The following letter was penned from a tent in Melun, France (just south of Paris), in early April 1945, by a young American soldier stationed there during World War II, and sent to his parents back home in Chicago, Illinois. It details his experience as a C-47 pilot flying in Operation Varsity, March 24, 1945.
During the war, mail home was heavily censored, so a period of time had to pass before details of combat missions could be conveyed to loved ones back home:
April 7, 1945.
Fourteen days have now elapsed so I am free to tell you of certain personal experiences and incidents that have happened on a recent combat mission.
There was a certain tension in the air for days before. It was like a calm that precedes the storm. I could feel that there was a big job coming and coming soon. I wished it would come in a hurry, for the suspense of anticipation was growing on my nerves.
I had a feeling that this time I was going to get it. I don't know why. Maybe because I read in the Alumni paper about so many of my friends who were killed or missing in action. One of my best friends in college, the fellow who was in the room next to me, was killed in action shortly before. That may have been the reason. Anyway, for the first time, I was actually scared.
We were briefed for the mission, and placed under armed guard, and restricted to the Squadron Area. I knew that 12 hours later I'd be flying across the Rhine, towing two gliders into Germany -- the Nazi Fatherland! Yes, I would fly in there, but would I come back? I felt sure I wouldn't. No sense in going to bed then. I was too excited to rest, and even so, I wanted to wait up to see the Chaplain who was coming. I cleaned and oiled my pistol and loaded my clips. Then I packed my emergency rations and sat down to one my already razor-sharp trench knife. John had suggested that I wear leather gloves, in case of fire, to protect my hands. I got my leather summer flying gloves out and set them with my other equipment. I walked around the tent--how much I wanted to go home. I didn't want to die -- I was afraid to die. I wanted to go home. It was midnight then, and the Sergeant came to my tent to tell me that the Chaplains were at the Orderly Room. I went down there. There was a Catholic one and a Protestant one there -- both Majors. They laughed at my haircut. Just a few days before I had it clipped to within one-half inch of my head.
I went to confession and received Holy Communion; talked to the Priest for awhile. Never before have I felt the grace of God so strongly. I was no longer nervous, shaky, excited or afraid. I felt very happy. I was ready for anything.
I came back to the tent and fell asleep immediately. I slept well. I was up at daybreak the next morning. Had a good breakfast, attended the final briefing and went to our ship.
At the ship we met our crew chief and radio operator. As yet, they didn't know where we were going; that is, exactly where. Sgt. Rammel had the ship as clean as a whistle. Nothing that was not absolutely necessary was left on the ship. Even the door was taken out -- so we could get out in a hurry if we had to.
John flew from the left seat -- I was in the right. He took off and flew for 15 min. We changed off every 15 minutes thereafter. He flew, I flew. There was quite a bit of propwash in the formation which kept us busy on the controls.
Just before the Rhine came in sight, I started flying my 15 minute stretch. Visibility was low due to the smoke screen laid by the British. Just as we came into sight of the Rhine, I saw a plane hurl earthwards, hit and go up in a bright red flash of flame immediately followed by black smoke. It all happened in a split second. I couldn't tell if it was a fighter or transport, or allied or enemy. It was a plane -- that's all I saw.
I was still cool and confident. The Rhine looked small. I could swim it if I had to. From the corner of my eye I saw John make the Sign of the Cross. I was glad he was praying because I was too busy to pray.
Now I could see those deadly inky black puffs of smoke -- heavy flak! Just then I heard a tat - tat - tat - tat, followed by the sound of an explosive shell. Simultaneously, I felt a little tug at my left trouser leg. Instinctively I jerked my feet back off the rudder pedal, but immediately I got back on the rudder again. "Wow, that was close," I hollered to John, "Right thru the leg of my pants." Thern there was another Boom! Boom! which made me forget what had just happened. The plane shook, the control wheel spun free in my hands. It came to rest in a cockeyed position.
Just then the plane lurched forward, indicating that the two gliders had cut free. I made a climbing turn out of there and headed back for the Rhine. As we hit the river, John took the controls.
It was a wonderful feeling to be over friendly territory again. I said a prayer for the boys who had to land there in gliders.
The Crew Chief made a visual inspection of the plane. The right wing was hit badly, and the control cables to the right aileron were cut. There was excessive vibration of the right wing. Looked as if it might fall off. John ordered the crew to stand by for a bail-out, but we then discovered that by reducing our speed about forty miles per hour, the wing quit shaking.
The trip home seemed long. Flying the plane was hard and tiresome. She flew very sluggishly. There was no aileron control and it was hard to hold a constant altitude and heading.
For the hundredth time I checked the gas tanks. Apparently we had no leaks. Gas supply was normal.
When we came into sight of our field, I took off my chute harness. John landed - a beautiful landing, considering that half of his controls were out. We were half way down the runway when we noticed the ship had a nose-heavy tendency. The tail would not stay down. We ordered the navigator, crew chief, and radio operator to get back to the tail of the ship. They got back just in time to get the tail down and keep us from nosing over.
When we parked and inspected the plane, we found three holes in the bottom of the wing big enough for a 16 inch soft ball to go thru. They had exploded in the wing and came out in a thousand pieces on the top of the wing.
It was a beautiful day, and I was intoxicated with the joy of still being alive. The assistant crew chief, who had stayed at the base shook my hand warmly and said, "Glad to see you back O'K, Sir." Brown, our Radio Operator, shook my hand and said, "That was mighty nice flying you did today, Sir!" Then he turned to shake John's hand. Rammel had about the same thing to say, except that he went on to say that he didn't care if he got hit, just so nothing happened to Capt. Gallagher or me. He wanted to be sure there was someone to fly.
Just then I remembered that first hit. I looked all over the left leg of my trousers -- no mark! I looked for a bullet hole in the cockpit -- no hole. So it must have been my imagination that made me think I was hit.
They had a kind of Victory Dinner for those of us who came back. Steaks and french fries! We could order the steaks any way we wanted them -- rare, medium or well done. After dinner the Flight Surgeon gave us our Combat Liquor Ration -- one ounce each of some Rye Whiskey from the States. It tasted good.
Later when I walked back to my tent, I said to myself, "I certainly didn't expect to ever see this tent again when I left this morning." Now I doubt that I'll ever be afraid again because this one was my roughest, and I got thru O'K.
Still I couldn't help feeling that surely someone was praying for me because it was only by the Grace of God that those hits were in the right wing and not in the cockpit.
The young World War II pilot who penned the letter gives a thumbs-up from his C-47 aircraft, "Damn Yankee."
A bird's-eye view over the Rhine River in Germany, World War II.
The young American soldier returns to the streets of Paris fifty years later.
For more on World War II, please see:
Video of Operation Varsity, March 24, 1945