If like me you have been lucky enough to engage with and become friends with WW2 US veterans and their family members, the one thing you can be sure of is that you can never predict where it will lead and what experiences will arise from it. What you can be assured of however is that you will be the beneficiary of friendships and experiences which would not have come your way otherwise.
Through my efforts to record the history of the US forces that made Wiltshire’s Kennet Valley their home during WW2, I have been fortunate enough to meet and get to know many veterans from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment who were based in Aldbourne, Ramsbury, Chilton Foliat and Froxfield and the 437th Troop Carrier Group who were based at RAF Ramsbury nearby the village of the same name.
In early July 2008 I received an email from Californian Tom Potter whose father had been in E Co 506th and who I had got to know at the 2006 reunion of the 437th TCG. Tom contacted me to say that he had passed my contact details to Adam Makos of Valor Magazine in Pennsylvania, putting me forward as a potential contact in the UK to help with Valor’s plans to bring a group of E Co 506th ‘Band of Brothers’ veterans back to Britain later that month. In mid-July an email arrived from Adam Makos confirming that the following week, Valor were indeed bringing back three E Co 506th Aldbourne veterans to visit England as the stars of Valor’s sales stand at the War and Peace Show at Beltring in Kent.
Prior to the show however, veterans Lynn ‘Buck’ Compton, Don Malarkey and Earl McClung would have a single day to themselves and they had expressed a strong desire to return to their D-Day departure airfield at Upottery in Devon; Makos wondering if I could assist by arranging for a WW2 jeep to be available for the guys to travel in whilst touring the area? What an opportunity? I had not met Don Malarkey since June 1991 when he had returned to Aldbourne with fellow E Co 506 veterans Dick Winters and Carwood Lipton; on a tour organized and led by Band of Brothers author Stephen Ambrose. The chance therefore to renew the acquaintance on such hallowed turf was one not to be missed. That said, Upottery was over 200 miles away from my home in Nottinghamshire and having never made it to the airfield myself, I contacted Makos to say that I would obviously do all I could to help, but that I would have to use my network of fellow historians and military vehicle enthusiasts to see what I could fix up!
The old adage that “it isn’t what you know but who you know”, is oh so true and in this instance my first port of call was therefore my good friend Jack Beckett, founder of the Historical Military Vehicle Forum, Dorset resident and somebody I knew had been previously involved with historical events at Upottery airfield. Jack wasted no time in joining the effort and had soon put me in direct contact with Robin Gilbert, one of the leading lights in the South West Airfield Historical Trust and a wartime resident of the Upottery area to boot. Robin had been born in the small Devon village of Newcott a few years before the war and as a boy had regularly stayed with his grandmother 3 miles away in the nearby village of Smeatharpe. This was the village where Upottery airfield had subsequently been built and where as a child Robin had watched it grow out of virgin farmland, to develop into the bustling home of the US Army Air Forces 439th Troop Carrier Group under the command of Col Charles H Young. Witnessing the peak of Upottery’s wartime use when it dispatched the C47’s of the 439th TCG and their cargo of men from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment to Normandy, Robin also saw the airfield’s subsequent use by the US Navy and it’s postwar closure in 1948 and return to agriculture.
Needless to say, Robin was very enthusiastic about getting the 506th guys back and doing all that was necessary to assist. As far as anyone was and is aware, the Valor visit was to be the first ‘formal’ return of any 506th D-Day veterans to their wartime departure airfield. Robin and his fellow Trust members were therefore determined to ‘pull out all of the stops and provide the vets with the most memorable return possible. During the ensuing weekend, Robin called me to ask if I was aware that there was an original 439th D-Day veteran C47 still flying in the UK and did I think it would be worth getting it back into Upottery for the occasion? It turned out that he knew the pilot very well and felt that there was a very good chance of repeating the aircraft’s 2007 return to Upottery.
What does one say, my answer was obviously yes, as the thought of witnessing a genuine WW2 US TCG aircraft returning to it’s genuine WW2 US TCG base was just too good an opportunity to let pass. Giving my enthusiastic support to Robin’s suggestion, I recalled that this particular C47 was based at Oxford airport and mentioned that as I would in fact be driving right past Oxford, could Robin enquire as to whether I might hitch a ride in it from Oxford to Upottery and back, thereby reducing my road journey by half and giving me the ultimate thrill of a lifetime for a dyed in the wool WW2 Troop Carrier historian!
Needles to say Robin made the call to Andrew Davenport of XXX Aviation and the reply that came back from was affirmative, be at Hanger 9, Oxford airport on July 15th for 14.15hrs local! Tuesday morning was spent undertaking a (some might think) bizarre ritualistic gathering together of all appropriate items of historical TCG significance in my collection, as given to me by my many veteran friends in the 437th TCG Association. On top of this, whilst not in uniform per se, I did leave home wearing an original A2 leather jacket and Navigators wrist watch as worn by 437th veteran Max Demuth of the 85th Squadron, whilst carrying an original B4 overnight flight bag from fellow 85th veteran Donald P Bolce. Inside the B4 bag I had an original 437th M41 field jacket form 86th Squadron veteran Bill Coughlin, an original 437th camouflage parachute silk neck scarf from 84th Squadron veteran Burton Cook, an original navigators zip up folio case from 84th Squadron veteran James Carter and inside this, original navigation computers and a selection of UK War Issue maps from Max Demuth and 85th Squadron CO Les Ferguson complemented by 84th Squadron veteran Charles Racklewiz’s original D-Day Mission Map and D-Day orders. To round this off I also carried Max Demuth’s original musette bag over my shoulder and inside it 83rd Squadron veteran Jim Rudd’s original radio microphone. Finally around my neck I wore 85th Squadron veteran Dan Healey’s dog tags!
