By Vince Little, USACEJune 24, 2014
Like many of his comrades, Gene Noble got the celebrity treatment upon returning to France earlier this month for the 70th anniversary of D-Day along the Normandy coast.
The 92-year-old veteran pilot received the French Legion of Honour medal at a June 7 ceremony in Merville-Franceville, not far from Sword Beach, where British troops came onshore as part of the massive invasion that gave Allied troops a strategic foothold on the Continent and led to Europe's liberation from Nazi rule during World War II. In the predawn hours of June 6, 1944, Noble dropped paratroopers behind enemy lines near Utah Beach while flying a mission for the 440th Troop Carrier Group's 95th Squadron.
Within the past decade, he played a pivotal role in the recovery and restoration of a C-47 that served as lead plane in his formation that day. Noble piloted the aircraft himself later in the war. It now sits in the town's air memorial.
The former U.S. Army Air Corps second lieutenant is the father of Jim Noble, chief of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District's Engineering Branch. He and several family members accompanied the elder Noble to France for the Normandy commemorations.
"It was quite a deal," Jim said. "They treated my dad like a rock star. It was pretty cool."
Noble had been a college student in his native Kansas when he joined the military in September 1942 at age 20. He says he wanted to be a pilot, and his flight training was expedited after the war broke out.
"On D-Day, it was about 1:45 in the morning when we crossed the beach. Everything was dark and you couldn't see it," he recalled. "Within just a matter of minutes, I saw tracer bullets and flak, clear from the other side of the peninsula. And the thought occurred to me, 'I might be killed here today.'"
Noble said he quickly refocused and waited for the lights to come on and signal his drop. He never saw anyone jump out of the airplane.
"You could hear it getting hit with bullets through the thin aluminum," he said.
Up to 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops landed in and around Normandy on D-Day, according to historical accounts. Combined Allied casualties have been estimated at 10,000, with more than 4,400 confirmed deaths, including nearly 2,500 Americans.
When his 90-plane formation flew back to its base in England, Noble and the other pilots were debriefed before hitting the chow hall. He said their commander, overcome by jubilation and relief the group had survived the operation, walked in and shot a clock off the wall with his .45-caliber pistol.
During the Normandy landings, Noble flew just off the left wing of Lt. James Harper, who piloted the lead C-47, nicknamed the SNAFU Special. That aircraft was discovered in Bosnia decades after the war.
"A French air force officer actually found the plane," Jim Noble said. "He happened to be at the airport in Sarajevo as part of the NATO peacekeeping forces after the Balkan War. … Being a pilot himself, he recognized this old aircraft sitting off to the side there and was intrigued by it. At the time, the Italian folks there with the military had converted it into a café and bar."
The officer knew about the Merville group that had been seeking a D-Day aircraft to display in the town's war museum and memorial. The city arranged for a donation from the Bosnian government to France.
"These volunteers from the village took the wings off bolt by bolt, broke it down to the fuselage and loaded it all up on a flatbed," Jim said. "Then, they trucked it back from Bosnia to Normandy."
In the fall of 2007, the city's deputy mayor tracked down Noble after the French matched up historical records showing he'd flown the C-47 in World War II.
"My father had old photographs of the aircraft that showed this particular plane as it was painted during the war," Jim added. "They used his photos as a model for what the plane was supposed to look like and how it should be painted as they put it all back together."
Since then, Gene Noble has been frequently involved with the group in providing resources for finding parts.
He connected with a flight club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he now resides. It was able to help replace the cockpit's instrument panel. He also found some original C-47 benches, which seated paratroopers on both sides of the fuselage, in California and shipped those over to France.
Noble also took part in a French documentary about the project. Filmmaker Serge Marie chronicled the entire effort from start to finish, even traveling to Tulsa to interview the veteran aviator.
"It's really been a thrill for us to watch my dad get so involved with this. It's really kept him active and engaged," Jim said.
In June 2008, Noble and the family attended a dedication ceremony for the refurbished troop carrier in Merville. They also attended last year's D-Day anniversary tribute there.
"It's quite an honor, and it was a big surprise," Jim Noble said about the French Legion of Honour induction. "This ceremony was incredible for us all."
As the Allies pushed into Western Europe following D-Day, Noble and his unit flew reconnaissance missions over Germany and transported supplies and troops to the front lines from a base in Orléans, France. On at least one occasion toward the end of the war, he helped fly Holocaust survivors to hospitals after Nazi concentration camps were liberated, according to his son.
Noble got out of the Army Air Corps after the war, earned a civil engineering degree from the University of Colorado and went on to a long career with Phillips Petroleum. His job carried the family from the Texas Panhandle and New Mexico to Mexico and Venezuela before he retired to Tulsa.
The SNAFU Special was officially designated a French national monument at the June 7 ceremony in Merville. Noble, meanwhile, says he's overwhelmed by the individual medal presentation.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I'm greatly honored, and it really left me speechless. I know this is directly connected to the plane project and it being dedicated. But the French people have always spoken of the Allies as heroes."