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D-Day: it was finally here.

      We were scheduled to take off at 11:30 PM and make the drop in France at 2:30 AM. In just three hours, if all went right, our part of the mission would be over, and we'd be heading back to England. Now, with just a few minutes left before takeoff, there was silence. The radio was silent; radio silence was not to be broken once we left the ground. There was to be nothing that would give away our presence. The tension in the plane was palpable, and I got that gnawing feeling inside, like my stomach was a pit full of spiders. The paratroopers sat in silence, with none of their usual good-humored ribbing of each other. They were nervous; only three of them had ever jumped in combat. One kid was chewing a piece of gum; harder and harder he chewed as his jaw got tighter and tighter. Someone attempted a rough joke, but no one laughed. We knew what was at stake. We were flying what was to be the biggest mission of the war. Our success could be the turning point.

      Suddenly, all the waiting was over. The signal came, and we lined up on the runway, just as we had during practice. The night was clear as a bell, and a full moon was shining. It seemed like a sign from heaven. The last thing we heard before takeoff was our squadron commander's voice giving us the sprag ho, a standard procedure almost like a roll call. The radios were turned off; we would be in radio silence from that time on. Then the group commander in the lead plane gave it the gun and took off, and we all followed in the criss-cross pattern with no more than 20 feet between airplanes. The only lights on the planes were special wing lights that couldn't be seen from the top. They were pale blue lights that didn't radiate any light, but they were necessary for formation flying at night so you could tell how far you were from the other planes. Tonight the moon was so bright we didn't really need them.

      As we started flying, we realized we were following the same course we had flown less than a week before when we'd done our dummy drop: same course, same headings, same timings, everything. It was a quiet flight; nobody said much; we were all bound up and nervous. We flew at about 1000 ft. over England, then dropped down over the water when we hit the coast. The only thing we spotted were two marker destroyers that sent up a signal to let us know that we were on the right path.

      We flew south until we reached Jersey and Guernsey Islands off the coast of France, just west of the Cherbourg Peninsula. Our orders were to fly directly between the islands. The whole group flew in, one plane after another, low; we were flying in at about 150 ft. We drew antiaircraft fire from both islands, but all of it fell short of the plane. As we came in to the Cherbourg Peninsula, we saw light clouds ahead. Then, as we hit the coast, light arms fire from the ground peppered the plane. It was real light, maybe just 30 caliber rifles; it didn't feel dangerous. But suddenly a 50 caliber shot smashed into us, rocking the plane. I think it broke one of the rudder hinges because we had a heck of a time maintaining course after that. Just as we were back in position with the rest of the squadron, we ran into a fogbank.

      “Damn. The Germans must have sent up this fogbank to cause trouble. There's no way we can fly formation in a fogbank,” Ray said grimly. All the planes scattered. We were on our own.
© 2006, 2008 Julie Phend