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Hostile skies

Little Falls pilot stayed busy throughout European Theater

There were just a handful of pilots who participated in every major airborne assault and supply operation in the European Theater, from D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge to the end of the war, and one of those pilots was Major Norman Arvidson of Little Falls.

Norman Arvidson in his days as a transport pilot. Contributed photo

Arvidson was born and raised in Parkers Prairie, Minn., He graduated from Deer Creek High School in 1936, and worked at Cargill in Minneapolis until he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942. He graduated from flight school near San Antonio, Texas, to be come C-47 transport pilot. He flew a transport load from the U.S. to Central American and then to Greenham Commons Air Base in England, where he became part of the 87th Squadron of the 438th Troop Carrier Group. This would be his home base during the war.

Over the next 16+ months, he would fly a total of 214 missions, towing gliders, dropping paratroopers, delivering supplies and transporting wounded soldiers. He even transported concentration camp survivors after the war.

One of the more memorable flights happened on June 6, 1944, (also known as D-Day), when about 156,000 American, British and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified coast of France’s Normandy region. The success at Normandy was called “the beginning of the end of the war” as it eventually resulted in the Allied liberation of western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control.

Arvidson and his four-man crew flew over the English Channel three times on D-Day. The first was over Normandy beaches at dawn to drop about a dozen paratroopers.

“During that first flight, Norm told me it was pretty quiet,” said his wife, Shirley. “There wasn’t much ack ack (anti-aircraft fire) at all.”

Arvidson had a wood glider attached to the rear of his plane. It was large enough to carry a few men, a Jeep, a supply of food, gasoline in 6-gallon pails, and howitzer shells and other ammunition, according to newspaper clippings.

“Norm said he watched as the U.S. was starting to drive ships into water, and he noticed that they weren’t coming up,” said Shirley. “They had anchored the ships too far out so the tanks just sunk, and the soldiers died. Later in the day, they came in closer so the tanks could drive out of the water on to the beaches.”

Arvidson made two return trips that day, both to bring supplies to the paratroopers he had dropped off earlier in the day.

One of the C-47 transport planes flown by Norman Arvidson during WWII. Contributed photo

“With each return trip, there was much more ack ack directed at the plane,” said Shirley. “He needed to get supplies to the guys, and they were behind enemy lines, so it got hairy for everyone involved.”

Another memorable day came on Christmas when Arvidson and 10 other pilots brought supplies to soldiers in various parts of the war zone.

“The chaplin always came out and talked to all the men on the flight line,” said Shirley. “Norm said the chaplin came out that morning and said goodbye to everyone and said a prayer for them as usual.”

When it got close to the time when the planes should start returning, the chaplin started listening for the sound of the engine of the planes. When the men started coming in, it was late in the evening.

“Norm said they weren’t expecting any dinner because it was late, but waiting for them was a full Christmas feast in the mess hall.”

The chaplain had been counting, and they were up to 10 engines that came in. As everyone was at the dinner table, there was one plane still missing. When they were just finishing, it got quiet, and they could hear the last engine approaching.

“Norm said it was the most thrilling sound they had ever heard,” said Shirley. “They all made it home.”

Arvidson never was injured during his years in the war, but there were many close calls.

“He was very blessed that he wasn’t injured,” said Shirley. “Many times they brought their planes back full of holes in the fuselage and wings, and the mechanics would have them ready to go by morning. The mechanics were outstanding. He had a co-pilot, a navigator and mechanic on board. They did not have gunners since he was a transporter.”

Shirley remembered one close call in particular that Norm had told her about.

“They got into one very severe situation,” she said. “Apparently, they got the wrong coordinates. They put their gliders and crew down in the middle of a German encampment. He said he had only a few minutes to get that plane out of there, and they didn’t have any runway to work with. He said his crew worked harder than they had ever worked in their life. The paratroopers were helping push the plane to give it more speed. But they got out of there just in time. In minutes, they would have been overrun by the enemies.”

Shirley Arvidson stands in front of the American flag given to the family at her husband, Norman’s, funeral, along with two framed pictures of Norman. Norman was a transport pilot during WWII. Photo by Jim Palmer

After the Armistice was signed, the C-47s were sent over to evacuate the prisoners at the concentration camp in Dachau, where the Jews had been held. He said it was the worst thing he had ever seen. He said the heroes of the day were the nurses, who could go in and take those people out. They were totally emaciated and seriously ill. The flight crew was on the other side of the ship throwing up, and the nurses were in there helping them. It was an amazing thing to see the nurses go in and help them. That was one of the hardest missions they had.”

With the war over, Arvidson flew his battle-scarred plane back to the United States from England with a stop in Iceland, Labrador and finally Connecticut. His trusty plane was turned in to Langer Field in Boston.

Arvidson returned to Minnesota and met Shirley Farrow.

“We went on three dates in three days,” said Shirley. I met him three days before he had to leave for a new assignment in the Pacific. He took me to a theater, we went to a dance, and we went out for dinner.”

His assignment concluded quickly and the two resumed dating and soon got married. The couple settled in Little Falls and built a house in 1950 along the river. Shirley still lives in that house today.

For a while, Norman thought he might fly commercially. He went to Wold–Chamberlain Field (now Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport) and went up in one of the smaller planes.

“He was scared to death,” said Shirley. “He said, ‘I’m not flying that thing!’”

He didn’t like to fly commercially the rest of his life.

“He never wanted to fly when we went on vacation,” said Shirley. “He wanted to be in the cockpit,” so we drove just about everywhere, except when we went to Hawaii and we went to Europe. And he wasn’t happy either of those times.”

“He was not a happy camper sitting in the back of the plane. He wasn’t comfortable out of the cockpit.

Instead of flying, Arvidson owned and operated the Farrow & Swanson-Oldsmobile, Pontiac and GMC auto dealership. He sold the dealership in 1972. From 1974 to 2000 Norm was involved in property management in the St. Cloud area.

Pilot Norman Arvidson (left) and his crew. Contributed photo

The Arvidsons were active in the Little Falls community and had lots of connections… even a connection to another pilot in the area.

“My dad actually sold Charles Lindbergh his first car,” said Shirley.

While many of Norman’s family and friends never saw him fly in person, they have all seen footage of him in action. In fact, most Americans have likely watched him fly in their history classes. Authentic, real footage of Arvidson and his plane flying through the air on D-Day is commonly used in historical videos.

Major Arvidson passed away in April 2002 at the age of 84. He is buried at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery just north of Little Falls. Shirley still lives at her home in Little Falls.

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