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A C-47 pilot tells his son about the dangerous missions he flew in anti-aircraft fire on D-Day and after.
The 6th. In June 1944, my father, Lieutenant Russell Chandler Jr. flew to Normandy in a Douglas C-47 to land troops of the 82nd Airborne Division at St. Mère Eglise. It then operated from temporary airfields in Europe and supplied the troops at the front. He also participated in Operation Market Garden, where he was shot down after a supply mission with the 101st Airborne Division. Like other logistical elements, transport pilots have not received the same recognition as their better-known contemporaries, such as fighter pilots. In the process, the transport units often suffered very large losses.
Imagine being in a formation of unarmed aircraft, hundreds of miles long, descending to less than 1,000 feet at 90 mph while every German in the neighborhood is shooting at you, and you understand why he said: As easy prey, our only protection was darkness and the hand of God. Russ Chandler’s story illustrates the coolness that these unsung heroes often displayed under fire.
History of aviation : When did you join the U.S. Army Air Corps?
Chandler: I was drafted in 1940 when I was 21. My basic training was at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alatau. Probably because I did my ROTC training at military school, I became the cadet commander for the entire base.
AH: Where were you first placed?
Chandler: I trained as a photographer and my first assignment was with the 44th. Bomber Squadron (Heavy). We were at France Field in the Canal Zone, near Colon, Panama. Our main task before the war was to fly Douglas B-18B Bolos [bombers adapted for anti-submarine warfare] along and over Central America, photographing the terrain to plot the best route for the Pan American Highway.
Before World War II, Chandler served with the 44th (Heavy) Bomber Squadron and flew Douglas B-18B Bolos operating in Central America. Here he poses with his equipment after a trip to British Guiana, where Bolo crews patrolled to protect oil tankers leaving Venezuela at the start of the war. (Courtesy of Russell Chandler III)
AH: So you signed up before the United States went to war?
Chandler: That’s right. Four of us, including my half-brother [Roland Jel, who became an officer in 30 years of service and reached the rank of colonel], saw that war was coming, and our bravery took over and we enlisted. We hoped that early certification would allow us to attend flight school later. They also promised that we could serve together. That was an exaggeration, of course.
AH: We don’t hear much about the action in Central America. Did you have any hostilities when you were there?
Chandler: I was not only a photographer, but also a shooter. After the war began, we were transferred to Atkinson Field, near Georgetown, British Guiana [now independent Guyana]. We were pretty much isolated, doing mostly routine patrols to protect the tankers from Venezuela. Another B-18 of our group crashed on the 2nd. August 1942 the German submarine U-654, but another U-boat answered the fire by sinking our supply ship as it entered Georgetown harbor. It was right before Christmas, and there was probably a supply of frozen turkeys. We enjoyed a baked monkey at Christmas. I believe my first mission was to meet, bomb and sink a German ship.
Chandler first saw combat when the B-18 on which he served as a gunner bombed and sank this German ship in 1942. (Courtesy of Russell Chandler III)
AH: What about flight school?
Chandler: Flying was a childhood dream of mine, and when the opportunity arose, I took my aptitude test and was hired in early 1943. I did my basic training in Albany, Guyana, my basic training in Bainbridge, Guyana, and my refresher course at Moody Field in Valdosta. In October 1943, I was commissioned and sent to Sardis, MS, and Austin, TX, to be certified as a multi-engine pilot and trained in the C-47 specialization.
AH: They were trained on the Atlantic front. How did you get your planes to England?
Chandler: There were two main routes for the ferries: the shorter northern route via Nova Scotia, Iceland, Greenland and then England, or the longer southern route.
AH: You took the southern route, didn’t you? Explain how this works.
Chandler: My co-pilot and I were sent to Muncie, Indiana, to fly our Gooney Bird, or Dakota, as the British called the C-47 – I preferred that name to the Skytrain used in the United States. We flew south, stopped at Moody Field, where we had to spend the night due to a mechanical problem, and then left for Miami.
