In honor of the 75th anniversay of D-Day today, I re-typed an article written by my grandfather, Samuel VanderJagt. He was a radio-gunner and flew in 66 missions during World War 2. He later went on to Seminary at Calvin College, and contributed this article for the school magazine, Calvin Chimes. He rarely spoke of his time in the war, as is typical of WW2 vets. In his 90s I had asked him once to share some stories and he looked at me puzzled, “Why ask me? Can’t you just look it up in a textbook?” He didn’t seem to get that people crave the personal stories and experiences that make history come alive to better understand. It wasn’t until his passing in 2017 after he had just turned 99 that I was even aware that he had taken an important role in D-day. His daughters had found this article and displayed it at his funeral. I’ve been meaning to get it into electronic form and today was just the motivation I needed.
As you can read, he was a talented writer and later went on to be a talented preacher for the next 6-7 decades of his life, never losing his gift for story, and kept his mind sharp until his dying day.
D-DAY, by Samuel VanderJagt
There was a general feeling of restlessness throughout the camp of the 397th Bomb Group as the night of June 5th wore to a close. Word had gotten around, almost miraculously, that something big was in the wind. Perhaps there were to be two missions on the following day instead of the customary one; or perhaps, the inspecting general of the 9th Airforce would drop in to give our group the once-over. Even more startling was the possibility of the long awaited invasion of the French Continent; but whatever the case, we felt the impending air of something big, and desired it to begin.
It had been a trying day. My 22nd mission, carried out for the purpose of bombing a German Headquarters Building, had been unsuccessful and our group had returned to base. No causalities had been sustained, and mechanics swiftly but precisely were repairing such battle damage as had been inflicted by enemy “flak” guns. Assistant mechanics were either servicing planes, or painting bomb insignias on, as proud emblems of missions completed.
Those who were not turning in to catch some much needed sleep were either at the Red Cross Hall reading, writing and sipping coffee; or they were at the improvised entertainment center.
Soldiers trudged to their Nissen huts from all directions, making only occasional use of their flashlights to guide their way along. Overhead, we could hear the low drone of a German robot bomb, nicknamed “buzzbombs”, and see the belching exhaust of the projectile clearly outlined against the dark sky. It promised to be another night of interrupted sleep, and seemed off to a flying start with the explosion of a missile nearby. This bomb, as many before, had landed near Braintree, a town as odd in appearance as it was in name. We had gone out for days in an effort to track down the lairs from whence these missiles of death came, and to blast the ramps from which they were being launched in a never-ending stream towards the English coast. The bombs were as fascinating as they were uncanny; and they intrigued even the most cautious soldier to watch them as they moved in toward some English town, dropping even lower and lower. Then with a sputter and momentary silence, the death-dealing giant plunged down to wreak havoc upon men, women, and children. It seemed some evil hand guided the monsters to their destination, choosing the most crowded towns or building for their showering loads of destruction.
In our Nissen hut, shades were being drawn across the narrow windows as men prepared to turn in for the night. Envelopes, papers, and magazines cluttered the floor, giving evidence to the fact that the day’s influx of mail had be read and reread before being tossed aside. Here and there some solitary figure was reading by flashlight, so as not to inconvenience his sleeping buddies. Occasionally the small door at the front of the hut opened to admit a buddy who had been off to the neighboring village. With pockets bulging with candy and gum, he had undoubtedly made an effort to intrigue some lassie into an evening of flirtation.
Soon all the lights were out and the steady snores of tired companions was broken only by the occasional howl of some late straggler as he bumped his shins against a protruding cot. It seemed we were barely asleep, when the door was thrown open with violent force.
“Report for briefing in thirty minutes,” barked the Sgt. In charge of quarters. He repeated the command and awaited our reactions.
“What kind of joke is this?” muttered Ed Barney, our engineer from New York, murderously eyeing the C.Q.
“Yeah, what’s cooking now?” hollered Joe Sullivan, our husky Irish gunner from Carbondale, Pa. “Don’t you want to live long, or did that last mission make you ‘flak happy’?”
“C’mon, Sam, roll out; we’re briefing in half an hour,’ grumbled Barney trying to arouse me to share in his woeful plight.
“Listen closely men,” began the C.Q. “It looks as though this is it. I just got the dope from the big wheel, Col. McLeod, that something big is stirring. Chow will be ready in ten minutes. It’s 2am now, which gives you exactly thirty minutes to dress, eat, and report to the briefing room. Trucks will be ready in twenty minutes. Let’s go.”
This last invitation may well have remained unsaid, for already we were hastily pulling on heavy flying clothes; and others were dousing their faces with water, to get rid of that sleepy, drugged-like feeling which accompanies lack of sleep.
Chow was ready, but could hardly be called chow. The cooks, having also been rudely awakened, had hastily thrown something together. They poured out hot, black coffee, which was strong enough to be used as an antiseptic rather than the usual mouthwash. At least the oatmeal was done enough to be eaten and one could always grab an orange on his way out, as a sort of added treat to his early hour breakfast. Trucks idled before the chow house picking up load after load of grumbling soldiers with their mess kits jangling from belts. Many climbed into trucks with unfinished pancakes clamped between their teeth.
“Must be a big deal, whatever it is,” said Sullivan as he pointed to an official looking car bearing three stars of rank, parked before the briefing room.
“Boy, I was really having a swell dream so this had better be the real McCoy,” Barney remarked. “The last time they got us out, it turned out to be a dry-run.”
“Don’t worry,” said Sullivan, who by this time was wide awake. “You can bet your last six-pence that no three star general would be nuts enough to get up at this hour if he didn’t have to. Hey, Sam, we’re here, you can quit worrying about that blessed event for a while. Pile out, let’s get a front seat at briefing.”
