Mission: Remembrance

June 6, 2013

Chris Polhemus has flown over the beaches of Normandy on the anniversary of D-Day before, even getting a glimpse of the flowers at the American cemetery from above. But in 2014 he hopes to return at the controls of a C-47, dropping paratroopers in the early-morning darkness.

Before the Allied armada began its assault on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, paratroopers jumped into darkness behind enemy lines to clear the way for ground forces’ move inland. Each year, parachutes open again over Normandy in commemoration of the sacrifices Allied troops made on D-Day and throughout World War II. A Geneseo, N.Y.-based organization dedicated to keeping World War II history alive is making plans to take its 1943 Douglas C-47A Dakota—which dropped paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division over Ste. Mère-Église, France, on D-Day—across the ocean to re-create the jump on its seventieth anniversary.

The 1941 Historical Aircraft Group, an all-volunteer organization at the National Warplane Museum in western New York, takes its C-47 to airshows around the United States, sometimes using it as a platform for paratroopers from the Liberty Jump Team, another volunteer effort dedicated to World War II and U.S. military history. The group, which has arranged the crew and made preparations for the trip for France, is now looking for funding to make it happen.

Jil Launay, drop zone support team leader for the Liberty Jump Team, said her organization normally schedules three jumps for participants and tries to give them time to explore the historic area.

“Members of our team have their various reasons to return to Normandy year after year,” she said in an email to AOPA from Normandy. “For some it is a relative who fought here. Or a sense of the vast life changing history that is present here. Most of our team are active duty or retired Military themselves so for many of them either they are returning to jumping again and getting to meet their heroes and to connect with them. There is nothing like seeing one of my team who has recently deployed return home and sitting down with a WWII Vet just to talk and share. Connecting history.”

As the number of World War II veterans returning to the D-Day anniversary events dwindles, organizers expect to expand the anniversary events for the seventieth anniversary to honor the members of the “Greatest Generation” while members are still living. Because jumpers are volunteers, many are sitting this year out to gear up for 2014 and take their families, Launay said. She had 20 jumpers manifested for the event in 2013, the smallest number since the group started participating in D-Day jumps in 2006; as preparations wound down for 2013, some 52 were set to jump in 2014, with more expected.

Polhemus, a US Airways captain who often makes the trans-Atlantic flights in modern airliners, said the C-47 flight—his first Atlantic crossing in a piston-powered airplane—would be significant to him because members of his family and others in that generation made sacrifices on the home front and front lines “to preserve the freedoms that we have.

“The world needs to see that we have been there a lot of generations to preserve freedoms, to step up to the plate. … What that generation did was unbelievable, and it’s not going to be too many more years before every single one of them is gone, and they’re not going to be here anymore.”

Polhemus, chief pilot for the 1941 Historical Aircraft Group’s C-47, said the jumps in 2014 will include a 2:15 a.m. jump to re-create the jump exactly 70 years earlier. Paratroopers will wear uniforms of the 82nd Airborne and authentic weapons packs, and use round parachutes that look like the ones used in World War II. Some concessions will be made for safety: The jumps will be at 1,500 feet instead of 700 feet to 800 feet, the night landing zone will be lit, and the parachutes have been improved despite their vintage look.

Two crews of three expect to take the C-47 on the long trans-Atlantic trip in legs of about five and a half hours each, Polhemus said; he’s already preparing for the flight by talking with controllers in Greenland during his airline flights. The last piece, he said, is the funding.

Plans for the overall events in Normandy in 2014 will begin with a meeting of stakeholders in November, Launay said. Launay, the daughter of a U.S. Army paratrooper who fought on D-Day, said she works on Normandy events each year with the Liberty Jump Team “to say thank you and to remember my own father and his comrades. … Seeing a WWII veteran return to Normandy and often seeing the healing it created is amazing and gratifying to me.”