Navigators remember D-Day roles

Monday, June 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:54 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hirst Mendenhall of Columbia remembers the invasion like it was yesterday.

As President Bush and world leaders gathered at Normandy, France, on Sunday to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day, here in Columbia, Ralph Conte didn’t plan to do anything elaborate for the commemoration.

“Just remember,” he said.

Both men were bombardier navigators in different bomb groups in the 9th Air Force of the Army Air Corps. Each flew two combat missions on D-Day.

After 60 years, interest in their stories keeps rising. More and more relatives travel to Conte’s bomb group’s annual reunion, hoping to learn something about the men in their families who fought on D-Day. “They say, ‘My dad, my grandfather was so and so, do you know anything about him?’” Conte said.

Both Mendenhall’s and Conte’s experiences of that June 6 remain clear as ever.

Mendenhall woke that morning with a start — someone’s hand clamping his mouth shut.

“Do not speak to anyone,” the corporal told him. “Get your battle gear and report to intelligence.”

It was June 6, 1944, and Mendenhall, then 25, was a first lieutenant. He volunteered the day after Pearl Harbor, just before graduating from MU in 1941. Now he was flying combat missions out of Southampton, England.

As he gathered his gear and made his way to the intelligence briefing, Mendenhall doubted it could be the day for an invasion of France.

“It was pouring rain, thundering and lightning and windy,” said Mendenhall, now 85. “I didn’t think there was any way the invasion would be that day.”

He arrived at the target briefing and found only a handful of people and, to his surprise, Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, commander of the Ninth Air Force. It was in fact the day that tens of thousands of Allied troops would launch the coordinated invasion of Normandy, known as D-Day.

Mendenhall was deeply impressed by the presence of the general, who reinforced the gravity of the situation.

“He said you’ve got to hit your target on the first mission, that it was extremely important that the target be destroyed,” Mendenhall said. His squadron would also be the last to drop its bombs; four to five seconds later, the troops would begin to land on the Utah and Omaha beaches. “ ‘You don’t dare drop short,’ he told us.”

The squadron’s target was inside one of the scores of “pill boxes” — cement block structures that housed heavy German naval guns, set above the cliffs on the beaches of Normandy. Mendenhall’s squadron would be flying in at a lower altitude than the 12,500 feet that B-26 Martin Marauders usually maintained.

Conte’s bomb group, the 416th, flew A-20s, also twin-engine attack bombers. As bombardier navigators, Mendenhall and Conte sat in the nose of the planes, surrounded by plastic glass for better vision. They relied on intercom equipment to communicate with the pilot and gunners, Conte said.

On the 90-mile flight across the English Channel that morning, Conte and Mendenhall saw thousands of military vessels bound for the coast of France: battleships, destroyers, cruisers, submarines above and below the surface and hundreds of landing craft.

“I had never seen a battleship or a cruiser from the air before,” Mendenhall said. “I’ve never seen anything like the armada that was crossing the Channel that day.”

As lead bombardier navigator for his squadron of 36 bombers, Mendenhall was out in front, concentrating on their target. He saw the landing craft below turning toward the beaches and huge sprays of water as German artillery exploded on the ocean. He recalls flying in toward the cliffs at about 350 mph and the moment he spied a mounted anti-aircraft position with three German flak guns.

“It was whirling like mad, wheeling around and shooting at a squadron that had just finished in front of us,” Mendenhall said. “Now they saw us coming and they were whirling back around.”

Mendenhall yelled to the staff sergeant waist gunner. “One o’clock low! Get ‘em!” Mendenhall felt the tremor of the plane’s .50-caliber machine gun.

“I saw puffs of sand and rock hit suddenly,” Mendenhall said. “Obviously we’d hit them. Two guys flew off into space and the gun came to a stop as it was whirling around, lurching downward, destroyed.”

Mendenhall and his squadron then destroyed their first assigned target and headed inland to make the 180-degree turn back to England.

“We saw scores of gliders at different angles sent in, carrying troops to stop the Germans from rushing in toward the invasion site,” Mendenhall said.

Conte’s bomb group successfully destroyed both its first and second targets: the main crossroads and railways of the town of Argentan and a store of enemy artillery and munitions in a railroad yard. The bomb group sustained heavy damage on the second mission.

When Mendenhall’s squadron returned to England and landed outside Southampton, it was instructed over the radio not to turn off the engines.

“They loaded bombs back on the planes in a tremendous hurry and threw several boxes of K rations up to us,” he said. Mendenhall was given careful directions on the next target over the radio, and his squadron was off on itssecond mission of the day. It, too, was successful.

Conte and Mendenhall went back to their lives in the United States — Conte to New Jersey, where he graduated from Rutgers University on the G.I. Bill, and Mendenhall to Missouri, where he went to work for TWA in Kansas City. Both were decorated for their efforts.

“I look back on it now,” Mendenhall said. “We had a job to do, and we did it.”

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