‘My first mission was Normandy’: World War II pilots recall role in history (video)

Why We Wrote This

A 75th anniversary reenactment of D-Day is about more than history or getting to fly in cool planes – it’s about “why we live free, and the sacrifices that were made, and the incredible examples of what we can accomplish as a country when we all come together,” as a pilot says.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
C-47 and DC-3 planes sit on the tarmac during a D-Day Squadron press presentation at the Waterbury-Oxford Airport on May 16, 2019 in Oxford, Conn. The D-Day Squadron will deploy paratroopers over Normandy on June 6 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion.

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Lt. Col. Dave Hamilton is dressed in a rumpled vintage uniform, but his memory is more than crisp. “I’ll be 97 in July – I’m a kid!”

He played a special role during D-Day as a 21-year-old pilot about to fly his first combat mission: Even before the main airborne assault, the kid from New York was part of an elite squadron of C-47s that left six hours before the main invasion, a squadron of 20 planes that dropped specialized “pathfinder” troops behind enemy lines.

What was it like to be sitting there in the cockpit, waiting to take off?

He pauses. “Maybe the word fear had never entered our minds, but we were anxious,” he says. “And we had our lives and the paratroopers’ lives in our hands – until we dumped them out over France, and so it was somewhat of a relief to get rid of them,” he says, kidding. “I dropped my paratroopers at 15 minutes past 1 o’clock in the morning.”

He went on to fly dozens more combat missions, including in the Korean War, when he flew more than 50 missions in an RB-26 bomber. Later, he trained to fly jets and served in the Air Defense Command, retiring from the Air Force in 1963.

“But I wasn’t sure I was going to live through that first one,” he says. “I came back with over 200 bullet holes in that aeroplane.”

They’re not as spry as they were 75 years ago when they were aggressive young pilots gearing up for combat during World War II. But today they’re beaming, lost in memory, two old warriors swapping stories only few today know firsthand.

Retired Capt. Peter Goutiere, now 104, and retired Lt. Col. Dave Hamilton, 96, are still standing straight, as if at attention, and almost giddy as they recount their first missions flying C-47 Dakotas, the twin-engine military transports they called “Daks” back then.

“The C-47 was a luxury aeroplane. It had everything,” Captain Goutiere says to me and a small group gathered at a hanger at Waterbury-Oxford Airport in Connecticut. In 1944, during his training in Miami, he was almost mesmerized when he saw the Dak he was to fly to Europe and beyond.

“Here comes this lovely aeroplane,” he recalls, describing the military version of the venerable Douglas DC-3, which helped revolutionize civilian travel in the 1930s. “It had its military insignia on it, and that was my aeroplane,” he says, just slightly jutting his chin with a pursed smile. “By the way, with this old age, I’m deaf as a whatever,” the brash centenarian adds, tapping his hearing aid.

Outside, there’s a regimented fleet of nearly a dozen restored C-47s lined up along the small airstrip this morning, not unlike that time in 1944. These vintage aircraft are part of The D-Day Squadron, a “flying museum” supported by the Tunison Foundation, the nonprofit that helped reboot these WWII-era transports to honor pilots and other WWII veterans like Captain Goutiere and Lieutenant. Cololnel Hamilton – and the roles they played in one of the most significant dates in modern history.

On June 6, this squadron will comprise the American contingent of a massive reenactment of D-Day called “Daks over Normandy,” a multination commemoration that will include dozens of restored C-47s and hundreds of volunteer paratroopers. Each will be wearing not only authentic WWII-era uniforms and gear, but also the same kind of parachutes Allied soldiers used when tens of thousands jumped over occupied France 75 years ago.

Along with others, including the Monitor’s director of photography, Alfredo Sosa, I’ve come to participate in one of The D-Day Squadron’s training runs along the Housatonic River in Connecticut, and I’m feeling a little lucky.

We’ve been assigned to fly with the crew of “That’s All, Brother,” the original lead plane in the first wave of C-47s to fly over Normandy during D-Day’s main airborne assault. Its name intended to be a message to Hitler, this plane was also the first to drop American paratroopers during the massive main invasion – members of the 2nd Battalion of the storied 101st Airborne Division.

