Blackjacks at War: WWII & The 53rd Troop Carrier Squadron
by Steven C. Franklin, Major, USAF
AIR COMMAND AND STAFF COLLEGE
A research report submitted to the Faculty in partial fulfillment of the Graduation Requirements.
Advisor: Dr. Richard Muller
Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama
The views expressed in this academic research paper are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense. In accordance with Air Force Instruction 51-303, it is not copyrighted, but is the property of the United States government.
My first assignment in the USAF was as a C-141 pilot in the 53rd Military Airlift Squadron (MAS) at Norton AFB, Ca. During those three and a half years as a "Blackjack," I learned the unique heritage of the unit of which I was a part, and was even able to attend the unit's 50th Anniversary, before it was inactivated, for the third time, in 1993.
The Squadron motto Primus Cum Plurimi means simply "first with the most." That motto truly epitomizes this airlift squadron. The distinctive accomplishments of this unit are truly worthy of recognition as the 53rd approaches its 60th anniversary this summer. I have decided to highlight the first three years of its existence, as it earned six campaign streamers during World War II. What these men accomplished was nothing short of extraordinary. They set the standard for all tactical and strategic airlifters of the future. As an American, as an airlifter, and as a Blackjack, these men are my heroes!
During my research, I read, scanned, and reviewed literally thousands of pages of text. I cannot give enough thanks to the unit intelligence officers (S-2) of the 53rd TCS, and 61st TCW who kept such impeccable records during these incredibly busy years. Their elaborate records have made reading them like reading a huge Tom Clancy novel--except this is real! In addition, I have to owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Air Force Historical Research Agency, who stores these records and Dr. Rich Muller who has guided my research efforts and given me the encouragement the make this document the quality it deserves. In addition, the project would have never been completed without the patient encouragement of my wife and children. To all those who helped, I express my most sincere thanks.
I have for the most part left analytical history to the historians and have tried to report the more human perspective of the 53rd Troop Carrier Squadron as it tackled the daily challenges, hopes and fears of World War II. In addition, I have included various photographs from the historical records of the 61st Troop Carrier Group and sketch drawings from Cpl Robert Magnusen to help reinforce that human perspective. This is a view that you will not find by reading a textbook. I hope I have done the job justice, because as the saying goes, "once a Blackjack, always a Blackjack."
The 53rd Troop Carrier Squadron was an integral part of the success of the Allies in World War II. Their remarkable accomplishments are reflected in the award of six campaign streamers for Sicily, Naples-Foggia, Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, and Central Europe. The purpose of this historical report is to highlight those accomplishments and emphasize the human perspective of these campaigns.
For the most part, this essay is based on the original documents kept by the unit historians of the 61st Troop Carrier Group and the 53rd Troop Carrier Squadron. Reports of major operations such as the Normandy and Holland invasion are supplemented heavily by the text, Green Light! A Troop Carrier Squadron's War from Normandy to the Rhine, by Martin Wolfe. While this is the history of the 81st TCS, and not the 53rd, they were both C-47 squadrons stationed in England and both flew operations concurrently and in close proximity. The intention of this project is to highlight the human dimension of being a part of the 53rd TCS in World War II.
On 17 October 1918, Gen John J. Pershing, the commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, gave Col William "Billy" Mitchell the go-ahead to begin detailed planning for an airborne assault against the German stronghold at Metz, France. Mitchell's concept called for 12,000 parachutists, each with two machine guns, to drop from 1,200 bombers, creating havoc in the enemy's rear and an opening for an Allied advance. The paratroopers were to drop simultaneously and be resupplied by air. Mitchell envisioned close air support for the force until it got dug in. Pershing was skeptical but asked for details of how such a venture would be executed. Mitchell put his new operations officer, Maj. Lewis H. Brereton, to work on the project but the armistice stopped his study. The Allies would not test the ideas for many years to come.
During the inter-war years, the US Army experimented with parachute troops and techniques but not in a very serious way. However, world events and the impending war caused a turnabout and a serious change of focus. The War department organized an airborne force, and by July 1940 the 501st Parachute Company was formed. By February 1942, this parachute group had grown into four battalions and was in search of a transport group that would be assigned to support its training requirements. Initially, the Army Air Forces (AAF) agreed to the need but could not spare the planes to support them. In light of the German success with airborne operations over Crete in May of 1941, priorities were re-evaluated! The US Army split its 82nd Motorized Division to create the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and began training these forces under the newly formed Airborne Command. As events in Europe unraveled conventional notions of warfare, the War Department created the Air Transport Command (ATC) with a primary mission to emphasize the "conduct of operations involving the air movement of airborne infantry [and] glider troops."
The 53d Transport Squadron was one of the first ATC units formed and was constituted on 30 May 1942 by General Order (G.O.)#9, HQ Air Transport Command. The 53rd was officially activated two days later on 1 June 1942, as part of the 61st Transport Group, 52nd Troop Transport Wing, Pope Field, North Carolina, and so began the illustrious history of the Blackjacks. The first commander was 2d Lt Glen A. Myers. He and two other Lieutenants, thirty-two enlisted men from sister squadrons of the 61st Troop Transport Group became the founding members of a unit who would go to make history and a significant impact in the Allied victory of WWII.
On 1 July, the title of the 52nd Wing, 61st Group, and all the Squadrons within it, was changed from Air Transport to Troop Carrier. By the time Capt Richard P. Carr assumed command on 2 July the squadron strength had grown to 132 enlisted men and 10 officers. Duties up to this time revolved only around squadron formation with no airplanes and no flying. That was to change as the squadron took possession three C-53's from the Mobile Air Depot in mid-July. This first phase of training included both military and flying curricula as the crews began immediate qualifying in this twin engine Douglas airliner that the civilians called the DC-3. The military had two designations for this aircraft: the C-47 was modified to carry cargo and the C-53 modification was primarily intended to carry troops. The 53rd flew paratroopers at Lawson Field and accomplished glider towing at Lockbourne Field, Columbus, Ohio. The cross-country trips began in earnest once more planes arrived in the latter half of the month. This intense training was designed to prepare the crews for operations under tactical conditions and the squadron was put on alert in the middle of July to be ready to begin an overseas tour on the 24th. These orders were cancelled on the afternoon of the 23rd, but the training intensified The Group continued to grow, and in August, the Blackjacks deployed with sister squadrons as part of a 13-ship formation to practice mass paratroop maneuvers at Camp Young, California.
October took the squadron to Stuttgart Army Air Base, Arkansas for glider towing and the squadron earned bragging rights as the first to tow gliders for Southeastern Technical Training Command. October also brought another change of command as Capt S.W. Tobiason assumed command on the 22nd. The squadron moved in two elements from Stuttgart to Dalhart, Texas where it was assigned to the Gulf Coast Training Command in order to perfect their glider tow skills. They were subsequently transferred back to Stuttgart and Southeastern Technical Training Command in December. The 53rd finished 1942; training for the war it was inevitably going to enter.
1943 started with yet another change of command as Capt H. M. Betts assumed command on the 10th of January, and on the 24th of February the squadron moved, once again, back to its birthplace and home station, Pope Field, North Carolina. Deployment orders were certain to arrive soon, as the group was very actively engaged in paratrooper missions and the pilots received additional training in long distance navigation. Ground echelon troops were also engaged in an intensive training regime to include safeguarding military information, aircraft identification, airdrome defense, chemical warfare, camouflage and the use of natural cover, personal hygiene and sanitation, military courtesy, military law, care and use of small arms and field equipment. Additionally, enlisted men were trained on the firing range with the M-1903 rifle, carbine, and sub-machine gun. Officers qualified with these weapons and were also given the opportunity to qualify with the pistol. The training came to a climax when all the field equipment was practically applied in a field trip. Major paratroop missions for the 61st Transport Group included a 128-plane paratroop mission at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and a 52-plane paratroop mission that was witnessed by Lt Gen Henry H. Arnold. The group was ready to go to war! The 53rd received Warning Orders on 29 March and was actually alerted for oversees departure on the 4th of April.
The air echelons of the other squadrons of the group began their departures on the 30th of April. The 53rd air echelon departed on the 3rd of May for Morrison Field, West Palm Beach, Florida, and virtually the same hour as the ground echelon, departed for an unknown staging area in New York. From this point forward, the air and ground echelons took separate routes to an unknown region of the war.
The air echelon took a 12-day circuitous route to the war. Their route of flight took them from North Carolina to West Palm Beach, Florida. On the 4th they flew along the Cuban coast and landed in Borinqen Field, Puerto Rico. Their flight path on the 5th took them to Atkinson Field, near Georgetown, British Guyana via the Antilles, Grenada, and Trinidad. On the morning of the 7th, they departed over the dense jungle of the Amazon for Belem, Brazil. They found navigation difficult over this featureless jungle and at one time had to descend below their normal altitude of 9,000 feet in order to avoid an overcast deck, get an occasional glimpse of the Amazon, and keep their bearings. Despite the "useless" maps, they relied on their compass course and finally picked up the radio signal and touched down at Belem without trouble just after midday. On the 8th, their travels took them along the coast, virtually completely over water to Panamirim Field, Natal, Brazil. Life was crowded at this staging field, but several of the men were able to get sightseeing passes for the city of Natal. Activities were limited, but excitement was to be had on the native taxi ride into town and the effort of those without passes to elude the sentries and get back to camp. On the next day, they departed the Western Hemisphere; across the open Atlantic for a small island know as Ascension.
Finding Ascension Island-five miles wide and seven miles long and in the middle of the trackless South Atlantic-seemed like a dangerous gamble to everybody but the truly fearless. If you missed it there was no turning back: you would have to head for Africa and pray you had enough gas to make it.
A navigator with another Troop Carrier Squadron, the 81st, described the process best.
"I took a celestial fix that, according to my figures, would have made it impossible to reach Ascension because of the tremendous headwinds. When I rushed to the cockpit to announce my findings and to beg the pilot to return to Brazil, he astounded me by remaining totally calm. He merely asked me to take another fix! My second fix completely negated the first one; it indicated that we were on course and making excellent time. After letting me squirm a while the pilots let me know that even before my first fix that had already tuned in the powerful radio station at Ascension and that we had already been riding the beam to our destination."
