It was a morning for firsts Wednesday as about 80 people gathered in San Marcos to mark the 74th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
The sole surviving crewman of the Doolittle Raid, the first U.S. offensive action in the Pacific war, flew in a restored C-47 Skytrain — the British called them “Dakotas” — that led 13,000 paratroopers over Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944.
Dick Cole, the only man left of the 80 who flew the famous Doolittle Raid over Tokyo in 1942, slowly climbed into the cargo hold of the aircraft named “That’s All Brother,” which the Commemorative Air Force had spent around $3.5 million to buy and renovate. It carried the first American paratroopers into France, the organization said.
“We’re honoring veterans and remembering and honoring their service. D-Day was the turning point in World War II and it was a huge effort,” said Joe Enzminger, leader of the CAF’s Central Texas Wing in San Marcos.
“There were thousands of men and airplanes that participated, and sort of our message today was we have the airplane that led the D-Day invasion, but it wasn’t just about this airplane,” he said. “There were thousands like it.”
The celebration of history, given as part of the group’s Salute to Veterans D-Day Memorial Event, featured a surprise visit by Cole, who is 102 and lives in the Hill Country town of Comfort.
Cole helped lead the raid as Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle's co-pilot in a B-25 bomber. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in the attack on Japan, which ended when the raiders bailed out during a raging nighttime thunderstorm, lightning bolts dancing around them. Cole then skippered cargo planes in China for 14 months, flying six-hour trips across the Himalayas several times a week.
"Once you fly it, it gets in your blood," said Cole, who sat in the back of the plane along with a fellow World War II veteran, dignitaries and financial supporters of the project. "It doesn't go away."
The D-Day invasion, called Operation Overlord, saw 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops hit five beaches stretching over 50 miles. An Army history states that 13,000 soldiers from the 6th British Airborne Division, the U.S. 82nd and 101st airborne divisions and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, jumped into France hours before the dawn landings from 925 C-47s.
Another 4,000 soldiers and crew later arrived in 500 gliders — towed by C-47s — to reinforce the paratroopers.
The restored Skytrain was pictured in a famous photo of Allied commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower talking to airborne troops at Greenham Common, a staging area in England, before the jump.
Its serial number, visible in the photo and a film of that moment, allowed researchers to confirm it was the lead aircraft, piloted by Lt. Col John Donalson, in the 101st Airborne’s initial jump ahead of the 82nd Airborne, said Andy Maag, 43, a software developer and flight instructor who co-piloted the plane Wednesday with Simon Diver, the command pilot.
Enzminger, chief technology officer for a small computer software company and a private pilot, said the crew of That’s All Brother flew other missions that day and throughout the war, including in Operation Market Garden, the failed thrust at the Rhine River in Holland dramatized in the book and movie, “A Bridge Too Far.”
The Commemorative Air Force said the C-47 was sold to the civilian market in 1945 and quickly forgotten as it changed hands. It was rescued when an Air Force historian discovered it in a Wisconsin aircraft boneyard. The CAF bought the plane for $35,000 and a couple of C-47s it traded, then embarked on a three-year restoration effort at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
The wing plans to fly the plane to France next year for the 75th anniversary of the invasion, a task that will require another round of fundraising — and the hope that some D-Day veterans will still be around to mark the occasion. It isn’t known if any are left in Bexar County.
Nationwide, the Department of Veterans Affairs says that 443,517 World War II veterans are expected to be alive by Sept. 30 out of 16.1 million who served. A VA spreadsheet shows that number will likely fall to 50,907 by 2025, and 6,783 by 2030.
“For the most part, especially for the bigger places, it’s World War II (veterans) and their spouses” being buried at national cemeteries today, said Frieda Robinson, director of Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, the nation’s eighth largest. “That’s who we’re the busiest with right now.”
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. John Robert Devitt died last August and was interred in March at Fort Sam, a C-47 flying overhead during the service. William Scott, a Gillespie County veteran who landed on D-Day plus 7 a month short of his 19th birthday, died two years ago. A cool-headed Army combat medic, he once set up shop in a mine field.
Scott nearly made it to 91.
“A funny story,” said his son, Robv Scott, 63 of Fredericksburg. “Last year, I was having a conversation with one of my friends whose dad was on Utah Beach. I was telling him, ‘You know,’ I said, ‘it’s funny but the World War II generation, they gave us’ — and then he finished my sentence, and he said, ‘Everything.’ And I thought, yep, that’s pretty much it.”
©2018 the Houston Chronicle