Nunquam Non Paratus: Never Unprepared
THE 440th TROOP CARRIER GROUP IN OPERATION NEPTUNE
by Randolph J. Hils
Author's Note: Lost in the controversy that has swirled around the Normandy air assault these many years, on the eve of the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, Normandy recognition of the Troop Carrier airmen who stayed the course and did their duty is long over due.
"Nunquam Non Paratus" the Latin translates to "Never Unprepared." Nunquam Non Paratus was the motto of the 440th Troop Carrier Group of the 9th Troop Carrier Command of the 9th Air Force in WWII. It was a standard to live up to, a call to arms of unarmed warriors.
The 440th Troop Carrier Group was tested time and again over the battlefields of Europe in WWII. The group participated in the invasions of Normandy, Southern France, and Holland; the battles for Mortain, Bastogne, and finally OPERATION VARSITY, the Rhine Crossing. In between the major campaigns the group fielded hundreds of other missions to dirt strips, too many to remember. Many had no name, only the official number designations dotting the map of Europe. The first test was the D-Day, Normandy, June 6, 1944 mission code-named OPERATION NEPTUNE.
For the 440th, the path to Normandy was a long one. The Troop Carrier Group was formed on July 1, 1943 and the following eleven months were dedicated to learning and practicing a specialized form of combat flying, the delivery and re-supply of airborne troops by parachute and glider behind enemy lines. It was called airborne assault, "vertical envelopment" or the third dimension of warfare, regarded by many to have been the most important development of tactics in the 20th Century. To America, struggling to gear up for war, it was a new tactic, the troop carrier and their airborne comrades pioneered the development in an evolutionary series of missions that would forever prove its worth.
A troop carrier pilot's specialized training, low level "contour" combat flying, towing gliders, and dropping airborne warriors set them apart from the Air Transport Command who operated the same type aircraft but whose mission was primarily freight and passenger transport outside the combat zone. The distinctive training in the airborne arts of accurately dropping paratroopers, supplies, towing gliders by twos and retrieving them in flight took months of intensive training for pilots and crews. A new and lethal weapon was being forged.
The troop carrier crews do not seem to have been envied in their missions by their fellow 9th Air Force fighter or bomber crews. Their missions were predominantly flown in the twin engine Douglas C-47 Skytrain, the military adaptation of the DC-3 airliner. Having no cabin pressurization or oxygen systems in an era of primitive weather forecasting, the troop carrier pilots had to learn quickly how to gauge and fly in weather. Restricted in altitude they didn't have the luxury of being able to get above the weather and flew through, often underneath the storm. The C-47's lacked the standard features of other tactical aircraft, self-sealing fuel tanks, armor plating or defensive weapons.
The missions were executed at altitudes and speeds considered suicidal by other combat pilots. Generally the troop carrier would execute their attack at 700 feet at night and 500 feet by day, at speeds between 100 and 125 miles per hour. Alternative targeting, common to bombing missions when targets were too overcast to strike, were not an option in airborne doctrine.
The airborne troop carrier strike missions, flown over or into enemy positions made them easy targets for small arms and anti-aircraft fire from the ground. P-47 Thunderbolts would attempt to clear the path ahead by silencing the enemy anti-aircraft guns. In the air, if unprotected by covering fighters they were easy prey for enemy fighters. Conversely what the C-47 lacked it, made up in some measure on these missions by its supremely rugged durability. Often horrendously shot up and damaged planes would straggle in after a mission landing more or less safely.
The bulk of initial training took place at the giant Airborne and Troop Carrier training base at Alliance, Nebraska through the summer and fall of 1943. Stateside training for the 440th TCG culminated in weeks of combined exercises with the 17th and 82nd Airborne in North Carolina in January of 1944. Pilots, crews and planes were pushed to their absolute limits on night missions fatigue rose and the flying was dangerous as many near misses were recorded. The group departed for an arduous overseas flight to England that would take in total, eighty some hours of flying time, over several days, often at night and through weather to avoid detection. The group took the southern Atlantic route through the Caribbean to South America across to Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic, then on to Africa before the final destination, England.
