How will you commemorate D-Day?
Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces launched an offensive on the beaches of Normandy that would help lead to the defeat of Hitler’s fortress Europe. One hundred and sixty thousand Allied troops landed on the shores of France and were supported by more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers lost their lives on this day.
Everyday I enter my office at the Virginia Historical Society (VHS), I’m reminded of the sacrifices that Americans made on D-Day. In my office hang two rough, but colorful, paintings done by my grandfather, Elmer Hansard, a young Hoosier from Muncie, Indiana, who served as a tail gunner on a medium bomber during the war. In one painting, Elmer (seated on the left) along with five of his fellow crew members gather around a table to discuss their mission on June 4, 1944. (Two days before D-Day). The other painting shows their plane, the Lilly Commando, a B-26 Bomber, as it soars through the skies of Europe.
My Grandfather, like many other young men at the time, decided to enlist in the armed forces after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. He trained throughout the United States at different bases until he and his crew received their call to head overseas. Once in England, this twenty-year-old tail gunner became part of the 573rd Bomb Squadron of the 391st Bomb Group, whose objective was to fly missions into France to try to cripple the Nazi armies infrastructure and supply lines. While in the European theatre of action he completed sixty-nine missions and documented his experiences through letters, drawings, and paintings.
He flew two missions on D-Day: the first one was a successful bombing mission that damaged a bridge and crippled the German supply lines; the second mission was an attempt to destroy another bridge over the Orne River, but this time they were not so lucky.
Closing in on their target in Caen, France, they were hit by German fire that damaged their plane.
My Grandfather recorded the attack in his diary:
Suddenly two burst railed us. I called the pilot, and told him, “heavy fire at six o’clock” the bombardier said ‘bombs away’ and the third burst of 88 hit just below our right engine and sent up bellowing clouds of black smoke. The plane gave a hard roll to the right as the rest of our planes had shot ahead of us. We began losing power, and the pilot kicked on the rudder to straighten out the plane. It seemed like the Germans were giving us everything they had.
As the allied invasion continued on the beaches below, their pilot, William Yousse III, continued to try and keep the plane up in the air until they could bail out or land safely.
My Grandfather recalled in his diary:
We were too low to bail out. I kept imagining the plane blowing to bits any minute. The coast of England was in sight and I was ready to bail out, but the pilot felt we could make it to land. . . . Everyone forgot anyone else was around, and we began praying like we never prayed before and some had never prayed. Almost senseless with fear, the next thing I knew we were shooting along the ground and the copilot yelled: “Hold brakes hold.” We just kept scooting and bumping until we stopped. The pilot opened his hatch, and I scrambled out. I saw the thick layers of dust and thought it was smoke. I helped the others out, and then I kissed the earth.
Yousse landed the plane safely across the channel at an RAF Spitfire base. My Grandfather and the rest of his crew made it safely to land. He would live to fight another day. There was no rest for the weary, however. Soon after they touched down another B-26 came to pick them up and take them back to their base. They flew another mission the very next day.
Elmer Hansard went on to fly in a total of sixty-nine missions, after which he returned home to settle down. He started working at the Indiana Bridge Company in Muncie, Indiana, got married, and started a family. He never really talked much about the war until I began asking him questions when I was in college. I’m thankful for the time we spent together talking about his experiences and think back on those times a lot.
My grandfather passed away in August 2008, and he left me his photographs, letters, drawings, and paintings. I have these two paintings in my office to remind me of the sacrifices that he and thousands of others made on that day. Today, as we all commemorate the anniversary of D-Day, I’ll make a special effort to glance up at those paintings behind my desk and remember not only the remarkable story of my grandfather’s experiences but also why we enjoy the freedoms that we do today and how I became interested in history in the first place.
I’ve worked at the VHS for more than nine years—as a library clerk, an assistant editor, and currently as the senior web resources officer. I owe a lot of my passion for history and education to my grandfather, and I’m especially thankful for that on the anniversary of D-Day.
Are you interested in learning more about World War II? Explore these VHS resources related to World War II:
- Harold’s Boys
- The Story of Virginia: Americans Again
- S.S. Quanza: Journey of Refugees from Lisbon to Norfolk
- Lectures related to World War II
- Items related to World War II in the VHS museum shop