Key point: Thousands of these planes moved tons of troops all over the world. After the war, many became planes in civilian airlines.
Even though, technically at least, it was not a combat airplane, the performance of the Douglas C-47 transport led General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower to label it as one of the most important weapons of World War II.
It carried no armament and was not designed to drop bombs, but the C-47 and other variations of the Douglas DC-3 twin-engine airliner quickly proved their worth both on and off the battlefield as they became a familiar sight all over the world. Eisenhower was not exaggerating with his accolade. The C-47 became crucial to the conduct of the war in at least three theaters and proved beneficial to military operations around the world in roles that varied from limited to indispensable. By the end of the war, the Army had purchased more than 10,000 of the Douglas twin-engine transports in several variants.
From the DC-3 to the C-47
The C-47 is the most commonly known military designation for the airplane that revolutionized the civilian air transportation industry in the 1930s. Douglas Aircraft Company’s DC-3 was a follow-on to the DC-2, the first modern American-built transport aircraft. By the outbreak of war in 1939, the DC-3 had proven to be a safe, reliable transport capable of operating from short, relatively unimproved airstrips. Although it had not been designed with military needs in mind, the DC-3 was the natural choice to be the first widely produced Allied military transport aircraft.
The Army purchased a number of DC-2s, giving them the military designation of C-39; the bomber derivative was the B-18. When the DC-3 came out, the Army ordered several built to military specifications and designated them as C-47s. The bomber version was designated as the B-23, but it was not much of a bomber, so the Air Corps converted most of them for transport use, including for dropping paratroops, and called them C-67s.
When the Army began experimenting with airborne forces, it turned to the 50th Transport Wing, which had been established at Wright Field under the Air Corps Maintenance Command, for the use of its C-39s and C-47s to drop the fledgling airborne troops. Activated on January 14, 1941, as the parent unit for the Air Corps transport squadrons, the wing transported more cargo during the first half of 1941 than the entire U.S. civilian airline industry. The new airborne mission placed a heavy additional burden on the wing, so the Army placed orders for more transports and began training crews to fly them.
The original DC-3 was designed to carry 21 passengers, although increased engine performance on later models allowed 28. Other designations were given to production DC-3s that were taken over by the military but lacked the reinforced cargo floor and other amenities of the basic C-47. When the Army decided to develop the airborne mission, it contracted for a number of DC-3s specially configured to carry troops, with bucket seats and a door designed for paratrooper exit, and called it the C-53 Sky Trooper. Shackles were attached under the fuselage of the C-53s to carry parapacks, special bundles that could be filled with items too large to be carried by individual troops during a parachute assault.
In addition to dropping paratroopers, C-53s were also used for supply drops and as glider tugs. Although thousands of C-53s were produced, as the war continued the C-47 designation became generic. A later modification with larger engines and a redesigned tail was designated as the C-117. Various versions of the Douglas transport would see service with Army, Navy, and Marine transport squadrons as well as in the air forces of most of the Allied nations.
Building Allied Air Transport Wings
Several Douglas transports entered service in North Africa in 1941 when the U.S. Army Ferrying Command contracted with Pan American Airways to provide air transportation for British forces fighting Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The British had ordered their own Douglas transports, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) gave them a new name—Dakota. The Pan American DC-3s were sent to Africa to fill the gap until the RAF had received its own Dakotas and established air transport squadrons. The first British transports were DC-3s requisitioned from the airlines since the U.S. Army lacked the numbers to provide airplanes from its own stock.
The first Douglas transports to see operational duty were a trio of C-53s that arrived in Australia aboard ship in February. They joined an ad hoc group of transport aircraft and obsolete combat planes in the newly created Far East Air Forces Air Transport Command and went to work hauling cargo and personnel around Australia and northward to New Guinea—and even as far north as the southern Philippines, which were still in Allied hands. A reorganization of U.S. Army air transportation in June 1942 resulted in the redesignation of the air transport units as troop carriers, while a new Air Transport Command was created from the Army Ferry Command.
In early 1942, the Australia-based transports supported combat operations in the defense of Java. Until the American surrender of the Philippines, transports operated into airstrips on Mindanao, the southernmost of the Philippine islands, where American forces remained until their surrender in May 1942. A few weeks later, the transports proved their worth as the lifeline for Australian troops battling Japanese forces advancing southward toward Port Moresby over the rugged Kokoda Track in the Owen Stanley Range of Papua, New Guinea. The rough terrain ruled out resupply by truck, and the distances involved required hundreds of human porters. Air transportation allowed timely resupply as the transports landed on rude jungle strips when possible, and air-dropped ammunition and rations when no suitable landing strip lay close enough to the troops. A lack of suitable airdrop containers and parachutes led to the adaptation of cardboard ice cream containers packed with straw to deliver packets of ammunition and foodstuffs. The Australian infantrymen began referring to the transports of the 21st and 22nd Troop Carrier Squadrons as “Biscuit Bombers.”
The Troop Airlift Concept Takes Off
When Lieutenant General George C. Kenney arrived in Australia in mid-1942 to assume the role of chief of staff for air under General Douglas MacArthur, he brought many ideas with him, including the concept of using the airplane to move troops into battle and keep them supplied. An opportunity to prove his theories arose in September when MacArthur decided to move the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division northward to New Guinea. Kenney persuaded MacArthur to let him move a regiment by air; the event came off so well that he got permission to move a second regiment. The two regiments were in place in Port Moresby several days before the rest of the division arrived by ship.
Allied successes in New Guinea—thanks largely to the efforts of Kenney’s Fifth Air Force—raised the value of Kenney’s stock in Washington considerably. Part of the payoff for earlier successes was the assignment of an airborne regiment to the Southwest Pacific Area of Operations, and its arrival allowed Kenney to mount the attack on Nadzab he had been planning for several months. The 54th Troop Carrier Wing C-47s dropped the troops without a hitch, and the airfield was in Allied hands within a matter of minutes. MacArthur used the new installation to mount a two-pronged attack on Lae that led to the destruction of Japanese efforts in New Guinea.
The early successes of the C-47s and other transports in New Guinea led to the development of tactics built around the use of air transport to airlift troops into battle and also to move air units forward. Air evacuation of casualties made its debut in New Guinea during the battle for Buna. Young female flight nurses were assigned to troop carrier squadrons to care for wounded men who were brought from the forward airfields. Regularly scheduled air evacuation flights were established between Port Moresby and rear area hospitals in Australia. The success of air evacuation in the Southwest Pacific led to it becoming part of the troop carrier mission throughout the world. Thanks to the use of the airplane to move the seriously wounded, the combat death rate was drastically reduced.
The dependable C-47s and C-53s soldiered on, racking up hundreds, then thousands of hours in combat operations. One of the C-53s that had arrived in Australia in early 1942 had amassed more than 10,000 hours by 1944. The efforts of the troop carrier C-47 crews did not go unappreciated by the senior officers in their chain of command. General Kenney recognized the efforts of his troop carriers and said so in dispatches to the War Department in Washington, D.C. In one request for additional troop carrier pilots, Kenney told General Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces, that the life expectancy of his C-47 crew members was less than that of the P-39 fighter pilots in his command.
The Hump Airlift