WWII veterans tell 70-year-old story

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kris Levasseur
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Editor's Note: The information in this story is based on the personal recollection of two World War II veterans of their lives and the D-Day events from 70 years ago.

In the largest orchestrated air, ground and sea assaults of the century, more than 850 C-47 Skytrains piloted by Airmen with the Army Air Forces and the 37th Troop Carrier Squadron were to deliver approximately 13,000 paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne into battle. Not just any battle though ... it was the battle that became the turning point in a war that encompassed many nations from around the world. The battle was Operation Overlord in Normandy, France, and the war was World War II.

The facts of the battle are well known in the history books, but the individual stories and intricate details are on the verge of being lost in time. Fortunately, two veterans of the infamous battle took their time to detail what it was like to be a part of the tipping-point in the war. William Prindible and Julian Rice, former 37th TCS pilots were able to tell their story here June 2. Here is the account of their experiences:

"When I was a 7-year-old kid in Panama, I was watching a man being driven down the road in a parade and asked my mom who he was and she said 'He's Charles Lindburg'," said Rice. "The next day we went to the airfield, we saw the Spirit of St. Louis take off into the sunset and I was hooked. I knew that is what I wanted to do.

"In 1941, I was sitting in the movie theater when the movie stopped," Rice added. "A major came on stage and announced the bombing of Pearl Harbor and told us all to go home. My friends and I knew what was coming, so we took the aviation cadet exam and signed up right away."

While Rice was preparing to train as a pilot, the pilot that eventually became the youngest 37th TCS member, William "Bill" Prindible, was eagerly awaiting his 18th birthday so he could sign up as well.

"When I signed up, there were so many applicants for the aviation program that the Army didn't have enough room in training, so we all enlisted while we waited for room in training," said Prindible. "After we got through training we were dispatched to Europe and moved through several locations while preparing for D-Day."

After spending time in Morocco and Italy, Prindible and Rice followed the 37th TCS to their last stop before the D-Day invasion.

"About six months before D-Day, we got the orders to move our group to Cottesmore, England, to prepare for the D-Day invasion," said Rice. "We spent the majority of the next six months training and preparing for D-Day."

Rice added that the training was rigorous and several skeptics thought the military wasn't prepared enough to complete the mission.

"At the time, there were a lot of reporters who said that we weren't trained well and we were afraid," said Rice. "Well, they were half-right. Of course we were afraid. Who wouldn't be? But we were well trained. There was a plan and we trained for it."

Rice also noted that the training itself was dangerous. Flying the way they did was still a fairly new process and there were several challenges given the conditions.

"Unlike today, we didn't have a lot of navigation equipment to keep track of other aircraft in the area," said Rice. "We had blue cup lights on the fuselage of the aircraft that we had to keep track of in order to stay in formation.

"One night returning from a training mission, our group was split into two formations while returning to Cottesmore," said Rice. "There was a bit of confusion between the formations and we ended up flying through each other and I was forced to land and spend the night sleeping in my C-47. It turned out that there were several casualties; we lost our commander, the chaplain and several others."

Rice and Prindible explained that there were several training accidents like this, but it was extremely important for them to be prepared for D-Day. If they weren't prepared, they wouldn't have been able to overcome the obstacles during the invasion.

"On D-Day the weather in England was causing us some issues," said Prindible. The fog was bad and we had zero visibility.

Because of the fog, Prindible and Rice said navigation was nearly impossible and was the biggest concern at the time.

"We got lost in the fog," said Rice. "Everything went black while we were flying in close proximity to hundreds of other planes. Collisions were a big threat and very possible. We weren't worried about the flak and the gunfire until about five minutes later when we came through the fog. Then we had another concern; the sky was lighting up like the Fourth of July."

Prindible noted that even though there was a lot to be concerned with going in to Normandy, that all changed once they got there.

"Before we went out on D-Day, we were all apprehensive, but when we made it over Normandy, we were so focused and busy with our responsibilities that there wasn't time to worry about anything else," said Prindible. "All the Airmen were very dedicated to accomplishing the mission. There were a lot of things standing in the way of what we were trying to do, but if we weren't as dedicated as we were, it wouldn't have happened."

Their dedication allowed the 37th TCS to drop Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne behind Utah Beach, Normandy, France, between St. Mere-Eglise and Carentan on June 6, 1944. Within a day, the invasion was complete, but the mission didn't end there.

"The invasion was just a part of the mission," said Rice. "The next day we carried supplies to the men that we dropped. Then, the next day bringing ammunition and medical supplies, as well as evacuating the wounded.

"It seems like only yesterday we were there on D-Day," said Rice. "It's something you would never forget. At the time, we were happy to be able do what we had to. We are so proud of the 37th Airlift Squadron for surviving and continuing the mission we had back then.

"There have been a lot of changes since our day," Rice added. "It's the technical age and the modern equipment has a lot that we didn't have back then."

Rice added that the one thing Airmen today have that they had back then was courage. Prindible agreed.

"I've been asked what the difference between [military members] back then and now, but I don't feel qualified to talk about the differences," said Prindible. "I can say there are a lot of similarities, but the biggest one is; we are all volunteers."

Now, 70 years later, the two veterans are returning to where it all happened. According to the veterans, the trip back to Normandy came as a surprise to them. The trip provided a chance for the veterans to honor their brothers.

"Bill and I don't like to be referred to as heroes," said Rice. "We were the lucky ones. One-hundred-fourteen other pilots didn't survive; they are the real heroes. We are here to pay our final honor and respect to the true heroes of our group that didn't make it back home," said Rice. "We are honored to be here for the 70th anniversary of D-Day and be able to tell their story."