Thursday, June 05, 2008

Texan returning to Normandy 64 years later

Love stories like this! D-Day June 6,1944

Star-Telegram Staff Writer
BALLINGER -- Dawson Moreland went over his preflight checklist one more time.
He had his passport.

His medicine was packed.

Clothing included a white dress shirt, a tie and his favorite black suit, the one he wears every Sunday to First Baptist Church.

It's a long, long way from this small West Texas town to the beaches of Normandy in France.

The World War II pilot -- Capt. Moreland went by "Hank" then -- never dreamed that at age 90 he would return to that place where he risked his life, where he lost friends. He can still see their faces, forever young, those "boys" he called them who died in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944.

The night before the D-Day invasion, Moreland flew a transport plane loaded with American paratroopers.

The mission called for them to jump out into the darkness, behind enemy lines, near Utah Beach and the village of St. Mere Eglise. Other C-47s dropped soldiers above Normandy's easternmost Sword Beach. Their goal was to take out the big guns at the concrete Merville battery, part of the fortified coastal wall built by the Germans to repel an Allied sea assault.

Moreland's plane encountered a mighty assault from anti-aircraft fire.

"Boy, they cut loose on us," he recalled.

Two bullets pierced the fuselage. When a searchlight spotted the American aircraft, washing it in white light, Moreland immediately dropped altitude, nosing lower, taking the plane lower still, until his co-pilot turned to him with alarm and said, "Hank, you're getting close to the ground!"

"I leveled out right then," he said, "and we got out."

The Texan and his crew returned the next day and, under fire again, dropped supplies to the commandos.

Moreland doesn't embellish the harrowing experience or portray himself as heroic.

"It's not bravery," he insisted in a measured voice. "You're just trying to get the job done. I don't mind telling you I was talkin' to the Lord all the time. If anything brought me through, that did."

Moreland served his country for five years, three months, 21 days "and 45 minutes" and then returned to the tranquility of civilian life. He operated a gas station, sold trailers and served as postmaster in Snyder before retiring. He's now a great-grandfather, content living out his years in this town of 4,000, relaxing at home on his covered back porch with his wife, Ruth, and their potted red geraniums.

From a lounge chair he occasionally fires his scoped BB gun at a paper-plate target nailed to the trunk of a nearby mesquite tree.

This long trip, this improbable, sentimental journey he will make across the ocean this week, is a reminder of life's surprises.

"The whole thing dropped out of the sky on us," Moreland said.

An unfamiliar caller

It began in January, when the telephone rang.

Ruth Moreland answered. The man's voice, which she didn't recognize, asked whether Hank Moreland lived there.

"Yes, he does," she replied.

A long silence followed.

"You mean he's still alive?"

"He certainly is," Ruth assured. "Would you like to speak to him?"

Chris Buckner, who was calling from Baytown, is the son of the late Joseph R. "Buck" Buckner. Moreland and Buck Buckner had flown together during World War II, with Buckner serving as Moreland's radio operator. Buckner died five years ago at 88.

Chris Buckner asked Moreland whether he remembered the tail number of the last C-47 he flew.

"Oh-seven-three," Moreland said.

Excited, Buckner spent the next hour sharing a remarkable story. Officials in the French village of Merville had been searching for a World War II cargo plane to place in the Merville Battery Museum as a symbol of D-Day. Last year, a French soldier who learned of the quest remembered seeing an abandoned C-47 at an air base near Sarajevo when he was serving as a peacekeeper in Bosnia in the 1990s.

The soldier checked the plane's serial number: 43-15073.

Records show that the twin-engine aircraft had participated in the D-Day parachute drops. The plane also survived supply drops in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and was flown in Operation Market Garden, depicted in the movie A Bridge Too Far.

After the war, the plane was sold to Czech Airlines and then to the French air force in 1960. Yugoslavia acquired the aircraft in 1972. It hasn't flown since being riddled by machine-gun fire during Bosnia's war for independence 14 years ago.

Last year its World War II flight log was found in the cockpit.

The document listed dates and names of the American crew members. One was Buck Buckner.

Another was its last WW II pilot, Henry D. Moreland.

Buckner's son said Moreland and Eugene Nobel, who lives in Tulsa, are believed to be the only living pilots of that C-47, nicknamed the SNAFU Special.

Although it's not the same aircraft Moreland flew on D-Day, he piloted the SNAFU Special on numerous dangerous missions in 1945.

Moreland was amazed to learn that the old plane still existed.

"When I flew it, our main purpose was furnishing gasoline for Patton's bunch," Moreland said, referring to Gen. George Patton and the 3rd Army. "We went to whatever field he was closest to and unloaded gas in 5-gallon cans."

Last year the presidents of Bosnia and Herzegovina released the plane to France.

French engineers dismantled the relic and trucked it to Normandy, where it will be permanently displayed at the Merville museum.

After Moreland spoke with Buckner, he received a call from Beatrice Guillaume, the Merville deputy mayor and museum administrator.

She invited him to attend the celebration June 5-7.

'I'll get there'

Ruth Moreland is quite pleased that this event could happen during her husband's lifetime.

"It was supposed to be" she said of the C-47's discovery.

"He deserves to go."

Moreland figures that the travel, at his age, will be exhausting, but he is determined and excited.

"I'll get there," he vowed, "slow as that may be."

His son, Keith, and Keith's family are accompanying him on the 9 1/2 -hour flight from Dallas/Fort Worth. From Paris they will take a van to Merville, near Caen.

Chris Buckner will meet them there, as will the widows and families of several of the other crewmen.

Moreland provided a roll call of names: Buckner ... Nerren ... Harper ... Schiff ... Charles Allman, in 1944 "a tall slender boy." All gone now.

He thought of the "escape kit" each of the fliers carried, to be used if their plane went down. The packet contained a map of Holland, Belgium, France and Germany, printed on a square of silk. After the war, Moreland's first wife wore it as a scarf. Later, he folded it and put it away for safekeeping.

He packed his Sunday best to wear on June 7, the date of the plane's dedication.

The next day he plans visit the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, "where some of my buddies are buried."

More than 9,000 Americans lie at rest in that peaceful garden of stones.

Their graves face west, toward home.

"I'll take it as it comes," the pilot said, bracing himself for a flood tide of memories and some tears.

Last August my wife and I along with our daughter visited the American Cemetery at the Normandy D-Day beaches pictured above. D-Day was the beginning of the liberation of Europe from the Nazi nightmare. It's a powerful place to visit and a reminder that appeasement of evil by democratic governments leads to war, slavery and the worst kind of atrocities known to man.