A Piece of History Parked in front of Hangar 18

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Colton Nelson
  • 176th Wing Historical Property Curator
Editor's note: The following is a mix of historical data and shared words from Charles Young, son of Col. Charles Young (ret.), Commander of the 439th Troop Carrier Group. Col. Young and his son authored a book together called, "Into the Valley", which included never before seen formation charts, accounts from paratroopers and pilots, and historical data relating to Operation Neptune.

1st Lt Russell Rothman, a young command pilot from Chicago, Illinois, sat cramped in the pilot briefing room at Upottery Airfield on the evening of June 5, 1944. He paid very close attention to the words of Col. Charles Young, commander of the 439th Troop Carrier Group. Young would lead 81 C-47 Skytrains in the cauldron of Normandy, and he wanted to be sure it was done right. He briefed the pilots of their responsibilities, their flight path, visual aids, and the drop zones.

Rothman left the pilot briefing room to find his aircraft, a C-47 with the tail number: 42-100857. He was to fly his plane (857) in the 22nd "V" formation of the first serial into Normandy. Rothman would be dropping Soldiers from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division into a drop zone just a few miles West of Utah beach.

He started his engines and taxied onto the runway with 60 paratroopers onboard. Rothman took to the European skies, flying in perfect formation over the English Channel, jumping through cloud decks at 135 mph. Rothman paid close attention to the aircraft around him, ensuring he kept a tight formation.

Rothman's serial was somewhat lucky. The German's didn't catch onto what was happening until Young's formation was well overhead. As the German anti-aircraft guns began firing into the clouded skies, the C-47's in formation began to break away to avoid the constant barrage. The air bursts concussed jumpers and sent them bouncing about the cargo compartments of the aircraft. Three aircraft were lost towards the end of the formation. Rothman was able to maneuver into the drop zone and deliver his troops on target.

As the story goes, Rothman got lost avoiding gun fire and returned to England. When he arrived, he realized he was the first to arrive, so he loaded another group of willing jumpers and returned to Normandy for a second drop.

Rothman would continue flying aircraft tail number 42-100857 throughout the war. His primary mission was towing wooden framed CG-4A Waco Gliders. He towed the 401st Glider Infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division in Operation Hackensack. The 442nd Japanese American Regimental Combat Team would be towed into combat by Rothman in Southern France two months after Operation Neptune. Rothman also flew two more missions into Holland carrying jeeps and artillery.

Rothman never flew with the same co-pilot, but always flew 857. Following the war, he was promoted to Captain. He was awarded the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters and amassed 800 hours in the C-53 and C-47 aircraft. He died on July 26, 1946 in a crash aboard an L-5E Sentinel off the coast near Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

But what came of his chariot? 857, much like most of the surplus C-47s from the war, were sent to Litchfield Airpark, Arizona. Soon after the war, these aircraft were designated to be sold to the private sector or used for government purposes. The Civil Air Administration picked up 857 and sent it to Oklahoma City to be modified for flight tests. After undergoing a complete overhaul, 857 was flown to Alaska to serve as a flight test aircraft for newly constructed runways. When it was time for the aircraft to be retired, 857 was given to the Air Force for display purposes.

The next time you drive down Airlifter drive, stop by Hanger 18. Park your car and walk to the tail of the C-47 on display in front of the building. Look under the horizontal stabilizer and you'll find 42-100857 stenciled in black. Underneath the break up dirt and the chipped paint rests a symbol of American strength. 857 sits inconspicuously on a concrete pad with no dedication plate, no museum ceiling to cover it, and no ceremony to mark its contribution to American aviation history. So when you pass by her, give thanks, especially on Saturday. Thank the men who fought, the nurses who tended the wounded, our allies who fought alongside us, and those who didn't make it home.