Crews from the 53rd may have missed the island if relying only on dead reckoning, but fortunately, they descended to avoid an overcast deck eventually received the radio beam, and found the small volcanic island surprisingly close. The next day brought the air echelon its longest over water leg, as they set course for Dakar, Senegal. Despite nothing but open ocean, the flight was uneventful. A submarine was sighted, but there was not another sign of life until they reached the coast of Africa. Once over Africa, they encountered clouds of haze and dust that reached as high as 10,000 feet, but found the Dakar signal with no trouble and landed with plenty of fuel and daylight to spare. The 53rd had successfully navigated the South Atlantic Route to the African continent, but had not reached its destination. On the morning of the 11th, they departed for Marrakech, Morocco, by way of Tindouf, Algeria in order to avoid flying over Spanish possessions. A majority of the flight was spent traveling over an inhospitable desert of sand and rocky outcroppings. The Anti-Atlas Mountains brought signs of some vegetation and some signs of habitation as they neared the Atlas range. The echelon had to climb to 12,000 feet in order to clear the snowy peaks of the Atlas Mountains but they were soon to descend back to the hot, dry climate of Marrakech. They were still unsure of their final destination when they reported in and learned what orders awaited them. This was definitely a new environment for the crew and just about all of them ventured into the city to sightsee, taste test a little of the local cuisine, and test the wine in the modern French part of town. The next day, they took a short flight to Oujda, where they found one dirt runway at this desolate French post. The officers were billeted in brick and stone barracks, "but found them filthy and infested, as only French soldiery can leave them." The consensus was that the enlisted men were actually more fortunate in having tents on the clean, dry earth! The crews lived on K and C rations, and waited for two days before moving on to their new home. A flight on the 15th of May finally took them to their more or less permanent base. Lourmel was a French field located approximately 30 miles west of Oran, Algeria. The French had been using it for a few years and it was now pretty well established with one "fair" runway, taxiways, hardstands for the aircraft to park, and a single hanger. A freshly cut wheat field surrounded it and there were a few tents that were hastily erected by a detail from the 64th Group. The first order of business was to obtain water. All water had to be hauled from the town of Lourmel, and was not even plentiful there. Apparently, the French used little water when compared against the demands of the Americans and the Arabs used practically none! Facilities were established and the supply systemized, but until then the air echelon experienced some "thirsty and grimy days, working under the hot sun, putting up tents and preparing for the ground echelon." Fortunately, there was an excellent beach about 10 miles away near the little town of Bou Zadjar. Truckloads of men made this journey every evening to "wash off at least a part of the African continent" in the Mediterranean Sea. By the time the ground echelon was flown in from Casablanca, the air echelon was established, and into its routine.
As the air echelon departed Pope Field in North Carolina, the ground echelon was preparing for departure as well. The 61st Group Chaplain, Capt Kenneth Combs described the ground echelon's journey. His account, with all the uncertainty and excitement that prevailed, was titled, Why the 61st Went Camping, or, Oran in June.
The planes circled low over the field, in tight formation. Below, women waved tiny handkerchiefs, and wept.
So the first squadron took off for Morrison Field, Natal, Liberia, and other unknown places, eventually to carry out their mission in defeating the little mustached paper-hanger who had set himself up as God. And day by day our other squadrons followed, arriving intact, masters of navigation and weather.
But that is the story of the men who fly, and ours is the one of men who also share their honors, the ground echelon that makes flying possible.
The 61st Troop Carrier Group, Ground Echelon, entrained at Pope Field, N.C., on May 3, 1943. An officer's wife and an enlisted man's wife joined hands as they waved until the train was lost from sight. Other trains followed during the day until the last man had cleared Pope Field and we were on our way, destination unknown.
Our lives changed right then. That night we tore seats apart and began the job of building make-shift beds, a task on which we have improved with much experience. After hours of restless sleep, we tumbled off in the cold gray dawn, shouldering our packs and marched over the hill to our staging area, Camp Shanks, N.Y.
There we enjoyed, or endured, a few days of mad preparation; supplies, vaccine shots, medical examinations, men meeting their wives in New York hotels, other seeing the Big City for the first time. And as suddenly as it started, it was over. We slipped by the Statue of Liberty on a ferry, wearily dragged "A" bags up the steep incline and found ourselves on board the "West Point", pride of the United States ocean liners, and bedded down for the night amid strange noises of hoists, blocks and stevedores.
Sometime during the night the great ship slipped away from her moorings and when morning broke we gazed on a wide unbroken sea. Wild rumors swept the decks. We were going to be part of the largest convoy ever assembled! We were going to be on the ocean for a month! We were going to be the first Allied ship in three years to make the dash through the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Suez! All which rumors were firmly spiked when it was announced on the second day out that we were going to Casablanca, and we were going alone.
New experiences became our daily life. Sea-legs were developed to meet the ceaseless roll of the ship, while the less fortunate suffered the agony of sea-sickness. We "abandoned ship" (practice drills) so many times that, after the fourth day, even the officers found where they were supposed to go.
The ship continually changed her course, leaving behind a jig-saw wake that no submarine could plot. Sixteen pairs of binoculars unwaveringly searched the sea. The radar constantly felt out each threatened obstacle and the ship tacked accordingly, once even turning completely around and going back for some distance. At dawn and dusk the decks were completely lined with all hands at "Battle Stations" for these were the dangerous hours.
On deck, there was a constant swap of politics, impromptu amateur shows, and on Sunday, church services held in the theatre on deck that were attended by all that could find room to stand. At meal-times we formed long lines to wait our turn, and these coupled with other waits for the sales store to open, for ice cream, and for no good reason at all, helped to pass the time away. Other hours were spent watching the ocean's teeming life, whales, porpoises, dolphins, flying fish, gulls, and in speculating where a submarine might lurk and whether that distant white-cap were wholly innocent. An empty life-raft prompted conversation for hours.
Even so, things were getting monotonous when it was announced one morning that the bow gun, port-side, would fire two practice shots. There was an immediate rush of everyone on deck to the port side, where they were rewarded with ear-rendering explosions and the splash of shells far out to sea.
However, there was no way of warning those sleeping below decks, and with the first explosion feet began to hit the floor. There were shouts of "This is it!" Clothes and life-belts were hastily donned, and in an incredible short time, many pushed out prepared to abandon ship. It was a somewhat sheepish but might happy group of men who straggled back to their compartments.
Casablanca, Road to Morocco, mysterious places, yet strangely beautiful as we gazed from the harbor. But there was nothing mysterious about the smell and the hot sun as we marched through the streets those weary miles out to Camp Passage. Later we were to find that there was beauty there, with the fabulous Sultan's Palace, the Spanish architecture, the Arabic souvenirs. But at the time there was just the job of pitching pup tents with some semblance of order next to a dirty little Arab village, and making our beds before dark, and then of breaking open cans of "C" rations for a cold supper.
We were initiated that night to the experience of living on "C" rations. No words of mine can express the homesickness and the longing for a real meal that comes with the opening of a "C" ration can. Thus we lived for a week, at each meal opening one can of meat and vegetable and another of biscuit and beverage. Since then we've met men who claim to have existed for three months at the front on nothing else, and while some doubt naturally exists in our minds, in awe we extend our deepest sympathy to them for their horrible experience. We trust the folks back home won't set them down to an elaborate dinner upon their return. The shock would be more that they could bear.
All things, good and bad, come to an end. So we were transferred to our present base at Lourmel, Algeria, by plane, after having been first threatened with a five-day ride in the French "40 and 8" railroad cars of the last war.
At Lourmel we found by comparison, an ideal camp. The air echelon arriving first, had worked long and hard, and there were large pyramidal tents to live in, good food to eat, water to drink and wash, and even cold showers under which to luxuriate. The city of Oran was nearby, with splendid Red Cross facilities, and the people of the nearby village were friendly and hospitable.
Even though the camp was temporary and for training purposes, we felt that at last we had arrived. We were in the theatre of operations, and we looked forward keenly to the task that had to be done before "The lights go on again, and the boys come home again, all over the world."
The 53rd was indeed in the theatre of operations but would not be used immediately in combat. The Group continued its aggressive training program that had been interrupted by their journey from the states. The month of June saw the C-47's flying day and night on a variety of missions to include glider towing, paratroop drops, and freight hauling. Personnel were briefed before and debriefed upon mission completion. The past year of training was coming to a close and the training reports revealed that "the Group was ready to do a big job speedily and efficiently on short notice." In fact, the Group was lauded by the Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division for "the complete success of the exercises on the night of June 19, 1943, performed with the 504th Combat Team under difficult and unfavorable conditions. The group's glider pilots were undergoing perhaps the most arduous training of all. Despite the burning heat, the glider officers were pushed through an intensive commando course that was "designed to make them as tough and fit as the Airborne troops they would one day follow."
The Group knew that war was soon to follow, and the daily training regime at Lourmel was disturbed on the 15th of June by news of enemy planes and paratroopers in the vicinity. The alert was sounded and base defense personnel were moved into position. The alert was short-lived though as they were notified that French forces without resistance had captured the enemy party of 21 Italian paratroopers.
The members of the Group knew that their stay at Lourmel was to be temporary, and that was to hold true. On the 21st, advance parties were sent back across the weathered Atlas Mountains to prepare for the rest of the Group at their new base near Kairouan, Tunisia. The heavier supplies traveled by convoy through the winding mountain roads, and arrived at Kairouan eight days later. The Group was cautioned to avoid souvenir hunting in the fields due to unexploded ordinance, and the camp was carefully planned to include a dispersal of tents and aircraft. With Sicily only 200 miles away, the 53rd was now close to the enemy and engagement was imminent.
The month of July brought a work ethic of dead seriousness. The men knew that something major was about to happen, but no one knew when, where or what their contribution might be. Unbeknownst to most, the 61st was preparing for the invasion of Sicily. Daily secret briefings started on the 3rd and were being conducted by Group Intelligence in the War Room with members of the 82nd Airborne Division. On the 8th, pilots of the 53rd, and on the 9th, all combat crews were given a secret briefing on the first mission known as Husky No. I. Paratroopers, with full loads of equipment, arrived and started practice loading in the early evening hours and the crews began to man their planes at about 1900 hours. Everyone in the squadron knew that this was no practice mission. This airborne assault on the island on Sicily had been meticulously planned for months to strike at what Churchill called the "soft underbelly of Hitler's Europe." "Hitler valued Italy because its loss would be a blow to his prestige and because it offered flank protection to the Balkans where he had genuinely vital economic and strategic interests." At 2030 hours, one year to the day after its organization, the 61st Troop Carrier Group departed on its first combat mission. A formation of 39 aircraft, including nine from the 53rd, departed with its cargo of paratroopers for a drop zone northeast of the city of Gela, on the island of Sicily. Once the aircraft had departed, the long wait began for the Ground echelon. Coffee and doughnuts were available in the mess tent and even the Squadron wine was opened up, but for the next four hours, no one thought of letting down. All they could do was "sweat out" the return of the men in the air. Mercifully, the light of the first aircraft was spotted at 0125 hours. One by one, all the aircraft returned in good order. Although the Group had encountered some ineffectual anti-aircraft and machine gun fire, the 53rd returned without a single casualty or bullet hole. The crews had experienced poor visibility and other navigational difficulties causing them to lose formation integrity shortly after landfall on Sicily, but the drops were all a success. The Group received congratulatory messages from Gen Eisenhower, Lt Gen Spaatz, and Brig Gen Williams, claiming the complete success of the Husky No. I mission!
