"That Was a Very Brave Crew"
Operation OVERLORD, the invasion of the continent on 6 June, 1944, brought a massive surge in operational tempo. Instead of the usual one long mission a day, now the Group was flying anywhere from 4 to 8 missions a day, in squadron strength or less, all in support of the invasion.
For the first time the early missions were airborne before daylight and the late ones returned after dark. The first mission on D-Day was off at 0215 hours, and the 8th of the day returned to base after dark. Three pilots were lost on D-Day.
On the 7th of June, briefing for the first operation of the day was at 0300 hours, and the 4th of the day returned at 2150 hours, after being airborne for 4 hours. There was little contact with enemy aircraft Ė the Luftwaffe had been overwhelmed.
On the night of the 7th, Lewiston Airfield was the target of a strafing attack when a JU-(or an Me 410 Ė take your choice) fired a burst of cannon shells into the base mess hall, causing mass panic and confusion to the diners of midnight chow, but no major damage.
The next day, five missions were flown the second airborne in midmorning. Sixteen P-51s of the 362nd Squadron led by Captain Calvert Williams. The mission report does not waste words on details: "Strafe Laval area. Lt. O.K. Harris last seen Montage (probably should be Montage) 1317."
First Lt. Ollie E. Harris Jr. had come to the United Kingdom with the Group and by D-Day was a veteran fighter pilot. On 30 May, on a long run to the Berlin area, he had shot down an Me 410, one of 18 for the Group on that day. 52 years later Harris recalled the details of the 8 June affair and itís aftermath:
"I have a clear picture of a railroad shed we dive-bombed. Some distance to the left I saw a freight train parked. After releasing my bombs, I continued my dive and made a pass at the freight train, beginning in the rear. I ended up with a perfect view of the cab of the locomotive so I unloaded everything I could into it to disable it.
"I had built up a great deal of speed in the process so I pulled up into a climb, looking for my flight, and entered a broken cloud formation. There was one large cloud just ahead and a little off to the right, and it was from the left side the FW 190s appeared. I immediately saw that if I turned to try to escape I was "dead meat", so I flew directly into them. I really donít know if I fired my guns or not, although I would like to think I did. I knew immediately that I was hit. If any action was taken to avoid a collision it would have to have been by the Jerried because I couldnít see out of my windshield. What I first thought was smoke coming out of my cowling, was probably a spray of coolant. My wrist watch was gone, and I had a shallow gash across my wrist, the only damage I suffered.
"After flying through them I turned to the right into the cloud. I remained on that course for several minutes before setting course for home, and did not see the 190s again. I had lost my cloud cover as I approached the coast, and still can see the neat row of houses along the bluff as I flew out to sea.
"I was losing altitude fairly fast, but wanted to get as far out to sea as possible. As I crossed out I began calling MAY DAY, and then prepared to bail out. I didnít know how much altitude I needed, but figured it wasnít enough. I had thought about bailing out over land, but couldnít do it Ė pride I guess, I didnít want to give them a victory.
"It was now time to go, and I rolled the plane over and dropped out, the last time I saw the altimeter, it showed 750 feet. My right foot hung up between my legs. I immediately pulled the rip cord and started disconnecting my harness, and the next thing I knew I was under water. I inflated my Mae West and fought my way up through the shrouds. Iím quite sure my chute had not fully opened. I freed my dinghy, and tried to turn the handle on the CO2 bottle, to inflate the dinghy, but it would not budge. I was very cold and felt half drowned. Finally with a surge of energy I got the CO2 bottle handle to turn and inflated the dinghy. I realized later that I had failed to pull the pin. When I returned to base, several of us tried to turn the handle with the pin installed, but of course, could not do so. It must have been the sudden surge of adrenalin that helped shear the pin. (or possibly it had fallen out?)
"The sea was very rough, and the dinghy was filled with water. It did not good to bail it out because the wave tops were breaking over it."
The 362nd Squadron diary for June commented on the loss of Harris: "From the last mission of the day (8 June) Lt. Harris didnít return. He had been flying Lt. Mitchellís wing, lagged behind after dive bombing a railroad shed, apparently had been bounced and shot down. We cleaned out his locker, drew the necessary sketches (?), typed out the Missing Aircrew Report, felt miserable because the Kidís number had finally come up. Nobody really knew what had happened and that made it worse."