The 440th TCG was one of several that, having completed training in the states, was moved to England for staging and further training for the inevitable invasion of Europe. Lt. General Lewis Brereton commanding the 9th Air Force and General James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne Division made a joint decision to hold a number of the new troop carrier groups in the southern U.S. over the winter of 1943 and 44. They recognized that weather in the South was far more conducive for training than the limited British weather. In England the 440th was joined by, other troop carrier groups from the Mediterranean Theater as well as other new groups who arrived from the states. Mediterranean units had seen combat in North. Africa, Italy and Sicily, together the groups would constitute the 9th Troop Carrier Command of the 9th Air Force.
Col. Frank X. Krebs commanded the 440th. Krebs was a regular Army Air Force officer whose flying career began in 1929. When Krebs joined the Group at its formation he had logged over 3700 hours as a pilot. Time and again on tough missions Krebs' experience would serve the group well and make a measurable difference between success and disaster.
Supplanting Krebs' leadership and experience were a cadre of former airline captains that were sprinkled throughout the troop carrier training and combat commands. It was a natural progression for the Army Air Force Reserve pilots employed by the airlines to be called on to help form, train and lead in troop carrier in that they had long experience flying the DC-3, the civilian version of the C-47. Troop Carrier units benefited from the experience they bought with them in the form of advanced weather flying, something the AAF did not put into standard practice until mid 1943. The airline captains were arguably the best and most experienced twin engine pilots in the country when the war began. In a 1995 letter, Krebs wrote of the value of these men in his command.
As the English winter fought to keep it's grip in the early months of 1944 the 440th began another series of exercises with airborne units in England that culminated in OPERATION EAGLE the final full scale dress rehearsal for the airborne assault on Normandy.
June 4, 1944 came and went with the postponement of the invasion because of the weather. At Exeter, their base in southwest England the aircrews of the 440th waited along with the paratroopers for the orders to launch the mission. For the pilots and crews briefings were held, aerial reconnaissance photos were studied closely as ground crews worked overtime to prepare the planes for the mission. The paratroopers of the 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne and elements of the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion were sequestered in closely guarded compounds on the base. Finally, June 5th they received the orders to proceed to their planes, the mission was on. The waiting and long months of training were over. In the waning daylight hours of the long days of British Double Summer Time paratroopers began loading aboard the 440th Troop Carrier Group planes at Exeter.
Boarding Krebs' aircraft along with the 3rd Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Robert L. Wolverton and his headquarters stick was, Ward Smith a "News of the World" War Correspondent who would record the mission in his news article, "I Saw Them Jump to Destiny." Another notable group boarding one of the 440th planes was the Filthy 13, an elite demolitions and sabotage squad. The legendary Filthy 13 are thought to be the inspiration for E.M. Nathanson's novel and movie, The Dirty Dozen.
At 11:50 PM, June 5, 1944, the heavily loaded C-47s of the 440th TCG began lifting off the runways at Exeter. Slung on the underbellies of the aircraft were six bundles of "parapacks", containers to be parachuted along with the troops. Many contained heavy weapons, ammunition and high explosives if hit by enemy fire guaranteed catastrophic results. Once the Group's planes were airborne and in formation Col. Frank Krebs pointed his lead plane in the direction of other troop carrier groups heading to marshalling points. Timing was critical, to bring the units together from their bases scattered over the midlands and southern England into position at exactly the right place. Carefully timed as an intricate ballet each aircraft in each squadron of each group had an assigned place within the V of V formations, each squadron a place within the group, each group an assigned place in the massive formation. This facilitated delivery of paratroop units in order specified. Each V was nine planes wide comprised of three flights of three aircraft.
