This week marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy. Twenty years ago I chatted on the phone with my dad about his experience there, and wrote it down so I wouldn't forget. Here's a portion of that story:
The other day I asked my father if he was watching all the TV programs marking the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
"Why in the hell should I watch it? I lived it," he snapped, with more than a little attitude.
I'd heard a few stories over the years about my dad's five years in the Army Air Force, but on the 50th anniversary, I thought I needed a refresher course.
My dad, James T. Dunn, served from 1939-1945. He was a waist gunner and bombardier on B-17's and B-24's, and in June of 1944 was stationed just 50 miles from Omaha Beach. He spent 19 hours in the air on June 6, 1944, 15 of them on oxygen.
"We had to fly around for four hours before we could even get to our plane in line," he told me. "I saw planes I had only seen before in books. Every single plane the Allies had was up in the air. I bet planes that hadn't flown since World War I were up in the sky over France that day."
A weather front had moved in, so during his first mission that day, his crew didn't shoot or drop any bombs because it was too cloudy to see the targets. It was on his second D-Day mission that the real drama happened.
"We were supposed to be the lead plane, but somehow we got lost and didn't have any planes to lead. Even our two hotshot navigators had no idea where we were," he said.
My dad thought they were saved when they saw an airfield just ahead. Heading in for a landing, they were so close to the ground he said they could see a buggy being pulled by a brilliant white horse. "But then piles of dirt surrounding the airfield started shooting at us. A good chunk of our tail was cut off but somehow we got the hell out of there. We weren't sure if the fire was friend or foe, so we didn't dare shoot back," he said. "To this day, I didn't know if were were over Holland or Belgium."
Over the Atlantic Ocean, he said the tension increased and tempers flared.
"Then one of the guys put a handgun to the radio operator's head, shouting "Hampton, if you don't turn on that radio and get us some help, I'll blow your head off." In a flagrant violation of the rules, Hampton broke radio silence. Then, he said, "two British Spitfires came to our rescue and we followed 'em in."
I asked my dad if that was the most scared he'd ever been in his life. He paused, and then told me he didn't have time to be scared. He said he was was "too busy doing his job," adding "but everyone sure did a lot of praying."
My dad, who passed away in 2004, received many medals for his service in World War II, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three clusters. With his crew above, he's in the front row on the far right.