What It Was Like

Four stories from the Normandy invasion.

d-day jump.jpg
Paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st airborne prepare to jump over Normandy on June 6, 1944.

It was the most dramatic day of the worst war in history, and many of the veterans who lived through D-Day would later tell their stories to relatives, historians, journalists, even strangers. Fortunately for the rest of us, hundreds of these accounts are archived in collections located throughout the country. Here’s a sample.

SOURCES: LOC: Veterans History Project, Library of Congress; RWN: R.W. Norton Art Foundation Oral History Project; WVHP: Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. (Excerpts have been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Donn G. Thompson
466 Bomb Group, European theater. B-24 bombardier

(Allied forces after the landing in Normandy. (National Archives))

D-Day morning was wild, it was wild. Airplanes everywhere! We came close to running into several of [our own airplanes] that morning, but we broke out and were going over the channel and boy! All the ships were down there.

….I didn’t get to bomb [my first target] because there was cloud cover and we had to bomb on [following the lead of] a radar ship. We got in behind him and we bombed on him. We went back to the base and landed and started to get briefed for another mission. They refueled and re-bombed our airplane and we went on our second mission that day. It was for an inland target, a railroad I think, intersection. We bombed that and came back, and then we thought we were through, and they called us back and said we got another bridge that wasn’t knocked out the first time around. We’d go get that one. The flight surgeon put a benzedrine [tablet] in our mouth and had us swallow it while he was right there. Everybody on the crew got a bennie to keep us awake. We got in the airplane and started the engines and everything. Then they scrubbed the mission because one of the bomb groups going after their target had knocked the bridge out and we didn’t have to go. So all of us went back to quarters and we’re lying there, eyes wide open. We couldn’t sleep. We cussed that flight surgeon all night long! The enlisted men were just the same way. They said, “We couldn’t sleep at all.” But that was my first dope, and my last. (Source: RWN)

James L. Larkin
84th Troop Carrier Sq., European Theater. Glider pilot

(James L. Larkin in cockpit of training glider. Photo: R.W. Norton Art Foundation)

Larkin describes flying his Waco CG-4A glider into Normandy on D-Day. The glider, attached to a 350-foot nylon rope, was towed by a C-47.

We got to the French coast and we were all in formation, and…we flew into a hail of anti-aircraft fire the likes of which you’ve never seen. Then we hit a cloud bank that wasn’t supposed to be there. Supposed to be no clouds, and we hit a cloud bank.

I was talking to my pilots [of the C-47 towplane], and they stopped talking when we were in that cloud. The next thing you know, my airspeed needle was up, up, up, up, from 105 miles an hour—which was supposed to be our cruising speed—my airspeed indicator was reading 190. And it was redlined at 175 or something. You talk about wild! Every shudder and shake, I thought the [glider] was going to come apart. But I didn’t know what was going on. I had no idea. I was in a cloud and I was following the rope.

All of a sudden the rope starts [climbing] up. I follow off after it and we come out of the cloud up on top. There’s the [C-47], both engines running, and I’m still [attached]. Back into the cloud the airplane goes again, then it picked up airspeed and pulled us down with it and ran our airspeed indicator up against the peg. Came out [of the cloud] a second time. Crazy deal! But there’s my [tow] airplane, both engines running. Moon shining. I could see him. He rolled over on his side and disappeared into the cloud. When that rope came tight, it broke. And there I was, 900 feet over Normandy and 25 miles from the landing zone.

What happened is, the pilots must have been killed, and had the power settings all set. And the airplane just went crazy without any control. Anyhow, they found the airplane a couple months later, in a patch of woods about 30 miles from where the line broke. And all the guys in it, they were all dead. (Source: RWN)

Norman Wesley Achen
334th Fighter Squadron, European Theater. P-51 pilot

(Loading machine gun cartridge belts on a P-51. Photo: National Archives)

It was not too many days after D-Day, maybe a week or 10 days. We went out on a strafing mission somewhere in front of the troops off of Normandy. I was flying on the left flank—that was the lowest guy in the squadron at that time. Coming down a road over to the left was a car, three or four miles down the road. And whoever was leading the squadron said, “Whoever is on the left flank take that staff car out—it’s a German staff car.” I peeled off and went on down and got my guns in position. On the P-51 we carried four 50-caliber machine guns. As I pulled the trigger to get the staff car it came to a stop and three guys jumped out. And this large amount of 50-caliber stuff hit them.

