Key point: When we landed the C-46 for the last time on July 20, 1945, I walked away, determined to never fly again.
Elmer Wisherd was born on December 1, 1920, in North Dakota. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to a farm in Bruce, Wisconsin. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Army, hoping to become a pilot. That dream was not realized, but he became an aviation mechanic and, eventually, a crew chief on Douglas C-47 Dakota aircraft. This is his story.
I was inducted into the Army on September 12, 1942, and began my basic training at Bowman Field in Louisville, Kentucky. After basic, I was shipped to brand-new Alliance Army Airfield in the northwestern corner of Nebraska.
Because I had been a milk truck driver in Wisconsin, I was initially assigned to the motor pool—driving trucks and working on them. But I wanted to become an airplane mechanic and was assigned to mechanics’ school near Gulfport Army Airfield in Mississippi.
Every place we looked—every room in every building—were signs: YOU TOO CAN BE A CREW CHIEF. Most of us thought, ‘Yeah, you, too, can be a crew chief, but I can’t; that’s shooting pretty doggone high.’ But I did it.
After completing my mechanics’ course in September, I was shipped to Fort Benning, Georgia, where they put me to work on a great big Pratt & Whitney 14-cylinder engine—two rows of seven cylinders each in a circle—and I felt as green as green could be. At school at Gulfport, I had never seen anything like it! They told me to drain a sump on the carburetor. Where was that?! So I had quite a time. I imagine they figured I was pretty dumb, which I was.
Fort Benning was a big training camp. They were training paratroopers and training pilots to fly C-47 transports. The majority of the pilots at that time were staff sergeants who had enlisted.
As time passed, the pilots became warrant officers and then second lieutenants, with corresponding pay increases. I was still a corporal when I became a crew chief and began getting flight pay. Flight pay increased my paycheck by 50 percent.
As crew chief, I was responsible for my C-47 being ready to fly at all times. It was usually my job to turn the propellers before starting the engines but, occasionally, one of my assistants turned them. Before the airplane was started, we had to turn each propeller 14 times. (Because they were in a circle, some cylinders were upside-down.) Turning the propellers, and thus turning the cylinders, drained all the oil from the cylinders. If an engine started with oil in any cylinder, it would jerk the whole engine apart and would require a complete overhaul.
I had a list of items to check and, when I felt the airplane was ready for takeoff, I always started both engines before the pilot and co-pilot arrived. Before I started each engine, though, I hollered “Clear the prop!” so anyone near the engines could get out of the way.
We trained all day long. After takeoff, I stood between the pilot and co-pilot and watched the instruments. Then, as we approached our landing zone (LZ) or drop zone (DZ), I’d climb a ladder into the astrodome and watch for a signal from the lead aircraft. A green light meant “go.”
As the aircraft dropped low, the gliders or parabundles were released. Later, when we were practicing with paratroopers, I removed the back door so they could jump. Our C-47s could carry 18 paratroopers.
The paratroopers were constantly training, too. They had jump towers where they trained until they had advanced enough to join us and jump out of the C-47s. They all wore backpacks containing parachutes they’d packed themselves that were attached to static lines running the full length of the C-47. They also had a reserve chute strapped to the chest, which could be hand-operated in case their main chute didn’t open.
The jumpmaster’s job was getting the paratroopers out of the plane. He was generally at the rear of the plane, shoving out the paratroopers. The jumpmaster hollered “Jump!” or “Geronimo!” before shoving out the first paratrooper in line.
After the paratroopers were out of the plane, the crew chief—me—pulled the static lines back into the plane so they wouldn’t damage the side of the airplane.
I saw thousands of paratroopers drop while we were at Fort Benning, and our C-47 probably dropped hundreds nearly every day. As the weeks passed, those paratroopers were getting awfully good training and were landing real well.
After a short furlough home, I returned to my unit and in February 1944 was transferred to Baer Field near Fort Wayne, Indiana. We finally got our overseas orders. In February 1944, we flew from Baer Field to Macon, Georgia, then down to West Palm Beach, Florida; Puerto Rico; British Guiana; and Belem, Brazil, before crossing the Atlantic to Ascension Island and Roberts Field in Liberia, Africa. After Liberia, we flew to Marrakesh, Morocco.
It was a long haul. Twice we flew 11 hours without stopping. We put 8,464 gallons of gas through our plane, #43-15050, and it took us 19 days—811/2hours of flying time—to go from Florida to England. We had a little trouble with one propeller, and sometimes we had a little bit of bad weather, but we made it.
When we arrived, I was 23 years old and a buck sergeant—probably one of the lowest ranks of the sergeants that were crew chiefs of the airplanes. I was in charge of a huge C-47 that I had to work on and then fly in with the rest of the crew.
The airplane we had flown from the States had a large radar unit on the belly of the fuselage, and a commander took our airplane. I was transferred to another C-47—#42-100823. I looked it over, pre-flighted it, and got everything ready to go.
About that time, I saw two lieutenants walking toward me. I gave them a snappy salute, and they returned my salute. They walked into the airplane and the pilot, Al Johnson, turned to me and said, “Sergeant, when we’re out in public, you may salute. When we are in this airplane, I’m Al, he’s Joe, and you’re Elmer.” That was the way it was from then on.
Sam, my old radio operator from #43-15050, moved with me to the new aircraft that Al Johnson had named Ruca, after his wife, Ruth Callaway Johnson. Our destination: RAF Balderton, located two miles south of Newark-on-Trent and 15 miles northeast of Nottingham.
Most of the 439th Troop Carrier Group had arrived at Balderton on March 6, and we all lived in Quonset (Nissen) huts. Ours had no windows, but it did have a door on each end. It was unheated during the day, but we had a little potbelly coke-burning stove in the center of the hut for the cold nights. Cots closest to the stoves were prized, but we were never very warm. We dug trenches outside our hut so we had a place to go in case the Germans bombed us.
On March 18, the 439th was out doing a night flight and working on flight assembly when we got a signal that there were “bandits” in the area. Flight assembly was something we worked on practically every week, whenever we could get up and fly.
It began with the first plane taking off and circling the field while the other airplanes caught up and got into the flight assembly. When the signal came about the bandits, all planes immediately turned off their lights and landed back at Balderton as quickly as possible.
In 25 minutes, everyone from the 439th had landed. There were searchlights cutting through the night, bursts of flak and, to the east and northeast, there was quite a little firefight. Several bombs were dropped. I later heard that a couple English bombers were shot down that night.
We did a lot from the time we landed in England until Operation Overlord. We worked and flew both day and night. We had many flights where we delivered someone to another airfield. Al Johnson, Joe Fry, Sam Anbender, and I very seldom flew with a navigator. We flew by dead reckoning most of the time.
We also did a lot of paratrooper dropping. We would take a bunch of paratroopers up, flying around to simulate the time they’d be in the air before being dropped in France. These practice flights to the drop zone usually took 60 to 90 minutes. After we reached the DZ and the paratroopers had jumped, we’d fly back by ourselves.
Once in a while, though, the winds were too strong for them to jump safely without getting blown all over the place. When that happened, we brought them back with us. Did those guys gripe and holler then! They were not going to land in that damn airplane! They trusted their parachutes a heck of a lot more than they trusted our C-47.