EAA Warbirds Magazine, April 2010
© 2010 By Mark Carlson
All Rights Reserved.
This was Mark Carlson’s first aviation article.
One of the thrills of being a warbird buff is attending airshows, watching the silver and olive planes slicing through the sky with a roar of unbridled power.
As a boy I went to several airshows and marveled at the magnificent machines which created legends in the skies over Europe and the Pacific so many years ago.
Like many boys, I built models of Mustangs, Warhawks, Fortresses, Dauntlesses and Avengers, feeling pride in recreating the famous planes in accurate miniature. Yet models no longer hold much attraction for me. I prefer spending my time with the real thing. That’s where this story comes in. On weekends I’m a docent tour guide at the San Diego Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park. Over the last three years I’ve become very familiar with the over seventy aircraft and exhibits in the collection ranging from reproductions of pre-Wright Brothers gliders to space-age UAVs. And of course, warbirds.
As a docent I had the run of the museum’s collection, able to step past the barriers while talking to the patrons in a tour group. I ran my hands over the sleek metal skin of the P-51D, pointed out the bomb-release yoke of the SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber, and rapped my knuckles on the wooden propeller of the late-war Spitfire MkXVI.
Sure, most of the docents did this, but in my case it wasn’t only a privilege, it was a necessity.
I’m legally blind. To me the world is little more than light and dark.
When I first considered finding a new hobby for my weekend hours when not at my job, I was eagerly encouraged by my wife. I met with two of the volunteer coordinators at the museum. To my astonishment and gratitude, they expressed no real concerns for accepting a blind docent. Tom Cooke and Ross Davis, both veterans and very open-minded, were impressed by my enthusiasm and background in history. For one thing, I’ve always been an avid reader, and even with the loss of sight due to a hereditary disorder, still read over a hundred books a year on audio tape. In addition I had a very good memory for facts and trivia, dates and anecdotes, which were very important when relating the stories of the history of aviation.
To become a docent, I had to ‘ride along’ on twenty tours conducted by other docents, work one hundred hours at the museum, and study several books and briefing materials.
I was fully able to do the required reading for becoming a docent using screen reading software on my computer.
My other advantage was my guide dog, Musket. A male Yellow Labrador, he was an excellent guide and quickly learned his way around the museum’s myriad displays and exhibits.
I was introduced to some of the other docents, many of them veterans and pilots, who made me feel welcome. Musket, being a very friendly and beautiful dog, also found his way into the hearts of the docents, staff and veterans at SDASM.
My first ‘check ride’ with a dozen people selected at random, went well as I gave them a tour. We started with the Lockheed A-12 Blackbird, and worked our way through Early Flight, World War One, the Golden Age, World War Two, the Jet Age and the Space Gallery. In one hour. But in the end I was awarded the coveted red jacket worn by docents. Musket and I also had our own ID badges.
Over the last three years Musket and I have conducted scores of tours around the museum. Most aircraft were on static floor display but a few, such as the Mitsubishi A6M7 Zero, hung from the ceiling. Even though I couldn’t touch them, I knew where I was, thanks to Musket. He knew just where to stop for each exhibit, and waited patiently while I talked.
With white-gloved hands, I pointed out various details and features of the aircraft. “If you’ll look right here,” I said as I touched the training mechanisms of the Sperry Ball Turret, ‘you can see the controls the gunner used to traverse and elevate the turret in combat.”
My sense of touch never let me down and experience with model airplanes was often an advantage. With little effort, I could recognize the shape of a wing, or cowling, or even a canopy by touch.
I could easily tell the difference between a Wright Cyclone and a Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp, or the Rolls-Royce Merlin and the Alison V-1710.
Occasionally the museum moved or removed an aircraft from the collection for restoration or painting. I wasn’t always told of the change which caused some amusing incidents.
I once described some of the history of the Thomas-Morse S4C Scout biplane hanging from the ceiling, not knowing it had been removed a week before. When I was told by a passing docent, I laughed, saying “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” Afterwards I made a point of asking the front desk when I arrived in the morning “Has anything been moved or taken away?” And it got to be a standing joke. “Everything is just as you left it last week, Mark.”
