Allied invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II (know as D-Day) was the crucial battle of the War. The invasion could not have succeeded without air cover. My father, Joseph Barnett, served as a pilot of a Martin B-26 Marauder in the Army Air Corps (which later became the Air Force) during World War II. He flew 64 bombing missions from both England and France. This is the story of his experiences on D-Day (June 6, 1944) written in his own words.
The build-up for D-Day was gradual but intense; that’s what we were there for – to put an Army on the continent and defeat Germany. We first knew it was for real with the painting of invasion stripes on our planes. The Germans had captured and flew a number of allied aircraft and their use on D-Day or shortly thereafter could cause great havoc and confusion. Therefore, Eisenhower decreed that all Allied aircraft the day before D-Day were to be painted with broad black and white stripes on each wing for rapid identification of Allied aircraft. German fighters had not bothered us, but we felt they would be out in strength on D-Day or soon thereafter. The first scheduled D-Day was postponed due to the weather; on the next day the weather wasn’t much better but the decision was go.
Our D-Day was strictly Hollywood. The briefing began about three o’clock in the morning. There to greet us at the briefing was the Commanding General for the bomber command of the Ninth Air Force and other brass and press. Naturally we were exhorted to do our all on this critical day. We were told that there was a deep cloud cover over England and clouds over the assigned target in France (Guns and troop concentrations at the base of the Cherbourg Peninsula). Whatever the level of the ceiling at the target we would have to be under it to deliver our bombs.
When we left the briefing room, it was pitch dark and a heavy rain storm was in progress which continued unabated through takeoff. The ships were loaded with four 500 pound bombs. We had done little night formation flying but out four ship flight was instructed to form at 1,000 feet and proceed to a designated radio beacon at about 13,000 feet. Per procedure, our lead ship took off and flew out a specific heading so many minutes before during 180 degrees to fly the opposite direction. The next ship was to fly a shorter time and then make the 180 degree turn in which point theoretically it would join and form on the lead ship. Similarly the third ship would go a shorter distance, turn and meet, and the fourth ship had the shortest left out. Just as charted, our four ships formed up and started climbing and were in the soup. Our close formation practice paid off and we broke out of the cloud intact but into complete chaos. A lot of the B-26s did not make it through the overcast in formation and were desperately trying to find their own group. All eight B-26 groups had radio beacon someplace above their home base which would have been okay in ordinary situations, but not on that day. Not far from us two B-26s collided and exploded in a huge ball of fire. Each B-26 group had its distinctive tail markings and at this point the typical makeup of the maximum 54 ships in any group was 40 ships of the home group plus another 10 to 15 ships with two or three different tail markings – they may have been lost from their group but they weren’t going to miss the action.
Nearing the coast of France at daybreak we passed over the Allied Naval Armada. Porky (the c0-pilot) took over the controls for 10 to 15 seconds so I could get a peak – what a peak. The huge expanse of the ocean was completely dotted with ships from most of them came flashing lights from the firing batteries.
All across the channel we were descending to get under the clouds at the target – about 2,000 to 3,000 feet as I recall. Whatever, when we got to Cherbourg Peninsula we were surrounded with firing from small arms fire and white tracers all over the sky. A new experience for us. We were hit in the right wheel area in the lower fuselage but didn’t realize it until the flight engineer reported when we were back over the channel. In the meantime after we have dropped our bombs, Togalier Ragland reported a malfunction of the bomb rack and said “not all the bombs had released”. So over the channel we opened the bomb bay doors and supposedly dropped the last bomb – not quite. When the bomb bay doors were closed, there it was loose on the floor of the bomb bay. Worse yet, when we opened the doors to drop off the last bomb the rush of air through the bomb bay had spun off through the little propeller that normally spins off when a bomb drops through the air and arms the bomb ready to explode on impact. A loose bomb had somehow moved over between the crack in the bomb bay doors when they opened to the side. We now had that live bomb which we couldn’t land with for fear of the danger of explosion. We had to drop out of the formation and go to work. The structure of the bomb bay is a structural catwalk down the middle. On each side the doors were attached to the outside and folded up. I opened the bomb bay doors and tried to rock the bomb out but it stayed right in the fold of the door. Next try was to open the bomb bay doors half-way with Spotkov and Ewing straddling the catwalk and the half open door; they were able to roll the bomb out as I rocked the plane.
The next problem was a hit on our right wheel door which had knocked out some hydraulic lines so we were unable to get the right wheel down. It had to be cranked down with an emergency crank. Lots of time and muscle, but the crew got the wheel down and locked. But when they did that, they discovered that the tire was flat. By pure luck a week before I had heard another pilot at the Officers’ Club describe how he had landed a B-26 with a flat tire. I landed the planet at normal speed settings and then as the plane slowed I advanced the right throttle (right tire flat) enough to keep the plane straight on the runway. When the plane slowed to a low speed I couldn’t keep it strait any more I cut the engines and the plane ground lopped. That is, the plane turned around in a horizontal plane. The landing gear and the wing tip had to be replaced but otherwise the plane was ready to fly again in a couple of weeks. This particular story was carried in Madison’s Wisconsin State Journal.
About this time someone in the public relationships department conceived the ideas of sending a thank you to Glen Martin, President of Martin Aircraft, the builder of the B-26. For all the problems in the states, the B-26 proved a great combat plane and came safely home with extensive damage. There were virtually no noncombat losses. So the public relationship department took a picture of two B-26s in flight, had the picture signed by all of the generals and some colonels of the Ninth Air Force bomber command plus the two pilot flying the planes and sent it on the Glen Martin. I was the pilot in the wing ship, apparently in the No. 6 position. Twenty-five years later at our bomb group reunion someone asked if I knew that I was in the Smithsonian. Sure enough when I went to the Smithsonian there was my picture among the memorabilia of Glen Martin in the section devoted to early aviation pioneers. Obviously Glen Martin had appreciated our thank you effort. Later I figured that if it was good enough for the Smithsonian it was good enough for me. I got my copy of the picture out of the attic, framed it and hung it in my den where I have had much enjoyment from viewing it over the years. Later I learned that this picture made the cover of Newsweek, had hung in the Red Cross Club in London during the war, plus a number of different other places. It is probably the most famous picture of B-26s during World War II.