For 99-year-old Randall “Red” Murff, June 6, 1944 began at 2 a.m. with breakfast. Then a briefing, then a mission. He and his fellow crew members climbed into their B-26 Marauder, nicknamed ‘Wham Bam,’ and got underway to the beaches of Normandy and pages of history.
“When we took off, it was dark. Real dark,” he said.
Murff, the navigator and bombardier, sat in the plexiglass nosecone of his plane as they began bombing the beaches seven minutes before amphibious troops landed.
In addition to the air attacks, soldiers landed in two phases. Some 24,000 British, American, Canadian and French troops landed just after midnight before D-Day, and amphibious troops hit the shore around 6:30 that morning.
Murff was targeting the big German bunkers positioned on the beach, protected by 15-foot-thick walls of concrete and huge, powerful guns. The beaches of Normandy were also rigged with numerous booby traps and hidden bombs.
Murff said they couldn’t take out the guns with their planes, but they could provide a distraction and create foxholes for the soldiers on the ground, who used flamethrowers and grenades to get at the bunkers.
D-Day was a major step forward for the Allied Forces. Germany surrendered less than a year later, on May 8, 1945.
Murff, now of Sylva, was in the Army Air Force from 1941 to 1945, and survived 67 missions, including D-Day, his 64th.
Murff suspected the big invasion was coming up soon. The Wham Bam had been on a mission to destroy every bridge between Paris and the coast on June 3.
“When we landed from that one, there were men waiting to paint white stripes on our planes,” he said. “They painted three on the wings and three on the fuselage.”
The so-called “invasion stripes” were to help Allied planes identify each other in what they expected to be hectic skies over the beaches of Normandy.
D-Day wasn’t the most difficult of his missions because Allied planes had already crippled the German Air Force, he said.
“We didn’t encounter too much trouble on D-Day,” he said. “It was just a day’s work.”
Murff’s worst mission came about a week after D-Day, he said.
“The fog was so bad, the birds were walking,” he said. “It was soup.”
It was that thick when an orderly pulled Murff out of a meal and into a briefing. Murff said he remembers protesting because of the awful weather.
The French Underground had informed American intelligence that the German army had been moving supplies into a forest just south of Caen, France.
Flying in groups of six, Murff’s plane and 17 others headed towards the forest around 10:30 p.m.
Murff’s crew flew behind one of the best pilots in the division – a skinny, freckle-faced soldier they called Dub Childress. Childress would change direction every 15 seconds, the exact amount of time needed to avoid being targeted by German guns, and everyone liked to follow him, Murff said.
He was such a good leader that his plane and three others in his formation were the only ones who didn’t get lost in the thick fog.
Childress led the planes under the fog so they were 50-feet above the water or “on the deck,” he said.
The other 14 planes were so lost and scattered that they had to return to the base, but Murff was in one of the planes that didn’t hear the message to abort the mission.
“Bomber command scrubbed the mission,” he said. “But we were so low we didn’t get the word. They stopped the mission because those other 14 ships were scattered all over the sky.”
When they got to the German target, they started bombing it from about 4,500 feet with so much force that their planes were tossed around in the air, Murff said.
“We tore their world up,” he said. “We knew we’d messed their playhouse up. As we circled away we could see fuel sources exploding.”
On the way back to base, Murff watched as one of the other planes was blown out of the sky.
“The flak tore that plane in half,” he said. “We started climbing and twisting and turning because we knew we were next.”
Born in 1919, Murff will be 100 on Nov. 16. He was born and raised in Calhoun City, Mississippi, with seven younger brothers and one older sister. He was known as “Red” because of his bright red hair.
“They don’t call me ‘Red’ anymore,” he said, running his hand through his silver hair, “Now I’m just ‘Murff.’”
Murff finished high school in 1937 and was drafted Dec. 4, 1941, three days before Pearl Harbor. On a 10-day leave from training. Murff married his high school sweetheart, Blanche.
“I had no intention of getting married because I knew where I was headed,” he said.
Nonetheless, he did; and the couple were together 73 years until Blanche’s death in 2014.