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James Flanagan parachuted into Normandy hours before the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division was to land at Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. He and his fellow airborne soldiers came down in the middle of the night, charged with removing any German resistance along the vulnerable causeways that led inland from the beach. They would be the prelude to the largest amphibious invasion in history.
After landing near Ravenoville, France, the first vehicle that the paratrooper saw later in the morning while mopping up near a captured farm complex was coming from the beach and carrying two men, one an International News Service photographer. It was 9 a.m., about three hours into 'the longest day' in history. The soldiers took a brief timeout so that the photographer could record the event. Flanagan, in the center, smiled while clutching the Nazi flag that had been 'liberated' from the enemy command post headquarters in the farm complex they now occupied. When this picture was wired back to the States, it became one of the most widely distributed newspaper photos taken from the events of June 6.
Flanagan talked with World War II Magazine about how his group captured the flag, his participation in the Normandy invasion and also about his service with the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
World War II:I see that you have the D-Day picture that became so well known.
Flanagan: Yes, my sister, who was in New York at that time, went down to the International News Service office right after D-Day and got the picture for me. It is still hanging on the wall over there [in his study].
WWII: Tell us how the picture came about.
Flanagan: The photographer who took that picture was the first sign we had that morning that the 4th Infantry Division had made it successfully onto Utah Beach. He and another fellow were driving a jeep up from the beach. They were out ahead of the 4th Infantry troops. They drove onto the farm, and the photographer called out to us, 'Hey boys, can I take some pictures?' The Nazi flag that I am holding had been hanging in the command post. The German helmet at my feet in the bottom of the picture was still lying where it had fallen from the German who had died while defending the place.
WWII: Did you keep the flag?
Flanagan: Yes, I had it for many years. On June 10, 1986, I donated the flag to the General Donald Pratt 101st Airborne Museum in Fort Campbell, Ky., where it is today.
WWII: How did you become a member of the famous five-o-deuce [502nd] Parachute Infantry Regiment?
Flanagan: I graduated from high school in 1941 in Fairfax, Va. I have always been fascinated with aviation and went to the National School of Aeronautics for four months, and then I went to work on the Lockheed Vega–plant number one, in Kansas City, Mo. I was building B-34s for the U.S. Army. I was also sent to Dallas, Texas, where I worked on the British version of the P-38, a plane called the Lockheed 322, and I built subassembly parts for the B-17. After Pearl Harbor, I tried to join the Marines, but they said my eyesight wasn't good enough. In December 1942, I enlisted in the Army. For the next couple of months, I attended what was called the Army Specialized Training Program [ASTP] in Iowa City, Iowa. After a couple of months, a friend and I decided that the 6 a.m. to midnight intensive study regimen wasn't for us. We had been told, 'Get your grades up to passing or you're out.' We didn't keep up with our studies and were soon dismissed.
WWII: What did you do then?
Flanagan: From ASTP we were sent to the Infantry Replacement Center at Camp Chaffee, Ark. I was given a refresher course for operating the M-1 scout car. I didn't care for this assignment either. A friend of mine saw a poster for the paratroopers. We both signed up. We were sent to Fort Benning, Ga., for jump school. ASTP was a piece of cake compared to jump school. After jump school we were formed up into the 542nd Regiment. We took our advanced infantry training across the river from Fort Benning on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. Eventually the Army broke up the 542nd because it wasn't ready for combat, so they took all of us and divided us up into the 11th, 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. We were sent to Camp Shanks, near New York City [in Orangeburg, about 15 miles away, on the west side of the Hudson River].
WWII: How did you get to Europe?
Flanagan: We disembarked for ETO [European Theater of Operations] by way of Camp Shanks. We crossed the Atlantic on an ex-banana boat. The North Atlantic was a real tiger–it was wintertime, with 45-foot waves. Nearly everyone was seasick, including some of the sailors. All the way across the Atlantic I stayed out of the hold of the ship because the smell from down there was that bad.
WWII: Where was your first camp in Europe?