My particular favorites were the Mustang and Spitfire, two aircraft which defined the aegis of World War Two fighters. Feeling my way along the smooth sharklike cowling of the P-51D was like caressing a living thing resting in the cool dark environs of the museum awaiting a return to the sun and sky. The sleek Supermarine Spitfire MkXVI had an interesting story. A late-war design, it was actually a MkIX with an American-built Packard Merlin and laminated wooden four bladed constant-speed propeller.
It was flown in an anniversary celebration of the greatest day of the Battle of Britain, September 15, 1945, when the engine cut out.
The pilot, seeing he was nowhere near an airfield, spotted an unused Cricket pitch below, and decided to belly his craft in.
He did so, sliding to a stop at the far end of the pitch only after dinging the starboard wing on the three wickets.
I always told this story while pointing out the dents, still clear in the yellow leading edge of the wing. “I’m sure the pilot didn’t trust American engines after that,” I said.
I have been given the rare opportunity to sit in the cockpit of some aircraft. A fellow docent, Bob Klees, allowed me to sit in a flying replica of Charles Lindbergh’s Ryan NYP, the Spirit of St. Louis. While not a warbird, the silver monoplane was a true icon of aviation history. I entered the small cabin, settling into the wicker seat, marveling at the closeness of the tiny space. Using only my hands, I was given a sense of being in that tiny cabin in the middle of the night over the freezing North Atlantic in May of 1927. At six feet tall the space was cramped to me. Lindbergh was three inches taller and endured it for thirty-three relentless hours.
At an airshow in Chino California I went aboard one of the few Normandy Invasion Douglas C-47s still flying. Invited to sit in the pilot’s seat, I plagued the pilot with questions about the history of the venerable transport.
A few months ago two great planes arrived in San Diego. The Collings Foundation’s pride, Boeing B-17G Nino-O-Nine and Consolidated B-24H Witchcraft flew in for tours and flights.
Although I had been around Fortresses before it was my first experience with the Liberator. Leaving Musket with a friend, I crawled, and I do mean crawled through the interior of the old warbird. I was constantly amazed by the cramped quarters, low overhead and narrow catwalks of the B-24. Having built models and long studied the interior of the plane, I knew my way around. Yet all I could think to myself while worming my bulk through the bomb racks and under the flight deck to the nose compartment was ‘How in hell did they do it?’
My respect for air war veterans was even greater after I’d spent some time seated in the co-pilot’s seat, thinking of John Jerstad, Killer Kane, Walter Stewart, Norman Appold and the thousands of other young men who flew the four-engined bombers to countless targets around Hitler’s Europe.
Like many warbird buffs, I had an affinity for the Flying Fortress, and Nine-O-Nine was a beauty. Lovingly maintained and cared for by dozens of dedicated volunteers, the plane was like home to me as I entered the compartments I had seen in pictures years ago. Everything was familiar to me. My fingers traced the shelves in the radio compartment and I nestled myself between the twin .50 caliber Brownings in the upper turret.
The fee for taking a ride was a bit too steep for me to justify to my wife.
However, last year I did fly in a warbird. A company which toured the country in a pair of North American T-6 Texans arrived at Gillespie Field in El Cajon.
Now, as anyone who knew me would guess, I couldn’t simply ride the plane like everyone else. I had to dress the part. I wore my Hawaiian warbird shirt, a ball cap with the 8th Air Force emblem, and my A2 bomber jacket. The air temperature was hovering around 95 degrees but that didn’t deter me.
I was told my lack of vision wouldn’t be a problem, and was led out to the plane. Needless to say Musket remained behind with my wife.
I could hear and feel the power of the Pratt & Whitney Wasp in idle, and my blood pounded in my ears.
Settling into the front cockpit I realized I was doing what thousands and thousands of young men and women had done from 1936 to the 1960s, getting their first feel of the venerable trainer.
