“Boats fill the channel…”
The handwritten words carefully carved in pencil upon yellowing parchment seem innocent and bereft of the emotion San Marino resident Elliott Katz certainly experienced 72 years ago.
“Area around target cloudy”
He’s 92 years old, and until just five years ago maintained a rigorous tennis regimen. One thing’s for sure – his mind is as sharp and crisp as the orders he received as a fresh-faced 20-year old when he was rousted from his sleep at 3:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944.
The seven exclamation points are Elliott’s.
He had already flown nine bombing missions into France, Belgium and Germany as navigator aboard a B-24. Katz was in the first wave of heavy bombers that crossed the English Channel at 0725 in military terms.
“Target is supply depot and rail yards at Caen, Fr. Boats and ships blanket the Channel.”
More than two years earlier, Katz – then a high schooler in New Jersey – had tried to enlist in the United States Army on Armistice Day – November 11 of 1941.
“There were 11 of us,” Katz recalls. “It made the papers.”
Only 17 years old at the time, he needed signatures from both parents. His mother refused to sign.
Katz went to Purdue and enlisted when he returned to the East Coast during the summer of ’42.
“I was the only child of a mother who would get air sick on a stepladder,” Katz recalls with a chuckle.
He soon found himself on a troop train to San Antonio with 469 other hopefuls, where they would undergo 18 weeks of orientation.
“There was physical training, psychological training. You also learn that sergeants run the Army and you learn to listen to them.”
Just 200 remained by the time the 18 weeks had passed.
“If you messed up, they tossed you out,” Katz said.
Katz was transferred to Herrington, Kansas.
“When we got there, we received our first orders,” he remembers. “We did not know whether we were heading west or east. Once we knew we were heading to Europe, we began getting outfitted for crossing the South Atlantic.”
Thirty-nine planes carrying ten men each began the arduous journey that originally took them to Brazil, Marakesh and Dakar before assembling in North Africa.
“When you cross the Atlantic, you have no communication with anyone, anywhere,” Katz said. “Generally, as soon as you are out of sight of land, someone says ‘navigator, where are we?’ Your only answer is ‘Somewhere over the South Atlantic.’”
Steering one of the planes, Katz performed celestial navigating and wave reading to find his target.
“Like sailors do,” he said. “You get an idea of the wind, not only the direction, but also the force by reading the waves.”
“I hit within 50 miles of Dakar on my first try,” he exclaimed. “That was very successful.”
Hard to believe in our current state, where an Applebee’s can be detected within a margin of error of less than 50 feet.
With a target arrival of January, 1944, the operation moved north and – after a month – finally into Wales and the base in East Anglia.
“As we were coming in, we flew over earth ovens in Wales where they baked bread,” Katz recalls. “The smell was incredible. What a greeting!”
Allied bombing on German positions in Western Europe had already begun.
“We knew exactly what we were supposed to do,” said Katz. “We were also told what the loss rate was. I was pretty much convinced I would not survive. It was 25 and home. Twenty-five bombing missions and you could go back home.”
Loss rates were so high that at the end of January, 1944 – when Katz and his cohorts arrived – the number was upped to 30.
“Two months later, we had suffered huge losses and it was increased to 35.
“I did not think I would survive 35 missions,” Katz said, even now looking concerned, though the announcement was 72 years in the past.
On May 11, Katz and his pilot – listed on the notes as “Fuller” – were sent on what was to be a routine mission to bomb an “undefended” rail yard in Chateaudun, France, where the Germans were storing supplies.
“We we flew in at 12,000 feet,” Katz remembers with pinpoint accuracy. “What appeared to be rail cars suddenly opened up and they were all anti-aircraft guns on the rail cars. We lost everybody. All the lead crews were shot down. That we survived the mission is still amazing to me.”
On May 28, 1944, Katz was struck in the head by flak fragments and landed under a red flare, indicating a need for immediate medical attention.
But he was back in the airplane just a day later after being “sprung” from the hospital by his crew.
“I had to find the biggest helmet to fit over my bandages,” he says, laughing.
Finally, after a 7-day bombing hiatus, D-Day arrived.
Up early, the troops assembled at their usual post in front of a large map that was always covered with a sheet until the missions were revealed.
“The commander pulled back the sheet and said “Gentlemen, this is the day of the invasion,” Katz said, as if he was now making the announcement himself. “In fact, it is already underway. We are going to attack the coast and we are going to cross first. We will not bomb at the beach. We will bomb to disrupt supply.”
It was Elliott’s 10th mission. During the next 25 missions, he would fly over the Eiffel Tower (twice) and Hitler’s Nazi Party rally grounds in Nuremberg. On his final run, which took place on September 22, Katz bombed the Tiger tank plant in Kassel, Germany.
“Everybody shot at us today. Flak from target and Weisbaden and Mosel riv. Came home unscathed. THE END!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The 14 exclamation points are Elliott’s. It apparently sparked twice the emotion.
Katz received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the medal of which he is most proud, for his actions on September 9, during mission #31, when he bombed barges in Liege, which blocked a canal. His superiors took note and adopted that strategy on later raids.
But Elliott was finished.
“I was just happy,” he said as a smile crossed his face. “I’m not a big whoopty-doo person. I packed up and said goodbye to everybody. They handed me my ‘Lucky Bastard’ certificate and I was gone. I was also the first person to finish 35 missions.”
“Then the fun began,” said Katz. “We were going to be crossing the North Atlantic in the wintertime.”
More than 1,600 troops boarded the ship, stacked in triple-decker bunks, when they sailed into a storm. “Only 6 guys showed up for breakfast the next morning,” Katz recalls. “And all 6 were Army Air Corps,” he added with pride.
Katz was reunited with his parents in New York City and later with his wife, Leone, whom he had met during his freshman year at Purdue. The two were married on December 28, 1943.
“As soon as I got my wings,” he said.
He became an instructor in Lackland, Florida and later San Angelo, Texas.
“In August, 1945, I was having lunch when it was announced Truman had allowed the bomb to be dropped,” he said solemnly. Soon, he was out.
After graduating from Purdue and later earning a doctorate in applied physics, Elliott entered the aerospace industry, which in 1962 brought him and his family to San Marino. The Katz children, Jocey and Jeff, went through San Marino schools. “Including the San Marino Community Church Nursery School,” he added.
His attitude is one of unabashed gratitude for the rich and full life he has been able to lead. Elliott and Leone visited Les Fleurs de la Memoire – the resting place of American soldiers lost in the invasion of Normandy that is the only U.S.-operated land in France – on the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in 2009. There, they placed a wreath to honor the memory of his fallen comrades, who did not share his same good fortune.