When you reach back 75 years for the memories, they come to you in bits and scraps. Recounting them feels disjointed, out of sequence, stripped through with a full range of emotions—much like the war you lived through, perhaps, or the otherworldliness of returning to those countries now at peace.
Lieutenant Colonel David Hamilton is one of the original Douglas C-47 pilots trained as a “Pathfinder,” crews tasked with flying over in advance of D-Day to drop in teams to set up the Rebecca radio beacons necessary to guide the invasion formations inbound.
Hamilton has spent the past year restoring memories into their places. Triggered by the conversations he’s had with so many people seeking connection with the past, he wanted to honor his service and that of so many others no longer with us. Hamilton only now realizes, several weeks after the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, that he can construct a story from those scraps and begin to make sense of it all.
Similarly disjointed: any attempt to weave together a coherent, linear review of all of the sorties, missions and individual efforts that comprised the Normandy invasion. You do better to choose a thread and follow it from conception to conclusion, acknowledging its branches and corollaries, to the best of your ability.
There’s a building roar across the blue, as a lone C-47 cuts through the sky overhead at pattern altitude. All eyes are upon it as it flies then turns to come around to land—until those on the ground see the hundreds of tiny white parachutes floating down. The children run after them as they fall—happy, safe—to find their candy reward.
Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber has come home to the Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles, California, after two months away—an undertaking of considerable scope and effort.
Like Betsy, not every Douglas DC-3 variant that crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 2019 as part of a group called the D-Day Squadron had a direct connection to the Normandy invasion, though a handful of well-known tails (D-Day Doll, Legend Airways ‘Liberty,’ and That’s All, Brother) did take part in those brave formations propelling over the English Channel on June 5 and 6, 1944. They returned for the 75th anniversary of what we know now as D-Day.
Betsy wasn’t really one of the airplanes that brought relief to Berlin during its darkest days—dropping food, supplies and (famously) candy, as other generous crews did during the Berlin airlift through 1948—though it’s her namesake.
But the D-Day Squadron made history when the clutch of C-47s, DC-3s and their compatriots successfully finished a mission set in motion several years back, when Eric Zipkin—a pilot and charter-flight operator from Connecticut—put his first efforts into helping commemorate one of the most incredible acts of courage and collaboration our century has seen. The scale of the Normandy invasion and its following operations defy easy comprehension, until you go to England and France to witness firsthand what was once a monumental battleground.
Zipkin’s dream of participating in the 75th anniversary began in 2014, during the 70th year of those remembrances. He flew over in Placid Lassie—now owned by the Tunison Foundation (the organizational home of the D-Day Squadron)—to Cherbourg, France, but the experience left him disappointed. “We went over with one airplane in 2014, and [fellow U.S.-based C-47] Whiskey 7 was there, but we never actually flew with them because of lack of coordination amongst organizers. I thought, ‘All we can do is bring two airplanes? And they can’t even fly together?’”
Veterans such as Ed Tunison, radio operator from the crew of Placid Lassie on D-Day, inspired him and strengthened the drive to return that airplane, and a host of her sisterships, to the shores of Normandy to honor those long dead—and those still remaining who become vanishingly fewer with each year.
And that dream grew into the creation of the D-Day Squadron.
The goal? To bring together a gaggle of C-47s and DC-3s flown and owned by private individuals, aviation museums, and other charitable organizations and make them ready for an Atlantic crossing—with commemorative flights for a series of events in Duxford, England; Normandy, France; Berlin, Germany; and Venice, Italy—over the course of two months of travel.
Zipkin, from the beginning, used his experience in flight operations—“I run 25 airplanes, and I’m used to managing pilots”—to draw up the outline of the logistics required to bring a full squadron of airplanes across the ocean. He became president of the Tunison Foundation’s board of directors in the process. Moreno Aguiari joined in early 2018 as director of marketing, coming on board to put together the squadron’s branding and communications. Jon Helminiak, executive director of the Tunison Foundation, ramped up efforts several months later to build support, specifically for Placid Lassie.
Kevin Riley, however, is the team member that Zipkin calls his MVP. “He was the glue that kept us together, operationally,” Zipkin said. Riley, a flight-safety officer and MH-60T helicopter pilot for the U.S. Coast Guard, took on that role; he was the one who made sure the squadron had fuel in Presque Isle, Maine, and Goose Bay, Labrador. He filed the flight plans and put together the formation briefings. He also shadowed the squadron as it traversed the “Blue Spruce” route across the North Atlantic, following the same segments flown during the war in a Beechcraft King Air 200 donated by Dynamic Aviation.
