Tag Archives: Little One and His Guardian Angel

The 96th Connection – From Fulbeck to the Rhine

by Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Williams
934th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

6/25/2009 – Minneapolis-St. Paul —  Part III of a three part series 

The Allied invasion of the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944 may have been the beginning of the end for Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany, but it proved to be the beginning of a long and hazardous journey for the men of the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron.

Following their success at Drop Zone D, the squadron, part of the larger 440th Troop Carrier Group, continued with resupply missions to ground-based troops in the European theatre, and were detached for service in Italy in July and August 1944. Upon their return to England, the next big operation for the 440th TCG was Operation Comet. Set for early September, the mission was to drop paratroopers in Belgium ahead of General George Patton’s Third Army.

Then tragedy struck.

“My plane ‘Toni’, serial number 919, was first in line. We were placed wingtip to wingtip after being refueled and serviced,” Staff Sgt. Irving Brezack of the 96th TCS wrote in a letter shortly after the Sept. 2, 1944 incident at RAF Fulbeck, England. “My crew chief, Raymond B. Clark, and myself were sitting in the cockpit reading a UFE magazine when a rocking motion struck our airplane, followed by a loud roar… We were told that the paratroopers had dropped a pack while loading the plane. The entire work detail was killed in the explosion. In that crater, which was a twist of fate, all we saw was someone’s dogtag and an open pocket bible. Roll call had to be taken later on that day to see, who was on the detail that unfortunate day.”

The remains of C-47 43-15076, the "Bama Belle" as seen in this photograph taken shortly after the explosion at RAF Fulbeck.

Annando Kramer, also of the 96th recalled the incident in a related letter.

“My friend, Roland P.E. Dahlberg, was the crew chief on that airplane, and he was standing right in the doorway of his airplane when that bundle of landmines went off,” Kramer wrote. “Fortunately he had his back turned towards the explosion, or he would have been blinded. At the hospital they dug about 165 pieces of shrapnel out of his body. It was a miracle that he survived, but he had a strong will to live and much faith in Jesus Christ.”

A closeup of the damage to "Bama Belle" at RAF Fulbeck.

The incident occurred when a detail of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division’s 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment Company I, were unloading parapacks from a 6×6 truck and placing them under the left wing of the “Bama Belle,” C-47 number 43-15067 belonging to the squadron. One of the parapack bundles toppled onto a bundle containing 28 landmines, which exploded simultaneously. Sgt. Shearer, Pfc. Mitchell and Pvt. Spera were killed instantly and two other member of the 82nd Airborne were wounded. Sgt. Dahlberg was the only casualty in the 96th TCS.

Operation Comet was cancelled due to Patton’s Third Army overrunning the drop zone at Tournai, Belgium.

Their next operation was Operation Market-Garden, a re-crafted version of Operation Comet. It was scheduled for Sept. 17, 1944 and billed as the largest daylight paratroop drop of World War II. Utilizing 1,544 troop carrier aircraft and 478 gliders into the rear areas of the German lines, the plan would outflank Germany’s “Siegfried Line” and liberate Holland. The 96th TCS was to drop paratroopers and gliders from the 82nd Airborne into Nijmegan, Holland during the mission.

The airborne component featured the British 1st Airborne Division taking Arnhem in the north to capture the bridges over the Rhine, the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division was in the center at Nijmegan to secure the bridges over the Meuse and Waal rivers and hold the high ground towards Groesbeek, while the 101st Airborne Division took care of the bridges near Eindhoven, Holland in the south. The British 30th Division would then make its way north through Eindhoven and Nijmegan to link up with their colleagues in Arnhem.

C-47s on the flightline while loading for Operation Market Garden.

“Colonel Krebs, the Group Commander, was the leader for this big push,” wrote Charles Everett Bullard in his memoir, ‘Little One and His Guardian Angel.’ “At 1104 he opened up his throttles and went thundering down the runway. At regular intervals each following plane took off and immediately fell into formation. In twenty minutes the formerly crowded runway was completely empty. The Colonel took the formation in a wide circle and crossed over the field. We must have put on a spectacular show.”

