WWII plane makes Maine stop on way to Normandy for D-Day anniversary
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — For the next month, pilot Chris Polhemus will be about as close to time traveling as anyone can get.
Polhemus, along with a crew of four pilots and flight engineers, are transporting a fully restored 1943 Douglas C-47 from the United States to Europe in time for the 70th anniversary of the World War II D-Day offensive at Normandy.
“It is just a tremendous feeling piloting this plane,” Polhemus, a flight captain for US Airways, said during a stopover in Presque Isle on Friday morning. “It’s really stepping back in time and going back to another age, [and] it is really cool.”
Whiskey 7, as the military transport plane was named, was an instrumental part of the D-Day operation when it dropped members of the 82nd Airborne near St. Mere-Eglise, France, and continued to airlift in additional troops, equipment and supplies to the front lines.
The plane arrived Thursday evening in northern Maine, where more than 700 people gathered for a special reception that included area veterans.
But while the plane attracted plenty of local attention, it isn’t the first time a C-47 has been in Presque Isle.
During World War II, C-47s were used to transport injured troops from the European theater of action to what was the then-Presque Isle Army Airfield. From there, the wounded were taken a short distance within the same city to a large medical complex at what is now Northern Maine Community College.
On one day in 1944, during the December Battle of the Bulge, more than 105 planes brought in thousands of wounded soldiers to Presque Isle. For some coming directly from the battlefields in Europe, this was where they received their first medical attention.
Mars Hill resident Fay Fitzherbert was a young civilian employee at the base that December day.
When the planes started coming in, he volunteered to drive the ambulances and, on Friday, he recalled how the planes just kept coming.
“By the time I got done at 11 p.m., the hospital was pretty well full,” Fitzherbert said. “How long it went on after, I don’t know.”
On Friday morning, Fitzherbert joined several other area World War II veterans and first responders in a caravan retracing the old route from the airfield to the hospital.
From there, the group went to Presque Isle Middle School to meet with seventh- and eighth-grade students.
“This is really why we love doing this,” Craig Wadsworth, Whiskey 7 chief of maintenance, said Friday morning from inside the plane’s cockpit. “Having this plane here really makes history come alive.”
Wadsworth takes great pride in the plane, which he described as “70 years young,” and can readily recite its stats and history.
Built in San Diego, the plane first saw action in transporting troops and equipment into North Africa as the allies began the offensive to drive out German Gen. Erwin Romell.
The plane then was used as part of the first allied air invasion in Sicily, moving troops into Italy, Wadsworth said.
“By 1944, [the plane] was in Britain operating out of a Royal Air Force base,” he said. “When the D-Day invasion took place, [the plane] dropped members of the 82nd Airborne into St. Iglise, [and] that was the first town liberated on D-Day.”
Whiskey 7 was the lead plane during the attack, carrying a command staff along with 21-year-old Leslie Cruise, a paratrooper who 70 years later will be reunited with the plane in Normandy next month, Wadsworth said.
Considered a “noncombat” aircraft, the C-47 had no defensive equipment, but that didn’t mean it escaped all danger.
“They got shot at,” Wadsworth said. “They were issued flak jackets, but the guys would take them off and sit on them because their biggest concern were shots fired up from the ground, [and] they did not want to get shot in the butt.”
The principles of flight have not changed in 70 years, but the technology around it has.
Much of Whiskey 7’s cockpit looks like it did in 1944, but Wadsworth pointed out two modern GPS radio units being used for navigation on this trip.
“We like that,” he said with a grin.
He then pointed to a circular window above and just behind the cockpit.
“Back in 1944, they had all the charts and tables for celestial navigation,” he said. “They would look out of that dome, look at the stars and could plot their way across the ocean. Now, I have Google to tell me how to get to the airport.”
On D-Day, there were 300 planes taking part in transporting the troops, Wadsworth said, each with a five-man crew and 23 paratroopers.
In addition, some of the C-47s were towing manned gliders carrying earth moving equipment used in building temporary airfields behind enemy lines.
“I think a lot about those guys,” Wadsworth said. “We did not start World War II, but when the call came, we answered and did what we could do, and all we asked in return was for a place to bury our dead and then come home.”
The men and women who did return home — along with all those who supported the war effort from here — went on to get jobs, raise families and eventually come to be known as “the greatest generation,” he said.
“It was really a unique time in human history,” Wadsworth said. “Our country really came together and sacrificed so much.”
Among those helping out from home during the war was Thelma Archer, originally from Oklahoma City, who lives in northern Maine.
From 1944 to 1945, Archer worked as a “Rosie the Riveter,” building C-47s at Tinker Air Base in Oklahoma.
“I was 18 and had just finished school,” Archer recalled Friday morning as she rode in the caravan. “Douglas [Aircraft Co.] had put an ad in the paper, and I got hired.”
She said the job was fun, “once I got used to it,” and she enjoyed working with the other American women, known as Rosies, who worked in factories during the war.
Ben Everett, a supervisor with The Aroostook Medical Center’s Crown Emergency Care, drove the ambulance in which Archer was riding Friday morning. He recalled that his own grandmother Sarah Everett was a Rosie working to repair planes during the war.
That prompted Archer to say, “That plane here now has a lot of scars. [The Whiskey 7] must have had a lot of repairs.”
Everett said men and women such as his grandmother, Archer and Fitzherbert were a special breed.
“There’s a reason they were called the ‘greatest generation,’” he said. “This country came together to fight the Nazis and Japanese, and it was a testament to the American spirit.”
That spirit is still very much alive, according to Polhemus.
“What we are doing with this trip is putting that generation on center stage,” he said. “This is a living, breathing airplane and is a symbol of the values of the USA and who we really are.”
From Presque Isle, Whiskey 7 will stop in Labrador, Iceland and Scotland before arriving in Normandy in time for the June 6 celebrations.
Whiskey 7 is based at the National Wartime Museum in Geneseo, New York.
The entire flight crew is volunteering their time and paying their own expenses as part of the “ Return to Normandy” mission.