The 53rd was on alert the next day and was actually briefed for a mission at about 1800, which was scrubbed an hour later. The 11th of July brought another alert, but this time no cancellation and at 2030 hours the Group departed again for Sicily, this time with the 53rd's C-47's flying tail end Charlie. The drop zone on this mission, Husky II, was an airfield just east of Gela, and their route of flight was virtually the same as the first mission except they were told that a 10-mile wide corridor had been opened for entry into Sicily at Donnalucuta. The crews had been warned of enemy naval forces and were warned to avoid ships whenever possible. The moon was bright and as they proceeded close to the water, broken cloud decks formed above them and cast heavy shadows making it virtually impossible to spot ships with any certainty. At about five miles south of the Donnalucata, a group of ships, most certainly friendly, opened fire on the formation. The aircraft scattered initially, but soon got back into formation. As the 53rd's formation crossed the coastline, the squadron leader's left wingman's plane (Flight Officer Ehnot) started flying very erratically. Within three minutes, the aircraft swerved and crashed into a hill. Witnesses instantly noticed a fireball and could not imagine any survivors, although it was later learned that one paratrooper who had been standing in the open door, was thrown clear, and escaped although burned and broken.
The maneuvering of Ehnot's C-47 had once again broken up the formation, and most of the aircraft could not find it again. Anti-aircraft fire was intense and seemed to be coming from various places including the "corridor" friendly forces supposedly held. Each pilot was on his own to find the drop zone that was alive with flak. Some planes found fog and smoke and had to follow a slightly different route to the DZ, but eventually all dropped their loads near the intended location. After dropping their paratroopers, some crews continued along the preplanned corridor north of Licata and out to sea, and others preferred to find any opening in the flak and opted to fly between Gela and Licata. It was later learned that "the Gela-Farelo Airport had been recaptured, by the Axis, in a counter-attack. The fire apparently was not entirely from enemy guns, however."
Flying was no easier once the aircraft were once again over the Mediterranean, as they were flying low over surface vessels and were subjected to intense, accurate fire from various caliber weapons. While flying through this barrage, Capt. Betts' plane took multiple rounds, beating the body of the aircraft and wings. After clearing the fire, he noticed zero oil pressure in his right engine and discovered his crew chief dead and his radio operator seriously wounded. He managed to nurse the aircraft toward Kairouan, not knowing how long his right engine would keep running, and landed safely at home. Ground crews discovered that a 20-mm shell had hit his right prop, throwing it into the side of the aircraft, cutting an oil line. Another shell had ripped the left wing and another had exploded in a para-rack, piercing the floor and cabin with fragments. They found dozens of 30 and 50 caliber holes throughout the aircraft. They had indeed been lucky to return, as others had not. The losses to the 53rd on this mission were 1 2Lt, 1 Flight Officer, 2 SSgts, 1 Sgt, and the 15 paratroopers in Ehnot's aircraft. 1 Sgt was seriously wounded, 1 plane was destroyed and 3 planes were out of action. Husky II claimed casualties in the other squadrons of the Group as well. One aircraft from the 14th TCS returned with 500 holes from anti-aircraft fire and the 15th TCS reported two planes shot down at sea, but a British destroyer recovered the crews. One historian noted,
That night the 52d TCW dropped 2,000 paratroopers from 144 C-47's in an attempt to assist the Allied ground forces. Planned on the night of execution, the assault faced a severe test. It took a complicated route to Sicily and then flew through a corridor over Allied ships that had not been warned of the impending operation. Worse yet, the Germans had recaptured the drop zone-Gela-Farello airport-ironically, with the 4th German Parachute Regiment. As the formations approached Sicily, they were subjected to heavy Allied antiaircraft fire from naval forces that were soon joined by enemy ground fire. Fire into, over, and out of the drop zone was deadly; it destroyed 23 aircraft (fortunately, most had already dropped their troopers). Half of those that made it back were badly damaged. Ninety-nine aircraft were out of commission the next day. Paratroopers were scattered all over eastern Sicily, and General Eisenhower said their accomplishments were more than offset by their casualties. Even the Allied ground forces had fired on the paratroopers.
Although Operation Husky failed to inflict a crippling blow to the enemy's troops, as many escaped the island to fight another day, the operation had secured the Allied line of communication through the Mediterranean to the Middle East and it established a foothold for further operations in the theater. In addition, this invasion led to "Mussolini's overthrow and it forced the Germans to terminate Zitadelle in the east-the first direct major combat contribution the Allies made to the Soviets." This assault consisted of 3,000 landing craft and warships, 160,00 troops, 14,000 vehicles, 600 tanks, 1,800 artillery pieces in all and was by far the largest amphibious operation to that date. When the dust had settled on Operation Husky, commanders on both sides of the battle were in agreement about its success. (See Appendix A & B).
According to Gen Patton, "Husky 1 had speeded up the movement of the Seventh Army by 48 hours." Gen. Alexander noted that the early capture of Syracuse was largely due to the airborne attack and Field Marshall Montgomery estimated that the airborne troops that were dropped in front of his Eighth Army advanced the timetable by a week. Gen Karl Student, the foremost authority on airborne operations in the German army and commander of their airborne assault on Crete, praised the ultimate results of the Husky operations: "The Allied airborne operation in Sicily was decisive despite widely scattered drops which must be expected in a night landing. It is my opinion that if it had not been for the Allied airborne forces blocking the Hermann Goering Armored Division from reaching the beachhead, the division would have been landed by sea to resist the counterattacks by our defending forces."
After Operation Husky, the squadron was on alert for another mission but was not called on for several days. On the 14th, five aircraft were used to transport a pursuit squadron from Algiers to Tunis and on the 19th, two aircraft carried three Chaplains and another officer to Ponte Olivio Field in Sicily, to search for the remains of men and planes lost on the first two missions. This airfield was under American control, but the Italians left it covered with mines that were detonating at unexpected places during the hour or so that the planes remained on the field. As the Allies made their foothold in Sicily, 10 planes from the 53rd joined two from the 59th for a men and equipment re-supply mission from Goubrine airfield, Tunisia to Boccadifalco airfield near Palermo on the north side of the island.
Although not used yet in combat, the squadron's gliders remained a combat asset. They needed to be kept in top repair. When an officer from Group Headquarters inspected on the 18th he found the wood and glue work appeared to be opening and the wood very brittle. A separate inspection officer discounted virtually all of the write-ups and Ok'd the gliders for flight after minor repairs. Unfortunately, Mother Nature struck on the 25th with a rainstorm and winds up to 60 miles per hour. Five gliders were pulled from their moorings, overturned and wrecked beyond repair and several others were stressed to the point that their airworthiness was doubtful. Repairs would be needed before these assets could be used in combat.
The Blackjacks' first month of combat came to a close as the squadron found itself in a routine of freight carrying, or training flights. Rumors of another move--to England, Egypt, Sicily or Italy--kept everyone on edge. They had received their baptism of battle and waited impatiently for what was to come next.
August of 1943 found the 53rd making frequent flights in Sicily. They frequently transported cargo for the troops and returned with patients and an occasional prisoner. On the 6th of the month the squadron was tasked with an airdrop of rations to troops who were said to be isolated a few miles west of Troina, Sicily. The two-ship had expected contact with the enemy, but by the time they arrived at the DZ, Troina had been taken and American trucks were headed into the city. Nevertheless, the supplies were dropped and American troops were seen running to get them. By this time, Sicily was under control of the Allies and missions there were no longer considered tactical.
On the 13th of the month, the focus turned again to training. Twelve of the 53rd's aircraft flew to a field near the island of Djerba, Tunisia for three days of intensive glider towing maneuvers. The camp was on the coast just 40 feet above the Mediterranean, so the crews made time for swimming and fishing as well. This diversion from the war was interrupted on the 17th by sudden orders to return to M field for a practice mission of another sort. Crews expedited home and spent the 18th in briefings and preparations for this mission, only to be interrupted again to return to Sicily to bring back the paratroopers who had been dropped the previous month in the Husky missions. This gave the pilots an opportunity to speak with those they had dropped into combat. When the discussion of the intense anti-aircraft fire came up, the paratroopers stated that the Italians had maps with our correct DZ and date.
On return to their field in Tunisia, the squadron got right back to the business of practice glider towing. Unfortunately, the 53rd suffered its first fatal accident and lost its first plane in non-combat action. The aircraft, piloted by Lt Saltmarsh, crashed on landing and burst into flames. Despite the flames, other squadron members were able to recover all four crewmembers and ten passengers, but SSgt Middlen died later that afternoon from his injuries. He was laid to rest in the American cemetery in Kairouan.
The 53rd did receive some relief from the monotony of the dust, wind, flies, and heat. There was a rare treat on the 8th when an aircraft was dispatched to Algiers and returned in the evening with enough ice cream for every man to have a huge helping. There were the occasional movies, and a French vaudeville troupe with a strip tease artiste from Tunis performed one day in the hot midday sun. Even the USO toured the area, and most of the men got to see Bob Hope and Frances Langford who came to entertain the paratroopers nearby. There was an active baseball league on the field and a swimming pool was discovered close enough for an occasional visit by truck.
Most squadron members knew that their time in Tunisia was coming to an end, and on the 3rd of September, the air echelon moved to Licata South Field, Sicily. The squadron's aircraft made several cargo runs back to the field in Tunisia, but the ground echelon was not completely moved until the 22nd. Despite the split of the squadron, they managed to fly two combat missions consisting of 18 sorties and 19 non-combat sorties.
