MOUNT AIRY — Henry W. Harris was a crew member aboard a B-17 bomber on June 6, 1944, a mission in which his group of 64 planes dropped bombs to pave the way for British forces to invade Normandy, France.
He told his story to the Winston-Salem Journal.
“We were scared,” Harris, a native of Mount Airy, said of himself and the fellow members of his squadron. “You do what you have to do the best way you can.”
The B-17s dropped their bombs 19 minutes before British troops landed on Sword Beach. Harris was a 21-year-old staff sergeant, working as an assistant engineer and gunner in his plane, he said.
Harris, now 91, recalled his mission during an interview at the Forest Heights Senior Living Community on Polo Ridge Court in Winston-Salem, where he lives.
Harris was among the nearly 200,000 Allied airmen, sailors and soldiers who participated in the D-Day landings 70 years ago today.
Harris was assigned to the 361st Bomb Group based at Ridgewell Airfield in England. His group was part of the U.S. Eighth Air Force.
The Normandy invasion was the greatest amphibious operation in world history. It was the beginning of Operation Overlord, and resulted in the Allied liberation of German-occupied Western Europe.
“We had been bombing the northern coast of France for many days,” Harris said. “We knew the invasion was coming.”
The night before D-Day, a lieutenant ran into Harris’ barracks and told the airmen that they would participate in the Allied invasion of German-occupied France.
Their officers told the flight crews that American and British planes would have three white stripes on each of their wings, markings that identified them as friendly Allied planes.
“We were told, any plane without those three stripes, shoot them down,” Harris said.
His bomb group flew at 15,000 feet when it dropped its 100-pound bombs to create foxholes on the beach for British troops to use as fighting positions against German soldiers.
“We could see the beach,” Harris said. “I didn’t see any German planes that day.”
The Germans had 500 planes in reserve to thwart the Allied invasion, but the Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, decided not to deploy them on June 6, 1944.
Hitler’s decision was the result of Allied deception plan that successfully fooled the Germans into believing that Allied invasion would take place in the Pas-de-Calais on the Belgian coast, and that Normandy invasion was a feint attack.
Harris said he manned a .50-caliber machine gun that could fire 600 rounds a minute, but he had only 300 bullets and he was trained to fire in short bursts at German fighter planes.
His crew suffered no casualties on D-Day. On his trip back to his base, his plane flew over gliders that had landed in Normandy and he saw parachutes on the ground. Allied planes dropped nearly 24,000 American and British paratroopers in Normandy before the seaborne invasion happened.
Harris’ plane returned safely from the D-Day mission to its base in Ridgewell, England. Ground crews refueled his squadron’s planes and reloaded them with bombs. However, his squadron flew its next bombing mission on June 7, 1944, above northern France.
Harris flew a total of 32 missions. He was drafted in 1942 while he was attending Franklin High School in Mount Airy, Harris said.
He was discharged in October 1945, and he graduated from Franklin High in 1946. Harris then joined the U.S. Air Force again and was stationed in Japan.
In 1950, he married his wife, Carolyn, a graduate of UNC Greensboro who worked as a librarian at his base, Harris said. The couple had three children.
He served in the Korean War, and Harris was discharged from the Air Force as a master sergeant in 1965.
He operated a gas station briefly in Goldsboro and worked for Singer Sewing Co. Harris became a Boy Scouts executive in 1970 in Winston-Salem, a job he held for four years, he said.
Harris received an associate degree at Forsyth Technical Community College in 1976. He landed a job as a kindergarten teacher at several elementary schools until he retired at age 65.
During his retirement, he has worked as a trainer with the Girl Scouts of USA, but he’s taken a slower pace in life recently.
“I have slowed down now,” Harris said.