Photo: Howard Huebner (left) and Clifford Kantz (right) shake hands as Tico Belle entertains visitors in the distance. (Credit: John Stemple)
May 15, 2011 — As long as they live the events of early June 6, 1944, will forever remain fixed in the minds of those who participated in the Allied invasion, known as D-Day, of German-occupied France. On Friday, May 13, 2011, and Saturday, May 14, 2011, Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, Fla., hosted a symposium titled “Day: The Invasion of Normandy.” Among those present were D-Day veterans Tico Belle, a Douglas C-47A Skytrain, Clifford Kantz and Howard Huebner. While Tico Belle served to thrill the crowd as a static display and later through aerial flybys, the two men recalled the events that they took part in the early action on D-Day.
Psychologists and psychiatrists tell us that sights and sounds can trigger suppressed memories. Events that individuals experienced decades ago can return vividly to the human mind. On these days the whine of the C-47’s starters and the metallic clanking of the large 3-blade propellers as they slowing began to rotate, generated recollections. The clouds of oily, blue exhaust smoke belching from the engine exhausts further contributed to time seemingly move in reverse. Suddenly it was no longer the year 2011, and the men were young again, in England and aboard a C-47 on the early morning of June 6, 1944.
As Tico Belle warmed her engines, the eyes of the D-Day veterans began to mist. They tensed a bit as thoughts of what had happened all those years ago filled their minds. The duo recalled the many young colleagues, some of who were close friends, that would receive wounds, be maimed or die within a couple of hours. Also, they undoubtedly recalled the gaunt looks of fear on their mates’ faces inside the transports, as they awaited whatever fate would deal them.
In the early hours of a spring morning their feelings of youthful invincibility were quickly waning. Soon the Skytrains, roaring loudly, with paratroopers inside or loaded WACO CG-4 gliders attached behind by cable, rumbled down the dark English runways and hesitatingly lifted slowly into the blackness. For all, the carefree life was left behind.
On that June day in 1944, as so many before and after, Tico Belle stoically performed its duty and fulfilled its purpose. Tico Belle was one of the hundreds of C-47s operating during operations around Normandy and France on June 6, 1944. The aeroplane was to tow a Waco CG-4 glider. Each of these gliders carried a pilot and copilot, and could hold 13 soldiers. Others carried a jeep, a 75mm howitzer, or a quarter-ton truck. Valiant Air Command says that the mission of the troops within the Waco that Tico Belle ferried was to capture, hold and isolate the western end of the invasion bridgehead. Accordingly, after extended flying in the hours before daylight, Tico Belle’s aircrew released their Waco in the vicinity of Cherbourg.
Clifford Kantz, of Orlando, Fla., was one of the Skytrain pilots who flew nearly blind through the dark sky with about 800 additional Skytrains. Each of the 27 planes of the 100th Troop Carrying Squadron had to follow the planes in front by keeping sight of the small blue light illuminated on the tail of planes ahead. In their formation, some 90 aircraft commingled. Blinding searchlight beams swung across the sky as the unwelcome intruders crossed the beaches and headed inland. Extremely intense flak and tracer fire bounced and shook the C-47s.
When in the approximate area of the assigned drop zone, paratroopers began dropping very close to the Kantz’s C-47. Despite cruising at over 100 mph, Clifford could see the jumpers’ fearful facial expressions and their eyes. Clifford shouted to the jumpmaster, “Get them out the door!”
At one point, an anti-aircraft shell detonated nearby. It scared Kantz and his copilot so much that they ducked their heads below the instrument panel. Clifford suddenly realized that they were not piloting but cowering. He shouted to his adjacent mate, “Hey, we better start flying!”
To this day Kantz does not know how they got back to England without being shot from the sky. Upon landing and shutting down the engines, an officer barked, “Don’t look at the holes in your plane! Maintenance personnel will look them over and repair them. Go immediately to debriefing!” Mr. Kantz sadly commented, “Many of my friends did not return that day.” Clifford was only 20 years old when tasked with the D-Day excursion, which was his first taste of action. He would complete 15 more combat sorties.
Howard Huebner, a resident of Ocala, Fla., was 21 years of age when his unit, Company C, 507th Parachute Division, parachuted that morning into enemy occupied Normandy. He and his mates were the last to exit the C-47s. Disorientation plagued the aircrew and paratroopers as a result of confusion resulting from the rapidly moving events, and as a result they jumped inaccurately.
Howard landed about ten miles from the unit’s objective. Separated from those of his unit that survived the harrowing descent through heavy German anti-aircraft and machine gun fire, Huebner fought with the 506th and 501st. They secured the French town of Pouppeville and later the La Fiere Causeway, where the fighting was savage. Howard recalled, “We had little cover and nothing but luck and the good Lord, but we made it across. We ran, firing our weapons on the move.” Huebner sorrowfully noted that, “You could see your buddies lying there on the ground gravely wounded and you could not stop to help them. We were trained to kill or be killed, and that is what enabled us to make it across the causeway. It was sheer guts and determination.”
Howard sadly noted, “It cost 500 lives to take that short stretch of road.” After 33 days of fighting in Normandy, without rations, supplies, or reinforcements, only some 75 of the 230 members of Huebner’s company were able to survive.
The author (John Stemple) would like to thank Howard Huebner, Clifford Kantz and Valiant Air Command for their cooperation.