As the Allies were making their way north along the boot of Italy, the 53rd and the rest of the members of the 61st Group were being called on for their service. On the 8th of September a mission was planned and crews briefed on a secret airdrop and paratroop mission to a DZ near Rome.
The landing force was to take Rome by surprise while the Italian army, in the process of surrendering, was to disarm and hold all the Germans in Italy. The plans had been made and agreed upon by both sides in great detail. But at the last minute the whole thing was called off. The Germans seem to have worked faster than the Italians and were in complete command of the situation.
News of the surrender of Italy came over the air and there was considerable whooping in camp but on the whole it was somewhat of an anticlimax for those who had been briefed for the mission.
Other than this false start, the 53rd did complete two combat missions on the nights of the 13th and 14th as part of Operation Avalanche. These highly successful missions dropped paratroopers and bundles on a DZ north of Agropoli, on the Italian mainland. Despite the intelligence briefing they received, anti-aircraft fire in the vicinity of Salerno was the only enemy activity seen. In addition to these aircraft combat missions, 1st Lt Wills and three enlisted men from the squadron volunteered and participated in a secret mission to capture the Italian island of Ventotene. With a group of paratroopers acting as commandos, they captured the island, and set up radio and light beacons to be used by the troop carrier planes involved in the invasion of Italy. This small task force took 103 Germans prisoners and took the surrender of Italian forces on the island.
The 53rd did not engage in any combat missions in the month of October, but that did not lower the operations tempo. They continued to fly cargo runs throughout the region to Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa, and the Italian mainland. In addition, they moved twice and continued an aggressive training program with the 82nd Airborne Division.
October brought with it the winter weather that Europe is famous for. The heavy rains, wind and low clouds were bad enough on several days to ground the whole squadron. The official uniform was still khaki, but because of the cool weather, the men were donning their woolens even though it was not to be the official uniform until the 20th. The field at Licata had become a sea of mud, "sticking like chewing gum to feet and tires," and made their tent city quite miserable. No one was immune to the conditions as even intelligence and operations shared a leaky stable hut that had a spare tent covering bomb holes in the roof. The month also started with rumors of another move. When the squadron packed up and moved to Sciacca Field, also in Sicily, rumors confirmed that they would be there for two to three months. It took a total of 27 trips to move the squadron to their new Sicilian home. The field was scattered with the wrecks of German and Italian fighters, bombers and transports. Unfortunately they barely had a chance to unpack when they were given orders to move the squadron's air echelon to Pomigliano Field near Naples.
Virtually on arrival at their new home, daily air raids reminded them of their proximity to the war. Pomigliano Field was located about 10 miles northeast of Naples and was dominated by the view of Mt Vesuvius to the south. The enemy had actively used it as it was situated right next to the Alfa-Romeo aircraft engine factory and was scattered with the wrecks of Gotha gliders and the immense Me-323 gliders. The field had a nice runway that was repaired by combat engineers shortly after the enemy departed and was being used by numerous types to include P-51's, Spitfires and Hurricanes. They were close enough to the action that the light bombers were striking their targets roughly 10 minutes after takeoff and the flashes of artillery could be easily seen on the other side of the mountain. The squadron's mission at this station was to practice paratroop missions with British personnel and the American 82nd Airborne Division, and "incidentally to make convenience runs to Sicily, Africa, Taranto, etc".
Although the 53rd's gliders had not been involved in combat, they were not idle. The squadron's strength of glider pilots and mechanics varied almost daily as they were transferred to and from detached service with other units. Most of the 53rd's gliders, their crews and some of the ground echelon stayed at Sciacca, where one glider was lost in a crash in the later part of the month. Unfortunately, one of the other squadron's glider pilots decided to take a recently repaired P-40 airborne. He buzzed the field and tent area several times and then eventually flew so low that he hit the top of a 53rd tent pole and then some almond trees. He barely cleared the mess tents and orderly room, but crashed less than 100 yards later, destroying the aircraft and killing himself. This was a real tragedy, which could have quite possibly been much worse.
Despite the seriousness of the war, the squadron still found time for sightseeing in Naples and Pompeii, and to occasionally "let their hair down." On the 17th of October, the day before receiving orders to move north, the Officer's Club officially opened on Sciacca with a well stocked bar going full blast. There was an auction for a lone bottle of Coca-Cola that sold for $17.50. Coincidentally, the buyer asked for it to be "put on ice" only to find that its original owner had no intention of really selling it and drank it himself, before funds were transferred. "Poker at two tables, bridge, checkers, chess, a noisy crap game, and singing relieved the monotony of serious drinking throughout the evening until nearly 0300 hours."
If November 1943 in Italy had to be summed up in two words it would have to be "bad weather." Despite the increasingly nasty conditions, the 53rd experienced uneventful flights, with no losses, and practically no airplanes out of operation with the exception of those down for routine maintenance. The squadron logged a total of 701.1 hours of flying time, with 29.9 hours of that time in instrument conditions. The squadron set up its own weather reporting system, but it actually came to the aid of several other units as well. Pilots earnestly began training for their re-issue of instrument cards, as it was clear that the weather would continue to be a factor.
The squadron continued to get reminders that they were near the front--daily air raids! Virtually all the raids resulted in no significant damage, but one on the 12th might have inflicted numerous casualties. The Germans arrived at 0720 hours with no warning. They dropped what was believed to be 250-pound bombs within a hundred yards of parked aircraft and very near the morning mess tent, and another 20 to 40 smaller bombs on the west side of the field near the parked fighters. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured, and the aircraft that were damaged due to bomb fragments were airworthy again in hours. Nevertheless, the men were instructed to bunch up in lines of no more than ten at a time when waiting for mess. Later that evening an alarm was issued of an enemy spy in the area. Squadrons were put on a heightened sense of alert and guards were posted on all aircraft.
Despite the bad weather, repeated alerts and raids, and an epidemic of jaundice among the pilots, morale was high as the squadron was making a real impact on the war. "This Squadron has been stationed nearer the front lines than any other Troop Carrier Squadron so far in the North African, Sicilian, or Italian operations. Its work in this position has not been combat but has been steady and valuable to many parts of the Army in expediting evacuation of patients, bringing in emergency equipment, travel of important personnel and mail transport."
December brought rain, more rain, and lots of mud. While bad weather did keep the 53rd grounded on numerous occasions, a steady stream of flights carrying mail, freight, evacuees, and other personnel between points in Italy, Sicily, and North Africa occupied the first half of the month. Despite the weather, lack of material, and tools, Lt Miller, one of the 53rd's glider pilots, led a dedicated work crew and managed to return a German Gotha glider to airworthy condition. They had to scavenge parts from 15 different wrecked remains and complete some creative patchwork, but the glider was ready for flight and despite the 53rd's desire to fly it, that job would have to be left to specialists from the Proving Grounds in the States. (See Figure 24).
The Blackjacks were due for another move. The air echelon received sudden orders to return to Sicily, and on the 14th, the squadron packed up and returned to join the rest of the Group and some of their own ground echelon and glider personnel at Sciacca Field. After unloading the baggage in the pouring rain, the Officer's Club hosted a nice homecoming.
Training flights, glider towing, formation flying, and an instrument flying ground school dominated the second half of the month back in Sicily. Unfortunately, it was also marked with tragedy. One of the 53rd's gliders was destroyed in a skid landing with the crew escaping unharmed. On the 29th, one of the 14th TCS aircraft crashed into the flight line while trying to accomplish a formation takeoff. Both pilots and the crew chief were fatally injured and four C-47's were destroyed, three of them belonging to the 53rd. Training continued to be a deadly business.
"The New Year was greeted with appropriate liberations [sic] and exchanges of visits between squadrons. It is noteworthy that in the height of the celebrations of the past week while the men and officers have had only the cramped spheres of their respective clubs in which to exuberate, there have been no noted cases of brawls, bad humor, personal gossiping or even temporary friction within the squadron. Not a bad crowd to be with in this game. New Year's dinner was turkey and none of the turkeys died in vain."
The New Year brought with it signs of spring, but the weather remained nasty enough that the squadron pilots logged 119 hours of flight in instrument conditions. There were no tactical missions, only training missions, ground training, and preparations to move to the English Theater. As always, the training missions had an element of danger as the squadron had two separate incidents where gliders made emergency landings. On one occasion, damage to the horizontal stabilizer caused the glider to rapidly pitch up on takeoff. The pilot disconnected from the tow plane, but was unable to control the upward pitch movement until the glider stalled at 400 feet above the ground. The pilot was then able to turn the aircraft to a quick downwind approach and landing and walked away with only slight damage to the glider. On a C-47 test hop, a fuel leak developed, leading to an engine fire that quickly resulted in the right engine completely burning off the wing. The pilot ditched the aircraft in the Mediterranean. The crew all safely evacuated and were rescued by a fisherman who witnessed the crash. They were home in time for evening mess. Danger was a constant companion, in the air and on the ground. Capt Shermer accidentally shot himself in the finger while cleaning his gun. He would live to clean again.
Major Betts, the Squadron Commander, held an officer's call on the 23rd and announced that the Squadron had been slipping into a general laxness. He then announced that effective immediately, early morning exercises would continue until a more "enterprising alertness" was displayed by all personnel. Consequently, PT was performed every morning that the weather allowed. In addition, an enthusiastic rivalry began between officer and enlisted teams of volleyball and touch football.
Maybe the men had too much idle time, but food was stolen from the squadron mess storage on two occasions. On the first occasion, 50 pounds of beef disappeared. A thorough inspection of the tents found a can of spam, a gallon of milk, a side of bacon and a few other assorted pieces of mess hall property, but no beef. That evening, the mess staff served a "very scant beef stew. Less than a week later, six chickens were stolen, and a guard was stood watch in the kitchen at all times, as the culprit was surely another unit."
February began with a flurry of packing, as the 53rd split again into air and ground echelons and began to prepare for movement to their new home at Barkston Heath Field, England. The aircrews escape purses with francs and lire were turned in, and the packing commenced amid constant rains and storms. The air echelon departed Sicily with their 13 C-47's. They traveled via Casablanca, Marrakech, and North Wales before arriving at Barkston Heath on the morning of the 18th. All 13 planes arrived in good order, but the pilots were going to have to get accustomed to a new sort of map reading. Airfields in England were spaced so closely and looked so similar that recognition was difficult. A pilot who was supposed to be "familiar with England" was given the lead for arrival to Barkston, but he got the whole formation lost and the Squadron Commander had to find the way and lead the Squadron in.
