By Maj. Tony Wickman
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
It isn’t every day, or even every week, that an Airman gets the opportunity to interact with living, breathing history. It’s even rarer when that history is part of a watershed moment that changed the face of the world.
At Ramstein Air Base, Germany, that is exactly what I was privileged to do. I got to interact with men who participated in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, as well as an aircraft that flew them.
It started on Memorial Day when a historic C-47 Skytrain broke out of the clouds and lined up for its final approach to the Ramstein runway. This was no ordinary airplane; this C-47 was part of the 37th Troop Carrier Squadron, the precursor to our present day 37th Airlift Squadron which flies C-130J Super Hercules here.
On June 6 at 1:51 a.m., this plane and the 17 others just like it belonging to the 37th TCS loaded up with paratroopers from 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division at Royal Air Force Cottesmore, England. Their mission was designated, “Boston,” and their task was to drop into and secure the town of Sainte-Mere Eglise, France.
The C-47s belonging to the 37th TCS were designated W7, or Whiskey 7, and they flew the second wave of the airborne invasion. In all, around 13,100 paratroopers of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions made night parachute drops early on D-Day.
Just being able to step into the troop door and feel the edge of the airframe where so many brave men stood as they leapt from the aircraft to do what was necessary to secure a foothold on the European continent and end the rule of a tyrannical dictator was breathtaking.
It was great to watch the old “Gooneybird” take practice laps around the airfield and then fly a dissimilar formation with the C-130Js here. Even neater was watching the Airmen of all ages and specialties and their families come out to see the venerable old plane.
And as quickly as it was here, it was on its way to Normandy to recreate its role and drop paratroopers over the original drop zone in France as part of the 70th anniversary celebration activities.
While it was sad to see the C-47 go, the most impressive history came in the same day it departed. Two Airmen who were Skytrain pilots that night with the 37th TCS, and a paratrooper who jumped from one of their unit’s planes, came to share their experiences with Team Ramstein.
Former pilots William “Bill” Prindible and Julian “Bud” Rice and paratrooper Leslie Cruise were gracious with their time and willing to share their thoughts about D-Day. As they retold their stories of that day 70 years ago, the remarkable thing was remembering that Prindible and Cruise were 20, and Rice was 23.
As young men, they grasped the gravity of what they were trying to do and didn’t shirk their duty. It is a lesson in courage and Airmanship we should all strive to emulate.
As gracious as they were to those who wanted to spend a little time in their company, their humility is what struck me the most.
Rice told a gathering of Airmen, “Bill and I don’t like to be referred to as heroes. We were the lucky ones. One-hundred-fourteen other pilots didn’t survive; they are the real heroes. We are here to pay our final honor and respect to the true heroes of our group that didn’t make it back home. We are honored to be here for the 70th Anniversary of D-Day and be able to tell their story.”
The capstone event for the base was a heritage dinner to honor the veterans and say goodbye to them as they continued their journey to Normandy.
The guest speaker that night was Brig. Gen. Patrick X. Mordente, 86th Airlift Wing commander. The general’s remarks were a great reminder of how important it was to honor these gentlemen and their mark on history.
“They achieved victory by using innovative thought and technology coupled with audacity and courage to deliver Europe from an oppressive and brutal regime. Thank you Bill, Bud and Les for your service when our country and the world needed you most.”
As an Airman, I will never forget and will cherish the eight days I got to touch and interact with history. History that was important not just to me, Team Ramstein and the Air Force, but rather history that was important for all freedom loving people around the world.
PHOTO: Members of the 37th Airlift Squadron gather for a group photo in front of a Douglas C-47 Skytrain, designated Whiskey 7, on Ramstein Air Base, Germany, May 29, 2014. The 37th AS recreated the historical photo taken 70 years ago of the exact same aircraft with members of the 37th Troop Carrier Squadron. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Airman 1st Class Jordan Castelan/Released)