Sunday, June 10, 2007

History is Our Stories ~ D-Day Memories of Kurt Ullman

Normandy memories live on after 63 years
Supply pilot had to ditch wounded plane in ocean

This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on Wednesday, June 6, 2007.

By TITUS GEE Valley Press Staff Writer

QUARTZ HILL - Kurt Ullman did not fly one of the airplanes that dropped paratroopers on France 63 years ago during D-Day, June 6, 1944. There was no plane left for him, the retired airman said, so his war started the next day, June 7, carrying supplies into the hot zone under heavy fire.

"It was just at dawn, we were going across the coast," said Ullman, now 86 and steady on his feet, with a firm handshake.

"The sky just glared red," he said. "I don't know how anyone got through."

The day had started about 2 a.m., Ullman recalled, when a new man called a "drop master" reported to 1st Lt. Ullman's four-man crew. Theoretically, the young fellow was a specialist in dropping the supply loads, but he told Ullman he never had been aloft. The lieutenant rousted his copilot, radio man and crew chief and ran the lot of them through drills on emergency bail-outs, crash landing and "ditching."

Shortly after dawn those drills probably saved their lives in the waters of the English Channel. Their C-47 supply plane dropped its load but caught a hail of anti-aircraft flak as it turned back toward home. Ullman took a chunk in the leg, but said that hardly held his attention as he fought to keep the damaged bird headed west.

"I was fully occupied," he said.

Finally, Ullman told the crew they were going down.

The stick went dead.

They crashed into the water and put their recent drills to practice. All five made it into the dinghy and back to the rescue boats. Ullman's leg wound was the only injury among them.

That was his first flight and the last time Ullman got shot down, though he flew missions beyond counting. His gun-less airplane carried paratroopers, supplies, even medical teams running evacuation missions.

"We flew every day," he said. "It was seldom - seldom - that you didn't fly. . When Patton got moving up there, we were hauling gasoline - sometimes two runs a day."

Ten days after the crash that landed him the Purple Heart, Ullman was back in the cockpit. By the end of the war he had seven battle stars - Normandy, Southern France, Northern France, Rome-Arno, Rhineland, Ardennes and Central Europe.

They worked so hard the doctors started stepping in to keep them on the ground long enough to rest, he said.

He missed the Battle of the Bulge by one day.

"My name was on the board," he said - at a time when American planes were going down in waves, leaving one or two to limp home after each run.

"You don't say, 'No, I won't go.' You're name is up, you go," the retired pilot said.

That kind of attitude pervaded America culture in that era, he explained.

"We were all of a mind," he said. "There was nobody that I know of thinking, 'Hey I'm going to get out of this.' You're thinking, 'Hey, I'm gonna go.' "

Ullman left active duty at 25 but continued as a reservist for more than 20 years and retired as a lieutenant colonel.

Those raw and violent early days may loom large in retrospect, but Ullman said he rarely thinks of them except on Memorial Day - or when there's a reporter sitting across the table.

"You get out and you think about it, but you go to work, get married. You have kids. You get it behind you," he said. And that's just what he did. Ullman went on to be a farmer, a bank president and a manager of Palmdale Regional Airport. He's still active in investing.

He continued to fly for recreation until his hearing began to dim. Then many of the memories dimmed as well.

"With the passing of time you forget names; you forget routes," he said.

These days, he said, he appreciates the public recognition of the military and its service, but he doesn't go to the reunions.

"The ranks are getting thinner," he said. "Every one of my friends have died, of the ones I knew well - every single one of them."

He said he marvels sometimes at the public obsession with losses in Iraq, but he understands the personal cost of every casualty.

"They (the casualties in Iraq) are very minor compared to so many other things . and yet no life should be considered minor," he said. "It's not funny when it's your family."

And yet, he said, "We don't like fighting over there, but it's better than fighting here. . It's an old saying, but it's true - freedom isn't free."

1 comment:

De'on Miller said...

Good story and thanks for your service, Kurt Ullman

I wonder how long it took him to only think about it on Memorial Day?