SYMBOL OF SURVIVABILITY: AFTER 75 YEARS, THE PLANE THAT LED D-DAY FLIES ANOTHER MISSION
By: Eric Edwards
Just before midnight on the 5th of June 1944, more than 800 C-47 Skytrain and C-53 Skytrooper transport planes took off from the Greenham Common air base in Berkshire, England, and headed south over the English Channel toward France. Inside the planes rode approximately 13,000 American paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division. The objective of their mission—codenamed Albany—was clear: parachute in behind enemy lines and capture the causeways behind Normandy’s Utah Beach, as well as several bridges, a canal lock, and a German coastal battery. And they needed to do it quickly. For following just a few hours behind them was what would be the largest amphibious landing in military history, a landing that would forever be remembered as D-Day [1, 2].
This June marked the 75th anniversary of the D-Day operation, and it was altogether appropriate that many world leaders took time to gather in France to formally remember the historic event, to honor the many brave warriors who fought and fell there to preserve liberty, and to retell the stories of ordinary people overcoming extraordinary obstacles to accomplish their missions.
One such story involves the plane that many credit with leading the D-Day invasion (see Figure 1). It was Mission Albany’s lead plane, a C-47A piloted by LTC John Donalson, Commander of the 438th Troop Carrier Group. Reportedly, the aircraft was not supposed to be the lead plane that day, but Donalson didn’t want his regular plane to undergo the modifications needed to serve as the command aircraft . So, he chose this plane, along with its nickname—“That’s All, Brother”— which was painted in large yellow letters on the aircraft’s nose. The words, taken from a popular jazz tune of the day, were intended to be a personal message to Adolph Hitler, informing him that his time was up and the Allies were about to provide their long-anticipated response to Nazi aggression and occupation . Over the next 24 hrs, more than 150,000 troops would storm the beaches of Normandy, would fight tenaciously (and suffer greatly) to push back the enemy forces, and would successfully begin the liberation of Europe .
But for the plane that led D-Day, the story doesn’t end there. After successfully completing two important missions on D-Day, as well as many others throughout the rest of the war, the historic aircraft would then fade into obscurity, serving as a civilian cargo transport for many years and passing through the hands of a dozen different owners before eventually finding its way to an airplane boneyard in Wisconsin. There, it was awaiting disassembly when it was inadvertently discovered by two military historians, who helped start the process of bringing the plane back to life—as well as giving it one more important mission to fly.
A military version of the DC-3 airliner, the Douglas C-47A Skytrain/Dakota—or “Gooney Bird,” as it was referred to by many servicemen—was typically operated by a four-man crew, which included a pilot, copilot, navigator, and radio operator. However, as the command aircraft for Mission Albany, “That’s All, Brother” actually had seven crew members for the D-Day invasion (see Figure 2). It also had an unofficial crew member, Donalson’s Scottish terrier, who reportedly rode along for the historic mission .
But it was not a pleasant ride that night for man or beast. The back of the unpressurized C-47’s was dark; the sound of all the 1,200-hp, 14-cylinder radial piston engines was deafening; and the combined smell of gas, oil, dirt, and human sweat was nauseating. In addition, the planes had to fly below 1,000 ft to avoid German radar and maintain strict radio silence, thus preventing them from being able to communicate and help one another navigate through some of the heavy clouds, fog, and air turbulence they encountered that night .
Likewise, to preserve the secrecy of the D-Day landing site, the air armada first flew southwest of France before turning east to come in the “back door” of the Normandy beaches, on the Cotentin Peninsula. The planes flew in a group of three, forming a V shape, with three of the three-plane groups then forming a larger V of V’s all across the dark skies. To know when they had reached their drop zones (DZs), the planes used “Mickey” (or H2X) ground-mapping radar, “Rebecca” systems (which detected radio beacons set up by the Pathfinder units on the ground), and Davis lamps (which the Pathfinders used to signal “DZ” in Morse code to approaching planes) .
As soon as “That’s All, Brother” arrived over Normandy, the German antiaircraft guns came alive. Flak tore holes into the aluminum skin on the plane’s right side, near the rear window, and the radio operator, SSG Woodrow Wilson, was hit and wounded. Nonetheless, the plane was able to successfully drop its paratroopers (such as those shown in Figure 3) at around 700 ft and return to England. But D-Day was not yet over for the aircraft and its crew. They immediately turned around and joined the second wave of the invasion in France. For that wave—code named Mission Elmira—the plane delivered glider reinforcements for the 82nd Airborne Division, many of which had landed off course and/or were killed or injured .
After the smoke cleared at Normandy, “That’s All, Brother” went on to participate in many other major operations during the war, including Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, the relief of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and the crossing of the Rhine River during Operation Varsity. The plane and its fellow Gooney Birds were vital in delivering critical American personnel and supplies whenever and wherever they were needed .
When the war finally ended in the fall of 1945, Donalson’s historic plane was among thousands of surplus C-47’s and other transport planes sold for civilian use. These warbirds were ideally suited to haul cargo, and “That’s All, Brother” did just that for many decades before ending up in a museum in 1999 (painted in a Vietnam-era color scheme) and then being bought by Basler Turbo Conversions in 2008 for conversioninto a modernized BT-67 cargo transport. Had the conversion occurred, it would have involved radically modifying and/or replacing approximately 70% of the original aircraft. In short, little would have been left of the plane that led D-Day [1, 2].