The 440th launched 45 aircraft of its four squadrons, the 95th, 96th, 97th and 98th Troop Carrier Squadrons. They made up the last serial of many required to deliver the 101st Airborne Division into three drop zones. As scheduled in the orders the 440th joined the massive formation of 821 C-47s that carried more than 13,000 paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions into Normandy. The 440th's destination, DZ (drop zone) D, southwest of Ste Marie Du-Mont, forever after known as " the Bloody DZ."
Unbeknownst to Frank Krebs and his pilots a series of obstacles threatened to undo the carefully laid plans of the air assault. At the lead of the great raid were the planes and paratroopers of the elite Pathfinder units whose mission was to mark the drop zones with lights and radio beacons to guide the oncoming C-47s of the giant main formation. A thick fog and enemy contact however prevented some of the Pathfinders from completely fulfilling their missions all though they were close enough to the desired drop zones to, in most cases set up either the lights, radio beacons or both.
Looming ahead a massive cloudbank formed out of a rising ground fog scattered many of the formations ahead as pilots were forced into separation procedures to avoid collisions in the dense clouds in the dark of night. SHAEF, (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) had failed to provide contingencies in the orders for a weather encounter and the orders mandated strict radio silence. Weather data for Normandy indicated that during June, low clouds appeared three out of every four nights. This serious planning error set the stage for the break up of many of the troop carrier's carefully planned formations. A weather plane sent ahead would have been able to send a coded message on weather conditions to the oncoming formations, the mission routed safely around the obstacle. As it was the pilots did not know what lay ahead.
The formation headed into the night southwest, out into the English Channel on an indirect course. It brought the attacking troop carrier force over the Cotentin Peninsula of France from the windward side, flying 500 feet off the water to avoid German radar and flying a precarious 100 feet between their wingtips. The 440th first came under fire as they passed the Guernsey Islands but it was without effect as they were out of range of the German guns.
The coast of France was now visible, the planes gained altitude to prepare for the drop. On Krebs' aircraft correspondent, Ward Smith noted, "The land slid by, silent and gray. And still nothing happened. Some of the paratroopers chorused "Put that pistol down Momma," and "For Me and My Girl." The peninsula was roughly 20 miles wide and at the cruising speed of 140 mph the planes would be back over the Channel waters on the leeward side in less than ten minutes. Those critical ten minutes became a lifetime to most of the airmen and the paratroopers. The planes of the 440th sped on into the dark night
Frank Krebs quickly recognized the hazardous cloud that broke up many formations of troop carrier groups that preceded the 440th. According to Bill Quick, Krebs' radio operator as well as Captain Don Orcutt, a 95th Squadron Flight Leader, Krebs quickly changed altitude bringing the 440th down under the dangerous cloud formation. His plane was the only aircraft in the serial that was equipped with radar and receivers that picked up the radio signals sent by the Pathfinders on the drop zones. In utter dependence on their leader, pilots following did so by visual contact with the dim blue formation lights on each aircraft, visible only from behind or above, they marked the tops of the wings and fuselages of the planes. Most of his pilots stayed with Krebs maintaining the formation.
It was in the last six miles before DZ D that the 440th came under concentrations of flak, machine gun and small arms fire. The ride got rougher as hits and near misses damaged and buffeted the aircraft. Winds gusted from twenty to thirty knots, far in excess of 15 knots wind speed considered safe for combat jumps. In concert with heavy anti-aircraft fire the German defenders unleashed bright search lights and phosphorus flares, illuminating the targeted planes, the bright lights blinding some of the pilots by destroying their precious night vision.
Within two miles of DZ D, Flight Leader Captain Donald M. Orcutt caught the flash of a bright explosion off to his right. He would later conclude that the moment marked the point that the "DONNA MAE" piloted by 1st Lt. Ray B. Pullen suffered catastrophic damage. "He must have put up a terrific struggle to keep the airplane in the air. Otherwise how does one explain the aircraft coming to earth 20 miles north of the DZ." One only need imagine the extent of the damage that would prevent any of the crew or paratroopers from escaping from the burning plane in the last desperate miles. The French that witnessed the plane go down near Magneville said that it appeared that the pilot made last a ditch effort to clear farm buildings before the ill-fated crash that claimed the lives of all the crew and paratroops aboard.