The briefing was all it was promised to be. By 2:30am every last straggling Joe had been seated; and our eyes were all riveted on the huge map of France before us, with its many streamers of cloth pinned here and there, outlining parks of the French shoreline. There could be no doubt now, this was really it. The general began without formalities and immediately laid his cards on the table.
“Men,” he began. “If you still have doubts as to why you’re here, I’ll expel them now by telling you that today is the day. We’ve thought about it, we’ve faked it once; but this time it’s on the level. Your planes, even now, are hastily being painted in black and white stripes to deceive the Germans when we begin our attack. Any planes you see, not bearing these markings, you may feel free to shoot. Troops at this very moment are approaching the French coast ready for the push inland. It will be your job to soften up coastal defenses prior to the time they disembark. By 6am, your last bombs must be dropped and men will swarm ashore from barges. This group has been picked to spearhead the air invasion, and I want to wish you all the luck in the world.”
Well, it had happened. Somehow, we felt better to know it had to come. Few men said anything. Everyone hurried to get to his ship to give guns a last minute check over. Steel helmets were issued, and some even took two. Overhead could be heard the drone of planes from various other neighboring fields maneuvering into formation. Our line chief and mechanics were reviving up the engines, our Pilot was checking his instruments with the Co-Pilot and Navigator. I hurriedly turned my radio transmitter, setting it to the assigned emergency frequency. Our Bombardier checked his bomb-racks and bomb-sights, and conversed with the Engineer. Sullivan was wiping the early morning dew from his plexi-glass housing and charging his guns to feed the ammunition into the chambers. Finally the signal was given, and our crew settled down for the take-off.
Our lady-like ship pointed her nose down the runway. We had named her Hot-Rock. What it meant, we never actually knew, but the general term given to her by the Crew Chief, denoted she was a go-getter, hot-stuff, a fighting lady. After what seemed an endless period of waiting, we maneuvered Hot Rock into formation and headed toward the coast. The first gray streaks of dawn were beginning to appear, and we could make out the silhouettes of houses and the country-side. The sky was filled with droning aircraft; and we could see wave after wave of planes as they jockeyed into final position prior to the long hop over the sea. Conversation over the interphone was limited only to the most essential remarks. All hands were intent on their various duties, too engrossed to be bothered with the usual banter of talk which usually took place on a mission. The Bombardier gave a last-minute visual check to his bomb-sight, while the Navigator plotted our course on a map. We synchronized our watches; and all seemed in readiness as minutes of flying stretched into an hour.
“Looks like we’re at the English Coast,” exclaimed Barney watching from his gun position, “and look at the ships underneath us. Must be thousands of them.”
Sure enough, as we began our trip over the channel, the outlines of corvettes, destroyers, battleships, and cruisers stood out against the horizon. We cast one long look at the receding White Cliffs of Dover, standing out in majestic splendor. Barrage balloons could be seen above the sea vessels, as finger-like sausages being towed to the other side of the coast. Our echelon descended to lower altitude, forming a protective umbrella for the vast armada beneath us. Seated in the upper gun turret, revolving in a wide arc, I was awed with the panorama of this gigantic invasion unfolding before me.
It was only minutes now before we would reach the French Coast. Off to our right far beneath us, a destroyer belched its first blasting salvo at some pillbox on the shoreline. After this, it was as though all creation was torn from its orbit. Ships began waging duels with shore batteries, while aircraft began the rain of bombs upon the Normandy Coast.
“There goes a plane down in smoke,” shouted Barney, “Hey, Sam, look at that boat underneath us. It’s sinking. Tighten your helmets, here comes flak. It’s really bursting close to us.”
“Keep the interphone system clear,” called out the Skipper, “No unnecessary talk. Watch for enemy fighters and keep a cover on your own ships.”
Far ahead, huge transport planes stood out before us with their doors open, though which paratroops were jumping in rapid succession. The motley colors of their parachutes stood out as gumdrops in a candy case, descending into swamps, trees, and fields. The murderous flashes of enemy machinegun fire could be seen reaching out to meet them, seeking to cut down these sky invaders. Still more close to home, was a hail of flak or anti-aircraft fire, which reaches out from the coastline to meet our oncoming planes succession here and there to knock out some crew. Our Bombardier sang out:
“Steady on the run,” and the, “Bombs away!” The mighty bird lurched upward relieved of its heavy load of destruction.
“Keep your eyes open and watch that plane off our left wing. She’s smoking badly and losing altitude—looks like the engine’s conked out,” remarked our Pilot.
High above vapor trails appeared, suggesting the presence of fighters. Below us, a struggled continued with billows of dark, pungent smoke and bright rocket flashes, adding to the fireworks and holocaust of war. Large barges lowered their ramps as doughboys swarmed ashore through mine-infested waters, anxious to gain the comparative safety of some ledge, tree, or knocked out pillbox. As far as the eye could see, either on sea or in the air, an endless stream of ships and planes plied back and forth across the channel bringing in men and supplies.
Hot Rock continued on into France for only a short distance farther; then the Navigator ordered the Pilot to alter her course to 110 degrees and head for home. No second invitation was needed, and we veered sharply off to the left, heading out towards the English Coase from whence we had come. Enemy gunfire continued to reach out towards us, but we were soon out of range of their power. We could now freely make use of the interphone system, but no one seemed talkative or boisterous. We were going back to base and had witnessed a miracle. For us D-DAY had passed. Ahead lay coffee and doughnuts, and perhaps a few winks of sound sleep.
Written By Samuel VangerJagt for the Calvin Chimes Magazine