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D-Day revisited: An aerial perspective

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Stacia Zachary
  • 352nd Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
The skies echoed with the sounds of yesterday. One could almost hear the whirr of the C-47 Dakotas intermingling with the steady hum of the MC-130J Commando II props. The memories of World War II aviators and paratroopers were palpable as current aircrew and U.S. Special Operations Command – Europe paratroopers prepared for the upcoming mission. These all converged to create a profound sense of reverence for the sacrifices given by so many, and a deep appreciation for what those sacrifices achieved: liberation of occupied Europe.

Seventy-one years later, SOCEUR personnel amassed on the military portion of the Cherbourg airport and began preparing for their very own insertion of special operations forces on La Fiere, a historic drop zone outside Sainte Mere Eglise in Normandy, France.

“Today, several aircraft performed a series of personnel drops over historic Normandy drops zones,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Robert Livingston, 67the Special Operations Squadron MC-130J Commando II pilot. “The goal 71 years ago was to drop these men into enemy territory combined with the amphibious landings, in a true total force effort, to take back occupied Europe. Today is about commemorating the D-Day landings.”

The mission to commemorate the D-Day landings 71 years ago offers a poignant reminder to the aircrew, aircraft maintainers and SOF personnel involved. In the early hours, SOCEUR paratroopers convened for the mass briefings to run through the day’s events, procedures and the ultimate objective: honor the remaining World War II veterans.

Aircrew point of view

For the aircrew, it calls their attention to the immense dedication to the mission at hand while navigating a barrage of enemy fire from the ground and the Luftwaffe – knowing that returning to home station might not be possible.

“It gives me a huge sense of pride to honor the aircrews from World War II,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Justin Mastrangelo, 67th Special Operations Squadron MC-130J Commando II pilot. “They knew the chances were slim but they still got on that plane. The guts it took to do that – it’s incredible. Today, I was honored to walk in their footsteps.”

In the past seven decades, technology has grown and changed giving the aircrew more capabilities when flying in hostile environments or responding to risky situations. In essence, technology has given the aircrews an edge over its adversaries not present in World War II.

“Airpower has increased tremendously. From our (communications), to our radar to our maneuverability – technology has improved so much,” Mastrangelo said. “If we had this aircraft back then, well, it would have at least made the mission easier and more efficient.”

Technology aside, the one factor that could not have been improved upon is the dedication to training.

“Training is designed to help you react correctly and with speed when something bad or unexpected happens,” Livingston said.

Training played a key role in the flights over Normandy on D-Day and throughout the war. Its what brought the crews home and allowed them to do the near impossible and bring back an aircraft, coughing and limping as it touched down on the runway.

“There’s no comparison to the wars fought today and that of World War II. The only thing that remains the same – the great equalizer – is the training,” Livingston explained. “It helps aircrews overcome dangerous situations and keep their heads so they can right the situation and return home. This was never truer than during World War II. The state those aircraft came home is unbelievable – yet they did.”

Maintenance vantage point

During World War II, the average ratio of maintainers to aircrew was 70:1. Historical, first-hand accounts reveal that maintenance was crucial to getting aircraft in the air – especially when the iron returned torn to shreds and still needed to be made airworthy as soon as possible.

“Today, we wouldn’t even think of using the aircraft if they came back filled with holes. But there was such a sense of urgency back then that made people do the impossible,” said U.S. Senior Airman Stephen Pellum, 352nd Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron electro-environmentals journeyman. “They were cowboys. They had a limited supply of tools and equipment to repair the planes, but they still found a way to salvage the aircraft.”

Flying aboard the MC-130J and partaking in the commemorative events allowed Pellum to gain a new perspective to the total force effort it took to launch the missions for D-Day.

“As a maintainer, it was very rewarding to be a part of something this big,” Pellum said. “This event puts it in perspective about how hard the maintainers in World War II worked and how much harder they had it compared to us. Not having the right parts all the time would have been really strenuous and frustrating – makes me admire the people who set our standards.”

SOF perspective

SOCEUR paratroopers also had the opportunity to reflect on the efforts their predecessors gave to secure a successful liberation of occupied Europe.

“It’s relevant to special operators because of what our forefathers lost on the beaches and countryside of Normandy that day – the sacrifices they gave for (the United States), France and the Alliance – to ensure freedom was assured once again,” said U.S. Army Tyler Espinoza, Joint Special Operations Air Component – Europe special operations air planner. “The paratroopers who dropped in from the skies and the people who stormed the beach – their experiences have offered us so much by way of lessons learned and how to successfully complete a mission when everything is at stake.”

Special operations forces can trace their heritage to the World War II Army Pathfinders and Rangers. The lessons learned from their shared experiences during the war paved the way for the modern day special operations forces.

“The Rangers who took Pont du Hoc and the beaches as well as the Pathfinders who fought their way to ensure the rest of the paratroopers made their way to the ground – the determination it took to face down the enemy and still push forward – that’s our heritage and that’s what we are honoring today,” Espinoza said. “It’s really important for the Army Special Forces and Rangers, the Navy SEALs and the Air Force combat controllers and pararescuemen to be a part of this moment. What our predecessors were able to achieve back then laid the very foundation of today’s special operations.”

Free falling from an MC-130J and touching down on the historic drop zone of La Fiere left an impression on those who jumped this year.

“For me, to be able to jump into a historic drop zone gives me a huge sense of pride. I can’t imagine what those men went through,” Espinoza said. “Today we have all this modern equipment that makes it a lot easier to orientate yourself with. Those men had none of what we have today. They had a mission and a drive to achieve their objective – and they did.”