How an unusual eBay offering led to the experience of a lifetime.
Will never forget the moment for the rest of my life. It was about 9 p.m. on Friday, January 27, 2006, and I was sitting at my computer in my office when I clicked on a link to an auction on eBay Motors. The auction listing read:
VINTAGE: 1942 DC-3 / C-47 D-DAY INVASION WARBIRD (4606156512).
I had no idea that by clicking on the auction link, I was about to set in motion a sequence of events that would ultimately provide me with one of the most meaningful and rewarding undertakings of my life. My curiosity aroused, I clicked again and began reading.
On the auction block was #42-93096, a C-47A that was ordered for the U.S. government in 1942 at the Douglas Aircraft Manufacturing plant in Oklahoma City. With a “Buy It Now” price of $155,000, “096” was surprisingly inexpensive as warbirds go. In the auction description, it said the aircraft flew several World War II combat missions, including the Normandy invasion. With that kind of lineage, I immediately knew this was no ordinary C-47 but a truly significant piece of aviation history. Staring at its photo on my computer screen, I could not fight the compulsion to dream of 096 suspended from the ceiling of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, where I work as director of research. Almost 13,000 Americans jumped out of C-47s on D-Day. This exact aircraft had carried some of those men. I could not begin to imagine letting this opportunity slip by.
I immediately forwarded the link to my boss, our vice president of operations. Recognizing its significance, he forwarded it on to our president and CEO, Nick Mueller. We eagerly awaited his reply and hoped that he could detect our excitement. There were serious concerns, and we knew it. Hurricane Katrina had pummeled New Orleans just five months earlier, and the city was only beginning to recover. The museum’s future was (and still is) sound, but caution was certainly a major factor in everyone’s judgment. We all expected a dose of reality from the boss. We knew he would be perfectly justified in saying that this was something we could not afford or alternatively that precious resources needed to be directed toward something other than acquiring a 64-yearold airplane. We were elated when he sent the simple response: “Sounds great! Go for it.” At a time when he had every reason to say no, his response was let’s do it—we’ll find the money later.
With that, things began to happen quickly. Within days, a wealthy donor stepped forward who volunteered to fund the acquisition of 096 from start to finish. I then had the honor of clicking “Buy It Now” on auction #4606156512. On February 16, a group of us flew to Hondo, Texas, for our first of many visits to that city. It was there that I first touched 096, and although I knew much would have to be done to return the C-47 to its wartime condition, I experienced the excitement warbird lovers all over the world feel when they first see such a genuine piece of history. I could see beyond its bad paint job and completely stripped interior and imagine it cruising at 5,000 feet over the English Channel on its way to a drop zone in Normandy on June 6, 1944.
The aircraft’s history was the main selling point that convinced the museum to proceed with the acquisition. Although I had known that 096 flew combat missions during World War II, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the reality of all that this airplane had done. With the help of Pathfinder historian Dave Berry, a picture emerged of a C-47 that had participated in all of the major WWII European airborne operations.
After completion in Oklahoma City, 096 was delivered to the U.S. Army on April 8, 1944, and then transferred to Europe. Immediately after arriving in England on May 28, 1944, the aircraft joined the Ninth Air Force/Troop Carrier Command’s Provisional Pathfinder School and was assigned to the 4th Pathfinder Squadron.
The C-47 flew its first combat mission during the predawn hours of June 6, 1944, as part Operation Neptune/Overlord—the Allied invasion of Normandy. As chalk No. 17, the aircraft carried Pathfinder team No. 2 of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) to Drop Zone N near Amfreville west of the village of Ste.-Mère-Église. It flew its second combat mission on September 17, 1944, as a part of Operation Market-Garden—the Allied invasion of Holland. For that mission, the aircraft carried Pathfinder team No. 2 of the 506th PIR, 101st Airborne Division. The aircraft’s third combat mission came on December 23, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, when it flew as a part of the 800-plane operation to drop supplies to the 101st Airborne Division, which was surrounded by German forces in Bastogne, Belgium. For its final combat mission in World War II, 096 carried a stick of paratroopers from Headquarters Company of the 1st Battalion, 507th PIR, 17th Airborne Division, to Wesel, Germany, during the Operation Varsity jump across the Rhine River on March 24, 1945.
After V-E Day, 096 was transferred from the Pathfinder Group to the 98th Troop Carrier Squadron, 440th Troop Carrier Group, and began ferrying personnel from place to place in Europe. Thereafter, the C-47 was sold to Finnair and given the name Haahka. In 1976, 096 participated in the filming of the jump sequences for the movie A Bridge Too Far in England and then returned to the United States in 1985. After flying as a cargo carrier in Vermont and North Carolina, the aircraft was sold to an individual in San Antonio, Texas, before being put up for auction on eBay Motors.
Although the process of restoring 096 to its wartime configuration was not necessarily extensive, it was nevertheless expensive. To begin with, the aircraft had to have a completely new exterior paint job. The last company to fly the C-47 had painted it with a hodgepodge of markings from its wartime and postwar career. Job one would be to put a historically accurate paint scheme on the plane. A decision was made early on to restore 096 to what it would have looked like when it flew to Normandy on June 6, 1944. The paint scheme chosen was therefore consistent with that carried by aircraft of the Ninth Air Force’s 4th Pathfinder Squadron on D-Day. Photographic and film reference images provided guidance for coloration, location of markings, etc.
The inside of the aircraft had been stripped and insulated when it was flying air cargo, so a great deal of work had to be done to the interior as well. The correct folding aluminum troop seats had to be found and installed. Finally, the right engine had to be replaced so that the aircraft could qualify for an FAA airworthiness certificate. Another early decision made by museum staff was that 096 would fly to its new home in New Orleans rather than be carried by a flatbed trailer. That being the case, a replacement 1,200-hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-92 engine was purchased and installed in the right nacelle.
As of August 8, 2006, our C-47 was ready to fly. I will never forget what it looked like when I drove up to the Hondo Municipal Airport that morning. I had been there for every step of the purchase and restoration process, and the airplane was finally done and looking good. Anyone who has ever worked to restore a warbird can relate to this, but all the lost sleep and all the effort seemed worth it that morning when I saw the restored C-47 sitting on the tarmac.
The project had not been a one-man job by any stretch of the imagination, but rather a team effort on the part of a number of individuals from the museum who joined forces to make this labor of love possible. Yet I felt a deep personal attachment to this particular aircraft. When I climbed aboard and flew in 096 for the first time on August 25, it seemed like a graduation, and I never thought it was possible to feel more pride. But then five days later I was a passenger on 096 when it flew to my home city, New Orleans. As we approached the city’s airspace, a pair of F-15A Eagles from the Louisiana Air National Guard’s 122nd Fighter Squadron, 159th Fighter Wing—the “Bayou Militia”—slid in alongside us as escorts. When 096 touched down on runway 36L at what is left of New Orleans Lakefront Airport, all the misery and suffering of Katrina was temporarily forgotten in the roar of a pair of Pratt & Whitney engines.
In September we partially disassembled 096 and towed it through the French Quarter to its new home in the National World War II Museum, where it now hangs from the ceiling of the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion. A dedication ceremony was held beneath 096 on September 27, 2006, exactly nine months to the day after I clicked on the eBay auction link, setting the whole drama in motion. Each day I walk beneath the airplane and think about the nine months leading up to that dedication ceremony. Working at the National World War II Museum is an experience that brings daily rewards. But being involved in the acquisition, restoration and relocation of C-47 #42-93096 is by far the most rewarding experience I ever expect to be a part of.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.