Flying “Miss Yank,” a 96th TCS C-47 with tail number 42-100965, the colonel and his crew were shot down over Holland during the operation. Except for the navigator, who was captured by the Germans, the entire crew escaped detection for six weeks before making their way back to American lines.

Flight Officer William Hamrick, a navigator with the squadron, recalled the arrival of the colonel in January 1945.

“Colonel Krebs and Major Ottoman had been lost at Bastogne,” he said. “I remember them walking in with their straw hats on. We had a big rally for them.”

Hamrick also recalled a joke he played on Major Ottoman shortly afterwards.

“I said to Major Ottoman, ‘Could you tell me why in the world they sent a bombardier to this unit?’ Ottoman was livid and reported me to Lieutenant Colonel Johnson, our squadron commander. Colonel Johnson and I flew together on a zig-zag pattern and he said to me, ‘Could you direct us back?’ By golly, I got us back and Johnson and I have been friends ever since,” he laughed.

Paratroopers drop from their C-47 transports during Operation Market Garden

While the ground component of Market-Garden was considered a failure due to the inability of the British 30th Division to reach Arnhem, the airborne component was considered a success due to the 96 percent accuracy in their paratrooper, glider and resupply missions.
As soon as the Airborne forces returned from Holland, after spending 72 days in combat, they were tasked again.

The German’s began a suprise offensive against the Allied lines on Dec. 16, 1944 in the Ardennes, a forest that stretches from the Sambre river in Belgium to the Rhine river in Germany, in an attempt to capture Antwerp, Belgium and drive a wedge between the British and American lines.

Due to the element of surprise, the 101st Airborne Division was driven by truck from Camp Mourmelon in Le Grand, France the 107 miles to Bastogne, Belgium where they were to hold a key junction that would halt the German advance.

The 101st Airborne held their ground for the next two weeks, while running low on critical supplies and despite mounting casualties. Their resistance created a bulge in the German lines, which gave the name of the battle as the “Battle of the Bulge.”

Following Market-Garden, the 440th TCG moved its base of operations from England to Orleans, France, in order to save time and fuel in supporting the Army’s advance across Europe. Inclement weather kept the troop carriers from executing a resupply mission in the early stages of the battle, but when the weather improved, the 96th TCS was tasked with leading the effort.

Airborne soldiers watch C-47s passing overhead to resupply the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne in December 1944.

Bullard writes, “On the morning of December 26th the 440th had its first chance to get in on the act. The job of delivering the first glider into Bastogne was given to the 96th squadron, and at 1025 a C-47 piloted by Captain Raymond H. Ottoman took off with a glider piloted by Lt. Charlton Corwin, Jr., with F/O Benjamin Constantino as co-pilot. The glider was loaded with the surgical team and medical supplies so urgently needed at Bastogne, and at 1400, the run was started.”

The next day, the 96th was again called upon to fly gliders into Bastogne.

In his memoirs titled, “Battered Bastards of Bastogne,” Cpl. George Koskimaki of the 101st Airborne Division writes, “On the morning of December 27th, the 440th was given another glider mission, and at 10:39 eight C-47s and eight gliders of 95th Squadron and five planes and five gliders of the 96th Squadron took off from the air strip at Chateaudun…The 440th gliders were loaded to capacity with high explosives.”

He added, “Before cutting off their gliders the two planes held steady courses and were unable to make any attempt at evasive action. Sgt. Robert J. Slaughter, radio operator of a 96th Squadron ship, was in the astrodome when the right engine of his ship was hit. At the same time, he saw three different planes hit, catch fire and start to fall. A few moments later there was a tremendous explosion in the tail and fire broke out. The bail-out signal was given but only the crew chief was able to get through the cargo door before fire blocked it.”

“Of the five 96th planes, three were shot down with seven crew members killed and two taken prisoner. Both of the 96th planes that managed to get back to Orleans were also heavily damaged. The pilots of both of these ships attributed their safe return to their split-second decision to turn right out of the landing zone instead of to the left as briefed,” Cpl. Koskimaki concluded.

