Veteran recalls role in D-Day bombings

Monday, June 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:24 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is it OK for a grown man to cry? You bet it is! Tears usually flow when things gone by are remembered. Things that make you want to say, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

I’ve just read a magazine article of a happening of a B-17 that was piloted by a young 23-year-old who gave his life to save the inhabitants of a French village. On D-Day, a few years ago, the descendents of that pilot were influenced to return to the spot where the B-17 crashed in France, to witness the celebration by the townsfolk, thanking a member of the pilot’s family, for the forefather who gave his life to save the village residents. That pilot remained at the controls of his badly damaged plane to head it away from a village underneath him, seeking an open space to land — or crash. Crash he did, and the villagers remembered and dedicated the crash site with reverence and appreciation.

I shed a few tears, because that brought back memories of D-Day, 60 years ago. In past years, many media centers went without much notice or publicity, but now, 60 years later, it should be remembered. It’s an anniversary of note.

D-Day, June 6, 1944, was one of the worst storm days in years. Thousands of fine young men gave their lives to establish a beachhead at Normandy, in France, to open the path of an improbable invasion. The fact that some Frenchmen remembered that day, and pay tribute to participants of the invasion, living or gone, cannot go by unnoticed. Americans now should also remember the importance of that important day, D-Day.

On that day, the weather ushered in a heavy cloudbank, restricting air cover, which was so very important to assist the invading ground and Naval forces. Planes would not normally be called upon to fly in such inclement conditions. Rain and heavy winds churned the English Channel with angry whitecaps and rolling high waves.

A few days before June 6, all crewmembers of our 9th Air Force group, who were away from base on pass, were called back. The base was closed down to visitors, and no one would be allowed out of the base. No personal phone calls were permitted, either outgoing or incoming. All plane crew chiefs were told to get their planes in the best of flying conditions. All planes’ fuselages and wings were painted with three alternating black and white stripes. We were later told that any plane not so painted was to be shot down, no matter what. All Allied planes were so identified, being bombers, fighters, or carriers.

Flying crews were scheduled to participate on practice missions; aircraft gunners were sent to shooting ranges to sharpen up their skills, bombardiers practiced on Norden bombsights, even though they may have been on many successful bombing missions in the past.

During the night of June 5, an unusual number of planes were heard overhead. We later learned they were C-47 carrier planes, towing gliders, both planes being full of armed paratroopers.

At our group, the usual loading lists of planes and crews scheduled to fly the next mission was posted. The call was for 56 planes: a maximum effort. The pilots and bombardier navigators who were scheduled to lead flights on that next day’s mission, were awakened at 2 a.m. on June 6 for a briefing. That was an unusual time to be routed from our sacks. We went to our mess hall for breakfast and then to the briefing room. When we were all assembled, the doors were locked, shades were drawn and anxiety prevailed. We did not know that the briefing was going to unravel, but with all signs far from norm we knew it had to be something big and different. No one was allowed in or permitted to leave the room. The commanding officer and his operations staff boarded the briefing stage, with the crews seated, waiting for the usual curtain to be opened to reveal the target and the route to get there. We were told that at that particular time, naval vessels were on their way to Normandy for the invasion. They were scheduled to hit the beaches at 6:30 that morning. This was the big day for which we all waited, knowing it was coming, but not knowing where or when. The curtain was drawn, revealing Normandy as the invasion beach. What a surprise, since most of the thinking centered around an invasion at the Pas de Calais, only 22 miles from England. Normandy was at least 100 miles away.

A few hours later, the remainder of the pilots and gunners scheduled to fly that mission were admitted to the briefing, and the entire mission was unfolded. Our first target was a major communication center about 50 miles south of Normandy beachhead that could be used by the Germans to bring their combat personnel and equipment toward Normandy. We would have to fly directly over the beachhead, where no information was available on the extent of enemy fortifications in that area. We knew there were pillboxes with heavy artillery guarding the beaches. That type of fortification was present all along the French Coast, aimed at England.

Around noon, the crews were alerted to man their planes and prepare for the mission. The cloudbank had risen to between 2,000 and 3,000 feet, an unhealthy altitude in which such a group would fly.

Fifty-six planes, a maximum effort, took off at 1 p.m., joined up in formation and headed south toward the English Channel.

Our first view of the English Channel was one of astonishment. We saw U.S. battleships, cruisers, LSTs, CSTs, and thousands of other aircraft, from horizon to horizon as far south as we could see, heading toward Normandy. With the weather being so threatening, our mission had to fly at 2,000 feet altitude, beneath the cloud bank, making it easy for us to see that many vessels in one place.

As we approached the Normandy beachhead, we could see many of our vessels unloading personnel and equipment, and also saw the array of such forces strewn all along the beach. Passing beyond our ground forces, we were now over enemy territory, where anti-aircraft guns, shooting flak, and small-arms fire, including tracer bullets were trying to knock us out of the sky. At that low level, anything the enemy could fire was thrown at the mission. Fortunately, little damage was done.

Gliders, which had flown in the paratroopers the night before, were visible on the ground. Many of them were in crash positions, with their noses dug into the ground, tails extended to the sky, broken wings, and abandoned parachutes everywhere.

Our target, the main crossroads and railways of the town of Argentan, was destroyed.

We returned to base, and the excellent crew chiefs hustled to prepare the planes for a second mission, which took off from base at 8 p.m., heading toward a railroad marshalling yard at Serquex, France, where a heavy concentration of enemy artillery and munitions were stored, waiting shipment to the battle front. This area was very heavily defended. Heavy anti-aircraft guns (ack-ack or flak) inflicted heavy damage to most of the 39 planes on that mission. Three were shot out of the sky, with 25 others experiencing heavy damage from the flak.

The lead plane of the formation, piloted by then Maj. William Meng, suffered extreme damage. As they approached the target, one of the engines took a direct hit from tracers, setting it ablaze, but the pilot held his course, knowing full well the burning engine could blow up momentarily. Meng held the plane straight and level to allow the bombardier, Lt. William Powell, to sight his target with the Norden bomb sight, making a direct hit.

As the formation approached the target, one of Meng’s gunners was firing at an anti-aircraft gun aimed at them. Following the gunner’s blasts, the enemy’s machine gun became silent, indicating a good hit by our gunner.

After the bombs hit the target and set it ablaze, Meng maintained the formation lead and headed back toward England. He had to drop back from the formation because of power loss and other damage to his aircraft. Another plane provided escort and protection for Meng’s slower flying plane. Meng managed to bring the plane back to base in an emergency landing.

The 416th Bomb Group was cited by the Ninth Air Force headquarters for its contribution to the D-Day effort in destroying a heavy concentration of German equipment.

Ralph Conte, a Columbia resident and retired Capt. in the U.S. Air Army Air Corps, flew 65 combat missions during World War II and was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and several other medals, including the French Croix de Guerre . He is the author of "Attack Bombers: We Need You," an account of the 416th Bomb Group of the 9th Air Force. The book is available at 9th Street Bookstore in Columbia, 111 S. Ninth Street. 443-2665.

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