They were heading to change the world.
It was 79 years ago this week that 14 American soldiers climbed on board a C-47 transport plane on a dark and desolate air base at Greenham Common in southeast England.
The transport plane, named That’s All Brother” by its pilot, was the first of 821 -in two formations - that circled for hours and then headed south for the shores of France.
That plane, with the 14 soldiers, none of whom had ever seen battle, was the first wave of D-Day.
Those 14 soldiers, plus their chaplain and division surgeon, both of whom were not supposed to be there, but talked their way on board, were the first American soldiers to jump behind the German lines and start the fight to drive the Nazis out of France and all of western Europe.
There were 13,348 soldiers in those two waves of paratroopers. There were about 10,000 more soldiers that rode gliders behind the lines, all in support of the largest naval invasion in history that was going to start a couple hours after they landed. I got to ride in that plane, on Tuesday, the exact anniversary of D-Day. Not only was it an incredible experience and honor, it remined me of the sacrifices of all those brave soldiers that day and in that era. Truly the Greatest Generation.
It made me remember that I had two uncles on my mom’s side of the family that were involved in D-Day. One uncle rode one of those gliders into France and fought his way through the rest of the war. He returned to South Dakota, to his farm where he quietly raised his family, hardly every talking about his war experiences.
The other uncle took one of the nearly 7,000 naval vessels involved in Operation Overlord, and fought his way to the end of the war also. This uncle, however, stayed in the Army, became a lawyer and retired after serving also in the Korean Vietnam conflicts.
I remembered both of them Tuesday as I was getting a full tour and history of that C-47, one of the thousands of transport planes that helped win a war. I also remembered two other uncles who served in the Pacific theatre. One uncle who was on the ground, on several of the islands in some of the most horrible conditions imagineable. The other uncle, my dad’s only brother, was killed in active duty when his plane crashed on takeoff.
But this transport plane was first in line, and dropped the first soldiers into the horrors of war on D-Day.
That plane has a long history as well.
With a crew of eight, plus the little black Scotty dog that the flight crew adopted and who flew behind the pilot’s seat, this plane was brand new at D-Day, and was on its first combat mission. It had just been delivered from Oklahoma and the Douglas Company and had two powerful (and noisy) Pratt and Whitney engines. It had one of the first ground-mapping radars ever put in a plane, which was so heavy, it meant fewer soldiers. The radar was supposed to help in dropping the paratroopers into the right zones, but if you have read much about D-Day, you know things didn’t go right very much. After dropping off the first paratroopers (and taking some hits from anti-aircraft fire) it went back to England, got patched up, re-fueled and hooked up to a glider and took it across the Channel. It had a multitude of flights in the next days and weeks.
It went on to be a part of every Allied operation that involved paratroopers, from Operation Market Garden to dropping supplies for the beleaguered Bastogne soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge. It went on to be a part of the Berlin Airlift after the war, hauling freight to that imprisoned city.
It was retired soon after that and went into private ownership, along with the thousands of airframes from military planes. The C-47 and the DC 3 are twins with different names and jobs.
The plane was found abandoned, in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin, and through the efforts of many dedicated people, it was restored to it’s D-Day condition. It tours the nation, based out of its Houston home, offering rides and most importantly, its story, its history.
The long and detailed story of Thats All Brother can be found at: Thatsallbrother.org
You can also find out where it is touring – I assure you a ride is well worth the cost. It gives you a short hour to remember those brave young men who got in that plane on that June day, and jumped out behind enemy lines at only about 700 feet above the ground, in the dark, and being shot at.
The folks behind the scenes are all volunteers, members of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF).
Formed in 1957 and chartered in 1961, the CAF started with a single WWII era plane, the vaunted P-51 Mustang, that they wanted to restore and fly. They soon began to search for other planes of the era to preserve history.
Today, they have 12,000 members and more than 160 planes, including planes from several foreign nations. They are the largest flying air museum, and to be clear, this is a working museum. Get in and get in the air. There are single-engine training planes, the first ones that new recruits learned to fly in. There are bigger training birds, then multiple-engine planes. The guys who piloted the Thats All Brother for the ride I took are, like all the members, volunteers, and came from careers in the airline industry. They said the C-47 flies like a true champion, although you need some stamina, since there are zero hydraulic systems. They push, pull and turn the cables that make things go. When I say we lumbered into the sky, surrounded by all that noise, it was easy to visualize that long-ago June day when history changed.
The CAF has chapters all over the nation, including Indianapolis, the chapter hosting the events still going on at Indy Exec Airport, north of the city, an easy drive on Highway 32. The Indy chapter has 40 members and three planes. There are four planes on display and for rides both Thursday and Friday. The tour moves to Evansville for the weekend.
“Our mission is simple,” said Brian Koisor, one of the volunteers and a mission tour director. “It is to educate, to honor and to inspire.”
This is not a small operation, nor an inexpensive one. The CAF needs supporters and all are welcome. Amazing amounts of information, how to book a ride, as well as how to help, can be found on their web site: gulfcoastwing.org
The web site for the CAF is: CommemorativeAirForce.org
It was an amazing trip on an amazing day. I was unbelievably fortunate to be able to ride that C-47 on the exact day it took American heroes into war.
I can’t begin to thank all the members of the local and national chapters of the CAF that gave me so much information and help. A special thanks to Bill Kemmerer and to David Barrera. I wish them nothing but success in their mission to educate, to honor and to inspire.
Jeff Nelson is a frequent contributor to the Journal Review and works professionally for Fox Sports assisting with NFL broadcasts and the Indiana Pacers.
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