A local bomber pilot flew over Omaha Beach a half hour before thousands of U.S. soldiers stormed ashore along the coast of Normandy.
However, Army Air Corps Lieutenant Thomas Bernard Nolan, known to his buddies as “Barney,” couldn’t see much as his B-24 Liberator headed inland to bomb a bridge the Nazis would use to bring up reinforcements to try to defeat 176,000 invading Allied troops.
“We were at 13,000 feet, so you really didn’t see any close detail on action or anything like that,” Nolan said. “There was no indication of artillery explosions or whatever. It was just there.”
The weather deteriorated as he flew inland.
“Cloud cover obscured the bridge we were supposed to attack, and we had to return to England with our bombs still aboard,” said Nolan, who was deeply disappointed the bombs were not dropped on D-Day.
But two weeks later, Nolan and his crew ran into heavy flak when they bombed an oil plant near Hanover, Germany.
“It was the worst flak barrage I have ever seen,” he remembered.
But as they were exiting the target area, Nolan heard something hit two-inch thick bulletproof glass that wrapped around the cockpit.
“When I heard kind of a thud up here near my ear, I turned my nose to look, and that is where a piece of flak hit and cupped the glass,” Nolan explained. “But it didn’t come through, or I wouldn’t be here telling you this story.”
Nolan also recalled seeing comrades fall to enemy ground fire. He folded up both hands as he described a nearby B-24 take a direct hit.
“And my memory just still shows the wings folding up together and the tail turret rolling out of the big fireball.”
After that mission, his 20th, flak fired by Germans manning an 88-millimeter anti-aircraft battery ripped a hole in the left wing between the No. 1 and No. 2 engines of Nolan’s Liberator, tearing away control cables and causing a runaway propeller on one of the engines.
That sent the heavy bomber into a spin toward the ground, but Nolan and the other pilot were able to lift the nose of the aircraft and head back to England where the crew was based. However, the bomber was losing altitude at an alarming rate, drifting down to 500 feet as they crossed the English Channel.
“I told the crew I didn’t think we could make it, and said they could bail out if they wanted to,” Nolan recalled.
But everyone said they were going to stay with the aircraft. At the time, Air-Sea Rescue was almost non-existent, and airmen often drowned after they hit the water in their heavy, heated flying suits and parachutes. Even if they were able to wiggle free, the chilly waters could lead to hypothermia and death.
Somehow, Nolan said he was able to keep the battle-damaged B-24 aloft long enough to cross the English Channel at a place called Bradlow Bay.
“And as I looked out, I spotted a runway,” Nolan said. “We had no contact with anybody on the ground. Nobody in the control tower, or anything. I just dropped the gear and the flaps and landed.”
Nolan stayed in the U.S. Air Force after the war, and retired as a Lt. Colonel. He has just finished his fifth book about the air war over Europe, and the part he played in it.