The ground crewman, after getting me into the safety and parachute harnesses, then the headset, told me how to raise the gear upon orders from the pilot.
I wouldn’t be able to see the telltales in the wings or the lights on the panel when the gear locked into place but that was of little concern.
The flight was incredible. We roared down the runway and I was almost singing with the sheer thrill of it, feeling like Chuck Yeager or James Goodson on their first check ride.
High over the wide expanses of East County, the pilot and I talked about the plane, flying and aviation history. I told him of my work at the museum, and although I hadn’t paid for aerobatics, he threw in a few rolls for fun. Call it professional courtesy.
When we landed, my face was shining with joy and exhilaration. “I never really understood what it meant to fly,” I told the pilot, thanking him for the experience. “I truly envy you.” We shook hands and he invited me to come back. But I want my next World War Two warbird flight to be in a B-17.
Last summer, on a business trip to Washington DC I was given a special tour of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. A docent and former Army helicopter pilot named Larry McKinley spent five hours showing me the exhibits and collection. Only being able to discern shapes and forms in the vast spaces of the museum didn’t discourage me in the least. I knew I was among the elite of aviation collections.
Friendship 7, the original Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1, Apollo 11, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega, the Wright Flyer and a hundred other rare and unique examples of the history of flying were all around me and Musket.
Back in San Diego I was honored to be a VIP escort for the astronauts at the 40th Anniversary of Apollo 8. Musket and I met Apollo 12’s Alan Bean, Apollo 7’s Walt Cunningham, and the three men who’d taken the historic first circumlunar flight in 1968, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. Theyreprised their famous ‘Genesis’ speech, which raised goose pimples on my arms when I heard it. We escorted the venerable NASA notables, along with Gerry Griffin and Glynn Lunney, two of Mission Control’s Flight Directors around the Star Trek Exhibition. While the astronauts sat in Captain Kirk’s chair on a recreation of the Starship Enterprise’s bridge, I talked with Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon in 1972. We’d met before, at Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra’s memorial service in 2007. He liked Labradors and was petting Musket, when I bumped into another man next to me. “I’m sorry,” I said, stepping aside. “Who is this?”
Cernan chuckled. “Neil Armstrong.” So Musket and I met the first and last men to walk on the Moon on board the Starship Enterprise. What a great day.
For those and other reasons I never lamented the loss of my sight. I’ve been able to travel around the country, work and experience things many sighted people haven’t done.
Being among the last examples of America and the world’s legendary aircraft, caring for and teaching about them is a true labor of love. And I’m part of a great team of people who feel the same way. Keep ‘em flying.
Remembering John Finn- The Last of the Few
EAA Warbirds Magazine, December 2011
© 2011 By Mark Carlson
All Rights Reserved.
I met John Finn in 1996 when organizing a military history encampment in San Diego. We asked John to be our Guest of Honor. I drove out to Pine Valley to meet John on his ranch.
He lived in a neat house surrounded by arid scrub brush and old cars. John Finn answered the door. “Hi,” he said, welcoming me into a cozy and neat living room.
He was a short man, about 5’8” stooped and weathered from eighty-seven years of sun and wind. His eyes were a pale blue. After we shook hands he motioned for me to sit on the sofa, which had an afghan on it. “Alice is out shopping,” he said.
I told Finn about the event and asked if he was willing to attend. I said “Mr. Finn, we’d really be honored to have you there.”
He waved it off. “Call me John. All my friends do.”
“Okay John.” I said, feeling more comfortable with the old veteran.
“Want something cold to drink?” He went into the kitchen and brought back two bottles of Sioux City Sarsaparilla. We chatted about the encampment commemorating America’s veterans from 1776 to the present.
John nodded. “Sounds good.”
Then I asked him something I’d been burning to. “John, I know you’ve been asked this a thousand times but can you tell me about December 7?”
He took a long pull from the bottle. “Sure. I was in aviation.” He pronounced the ‘a’ in ‘aviation’ as in ‘avenue.’