But no one could possibly manage the logistics solo for such an expedition. Amadine Mayle joined the squadron and became mother hen to the crews. Her skill in matching up pilots with provender and places to rest around France quickly grew legendary among those for whom she cared on the road.
“To do things right takes a lot of effort from people with varied skill sets,” Jon Helminiak said. It was that quality of preparation and planning that made it all come together.
“Ship 330” is no longer with us, but Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton remembers her well—the C-47 Skytrain assigned to him at RAF North Witham in Lincolnshire, England, as a Pathfinder pilot. The details now come to him in sharp focus, especially after seeing the remains of the runway at North Witham, the very place from which he took off on that first real mission, into the maw of the beast. It wasn’t known by that name during the war, however, but as Army Air Field 479; many airfields were referred to by similar numerical codes for security reasons.
The U.S. Army Air Forces formed the Pathfinder group to execute a specific kind of operation: to run out ahead of the invasion forces and place any men and equipment needed to support the primary thrust. “There was one Pathfinder squadron to start with—20 crews. Later—after D-Day, Dragoon, Market Garden—they added three more squadrons. So they added 40 crews, 150 pilots,” Hamilton said.
They trained separately from the other crews, and by order of Pathfinder group commanding officer Colonel Joel Crouch, each aircraft commander made a parachute jump as part of his assigned “stick,” the cadre of jumpers detailed to the aircraft for the invasion. The move was meant to establish cohesion within the ranks and an empathy for the emotions they would feel executing the task at hand—among them being nauseating anxiety, resignation or outright fear.
Because of the delay of game brought on by tempestuous weather over the channel on June 4, 1944, the crews took advantage of more briefing time, as Hamilton recalled, which served his formation well and kept their gathering anxiety at bay—somewhat. “That’s the runway I took off for Normandy on,” he said as he related the story. “I thought it’d been plowed up and there would be cows there.”
About three or four days before the mission, the flight commander told Hamilton he planned to lead the formation over at 50 feet above the water to evade enemy fire. Hamilton thought of something: “If we’re gonna do that, we’re gonna take the glycol out of our little reservoirs behind the pilot seat and fill them with water.” The water would more effectively remove the salty spray from the windscreen.
“When I pulled [the airplane] away from the flight commander, I didn’t want to be right in there. I pulled away a little bit, and [the navigator] said, ‘Don’t move, drop down,’ and I dropped down, and I broke out of the bottom. [The navigator] said, ‘Hit the green light,’ and I hit the green light and let ’em out. And those 20 guys went out of that airplane in about 12 seconds. And then when [the crew chief and the intelligence officer] got [all the shrouds] in, then I firewalled my engines and hit the deck. And that’s when my copilot said, ‘Dave, you better lift your right wing, or you’re gonna take the steeple off the church!’” That was the church at Sainte-Mère-Église.
“I was doing 110 indicated—and that’s miles an hour—when I dropped my last trooper, and I was just below 700 feet,” when he descended to make the run to England. All of the men hit the drop zone, with Hamilton’s landing on the southern side, near Gouberville, France—drop zone T.
Hamilton had returned to Normandy once since the war, in 1960. On the visit this summer, he was the last original Pathfinder pilot there, and one of the few pilots left at all.
Duxford, Then Normandy
Today’s C-47 pilots range through a breadth of experience and backgrounds. Though all of these pilots had flown in the affectionately named “Gooney Birds” a fortunate number of times, the flights to come, they would never forget.
It began with an epic crossing. Though many in the D-Day Squadron had experience flying over the north Atlantic, most of those hours passed quickly, in the luxury of an Airbus or Boeing. The crew of That’s All, Brother, for example, had logged roughly 50,000 hours collectively. “When the kids came over in 1944, they didn’t have GPS. They didn’t have 500 hours of time in the cockpit between them,” said Doug Rozendaal, chief pilot for TAB.
Still, the prospect of traversing so much open ocean in a 75-year-old airplane to get to the gathering point at Duxford, England, gave pause to even the most sanguine of pilots. As it turned out, weather worked for them in an unexpected way. “We were on top of the clouds nearly the entire way. As an Iowa farmer, it was easy to imagine that there was nothing but cornfields underneath,” Rozendaal said.
