D-Day, June 6, 1944, The Longest Day

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Department
Few people might recognize the connections between the 142nd Fighter Wing and the D-Day landings in Normandy seventy years ago, but there are some people should be apprised of; both individually and organizationally, the wing has ties to the landings at Normandy, 70 years ago.

Airpower played a vital role in the defeat of the Axis in World War II, and was key to the success of the Normandy landings in June, 1944. Troop carrier units brought airborne divisions from England to France, heavy, medium and light bombers pummeled a variety of targets from near the shore to inland.

Fighters protected the invasion fleet, and fighter bombers ranged inland attacking fixed targets and targets of opportunity. Reconnaissance aircraft scurried about to gather the latest images of the battlefield and other key points or areas of interest.

Individually-speaking, one of the original members of the 123rd Observation Squadron, Sgt. John H. Pear, participated in a combat mission on D-Day. Like many of the original members of the squadron, John Pear was later transferred to another unit as the Army Air Forces grew during World War II. He was an aerial gunner, and after training was assigned to the 613th Bombardment Squadron of the 401st Bombardment Group (Heavy), a B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber unit based at Deenethorpe Airfield in England. His D-Day flight was his second mission; he eventually completed 30 combat missions with the group.

The "Longest Day" started early for John Pear. Although Sgt. Pear passed away in 2012, his son-in-law Mr. Steve Greenberg recalls, "John told me he remembered everything was very secretive on that mission compared to the later ones. It was very early in the morning. They all thought something was up, but just not sure what it was!"

The 401st Bomb Group briefed for the mission at 0230. Group Commander Col. Harold W. Bowman began the briefing saying, "Gentlemen, remember the date, June 6, 1944. Remember it because your grandchildren will probably have to memorize it. This is D-Day." On this mission, Sgt. Pear flew as the right waist gunner in the 1st Lt. Chester A. Kuta crew aboard B-17G-35-VE serial number 42-97931, nicknamed "Madame Queen," which carried a dozen 500-lb GP bombs, with nose fuzings set for 1/10 and tail fuzings set at 1/100. All 36 operational aircraft of the group were airborne by 0455 and proceeded on their mission.

The group's target that morning was at Ver-Sur-Mere/Mont-Fleury, behind Gold Beach, one of the two beaches British forces were to land at on D-Day. The Mean Point of Impact was the "Coastal strong points and Batteries." Due to a solid undercast of clouds, the group bombed from 17,000 feet at 0717 as indicated by the radar on a Pathfinder B-17 in the formation; the explosions from the bombs were observed through the undercast, an indicator the ordnance landed on land as desired and not in the waters nearby. British forces began landing at Gold Beach shortly afterwards, at 0725 hours.

Sgt. Pear and his crew returned safely to Deenethorpe by 1032. The mission itself was rather uneventful, as no flak or enemy fighters were encountered. The 401st was commended for maintaining a tight formation on the mission, and could be satisfied that they had made a direct contribution to the landings that occurred that morning.

First Lieutenant Stanley P. Richardson, Jr. a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, joined the 123d Fighter Squadron in the 1950's. He too was present in the skies over Normandy on D-Day, three times over the coast during the "Longest Day." He was a P-38 Lightning fighter pilot assigned to the 338th Fighter Squadron of the 55th Fighter Group, based at Wormingford airfield in England, and flew in combat from December, 1943 into August, 1944.

Richardson, who passed away on May 27 this year likely, flew his regular aircraft, a P-38J-5-LO coded CL-X, serial number 42-67305, which he named "Miss Mona," on D-Day.

In a 2009 interview, he recalled "...I was flying patrol over the landing beaches at Normandy on D-Day...we flew over the landing areas and I could see these hundreds of men maybe thousands of men, dying in the landing beaches below me and there was nothing I could do about it."

Yet in reality, he was doing something to help ensure the success of the operation, as the combat patrols over the landing beaches such as he flew largely kept the German Luftwaffe away from the landing areas, and thus helped limit the death and destruction inflicted upon Allied troops.

In addition to Sgt. Pear and 1st Lt. Richardson, there is an organizational connection to D-Day to remember on this 70th anniversary. For during World War II, the 142nd Fighter Wing was designated as the 371st Fighter Group, a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter group which was also involved in the air operations on the "Longest Day."

As the day began, however, all was silent at the home field of the 371st Fighter Group at Bisterne Airfield in England. Aircraft sounds reverberated in the skies over England and all the way over to France, but the 371st Fighter group had no tasking early on D-Day. Although the Allies had control of the skies for operations on 6 June, it was impossible to put the 8,000 Allied aircraft of all types available into the skies at the same time in order to achieve the desired effects. Some units had to wait for their turn to contribute to the effort.

Review of the 371FG records shows how that momentous day went for the group. The June, 1944 history records that "...everyone woke up early to find the sky darkened with planes of every variety thundering their way across the channel." But still there were no orders from IX Fighter Command. Unit members were on their second cup of coffee in the morning as they listened to the radio waiting to hear the big news.

"Everyone was alerted and eager to get into the air." Finally the news came in over the radio, "This morning Allied troops landed..." But the group had no orders, and "...ordinary work seemed of secondary importance..." though "every man's thoughts were with the men who were storming the beaches of France at the moment and a unified prayer went out to these gallant troops, these our men."

Around mid-day, the action finally began for Frisky, the nickname for the 371st Fighter Group. Group records do not have a copy of any teletype order for the first combat mission of the day, but do contain a hand written operations order, No. 346, from IX Fighter Command, which suggests it was received over the telephone. The hand written order indicated urgency "...time of takeoff and over target as soon as possible."