Despite his age, his memory was sharp and the words came easily. He transported me back to that warm Sunday morning nearly fifty-five years before.
Then I asked the big one. “May I see the medal?” I was sure it was in a bank vault or something.
“Sure, I’ve got it around here somewhere. Now where did I put that thing?”
That was the moment I really came to know John Finn.
When he returned he held out his hand as if he was offering me an apple. “Here you go.”
My own hands were shaking as I accepted the object he held. A broad bronze star hung from a sky-blue silk ribbon by a small anchor.
“The Congressional Medal of Honor,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper.
John laughed. “Yeah. That was hung on me by Admiral Nimitz himself aboard Enterprise.”
Embarcadero Park hosted over three hundred re-enactors and military personnel, and was visited by thousands of men, women and children.
I escorted John around, visiting the historical unit camps. Everyone wanted to meet John. The medal was all anyone needed to see. It was quite an experience to watch one of Robert E. Lee’s soldiers or a mud-spattered Marine from Guadalcanal shaking John’s hand with reverence.
John was asking questions about weapons, uniforms and sharing his own stories. I was glad he was having a good time.
“I’m sure glad you folks are doing this,” he said.
“Well it’s about time this country remembered the men who did their duty. And they want to meet you because you’re a hero.”
He stopped and faced me. “Mark. I ain’t no hero. I lived. A lot of other boys didn’t. They’re the heroes. You remember that, ‘kay?”
I nodded, understanding at last. “Yes John, I will.”
I never forgot that conversation. But I wondered. What makes a hero? Heroes are made, not born. They’re the result of crisis, challenge, emotion, instinct, threat, reason, luck, and above all duty.
Admiral William F. ‘Bull’ Halsey put it best. “There are no great men. There are only great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstance to meet.”
John Finn was born on 23 July 1909 in the farmland surrounding Los Angeles.
He joined the Navy in 1926 in an age of gangsters, biplanes, speakeasies, flappers and Jazz.
“I wanted to work on airplanes,” he said.
He worked his way up the ranks to become an Aviation Chief Ordnanceman in 1936. He married Alice, a lovely woman with china-blue eyes and golden hair.
Then he joined VP-14 at NAS Kaneohe Bay, in the Territory of Hawaii.
As the senior Ordnance Chief at the base, Finn was off duty on the morning of 7 December. “I was in bed with my wife,” he said, “when I heard planes going over. Alice went to look out the window.” The Finns lived in Navy housing out of sight of the base.
Alice said there were some planes flying towards the base. Then Finn heard machine gun fire.
Donning his white Chief’s cap, shirt, pants and shoes, Finn kissed his wife and ran out to his 1938 Ford. “I didn’t even button up my shirt. Charlie Clark ran out of his house and together we roared off. I heard machine gun fire. ‘No one’s supposed to be firing today,’ I thought. It’s Sunday.”
Finn turned a curve in the road leading to Kaneohe Bay just after 0800. “I saw a whole bunch of fighters flying low over the PBY Catalinas and hangars. I saw that red circle on the wings.”
Kaneohe’s planes and facilities were the target of two groups of Kate level bombers and Zero fighters. Smoke and flame were rising from the helpless Catalinas on the tarmac and moored in the harbor.
Finn stopped near Hangar #3 and ran inside, shouting orders to his men to grab anything that would shoot.
Finn ran into the shop to a .50 cal machine gun he’d almost finished repairing. “I knew what was wrong with it,” he said, his brow furrowed at the memory. “I fixed it and dragged that thing outside.”
The only available mount was a light instruction tripod, used only for training. “It wasn’t made to take the gun at full automatic, but I used it anyway.”
Finn’s men brought him ammunition belts and he got the gun working.
“The bombers were much too high and dropping bombs on the base, but the Zeros were low and I figured I could hit them. I looked and saw one coming out of the notch in the ridge to the south. He was just a dot at first but I saw him. I had real good eyesight in those days,” he chuckled. “Anyway he got closer and that big radial engine was just like a bullseye. I got him in my sights and started banging away. He never wavered but then he was past, with smoke trailing off his engine. I couldn’t traverse that gun fast enough to keep him in sight. It’s not like the movies. Those guns are heavy. But I saw that one hit the ground. One Jap down.”