Flanagan: Camp Clatybaugh, near Belfast in Northern Ireland. There was an old castle on the grounds–we were housed in the stables. We stayed there until April of 1944. There were about 200 of us at that camp. It was made up of men who would be divided up among the 501st, 506th and 327th Parachute Infantry regiments of the 101st. I became a rifleman in the 2nd Platoon, C Company, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. There were also men who became part of the 82nd Airborne Division. We left Ireland for England one month before June 6.
WWII: What type of advanced training did you receive prior to D-Day?
Flanagan: We did our final field practice. A bad boil on my foot kept me from participating in the only practice night jump we had prior to Normandy, so I went on to jump on D-Day not having jumped since Fort Benning.
WWII: What was your D-Day jump like?
Flanagan: The jump was originally to take place in the early morning hours of June 5, but it was canceled due to poor weather. But on the 6th we jumped. In my stick I was the first to board the plane and therefore the last to jump. From my vantage point, I had an opportunity to observe the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer. Once over France, multicolored tracers filled the sky. There was no way these pilots were going to slow down to 110 mph for us to safely jump. You have to remember some of these pilots were so young that they hadn't yet shaved. My plane was not holding altitude. It was doing about 160 mph. The pilot had the nose down and was heading for home. I was the last one out. When my chute fully extended it was a shock! At that same moment I landed in about four feet of water. The water made the landing so much better than if I had hit hard ground, but just the same, the landing woke you up! The water was cold and salty. I figured I landed about halfway between Ravenoville and Utah Beach.
WWII: Once on the ground, how did you proceed?
Flanagan: Using my clicker [cricket], I started looking for company. At first I didn't recognize my position from the maps that I had previously studied. I heard some shooting, so I began moving toward Ravenoville. The firing was coming from a German MG42 machine gun. The person pulling the trigger, however, wasn't a very good shot. The Army had trained me how to crawl so that I was only 4 inches off the ground, so I did. Soon there was more activity. I began recognizing the sounds of our M-1s. By way of moonlight, using my clicker, I began joining up with troops from other companies and regiments. By dawn, there were about 20 of us. We didn't know each other, but a major [Major John P. Stopka, 3/502nd] came over and organized us into a group and led us on an attack of a German garrison at a farm complex [Marmion] at Ravenoville. This was also the location of the German MG42 that had been firing on us. The Germans were about platoon size in strength. The battle lasted for about an hour and a half. Once the farm complex was captured, the major had us running patrols around the outlying areas in order to keep the Germans from sneaking up on us. We maintained outposts and patrols until we were relieved later in the day. We also had a dozen prisoners who we had to contend with. By noon, the 4th Infantry Division had arrived from Utah Beach, and we were relieved. I spent the night of June 6 at Ravenoville. By June 7, I was back with my regiment and company, where I was assigned to patrols in and around the 502nd's areas of responsibility in Normandy near Houseville. We would patrol the area and try to clean out remaining German defenders. We ran around the bush. They ambushed us, and we ambushed them. This went on for several days.
WWII: Tell us about the battle for Carentan.
Flanagan: We were informed by our command that Omaha Beach was still meeting some resistance while lots of men and equipment were trying to make their way off the beach. Command wanted our two beaches [Omaha and Utah] to expand and link together. Carentan was in between these beaches and became our objective.
WWII: What role did you play in the battle for Carentan?
Flanagan: I remember our regiment leading off the initial attack on the causeway leading into Carentan on June 10-11. I remember the road was long and straight with four bridges between us and Carentan. We were strafed and bombed by Junkers Ju-87s. The Germans gave us menacing artillery, mortar and machine gun fire. They knew we were coming down the road into Carentan, and we just kept right on going. We should have started on down this road a day earlier, but the bridges were so screwed up. I remember the fourth and final gate into Carentan had a heavy steel gate, which allowed about 11 1/2 feet clearance to squeeze through, which naturally bunched us up when we tried to pass through it. This really slowed things down. Nobody got any sleep. We attacked into the night and into the next day. You couldn't see anything at night. Everyone in my platoon was hosing down the countryside with his weapons. Every now and then somebody was hit. The Germans couldn't see us in the dark. They fired a couple rounds here and a couple there, anticipating our movement. We lost a lot of men. We were in bad shape. My platoon had suffered about 20 KIA. At the end of the day on June 11, we were back in St. Cme-du-Mont, where we were fed chow for the first time from outside field kitchens. This was a welcome change from K rations. They even had ice cream. The next day we were moved back near Carentan, I believe to the southwest, where we were put into a holding pattern. We slept outside under shelter halves, which leaked easily in the pouring rain. We soon turned the attack on the city over to the 506th for the final thrust into the center of town on June 12. I took part in a few more patrols near Carentan. I was now a scout because of earlier losses in my platoon. I went out on a couple of probing patrols before being sent to Cherbourg with the rest of my outfit.
