Seventy-five years ago, in the early hours of Tuesday, June 6, 1944, Lt. John E. Peters landed a Douglas C-47 SkyTrain named Snooty at southern England’s Greenham Common airfield.
Hours earlier, Peters left the same runway with 18 heavily armed paratroopers from the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Each soldier’s hair was cut Mohawk Indian style. Their faces were streaked with war paint.
Peters flew the paratroopers across the English Channel to designated drop zones over Normandy, where they jumped into combat. It was the beginning of the end for Germany’s four-year siege of Europe. It was also broadcast history in the making.
Peters returned to England with Wright Bryan, a war correspondent with the Atlanta Journal and NBC Radio. Bryan scooped 600 other reporters by broadcasting the first eyewitness account of D-Day.
General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, commander of Operation Overlord, the code name for the Normandy invasion, believed that “an informed public will help win the war.” Bryan, a veteran journalist, helped fulfill Eisenhower’s conviction.
Bryan had covered the war in Europe for two years when NBC London manager Stan Richardson asked him to fly with the paratroopers in a C-47 to watch their jump into Normandy.
Bryan would precede the Allies’ amphibious invasion — the largest in history — by hours to observe the airborne assault and report on the radio what he saw.
Eisenhower’s staff approved, and a week before D-Day, Bryan camped with Peters and his crew and witnessed the final preparations.
After Peters brought Snooty to a stop, Bryan was whisked by a waiting jeep to London, 55 miles away. He arrived at the Ministry of Information with its large newsroom and broadcast studios that only accredited journalists could enter.
At 9:32 a.m. in London — 3:32 a.m. in Washington — a press aide read Eisenhower’s official D-Day communique:
“Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.”
In another room, Bryan intently banged out a typewritten radio script — 10 pages, double-spaced.
Forty-five minutes later, Bryan stood before the mic, cupped his left ear with one hand, held his script with the other and went on the air. He barely paused as he read for the next 14 minutes.
“The first spearhead of Allied forces for the liberation of Europe landed by parachute in northern France,” Bryan declared in his Southern drawl, captivating listeners with prose worthy of Faulkner.
“I rode with the first group of planes to take our fighting men into Europe and watched from the rear door of our plane, named Snooty, as 18 American paratroopers led by a lieutenant colonel jumped with their arms, ammunition and equipment into German-occupied France.”
Before they jumped, Bryan spoke with some of the paratroopers.
Pvt. Robert G. Hillman, of Manchester, Conn., proudly told him: “I know my chute’s okay because my mother checked it. She works in the Pioneer Parachute Company in our town, and her job is giving the final once-over to all the chutes they manufacture.”
As their plane readied for takeoff, the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Robert Cole, told his men: “The doc is going to give you some pills to guard against airsickness. Make yourselves as comfortable as you can. Better try to sleep a little.”
Bryan noted that “quiet settled in the plane. These men had done their talking. Now they were grim and silent.”
Snooty thundered down the runway, “then feet by feet, almost inch by inch, rising above the fields and trees of southern England,” Bryan recounted.
The C-47 fell into formation. Each section included three Vs of three airplanes each. They were joined by Vs of three ships in a second section. The preceding squadron was already circling the airfield, gaining altitude as other squadrons lifted into the sky.
“All about us and below us was such a glimmering fabric of lights as I had not seen in the eight months I had been in blacked-out England,” said Bryan to his radio listeners.
The lanky, 6-foot-5 Bryan left his vantage point in the plane’s navigating dome and walked through the passenger cabin to see how the paratroopers were faring. More than half had taken their colonel’s advice and dozed, their heads resting against the wall, their feet stretched in front. Others sat silently, and a few whispered among themselves.
Signal lights blinked as the plane swept across the English Channel. “The sea was calm,” said Bryan, “its steely grayness blending in the half-light with the dingier gray of the horizon; but soon the moon brightened the water and made the ripples below us twinkle.”
The Allied planes, one by one, switched off most of their formation lights. In the channel below, Bryan could see ships. He assumed they belonged to the armada carrying Allied soldiers to the landing beaches.
Approaching the Normandy coastline, Snooty plunged into a thick fog bank. For the next two or three minutes, Peters relied on his plane’s instruments to maintain course through the darkness. Breaking from the fog, a bright moon guided him the rest of the way.
By now the plane was flying so low (about 700 feet) that Bryan thought the ground was almost close enough for the men to jump without parachutes: “The small fields looked peaceful within their orderly hedge rows. It almost seemed you could see the furrows.”
Then the paratroopers were on their feet, adjusting their packs and snapping ripcords onto the static line cable that ran down the cabin ceiling’s center. The cable would pull each chute open as the paratroopers jumped out the plane’s open door.
Bryan watched by the rear door as Peters flipped the jump switch light from red to green. The men flooded out the door, jumping through the cold, rushing air, and their parachutes billowed open behind them. “Tiny streams of tracer bullets were curving upward from the ground,” Bryan said. None of the bullets hit the plane.
Snooty flew over France for only 11 minutes. With the C-47 lightened by unloaded paratroopers and cargo, it turned and streaked for home while “a few tracer bullets curved up to the side of us and behind us.”
The following day the Atlanta Constitution published 13 columns of congratulatory telegrams from dignitaries and competing newspapers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Bryan’s account “a grand piece of work.”
Bryan remained a war correspondent until he was wounded and captured by the Germans. Freed by the Russians in January 1945, he returned home a hero. Two years later Eisenhower decorated Bryan with the Medal of Freedom.
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