Sonoma Stories: On D-Day, a vintner and student of history will fly over the beaches of Normandy

Benovoia Winery chairman prepares his historic plane for the 75th anniversary salute to Allied invasion of Europe.|

One day next year, wine and history devotee Joe Anderson will take an airplane to Europe.

That may seem unremarkable, but the plane isn't just any plane. And the day not just any day.

Anderson, chairman of the Russian River Valley's Benovia Winery, will hopscotch from the U.S. to France in his storied, two-engine, World War II-era C-53 Skytrooper transport plane.

Anderson and his chief pilot will hook up with dozens of similar vintage troop and cargo transport aircraft, and they'll all fly in formation above Normandy on June 6, the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Foremost on Anderson's mind as he gazes down at the strike point of the historic invasion against Nazi Germany's forces may well be his late father and two uncles, all veterans of the global war that entered its final phase with Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Hitler-occupied western Europe in 1944.

“This is really a tribute to the three of them,” said Anderson, who's 69 and as a young man served as an Army reservist.

The aerial salute he and his plane, The Spirit of Benovia, are to join will honor the more than 4,400 Allied troops killed on D-Day, the tens of thousands more wounded and all who survived the harrowing combat on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches to fight another day.

“The important thing is keeping their memories,” Anderson said.

The vintner also is mindful that the 75th-anniversary observances at and over Normandy will likely be the last major ones to involve living veterans of the war, the youngest of whom are now in their early 90s.

As a warm-up to the D-Day observances, Anderson and pilot Jeff Coffman plan to fly the C-53 to Wisconsin this fall to take 100-year-old veteran Felix Smith for a ride. Smith's service included piloting that same airplane after the war on covert flights against China following anti-Communist Chiang Kai-shek's flight to Taiwan in 1949.

Anderson and Coffman will invite Smith back into the cockpit of the C-53, which flew for the first time in 1942.

“It's no spring chicken,” Anderson acknowledged.

The Spirit of Benovia was originally outfitted for the U.S. Army Air Corps as a military version of the Douglas DC-3, a civilian airliner that in the 1930s and 40s revolutionized commercial air travel worldwide.

For the war effort, the U.S. had the DC-3 modified for troop transport and dubbed it the C-53 Skytrooper. Many more DC-3s were modified for cargo transport and were designated C-47 Skytrains.

Both versions of the venerated airliner shone as aerial workhorses of the war. Nicknamed “Gooney Birds” by their U.S. crews and “Dakotas” by British troops, C-53s and C-47s efficiently moved essential supplies, armaments and personnel throughout both the Pacific and European theaters.

Perhaps the airplane's most historic missions involved “flying the Hump,” supplying the Chinese and foiling Japanese blockades by airlifting prodigious amounts of supplies over foothills of the Himalayas.

Through the course of the war, nearly 1,000 airmen were lost over the Hump.

On D-Day in 1944, about 500 modified DC-3s dropped paratroopers and towed gliders into Normandy. During the invasion more than 40 of the airplanes were shot down.

Anderson, the vintner, pilot and son and nephew of World War II veterans, studied the plane's many contributions to the Allied victory in 1945 and decided he'd like to have one.

“I started looking for a DC-3 about 12 years ago,” he said.

He found one in 2008 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

A military C-53, it had not flown on D-Day or anywhere in the European Theater, Anderson said. But it flew the Hump and following the war was sold to the Civil Air Transport, a Nationalist Chinese enterprise that aided Chiang Kai-shek's fight with the communists and Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War.

Following the defeat of Chiang's forces, the Civil Air Transport was taken over by the American CIA and renamed Air America.

Anderson said of the plane he bought, “During the day it was transport and at night it flew covert missions” against Communist regimes in southeast Asia.

Today, “The Spirit of Benovia” is at an aeronautical shop in Oregon and is being serviced, painted and dressed with logos of Civil Air Transport in preparation for a flight to California later this month.

Anderson said he expects to make the plane available to the public soon at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, though it's not yet clear when that'll happen.

Anderson and pilot Coffman are set to fly in mid-May to Connecticut, where they will train in formation flight with the American crews of several dozen other historic, war-tested DC-3s. The planes will proceed from there to Canada and on to Greenland, Iceland and London.

The American contingency, calling itself the “D-Day Squadron,” will connect in England with a group of British DC-3/Dakota enthusiasts who've united as “Daks Over Normandy.” That two-nation air wing promises to create an emotional spectacle when it rumbles in over the beaches of D-Day on June 6.

It's expected to be the largest formation of such aircraft since the invasion 75 years earlier.

Anderson can hardly wait to be part of it. “This is really a project of passion,” he said.

From France, he and Coffman then will fly “The Spirit of Benovia” to Germany to take part in Berlin Airlift 2019, a 70th anniversary celebration of the historic humanitarian mission that flew more than 2.3 million tons of relief cargo into Soviet-blockaded West Berlin.

Anderson and Coffman will post updates on their journey to social media and to

Chris Smith is at 707 521-5211 and

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