March 1944 found the Air Echelon setting up shop and starting flying operations at Barkston Heath with several paratroop practice missions. The Ground Echelon departed Sicily on the 5th for a 12-day cruise to Scotland aboard a British transport, the Monarch of Bermuda. This 12-ship convoy, including two aircraft carriers, weaved through the Mediterranean, along the African coast, past Gibraltar, and Spain and out into the Atlantic before docking in Scotland on the 16th. The men were much more comfortable on this cruise, but were happy just to be alive. They were advised on the 6th day at sea, that there had been a 60-plane attack on a convoy at Algiers, apparently just missing theirs.
March is one month that will live long in our memories, and most of us are glad it has finally been written on the records. Hearing about those 1000 men who went down in a transport sinking just when we were getting ready to leave was very un-nerving news-so far, though, we've been one of the luckiest outfits overseas. Let's hope it continues thus.
Just as the day was bright, so were the spirits of the men when they saw their new home. After enduring all the rigors that ten months of tent life in torrid Africa and muddy Sicily had to offer, they were finally back in a real civilization. The many different and comfortable-looking buildings made the men glow with a deep satisfaction---seeing those well set-up barracks was something that had to be lived through to be appreciated. To say everyone was jubilant, is putting it mildly.
The Squadron was obviously relieved to not be living in tents anymore, but the cold winter weather took its toll as many of the men suffered from colds and the flu. There were no tactical missions during the month, but there were some local training flights and series of lectures on Escape and Evasion for combat personnel, and code practice for the pilots.
Winter weather still dominated England in April of 1944, but the dense fog did clear long enough for an overcast of aluminum. A wave of C-47's in airdrop formation or towing gliders could be seen practically every day. Practice and training was stepped up a notch in preparation for what was surely to come. The 53rd's strength increased with the addition of seven combat crewmen and three more aircraft, bringing their total to 21 C-47's and C-47A's. In addition to the flight training, crews received ground briefings on first aid, flight hygiene, map reading, security and code and blinker. Combat crews were also briefed on prisoner of war procedures. A successful evader described his evasion through France and the unit procured civilian clothes for the crews to use for escape photos. The 53rd was an efficient tactical unit that was quietly confident of its ability to deliver.
May brought an increased activity level with a sense that something "big" was coming. The seven newly assigned pilots were given maximum flying time on three practice missions. The Squadron flew as part of a 72-plane paratroop mission, a troop re-supply mission dropping bundles, and a highly successful glider exercise. This command exercise, named Eagle, was the nearest thing to a true rehearsal of any American airborne operation and the results seemed to confirm the optimism of troop carrier and airborne leaders that the invasion plans of the future would be exceptionally successful.
These training missions were used as an opportunity to test new equipment like their Rebecca receivers, the "Biscuit Bouncer" used to toss door bundles, and a glider pick up system. (See Figures 9 &10) Not all of these new systems got rave reviews, such as this one from a crewmember from the 81st TCS.
One of the big disappointments in World War II airborne tactics was that navigating with the brand new hush-hush radar navigation facilities turned out to be of little help. All our planes had the "Rebecca" receivers which were supposed to react to signals from the "Eureka" radar transmitters which pathfinder troops carried down with them. When many planes in a large formation switched on Rebecca, however, the Eureka transmitters got swamped and tended to send out misleading signals, sometimes three and four miles away from the actual DZ. Our flight leaders' planes, in addition, had the overly sophisticated, hard to interpret SCR-717, called the "belly-button radar" because of its exterior housing under the fuselage. The SRC-717 mapped out a crude image of the landscape over which we traveled and was practically useless for navigators except when we were passing over bodies of water like the Channel or large rivers. Finally, a few of us had the British GEE radar, meant to show you through "triangulation" (three intersecting beacons) where you were….All these sets sat on the navigators' compartment; but in actual flight you would usually find the sets turned off and the navigator standing behind the pilot trying to match what he saw unrolling before him through the cockpit window with what he had in his briefing notes and what he read on his maps.
This was the equipment that the crews had to use for finding the drop zones in the missions to come. Despite the technology available, their basic navigation skills would prove crucial.
When not flying, the men kept their spirits up with the movies at the base theatre, weekly Red Cross dances with the local girls and the arrival of American flight nurses. The month ended with a payday, typhus injections, and talk of "invasion" as everyone waited that fateful hour.
June 1944 was a month like no other. It was the month that saw the defenses of Nazi Europe shattered as the Allies began their march on Berlin, and the 53rd TCS was one of many Troop Carrier Squadrons there to spearhead the assault. The month began in a cloak of secrecy as final touches were put to Operation Overlord.
The planning was detailed to an extraordinary degree. It had to be, since the operation had 175,000 fighting men scheduled to go ashore on D-Day, carried by nearly 1,000 transport airplanes or ships-5,000 ships of all types-with some 6,000 fighters and bombers overhead. The scope of Overlord defies imagination; one comparison is that Overlord was the equivalent of moving the Wisconsin cities of Green Bay, Racine, and Kenosha-every man, woman, and child, with every vehicle-across Lake Michigan in one night.
The Red Cross dance was cancelled, off post passes were cancelled, and intelligence officers returned to Wing Headquarters under armed guard and "carrying innocent looking barracks bags that contained enough information to wreck the Nazi war machine." The Wing's C-47's and gliders were given a coating of zebra paint on the wings and tails. Ironically, Overlord planners were less worried about the Germans shooting down our transports as they were about the itchy fingered gunners on Allied ships. It was hoped that the two black stripes interspersed with three white ones would prevent the misidentification problems that were experienced in the Sicilian invasion. The barracks radio was reporting that the French coast was taking a pounding from Allied bombers in an attempt to soften up the coast for future invasion and of course 8th AF was still carrying destruction to the heart of Nazidom. Rumors were flying fast and furious throughout the camp, but security measures paid big dividends because most men were not even aware that over 1000 paratroopers were secretly bivouacked on post until they were seen on the 5th, lining up for showers.
After a 24-hour delay due to weather, the briefings on the 5th of June began in the Group War Room at 1000 hours with officers from the 82nd Airborne, for Operation Neptune, the assault phase of Operation Overlord. Crews were briefed on the route of flight, formation and radio procedures, ditching and dingy procedures, and the current enemy situation. Crews were then served a hearty lunch and released to get some sleep. The men reconvened at 2100 hours for a final brief. Combat crewmembers were dressed in gas-impregnated khakis, to protect the crews from chemical attack, were issued side arms, searched for security, and were given their escape and evasion kits. Navigators and flight leaders studied courses and plans and each aircraft was given a flimsy with the route of flight, navigation aid and notes that was mimeographed on edible rice paper. Before departing for the flight line, General Eisenhower's message was read to the battle-bound crews:
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battles, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!
Good luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
At precisely 2352 hours the first of 72 aircraft in "Neptune Boston" formation departed their English airfield en-route to a DZ on the narrow Cherbourg Peninsula of Normandy. Since weather patterns in this part of Europe generally flow from the northwest to the southeast, the weather was clearing over southern England and the Channel, but in Normandy and most of northern France, the weather the night of June 5-6 was terrible. In fact, the weather was so bad that most German garrisons relaxed in their barracks, confident that no invading planes or ships could be expected any time soon. The commander of the 82nd, Gen Gavin, who was standing in the open doorway of a C-47, gave an excellent synopsis of the weather encountered.
"As we reached the western coastline, disaster loomed up. We slammed headlong into a dense cloudbank. Nothing had prepared us for this. The weather briefing had not foreseen it; our flight over the Channel had encountered only scattered clouds. The cloudbank was thicker in some spots than others. For some of us it was so thick that it was if we had suddenly stopped flying through the air and were now flying through grayish soup." The Pathfinders had also flown through these clouds; but because of the strict radio silence imposed on all of us had not warned anybody of this terrible danger. Flying in almost zero visibility, practically wingtip to wingtip, pilots suddenly had to decide how to save their crews, paratroopers and planes.
As the formations "hit" the weather, the Vee of Vee's formations began to break up, miraculously avoiding midair collisions. The breakup essentially wiped away any prospect for a concentrated paratrooper drop, but the crew continued to press forward. It became the responsibility of every pilot and navigator to find the drop zone, climb or descend to 700 feet, and slow to 120 MPH to avoid too much opening shock on the chutes and men that they carried. In addition, the "Eureka-Rebecca" radar beacons did not work as they were supposed to as the pathfinders had not been given enough time to get down on the ground, find their locations and set up the drop zone "T" lights and beacons. Planes that included "GEE" equipment could not make sense of their readings either. This was a visual drop in marginal conditions! Training, indoctrination and pride all kicked in and the crews were going to do everything within their power to deliver the troopers to the appointed drop zone.
Mercifully, up to this point the paratroopers had no way of knowing we were in big trouble. But now pilots in some planes, already badly rattled, began to see flak and small arms fire coming up at them. They dove and twisted under the upcoming arcs of tracer bullets and while the heavily laded troopers struggled to stay on their feet. Some planes whipped around badly, forcing troopers down on their knees. "Barf buckets were knocked over and vomit spilled out, causing a dangerous slippery floor. Crew chiefs and radio operators in the rear of the planes screamed up to the pilots to keep the planes steady.
A crew chief that flew with the 81st TCS, best described the chaos experienced by those approaching the drop zone that night:
"Watching the tracers come up at us made the hairs on the back of my neck feel as though they were standing straight up. These things are stamped indelibly in my mind: the rattle of flak fragments against our plane, the sight of flak and tracers above us, some seemingly right on the mark for the planes in front of us; the absolute stark terror in some paratroopers' eyes, their vomiting into their helmets and forgetting to empty these helmets when it came time to "Stand UP! Hook UP!" as they prepared to make possibly their final jump".