Surprise and elation came through the phone line from Rozendaal when he related from England that they’d had a nearly eventless crossing for their crew: 25 hours of flight time, roughly, with nary a hiccup from the venerable—yet completely restored—airplane. What were the chances?
The D-Day Squadron joined in with Dakotas from around Europe at the Duxford Imperial War Museum, an active field near Cambridge. The total number of airplanes hovered between 20 and 30, and during preparations on June 2 and 3, it felt like there was someone taxiing, taking off or landing continuously.
Though the squadron had practiced its element formations, including drops, multiple times over many days back in the U.S., it was time to focus in on the specific maneuvers they would draw upon for the days ahead.
The museum brought in the public on June 4 and 5 to watch demonstration flights and the planned parachute drops—which were canceled on the first day because of the weather but executed on the next day. With the words of General Eisenhower calling the Allies to battle echoing all around, the stage was set.
Zipkin relates: “A good flight requires a good briefing, and a good briefing requires a lot of thought. You cannot muddle your way through with 16 large aircraft. An hour formation is almost a full-day project.” The squadron brought together folks from around the warbird community, the DC-3 community, and found them willing to sing from the same sheet of music—with humility and respect—and check their egos at the door.
The formation briefings took on the reverence of a prayer meeting—and in a sense, each one was—an homage to the briefings that these pilots knew viscerally were hauntingly similar to those held by the pilots about to set D-Day in motion.
With a total of three entire Airborne Divisions (two American and one British) penetrating the skies over Normandy during the initiation of Operation Overlord—which D-Day kicked off—it would have been impossible to honor each part of the offense over the limited days of the commemoration. The focus went to making a representative number of memorial drops and fly-bys. One remarkable example: the mass-formation drop at Sannerville, France.
The Sannerville Drop
Sitting in a wheat field, shuffling a deck of cards, dragging on the end of a rolled cigarette and wishing for a cold drink—these would all be World War II-appropriate activities in the present-day afternoon of June 5 near Sannerville, in central Normandy. Crowds swarmed the fields and lined roads for miles around to see the series of drops, which promised more authentic round canopies in sight than any other time here since the invasion.
As the people on the ground waited for the mass formation to arrive from England, another stick of a dozen swinging dolls came out of the British Dakota Drag ’em Oot overhead. The crowd watched them steady themselves in the air, coming down faster than you’d expect. We’re used to seeing jumpers descend under maneuverable canopies, but these were the real deal.
One lad sitting in the dirt monitored the squadron heading over from England using the flight-tracking app on his phone. After an hour’s wait, he announced that Miss Montana was in the lead of a formation coming across, finally off the chocks at 15:24 after a delay. In total, nearly 30 airplanes had launched, with only one—the Norwegian C-53D Little Egypt with engine trouble—turning back before leaving England’s airspace.
Then, the first sighting. The airplanes circled widely around the field, then element by element, they turned inbound, coming across at 900 or 1,000 feet. The paratroopers stepped out of the first airplane, then a second, then a third—about a dozen jumpers from each one. The C-47s circled around and made the second drop with the other stick on board, filling the sky with falling soldiers. Or at least you felt that way, sitting there in the waving wheat as they descended all around—stunned, speechless, realizing in your gut what these soldiers had faced on the ground. The drop was the easy part.
Other drops had taken place that morning, staged out of Cherbourg, and many fly-bys would cover the skies through the weekend. For Helminiak, that early morning Channel flight persists in his memory. “We left very early, 7 a.m. Duxford to Cherbourg. That was one of the more powerful and emotional moments of the mission: going across, flying the with the peacefulness of the calm, early morning, [with the] sun coming up through the clouds…everyone was kind of lost in thought.”
The main event the next day—the flyover of the beaches on June 6—required vetting by the American and French military on hand to protect and serve the 60 veterans, among other VIPs, gathered on the ground. Fighters from the U.S. and French air forces led the aerial parade, followed by a transport, a troop of eight C-130s and 12 C-47s—with several from the D-Day Squadron—crossing from west to east.
Sherman Smoot, chief pilot for Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber, flew F-4Js from aircraft carriers, but you get the feeling he likes flying the C-47 a whole lot more. And to cross the Atlantic via bases like Bluie West Eight as part of the D-Day Squadron evoked a lot of colorful words from this character.
