Eyewitness to History

World War II
The Troop Carrier D-Day Flights
By Lew Johnston
These stories are not copyrighted unless noted but we request anyone using them for other than personal use to credit the author and the museum.
A Closer Look at the C-47

A C-47A "Turf & Sport Special" Skytrain is fully restored to its Normandy stripes in our hangar.

A few facts...

Wingspan: 95.6 ft.
Engines: Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp, R-1830.1200 hp
Length: 64.6 ft.
Height: 18.3 ft.
Propellers: Hamilton Standard 3E5U
Wing area: 987 sq. ft.
Range: 1500 miles
Top speed: 232 mph
Cruising speed: 175 mph
Crew: 5
Load: 3 tons or more —or —18 fully equipped paratroopers
Cost: $138,000

The legend of the DC-3—and the C-47 that evolved

The military C-47 was an outgrowth of the DC-3 (Douglas Commercial model 3), which was in turn an outgrowth of the DC-2. Most of the preliminary design work was done in the early 30s at the request of the airline industry. Shortly after the war began, scores of commercial DC-3s were hustled into the Army, Navy and Marine air arms, until a high-level production of military versions could be obtained. This was quickly done, and the C-53 soon began making its appearance on the extending routes. The C-53 was identical to the commercial airliner, except for the substitution of bucket seats for the more luxurious reclining seats. It was solely a personnel carrier—no freight, no heavy lifting.

Conversion of the DC-3 to a true cargo plane involved many changes. First, it called for a reinforced bottom and floor, and a wide loading door capable of admitting heavy machinery and weapons. Also numerous changes in production were necessary if these planes were to be turned out in volume. Hand riveting was replaced by automatic riveting wherever possible. Fiber replaced aluminum in many parts of the aircraft interior. Forging was used on certain parts instead of gas welding, and flash welding was introduced extensively. All this was accomplished with no loss of strength—and frequently with greater ease of interchange or replacement of parts.

By September 1943, more than 2000 C-47s had been built at Douglas' Long Beach CA. plant. By February of 1944, more than 2,500 C-47s were being flown by Air Transport Command alone, to say nothing of another couple of thousand by Troop Carrier and other Army units— and by the Navy and Marines. The interior of the plane was so rigged that litters could be installed quickly, transforming it into what was, in every sense, a hospital plane. Soon it was found that the C-47 was a fine glider towplane because of its robust construction—and if became the first plane ever to tow a glider across the Atlantic.

The C-47 was flown in troop carrier operations in all theaters, but it is best known for its combat roles in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, Holland, and Germany. These were the glamour missions, the ones that earned medals, but many other missions were flown carrying tons of critical freight wherever needed. Return trips often carried the injured and the wounded.

Many of the C-47s flown in the invasion of Normandy were from a special order known as the "Urgent 400." These were extra planes that General Arnold requested the Douglas Company to produce over their full schedule—specifically for Invasion needs. These were given a top manufacturing priority over and above all other aircraft in production—including fighters, medium bombers, and heavy bombers.

Fighter Cover
Our Little Friends Were There Too

The following is from the book PURSUE and DESTROY by now deceased Kit Carson of the 357th Fighter Group. It is pertinent here because without proper fighter cover and tactical air cover, we would have faced worse odds. Everyone played a part.

5 June 1944.

"By noon of that day our little spot in East Anglia was rampant with rumors that D-Day was at hand. At 2:00PM, the Colonel asked to see all three engineering officers. They were told to paint eighteen inch black and white stripes on the Mustangs, five on the wings and five on the fuselage. 'Tell your men that this is to identify our group as the Yoxford Boys' if they ask questions,' he said, knowing that they would ask and also knowing that they would realize it was a very thin smoke screen for hiding the real reason.