"During the night the weather became even more dismal and overcast. But something helped compensate for the weather next morning. We learned that Lt. Harris was alive. He had been picked up by Air Sea Rescue."
Shock, the stress of events and the numbing cold have erased much of the subsequent details from Harrisí memory, but brief vignettes remain clear today. How long he was in the water is not certain Ė the squadron diary says 45 minutes, but he believes it was much longer.
There is no doubt that he was pulled out of the water by the crew of a Walrus. Due to rough seas and his inability to assist, they had great difficulty getting him abroad, and due to wingtip and float damage, they were unable to take off.
Through the very generous assistance of two WWII RAF pilots (Richard Davies was himself a Walrus pilot), a diligent search was made of all four Walrus squadrons in the Public Records Office in London, in an attempt to identify the aircraft and crew. Only 276 Squadron is recorded as having made a rescue on 8 June, and although there are similarities, Harris is quite sure this one does not refer to him as there are too many differences.
Research by ASR Historian Sid Marvel has found that during the 10 days after D-Day, 163 aircrew, 58 "others" and two Germans were picked up by ASR services (boats and aircraft). 275 Squadron alone, from D-Day to the end of June, flew 225 sorties, resulting in 15 rescues, and 12 others located for the boats. Few, or none were recorded as far as he has found. It was a hectic and busy time, and the Harris rescue was just one of many that did not find its way into the records. Richard Davies, who flew many of those sorties, recalls the rather casual post sortie procedures:
"Unlike the bomber crews there were no actual debriefing sessions with the station intelligence officer, and all we did on 275 and 276 squadrons was to tell the C.O. what had happened. Most of the time no record of rescues, both successful and unsuccessful, was recorded officially and I can confirm this from my own records."
Harris continues his story: "The Walrus that picked me up fractured one of its pontoons while landing. The sea was too tough to take off anyway. It took about 10 hours to get back to base, about 100 miles. We started out under our own power. I guess I had finally fallen asleep when the tow boat arrived, I donít remember it. That was a very brave crew to do what they did. I was a very sea-sick kid."
The 362nd Squadron Operations diary confirms that the Walrus did rendezvous with a launch which towed it back to base. To again quote British historian Sid Harvey: "The Walrus, with Harris aboard, was taken in tow by two RAF seaplane tenders, #1515 (Skipper Eddie Ross) and #1506, (Skipper L. Mewling)." These vessels had been pressed into ASR service due to the heavy traffic of the D-Day period, and at the time were on their way to search for an RAF Warwick crew, and also the crews of a Lancaster and an 8th AF B-24 from the 487th bomb Group. None of these crews were found.
The same two boats had rescued many troops and crews of troop-carrying C-47s, 14 of which had ditched on D-Day, and #1515 had picked up the entire crew of a 381st Bomb Group b-17 on 7 June.
Upon arrival at a still unknown base, Harris recalls he was taken to an officers club where a party was in progress. He joined in and had a few (or a lot) of drinks, and so ended a hectic day for Ollie Harris.
The 363rd Sad ops diary has the final word: "The sandy haired kid from Kentucky looked pretty pale when Major Gates (Thomas) brought him back from the RAF hospital in the AT-6."
Even though it does not relate to a 357th pilot, a very similar incident took place 6 days earlier involving the same Walrus pilot, Richard Davies, mentioned above. It was 2100 hours (9PM) before they were scrambled to search for a P-47 pilot, whom they found right where he was reported to be. Davies orbited the man several times and found the sea very rough and unsuitable for landing. However, the man was obviously in serious trouble as he was not in his dinghy, and was tangled in his chute. Despite the very bad sea conditions and orders from his controller not to land, Davies, in the best traditions of the ASR service, put Walrus #930 down in the water with great risk to his aircraft, his crew and himself. The lucky, but unknown P-47 pilot was pulled aboard, but there was no possibility of getting off again. Davies turned toward what he hoped was home base, now in total darkness, and taxied for almost 5 hours until found by a Norwegian destroyer which took them in tow. Nine and one half hours after takeoff they were back at home base.
This whole incident, told very briefly here, is covered in nine words in Richard Davies logbook: "Found Thunderbolt pilot 42 miles off Swanage. Successful."