AH: You grin when you mention Moody Field.
Chandler: Yes, it was very close to where my fiancé of 6 months lived and just happened to be in Moody when we had this problem. From Miami we went to Puerto Rico, Trinidad, and then to my old base in former British Guiana and Recife, Brazil. Then we ventured to Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic, then to Freetown, Sierra Leone, then to Marrakech, Morocco, before heading north to England.
AH: If I understand correctly, the Germans tried to disrupt this route, right?
Chandler: Ascension is a small nine square mile island in the Atlantic Ocean, administered by the United Kingdom. During the war it became very important as a refuelling station for aircraft flying this southern route. The United States built an airstrip here called Wide Awak Field; 25,000 planes landed here during the war. We were guided by the beacon on the island, and if you navigated incorrectly, you ran out of fuel and crashed into the Atlantic. Apparently the Germans repeated the signal, but louder, and knocked several of our planes off course, never to be seen again. I think we discovered this trick before my trip, but I was scared. I was pleasantly surprised when our crew chief brought me fresh coffee after a few hours of flying. The surprise turned to disgust when I went to the back of the plane and discovered another wok sizzling on the open flame of a Coleman burner. Apparently he had forgotten that the two rubber containers filling the cargo hold were the combustible jet fuel needed to increase the range! We ran out of coffee, but you wonder about some planes that disappeared, right?
AH: Yes, of course. Did you have any other goods with you during the crossing?
Chandler: Four crates of Kentucky Bourbon I bought in Puerto Rico to sell when I got to England.
AH: With a reasonable profit, right?
Chandler: Of course, the fives that sold for $1.50 in Puerto Rico cost $25 in England. A little smuggling has always been an acceptable part of military navigation. I just had to be discreet.
AH: So you flew the C-47 over 12,000 miles.
Chandler: That sounds good – and at an average cruising speed of about 165 mph, that’s more than 70 hours of flight time, not counting fuel stops. It took us several weeks with the transfers.
AH: That’s more than half the world. Tell us about the last flight from Marrakech to England.
Chandler: Actually we wanted to leave right away, but there was bad weather off the Spanish coast, and we had to stay a few days in Marrakech. This caused a logistical problem as the planes began to pile up on the field. But after a few days, we moved on. In life, I’ve learned that everything is relative. For example, I was standing in line to get final clearance from the flight coordinator when the B-17 pilot in front of me explained that he had had to postpone his flight because one of his .50 caliber gun turrets had jammed. Unexpectedly, the Colonel Commander pointed at me and said: You see the.45 on this guy’s belt? The lieutenant replied: Yes, sir. Whereupon the colonel shouted: That’s all the firepower his plane has. Get the hell out of here!
AH: It must have been an embarrassing moment for the other person. Did you have any trouble getting to England?
Chandler: When we came from the United States, we flew this route in single, scattered missions. We were completely on our own, without the support of a hunter. I was flying between layers of clouds at about 8,000 feet over the Bay of Biscay and saw a twin-engine fighter, apparently an Me-110, a few miles to starboard. I thought he was going to set up there to shoot at unarmed people like me, but luckily those clouds provided very good cover and I went for it. That is, until I started freezing. Then I brought him under the clouds and to my horror I saw our pursuer again, so I jumped back into the clouds. This game of hide and seek went on endlessly – for over 20 minutes. I think he ran out of fuel when he gave up the chase without firing a shot.
AH: So you couldn’t use your .45?
Chandler: That’s right. We continued on our way and refuelled somewhere near Land’s End before heading for our final destination.
AH: What was true?
Chandler: We were attached to the 44th Air Force of the 9th. Squadron, 316. Troop Carrier Group, stationed at Cottesmore, Nottingham.
AH: What did you do in the three months before D-Day?
