full quota of five groups, the 53rd Wing had flown 27,000,000 miles -- a figure comparable to more than 1000 trips around the world, or 9000 trips across the Atlantic Ocean!
Over the same period, nearly 200,000 air hours were accumulated during four major D-Days -- Normandy, Southern France, Holland and the Rhine -- and the resupply missions extending from the beachheads of Cherbourg to the National Redoubt in Germany, including the transportation of gasoline to Gen. Patton's forces in Northern France in midsummer, 1944; Christmas parapack missions to Bastogne, Red Ball sorties to St. Vith in February, 1945.
Although the Ninth Troop Carrier Command is composed of three tactical Wings and one provisional service Wing, one week after the airborne invasion of the Reich, statistics showed the 53rd had carried 51 percent of all supplies delivered by air to ground forces fighting east of the Rhine.
First to the front with airborne troops and supplies and first to the front to air-evacuate wounded, the team of the 53rd Troop Carrier Wing stands ready for future assignments knowing that in the battle to destroy Nazism the 53rd was there -- EVER FIRST!