This made it feel like more than a historical artifact – part of the point of bringing these aircraft back to life and outfitting their crews with the gear of a bygone era. The goal: Somehow, to make memory alive, to reimprint those breathless moments, to revisit the bravery, the sacrifices.

‘I was No. 14.’

Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton is dressed in a rumpled vintage uniform, but his memory is more than crisp, even now, at 96. “I’ll be 97 in July – I’m a kid!”

He played a special role during D-Day as a 21-year-old pilot about to fly his first combat mission: Even before the main airborne assault, the kid from New York City was part of an elite squadron of C-47s that left six hours before the main invasion, a squadron of 20 planes that dropped the first specialized “pathfinder” troops behind enemy lines.

Wait. You were the very first pilot to fly over Normandy on D-Day? I asked, incredulous. “I was No. 14,” he says. “I flew on the right wing of Capt. Pete Minor, who was an experienced pilot from North Africa. I was brand new from the States. My first mission was Normandy.”

What was like to be sitting there in the cockpit, waiting to take off?

He pauses. “Maybe the word fear had never entered our minds, but we were anxious,” he says. “And we had our lives and the paratroopers’ lives in our hands – until we dumped them out over France, and so it was somewhat of a relief to get rid of them,” he says with a smirk. “I dropped my paratroopers at 15 minutes past 1 o’clock in the morning.”

“But we knew those guys by their first names, family’s and children’s names, everything,” he says, more seriously, describing how every pilot had trained for months with the same group of about two dozen elite Pathfinder soldiers at Bottesford Base in England. “It was a very personal situation, and it meant quite a bit as far as the companionship and the comradeship that we had.”

“Were we anxious? Yes,” Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton says. “Scared? No.”

The 96-year-old pilot was not without bravado, either, as he recalls those first moments. “We were practicing in a three-ship formation,” he says. “I had come from a troop carrier group training in the States, where we had 40-ship to 1,500-ship formations. So a three-ship formation forming a small group of 20 going from England to France? It was a snap. We just made one circle over the field and headed out.”

He returned that morning and went on to fly dozens more combat missions, including in the Korean War, when he flew more than 50 missions in an RB-26 bomber. (“I liked them a lot. They were faster than C-47s, and they had guns!”) Later, he trained to fly jets and served in the Air Defense Command, retiring from the Air Force in 1963.

“But I wasn’t sure I was going to live through that first one,” Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton says of his D-Day mission. “I came back with over 200 bullet holes in that aeroplane.”

‘That’s All, Brother’

About an hour later, Judge Matthew Jalowiec is standing with me next to “That’s All, Brother,” and we’re waiting to climb aboard as the crew of this historic C-47 makes last minute preparations for today’s training run.

A probate judge who serves the nearby towns of Cheshire and Southington in Connecticut, Judge Jalowiec is a self-described “history buff” who has participated in a number of historical reenactments. Today he’s dressed in the vintage WWII paratrooper gear that he’ll be wearing when he participates in “Daks Over Normandy” and makes a commemorative jump with about 300 others.  

“It definitely takes it to the next level, because, you know, you can buy the gear, you can dress up, and you can look like it, but when you’re in that plane going 150 miles an hour, at 1,500 feet off the ground, and the light turns green and the jumpmaster is giving you the go command – now it’s not fake anymore,” he says.

He’d never jumped out of a plane before, he says, but for each of past three years he’s been taking a few weeks to train in Oklahoma as member of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), the organization that flies and maintains the C-47s of The D-Day Squadron – just a part of the 170 refurbished military aircraft they keep in locations across the country as “the largest flight museum in the world.”

Judge Jalowiec has been training for a particular drop zone. He’ll follow the original flight path Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton took 75 years ago and reenact the Pathfinder mission that dropped soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division over the small town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, which is just three miles inland from Utah Beach, code name for one of the beachheads where the Allies made a major amphibious assault.  

“That was actually the first area liberated on D-Day,” the history buff says, explaining how these paratroopers were tasked with securing the town and clearing a passage for the troops landing at Utah Beach.  

“And one of the guys in our group that’s gonna go, his dad jumped in that area,” he says. “So when we jump, you know, we’re jumping with the memory of his dad, there in the same place where his dad jumped 75 years ago. So it’s going to be quite a feather in our cap,” he says with the same giddiness of – well, of a centenarian pilot.