Chandler: Mainly training, with emphasis on training and flying in large formations that we will use on D-Day. We made several night flights over France and dropped scouts and supplies for the resistance fighters. I think I did three or four of those flights.
AH: Do you remember any significant incidents during those months?
Chandler: When there are so many people and planes involved, there will always be accidents. But what bothered me the most was when our group was flying in formation and the front plane suddenly broke formation – for what reason we will never know – and collided with another formation flying above us. On board the plane were the team leader, the chaplain and other senior officers. We flew through the flames and debris, giving us a taste of what the big day would look like.
Adorned with black and white invasion stripes, these C-47s, like hundreds of others on bases in southern England, waited for their cargo on the afternoon of June 5, 1944. (National Archives)
AH: What about the C-47?
Chandler: I consider the C-47 a very robust and reliable aircraft. I’m sure there are hundreds of them still flying around the world today. They absorbed huge amounts of projectiles, and I saw some still flying with their rudders half ripped off. They certainly accomplished the mission for which they were created.
AH: Tell us about D-Day.
Chandler: For us, it started the night before. To arrive in time for 1am, we took off at about 10:30pm and it took us about 1.5 hours to set up and about an hour to get to the landing zone to avoid radar. We crossed the channel at about 500 feet and rose to 1500 feet on the approach to the Channel Islands to avoid AA. I landed 27 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Regiment in the area south of Ste-Mer-Eglise. We returned the next morning to deliver supplies and equipment, and towed the gliders that evening.
AH: Explain what these formations looked like.
Chandler: I can still imagine. The 82nd Airborne had over 430 aircraft in a tight wing formation for miles. A total of 2,000 C-47s were deployed on D-Day. I think the recent HBO movie Band of Brothers made that clear.
AH: Including the planes that were blown into the sky?
Chandler: Unfortunately, yes. The flak was often intense, and it was sickening to see your wingman get hit, get his nose up, and fall backwards. There was no skill in dodging punches. You stayed in line and prayed that you wouldn’t be. Of my group of 27, I think we lost seven on the first day. Those who survived know that it was the hand of God that brought us home.
AH: Tell us more about what happened on the morning of D-Day?
Chandler: Deploying so many men at night was a big risk, but it was calculated to overwhelm the enemy troops and neutralize them if they tried to reinforce the bridgehead’s forces. We had complete radio silence and the only navigational instruments were the blue lights on the wingtips and fuselage. The lead aircraft of each group of 45 was to be directed to the radio beacon broadcast by the scouts, who landed by parachute at midnight. We had to follow the guide to the drop zone.
Paratroopers and their equipment fill the cabin of a C-47 plane just before takeoff to landing zones in Normandy. (National Archives)
AH: What were the weather conditions?
Chandler: I don’t remember any moon. It was very dark and by the time we reached the French coast it was overcast, so some squadrons lost sight of their leaders and scattered. As far as I know, the paratroopers were scattered over the Cotentin region. Our group was able to stay in line and stay on course. I think we found the right drop zone, but we couldn’t know that at the time.
AH: Tell us about the flak.
Chandler: I guess our big surprise didn’t last long. It’s hard not to see 2,000 planes at 1,500 feet. As soon as we crossed the coast, the Germans started throwing everything they could at us. I doubt there is a single Dakota that was not injured. It was a scary fireworks show, but the sound of the ammunition going through the plane was a little unsettling.
AH: Any anecdotes about the first fall?
Chandler: I remember a paratrooper, a sergeant, who got shrapnel in his leg. By law, he should have stayed on board and come back with us. Instead, he told my team leader: I’m jumping, it’s too dangerous in this thing! And he did. I think we all have our own view of danger, and I think he got medical attention immediately after the impact instead of waiting two hours to return to England with us.
AH: How high did they jump?
Chandler: 1,200 yards. Once the plotter was set, these guys were on the ground within seconds. But at that altitude and at 90 miles per hour, we were a pretty big target and within range of all kinds of small arms fire. I was glad it was still dark, but at this point we all felt like target practice.