I didn’t tell my family about this for 50 years. I couldn’t talk about it. I have trouble now with it. That’s the first time I’d ever killed anybody, and it wasn’t a nice looking thing, because those shells are heavy, and the [Germans] were just dancing in that [fire].

I think I froze on the guns, and there was a building right behind [the staff car] and I just barely pulled up. Then I threw up in my oxygen mask, and that’s not a place to throw up. I ripped it off, and then I threw up again and sprayed it all over. Being a sophisticated fighter pilot, to throw up was an embarrassing thing. You had to take the airplane home for somebody to clean up. If you [threw up] in training you had to clean it yourself, but I never had that problem.

I knew I was through for the day, and I just asked the commander, I said, “I want to abort and go home.” And he said, “Fine.” They sent two airplanes, [flying] much higher than I was, to escort me back to England. The crew chiefs who took care of my airplane were much more sophisticated than I was. They just lifted me out and said, “Don’t worry, everything’s okay.” I wanted to clean it myself. They didn’t take me to the ready room, which they normally would. They didn’t want anybody who looked like I did and smelled like I did in the ready room. The hell with that. So they took me to my room. I went and sat with my flying suit on under the shower and got cleaned up, then went back to my room. The chaplain showed up and tried to get me to discuss this with him, and I didn’t want to at the moment. Finally, I asked the chaplain, and he was sitting on the bunk with me, “Have you ever killed anybody?” And I remember this so well, he said, “No, that’s not my mission. When you get ready we’ll talk.” (Source: LOC)

Virginia Russell Reavis
810th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron, European Theater

(Virginia Russell Reavis. Photo: Women Veterans Historical Project)

The first time I went over [to Europe] was D-Day plus five, because they had to get landing strips [ready] for the planes to come in. We were in old cargo [airplanes], and we converted them into air ambulances. We had about 24 litters. The [ground] ambulances would come up with litters, and we would put them on our planes.

They were bringing [wounded soldiers] into the field hospitals, and they were just kind of cleaning them up and sending them to us. Some would have grass all over them, and they all looked alike. You know, they were just men in uniforms. My second time out, we had a whole plane full, and this one on the very bottom was moaning and groaning. I looked at his card, and he had just had morphine, so I couldn’t give him any more for a while. So I said to him, “Now, let’s change your position. These are awfully uncomfortable, these old canvas stretchers. Maybe this will help.” And he started talking in German…. I didn’t know he was German till he started talking, because [the medics] were just bringing us wounded.

[An American soldier] over on the litter next to him had just been fighting…. His buddies had been killed, and here was a German, and he was going to kill him. He got up, and I was pushing him back, and I said, “I need help.” The [airplane’s] navigator came back and he helped me. I remember he said, “It’s Sunday. We’re going to England. The war for a while is over for you. Just take it easy.” He calmed him down.

[Another time] I had a whole planeload of Germans. It was a hard thing for me to do anything for them. I said, “I don’t think I can do this.” But then, I think a couple of trips later, we had some [American] infantry men, and this one boy was talking to me. They would all talk if you weren’t busy. He said that [his squad] had been cut off, and they had a lot of wounded. And over the loudspeaker, this German doctor had said, “I know you have wounded, and I know you don’t have any medic. I’m a doctor. They’re going to cease fire. I’m coming over to take care of your wounded.”

That was the best thing I could hear. I thought, “This is what it’s all about. We’re all human beings, and this is what I’m here for, just to take care of the wounded.” So I could handle it after that, and I felt that God had sent this patient to help me. (Source: WVHP)

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.