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Selfridge Airman was among key D-Day leaders

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
A Selfridge Airman played a key role in the D-Day landings of 1944 which helped turn the tide of World War II in Europe.


Major Gen. Ralph Royce, a native of Marquette in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, was among the military leaders who helped Selfridge Air National Guard Base once become known as the "Home of Generals." Royce was among the first generals - and possibly the first Air Corps general - to hit the beach in Normandy following the D-Day invasion, in which thousands of U.S., British, Canadian and allied forces landed on the coast of France to begin the push into Germany and eventual victory in World War II. Royce was the deputy commander of allied Air Forces during the D-Day invasion. A photo shows him on the beach at Normandy on D-Day +1 or, in other words, the second day of the operation.


The 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasions - which took place June 6, 1944 - make an excellent time to recount the history of Royce, who earlier in his career had won the 1930 McKay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of the year, while assigned to what was then known as Selfridge Field.


Royce was already a combat veteran of campaigns on two continents when he came to Selfridge to serve as the commanding officer of the 1st Pursuit Group - which was based at Selfridge and home to some of the nation's premier early Airmen in the developmental years of U.S. air power between World Wars I and II. Royce had served as a pilot with the 1st Aero Squadron when that unit was formed and sent to Texas and later into Mexico in 1915 during the Punitive Expedition against the forces of Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa. In 1917, Royce was promoted to commander of the 1st Aero Squadron when that unit was sent to France to participate in World War I. The future general saw extensive aerial combat action in World War I, notably during the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives. Royce's 1st Aero Squadron was the first American air unit to arrive in Europe during World War I.


After returning to the states and various assignments following World War I, Royce - once described in an article in the New York Herald newspaper as a "big-nosed battler from Michigan" - was promoted to major and assigned command of the 1st Pursuit Group at Selfridge in 1929. The late 1920s and the 1930s were active years at Selfridge, when many new ideas and developments in aviation were being tested at the field by the still-small U.S. Army Air Corps.


Among the challenges to be put to the Air Corps in those years was to prove the viability of operations in extreme cold weather. In January 1930, Royce led a group of 1st Pursuit Group pilots from Selfridge on a flight along the northern tier of the U.S., flying in P-1 Hawks, to Spokane, Wash., and back. During the series of flights, the Selfridge pilots at times encountered temperatures as cold as 45 degrees below zero while airborne. The so-called "Arctic Patrol" flights proved that American air power could operate in cold-weather climates and earned Royce the McKay Trophy for 1930. Royce led similar arctic patrols in 1934 and 1935.


During World War II, Royce a member of the Class of 1914 at the U.S. Military Academy, was given various assignments. While he was a part of general officer corps leading the D-Day effort, Royce's greatest single contribution to the war may have been an action that took place in the Pacific Theater.


The pilot - then a one-star general - was assigned as the senior Air officer with Allied Headquarters in the Pacific in 1942. On April 11, 1942, Royce was the lead pilot as a flight of 10  B-25s and three B-17s that moved from a base in Australia to a staging field on Mindanao, the southernmost major island in the Philippines chain. In a secret operation dubbed "Royce's Special Mission," the bombers spent the next two days attacking enemy-occupied territory and shipping in and around other islands in the Philippines chain. Upon returning to Australia, the bombers air-evacuated a number of key military and diplomatic personnel who had been left behind during the American withdrawal from the Philippines the previous month. The action earned Royce the Distinguished Service Cross - the nation's second highest honor -- and was a major blow to the advancing Japanese forces. The mission was completed without the loss of a single U.S. Airman. Unfortunately for Royce and his crews, the Doolittle Raid against the Japanese main island took place less than a week later, overshadowing the success of Royce and his "Special Mission."


Royce served in a number of capacities throughout the war, not retiring from military service until the summer of 1946 - about a year after the conclusion of combat in World War II and about a year before the creation of a separate Air Force.


Royce retired to Florida, where he died in August 1965. Following his stated wishes, his ashes were dispersed into the air over Selfridge Air Force Base by an Air Force cargo aircraft while a formation of fighters flew a missing man formation above.


Comprised of approximately 1,700 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operation Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marks its 97th year of continuous military air operations in 2014.