“We replaced a jug in Duxford that had an intake stack that would not tighten up. Precautionary only, since we had a spare,” Smoot recalled after June’s memorial events in Normandy. Along with a host of minor maintenance issues, he rattled off several that the fleet in general had encountered along the way—what you’d expect for 15 multiengine, radial-powered airplanes with an average age hovering around 75 years old. These were new machines during the invasion, but time and dwindling resources put pressure on every operator to keep them flying.
Betsy ran well across the U.S. and across the pond, said crewmember John Doyle when the crew had paused for a break at Duxford. But, he also noted, the starter began acting up in the cold weather they encountered in Goose Bay. A clutch on the starter was slipping. “We had a spare starter, so we just swapped it out,’ Smoot said. “And [then there was] the leak up front making the stack flicker in Kansas, and again in Presque Isle,” Doyle added. Par for the course, in an airplane well-known for its lack of, ahem, watertightness in the cockpit.
At the close of the Normandy events, the squadron continued its mission. Colonel Gail “Hal” Halvorsen joined them for the journey, flying in one airplane then another during flights to Germany and around Berlin. Halvorsen, the original Berlin Candy Bomber, became famous for dropping bonbons from his aircraft during the airlift. He’s a national hero among Germans—especially those who were children while the city starved in 1948 and 1949.
The Senate of Berlin wouldn’t let the squadron fly over Templhof, the site of the primary airfield in the city during the war and postwar period. Three pallets of Jelly Bellys packed especially for the event—complete with little parachutes—needed delivery. Instead, the gathering for the public was held at the U.S. base in Wiesbaden—and crowds of people came to see the airplanes, meet the crews and honor those veterans like Halvorsen who returned.
“I knew the stories and understood the significance, but not on a visceral level,” Zipkin recalled. “[With] 50,000 and 60,000 people getting on board the airplane and breaking down and crying, [that] direct connection, it’s extraordinary. We closed out a military operation with a humanitarian mission. It speaks to how, as a country, we step up as a leader.”
The Birthday Party
When one of the original Pathfinders invites you to his 97th birthday party, you go. Especially if it’s hosted in an original World War II hangar in Frederick, Oklahoma, in the midst of a graduation party for recently minted jumpers for the WWII Airborne Demonstration Team. Several folks there that night had jumped with the 70 ADT members who made the Normandy drops, and its significance cast a reflective shadow on many at the celebration.
Hamilton was their guest of honor, and he’d flown earlier that day (July 20) in one of the school’s jump planes, a C-47 called Boogie Baby. Flying next to Dave Brothers (who flew D-Day Doll in the squadron), Hamilton took the yoke and didn’t miss a trick. It was his first flight in more than a decade.
The evening devolved into cake and libations but was capped with one very special exchange. Kathleen “Kat” Healey, an ADT jumper whose birthday is June 6, jumped on that day in Normandy with Hamilton’s Pathfinder challenge coin tucked safely into her uniform. She returned it to him with tears, and ceremony, and a bond that transcends generations.
The D-Day Squadron will carry on, now that the crews have returned home and had time to think about the most important parts of the journey. “My story is a good story to tell,” Aguiari said. “I was born and raised in Italy, and my grandparents fought in World War II—they never supported the Mussolini regime. If it wasn’t for those American soldiers that liberated Italy, possibly, I wouldn’t be here. That’s a small part of my appreciation for what these guys did.”
The plan for the squadron comes in four parts. First, a type group for DC-3 and C-47 owners. Next, standardized formation training in heavy transports and bombers, with the group working to become part of FAST (Formation and Safety Training), the formation oversight organization in the United States for warbirds and other groups. Third, they’re talking about hosting a June 6 gathering at a rotating airport around the U.S. each year.
Finally, there’s a plan for education for young people, to leverage what was done in June, to teach them about the meaning of a part of history that could be, unbelievably, fading into the past.
On June 6 every year, there’s a street festival at Sainte-Mère-Église to mark the liberation of the village on that day in 1944—one of the first set loose from the Nazi’s grip. The houses and shops draped with American, British and French flags line the main square. The Star Spangled Banner mingles with La Marseillaise, God Save the Queen and Ode to Joy. With a moment of silence followed by the sound of a slow, mournful version of taps, the day closes and leaves us to reflect upon an awesome and awful invasion that brought out the very best—the greatest—in a generation.