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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS FeedAirborne veterans describe the fog of war
Story and photo by Frederick A. Johnsen

A re-enactor depicting an American World War II paratroop paused beside the C-47 Tico Bell.

A celebrated trait of the American military is the ability to improvise in a pinch; if doctrine is good, decisiveness is better. Four veterans who participated in the Normandy invasion in C-47 Skytrain transport versions of the DC-3 gathered at the Warbirds area and talked about the fog of war on Tuesday.

The fifth veteran in the Warbirds in Review presentation was the looming C-47 nicknamed Tico Belle, operated by Florida’s Valiant Air Command. It’s a 437th Troop Carrier Group survivor of two round trips over Normandy, followed by Operation Varsity to deposit troops on the German side of the Rhine River later in the war. Also a Cold War vet, this aircraft flew in the Berlin Airlift. Tico Belle still carries a few patches from shrapnel.

The Douglas C-47, a logical segue from the successful DC-3 airliner, served by the thousands around the world. C-47s traded cushioned passenger seats for utilitarian aluminum benches with shallow depressions pressed in. Paratroopers sat with their backs against the fuselage sides, until standing to walk to the rear of the aircraft where they jumped from an open door in the left side of the fuselage. Cables inside the fuselage held clips attached to a web static line on each man’s parachute, automatically jerking the parachute open as the jumper fell a safe distance behind and below the aircraft.

In World War II, C-47s brought the Army Air Forces into the world of airlift in a meaningful way, carrying troops and cargo and towing gliders. In the first 50 hours of Normandy, C-47s were credited with delivering more than 60,000 paratroops and their gear into the fray.
The C-47 has a wingspan of 95 feet, 6 inches, a length of 63 feet, 9 inches, and the ability to carry up to 27 troops, although heavily laden jumpers over Normandy might number fewer than 20 per plane.

One aspect not often considered is the need to get adequate supplies and equipment on the ground with the first paratroops to sustain initial combat until a logistics supply line can be established. For Normandy, some C-47s carried bundles beneath the wing center section, to be airdropped as the troops departed. Additionally, remembered 101st Airborne Division veteran Edward D. Shames, the jumpers carried extra ammunition and supplies that they shed as soon as they hit the ground. Someone—hopefully friendly—would pick up the material and use it.

Shames, who jumped over Normandy as an enlisted man and subsequently earned the first battlefield commission there, told his AirVenture 2010 listeners he got rid of another piece of baggage as soon as he hit the ground—his parachute wasn’t one of the dark olive canopies; it was stark white and collected all the light the night could muster.

Another piece of pragmatic, if macabre, gear the men carried was a G.I. mattress cover wrapped around them, Shames said. This was to serve as their own makeshift body bag if they didn’t survive.

In Shames’ C-47, he was instructed to be the last to jump, assisting to ensure all the others cleared the airplane. The man ahead of him, carrying a mortar strapped to his body, stumbled in the aircraft and fell. By the time Shames helped him to his feet and out the door, the C-47 had traveled miles beyond the intended drop zone.

Shames’ outfit fought well into France, finally earning a three-day pass to Paris in December 1944. On trucks bound for the City of Light, and equipped with cash and beverages, Shames and his men were halted about 10 miles from the town of Reims by a captain who said they must turn back. Unknown to them at that moment, they were desperately needed to stem a German counterattack at Bastogne, a town they had never heard of, Shames recalled. They hastily re-armed, some of the men having turned their rifles in for repairs, and headed for Belgium.

At an intersection of seven roads, Shames and his troops encountered what he described as thousands of friendly forces withdrawing, shedding gear as they moved away from the battle. “We picked up a lot of equipment, ammunition,” he said. Which was vital when they reached Bastogne, which they held for 29 days against odds a gambler would shun.

Following the Warbirds in Review event, the veterans—men and machine—were affectionately surrounded by the appreciative crowd.

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