Aircraft numbers 42-100916 and 42-100977 belonging to the 96th TCS are listed as having been shot down with missing aircrew reports on file for Dec. 27, 1944.

The end of the Battle of the Bulge still meant no rest for the fliers of the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron and their colleagues in the 440th Troop Carrier Group as the American and British ground forces smashed through the German defenses and were prepared to cross the Rhine in the heartland of Germany.

Known as Operation Varsity, the plan was to drop paratroopers and gliders from the American 17th Airborne Division and the British 6th Airborne on Mar. 24, 1945 to assist the ground forces and open up the industrial section of the Ruhr river valley and facilitate an end to the war. The 440th TCG was to drop paratroopers and gliders from the 17th Airborne into the Emmerich-Wesel sector.

The squadron flew a total of 22 aircraft during Operation Varsity.

Bullard writes, “The lead ship of the 96th squadron caught a 20-mm shell smack in the nose. He made it back across the Rhine while the crew chief fought fires in the cockpit area, and they managed to make an emergency landing in a field at Eindhoven, Holland. Another of the 96th planes was forced to drop out of formation after two gasoline tanks had been hit. Trailing gas, he had to put in at another emergency airdrome.”

Flight Officer Hamrick recalled both of those incidents.

C-47s and CG-4 Gliders prior to Operation Varsity in 1945

“Colonel Johnson’s plane was hit in the nose while we were dropping over the Rhine. Capt. James Robertson was the co-pilot and he was trying to use the firefighting equipment to get the flame out,” he said. “Capt. Aldo Tombari got so excited that Johnson had to tell him to sit down because he had to make an emergency landing.”

“2nd Lieutenant Aymon Prudhomme was the pilot of the right wingman plane and 1st Lieutenant Joseph Turecky was the co-pilot. They had a hole in their gas tank and had to set it down. Nobody mentioned anything about that episode until our 1996 reunion in St. Louis. I told Turecky ‘Do you know who told you to land at Wesel?’ He shook his head and said, ‘No.’ I smiled and said, ‘Well you’re looking at him!'” he chuckled.

Operation Varsity was a success, despite having high casualties, and the end of the war was in site.

Without having anymore paratroopers or gliders to drop, the mission of the troop carriers changed. Since Patton’s Third Army raced through the heart of Germany at such a rapid pace, supplies were delivered by aircraft from the 440th TCG’s new base in Metz, France.
On one particular day, Flight Officer Hamrick flew as a navigator with 1st Lt. David Brown, 1st Lt. James Murphy and Sgt. Thomas Pinto on a mission to deliver five-gallon jerricans of fuel to the Third Army. The flight was a routine flight and they made their way back to Metz. He didn’t fly with them the next day but remembers clearly what happened.

“Murphy and Brown slid in a little too close on takeoff and they started to roll out to the left. I could tell the pilot was trying to pull up but the weight of the cargo shifted to the left and they couldn’t pull it up. They came down but didn’t make it out. The plane hit and went off like a bomb had exploded. They were hauling gas,” he said.

“When I got there, their bodies were already taken off. Murphy was a guy who always liked to fly with jump boots on. I saw his leg with a boot by the tail of the aircraft. Pinto, the crew chief, was a Brooklynese kind of a fellow. I saw his coveralls there. He was the only one still with his body in good condition, the rest were consumed by the flames,” he sobbed out of remembrance.

“We lost other guys but seeing that was hard. I still feel deeply hurt. I did get a weeks pass on the Riviera to get over the shock of it, but it never really went away. I flew with the crew the day before it happened. They were all nice young men,” Hamrick concluded.

This Life Magazine photo from 1945 shows C-47 #43-15163 being loaded for Operation Varsity. This may have been a 440th TCG aircraft.

According to DZ Europe, the official history of the 440th Troop Carrier Group, more than two million air miles had been flown by aircraft and crews of the 440th Troop Carrier Group during the month of April 1945, including more than 13.5 million pounds of freight; 10,000 evacuees, liberated prisoners of war and wounded troops; and 1,230,000 gallons of gasoline. The gasoline alone amounted to 20 percent of the gasoline delivered by the entire IX Troop Carrier Command for all of 1945.

