When Lightnings#039; strike
&uot;The Military organization with the best aerial photo reconnaissance will win the next war.&uot; (General Werner Von Fritch n a statement made one year before the outbreak of WW II)
"Without reconnaissance, command and troops are blind; reconnaissance without aerial reconnaissance
like aerial reconnaissance without aerial photography n is inconceivable." (Major General Klegler)
Colonel James &uot;Tut&uot; Frakes flips open a paper-bound book and turns to a section of pages filled with detailed charcoal portraits of smiling young pilots. He points out his own likeness, created by a talented sergeant named Bill Walker over 50 years ago.
&uot;When I think back to the war and to D-Day itself, the main thing that hits me is how really young most everybody was…some were still teens,&uot; muses Frakes, a retired Air Force officer who has made his home in Greenville for 30 years.
The native of Columbia, Tenn. was a 24-year-old captain on June 4, 1944. Though he was slated to graduate from West Point in 1943, the need for regular officers in the Army Air Corps was so overwhelming in that time of war, Frakes says, &uot;I in essence had no senior year. . . I went to flying school instead. On the 19th of January in ’43 I graduated with wings and went right into the combat unit.&uot;
Frakes soon became one of 350 men to serve in the newly born 34th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, formed at Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma City in December 1943.
Four photo reconnaissance squadrons were scheduled to go overseas. One, the 31st, was already awaiting orders to the UK. Two more were to be sent to the European Theater while the remaining squadron went to the Mediterranean.
The decision about where each squadron would be deployed was made with the flip of a coin.
&uot;My squadron was going to England. The guys who were headed to the Mediterranean never made it. Their ship was sunk and all those men were lost. . . I think to myself, that could have so easily been me instead,&uot; comments Frakes.
In March of 1944, that ‘grande dame’ of the seas, the Cunard Lines’ &uot;Queen Mary&uot; safely carried the 350 men of the 34th along with some 17,000 other ‘warm and crowded bodies’ across the Atlantic.
The squadron’s final destination was the RAF Station at Chalgrove, England, a short distance from Oxford and some 50 miles west of London.
It was a very different environment for the young men. The blitzes from the German Luftwaffe had created rigid blackout conditions in England. The rubble from bombing raids was scattered everywhere, and everywhere, there were bicycles. (Places were well spread out in this former pasture.)
The men settled in to their new digs and by mid-April of 1944, Squadron Commander Major Donn Hayes and Operations Officer Bob Jarrell successfully flew the first missions. On April 24, the two men were grounded from further immediate combat after a briefing on &uot;Operation Overlord&uot;-the official name for the upcoming invasion in Normandy. The 34th had now &uot;arrived&uot;.
The pilots, known as ‘Photo Joes’, flew modified Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, known as F-5s. The twin-engine planes were fast and highly maneuverable, but they carried no weaponry. Instead, each was equipped with vertically mounted cameras that allowed them to serve as the American Force’s &uot;Eyes in the Skies.&uot;
&uot;We flew largely ‘single plane’, no escort. . . we were flying late at night and early in the morning every day to keep track of German troop movement. We took photos of every bridge from the south of Paris to the Brittany peninsula,&uot; explains Frakes.
The philosophy of the ‘Photo Joes’ was to fly above the German’s anti-aircraft guns and to never consider the mission a success until the &uot;product&uot;n the precious photos n was returned &uot;home&uot; and properly processed.
&uot;The Army photo interpreters were amazing. . . they would study these photos we took and could tell you anything they wanted to about the area, including the location, the altitude and the direction,&uot; says Frakes. This information was quickly passed on to military units in need of the critical intelligence.
The 34th was part of a group selected to provide beach photography to give the invading forces a first-hand picture of what they would face on &uot;D-Day.&uot; To accomplish this, it was eventually agreed the mission could best be accomplished by flying the missions &uot;on the deck&uot; (extremely low-altitude).
By flying just above water level, the pilots would avoid enemy radar. Flying at low tide would allow them to photograph any under-water obstacles and maximize the overall beach coverage.
However, flying at such low levels at speeds of 300 mph plus wasn’t exactly going to be ‘a day at the beach’. Still, every original pilot in the squadron volunteered for the missions, with two young pilots, Lts. Keith and York, drawing the shortest straws. They would fly the first two of these &uot;dicing&uot; missions (so named because they were like "throwing dice across a gaming table").
&uot;They had vertical and oblique cameras on board. These guys were flying just a few feet, basically, above those beaches,&uot; explains Frakes. He points out one of Sgt. Walker’s drawings illustrating the first dicing mission. The Photo Lightning is flying low over the numerous wooden and concrete obstacles set up by the Germans along the coastline.
&uot;You can see at all these tripods set up, they had charges on top to take out the LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) coming in there.&uot; Small figures can be seen scurrying in the background n German soldiers working on the beach, too startled to reach for weapons before the Lightning disappeared.
In the weeks just prior to the invasion, the dicing mission photos would be used to build an amazingly accurate scale model of Omaha Beach including all natural features, trees, houses, other buildings, German military installations and all beach obstacles. Combat engineers would study this mock-up for hours on end, memorizing every aspect of it.
On the morning of June 6, the combat engineers of the 146th Engineer Combat Battalion landed just ahead of the first wave of troops. They saw before them a coast exactly like the model n down to the last detail. It turned out that York’s photos were of the exact location where the American forces landed on D-Day.
Engineer Ray Lanterman wrote these words in tribute to the Photo Joes of the 34th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron: &uot;Thanks, gentleman of the 34th, for your important contribution without which our mission could well have been a failure.&uot;
Frakes flew his plane &uot;Turbo Anny&uot; on the afternoon of D-Day, flying over the beachhead, down to the Seine, over Paris and back to England over London.
&uot;I am proud that I got to be a part of D-Day. . . it was such a tremendous undertaking. There were some problems that morning on the beachhead, but our photos helped them in directing the firepower,&uot; Frakes comments.
The 34th PRS would go on to back General Patton’s Third Army in its march across France through Chateaudun, Sainte Diziere, Dijon, Nancy and into Alsace-Lorraine.
&uot;We certainly had some grim times. We lost some of our fellows along the way,&uot; Frakes recalls soberly as he looks at the faces of his fallen comrades.
The 34th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron is a group not greatly heralded for their part in D-Day.
Yet these men quietly, efficiently and effectively served as the ‘Eyes in the Skies’ for our troops on a dangerous mission that could otherwise &uot;well have been a failure.&uot;