AH: What was your biggest fear?
Chandler: Friendly fire, actually. After we left the landing zone, we broke formation and it was a race to get back, every man for himself. The safest place was under the bridge, and we were crossing the canal when suddenly a tall figure appeared through my windscreen and began firing in our direction with his entire left armament. I never identified the cruiser we encountered. This encounter was reminiscent of an earlier incident with our Navy on 10 July 1943, in which nearly 50 of our own C-47s were shot down returning from the landing zone in Sicily. I didn’t participate in it, but others in my unit did, and they always reminded us that 30% of the planes deployed were shot down that way during the landing. This only made us more anxious.
AH: Are you still on the air?
Chandler: No. The gliders we towed carried large mesh mats that were rolled out on the open fields. These Dakotas were able to land on a fairly short field, and for several days we landed on these temporary airstrips, delivered supplies and returned to England with the wounded.
Besides supply missions, the 44th Group landed troops of the 101st Airborne during Operation Market Garden. (National Archives)
AH: Have any other troops been lost?
Chandler: Yes, we continued to supply the guerrillas behind enemy lines, and our squadron crushed the 101st Airborne during Operation Market Garden.
AH: The bridge is too far, isn’t it?
Chandler: That’s right, it was for me. The second day [18. September 1944] I was refueling our troops in Eindhoven when I was shot down by ground fire on the return flight.
AH: What happened?
Chandler: After lunch, we jumped in and flew at about 800 feet somewhere over Belgium. As we crossed the tree line, a battery of German 88s opened fire on us. Unlike D-Day, we arrived in broad daylight. This gave us more accurate drops and allowed us to place ground troops closer together, but also made us much more vulnerable targets. One bullet went through the cockpit and destroyed half the rudder, another damaged the starboard engine. You can’t get very far with an engine at that altitude, and I probably flew another two or three miles before I hit a field, made a full circle, crashed into a hedge and caught fire. We stopped less than 100 yards from the German hospital.
AH: So you were behind enemy lines?
Chandler: Fortunately, as the fighting progressed, the front was only loosely defined. Apparently the Germans were disappointed in this hospital. I think they got lucky: The war is over for them. They even came out and took me to the hospital.
AH: Did all the passengers on your plane survive?
Chandler: Yes, fortunately. But the impact caused my left leg to get caught between the handlebar pedals and the wall of fire. My crew commander carefully went back to the helm and moved it manually until I was free. I think the plane exploded about 10 minutes later.
AH: Is that why you got the parachute medal?
Chandler: That’s right. But I would have preferred a non-stop flight from Eindhoven to England. When I returned the plane, I had no time to think of anything but finding a field long enough to do what I had been taught. Every pilot in my unit deserves the same reward. As far as I know, the Air Force lost about 400 men in that mission.
AH: Did your injury end your combat days?
Chandler: Yes, my ankle was badly injured. I was flown back to England, put on a hospital ship and sent home.
AH: They had a pretty tight file.
Chandler: Yes, but by the grace of God, I am here today. Many of my friends never came back, and I still find it hard to remember.
AH: Other than participating in the last World War, is there anything that this experience in the Air Force has brought you personally?
Chandler: In addition to the brotherhood that binds all of us World War II veterans, there are two personal benefits to which I can attest. For one thing, I could use my flying skills in my business, and from the 1950s to the 1980s I always owned a few small planes. As a representative, I could cover twice as much territory as my competitors. Most importantly, I met a beautiful young woman from South Georgia while traveling between study sites. She couldn’t resist my advances (although flying over is clearly against the rules) and soon became my wife. We’ve been married for 60 years.
This article was written by A. Russell Chandler III and was originally published in the July 2004 issue of Aviation History. For additional readings, try : The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far, both written by Cornelius Ryan; or D-Day: June 6, 1944, by Stephen E. Ambrose.
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