WWII: What was your final combat assignment in Normandy?
Flanagan: After Carentan, we took a couple of days to refit and rest. More people came into our company. We were stationed southwest of Carentan. We expanded our control zone through patrols and outposts. I went from signal corps duties to becoming a lead scout. The rains came. It was pretty miserable for both sides. But before leaving Normandy, we were given one last task; we were sent to Cherbourg. Our assignment was to locate, defuse and remove booby traps and land mines along roads and in buildings, which had been placed there by the Germans to slow down our advance. We were asked to do this because we had experience with mine removal. We did a good job; nobody in my outfit was hurt while we took out these obstacles. Toward the end of June an LCT [landing craft, tank] picked us up and took us back to England, where we prepared for our next mission. In England we had a bunch of new boys come join our company, and still others returned from the hospital. The new guys needed a lot of help. We provided weapons and night operation training to see how the new guys behaved. We were put on alert for a number of missions as the summer went on, but were not sent on another mission until September because of the success of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton's infantry and tanks.
WWII: Let's talk about your next mission, Operation Market-Garden.
Flanagan: Market-Garden was a day jump. We were going to see if it was better than the night jump we had made into Normandy. The boys flying the transports in were a little more experienced. We also had fighter escorts flying 500 feet below us–Spitfires, Mustangs and Thunderbolts. They sanitized the area by flying zigzag underneath our transports and firing at anything that might have interfered with our mission. It was beautiful weather on September 17. We jumped from approximately 1,100 feet, so we had a little time to view the scenery. You also had time to grab your weapon and fire if someone was threatening you from the ground. It was a relatively soft landing for me in a recently plowed field. I got up and got out of my chute, leaving it behind for someone else to pick up as we had been ordered. You just followed the path of the guys who landed ahead. I jumped in the middle of my stick, so this was an easy task for me.
WWII: What was your objective?
Flanagan: We were to form up and attack St. Oedenrode. We were told that the Dutch were our allies, that we were to proceed carefully, to be careful in regards to the Dutch civilians in the town and to minimize property damage. We came up to a bridge leading into St. Oedenrode, and the Germans began firing at us. We had a number of sporadic firefights. By sundown of that evening, we had cleared all the Germans out of the town. The Germans left behind a medical aid station in the town, and we captured it along with a German doctor. Our 1st Battalion medical officer had to remind the German doctor that he was still wearing a .32-caliber pistol, which he reluctantly turned over. The hospital also had Dutch civilian doctors working in it. The Germans had left behind the more severely wounded, and they became our prisoners.
WWII: Weren't you wounded near St. Oedenrode?
Flanagan: Yes, I lasted less than 24 hours in the field in Holland.
WWII: Tell us about that.
Flanagan: You may have heard of the'seven jeeps episode'? A colonel from another outfit, not an airborne officer, was proceeding up an unsecured road with seven jeeps that had come in by glider. He was taking them up a road with a detail of soldiers. He had been warned by an MP at a Y intersection that the road he was about to take was not a secure or safe road to travel. The colonel went anyway; I think he was in a hurry to get to Best. Well, about one-half to three-quarters of a mile into his journey he runs into German resistance. He is forced to abandon his seven-jeep caravan and attempt to make his way back to our lines near St. Oedenrode while taking enemy fire. One of the jeeps had been hit and destroyed. Well, the seven jeeps were just left there, and the Army wanted them back. The colonel went to Lieutenant Wall, my platoon leader, and asked him to take a group of men and recover the seven jeeps. Our 1st Battalion commander of the 502nd gave Lieutenant Wall permission to take two squads to secure the jeeps. I became part of this detail as a scout. At this time I was a map corporal, having been given this position because I had civilian draftsman experience. I and a trooper named Junior from my platoon became scouts on this recovery detail. I was the second scout. While I was out on point in the early morning, moving up the drainage ditch alongside the road to our objective, I noticed a typical brick Dutch house where a window was open with the curtains pulled back. It looked very suspicious, and I pointed my M-1 at the window. My hunch was right; I soon discovered that there was an MG42 in that building. I fired eight rounds into the window and quickly shut up the MG42. But these German machine-gunners had friends. Suddenly from 50 yards ahead mortars began crashing down into the ditch I was in. With skilled precision, the mortars were walking back toward my position as they exploded. I tucked myself hard into the ditch, but the mortars kept coming in on me until one exploded next to me. The force was so great that it blew me out of the 3 1/2-foot-deep ditch and blew the stock clean off my M-1. I had shrapnel enter my body in about three dozen places in my arms, ribs and legs.