Paint guns appeared and things got busy. Our squadron CO, Major Broadhead, was in the hangar holding up a piece of canvas masking tape, while 'Frenchy' Boudreaux, the squadron painter, was busy with the spray gun. The stripes on the wings were trim, but those on the empennage spoiled the profile. 'Looks like a pregnant turtle,' opined Captain Willie (Calvert) Williams, our Operations officer. Rumors came and went out of the squadron like water from a burst pipe. 'Hey, I just heard in group Operations that the 'cloak and dagger boys' (Intelligence) are in a big scramble and they're not talking, etc.'

Bet on D-Day

By evening chow time, you could get an even bet on D-Day being the next morning, the 6th, or the day after. The officer's club looked like the Last Chance Saloon on Saturday night. Every officer had either a shoulder holster or one on his hip with a .45 Colt in it, or a carbine, and the smoke filled room needed only the reclining figure of Lillian Russell or Goya's Duchess to complete the picture. Carson was scheduled for a 0400 take-off. Captain Bill O'Brien, a 363rd Squadron old timer, has vivid memories of this:

"The Briefing placed take-off at 2:10AM, June 6th, on an what turned out to be an uneventful mission. The flights assembled over the field, and then flew to the area of the Bay of Biscay to sweep for opposition. This fine idea required a night take-off and night formation work. The weather was poor, solid overcast to 7,000 feet. The result was no one got into formation at low altitude while circling the field. We got on top of the clouds and started looking for our respective flights and squadrons. I couldn't find anyone who was supposed to be with me, and about that time a P-51 came strolling by with his navigation lights on so I tacked on to him. The two of us were joined by another lonesome P-51 so the guy in the 'lighted plane set course. As the 363rd was the lead squadron, I felt comfortable with whoever was leading.

Well, anyway, away we go, and finally the sun comes up and we are stooging around somewhere. I slid in close trying to observe the guy in the lead trying to orient himself with what coastline we could see. I felt sorry for him. Magellan couldn't have helped us.

After horsing around like this for six hours, fifty minutes, we are back at Leiston. All planes taxi back to dispersal, and out steps Graham, our leader, and his wingmen Anderson and O'Brien! How wonderful, a group leader without a group, and a squadron leader without a squadron, and two flight leaders without flights.

Although Graham and company stooged around for almost seven hours and found no enemy aircraft, and no friendlies either, the rest of the 363rd and the 364th were out somewhere in the same general area. They saw nothing either, but the early morning fiasco cost two aircraft and the life of one pilot. Roger Pageis was last seen at take-off, but nothing is known of him, except group records list him as "escapee".

Captain LeRoy Ruder's flight was patrolling in the Cherbourg area over 10/10th cloud when he called his element leader, Mark Stepelton and said his engine was ailing. He then let down into the clouds, saying he could see the ground and was going to crash land. Stepelton followed him down, but saw no sign of him, and Ruder did not survive. Willard Bierly, his armorer, remembers that early morning departure:

"Strapped in his cockpit, he asked if he could borrow my knife, as he had forgotten his. This was a precaution to puncture his dinghy, should it accidentally inflate in the cockpit. He never returned my knife."

Eight Missions

The group flew a total of eight missions, and except for the first, all were in squadron strength. One aborted due to icing, the others were all bombing or strafing. On the third mission, Lt. Irving Smith flew into heavy overcast and was never seen again.

June, with D-Day in its first week, was one of the most momentous times of World War II, and brought with it, briefly, a different kind of war. It had been a machine gun war, but now there were a large number of bombs on the racks to be dumped on all kinds of rail, road, and airfield targets. Glide bombing, skip bombing, and dive-bombing; all were tried, sometimes with good results. During two weeks prior to the 20th, there were only two brief skirmishes with enemy aircraft, with nine claims. For all of June there were only twenty-nine claims, twenty of these in a big battle on the 29th. During the month nine pilots were lost—relatively light losses compared to other periods.

The fighter groups contributed heavily to the success of D-Day. They not only protected the Troop Carriers, but many others throughout the war. Needless to say, we were all very grateful to see P-51s and our own medium bombers flying around us—rather than Me 109s.

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