Despite the confusion, the 61st Group dropped its cargo of 1167 paratroopers at 0232 hours amid a "forest of enemy fire." The intelligence brief prior to departure had informed the crews that their route of flight would take them within range of 14 heavy AA guns, and that 34 others were situated such that just a slight deviation to the north would bring them in range. On the same note, crews were instructed that "evasive action prior to delivery of troops will not be tolerated. In the event a DZ is missed on the initial run-in, troops will be delivered within the combat area. In the event the coastline is reached and troops have not been delivered, aircraft will execute a right hand turn and deliver troops on DZ." The formation returned to Barkston Heath at 0415 hours and remarkably, 10 of the 53rd's 18 aircraft reported dropping on the DZ, two reported dropping within one-half mile and, and the other six reportedly dropped within one mile. The 53rd aircraft returned with no casualties, no damage and no paratroopers returning, but not all of the Group was so fortunate. Col Mitchell, 61st TCG/CC, and flight lead was shot in the left hand while over the DZ, and one aircraft from the 14th TCS was shot down while departing the DZ. The crew bailed out, evaded and was eventually rescued. Mission interrogation, or debrief, was set up in the Officer's mess where the flight surgeon, "Doc" Locker had broken out his hoard of "medicinal" bourbon. Breakfast followed, the men retired to their sacks and the intelligence office switched to preparation for another mission supporting Operation Neptune-Freeport, a parachute resupply mission.
Less than 24 hours later, the Group put 52 more aircraft in the air and fought to find the flak-ridden DZ to deliver almost 1000 pounds of ammunition, rations, and equipment to the 82nd Airborne. At D plus 1 the element of surprise was gone. This proved to be a difficult mission on all accounts. Cloud coverage over England made formation impossible, so some formed an improvised formation, others were forced to proceed single ship, and several eventually weather aborted as the clouds were too thick and the traffic was too heavy for flight. The non-standard formation was led by an aircraft with Rebecca equipment and dropped their bundles on a Eureka which was flashing the correct code but was located about two miles east of the mapped DZ. The crews noted that intense and very accurate fire was thrown at them as they got inside the coast, coming particularly from the windows of houses. Unfortunately, this intense fire found its mark on Lt. Roach's aircraft as he crossed the beach and headed for the DZ. He kicked the rudder to put the aircraft into a skid in order to avoid the heaviest streams, but to no avail. The rounds he was taking took out one of his engines and the resulting loss of oil pressure made it impossible to feather the prop on the dead engine. The intense vibration and drag cut his speed down to just less than 90 MPH as he struggled to keep the aircraft airborne while flying just above the deck. Lt Roach, who was only on his second combat mission, managed to coax the aircraft to the channel and was forced to ditch about 10 miles north of German occupied Barfleur. Tragically, some of the bullets apparently found the radio operator, SSgt Blake, and one of the life rafts. The crew managed to evacuate the aircraft to an operable raft, but SSgt Blake died before they were rescued four hours later.
Military historians have given a mixed review of the efforts of troop carrier squadrons during the invasion of Normandy. Even aircrews began to doubt their performance when they later heard rumors of complaints by paratroopers who were dropped far from their assigned DZ, but the facts vindicate their performance.
There are two things one can say for certain about the paratrooper and glider operations of the Normandy invasion: they were the most critical airborne operations of the entire war and, in terms of their main purpose, they succeeded. Practically any other statement puts us in the realm of heated controversy, serious doubts, and unprovable claims.
The main task of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, who were dropped by the Neptune missions, was to backstop the seaborne invasion at Utah beach. Their task, during the early invasion hours while seaborne troops were clawing for a foothold, was to prevent massive counterattacks by German forces stationed to the east and south. During the approximately five hours between their jumps and dawn, the paratroopers were ordered to capture certain bridges, destroy others, cut lines of communication, mop up pockets of German defenders, and capture the vital road center town of Ste-Mére-Eglise. Gen Gavin called Operation Neptune "perhaps the most complex that had ever been attempted." The whole operation could be thought of as a demonstration of "Murphy's Law"-whatever can go wrong, will. In spite of all the complexities, the assault scored many crucial successes. The Allies were able to establish a foothold on the beach and losses on Utah beach through D-Day plus two were surprisingly light compared to what they might have been if the 82nd and 101st had not been thrust between the beach and enemy forces. A recent historical account maintains,
A combination of clouds, heavy flak, and inexperienced transport pilots spread U.S. paratroopers across the length and breadth of the Cotentin Peninsula. That dispersion turned out to have one advantage: the Germans found it impossible to divine the objectives of the American amphibious assault. While German attention focused on the U.S. paratroopers behind the beaches, the 4th Infantry Division made a successful landing on Utah Beach.
The success of the 52nd TCW and its passengers of the 82nd airborne are best summed up in a letter sent on the 9th of June from Maj. Gen Gavin, Commander of the 82nd Airborne to Brig Gen Clark, Commander of the 52nd TCW.
Through the courtesy of Col Bidwell who is leaving the beachhead today I am able to get this short note to you.
Task force 'A' has accomplished most of its objectives, the 505th carrying out its missions exactly as planned. Ste. Mere Eglise was taken two hours after landing and the 507th and 508th are holding the line of Merderet. Shanley, Mielut and Timmes are still cut off but we may be able to pull them out in the next 24 hours.
The accomplishments of the parachute regiments are due to the conscientious and efficient tasks of delivery performed by your pilots and crews. I am aware, as all are, that your Wing suffered losses in carrying out its missions and that a very bad fog condition was encountered inside the west coast of the peninsula, yet despite this every effort was made for an exact and precise delivery as planned. In most cases this was successful.
I want to express to you and all of the officers and enlisted men of your command our appreciation for a job damn well done.
There were no more airdrop missions for the 52nd TCW for the month of June but they did fly two more combat re-supply missions to Normandy on the 22nd and 23rd. The Group's C-47's, with P-47 escort, delivered 77,500 pounds of ammunition to secret airstrips in Normandy and evacuated a total of 45 patients and passengers. In the end, the month of June claimed five men and four planes from the Group. Combat crewmen with 800 or more hours of overseas flying were being rotated home on 60-day leaves.
July marked the fifth month at Barkston Heath for the men of the 53rd TCS and the 61st TCG.
The month begins as the first stage of the invasion ends; all resistance on the Cherbourg Peninsula is crushed today. Our squadron has settled once more to the old "between invasion" routine-glider towing, formation flying, and training green pilots. Occasionally this dull program is broken by a mission to Normandy, hauling in freight (usually ammunition) and evacuating allied and enemy casualties.
Two practice missions of note included two "mock mass invasion" missions of another British airfield with the First Polish Brigade, and gliders from the 61st Group. Both missions were declared successful and essential for the operational training of the Polish troops and our glider forces. Ironically, the 53rd was informed after the practice missions that they were soon to become a Horsa glider towing unit and that the American CG 4A's that they had been training with were to be transferred. This was a sense of consternation for the maintenance crews as the Horsa glider required considerably more towing power and this equated to more maintenance and overhauls for the C-47 fleet.
The 53rd kept two situation maps depicting operations on the Russian front that served as a great morale builder for the men. Another great morale builder was the Squadron's adoption of a young war orphan named Margaret. She was honored by over 300 foster fathers, and got a tour of the base and was made an honorary pilot for a day, as they voluntarily accepted the responsibility for her education through prep school age. When the activity allowed, the men looked forward to passes to homes, movies and pubs in nearby towns, but the Group curtailed off base passes to 10% on pass at a time due to an increased number of venereal cases, and the city of Nottingham was placed "off limits." The danger of training missions was once again highlighted by disaster when two aircraft from a sister Squadron collided on a practice formation flight, killing all nine crewmen. This was a sad end to another successful month. After five and a half months in England the squadron was ready to move. "Everyone wants to go home, but is willing to compromise for France."
The month of August found the 53rd dispatching freight and air evacuation flights to France on practically a daily basis. The freight taken to the dirt landing strips in France varied but usually consisted of ammunition and quartermaster supplies, the return trip almost always consisted of Allied and German patients of both the walking and litter variety. Most of these missions were planned in advance, but on the 13th, the Squadron proved its ability to react quickly when they were alerted at 1100 hours, without warning, and told to launch eight aircraft to France immediately. Men were called from half eaten meals, caught half shaven and told to report for immediate takeoff. They departed in record time with thirty-eight thousand pounds of freight, to include shoelaces, lanterns, gas lamps, welding rods, cable clips, mixed ordinance and service decorations for U.S. ground forces located at a new strip located on the Brest Peninsula and just a few miles from the enemy lines. The aircraft returned with 28 walking and 42 litter patients and proved their ability to respond rapidly if needed to support ground forces.
Training missions continued in full force whenever weather and combat re-supply missions allowed. On one particular practice air landing operation, 36 aircraft were required to land, offload, and takeoff again in a minimum length of time. Sixteen minutes elapsed from the time the first aircraft landed and the last departed. It was considered excellent considering some aircraft were loaded with jeeps and artillery. The 61st ACG was a finely honed combat unit that was just awarded the Presidential Citation for its highly successful participation in the Continental invasion (See Appendix C) and was re-organized into the First Allied Airborne Army. They were told personally by Gen Eisenhower that something "big" was being planned. Paratroopers were once again spotted on base and the lights were still burning in the headquarters building at midnight on the 31st.
The 30 days of September were action packed! The bustle of activity that marked the close of August continued with preparations for Mission Linnet which was to transport paratroop and glider troops of the 82nd Airborne, 1st British Airborne, and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade into northern Holland on this, the fifth anniversary of invasion of Poland. Unfortunately, it seemed that the weather was an ally of the Germans, as the group was grounded for three days due to miserable weather, and the mission was eventually cancelled on the 4th. On the 7th, the Group prepared for another combat insertion of the same troops this time to a DZ just northwest of Arnhem. Once again, weather was the Germans ally and after several days of sitting alert through the horrible autumn weather, Mission Comet was cancelled. The clouds lifted on the 11th and the 53rd airlifted 79,240 pounds of 80 octane gasoline to Reims, Epernay, and Metz for Gen. Patton's 3rd Army, and the next day transported 21,129 pounds of the same to British forces in Belgium. On the 14th, another re-supply mission tasked the 53rd to transport over 81,000 pounds of ammunition to British forces in Brussels, although the weather moved in after arrival and forced the aircraft to remain overnight in Brussels. Fortunately for the aircrew, Brussels was celebrating its liberation and the entire population, especially the Belgian girls, were overanxious to show their gratitude to Allied soldiers, especially Americans. Needless to say, the crews enjoyed their stay.
The three Dutch towns of Arnhem, Nijmegen, and Eindhoven were the main objectives of the Allied invasion of Holland code-named Market-Garden. "Market" was the code name for the airborne half of the operation and "Garden" was the name for the ground forces mission. "This was to be the greatest airborne operation of the war-probably of all time. It was also the greatest failure of combined American-British action."
