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