Veteran Russell Avery, Atria Elizabethtown Resident
Posted on November 6, 2014 by Jesse Hazel
I was drafted into the U.S. military on June 3, 1942, at the age of 21, beginning a tour of 39 months in the Air Force that took me to South America, Africa, England and into combat in Italy, France and Holland.
Following basic training, I was sent to radio school at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, after which I was assigned to troop carrier command as the radio operator on a C-47 airplane. My primary duties were as an airborne truck outfit – hauling supplies where needed and evacuating wounded patients. We cross-trained with the 82nd Airborne Division stationed nearby.
In April 1943, we received orders to head overseas – with our airplanes – to North Africa. The range of the C-47 was limited, so to cross the Atlantic Ocean we had to go to Natal, Brazil, then across the Atlantic to tiny Ascension Island (which was barely large enough for a runway). Our joke, perhaps to relieve tension, was if we don’t find that island, we will have a salty bath and a long swim to Africa. No joke! But we made it (perhaps because I was the responsible radio operator).
From Africa, we participated in the invasion of Sicily at Gela. Our first mission in combat went okay. We then had to take reinforcements on day three. It was necessary to fly in and out over our fleet. Nervous gunners opened up on us with a heavy barrage and mine was one of the planes hit. Many planes that were shot down had not dropped their troops, but we were picked up by one of the ships and taken to Oran, Africa. This was a major snafu of the war and was heavily investigated. We next moved to England to participate in Operation Overlord, the code name for the Battle of Normandy.
We were part of 1,200 planes carrying 13,000 paratroopers in the invasion of Europe. There were 18 planes from our squadron. My plane flew in the formation just off the squadron commander’s right wing tip. We formed two “Vs” of nine airplanes following each other.
To visualize the enormity of this operation, besides being nine planes wide, it was strung out for around five hours. The groups had to be coordinated from dozens of bases in England so that they would mesh into a solid train. Our run over land (the Cherbourg Peninsula) was to take 12 minutes.
The flight from England was without incident until we reached the coastline and encountered a cloud bank. Remember,it was nighttime – the planes were in a tight formation and the only illumination was from dim lights on the wings (seen only by aircraft directly behind). When the planes flew into that cloud, those lights could not be seen and the formations had to immediately disperse.
Our route to the drop zone was across the Cherbourg Peninsula (a distance of about 25 miles over enemy territory) to the small town of Picauville to support the troops on the beaches. The area was heavily defended and Allied fighter planes had attempted to clear the area of anti-aircraft fire between landfall to the drop zone. When the flights dispersed, many were out of this safe corridor and encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire and were immediately shot down.
Many pilots jumped in the wrong places and ignored safety procedures. Many missions were total failures. My flight, since we were a flight leader, didn’t break formation, encountered no problems and continued toourdropzone. Wedroppedourtroopersatabout2 am on June 6, 1943, and headed back to England. On the next mission, our squadron commander was shot down and became a prisoner of war.
Next, we flew two missions with gliders to Holland in daylight without incident.
And then I went home.
– S/Sgt James R. Avery, ASN 3480693, Atria Elizabethtown resident