The military annals of the Holland invasion are full of unstinting, even extravagant praise for the C-47 pilots, glider pilots, and aircrews who delivered their airborne troopers to their objectives. It needs to be said, emphatically and repeatedly, that troop carrier squadrons did everything that was asked of them-and paid heavily for it. Flying Market was not a milk run: it was more like running an exceedingly deadly gauntlet. But neither at that time nor today does the realization that we performed excellently ease the feelings of frustration and guilt that came when Market-Garden failed to get the Allies across the Lower Rhine.
After numerous alerts and cancellations for weather, Operation "Market" finally began on the 17th. The Operation consisted of four missions for the 61st TCG. The first was to be a British paratroop drop near Arnhem, Holland, and the second, a glider drop near Groesbeek, Holland. The third mission was to be a re-supply drop to airborne units and the last mission was to be another glider drop using tow aircraft from the 15th TCS. The group was to drop troops and gliders on LZ and DZ "T", "X", "N" and "O" in an area southwest of Nijmegan and bounded by two large wooded areas. The area was estimated to be able to accommodate up to 900 gliders and the Luftwaffe strength within 160 miles was reputed to contain 240 fighters and 30 fighter-bombers. Crews were briefed that they could expect little air opposition; but that the enemy had robust anti-aircraft defenses in the Arnhem and Nijmegan areas and that there was a noticeable increase in flak barges and mobile flak units.
The first mission departed Barkston Heath at 1150 hours on the morning of the 17th, with 1,168 paratroopers bound for Dutch battlefields. The Group saw no enemy aircraft and experienced only light and ineffective ground fire. All 72 aircraft returned and the mission was considered by all crewmen to be a perfect. A perfect drop on the DZ, no casualties to personnel or aircraft, excellent fighter escort, and only two to three bullet holes from small arms fire. The next day, things got much tougher as the two formations of 40 aircraft and 40 gliders each encountered heavy flak and machine gun fire in the vicinity of the LZ, from the woods, canal barges and mobile guns. Unfortunately, the 53rd reported two aircraft missing during post flight interrogation and reportedly saw three or four parachutes open from one of the burning ships. The third Market mission, on the 19th proved just as deadly for the Blackjacks. The Group launched 35 aircraft carrying 192,500 pounds of vital re-supply bundles and encountered poor visibility throughout the route and intense anti-aircraft fire over the DZ. Unfortunately, this accurate fire claimed another C-47 and crew from the 53rd, bringing their two-day loss total to twelve men and three aircraft. The fourth and final mission of Operation "Market" was eventually flown on the 23rd after numerous weather delays. The 61st towed 63 gliders to LZ "O" and lost two more aircraft in this mission that airlifted troops, jeeps and supplies to troops in Holland. (Figures 12-19).
When the four days of missions were completed, the 61st TCG had flown 229 combat flights, airlifted 1,990,462 pounds of cargo and 2,372 Airborne troops into battle. These missions cost the Group 33 men, six aircraft, and another 25 were damaged. By the end of the month, all but seven of the 53rd's glider pilots and aircrew had returned to home station. One crew, who were reported missing on the first night of the Operation, had escaped the crashed airplane without a scratch and evaded German field patrols until finding friendly forces. There was jubilation in the squadron to see those returning (Figure 20) and a reluctance to speak of the chances of those still missing.
By the end of the month everyone was singing praises of Operation Market despite the fact that Arnhem had to be eventually evacuated with great Allied losses. Gen Gavin stated "it was the best paratrooper and glider drop in our history."
Pay call was held at 1000 hours on the morning of the 31st. The enlisted men received $1,190, and the officers drew $1,228. Card and dice game could be found shortly after as the men tried to "increase" their earnings.
October brought more winter weather to England and kept the Squadron on the ground for days at a time. Despite these delays, the Group continued to fly critical re-supply and evacuation missions to troops in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. In this historic month, the 61st Group dispatched 909 aircraft to the continent and logged 6,976 hours of flying time. These 45 missions transported 4,858,462 pounds of cargo, evacuated 644 patients, and consumed 569,312 gallons of gasoline for an average of 81.6 gallons per hour. The 53rd was responsible for roughly one quarter of these totals and required their personnel to switch to round the clock maintenance, and had all the mechanics work 12-hour shifts. It was a true team effort to re-supply the forward troops, and they preferred to stay busy and become restless if not engaged in service or combat missions. The only other diversion was listening to the World Series compliments of American Forces Network. The Cardinals beat the Browns four games to two.
October also brought change of leadership when Maj. Charles L. Harruff assumed command of the Blackjacks. In addition, the Squadron was assigned a new C-47B. This new model had several improvements over earlier models, to include supercharged engines for high altitude flying, a strengthened inner wing structure and oxygen at each crew and passenger station. The Squadron was also advised of 20 new pilots who were inbound to the unit, with no flying time in C-47's. The older pilots developed a ground school to teach the barest of essentials to these new recruits, but knew that the true learning would be "baptism by fire."
The month of November saw President Roosevelt re-elected for his fourth term, and the Blackjacks waiting on Mother Nature to fly re-supply and evacuation missions to fronts throughout the continent. Popular items of need included gasoline, ammunition, anti-freeze, steel matting, plasma, and penicillin, and crews had to resort to "blind" instrument flying to deliver the goods. The Group received two new C-87's which they planned on putting to use as soon as pilots received their four-engine transition training. This transport version of the B-24 Liberator was a welcome addition to the fleet and the Group wasted no time in training the crews.
The only real drag on morale during the month of November was the cigarette controversy. On the 20th, the weekly ration was cut from seven to five packs per man, due to a supposed shortage of tobacco for the front line troops. This forced the men to supplement their habit, with the expensive British brand. The men got a boost when they learn that 1st Lt McClintock, who was missing since he was shot down on the opening day of Operation Market, is alive, but a prisoner of war in Germany.
The thirty-one days of December were filled with every type of weather imaginable as winter closed in on England and the 53rd TCS. As the year came to an end, the Group could look back on a multitude of honors that they had garnered as part of two major invasions of the continent, but they were saddened by the loss of men who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Unfortunately, December was an especially deadly month for the Blackjacks as they lost nine men and two aircraft. Ironically, both aircraft and crews were lost as a result of midair collisions, a C-47 on a freight mission over the channel and the other, a XC-109 (C-87 Liberator converted for gasoline and fuel transport), on a training flight. On a brighter note, forty-eight members were awarded Air Medals for their participation in the invasion of Holland and another sixty-three combat veterans were awarded oak leaf clusters for their participation in the same events.
In spite of days with practically zero visibility and low clouds, the Squadron managed to carry 720,990 pounds of ammunition, fuel and supplies to troops on the continent, and continued a robust C-47 training program for the green pilots and a twelve hour XC-109/C-87 checkout for the experienced ones. The first crews to checkout in the new aircraft noted that the long nose forward location of the cockpit made landings and takeoffs somewhat difficult when compared to the C-47. It had a payload capacity of 12-13,000 pounds of fuel and a range of 3,000 miles without auxiliary tanks, so it became a cherished asset.
1944 ended as it began, as the men of the 53rd in their respective clubs, enjoyed the liquid spirits, hoped for peace in the coming year, and dreamed of soon going home to loved ones. They were reminded of course that there ass still a war nearby, as they tracked the recognizable glow and trail of smoke emitted from "Robot Bombs" as they flew overhead in a northwesterly direction.
January 1945 marked the beginning of a new era of activity for the 53rd TCS--that of training.
Tactical status was abandoned and service missions to the Continent ceased on the last day of 1944. Recent assignment of a number of inexperienced pilots has given this program a twofold purpose-preparation for the next operation and opportunity to check a maximum number of pilots from the transition stage.
The Squadron designed an aggressive training plan, but Mother Nature would have no part of it, as the Group was grounded for days at a time with snow and ice, fog, rain, and lots of mud. Training schedules were placed on a priority, but on several occasions, crews reported for routine training flights, only to find that they had been rescheduled to transport urgently needed arctic equipment like skis and snowshoes to ground troops fighting on the Continent.
The weary weather, added to the bad news from the western front, put a damper on the spirits of the men, but tracking the Russian offensive into the heart of Germany lifted Squadron morale. The reality of war was highlighted again as the long arm of the infantry reached out and claimed six enlisted men of the 53rd. They passed their examinations and were immediately transferred to infantry training centers for six weeks of training before joining an operational unit.
"Three fourths of February's twenty-eight days were blessed with sunshine which brought new energy to the personnel, removed the dampness from the air, and dried our muddy footpaths and holes." Signs of spring weather had arrived in England, but the ground troops fighting the Germans on the mainland were in dire need of arctic gear, and the aircraft of the 61st TCG were busy bringing it to them. By this time, the assignment of new pilots to the 53rd, had practically ceased, they stopped their training regime and were scheduled for every possible service flight. By the end of the month they were planning for another move, this time to France, and were busy flying all units of Troop Carrier Command across the channel. Supporting these schedules day by day, were the maintenance crews that worked around the clock to keep eighteen or nineteen of the 53rd's twenty-two assigned aircraft ready for flight. It is only through this incredible teamwork that the troop carriers were able to transport the blankets, bullet, and plasma to the troops and evacuate the wounded to the rear. Unfortunately, four more Blackjacks paid the ultimate price when their C-47 crashed in "impossible flying conditions of wind, rain, squalls, and icing conditions."
The first day of March 1945 found the Squadron dispatching twenty-one of its twenty-three aircraft on seven re-supply and evacuation missions to the Continent in the Group's "air express" service to the fighting fronts. The pace of operations did not slow at all in what ended up being one of the Group's busiest months in its nearly 23 months overseas. The "routine" of transporting urgently needed supplies was interrupted by the Group's first enemy attack in England, when on two consecutive nights, a German attack or fighter-bomber strafed the field and dropped anti-personnel bombs. This was a new experience for everyone in the Group and for some the longest fifteen minutes on record, except members of the 53rd who had previously deployed to Naples, but fortunately there were no serious injuries. Total damage consisted of one truck, one latrine with 20-millimeter air conditioning, two aircraft lightly damaged, and two men slightly wounded by shrapnel. Amazingly, the first attack interrupted an Enlisted men's dance at the Red Cross Club, but the orchestra continued to play during the 90 minutes of lights out, and "before the lights came back on again, every lassie invited to the club was dancing." The month of March had it all--re-supply missions, combat missions, and another move.