He shot at every plane which flew close to him. Although Finn wasn’t the only one shooting back by that time, he was the most exposed. “I felt things plucking at my pants and unbuttoned shirt,” he said. “I knew the Japs were shooting but didn’t worry about it. Hell I was so mad! I didn’t have the sense to be scared.”
Splinters from 20mm shells and machine guns bullets inflicted more than twenty wounds, including a serious one to his knee.
When the attackers finally withdrew at 0930 they were fewer in number.
John Finn was responsible for at least two Zeros shot down by his determined fire. “I wasn’t the only one shooting back,” he said firmly.
Finn, along with other chiefs and officers organized the firefighting, recovering what weapons could be used and seeing to the wounded. “We thought they’d be back. And I was mad as hell. Everywhere I looked I saw burning planes and smoke.”
Finn stayed on duty all day, ignoring the blood from his wounds. “I was ordered to the base hospital at 0200 but the doctors were too busy with other wounded.”
Nearly twenty-four hours after the first bombs had fallen he was hospitalized for three weeks.
“I didn’t know anything about a medal,” he said. “But word got around. I heard I was going to get one of the Medals of Honor. There were fifteen of them awarded for that day,” he pointed out. “And ten of them were posthumous.”
On 14 September 1942 Finn, dressed in his spotless duty whites and accompanied by Alice, stood to attention aboard the carrier USS Enterprise as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief U.S. Pacific Fleet hung the silken blue ribbon from which hung the bronze Medal of Honor around his neck.
“Alice said it looked nice on me. I still didn’t think I’d earned it. After all, I was alive.”
Finn, who served in the Navy until 1956 didn’t really comprehend what the medal would come to mean.
For the first thirty years after the war no one really made much of it except veterans’ groups. The country didn’t really care. And Vietnam just made them hate servicemen.”
The turnaround came when a new resurgence of respect and awe for the ‘Greatest Generation’ as Tom Brokaw called it, grew in the late 1990s. By then John and Alice were living in Pine Valley.
“I started getting calls and letters,” he explained. “People wanted to meet me, I was asked to attend veterans’ meetings and dedication ceremonies all over the country. It was kind of overwhelming for a simple boy like me. And everyone wanted to hear my story. To tell you the truth I had to really try and remember it all. For the longest time no one was interested except some navy men and historians. But suddenly pretty girls wanted to kiss me, celebrities had their pictures taken with me, I had presidents shaking my hand and everybody wanted me to meet their kids. It was a lot to take in.”
Over the last decade, John Finn attended dedications, banquets, parades and Memorial Day ceremonies from coast to coast. He returned to Hawaii a few times on Pearl Harbor Day. As the years passed, there were fewer of the old men in neat suits and cherished uniforms standing next to John.
In 1999 Alice died. “She’d been with me that day, and saw the Jap planes before I did,” he said, shaking his head. “She was my whole life.”
By the time John was 93 he was the oldest living MOH recipient.
The Medal of Honor Society, who oversees the surviving recipients from all America’s wars, took special care of John. “They paid for my tickets, had cars and hotels waiting for me, and made sure I had everything I needed. It’s like I was some damned king or something,” he muttered.
Frances Carmichael, a longtime friend who came to help John after her husband’s death, went with him on several trips. She was very devoted and protective of the old warrior.
As the end of the first decade of the 21st century approached, John found his celebrity status increased.
On 23 July 2008, John Finn reached his 99th birthday. The entire country seemed to want to wish him a happy birthday and shake his hand. “They had a big celebration on the USS Midway Museum in San Diego Bay,” he said. “I was in a wheelchair and a whole bunch of people shook my hand and lots of women hugged me. I didn’t mind that one bit. But I sure would have liked to be standing up for it.”
Finn’s mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly in early 2010. His memory, once so sharp and witty faded like steam from a teapot.
