Mike Murphy, aka "The Flying Irishman of Lafayette," led more than 400 gliders across the English Channel just hours before the Allied troops landed at Normandy on D-Day.

Major Leon B. Spencer, USAFR Retired, compiled an account of Lt. Col. Michael C. Murphy's actions on D-Day, June 6, 1994, which was later printed in Murphy's 1981 obituary.

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Spencer wrote: "Seated at the controls of General Pratt's glider ["The Fighting Falcon"] was the unflappable Irishman, Lt. Colonel Michael C. "Mike" Murphy, a native of Lafayette, Indiana, and the senior US Army Air Force glider pilot in the European Theater.

Spencer said that Murphy was in England on temporary duty from the US to oversee the final training of glider pilot for the Normandy invasion.

"He was not originally scheduled to participate in the D-Day Normandy mission," Spencer writes, "but talked General Paul Williams, Commanding General of the Ninth Troop Carrier Command, into letting him fly General Pratt's glider. Murphy wanted to get a first-hand look at the performance of glider pilots in combat."

Just after 4 am on D-Day, Murphy received the signal to release his glider. Spencer wrote: "As he hit the glider release knob he heaved a sigh of relief. He and Butler [his copilot] were arm and leg-weary from trying to keep the unstable glider in level flight for over two and a half hours."

The Fighting Falcon was overloaded making it difficult to maneuver, and ultimately difficult to land as well. 

"That morning the ill-fated substitute Falcon continued to slide on the slick, dew-covered pasture grass for about eight hundred feet before crashing into a hedgerow," Spencer wrote.

"Colonel Murphy found himself hanging half in and half out of the smashed nose section, his torso restrained by his seat belt. He looked down and saw that his lower limbs were entangled in the bent and twisted metal tubing of the glider's nose section. Both legs were broken, one severely, and his left knee was badly injured, but he was still conscious."

Murphy's copilot, Second Lieutenant John M. Butler, did not survive the crash.

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Still strapped to his seat and dangling from the plane, Murphy played dead when German soldiers approached. After they "poked around" the plane for a few minutes, the enemy soldiers moved on.

Upon being examined after the dramatic crash, it was confirmed that Murphy sustained a compound fracture of the femur in one leg and had suffered a simple fracture of one of the bones in the lower part of the other leg. He also suffered a severe injury to his left knee. 

Murphy refused a morphine injection to ease the pain - he wanted to remain alert in case they encountered more Germans. 

Murphy's injuries were reported to be his first in more than 7,000 hours of flying and he was taken to a nearby chateau which was transformed into a field hospital. He was evacuated on June 9, not long before a German bomb struck the site, killing 11 people and injuring 15.

Lieutenant Colonel Michael C. “Mike” Murphy earned a Purple Heart, the Legion of Merit, and air medals for his actions in World War II.

June 25, 1944: Murphy smiles with nurse Olga Williams upon his return to the US (Official USAAF Photo / FindAGrave, Robert Tong)

June 25, 1944: Murphy smiles with nurse Olga Williams upon his return to the US (Official USAAF Photo / FindAGrave, Robert Tong)

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The "Flying Irishman" of Lafayette known for his aeronautical acrobatics

According to the Journal & Courier, Murphy was born in Rossville, Illinois, in 1906. His family moved to Montgomery County in Indiana when he was a child and later, onto Lafayette. At age 20, Murphy took up flying, learning on a WWI-era plane and barnstormed around the US, putting on outrageous demonstrations of flying.

Some of his tricks include flying a biplane close enough to the ground to pick up handkerchiefs with his wing. He was the only pilot who could land a plane on a specially-built car and then take off again. He also performed landing his plane upside down, a move that was later banned because it was deemed too dangerous.

All of these stunts required some special plane modifications and equipment that Murphy engineered and built himself. 

By the 1930s, Murphy was running an airport in Kokomo and had made a name for himself in aeronautical acrobatics as "The Flying Irishman" at shows from Florida to Missouri to crowds of more than 10,000 in Greater Lafayette. 

"He was the ace of the stunt pilots," Kokomo airport operator Robert Shank told the Journal & Courier in 1944. "He was a natural."

Mike Murphy's legacy

Murphy is loosely depicted as 2nd Lt. DeWindt in the 1998 movie "Saving Private Ryan. The character tells Tom Hanks, who plays a fictional Captain John Miller, that he escaped without incident but like the real Murphy, had two people onboard his glider that died in a similar crash.

*Originally published in 2019, updated in June 2020.

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