The Union Democrat
D-day survivor flew 30 B-24, B-17 missions
He's 99 years old, he'll be 100 in July, he's a D-day survivor who flew 30 B-24 and B-17 bomber missions, and he's the most-decorated surviving member of the Eighth Army Air Force credited with helping defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany in World War II before he turned 23.
He still calls himself 1st Lt. Denny Thompson, he signs copies of his biography “WWII D-day Pilot 30 Missions,” and he's lived in Cedar Ridge with his children and grandchildren for more than 30 years.
Thompson may be nine months shy of his 100th birthday, but he still gets around like someone decades younger. He walks without a cane at his place, he says he drives himself to downtown Sonora when he feels like it, and he's planning to fly on passenger jets to three different reunions before he becomes a centenarian.
By the time this story is published on Veterans Day 2021 and if his plans pan out, Thompson will have been a star attendee at an Eighth Army Air Force reunion in Georgia, he will be planning to attend a veterans gathering at Pearl Harbor in December, and to visit Normandy, France, for a D-day anniversary gathering in June.
If it seems like a lot for a 99-year-old, Thompson doesn't give a hoot. He enjoys sharing stories about his exploits, which include decades of big game hunting expeditions in Alaska, one of his former home states, and in central Africa. The heads of many large, horned animals adorn his living room, as well as a 9-foottall polar bear that towers on a pedestal more than twice as high as Thompson himself.
Thompson was born July 27, 1922, in Fargo, North Dakota. He and his family moved to Minnesota, where Thompson remembers his first flight when he was 14 years old — $2 for 15 minutes in a “high-wing, four or five seat plane, with an enclosed cockpit.”
“It fascinated me,” he said. Thompson graduated from Staples High School in Minnesota with the Class of 1940. His two older brothers signed up for U.S. Army duty before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He joined the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet in 1942 at age 20. He trained in Texas and Omaha, Nebraska, learning navigation and bombing, and completed pilotbombardier training on B-24s and B-17s in Arizona and New Mexico.
He and his 50-plane squadron arrived in Lavenham, England, in April 1944. One of their first missions was to bomb Nazi-held railyards in Belgium in early May. Their colonel was the only one out of 400 personnel who had flown across the English Channel. Thompson and the rest were green as grass, he said.
At one point on their bombing run, Thompson remembers making a turn and looking up and seeing several American bombers above, crossing over their position with open bomb bay doors. He could see all those bombs stacked inside the planes above, and he said it was an unsettling moment for a young pilot on his first mission.
Thompson worked as pilotbombardier on many missions. When his squadron got close to a target, he turned the B-24 controls over to a copilot, down-climbed to a compartment in the nose of the plane, and took command of the aircraft again using a bombsight and other controls. On another May 1944 mission to bomb a jet fuel refinery on the France-switzerland border, his squadron commander's plane and another lead plane were shot down, so Thompson was leading the squadron to destroy the refinery.
“This was only our third mission,” he said. “When we made the turn to start our bomb run, the black smoke was so thick I couldn't see the ground most of the time.”
Two more planes were shot down. Parts of airplanes were floating toward the ground, and Thompson remembers a parachute with nobody attached to it. One of the four engines on his B-24 was shot up, so they had to make it back to England on three engines. Thompson's colonel was on the ground behind enemy lines, and Thompson was promoted to lead pilot-bombardier to fly in the lead on most of his squadron's remaining missions.
“They carried me on their shoulders,” he said, speaking of his crewmen and other squadron members and their return to base after a bombing mission. “They had drinks ready for us to celebrate.”
Thompson and his crew had five missions to prepare for D-day, June 6, 1944. Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious assault in the history of warfare, was the beginning of a year-long campaign to liberate northwest Europe from occupation by Nazi forces and defeat Germany's war machine.
Thompson and his squadron did two bombing missions over France that day, and they were called back from a third due to poor weather. Their first target was a German headquarters at Lesue, or Lisieux, Normandy. Allied forces had more than 11,000 aircraft involved and over France that day, on multiple missions, with little German opposition in the air, according to the Royal Air Force.
Thompson earned two Purple Hearts and two Distinguished Flying Crosses during his time flying bombers in WWII. He was seriously wounded in action over Germany and hospitalized in October and November 1944. He has Western Union telegrams on his wall in Cedar Ridge documenting both times he was wounded in action.
Thompson was promoted to captain for a few weeks, and his commanding officer wanted him to stay and fly more missions. He today says he gave his C.O. the finger and told him, “F--you, colonel.”
On his 30th and final mission, Thompson was wounded by 13 different fragments of shrapnel. He said his surgeons left one piece in his right arm. He also has a lump above his right wrist where the metal is still there, more than 76 years later.
For his final mission, Thompson and his squadron were assigned a brand-new B-17 Flying Fortress that got so shot up they had to return to England on two engines. His crew threw everything out of the plane over the English Channel — including machine guns and ammunition — to ease the strain on their remaining engines.
There were gaping holes in the aircraft, including a hole in the floor that looked big enough to bail out of. The landing gear failed as they hit their runway.
One wing dropped, the engines hit the tarmac, and the plane skidded to a stop. The new B-17 was totaled.
“We got down on our knees when we got out,” Thompson said. “That's the reason I told the colonel `F--- you.' ”