D-Day targets for the group were "Military traffic on the following road network: Coutances to Carentan, Coutances to St. Lo, Coutances to La Haye-du-Puits, St. Lo to 1 mile SW of Bayeux, and from Vire to Isigny-sur-Vire-Caumont." This would mostly help interdict the movement of German forces approaching the American landing beaches at Utah and Omaha.

The group was ready to act and soon launched a total of 42 P-47's from its three fighter squadrons, carrying three 500-lb bombs each, with AN/M103 nose and AN/M101-A1 tail fuzes set for instantaneous bursting. Thirteen more of the group's P-47's served as escorts for the dive-bombers, whilst two more were used for radio relay between the home base and the target area, for a total of 58 aircraft sent on the mission. Fifty seven would return.

First into the air was the 405th Fighter Squadron with 18 P-47's at 1241, led by the squadron commander, Major Harvey L. Case, Jr. Due to weather conditions, they flew at 4,000 feet on their ingress, 14 of the aircraft carrying three 500-lb bombs each. Commencing their dive on the target, the railroad marshaling yard at Coutances, from 4,000 feet, at 30-degrees, they released their bombs at 1,500 feet and pulled out.
In addition to dive bombing they strafed trains at St. Lo and at La Haye-du-Puits. It is perhaps ironic that one of Frisky's first targets on D-Day, La Haye-du-Puits, is near the family farm of Yvette Hamel, the French farmgirl later wounded by German artillery and adopted for recuperation by the 371st Fighter Group when the group was based in France at Sainte-Mère-Église.

Next into action was the 406th Fighter Squadron, 20 P-47's up at 1254, led by the squadron's Commanding Officer, Major Edwin D. Taylor. They made landfall at Granville, ingressing at 1,000 feet. They strafed one train from 20 feet, and another from 100 feet, and 18 aircraft dive-bombed the small railroad yard between Percy and Hambye.

The 404th Fighter Squadron also joined it, 16 P-47's led by squadron commander Major Rodney E. Gunther, up at 1516 hours for armed reconnaissance to attack enemy traffic on the road network in support of the invasion. Twelve P-47's dive bombed from 4,000 feet, in a 30-degree dive, releasing their three 500-lb bombs at 1,500 feet, striking a small highway bridge at Vire, and rail cars at Coutances and Granville, and also strafing trucks at several locations.

The German anti-aircraft gunners near Granville whose flak was described as "moderate, heavy and accurate," were able to hit the P-47 flown by 404FS pilot 2nd Lt. Joseph E. LaRochelle. He had to abandon his stricken Thunderbolt, P-47D-20 serial number 43-25278, and bail out some 200 yards off the coast at Granville. His parachute opened successfully and he survived, though as a result he became the first 371FG prisoner of war.

Altogether the group expended 128 500-lb bombs and 34, 568 rounds of .50 caliber machine gun ammunition. Several aircraft received battle damage, but those fit to fly again were soon readied for another mission over Normandy.

Meanwhile, another operations order arrived, this time over the teletype, No. 349, from IX FC. This time the target was a lot closer to the landing beaches, and consisted of enemy gun emplaces at Isigny, roughly 10 miles southwest of Omaha Beach, in between Omaha and Utah beaches. Fifty four aircraft were launched, with four P-47s escorting the rest, dive-bombers carrying a trio of 500-pounders with instantaneous fuzes.

The 406FS was first in the air at 1925, 18 P-47's led by Maj. Taylor. By 2000 hours they were over the target and dived from 8,500 feet at a 40-degree angle, the 16 dive-bombers releasing their bombs at 2,000 feet. Guns were not observed occupying the emplacements, but the bombs were dropped as ordered. In the vicinity of St. Lo, two rockets were noted passing through 10,000 feet leaving a white trail behind them. Meager, light flak was noted in the target area.

The 405th took off next at 1947, with 16 bomb-toting P-47's and a pair of P-47 escorts led by Maj. Case. They dove on the target from 10,000 feet at a 50-degree angle, releasing at 3,000 feet, and also noted no guns in the emplacements they struck. No opposition was reported.

Last but not least, the 404th led by Maj. Gunther took off at 2006, with 18 P-47's all bombed up. They ingressed at 9,000 feet, and dove in on their target at 2039 at a reported 60-degree angle and releasing weapons at 3,000 feet, hitting six gun emplacements. No opposition was noted.

The three squadrons returned without loss, with the last one down by 2156 hours. Frisky had expended another 147 500-lb bombs and 15, 369 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition on the mission.

This was the 371st Fighter Group's contribution to the Longest Day, 112 sorties in support of the Allied landings in Normandy. P-47 pilot 1st Lt. Harry W. "Pop" Strahlendorf of the 404th Fighter Squadron, who flew both missions that day, wrote home about his experience a couple of days later: "I had a grand stand seat that I bet a lot of people would have paid $1,000 for. However I wouldn't have given it up for anything."

And so it was, from early morning into the afternoon and evening hours of June 6, 1944, Airmen with a connection to the 142nd Fighter Wing contributed to the success of the D-Day landings. The Allied foothold gained in Normandy set into motion a series of campaigns and battles across northwestern Europe in which the 371st Fighter Group was destined to play a key role in, as well as Sgt. John Pear in the 401st Bomb Group and 1st Lt. Stan Richardson in the 55th Fighter Group. Their efforts hastened the end of a long and bloody war to defeat fascism in the European Theater of Operations.