Overcast or not, it's time to fly
This article originally appeared in the Concord Monitor, June 6, 2004.
Malcolm McLane, now a Concord lawyer, joined the Army Air Force in 1943. On June 6, 1944, he was a 19-year-old fighter pilot stationed in England near the shortest route across the English Channel to France. Almost immediately after Lt. McLane took off (he flew 72 missions in all), he could see the coast of France. His job on D-Day was to patrol the landing beaches in his single-seat P-47 Thunderbolt and challenge any German planes that tried to strafe the Allied assault force. This proved unnecessary, as the Germans, apparently fooled about where and when the invasion was coming, did not contest the landing from the air. A few days later, McLane wrote a letter to his family describing his bird's-eye glimpse of the great invasion. Here is that letter:
By MALCOLM McLANE
For the Monitor
It's three o'clock, Tuesday morning, June 6, 1944. Someone is shaking you in your blanket roll, but you're too sleepy to get up, for you didn't get to bed until midnight and it was after one before the talking quieted down and you got to sleep.
Then the bright light goes on in your face, and you remember what you were told in that three-hour-long, secret briefing last night: "Today is D-Day!"
You tumble out as best you can, put on extra socks and heavy shoes from force of habit, for someday you may have to walk back. There's some hot coffee and an egg in the mess tent, then you pile into jeeps and trucks and hurry to the line, where the ground crews have already been warming up the planes.
There's your Mae West to put on, your helmet and goggles and chute to put in the plane, before you pack into the squadron briefing tent and get courses and instructions regarding your mission.
There's no comment on the weather, as there usually is, for it's obviously terrible. Ordinarily the mission would be scratched, but there's no canceling this one.
Fifteen minutes before start-engine time, you're in your plane checking everything and getting buckled in. It's still dark, for the sun isn't due to rise for over an hour and there won't be much twilight with this solid overcast and misty rain with its low ceiling and visibility.
Belly tanks cause some trouble as you taxi out, but there's no waiting for stragglers. Those who can make it are off the ground and circling over the field, trying to get into formation. It's no easy thing, and many wander home alone. Once you've set course, you must climb up through the overcast on instruments.
The formation breaks up even more, and when you break out on top, headed into a full moon and a clear sky, you find yourself alone on your element leader's wing. The rest have popped up through the blanket of clouds on their own and are doing their best to find the patrol area separately. Navigation is a matter of compass headings and timing, for there are no landmarks here over this ocean of white.
To the east the sky gets lighter all the time. After an hour occasional breaks appear below, and the two of you spiral down to reconnoiter. It's France all right, but where? A radio call and a fix, and soon you're given a heading to target.
Below the clouds it's murky again, but the light behind you is getting pinker and the fleecy clouds at the bottom of the overcast are a lovely soft red. Below, ships begin to appear, their guns flashing in the darkness, while the rising sun brings out their forms gradually and makes the water a deep red. The air is still misty and the visibility poor, but this only adds to the sun's reddish glare.
For another hour you patrol back and forth over the beachhead-to-be as the big guns pound away. And then when you're about to leave - your gas is getting low - a little fleet of boats leaves the great fleet offshore, passes the outermost ring of destroyers and heads for the beaches.
As you head back across the channel to England, the scattered small wakes of the landing craft move toward the shore. In another few minutes the invasion will have begun.
More planes will relieve you, and many more ships will follow those first boats, but that hour before H-hour will be a never-forgotten memory of this war, whose other details I will willingly forget. My part was nil, for there was no opposition from the air, but our mission was carried out and the beachhead won.
Copyright (c) 2004 Concord Monitor