PENDLETON — More than seven decades after Allied troops stormed the French beaches of Normandy, D-Day remains an event that history won’t soon forget.
On June 5, 1944, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower greenlighted Operation Overlord, the operation that sent Allied forces from England to France to breach Nazi defenses and drive the occupiers back to Germany. This represented a monumental feat of planning, by some of the 20th century’s biggest names — Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery, Charles de Gaulle and U.S. Gen George Patton.
Yet it took legions of mostly anonymous individuals to make it go.
At least two who survived that day of days had ties to this region — Robert “Doc” Franco, late of Richland, Washington, a regimental surgeon with the 82nd Airborne’s 505th Parachute Infantry, and former Pendletonian Jack Whipple of the 437th Troop Carrier group, who piloted a glider.
By June 1944, Soviet forces had the Nazi armies on the run, and their allies had completed preparations for the Normandy invasion. Capt. Franco would be among the first Americans to land in France.
An Army surgeon fresh out of medical school at the time of Pearl Harbor, Franco craved an active role in the conflict. He saw two notices on his stateside hospital bulletin board — one for the ski troops, the 10th Mountain Division, and the other for something called “airborne.”
A Seattle native, Franco recalled thinking, “I already know how to ski,” so jumping out of airplanes became his ticket to action.
At 5-foot-3, he hardly matched the profile of the beefy, brash paratrooper, but his confidence and competence saw him through arduous training and successful jumps in the 1943 debut operations for the 82nd Airborne in Sicily and Salerno, Italy.
The 82nd and 101st Airborne served as the advance party for Overlord, dropping behind enemy lines to clear the roads leading to the beaches and blunt the counterattack that would swiftly follow the landings. As the June 6 skies over Normandy filled with C-47 “skytrain” planes, Nazi forces answered with anti-aircraft fire, downing the transports, killing some exiting troopers and causing misdrops up to 20 miles.
Franco was lucky to complete his “quietest and smoothest” jump to date, landing just outside the objective, the crossroads town of Sainte-Mère-Église. He quickly found several 505th comrades, including the chaplain, who was so delighted to have survived the jump that he spontaneously clicked his identifying clicker toy a dozen times.
“Stop making all that goddamn noise, padre, you’ll alert the whole German army,” came a harsh whisper.
Franco moved carefully into town, set up his aid station in the schoolhouse, and readied himself for the coming onslaught of wounded. A timely administration of plasma, he remembered, could stabilize the critically injured.
At midday, he was summoned to the scene of a horrific glider crash, where he found the pilot and crew beyond help. Fortunately, Whipple had already landed his craft safely.
A Salt Lake City college student before Pearl Harbor, the 20-year-old Whipple knew he wanted to be a pilot and eventually received orders for glider school. Glider pilots became the unsung heroes of the D-Day operation, eclipsed in public memory by the airborne, who starred in the TV series “Band of Brothers.” They flew “flying coffins,” non-mechanized aircraft loaded down with supplies, towed by C-47 planes and released to glide stealthily toward a suitable landing zone, after dark with enemy all around.
Lt. Whipple recalled watching his light Horsa glider being loaded for Normandy, crammed with a jeep (2,300 pounds), 57mm anti-tank gun (2,300 pounds), sundry supplies, a co-pilot and gun crew and himself. After the C-47 tow, Whipple and comrades took small-arms fire on the descent and struggled to land, due to the overloading of the craft and the difficulty of recognizing the landing zone. Aerial photographs had depicted trees without June leaves.
They beat steep odds in coming down safely, just one of three in a grouping of 18 without serious damage or casualties. Whipple coolly helped unload his aircraft, enemy fire echoing all around, and made his way to Sainte-Mère-Église, where he informed 82nd Airborne officers about the location of the jeep and antitank gun and helped salvage supplies from wrecked planes and gliders.
The next day brought the march to Utah Beach for transport back to England, where Whipple would man resupply flights. En route, his luck nearly ran out. Nearby American anti-aircraft guns opened up on a swooping German bomber, sending him diving for cover. Once on board the landing craft tank that would take him to the waiting ship, he hit the deck as a sea mine destroyed the neighboring craft.
He returned safely, but no wonder he felt, as he later wrote, that “someone was watching over me.”
After the war, Whipple married Audrey Wallace in 1950 and had two children, John R., Jr., and Elizabeth. He managed department stores for Allied Federated Stores (now Macy’s) around the Pacific Northwest, including in Pendleton, later owning and operating his own JR’s Department Store in Cedar City, Utah. He and his wife eventually opened a bed and breakfast in Cedar City, Utah, before retiring to the Millcreek area of Salt Lake City. Whipple passed away in October 2018 at the age of 97.
Franco returned to the U.S. in 1946 and married Ilene Andler, a surgical nurse from Boston, proposing to her at Fenway Park. The couple had six children and eventually settled in Richland, Washington, where Franco was a surgeon for 41 years. He also became a student at Washington State University, Tri-Cities, taking courses and interacting with young students. Franco passed away in August 2013 in Seattle.
Franco and Whipple typically declined to discuss the war through the years following the war, but it is not hard to imagine their quiet pride in the roles they played in the “Great Crusade.”
They truly did help save the world.