I was pretty well kitted out and some of you reading this might think my behavior a little bizarre if not extreme, but I felt like I owed it to each of the guys mentioned still around and those no longer with us, to put those original 437th items back into the air one last time in a genuine TCG C47 that was going to land at a genuine TCG base (which had incidentally closed as an airfield in 1948 but had never had the runways ripped up like the 437th’s home at Ramsbury). It is also highly likely that the aircraft concerned had itself flown into Ramsbury at some point during 1944/45 so the connections were far from spurious. As for taking a risk by having all those original items with me in a 65 year old airplane? Well it was a risk, but what I did was actually live and breath for one short afternoon, the very history that I have spent the last 20 years recording; subsequent messages of thanks and support from my veteran friends and their families simply serving to confirm that I had done exactly the right thing.
Meanwhile, upon arrival at the airfield, I met pilot Andrew Davenport and his crew of two plus their one other passenger. Asking if I might bring the B4 bag etc along, they said no problem, and upon boarding I was offered the Navigators position, so I wasted no time in setting out my maps and equipment so that I could follow the route and recreate a little bit of history. Don Bolce’s B4 bag was placed at the back of the plane where it had made so many trips with the 85th Squadron and the journey commenced. Needless to say the fight was superb, leaving Oxford and flying over Shrivenham, Swindon, RAF Lyneham, Trowbridge, Glastonbury and directly to Upottery, where we buzzed the field and made a tight turn to return to the wartime runway 27 and touch down -approximately 103 miles in just over 45 minutes.
Upon disembarking from the aircraft, Jack Beckett’s was the first familiar face to greet me and after an extended period of typical hurry up and wait (some things never change!), the Valor entourage and their two E Co vets (Buck Compton had sadly had to drop out at the last minute due to illness) finally arrived and hands were shaken and interviews recorded. Here we were with two of the original E Co 506 Band of Brothers veterans who had last seen Upottery in the dark of the night on June 5th 1944. That evening they had boarded the 439th’s C47’s and departed for Normandy as the spearhead of the Allied invasion force and 64 years later here they were back on the same piece of soil with a genuine 439th TCG C47 to accompany them. Those of us fortunate enough to be there on that little patch of Devon soil that afternoon, experienced a magical and never to be repeated once in a lifetime combination of time, place, people and equipment, all enabled by a small group of dispersed and different people from across the globe, who all share a common interest in preserving the WW2 heritage of the American forces in the UK. Needless to say it was absolutely fantastic!
As with all such things however, all too soon it was over and it was time to return to the aircraft and prepare for our departure. For the return journey I was offered the fold out jump seat between the pilot and co-pilot and needless to say this afforded a grandstand view of proceedings in the cockpit. After a steady taxi to the end of the runway, pilots and co-pilots checks were duly completed and the throttles were opened up to send us barreling back down runway 27 and in to the air well before we reached the two vets and those in the know who were gathered at the runway intersection. More climbing and tight turns followed before we made two further swooping low passes of the field and then climbed back up to 1500 ft for the return journey retracing our outbound route to Oxford. As we careered across the field I thought to myself that I’d always wondered what it would be like to ride in a C47 during an air show display and here I was finding out!
July 15th really was a case of “as near as it gets in 2008”, because other than having a time machine at my disposal I don’t think I’ll ever have a more meaningful and appropriate TCG experience than that which was afforded to me on that day. What is more, it had resulted directly from the good offices of friends and contacts made as a result of my WW2 historical interests. I would like therefore like to formally record my sincere thanks and appreciation to Tom Potter, Adam Makos, Jack Beckett, Robin Gilbert and Andrew Davenport of Wings Venture Ltd for their respective enabling roles in making it all happen. Finally of course, special thanks to both Don Malarkey, Earl McLung and their many compatriots, firstly for making the huge sacrifices they had made 64 years ago and which ultimately enabled us to mark their historic return visit, but secondly for making the effort to come back at an age when it would be far easier to stay at home and take it easy!
Postscript – Sadly for 2009 Wings Venture Ltd’s C47 No 43-15211 has been grounded due to the economic downturn, hopefully to return to the air when things improve.
Neil Stevens was born and raised in the Wiltshire town of Marlborough and has since 1988 been actively researching the WW2 history of the US armed forces in the locale under the banner of ‘The Wilts & Berks ETO Research Group’. Now living in Newark, Notts, for more insight into his research and video footage of his historic trip to Upottery, please visit his website www.YITKV.co.uk