Editor's Note: This article was written by Jeffery S. Williams, a military historian and Iraq war veteran from Minnesota, with the story mentioning two Shawnee natives involved in events around D-Day 75 years ago.
John Hamilton Neale, born in Shawnee, was 36-years-old in the 1940 U.S. Census. He served with the 435th Troop Carrier Group during World War II, and was the group's executive officer during D-Day. He left the Air Force at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He died February 28, 2006 at age 102 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Howard Cowan was originally from Shawnee and served as a war correspondent during WWII for the Associated Press. He was among the first people to write about the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Cowan died in 1987.
On a dreary, overcast June afternoon in Exeter, England, Corporal William Wildes attached nozzles to the wings of the green and white C-47 Skytrain aircraft formerly known as the “Pride of Minnesota.” Pouring approximately 100 gallons of fuel into each wing, he did it exactly like he had done several times before in the previous months for the training missions to prepare for the Normandy invasion. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except the white invasion stripes and the large “6Z” that was painted onto the fuselage earlier in the day.
“The planes were fueled in the afternoon of June 5th. We didn’t know where they were going. We just fueled them like normal,” said Corporal Wildes, a special vehicle operator for the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron. “One pilot had ‘Pride of Minnesota’ inside an arrowhead painted on the nose, but they made him take it off when they put the invasion stripes on for D-Day.”
By evening, each of the 45 aircraft belonging to the 440th Troop Carrier Group was laden down with paratroopers from the 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division for the flight across the English Channel.
Among the notables flown by the 96th TCS was the famed “Filthy 13,” a demolitions platoon from the 3rd Battalion Company Headquarters. Each member wore a Mohawk-style haircut and face paint and collectively they were quite tenacious fighters.
They also dropped Corporal Bobbie Rommel, a relative of General Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who was leading the German resistance in Normandy.
But not everything went without a hitch.
“I heard that somebody ran into the deicer boot and tore it up. They replaced this one plane and put another plane in its place. The crew chief was a guy named Bluestone. I remember him well and I fueled his plane,” the corporal recalled.
“It was all an unknown for us,” said Major George Johnson, who was an operations officer with the 98th Troop Carrier Squadron during the invasion. “We dropped at night and daytime for the preparations. When we went into Normandy, it was agreed that Colonel Frank X. Krebs, the 440th Troop Carrier Group commander, would lead.”
Major Johnson was promoted to lieutenant colonel a short time later as the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron commander. After a stellar career, he retired in 1975 at the rank of major general.
At 11:53 p.m., Colonel Krebs took off from Exeter in aircraft number 292717, call sign ‘Ada,’ followed by 44 other aircraft from the 95th, 96th, 98th and 98th troop carrier squadrons that comprised the group. Captain William R. Cooper led the 96th TCS in chalk 19, aircraft number 100965.
Once airborne, the only navigational aids used were blue lights on the tops of the wingtips and fuselage, as the aircraft rendezvoused with other Skytrains from the IX Troop Carrier Command and Royal Air Force. With only the moonlight to navigate them in complete radio silence, the American and British forces joined together to make the big jump across the English Channel as the lighthouses of England slowly slipped away beneath them.
Once they reached the coast of Normandy, a cloud cover enveloped the planes, followed by the blue hue of searchlights and flak from German anti-aircraft batteries.
Colonel Krebs honed into the radio signal from the Pathfinders who jumped in an hour before to mark the drop zone. At 1:36 a.m., the paratroopers received the command, “stand up and hook up.” Four minutes later, the green light came on giving the okay to jump. In a matter of seconds, the sky was filled with the billowing white parachutes of the 101st Airborne Division heading for Drop Zone D, near Ste. Mere Eglise, France, 400 feet below.
In his memoirs titled, “The Filthy Thirteen,” Sergeant Jake McNeice wrote the following regarding his flight into Normandy, “Those Germans were firing ammunition up at us that went all through the plane, our chutes and things like that. Those stinking automatic weapons had tracers about every fifth round. It just looked like a string of fire coming up at us. I did not know that there was any other color of tracer than orange but it looked like the greatest display of fireworks that I ever saw in my life. It was beautiful. They would have a blue one then a couple of red then a couple green. There was every color in the rainbow rising up to meet us. We lost several planeloads of paratroopers but the greater part came through it.”
Technical Sergeant Charles Everett Bullard, a crew chief assigned to the 98th TCS, recorded a piece of 96th TCS history in his memoir, “Little One and His Guardian Angel.”
“Later, we found that two of the 96th squadron planes had crash-landed shortly after dropping their troopers,” he wrote. “One plane of the 96th squadron came in on only one engine with the radio operator wounded by a bullet in the neck. He was the group’s first Purple Heart winner; Staff Sergeant Earnest S. Iannuccilli.”
Corporal Wildes remembers the scene when the aircraft returned.
“I was on guard duty when they left and was still up when they returned,” he said. “Some of the guys they brought back were shot up quite a bit. One of them got shot in the privates from flak that penetrated underneath the aircraft. It was a real mess. Technical Sergeant. Edward Bluestone, the crew chief whose plane I fueled earlier that day, well we lost him on that day at D-Day.”