Frances continued to care for John, but fate was inevitable. In the end, time did what the Japanese had failed to do that day so long ago at Kaneohe Bay.
John Finn’s passing on May 27, 2010 was a media event and a day of national mourning. The country remembered the man who’d once stood facing enemy planes with a single machine gun. Speeches, documentaries, wreaths and flags at half-mast paid tribute to John. Most Americans never met him. But all called him a hero, just as I once had. Was John Finn a hero? To the nation he was. He performed an incredible feat of valor in a serious crisis and kept his head. Sure, that’s a hero. But to him the term was superfluous.
I knew John Finn as a sweet old guy with an easy smile who loved telling stories over a bottle of sarsaparilla.
And that’s the way I think John would like to be remembered. The Medal of Honor didn’t define John, it identified him. It wasn’t who he was any more than he could be defined by his eye color or height.
Let’s put it this way. If after 7 December he had not received the decoration, would his accomplishments be diminished? Not at all. He would still be John Finn, U.S. Navy veteran.
If you had asked, he’d chuckle, shaking his head. “Naw, I’m no hero. The ones who died, they were the heroes. I was just an old Navy boy who was there and had to do something about it.”
I think Admiral Halsey would know just what John meant.
At the end of one of the best and most soul-stirring war movies ever, ‘The Gallant Hours,’ a deep melodious voice sings to the tune of ‘Greensleeves.’ “I knew a lad who went to sea, and left the shores behind him. I knew him well; the lad was me, and now I cannot find him.”
One of those lads was John William Finn. July 23, 1909 – May 27, 2010
Rest in Peace, John.
Spirits in the Sky
My ride in ‘D-Day Doll’
CAF Dispatch August 2011
© 20111 By Mark Carlson
All Rights Reserved.
As a writer and supporter of the CAF and warbird preservation I was always happy to be welcomed around these cherished relics of a bygone era.
Standing under the broad wing of a B-17 or running my fingers along the sleek cowling of a P-51 is my way of touching the past.
A few months ago I wrote a story for a national magazine entitled ‘Date with a Doll,’ the history of Inland Empire CAF’s veteran C-53D Skytrooper.
Bud Ukes, Wing historian, and others were of immense help in my research for the article.
I learned how special and even unique the old warbird really was.
Douglas C-53D #42-68830 Skytrooper actually carried troopers of the famous 82nd Airborne Division into the pre-dawn skies over Carentan Peninsula on a historic June 6 morning sixty-seven years ago.
Yet even with all my research into books, interviews, documentaries and archives, I never really understood what it was like to be inside a Skytrooper in flight.
I’ve always been envious of the people who boasted ‘Sure I’ve ridden in her lots of times.’
Then it was finally my turn. Bud Ukes, happy with my story arranged for me to have a ride in ‘Doll’ over the Riverside Veteran’s parade on April 16, 2011.
To say I was stunned and moved was like calling a hurricane a ‘windy day.’
On that day I and six other passengers were led out to the plane. Her broad wing eclipsed the hot springtime sun. The pilot and ground crew were doing their walk-around while the loadmaster told us about the seat belts and safety regulations.
But I only had eyes for the graceful olive-drab hull, wide black-and-white Invasions stripes and the white star in a blue circle. Her rudder stood like a huge sentinel over us. Far forward on the wings were the massive radial engines like twin steel hearts.
I couldn’t wait to take off.
Stepping inside ‘Doll’s’ cabin, I worked my way forward past the fourteen small windows and twenty-eight aluminum seats until I sat down on the first seat on the starboard side, just aft of the flight deck.
After buckling myself in, I looked around at my surroundings. The first thing I realized was how Spartan and simple it was.
The ribs and longirons were painted metal, riveted skin smoothly curving overhead.
The interior smelled of metal, oil and age. It was hot but I didn’t mind a bit.
When the pilots started the starboard engine I closed my eyes to absorb as much of the feeling as possible.
I wanted to experience it with all my senses.
