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Missions accomplished: Miss Montana earns day of rest in France

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By KIM BRIGGEMAN | Missoulian, Mont | Published: June 8, 2019

Miss Montana spent four hours Thursday cruising over the beaches of Normandy on the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

She rumbled with a dozen of her new DC-3 airplane friends over Sword Beach, Juno, Gold Beach, Omaha and Utah, all the places on the coastline of France where the turnabout of war and world war history began in 1944.

"We must have made 20 or 30 laps waiting," crew chief Eric Komberec said over the telephone. "We made a couple of passes over Pegasus Bridge," a key early coup for British parachutists and glider troops near Caen, on the east end of the invasion.

The end goal was a cherry on top of a triumphant visit to Normandy for Miss Montana, her crew and supporters.

A day after dropping 19 parachutists over Sannerville, a few miles from the Pegasus Bridge, they were part of a tight-formation "presidential" flyover of the American Normandy Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach.

World leaders, including Presidents Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron of France, paid tribute to Allied forces who fought in the largest combined land, air and naval operation in history. They honored hundreds of World War II veterans in attendance, including 91-year-old Ron Scharfe of Missoula, who fought in the Pacific theater in World War II and in March paid his second visit in four years to Iwo Jima.

Half a world away, the original D-Day was on the mind of 96-year-old John Nelson of Lolo, one of Montana's few surviving veterans of the invasion. He had planned to be in France for this week's ceremonies. Mobility issues changed his mind.

A 1941 Missoula County High graduate, Nelson went from the Civilian Conservation Corps in Montana to Normandy as a U.S. Army engineer. He rode a troop ship from Southampton, England, to a point off Utah Beach.

Nelson was dunked in the English Channel when he stepped off the landing craft. But he made it safely across the beach and through two months of desperate fighting in the hedgerows above.

As a member of Patton's 3rd Army, Combat Engineer 249th, he later helped build bridges across the Rhine River on Patton's march to Berlin, and was with the famous general during the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp.

Weeks after Germany's surrender in April 1945, Nelson was wounded in a mine explosion in the German town of Denkendorff and came home with shrapnel in his shoulder that was never removed. Jeanie Nelson talked to her father Wednesday about D-Day.

"I said to him, 'It's with you every day, isn't it?'" she said. "He said with a choked voice and tears in his eyes, 'What we did over there, we will think of it to the grave."

When the fly-over call finally came Thursday to the Miss Montana crew, things happened fast. The 13 Dakotas, along with military C-130s and French jets, converged in the skyline over Omaha Beach and disappeared from view in a less than 2 minutes.

Trump and Macron watched the flyover from an overlook with their wives, Melania and Brigitte.

"They gave us a 10-minute warning, and we had to make a big racetrack teardrop to time it right over the cemetery. They had it timed within seconds of check-in points," Komberec said.

The fly-past was scheduled for 11:40 a.m., French time, but Komberec said it was pushed back about 10 minutes.

"It was hard to do a lot of gawking when you're flying," he said. "You could see a big teleprompter, and just people everywhere."

Adding a wrinkle to the flight was the appearance of a huge military cargo plane over the cemetery that caused wake turbulence for the lumbering Dakotas.

Earlier, after a big day on Wednesday that ended around midnight, the Montana flyers had to be up at 4 a.m. to make it to the Caen airport. It was closed down for security purposes  for Trump's arrival. Komberec's video on the Miss Montana to Normandy Facebook page showed Air Force One within walking distance.

"It was pretty awesome," he said. "We tried to sneak up and slap a Miss Montana sticker on it, but we figured they wouldn't have a sense of humor for something like that."

Now it's time to kick back and relax.

"Oh, man, what a day," Komberec said as the crew relaxed with friends and family at a rented house overlooking Sword Bay.

On Friday, the former Johnson Flying Service airplane from the Missoula Museum of Mountain Flying gets her first day off in 19 days.

A Montana tour group of 50 will join the crew for some sightseeing. That'll include some weekend flights over the French countryside on Miss Montana.

On Monday, the DC-3 will fly to Germany to take part in Wiesbaden's two-day 70th anniversary commemoration of the end of the Berlin Airlift at a U.S. Army airfield.

They take satisfaction in the respect Miss Montana has earned in Europe.

"We're not formation experts, we don't have the special formation carding they wanted for us" to take part in Thursday's flyover, Komberec said. "But they allowed us. They figured out we're professionals, and next thing you know we're tucked up against air show-type professionals who do this for a living.

"We've certainly earned the trust of the D-Day Squadron," he added. "Everybody knows Miss Montana. It's a worldwide name now. Everybody likes the project and the mission and the hard work that's gone into it.

"We're happy to be here, and pretty damn proud of what we've been able to accomplish."

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