We are excited to share historian Kevin Hymel’s latest article for Warfare History Network, “From D-Day to VE-Day in a C-47,” about Technical Sergeant Gerald Griffith who survived two crash landings while delivering paratroopers in World War II’s largest airborne operations.
From D-Day to VE-Day in a C-47
By Kevin M. Hymel
High over Normandy, France, eight paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division charged out the rear door of their C-47 Skytrain aircraft. They whooped and shouted as antiaircraft explosions rattled the plane.
On the heels of the eighth paratrooper came Technical Sergeant Gerald Griffith. He didn’t jump; strapping himself into the seat by the door, he pulled a T-shaped handle, releasing the cargo strapped under the plane’s fuselage. His task complete, Griffith remained seated while the next eight-man group leaped out the door. From his perch, he had a perfect view of the D-Day airborne assault over Ste. Mère Èglise.
Griffith never forgot what he saw: “Some of the paratroopers jumping out of their planes were hit by the prop wash from the plane in front of them, shooting them into the planes behind them, into their propellers.”
These were the opening hours of June 6, 1944, and the C-47s were dropping paratroopers inland from Utah Beach, where American soldiers were expected to land around sunrise—one of the first steps toward liberating France and invading Germany. Griffith had a front-line seat to the action as antiaircraft fire lit up the night with deadly tracers, punching jagged holes in the wings of the C-47.
“It just looked like somebody cut it with a knife,” he recalled, “or like someone hit it with an axe.” He saw other planes take vicious ground fire. “I saw them start down, but I never saw them hit the ground,” he said. The paratroopers had told him earlier that they were glad they didn’t have to ride back in the C-47. “I guess being in a plane made them feel kind of trapped.”
Once the paratroopers had jumped, Griffith’s pilot banked into a wide circle to prevent hitting other planes and flew back to England. “I don’t know how many other planes were coming in behind us, but that was the drill.” With their departure came a feeling of relief. The crew had survived and successfully completed their mission, but the day had just begun. In only a few hours they would soar over France again.
Drafted in April 1943 at the age of 18, Griffith, a native of Centralia, Illinois, trained with the U.S. Army Air Forces in Gulfport, Mississippi, before shipping out to the United Kingdom. He originally served as a top turret machine-gunner on a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, where he encountered enemy fire for the first time. “I was a little scared,” he explained. “Flak does not make a lot of noise. You just see pieces flying through the air, and it sounds like hail hitting the airplane. Soon you see holes in your plane.”
In March 1944, Griffith transferred to the 305th Troop Carrier Squadron, 50th Troop Carrier Wing, 442nd Troop Carrier Group, U.S. Ninth Air Force. As the flight engineer on board a C-47, Griffith sat between the pilot and copilot and worked the plane’s flaps and landing gear. “For two months all we did was practice paratrooper drops and towing gliders for D-Day,” he recalled.
On June 4, Griffith and his crew painted black and white stripes on their wings for easy recognition. D-Day commanders did not want a repeat of the friendly-fire incident over Sicily, in which the Navy and ground troops shot down 23 transport planes, killing more than 100 paratroopers. Then the word came down that the English Channel was socked in with clouds; D-Day was being postponed. “We just figured it was the typical hurry-up-and-wait.” The troops went back to their tents while most crews slept in their planes. The next night, they loaded up the men and took off for France.
The weather had not improved much. Cloud cover scattered plane formations and pathfinders, including specially trained airborne troops who jumped first to mark landing zones for other paratroopers. “Not very many of us dropped our paratroopers where they were supposed to,” confessed Griffith. “There was nothing to show us where to drop our men. My only signal was the red and green lights [inside the plane that told the paratroopers when to jump].”
“My job was pretty simple,” said Griffith. The door was only 20 feet from the cockpit, and the paratroopers’ hookup line served as a handhold for the walk back. He then strapped himself into the seat next to the door. “I had to do this because they might pull me out with them as they went. I wish they did on occasion.”
To give the paratroopers extra firepower once on the ground, large packs filled with guns, ammunition, and other fighting necessities were bolted under the C-47’s fuselage in groups of six and covered with a canvas tarp. These “six-packs” were about eight feet long and two feet wide. When Griffith pulled the lever, he unzipped the canvas, allowing the six-packs to fall. In theory, the six-pack was released between the two lines, or “sticks,” of departing paratroopers. Once on the ground, the first eight paratroopers would walk forward and the following eight would walk back, converging on the six-pack. In combat, unfortunately, the procedure did not work. “I don’t know anyone who ever saw one of those packs,” Griffith remembered.
Griffith’s second D-Day flight was different: daylight provided better unit cohesion, and there was no flak. “We stayed pretty much in formation—loosely.” The sun also brought a spectacular view of the invasion fleet below: “It was pretty much like a bridge of ships, there were so many of them,” recalled Griffith.
Over land, the view changed. “I saw parachutes and equipment lying around and a lot of water where [the Germans] flooded everything.” Griffith’s crew spent the rest of the historic day hauling cargo and dropping it to the men below.
In the weeks that followed, Griffith and his crewmates flew gasoline in and flew out the wounded, eventually supporting the breakout of General George Patton’s Third Army and its drive across France. They hauled five-gallon gas cans to impromptu airports.
Often, German prisoners of war helped unload gas and load the wounded. “They were pretty nice,” reminisced Griffith. “They knew the nicer they were, the more chocolate and cigarettes we would give them.” The wounded were attended to by a flight nurse who did her best to keep the patients stable until they arrived in England. On a few occasions, Griffith saw General Patton. “I just saw him from a distance. He was always running around, and I never spoke to him. We were loading gas and his mind was on business.”
In August, Griffith and his crew flew to Sicily where they picked up more paratroopers for Operation Dragoon, a combat jump into southern France. The mission was relatively calm compared to Normandy, without too much flak over enemy territory. The training and experience were paying off. “There wasn’t much change from earlier operations,” said Griffith. “It was the same thing over and over.”
The flight back, though, was anything but routine. One of the engines coughed out, and the C-47 pilot could not feather the stalled propeller (i.e., turn the blades edge-forward to reduce friction). “The engine kept dragging the plane down,” said Griffith. The pilot managed to a crash landing in the Mediterranean Sea, where it stayed afloat long enough for the men to get out and inflate their life rafts. They ate K-rations and drank fresh water, waiting eight hours until a U.S. Navy ship rescued them and delivered them to North Africa.