WWII: How were you rescued?
Flanagan: All I remember is being taken back to our lines by an aid man who had given me morphine. The morphine made me feel so good that I actually partially walked back to where a jeep picked me up to transport me to the hospital in St. Oedenrode. I was hospitalized for four to five days before I was transferred to Brussels, Belgium, to a British evacuation hospital for another four to five days. A British hospital meant the dreadful British rations. For breakfast it was tea and hot porridge, but without cream or sugar. Lunch wasn't much better–you could lose weight in a British field hospital. I was finally transferred to another hospital for a couple of days before being flown back to England on a Royal Canadian Air Force C-47. Once back in England, a group of strong boys grabbed my stretcher and removed me from the airplane. We were sat down and visited by the 'doughnut dollies,' who came up and gave me and the other transported wounded doughnuts and coffee. The doughnut dollies were so attractive and gracious that they did more to make us feel better than anyone or anything else. Now we are in October, and I am in the 61st General Hospital in England. The doctors there found no infections from the three dozen pieces of shrapnel in me. So much time had passed since I was wounded that my body had started healing around the shrapnel, without infection, so the doctors decided not to cut me up. Instead they gave me a physical therapist that helped me recover from the muscle damage caused by the shrapnel wounds. To beat the boredom of the hospital, we would have races with our crutches. It is amazing how fast you could move on crutches with a little practice. I was at this hospital for about two months before I was sent back.
WWII: Where were you assigned when you completed your hospital stay?
Flanagan: I was returned to the 502nd, now stationed in Mourmelon, France. I arrived back several days before the Battle of the Bulge began. When I returned to my platoon, I noticed that most of the faces were different. I was given my back pay and was going to get a convalescent pass for seven days so that I could visit Paris. I saw these orders sitting on my CO's desk. When the Bastogne thing erupted, this was of course canceled for me and anyone else awaiting a pass. I remember the sergeant yelling, 'Everything's been canceled,' and ordering us to prepare to move out. I was reissued an M-1 and a .45. We were packed tight into cattle trucks for the drive to Bastogne. They were open trailers, but we kept from freezing to death by being packed in so tightly together. I went into Bastogne with my summer uniform. We didn't receive any galoshes to protect our feet. In fact, we hadn't any cold weather gear. Jump boots aren't very good in cold, wet weather.
WWII: What do you remember about your arrival in Bastogne?
Flanagan: We started taking 75 and 88mm artillery fire before we entered the Bastogne area and were able to dig in. All I remember is going where they told me to go. As I looked around my platoon, I remember old hands being few. It was very cold. Christmas Day was especially a bitch!
WWII: What happened on Christmas Day?
