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Remembering Friday Harbor man's place in D-Day invasion

Marty Garren Jr., second from left, and the crew of ‘The Spirit of Valley Forge.’ The B-17 bomber made 35 missions. - Collection of Marty Garren
Marty Garren Jr., second from left, and the crew of ‘The Spirit of Valley Forge.’ The B-17 bomber made 35 missions.
— image credit: Collection of Marty Garren

Living in the San Juans is a joy for many reasons, not the least of which is getting to know so many fine people.

Occasionally, their names are associated with historic accomplishments, e.g., Fred Hoeppner at Pearl Harbor, Roy Matsumoto with Merrill’s Marauders, the late Tuck Smith with the sinking of the Bismarck. Now, as we remember D-Day, Marty Garren joins those ranks.

We had no idea until a dozen days ago that 19-year-old Martin Garren Jr. (now 83 living in Friday Harbor) was flying a Boeing B-17 called “The Spirit of Valley Forge” across the English Channel during the greatest invasion of history: D-Day, June 6, 1944.

We were having dinner with Garren and his wife, Mona Meeker, when he started to relate some of his experiences to us. Bill and Carol Waxman joined us at the table and Bill, who is into videotaping archival video interviews, suggested that Marty should sit for a session. I said I’d do an interview for The Journal and he could shoot it.

Here’s my report:

Garren was 18 when he went into the service and had 250 hours of flight training (only 70 of which were in the B-17 Flying Fortress).

He and his crew members trained in Sioux City, Iowa, and amazingly were together, unscathed, through all 35 Flying Fortress bombing missions.

“We had 10 men — pilot and co-pilot, navigator, bombardier and six on gun turrets fore and aft with other assignments such as radio and the like,” Garren said. “In fact, only the pilots had no guns, the navigator and bombardier also had .50-caliber air-cooled machine guns to destroy attacking German fighter planes. It was important that all 36 planes in a squadron work together to ward off the Messerschmidts and the like. We helped one another. A plane that was separated because of flak was almost sure to be destroyed.”

We showed Garren a book on World War II written by Winston Churchill and documented by Life magazine. Churchill’s book pointed out that 9,949 bombers were lost by the 8th U.S. Army Air Force raiding Europe. “70,000 men died in them,” Churchill wrote.

Garren said, “That’s more men than the U.S. Navy lost in World War II.”

A testimony to the security surrounding the D-Day Invasion was Garren’s experience on D-Day.

“We had been expecting an invasion soon. We flew a mission on June 5, came back and went to bed early. We were awakened at 10:30 p.m. and ordered to a big quonset hut seating about 400. The place was loaded with generals from most of the allies. We rarely saw a general at our briefings.

“Without much sleep, we were wide awake as soon as our 94th Bomb Group commander lifted the sheet over the briefing map. ‘This is it!’ he shouted.

“For the first time, we saw our target was to be Normandy. In short order, the entire bomb group under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay, who was really so tough we called him ‘Iron Ass,’ was in the air. We expected to be met by tremendous resistance. It didn’t happen. We were unable to see our flanks in the dark, even the cabins were blacked out. When we approached we thought we were sitting ducks and about to be slaughtered.

“Then as dawn and the coast appeared we saw groups of bombers on both sides as far as the eye could see. I felt it was like the kickoff of a football game with the other team having run off the field. We dumped our bombs on Utah Beach and returned to our base at Bury St. Edmunds, England.”

Eisenhower’s security and the bombing of air bases, airplane factories and oil refineries had paid off in spades. Only a few recon planes were spotted as German intelligence had decided (having been deceived by expert Allied tricks) that the invasion was coming far to the north. That, plus the weakened Luftwaffe being moved back of Paris, enabled the great losses of Allied troops to be considerably less than expected — although still the greatest loss of any battle in our history.

“Were there many crews that equalled the record of the ‘Spirit of Valley Forge?’ ” I asked.

Garren was silent for a few moments as he finally spoke.

“From May of 1943 to V-E day in 1945, our 36 B-17 Flying Fortresses were cleaned out five times.* Six days after our crew left the ‘Valley Forge,’ it didn’t make it back. Only two men survived by jumping and were POWs till V-E Day.

“The ground crew chief, John Matatoni from The Bronx, the finest man ever made, was waiting for its return as he always did for us, running out to celebrate after each mission. He never had lost a plane before. I still talk to John, just a few days ago in fact.”

(* 500 percent casualties is higher than infantry divisions who fought on three fronts in WWII.)

“So you see, Howard,” Garren said, “it was fastidious work by ground crew and the dumb luck of the young that saw us through. There were two or three men on the ground for every airman. We used 200 gallons of fuel an hour, dropped 5,000 pounds of bombs a mission, and often used most of 10,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammo. They didn’t get that materiel in England. Those 1,000-plane formations played a vital role in World War II.

“It was a tough enemy. The only joyous missions we ever took were two to help the Maquis (French Freedom fighters) near Grenoble when we heard a unit was surrounded by Nazi troops. When we dropped food, medical supplies, weapons and ammo to them, they danced and somersaulted — they appeared to be our age — as we went down from our usual 10,000-foot altitude to 500 feet to do the job.

“Later, at our last reunion — we’re getting too old to travel, those of us left — in 1999, a gentleman named Fab Fanton from the Maquis, and John Adams, who was a young kid who worshipped our planes and became sort of a mascot of the base in England, invited us to visit their annual celebrations in our honor in England and France. Mona and I accepted the invitations in 2000 and we were really given royal treatment.

“Our son happened to be in Switzerland at the time and he was able to come so I could show him off. They really seemed to appreciate us.”

So do we, Marty, and for your service during the Korean War also.

Go with the F.L.O.W. (Ferry Lovers Of Washington)

Howard Schonberger writes Ferry Home Companion and Making a Difference for The Journal and SanJuanJournal.com. Contact him at 378-5696 or hschonberger@sanjuanjournal.com.

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