11 November, 2011

Profile 60 - FINAL - "306" as crewed by Ken Salisbury

Complete!  “306” - the C-47 that carried Ken Salisbury through much of his WW2 experience.  And I purposely finished it to coincide with Veteran’s Day.

306 was chosen in part, because of her Operation Market Garden (OMG) service.  On September 17, 1944, this airplane - along with the rest of the 59th Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS) - took part in the largest aerial assault in history.  Some 35,000 gear-laden troops were unloaded over a 40 mile line that loosely connected a set of bridges that, if captured, would allow an easy artery for Allied blood to choke Hitler.

"The war will be over by Christmas!"  That was the plan anyway.

306 was bound for the northernmost point on said line- a punctuation mark named for the Dutch word for “Eagles Nest” - Arnhem.  Her cargo would be 12 to 18 members of the British First Airborne Division and placed by an aircraft slapped with the silly nickname “Gooney Bird.”

To the planner, British Field Marshall Montgomery, OMG was hardly silly.  Instead, it was supposed to be the fast ticket to an early end of WW2 in Europe.

Ken’s memories of that day come in flashes and bits.  He remembers helping the paratroops clamber aboard and up the C-47’s ground-bound incline before taking his seat at the airplane’s radio.  He remembers the steady throb of engines, the howl of wind from the open door and, in his words, “Hollering hello to the Brits who joked that I was lucky to be getting a ride back so quickly.”

Barks of gray smoke, a sudden shudder and the settling in of the steady drone of airplane engines marked just another mission to Ken.  “No one talked.  Mostly because the noise was loud.  Which was probably just as well.” He stated matter of factly.  “We flew with the door open - always with a ‘Stick of Troops’ aboard so (once in flight) there was a constant wind howl too.”  Ken pauses.  “We didn’t talk much.”

It’s also just as well Ken didn’t get too friendly as it’s quite possible that most of the British Paratroopers were dead within a week.  You cannot even begin to think about that.

Sorry for the downer...

It’s time to tell you the other reason why “306” was chosen.  It’s because this unarmed Gooney was also a Tactical Bomber during OMG.  Yeah, you read correctly.  This C-47 fought back.

Typically, airborne assaults took place at night.  But OMG was a daylight raid.  And, with a preferred drop altitude of 600 feet, 306 was not only 'right there' she was also well within small arms range.  And, with a drop airspeed of around 105 mph, 306 was slow.  They were aerial “sitting ducks.”  Yet, not completely defenseless.

“If we were towing gliders, we had to drop the tow rope.”  Ken explained.  It was 300 feet long, made of braided nylon and capped with two 6 pound “D” rings.”  Ken cleared his throat.  “After the drop, we’d dive to pick up speed and become a harder target for (enemy) fighters.  It was officially called 'Contour Flying' but most of us called it 'Hitting the Deck!"

If the enemy happened to be on the ground somewhere close to that push-over point, they got the tow rope dropped on them.  “It played hell on anything on the ground.”  Ken explained.  “300 feet long, coming down at 100 plus miles per hour, it could ruin an anti-aircraft crew.”

But on September 17, 306 wasn’t towing gliders*.  Instead, her pilot authorized the decidedly unauthorized practice of grenade throwing on enemy troops.  And the target area was full of them.  “I had a rope tied around me, so I wouldn’t get sucked out the side door.  I looked up (through the cabin) and saw into the cockpit where the co pilot had his left hand - he gave the thumbs up and I pulled the pins and threw.”

You know, at first blush, the story sounds rather amusing.  Something of the sort that would be a comic-relief scene in a movie.  Maybe hear a “Yahoo!” from the good guy.  But Ken wasn’t Yahooing.  He looked at me matter-of-factly as if to say, “Yes. That’s war.  Kill or be killed.”

Did he hit anything?  “I don’t know.” he replied flatly.  “We just got out of there.”

After five hours aloft,  306 touched down at her base in Barkston Heath, England where Ken had his debriefing and an official shot of booze.

You know, listening to fighter pilots, one can be tempted to believe that war is tremendously appealing.  The duel, the test of skill, the mastery of machine, the roll of Fate...I like it.  But over the years, the closer I get to the ground, the faster things get ugly.  I spent 60 agonizing minutes with an infantryman on a tour bus, hearing him barf out out his story as if he'd been sick to his stomach for 65 years.  Which he'd been.  I don't want to be in that place again.

But here - "306" is a blend of both.  The glamour of flight, the ugliness of war.  

Have another look, would ya?  And however you do it, throw a salute to Ken, the British Paratroops, the misguided Germans below...

It's Veteran's Day today.

The picture above is Ken.  He's showing me a picture of his wartime buddy, Harold "Westy" West.  Harold was killed in one of those quirky twists of fate when Harold took Ken's place in the wrong C-47 - it's a long story but Ken's never forgotten it. This morning over coffee, Ken described how he visited Westy's mom right after the war and I thought this print should be dedicated to her.  

*The next day, on Sept. 18, 306 did indeed do a glider-pull and afterwards got aggressive with the tow rope.