While other troop carrier groups were scattered due to the cloud covering at the coast, misplaced their drops by flying in too fast, or were shot down by the Germans, only the 3rd Battalion of the 506th P.I.R. landed in close proximity to their designated drop zone.
At 6:30 a.m., the main landing force of the 1st, 4th and 29th U.S. Infantry Divisions, 2nd Ranger Battalion, 3rd and 50th British Infantry Divisions and Canada’s 3rd Infantry Division landed at Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches making a 60-mile long front.
The Associated Press reported an Allied loss of 70 aircraft on the first day of the operations - 17 various fighter aircraft, 12 C-47 Skytrains, 12 CG-42 gliders, 13 British heavy bombers, 6 P-47 Thunderbolts, 4 A-20 Havocs, 2 P-38 Lightnings, 2 U.S. Medium Bombers, 1 British Beaufighter and 1 U.S. Heavy Bomber.
Of course the 440th Troop Carrier Group was only one of twelve troop carrier groups ferrying troops from England to France that day in over 800 aircraft. Other groups faced similar experiences.
Howard Cowan, from Shawnee, Oklahoma, was a correspondent aboard a C-47 piloted by Lieutenant Colonel John Neale, 435th Troop Carrier Group executive officer, which departed from RAF Welford. Neale, too, was from Shawnee, and instead of carrying a load of paratroopers, his “chalk” was assigned to tow a glider.
“When we came back to England the metal hide of our powerful twin-engined C-47 was messed up like a bride’s first entry into a can of early June peas. The radio and electrical systems were damaged but nobody was hit,” he wrote in a dispatch for the Associated Press.
After a routine “sightseeing” flight from Welford, the flight was smooth until the aircraft reached the French coast, Cowan recalled.
“Our P-51 fighter escort had a whale of a time playing tag over and under, dodging in and out of our column and a formation of homeward bound B-17s and C-47s,” he wrote. “From a tiny island off shore came the first ack ack, but the bursts were far away.”
“Red and green tracers overlapped in huge arcs that reminded you of an old-fashioned grape arbor. Flares from flak bursts made you jump, but they were so far off there was no noise and didn’t seem to matter much – at least not like the 20-millimeter shell which sawed through the fuselage next to my window and then went off like an indoor firecracker explosion,” he added. “Red and green tracers – they are not as fast in the movies – drifted up at an angle of about 45 degrees well ahead of our ship. For every one of those colored lights there are four bullets you can’t see.”
“Then we got over enemy lines and the machine-guns started. We hadn’t loosed the glider yet and our speed still left something to be desired. I was on my knees peering out of the window, bundled up in Mae West life preserver, parachute and flak-suit,” he wrote.
“Just then we zipped through a fusillade like a train passing switch signals. It sounded as if the plane had run into a hail-storm and somebody was trying to cut it into two with a meat saw,” noting that this happened moments before releasing the glider, piloted by 1st Lieutenant Joe Herriage from Bonham, Texas.
“All of a sudden the plane lurched forward with a jerk and I looked back in time to see Joe’s glider rope go limp. He soared upward a moment, then banked and coasted down gracefully. On both sides 20 mm shells were coming up now – beating a tattoo on the ship that rose above the noise of the engines,” including the one that hit the fuselage next to him.
“It was easy to tell by the increased pitch of the engines that we were going places – fast. We were lucky. Some came home with dead and wounded aboard. Some didn’t come home. The Germans were ready this time. Hundreds of planes had been in ahead of us and it seemed we flew down an avenue lined with machine guns,” he concluded.
However, despite how graceful Lieutenant Herriage’s glider looked upon initial release, he was killed when the glider slammed into a wall when landing in Ste. Mere Eglise. His glider load contained elements of the 320th Glider Field Artillery Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division. Herriage was initially buried in the U.S. Military Cemetery in Blosville, France, but he was later repatriated and buried at the Moore’s Chapel Cemetery in his hometown of Bonham, Texas.
The battle was not over for the 96th TCS after performing their initial drop.
At dawn on the morning of June 7, Major Johnson flew the lead aircraft in the resupply mission.
“All of we operations officers were to fly on the resupply mission,” he said. “We carried ammunition, food, medical supplies and water.”
“We went in about 15 to 20 miles behind enemy lines, descended to 500 feet for the drop and came back across Omaha beach. We had a beautiful view of the landing craft,” Johnson said.
“There was lots of flak and small arms fire and aircraft damage. We were fortunate that we didn’t lose any aircraft. We were so low that all the people on the ground could shoot at us with small arms fire. I led them down to treetop level and then got out of there and back up to the proper altitude,” he remembered.
“It was quite an event in our lives. We got out of there quickly after we did our jobs. We were very fortunate,” he concluded.
Little did anybody know, on the evening of June 5, that there would be heroes in the making who jumped out of the aircraft early the next morning. Of the 231 soldiers of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment who lost their lives at Normandy, 103 were from the 3rd Battalion, including those who died in three of the 440th TCG aircraft that perished in the operation.
The 96th Troop Carrier Squadron was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation, the precursor to the Presidential Unit Citation, for their efforts at Normandy. Their legacy lives on through the 96th Airlift Squadron, assigned to the 934th Airlift Wing of the U.S. Air Force Reserve at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.