Down the airstrip, Howie Ramshorn is pretty energetic too. Standing on a ladder under the propellers of “D-Day Doll,” another original WWII transport, he’s dressed in an old-school mechanic’s overalls and checking the C-47’s engines before she joins the three-ship formation on this morning’s training run.

A former mechanic and crew chief at TWA for nearly 40 years, Mr. Ramshorn has been volunteering for the CAF since 2010.

“I was born in 1939, and I remember my dad being an air raid warden; I remember the blackouts, the coupon books,” Mr. Ramshorn says, recalling his childhood in Long Island. “So in my little job here, if I can turn around and keep their legacy going, I’m proud to do it.”

Before we climb aboard “That’s All, Brother,” the pilot, Doug Rozendaal, gathers us together to give us an idea of what to expect during this 45-minute flight.

“There’s puffy clouds today, and we’re gonna be below these clouds, so it’s going to be rough,” says Mr. Rozendaal, an experienced commercial pilot. But then he reminds us why we’ll be flying in formation over the Housatonic River on this bright and puffy-clouded day.

“We fly these airplanes as a tool to tell a story, and the story is why we live free, and the sacrifices that were made, and the incredible examples of what we can accomplish as a country when we all come together,” he tells us.

Then he stops to point at the door on the side of the plane – we’ll have to use a rope to pull ourselves up to the flipped-down steps, which are about three feet off the ground.

“What we want to impress on people is to remember, that across that threshold of that door, you know, kids walked out into the deep dark night on June 6,” Mr. Rozendaal says.

There are about 30 stainless steel seats lined up along the sides of the pea-green cabin, each with thick military-style belts. The cabin isn’t pressurized, and as we take off, the roar of the engines and propellers on each wing is deafening. I notice two unopened boxes marked “parachutes” on the floor.

Just like the main airborne assault on D-Day, we’re the lead plane. Outside the window, “D-Day Doll” and another ship called “Placid Lassie” are flying off our wings.

“Man, if you were on the wing, you could probably jump right on those other planes!” one of the other guests says, surprised at how close the three planes were flying together.

We were flying on a bright, gorgeous day with sunshine and blue skies, and as my editor would later point out, the Connecticut countryside kinda looked like France. But the young soldiers in this cabin 75 years ago were sitting in total darkness as they flew across the English Channel.

“You look at their pictures and you say, well, they’re 18, 19 years old, and they were jumping out of a plane that’s taking anti-aircraft fire,” says Judge Jalowiec, who’s looked at a lot of them. “They’re going to get on the ground, and there’s guys who want to kill them. We’re in beautiful sunny weather, and nobody’s going to kill us.”

“But it changes your life forever, once you go out that door,” continues the father of three, musing on the dozens of jumps he’s already taken out of “That’s All, Brother” and other C-47s.

‘The Himalayan Rogue’

We’re in the air less than an hour before we land back at Waterbury-Oxford Airport. In a few days, The D-Day Squadron will make another training run, this time in full formation over the Hudson River to New York, where it will circle the Statue of Liberty.  

Then it will embark on the trans-Atlantic trip to “cross the pond” to England, stopping to refuel at Goose Bay, Canada; Narsarsuaq, Greenland; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Prestwick, Scotland, before joining the international contingents of Daks that will reenact the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France.

Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton will also be making this cross-Atlantic flight and then relive his first combat flight 75 years ago. A 95-year-old British paratrooper named Harry Read will also be reliving his jump “into the deep, dark night” on June 6, 1944.

Captain Goutiere didn’t fly a mission during D-Day, but as a pilot known as “the Himalayan Rogue,” he flew an astonishing 680 missions over “the Hump” during WWII, one of the most notoriously deadly supply routes over China, Burma, and India. Pilots also called this flight path the “Aluminum Trail,” since more than 600 planes and 1,000 men were lost.

Captain Goutiere still remembers his first flight over the Hump – and a special moment he took as he flew over Agra, India, the location of the Taj Mahal.

“There was a little building across it on the Ganges River – and for your information, I was born and raised in India – and this building on the Ganges River, that is where I lived when I was 5 or 6 years old,” he tells us.

“So I got permission to circle around my village, that building that I once lived in so long ago, and where my father died,” the 104-year-old pilot says, welling with emotion.

“Then I saluted my wings, for my father.”  

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