The sound of two Wright Cyclone R-1820 1,200 hp radial engines is like nothing even a seasoned commercial air traveler has ever experienced.
Starting with a deep whine, then a series of ‘chuffs’ the three-bladed propellers began turning. And then the engines roared to mighty life.
It came right through the skin of the plane and entered my bones, even into my soul.
With my eyes closed I was not on the tarmac at Riverside Airport.
I was on an airbase in England in the late evening of June 5, 1944.
The plane was full of young men cruelly burdened with parachute, gear and weapons.
Only a rosy glow from the setting sun to the west illuminated their unlined and tense faces as the plane began rolling to the runway.
The Cyclones were a steady thrumming cadence of pistons and valves, dual mechanical heartbeats eager to drive the huge warbird into the skies. I knew I was smiling, and that others were talking but beyond the roar of the engines I heard nothing.
Nothing but the murmured prayers and grunts of the twenty-eight troopers around me. I knew they were there still, no longer flesh and blood but spirit and memory.
After a short run-up, which surpassed even what I thought was power, ‘Doll’ reached the runway.
The pilots applied full throttle. The roar and thrust increased, pushing me aft along the slick aluminum seat and my belt. And still it grew and magnified.
I was grinning even wider now, almost giddy with excitement. In my eyes were tears. ‘Doll’ rose smoothly and climbed. Outside I knew the landing gear was retracting into the nacelles, and the mighty Wrights were thundering with the hoofbeats of 2,400 unbroken horses.
Again all I saw were the paratroops as squares of the red sun swept over their faces and helmets as the plane banked southward.
We reached cruising altitude. For several minutes while approaching our destination the plane leaned into steep turns one never feels on a 737. The plane was alive, a metal beast with a soul glad to be in the blue skies again.
When we were permitted to release our belts, the first place I went, while holding the overhead ribs and piping was the flight deck.
There were the pilots, two of the luckiest men on Earth, coaxing the veteran transport on course.
The broad windows showed blue sky and wide pale horizons, and I could only imagine those long-ago pilots in Army khaki following the miles-long stream of C-47s and C-53s southwest towards Carentan.
Unlike those unknown pilots I knew what was coming.
In the dark night the sky would become a roaring multicolored hell of bursting 37mm and 88mm anti-aircraft bursts, of careening planes and burning fuel.
Flak bursts were like flashbulbs outside the windows, the sound of sharp booms and shrapnel spattering the aluminum like hail on a tin roof.
The wings were flapping with stress amid the rattling of the shaking fuselage.
And in the back were the young men who would soon step out of the shuddering cocoon of aluminum into history.
I went back along the deck, past the windows and other passengers until I was at the aft door. Then I turned forward. While the C-53 made slow banks and turned, I let my thoughts return to June 6.
The red light came on by the door. The freezing night air blasted inside with the roar of the engines and 100-mph wind.
Beyond was a strobe-lighted chaos of death and noise.
The officer shouted over the din, “Stand up!”
The troopers stood and took their places in twin lines. “Hook up!”
They hooked their ripcord clips to the static line running along the cabin ceiling.
Each man checked the gear of the man in front of him and signaled ‘okay.’
“Stand at the door!”
The green light came on and each man, some praying, some gritting their teeth in fear, stepped outside and took his place in history.
It had all happened inside ‘D-Day Doll’ and hundreds of other planes just like her. Inside her shaking cabin voices once echoed in a world at war.
We eventfully settled down on Riverside soil again, sixty-seven years later. I was back in my own time.
As I shook hands with the pilots and thanked them I knew I had experienced something few people ever have. I had traveled to another world, another continent and another time.
If you ever ride in ‘D-Day Doll’ or any warbird, I suggest doing what I did. Don’t just look around and marvel at the wings and engines and bare metal walls.
Close your eyes and feel it in your bones, in your soul.
If you’re lucky, as I was, the spirits in the sky will reveal themselves to you.
I am happy to offer my gratitude and heartfelt best regards to the Inland Empire CAF for their work and dedication to keeping ‘D-Day Doll’ and her kin flying.