Throughout history, certain dates and events stand out and over time prove significant enough to eventually need no explanation.
Sept. 11 needs no narrative. I know not a living soul who doesn’t remember where they were or what they were doing when the Twin Towers were attacked. The assassination of JFK holds a similar reverence, as does the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941 (“a day that will live in infamy”), ushering the United States into World War II.
Of course, time and history also have a way of progressing, leaving behind those who witnessed firsthand these monumental benchmarks, and eventually the legends and legacies slowly displace the eyewitness and experience.
Fortunately, there are museums and groups dedicated to keeping history alive, if not for the tragedy then for the triumph.
I’ve always been fascinated by World War II and especially military machinery. The rapid pace of development of aircraft and all-terrain vehicles and their wide availability following the war meant an abundance of cheap but capable equipment. Understandably, many were abused and even more were scrapped, but those that remain are now coveted artifacts.
The legacy of the mighty Jeep, which started out as a General Purpose vehicle to become a GP, and finally a Jeep, lives on in today’s Wrangler, albeit a somewhat larger and more luxurious shadow of its former self.
Warbirds, as WWII aircraft are known, command such high respect and value that some are restored from piles of what many would consider scrap metal, beginning with little more than plans, photos and a data plate.
One such warbird that straddled the line wearing civilian and military livery was the capable Douglas DC-3, known in Army guise as the C-47 Skytrain and in its Navy or Marine uniform as the R4D. There were as many variations as there were uses for this versatile ship, with more than 10,000 rolling off the assembly lines.
There was even a version on floats that Max Folsom of Folsom’s Air Service on Moosehead Lake in Greenville, Maine, replicated. This bird was a behemoth, standing tall on its amphibious floats. I parked my Ford F-150 under it once in the late 1990s when I was up there working on my seaplane rating.
Perhaps not the first aircraft many think about when conjuring images of dogfights over enemy lines or heavy bombing missions, the rugged DC-3 not only opened the door to modern civilian air travel, it also carried the burden of war all over the world.
It was instrumental in towing gliders for silent insertions, carrying staff to important events, transporting cargo into unimproved airstrips and dropping paratroopers into hostile territory.
It was this last role that found more than 800 C-47s approaching Normandy, France, in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944, with 13,000 paratroopers on board, leading Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day.
The lead ship in the airborne invasion formation was named “That’s All Brother” by its pilot, Lt. Col. John M. Donalson, who commanded the 87th Troop Carrier Squadron.
The name was intended to be a message to the enemy that their time was up. History would show that D-Day, which kicked off the battle of Normandy, resulted in the Allied liberation of Western Europe and proved a turning point in the war.
After successfully serving in other military campaigns, “That’s All Brother” was sold as surplus in 1945 and its historical significance was lost to the ravages of time. Eventually, one of the final owners parked the plane in Arizona and after many years of disuse decided to sell it to a company in Wisconsin that specializes in chopping up and heavily modifying DC-3s for modern use with turbine engines and lengthened fuselages.
The plane was ferried to the aircraft graveyard in Wisconsin, where it sat awaiting its fate when fortune intervened in the form of an Air Force historian who called to inquire about this particular plane, identified by its serial number.
The company confirmed their ownership of the lead D-Day plane but that’s as far as the inquiry went. Later, a local newspaper reporter looking to do a story on the airport and its resident businesses was told this particular airplane, set to be dismantled, was a better story.
The newspaper published the piece, and the story went viral among aircraft restorers, historians and warbird enthusiasts.
Enter the CAF, a flying history museum based in Texas. The Commemorative Air Force had the means to bring “That’s All Brother” back to life, and with the help of passionate volunteers and donations, did just that.
This month, along with 15 additional DC-3s and C-47s, “That’s All Brother” will make the journey back over the Atlantic, following the famous Blue Spruce Route that departs the continental U.S. at Presque Isle, Maine, to Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland and, finally, England, where the flight will join up with over 30 other DC-3s and C-47s in Duxford.
The project, known as Daks over Normandy (short for “Dakota,” the Royal Air Force moniker for the aircraft type) will fly to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion before heading onto Germany to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. Quite a feat for a historic relic that was found in a scrapyard four years ago.
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