Kenneth Gavin climbed into the night sky over England 75 years ago and crossed the English Channel into France.
He watched from the co-pilot’s seat as aircraft around him burst into flames and plummeted to the ground. The AIlied invasion to liberate Europe from Adolph Hitler had begun.
“There was a lot of fire. You could see it. It was wild but we were so intent on keeping formation,” Gavin said.
The 99-year-old Nahant resident co-piloted a twin-propeller C-47 towing a glider along with dozens of other planes assigned to the 437th Troop Carrier Group.
Attached by ropes to “tow ships” like Gavin’s airplane, the engineless gliders were filled with troops or equipment. Released by tow planes over designated assault targets in German-occupied France, the gliders helped launch D-Day even as paratroopers jumped into combat and a naval armada sailed for the French coast, poised to send troops ashore against the Nazi defenses.
An Attleboro native who enlisted in the Army in 1942, Gavin volunteered to fly at a time when the Army Air Forces were part of the Army. The 437th was one part of the massive invasion force assembled in England and the planes with their limited flying range flew from the United States to South America, then Africa, before heading to England.
Assigned to a British air base in the country village of Ramsbury, the transport crews spent a year preparing for the invasion with practice flights and briefings covering every detail of the invasion flight involving massed formations of aircraft.
Gavin’s squadron took off shortly after midnight on June 6 and released a glider over Sainte Mere Eglise, a now-famous focal point for airborne operations during D-Day.
The flight took nearly three hours as the transport formation lumbered across the English Channel, slowed by the weight of the gliders. The C-47s made a slow, wide turn across France several miles inside the coast, all the while enduring German anti-aircraft fire until they reached the glider release point and headed back to England.
Gavin mastered the job of flying his C-47 nicknamed “Spare Parts” in a formation of four-planes abreast towing gliders. But on the night of the invasion, his designated spot in the formation was switched with another plane.
“It got shot down right in front of me,” he said.
Back at Ramsbury, 437th, which was made up of several squadrons, was assigned another mission to haul British gliders over to France on the evening of the 6th.
Gavin said the job only required a single squadron and commanders decided which squadron got the job with the flip of a coin: Gavin’s squadron lost the toss.
“We flew in again about 9 p.m. on the 6th. It was scary,” he said.
After D-Day, the 437th participated in major military operations marking the Allied advance through France and into Germany even as Russian armies pushed the Germans back through Poland.
The transport group spent six months in France and flew missions for the ill-fated Operation Market Garden assault in Holland and towed gliders across the Rhine into Germany.
“We lived day to day. It was a case of luck. A lot of guys didn’t make it,” Gavin said.
After the war, Gavin worked as a homebuilder on Cape Cod. But flying and flight defined his life. He was on the verge of serving in the Korean War before hostilities ended and he served in the Air Force Reserve before retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel serving as operations officer at Otis Air Force Base.
“I flew until the 1960s,” he said.
He worked for years as an air traffic controller, initially in Boston and, later, in Nashua, N.H.
A Nahant resident for most of his life married to town resident Marie Hosker, the father of six visited the Normandy beaches that once flowed with blood and Sainte Mere Eglise eight years ago.
He still admires the C-47’s stalwart service as America’s military workhorse and 75 years haven’t dimmed D-Day memories and recollections of friends lost.
“I think it will always be remembered,” he said.