In the final miles to the DZ the 440th lost two more planes to enemy fire, both crashed into the English Channel. According to Missing Air Crew Reports recently located in USAF files, plane # 914, piloted by 2nd Lt. Alton R. Keller, 96th Squadron, was able to drop the troopers aboard his plane accurately on the DZ. Out over the Channel pilot Arthur Douglass witnessed the final moments of # 914. He watched helplessly as the ill-fated plane lost altitude with one engine dead and the other on fire. Though he saw some parachutes, he later learned that 2nd. Lt. Keller and his crew perished in the crash into the Bay of the Seine.
The report on the other aircraft, plane # 733 shed new light on exactly what happened aboard this aircraft. Damaged by anti-aircraft fire the pilots struggled for control of the aircraft. The pilot missed dropping troops on the first pass on DZ D. Out over the Channel the Jumpmaster, 2nd Lt. Floyd R. Johnston requested that the pilot, 2nd Lt. William H. Zeunar make another pass on the drop zone. Heading back over the coast the ill-fated craft again came under fire, probably from shore batteries. This time around the an engine erupted in flames and the aircraft was quickly going out of control and losing altitude. In a steep dive four of the paratroopers were successful in a struggle against the G-forces and exited the plane, one was Jumpmaster Johnston who broke his arm and was eventually returned to his unit. Another trooper was captured by the Germans and two lucky paratroopers who got out of the plummeting plane landed in waist deep water off of Pointe-Du-Hoc. When the Rangers made their assault on Pointe-Du-Hoc later in the early morning the two troopers joined the Rangers and the two 101st men fought over the next days along side the Rangers.
This night luck abandoned the bulk of the 3rd Battalion of the 506th. Because of the area and its close proximity to key points, the Germans had anticipated the use as a drop zone by the invaders. As such it was ringed with heavy concentrations of troops, search lights, machine guns and flak wagons. As the planes flew over, the light signal passed from plane to plane for the 3rd Battalion to jump. The Germans ignited a farm building that had been soaked in fuel. The resulting fire lit up the drop zone, silhouetting the soft gray underbellies of the C-47s and the parachutists against the dark sky. It was 1:40 AM, June 6, 1944.
Correspondent Smith recorded the moment of the jump for posterity, "I wish I could play up that moment, but there was nothing to indicate that this was the supreme climax. Just a whistling that lasted for a few seconds - and those men, so young, so brave, had gone to their destiny. I'd expected them to whoop battle-cries, to raise the roof in that last fateful moment. But not one of them did. They just stepped silently out into the red night, leaving behind only the echo of the songs they had been singing." Smith was unaware of the ensuing massacre that began minutes later.
The "Bloody DZ'" claimed the lives of Wolverton and the bulk of the ill-fated battalion. Lt. Col. Robert L. Wolverton was killed, as many of his men were on the parachute descent or while struggling to free themselves of their chutes. Another serious hindrance to survival their weapons were broken down and encased for the jump. Some of his men landed in the bivouac of Russian mercenaries who quickly gunned them down with machine pistols or hacked them to death with knives.
It seems almost incomprehensible now that the American paratroopers were not equipped with a quick release device to enable them to shed their harnesses quickly when they landed. Such devices were already in use among German and British airborne forces. The lack of this simple device left paratroopers to either cut themselves from the harness straps or to cut the risers and shed the harness later. Otherwise a man could fumble for many tense minutes trying to undo the buckles of the chute harness. When things turned bad, they were quick to turn to worse if a trooper landed in water or in close proximity to the enemy and many did. To free oneself from the harness became a life and death struggle.