From Operation Neptune on June 6, 1944 until their deactivation on Oct. 18, 1945, the group averaged 650 air miles per sortie. On one particular day 60 aircraft flew 167 sorties, a record for the Group. In one month, 3,182 sorties were flown, 2,508 of which were combat sorties, for a total of 13,330 flying hours.

The 440th Troop Carrier Group was well decorated for their accomplishments. Despite losing 67 men who were killed in action, over 900 Air Medals, 36 Purple Hearts, 32 Bronze Stars, 21 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 8 French Croix de Guerre medals were presented to individual members. The 96th Troop Carrier Squadron earned their fair share of these.

Part I VE-Day: The 96th Connection

Part II D-Day: The 96th Connection

D-Day: The 96th Connection

by Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Williams
934th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

6/6/2009 – Minneapolis, St. Paul — Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of three articles detailing the 934th’s connection to WWII historical events.

On a dreary, overcast June afternoon in Exeter, England, Cpl. William Wildes attached nozzles to the wings of the green and white C-47 Skytrain aircraft formerly known as the “Pride of Minnesota.” Pouring approximately 100 gallons of fuel into each wing, he did it exactly like he had done several times before in the previous months for the training missions to prepare for the Normandy invasion. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except the white invasion stripes and the large “6Z” that was painted onto the fuselage earlier in the day.

A C-47 belonging to the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron. Note the “6Z” marking on the fuselage.

“The planes were fueled in the afternoon of June 5th. We didn’t know where they were going. We just fueled them like normal,” said Cpl. Wildes, a special vehicle operator for the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron. “One pilot had ‘Pride of Minnesota’ inside an arrowhead painted on the nose, but they made him take it off when they put the invasion stripes on for D-Day.”

By evening, each of the 45 aircraft belonging to the 440th Troop Carrier Group was laden down with paratroopers from the 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division for the flight across the English Channel.

Paratroopers get final instructions before leaving on aircraft 43-15087, chalk #2, piloted by Capt. Matt J. Luoma of the 95th Troop Carrier Squadron, prior to departing for the D-Day drop on Normandy.

Among the notables flown by the 96th TCS was the famed “Filthy 13,” a demolitions platoon from the 3rd Battalion Company Headquarters. Each member wore a Mohawk-style haircut and face paint and collectively they were quite tenacious fighters.

They also dropped Cpl. Bobbie Rommel, a relative of General Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who was leading the German resistance in Normandy.
But not everything went without a hitch.

“I heard that somebody ran into the deicer boot and tore it up. They replaced this one plane and put another plane in its place. The crew chief was a guy named Bluestone. I remember him well and I fueled his plane,” the corporal recalled.

“It was all an unknown for us,” said Maj. George Johnson, who was an operations officer with the 98th Troop Carrier Squadron during the invasion. “We dropped at night and daytime for the preparations. When we went into Normandy, it was agreed that Col. Krebs, the group commander, would lead.”

Maj. Johnson was promoted to lieutenant colonel a short time later as the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron commander. After a stellar career, he retired in 1975 at the rank of major general.

At 11:53 p.m., Col. Frank X. Krebs, 440th TCG commander, took off from Exeter in aircraft number 292717, call sign ‘Ada,’ followed by 44 other aircraft from the 95th, 96th, 98th and 98th troop carrier squadrons that comprised the group. Capt. William R. Cooper led the 96th TCS in chalk 19, aircraft number 100965.

Once airborne, the only navigational aids used were blue lights on the tops of the wingtips and fuselage, as the aircraft rendezvoused with other Skytrains from the IX Troop Carrier Command and Royal Air Force. With only the moonlight to navigate them in complete radio silence, the American and British forces joined together to make the big jump across the English Channel as the lighthouses of England slowly slipped away beneath them.