NEW LIFE FOR 42-92847
Fortunately, as the aircraft awaited its seeming end at Basler’s Oshkosh, WI, facility (see Figure 4), Air Force historian Matt Scales had begun researching LTC Donalson and tracing the long history of his D-Day plane, which was tail-numbered 292847 (serial no. 42-92847). Eventually, Scales called Basler’s president, Randy Myers, and asked him if he had a plane with that serial number. Myers confirmed that the aircraft, which he had bought sight unseen, was sitting in his boneyard awaiting disassembly. Scales then explained the historical significance of “That’s All, Brother,” and the men agreed that the plane was simply too important to lose. Thus, plans began to be made to bring the historic C-47 back to life .
In 2015, the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), a nonprofit organization involved in restoring and flying World War II aircraft, purchased “That’s All, Brother” and, with the help of several fundraising campaigns and many private donors, contracted Basler to restore the plane to its June 1944 condition (see Figure 5). Workers completely disassembled the plane, with the goal of retaining/preserving as much of the original skin as possible, while also focusing on corrosion mitigation and structural work. Fortunately, the vast majority of the plane was found to be restorable
[1, 2, 4, 5].
The original pistons engines and propellers were completely overhauled and remounted, as were the fuselage, wings, fuel lines, plumbing, hydraulics, and electrics. Basler also had a collection of vintage C-47 parts, which were restored and reinstalled, including a drift meter, celestial dome, radio operator’s station, navigator’s station, and paratroopers’ area. The only parts that had to be replaced or upgraded were those that were corroded beyond repair (such as some of the sections of the aluminum skin), as well as the airworthiness components (such as the flight control and engine cables, bearings, and pulleys). Modern avionics were also added (albeit hidden behind a 1940s instrument panel), and CAF spent much time researching and returning interior, nonstructural components to their war-time condition as well [1–3].
After more than 22,000 man-hours of work, “That’s All, Brother” was finally ready to take to the skies once again in late 2017. To the great pleasure of the test pilots, restorers, and others, the aircraft was found to climb, cruise, and fly just as it had done 7 decades before. The only major thing left to do was return it to its original paint scheme, complete with its authentic, roughly painted D-Day stripes on the wings and tail section [1, 4].
After completing a tour around the southeastern United States in early 2019, “That’s All, Brother” was given another important mission to fly. On 5 June 2019—75 years to the day that the C-47A saw its finest hour—the plane once again took off from England and led a group of restored C-47’s over the English Channel to drop paratroopers and participate in a memorial flyover over Normandy (see Figures 6 and 7). The event was part of a multiday 75th anniversary remembrance of the D-Day invasion. Though the group of transport planes was a lot smaller (only 25 or so) this time around, it was reportedly the largest group of C-47’s assembled there since the war. The aircraft then made several other stops in Germany, in recognition of the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, as well as in France .
As for the future of “That’s All, Brother”—which is arguably the most well-preserved D-Day C-47 now in existence—the plane will be based at CAF’s Central Texas Wing in San Marcos, TX. From there, it will continue to tour the country, serving as a “flying museum” to remind current and future generations of the service and sacrifice of the men who fought to preserve freedom many years ago [3, 7, 8].
In many ways, these men, much like the “That’s All, Brother” plane, were also unlikely participants called upon to do a series of enormously dangerous, enormously difficult, and enormously important tasks. And they did them—bravely, humbly, and successfully. And afterwards, the survivors likewise returned to their normal lives without fame or fanfare, often reserving the title “hero” for those brothers they lost overseas.
But the stark reality is that we are quickly losing the surviving heroes as well. Less than 3% of our World War II veterans are reportedly still living today, with almost 350 now passing away every day . Thus, most, if not all, of those who fought in D-Day will not be around to see the next major anniversary. It is therefore increasingly important that symbols such as “That’s All, Brother” (and others) be able to continue the mission of remembering these Warfighters and what they did. And if the historic airplane can continue to live on to do that, perhaps it will be its most successful mission of all.
- Hambling, David. “The Return of ‘That’s All, Brother’: The Plane That Led the D-Day Invasion.” Popular Mechanics, https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/aviation/a27699439/d-day-75th-anniversary/, 4 June 2019.
- Bergqvist, Pia. “Return to the Front Line: The C-47 That Led the Invasion of Normandy Is Found by Accident and Restored for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.” Flying, https://www. flyingmag.com/c47-thats-all-brother-restoration/, 3 October 2018.
- Basler Turbo Conversions. “That’s All, Brother.” https://www.baslerturbo.com/ thats-all-brother.html, accessed 11 June 2019.
- Fortin, Jacey. “A D-Day Plane Is Flying Again.” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/01/us/thats-all-brotherplane.html, 1 February 2018.
- Goss, Heather. “Crowdsourcing Saves D-Day’s First Airplane.” Air & Space Magazine, https://www.airspacemag.com/history-offlight/crowdsourcing-saves-ddays-firstairplane-180955983/, August 2015.
- Commemorative Air Force. “That’s All Brother.” https://www.facebook.com/thatsallbrother/, accessed 14 June 2019.
- Commemorative Air Force. “That’s All, Brother.” https://thatsallbrother.org/, accessed 11 June 2019.
- Our Military. “How Many WW2 Veterans Are Still Alive.” Valor Worldwide, https://www.ourmilitary.com/how-many-ww2-veterans-are-still-alive/, accessed 10 June 2019.