Though the field orders directed the pilots to drop their troops "with in the combat area" should the drop zone be missed on the first run, pilots in many groups made multiple passes at great hazard in an attempt to put their troops on target. Some of them paid with their lives and the lives of their crews.
Slowing to the drop speed of 110 mph 1st Lt. Arthur Douglass of the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron fought to keep his heavily overloaded plane from stalling. He had given his green light in the cabin, the signal to the troopers to jump, but the crew chief informed him that the unit malfunctioned and the DZ passed away quickly, his troops still on board. Douglass turned his plane around for a second pass into the hell of DZ D. Coming under heavy fire on the run in, flak smashed through the cockpit. On this pass Douglass gave a verbal signal to the crew chief and he yelled for the troops to jump. Eleven troopers exited quickly only for the twelfth man to be hit setting off a grenade he was carrying. The blast knocked the remaining men to the floor of the plane. The unfortunate trooper fell in the doorway of the plane blocking the exit. The pilot remained undaunted, as the DZ slipped away a second time, again Douglass turned the C-47 around for a third pass into the now withering ground fire of the German guns that sought to stop the single assualt by the lone C-47. On the third pass the troopers were still in no position to jump. As he turned over the flooded area near DZ D Douglass and his crew reported coming under attack from a fighter that had lined up behind him, firing it's machine guns into his plane. Douglass threw his plane into a dive for zero altitude, the screaming engines of the C-47 were at maximum power as Arthur Douglass wove and twisted to shake the fighter doing so as they sped out over water. His instrument panel wrecked, the fuselage riddled with damage and his hydraulic systems gone, Arthur Douglass turned his war weary C-47 toward England and a hazardous journey home. 1st Lt. Douglass was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his daring one plane raid.
Back at Exeter the ground crews and support personnel sweated out the return of their comrades. As the planes returned the men and medical personnel on the ground looked for the red flares that would signal wounded aboard. They were among the first casualties of the invasion though the 440th would suffer many more in the hazardous D-plus re-supply missions ahead.
As pilots and crews were debriefed and given a stiff jolt of alcohol to calm the nerves the damaged planes were given over to the waiting ground crews to prepare them for the next missions that would surely come with the daylight.
Later the group learned the incredible story of another of their pilots, who, flying on temporary assignment with the 439th TCG for Normandy, earned the DFC for his actions at DZ C. The plane was badly crippled and flying on one engine. Pilot Lt. Russell Hennicke negotiated the trip home sometimes just a few feet above the Channel waters as he struggled to keep his ship in the air. Without hydraulics and brakes Hennicke landed the C-47 at another field on an emergency landing. Unable to stop he crashed through a bomb dump before finally coming to rest. He and his crew counted themselves among the lucky that day.
For their actions 440th Troop Carrier Group earned the Distinguished (Presidential) Unit Citation for the Normandy missions. The elation of a job well done turned bitter sweet though, when the news of the fate of the men of the 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment was learned.
The greatest testament to the Group's performance that night came from the Commander of the 101st Airborne Pathfinders on the ground, Captain Frank Lillyman, "Credit should be given to the 440th and 441st Groups of Troop Carrier Command. Using radar only, and no lights because of tenuous position, forty-seven aircraft delivered their personnel to the intended DZ. This totaled more than the other two drop zones combined."
In the months to come the 440th earned seven battle stars. Dropping critical supplies to the surrounded defenders of Bastogne the Group suffered heavy losses. They delivered millions of pounds of supplies and fuel to the front lines, participated in all the major airborne campaigns and evacuated thousands of wounded troops and liberated prisoners of war.
Their success as combat airmen was not gauged by the number of enemy killed, rather the number of lives they saved, daring to go to war, unarmed. Rightfully the men of the 440th Troop Carrier group could claim that they had done their duty, "Never Unprepared." The motto and legacy lives on in the present with the 440th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve.
Bibliography and Sources
Anderson, Christopher J., WWII Magazine, July, 2001, Screaming Eagles at Pointe-Du-Hoc.