Ted Weatherhead was a 21-year-old green 2nd lieutenant and co-pilot of a C-47, twin-engine, transport plane — a member of the 316th Troop Carrier Group, 44th Troop Carrier Wing, 9th Air Force — that dropped 19 fully-equipped 101st Airborne paratroopers behind enemy lines on D-Day hours before the June 6, 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II.
“That night we took off for France and flew south from Cottesmore, England to Land’s End, at the southern tip of the country, and crossed the English Channel,” the 88-year-old Tangerine Woods resident of Englewood, Fla. explained. “We came across the north side of Normandy and dropped our paratroopers.
“The weather was terrible and I was scared to death of hitting another plane flying in formation with us. Our 16-plane squadron was flying in groups of four planes each. There were 20 or 30 of these squadrons each filled with paratroopers headed for Normandy,” Weatherhead said.
“We flew in a V-formation following our leader until he gave us the green light on the top of his airplane. That was the signal to drop our paratroopers,” he said. “As we did we turned on the three black lights atop our fuselage and on both wings of our transport plane.
“We were flying 500 feet off the ground when they jumped. The paratroopers didn’t like it because we were flying too fast and too low when they bailed out,” Weatherhead said. ” We were going about 120 mph. when they jumped which was awfully fast for them. They would have much rather jumped at 2,000 feet, not 500.
“Because we were flying so low and fast the Germans didn’t have much chance to shoot at us. Even so, the enemy’s .50 caliber machine-guns were effective. We counted 30 bullet holes in our C-47 from enemy machine-gun fire after the first flight,” he said.
“When we reached our base we thought we were through for the day. After debriefing we immediately went to bed and slept until they woke us up later that morning for our second D-Day flight. The second time we towed a glider that held a Jeep and 10 paratroopers over there.
“The Germans knew about our gliders. What they did was plant telephone pole-size posts in the ground standing three or four feet tall in many of the open fields along the Normandy coast to keep the gliders from landing. We tried to find a field that didn’t have posts when we dropped our glider off.
“When we returned from our second flight over Normandy that day they gave each of us a shot of whiskey. We took it and slept like a baby all night long,” Weatherhead recalled with a grin more than 65-years later.
For the next few months his unit hauled troops, supplies and injured soldiers all over Europe. One mercy flight he flew with 12 seriously wounded soldiers aboard his C-47 accompanied by a flight nurse to keep them alive until they reached the safety of an English hospital stands out in his mind all these decades later.
“We took off from France with a dozen or so seriously injured soldiers aboard our C-47. Halfway across the Channel I contacted the control tower at the closest airport to the hospital we were delivering our injured troops to. I was told all of England was socked in because of the fog,” he recalled.
“I turned the plane around and headed back toward France. I told the control tower there we were returning with our plane load of wounded soldiers,” Weatherhead recalled. “I was advised I couldn’t land there either because of the poor weather conditions.
“In desperation I headed for the field at Land’s End that had a homing beacon at the end of the runway. When we got close to the field I contacted the control tower and told them to turn the homing beacon on and leave it on so we could home in on it and land,” he said.
“The guy in the tower told me he couldn’t do that because that was against regulations. I told him to contact his superior and tell him we were coming in with a dozen injured soldiers and we couldn’t land without the beacon.
“By the time we turned our plane around out over the Channel and headed back toward the fogged-in runway the tower turned on the homing beacon. We came in so low over the water our prop wash stirred up the sea,” he added. ”
“By this time the flight nurse, who was caring for our injured soldiers in the back of our plane, was going nuts. She had run out of all her medical supplies. Her charges would be in serious trouble if we didn’t land soon,” Weatherhead said.
“We flew in and landed in thick fog without a hitch. Eight ambulances were waiting to transport our injured soldiers when we taxied up and stopped on the tarmac,” he said.
“That was one of the hairiest flights I ever made. It was scarier than the D-Day invasion parachute drop. When it was all over we asked where the mess sergeant was. We were hungry.”
It wasn’t too long before Weatherhead’s squadron was involved in supplying American soldiers with ammunition and equipment during the Battle of the Bulge. Right after that, his unit took part in the biggest parachute drop of all times, “Operation Market Garden” in September 1944.
British Field Marshal Barnard Montgomery and his 21st Army Group planned to capture a series of bridges in the Netherlands and Germany that would allow Allied forces to cross the Rhine River into the enemy hartland. Unfortunately it failed because the English units didn’t move quickly enough to secure all of the spans from the enemy.
Some 41,628 airborne assault troops from a half dozen countries, including the U.S. 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne, were involved in the Allied disaster. Thousands of paratroopers were killed or wounded in the assault that bogged down and was eventually stopped by the German defenders accomplishing little for Allied forces.
“We were involved in two or three glider drops during ‘Market Garden.’ Allied forces took several of the bridges before the Germans stopped ’em,” Weatherhead said.
A few months later he and his unit were headed back to the States for reassignment to the Pacific Theatre of Operations.
“The 316th Group was on the boat preparing to sail to New York City in May 1945 when it got word the Germans had surrendered,” he said. “We went home, got a 30 day leave and reported to Polk Field, N.C. where I began flying wounded patients to hospitals in the Battle Creek, Mich. area.
“Immediately after the war I got a chance to go fly for the airlines or go back to college. I went back to Ohio State University and got my degree in engineering,” Weatherhead said. “My wife, Mary, and I got married in 1945 and I went to work for a cement company as the resident engineer and assistant manager.”
Later he became plant manager for another cement firm. It was about this point in his career he developed a system for burning old rubber tires in the cement company kiln. As a result, he founded Weatherhead Associates Fuel Consultants and sold his rubber tire idea to cement companies around the country.
He and Mary first wintered in the Englewood area in 1984. They have 13 children. He quickly wrote their names on a blank piece of paper for me: James, Peter, Michael, Joan, Chuck, Bill, Martha, Tom, Andy, Bob, Madeline, Steve, Mary. The couple also has 43 grandchildren.
“I’m proudest of the fact that all 13 of our kids went to college. Two are doctors and two have Master’s degrees,” Weatherhead explained with satisfaction.
Name: Edward C. Weatherhead
D.O.B: 13 March 1923
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Currently: Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: 7 Jan. 1944
Discharged: 13 May 1945
Rank: 1st Lieutenant
Unit: 316th Troop Carrier Group
Commendations: Air Medal with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Unit Badge, European-African-Middle Eastern Service Medal
Battles/Campaigns: D-Day, Operation Market Garden
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 16, 2012 and is republished with permission.
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