Headquarters decided it was time for the 61st to move again, and preparations went into full gear to pack and move to France. "The boys have been getting in one last bath, visiting nearby towns to drink their last 'mild and bitters' and kiss their sweethearts good bye." This departure was even more significant for 17 men of the 53rd who had married a British bride during the year in England and would be now leaving "family" again, as the unit made yet another move.
On the eighth day, aircraft began flying personnel and equipment from Barkston Heath to the Continent, B-92, Abbeville-Drucat, France, newly assigned station of units of this field. During this task, 606,684 pounds of units' equipment, 18 gliders of the Squadron, and 334 passengers were flown a distance of 240miles, requiring 235 trips across the Channel by our aircraft.
Strip B-92, the 53rd's new home, lay 15 miles inland from the mouth of the River Somme and was previously home for the "Abbeville Kids," nickname of the German ace fighter Gruppe, said to be the hottest fliers of the Luftwaffe at one time. The field was also said to be one of Göring's favorites, but it reminded men of the 53rd of their first overseas station, Lourmel, French Algeria, as the unit transferred back to field conditions after a year of garrison life.
The men of the Group had hardly settled in their new home when they were tasked with another combat mission. Allied ground forces had launched an all out offensive to cross the Rhine in force and establish bridgeheads for the ultimate drive to Berlin. The 61st spearheaded combat Operation Varsity in the dropping of British paratroopers on the high ground near Wesel, Germany, to break the back of German resistance to Field Marshal Montgomery's new bridgehead across the Lower Rhine River. At 0715 hours on the 24th of March, twenty-one of the 53rd's C-47's departed their staging field of Chipping Ongar Field, England with a heavy cargo of paratroopers. As the Group headed east into the sun and formed over the Channel, the 53rd took up a position flying second echelon of the lead serial. The entire armada and set a course for DZ "A" along the Rhine with a formation of Skytrains five hundred miles long in trail. As the Group crossed the Rhine and into enemy territory, they held a tight knit formation but had some difficulty finding the DZ due to a smoke screen put up by our forces. Despite the reduced visibility, and accurate and moderate light flak and small arms fire, the C-47's held position and dropped their cargo right on target. The Group's participation in the Operation was considered a 100% success, but unfortunately, one C-47 from the 14th TCS was lost with entire crew to include the Squadron Commander. The Group was a finely honed combat unit who found great satisfaction in the fact that the airborne forces were linked up with ground forces by mid-afternoon and were making an impact in Allied progress across the Rhine.
The end of the month found the Wehrmacht on the run, and General Eisenhower had finally crossed the Rhine, becoming the first Allied commander in history to accomplish this feat against the Germans in a time of war. One week after Operation Varsity, the 53rd was called upon to transport gasoline to Allied ground forces and delivered some 8,500 gallons to Frankfurt, Germany. Frankfurt had just fallen to Patton's forces the day prior and crews reported that hanger installations were still burning but the field was being put to use. Soldiers at the front reported, "The Germans are in full rout and giving up in numbers."
April of 1945 was another one of those months in which the 53rd experienced all types of weather. As the month began, aircraft were grounded due to heavy rain, the weather then broke for several days of sunshine and then in the end, a snowstorm swept across the field, bringing the month to close on a bitter cold note. Despite the weather challenges, the Group still managed to surpass their own flying time record of 7,708 hours and 45 minutes. The Group transported a total of 7,814 passengers-a great number of these being liberated U.S. and Foreign Prisoners of War. Additionally, there were combat personnel transported to the French Riviera for rest leaves and 156 patients evacuated to hospitals in England. Lightning advances by the Allied ground machine forced the 53rd to fly deeper into Germany on each consecutive day in order to deliver the vital rations, fuel, ammunition and supplies.
The Squadron received two more C-47A's and its first C-46 Commando. The C-46 came with many improvements and had a capacity of nearly three times that of the C-47, but it was not considered to be as reliable. Although the men knew that this new Curtiss design could bring more capability to their war efforts, they greeted it with trepidation because it was known for its accomplishments in the Pacific Theater and the men were concerned that they may be asked to move there next. As senior personnel rotated home on furlough, the others could only dream of it and some felt that this new aircraft might delay that return. The month came to an end with the men mourning the loss of their Commander in Chief and listening to the radio at even hour periods for any news of a Russian-American link up or new hint of German surrender.
The end of hostilities was inevitable and the men of the 53rd knew it. When the Germans signed the conditions of surrender on the 8th of May 1944, the Blackjacks were a finely honed combat unit, standing by for orders, when ordered to stand down.
The climax of history and the life of the Fifty Third Troop Carrier Squadron may have already been noted in this modest account, but most certainly, this month (May of 1945) stands unique in many ways. First and foremost of course is the fact of the termination of war with our enemy Germany in Europe. It saw the aircraft of the organization ranging throughout the entire domain of the conquered, once-conquering nation, even to the depths of that fizzled, fanatic dream, the National Redoubt. These missions involved the evacuation of troops and re-supply of vital material.
Victory in Europe Day, 8 May 1945 was celebrated in the squadron with mixed feelings: "There's still another to be won-So what! What does this mean to us?" It is a step in the right direction, and finally, that wildly joyful Fini la guerre amidst the excitement of colorful Very flares, pistol and machinegun fire, liberal toasts of NAFFI Scotch and Belgian beer.
After having completed two years as a combat unit in the Mediterranean and European theaters of war, and earning six campaign ribbons, the 53rd TCS as they knew it was done as they were almost immediately transferred into the Air Transport Command. The Pentagon had decided that the 61st Group as well as eight others would be assigned to the Caribbean and South Atlantic Divisions of the Air Transport Command as "Green Support." So the familiar packing duties once more resumed and the 61st moved to Waller Field, Trinidad. Their new mission was "to boost the air transport of combat troops returning to the Zone of the Interior to the tempo of 50,000 men a month, commencing on 15 June 1945 and continuing for a period of six to nine months." Just as planned, their contribution in Trinidad would be short term. The 53rd was inactivated on 31 July 1945. The feeling of the officers and men was mutual-that for the Fifty-Third, la guerre was indeed finie.
So ends the first phase in the history of the 53rd Troop Carrier Squadron. Although the end came unceremoniously during the drawdown of American forces at the close of the war, the men of the 53rd had served honorably and had set a tradition of airlift accomplishments that has carried forward to present day airlift units.
Award of the Air Medal / Husky
Under the provisions of AF 600-45, as amended, and pursuant to authority contained in Circular No. 50, Headquarters, NATOUSA, 5 April 1943, the Air Medal is awarded to the following named personnel, Air Corps, United States Army, residences as indicated, in the name of the Commanding General, North African Theater of Operations, for meritorious achievement while participating in a night aerial flight as members of combat crews, in unarmed, unarmored, and unescorted Troop Carrier Aircraft, at an altitude of less than 500 feet, under adverse flying conditions. The skill and courage, the devotion to duty, exemplified by each individual, contributed to a large degree to the successful dropping of paratroops over designated dropping zones, and reflect great credit upon each individual, the XII Troop Carrier Command, and the United States Army Air Forces.
Unit Citation / Operation Husky
3 November 1944
General Orders 43, Headquarters IX Troop Carrier Command
19 April 1945, as approved by Commanding General, European Theater of Operations
The 61st Troop Carrier Group is cited for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy on 11 July 1943. This organization dispatched 38 paratroop-laden troop carrier aircraft from its base in Tunisia to the enemy stronghold in Sicily despite strong winds, a low haze and the distance of 333 miles over a vast stretch of water to Malta and thence to the Sicilian coast, reached their objective near Gela at the appointed hour. Upon approaching the Sicilian coastline, the entire serial was suddenly enveloped in an intense barrage of deadly anti-aircraft fire which continued relentlessly throughout the flight, destroying four of the airplanes and damaging others. Displaying magnificent courage and steadfast determination, they maintained their unarmed, unarmored and unescorted aircraft in close formation to the pin-point objective where they successfully dropped the troops, in many cases making two passes over the drop zone and in some cases three, in order to insure complete and accurate delivery. By their superb skill and heroic disdain for the countless hazards and extreme dangers confronting them, the officers and men of this group thereby enabling the far reaching disruption of the enemy's defenses which preceded the beachhead thrust of the ground forces by at least 48 hours. This operation, involving the first large-scale use of American airborne troops, became the working model for future airborne operations in the European theater of operations. The gallantry and tenacity of purpose displayed by the officers and men of the 61st Troop Carrier Group in this engagement reflect the highest credit upon the organization and upon the United States Army Air Forces.
Normandy Battle Honors
Under the provisions of Section IV, Circular No. 333, War Department, 1943, the following units of the IX Troop Carrier Command are cited for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy. The citations read as follows:
The 61st Troop Carrier Group. For outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy on 5, 6, and 7 June 1944. On these dates, members of Group Headquarters, and of the 14th, 15th, 53rd, and 59th Troop Carrier Squadrons of the 61st Troop Carrier Group completed 119 sorties in the Troop Carrier spearhead of the Allied invasion of the European continent. Despite the fact that all of the aircraft were unarmed and unarmored and lacking self-sealing gas tanks and were flown at minimum altitudes and airspeeds, in adverse weather conditions, over water and into the face of vigorous enemy opposition, with no possibility for employing evasive action, paratroopers were accurately and successfully dropped on pin point objectives. Only fine teamwork and outstanding devotion to duty by the entire personnel of the 61st Troop Carrier Group made possible this accomplishment which materially contributed to the success of the initial phases of the European invasion. The courageous exploits of the 61st Troop Carrier Group reflect the highest credit on the United States Army Air Forces
Sketches of Cpl Robert Magnusen, 53rd TCS
Pictures on the following pages are of drawings sketched by Cpl Robert Magnusen (of this Squadron) during spare moments to show different scenes typical of army camp life at various bases since departure from those golden United States in May, 1943.
Wartime Photos of the 61st TCG
Ambrose, Stephen E. American Heritage. A New History of World War II. Revised and Updated Original Text by C.L. Sulzberger. New York. Penguin Group., 1997.
53rd Troop Carrier Squadron. Unit History 1942-1945. Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center.
61st Troop Carrier Group. Unit History 1942-1945. Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center.
Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York.: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1990.
Miller, Lt Col Charles E., Airlift Doctrine. Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University, 1988.
Murray and Millett. A War To Be Won. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press., 2000.
Wolfe, Martin. Green Light! A Troop Carrier Squadron's War From Normandy to the Rhine. Philadelphia.: University of Pennsylvania Press., 1993.