Once they reached the coast of Normandy, a cloud cover enveloped the planes, followed by the blue hue of searchlights and flak from German anti-aircraft batteries.
Col. Krebs honed into the radio signal from the Pathfinders who jumped in an hour before to mark the drop zone. At 1:36 a.m., the paratroopers received the command, “stand up and hook up.” Four minutes later, the green light came on giving the okay to jump. In a matter of seconds, the sky was filled with the billowing white parachutes of the 101st Airborne Division heading for Drop Zone D, near Ste. Mere Eglise, France, 400 feet below.

Two members of the “Filthy Thirteen” complete a final pre-inspection before boarding their aircraft at Exeter. The “Filthy Thirteen” were identified by their distinctive Mohawk-style haircuts.

In his memoirs titled, “The Filthy Thirteen,” Sergeant Jake McNeice wrote the following regarding his flight into Normandy, “Those Germans were firing ammunition up at us that went all through the plane, our chutes and things like that. Those stinking automatic weapons had tracers about every fifth round. It just looked like a string of fire coming up at us. I did not know that there was any other color of tracer than orange but it looked like the greatest display of fireworks that I ever saw in my life. It was beautiful. They would have a blue one then a couple of red then a copule green. There was every color in the rainbow rising up to meet us. We lost several planeloads of paratroopers but the greater part came through it.”

Tech. Sgt. Charles Everett Bullard, a crew chief assigned to the 98th TCS, recorded a piece of 96th TCS history in his memoir, “Little One and His Guardian Angel.”

“Later, we found that two of the 96th squadron planes had crash-landed shortly after dropping their troopers,” he wrote. “One plane of the 96th squadron came in on only one engine with the radio operator wounded by a bullet in the neck. He was the group’s first Purple Heart winner; Staff Sergeant Earnest S. Iannuccilli.”

Cpl. Wildes remembers the scene when the aircraft returned.

“I was on guard duty when they left and was still up when they returned,” he said. “Some of the guys they brought back were shot up quite a bit. One of them got shot in the privates from flak that penetrated underneath the aircraft. It was a real mess. Tech. Sgt. Edward Bluestone, the crew chief whose plane I fueled earlier that day, well we lost him on that day at D-Day.”

While other troop carrier groups were scattered due to the cloud covering at the coast, misplaced their drops by flying in too fast, or were shot down by the Germans, only the 3rd Battalion of the 506th P.I.R. landed in close proximity to their designated drop zone.

The post-landing scene at Omaha Beach on 6 June 1944.

At 6:30 a.m., the main landing force of the 1st, 4th and 29th U.S. Infantry Divisions, 2nd Ranger Battalion, 3rd and 50th British Infantry Divisions and Canada’s 3rd Infantry Division landed at Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches making a 60-mile long front.

But the battle was not over for the 96th TCS.

At dawn on the morning of June 7, Maj. Johnson flew the lead aircraft in the resupply mission.

“All of we operations officers were to fly on the resupply mission,” he said. “We carried ammunition, food, medical supplies and water.”

“We went in about 15 to 20 miles behind enemy lines, descended to 500 feet for the drop and came back across Omaha beach. We had a beautiful view of the landing craft,” Johnson said.

“There was lots of flak and small arms fire and aircraft damage. We were fortunate that we didn’t lose any aircraft. We were so low that all the people on the ground could shoot at us with small arms fire. I led them down to treetop level and then got out of there and back up to the proper altitude,” he remembered.

“It was quite an event in our lives. We got out of there quickly after we did our jobs. We were very fortunate,” he concluded.

The Memorial to the crew and passengers of C-47 #42-100905 flown by 1st Lt. Ray B. Pullen of the 95th Troop Carrier Squadron.

Little did anybody know, on the evening of June 5, that there would be heroes in the making who jumped out of the aircraft early the next morning. Of the 231 soldiers of the 506th P.I.R. who lost their lives at Normandy, 103 were from the 3rd Battalion, including those who died in three of the 440th TCG aircraft that perished in the operation.

The 96th Troop Carrier Squadron was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation, the precursor to the Presidential Unit Citation, for their efforts 65 years ago.

Part I: VE-Day – The 96th Connection

Part III: The 96th Connection – From Fulbeck to the Rhine