Flanagan: Before breakfast, German panzers began pushing through our lines that we held on the outskirts of the village of Champs. They had penetrated through our lines east of Flamierge, overrunning the positions held by the 327th and 401st. My company [C] and B Company were being moved to help out A Company, which was being attacked by about 18 German tanks and support infantry that were riding on and alongside the tanks. We had a couple of M-4 Shermans and two high-velocity tank destroyers from the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and 4th Armored Division. Our marksmen began picking off the German infantry while the Shermans and TDs [tank destroyers] went to work on the panzers. In Belgium the farmers stored their potatoes and other grown goods inside mounds of earth that were approximately 2 feet high by 3 feet wide. We used these mounds as protection while we fired into the German infantry. It was so cold that these mounds were frozen and provided excellent cover in the open fields. Eventually my company was motioned to retract to the edge of the woods as the firing intensified. I remember running very hard for the edge of the woods and jumping over some of the ground foliage. I was running alongside an officer. In between us was a large tree. Suddenly that tree exploded as it was hit directly by an 88 shell. I don't know if the officer was hit. Fortunately I wasn't hit but I found myself sailing through the air, and when I landed I was up to my rump in a stream. The force of my landing had broken through the inch or so of ice, and now I was in trouble. Around this same time the tank destroyers went out and began charging at the remaining German armor coming out of the woods and into the open field. They would swing around and fire at near point-blank range at the vulnerable rear side of the panzer. The Germans couldn't react fast enough because their tanks were not as quick as the TDs. I don't recall any Germans or panzers escaping this attack. They lost all of their tanks that came at us, and we gunned down their infantry. For anyone to get out of that fight, they would have had to be very fast.
WWII: So now you are 3 feet deep in a freezing Belgian stream.
Flanagan: I quickly came down with frostbite. I was sent to a hospital in Bastogne. Shortly after I arrived, the medical people took a pint of my blood. I was informed that there were others who needed it worse than I did. This was repeated again 10 days later. I was hospitalized for about two weeks. Eventually I rejoined my platoon, and we soon moved on to the Alsace country.
WWII: What was your assignment in the Alsace area?
Flanagan: We were put on patrol duty in the Moder River area near Haguenau. You have to remember that our platoon was still weak at this point from the Bastogne action. River reconnaissance along the Moder was difficult because of the cold, swift moving water. The Germans also controlled the other side of the river. I saw my brother, who was in another infantry division, while I was there. After this action, we were sent back to Mourmelon on French 'Forty and Eights' railroad cars.
WWII: By this time you must have been feeling that the end of the war was near?
Flanagan: Not really. We were all sweating it out because we thought we were all going to be sent to fight against Japan.
WWII: What was your final enemy engagement prior to the surrender?
Flanagan: We were sent to Berchtesgaden. When we arrived, the war wasn't over yet. An outfit of German SS troops were there that hadn't yet surrendered. We were put on patrol duty but told to stay out of shooting matches because the war was nearly over. The SS soldiers didn't want to fight us either. There was some professional pride involved in this cooperation. I think we were all thinking about how to get out of this watch alive.
WWII: Were you with the 101st for the remainder of the war?
Flanagan: I was shipped backed to the States in December of 1945 in another banana boat during another terrible Atlantic series of storms. The seas were so rough that even the fat guys became skinny because they couldn't keep anything down. Few people had appetites. The strong seas and the tossing of our ship led to contamination of the ship's fuel supply because saltwater got into it. We had to steam to the Azores for necessary repairs before the final leg home to Boston.
WWII: In addition to the flag picture, do you have any other mementos of the war?
Flanagan: I have an M-1 Garand, but it is not the one I had in Europe. I also have my M-42 jump jacket and Eisenhower jackets, and they still fit me!
After the war, James Flanagan moved to California and once again pursued his interest in the aviation industry. For more than 50 years, he has had a wide and varied career in aeronautics. A certified pilot, flight instructor, ground school instructor and mechanic, he is also a qualified and experienced inspector who certifies aircraft for flight. For years he was an inspector for Lockheed aircraft, including fighters built for the military. He also worked for many years for Pacific Aeromotive in China, Calif.
Flanagan and his wife, Dorothy, live outside of Sacramento. He puts in 40 hours a week at a nearby airport, where he is restoring a vintage North American T-6 Texan for a customer. In another recent project he restored a Hawker Sea Fury high-performance aircraft that had bellied in at the Reno Air Races. Each September Flanagan also participates in the Reno Air Races. When time allows, the former paratrooper works on his memoirs of World War II.
This article was written by James D. Sutton who is a regular contributor to World War II Magazine. As the superintendent of schools in Kalama, Wash., he has been nationally recognized for his use of 'Band of Brothers' materials as a teaching tool. This article originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!
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