Sky-high witness to D-Day
John Nicholson, then a staff sergeant, twice flew over the invasion site.
June 4, 2006
It has been 62 years since then-22-year-old Staff Sgt. John Nicholson, 322 bomb group, 452 bomb squadron, flew over the Normandy coast of France. It was June 6, 1944 -- D-Day -- and it was his first mission as tail gunner on a B-26 Marauder bomber.
"I was looking at what we had to go through -- I missed the people, the boats and everything because my eyes were locked on the [Army] Rangers and everything that was going on," Nicholson, now 84, said last week. "It was like a movie with people falling off the cliff."
About 156,000 Allied troops -- mostly American, British and Canadian -- took part in the historic invasion, storming across the English Channel to open a Western front against the Nazis.
As it turned out, the guns Nicholson's crew bombed on that first mission were dummies -- telephone poles set up to look like guns.
Nicholson and his crew were sent on another mission later on D-Day to bomb a marshalling yard where a train was sitting. Bombs were dropped on the target.
Sitting in the tail of the plane, Nicholson was watching aviators from the Polish Air Force in British Spitfires escorting the bombers when suddenly one of the planes was hit.
"He was about 200 yards behind us, and he just blew up," Nicholson said.
Nicholson few 65 missions during World War II, mostly as a tail gunner but occasionally as bombardier.
A saying about the B-26 at MacDill Field, now MacDill Air Force Base, where Nicholson's and other crews were trained was "One a day in Tampa Bay," he said.
"It was difficult to fly, it was fast and short-winged and flew like a fighter," Nicholson said. "Pilots that came out of school would goof."
Nicholson's last mission was in Germany on March 30, 1945.
In his memoirs, he writes: "I can't really explain how I felt. I was sad (why?). I was happy (you better believe it). I guess I lived every mission over again. Then I thought about home. How much would be changed? Could I really live with myself in a peaceful situation? Then I started to cry and couldn't stop. Perhaps it was knowing that tomorrow night I have a very good chance of being alive, that no one would be trying to kill me tomorrow morning. I was happy but I was also sad."
After the war, Nicholson returned home to civilian life and worked as an engineer.
His awards and decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 12 oak leaf clusters, four Bronze Stars-Air Offensive Europe, Distinguished Unit Badge, Good Conduct Medal and German Occupation Medal.
"I needed a lot of support from the Lord, and I locked on," Nicholson said recalling D-Day.
"I needed somebody up there to help me. I was having difficulty with shells bursting around, like hunks of dynamite when it goes off, they exploded at our altitude, explosions all around -- you can't see, can't hear or anything else.
"Times like that makes you wonder what the hell's going on here."