by lyle e davis and waldo e. alexander
An 86 year-old man up and died on us this past January. What is so newsworthy about that, you say? Folks of 60, 70, and 80+ years die every day. Well, true. But what makes this man’s passing a bit different is that he not only participated in a little dustup we had in our history.
You may have heard about it. It made all of the papers. What’s more, he journalized his career in the military while going through some major experiences. You’ll notice the name “Waldo E. Alexander” on the byline of this story. That’s him. That’s our 86-year-old who passed. And that’s the author ot the story you’re about to read.
“I was called to service on November 1, 1942, and was sent to Camp Craft, Spartanburg, South Carolina, where I passed the physical and was sworn in on November 2nd. I was sent home for two weeks to get my affairs in order, and was sent to Fort Jackson, Columbia, South Carolina. There I was outfitted with Army clothes, then spent the next several days in a classroom taking aptitude tests. Then we learned Army rules. One day, after lunch, I was told to go to my barracks, get all my things, we were shipping out. We boarded one of four pullman train cars, with one freight car set aside for all of our baggage.
We rode all over, through a number of different states, for two or three days before finally being delivered to Fresno, California. After several days I was shipped to Malibu Beach, California, near Los Angeles. Here I would train for the next four months as an aircraft mechanic. We had to get up at 3:45am to catch the train and be in class by 6am. Near the end of that training, the Douglas Aircraft Company sent word they needed more men for the C-47 . . . they sent me, and that is how I wound up being assigned to C-47’s for the duration of the war.
I went to the Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach, CA.. After two months training, I was assigned aircraft, serial number #223804. The very next day after it rolled off the assembly line, I joined two pilots and we flew it to Palm Springs, California. Can you believe it? This was the first time I’d ever ridden in a plane!
From there we flew to someplace in New Mexico, then on to St. Joseph, Missouri, then to Fort Wayne, Indiana. That whole trip was filled with terrifble storms. At one point I thought the wings were gonna come off the plane. It was good to get back on the ground.
We would now embark on a training period where we learned how to tow gliders. We went to Ft. Wayne, Indiana to tow a glider back to North Carolina. All went well and we had climbed to about 10,000 feet to get above some threatening weather. I fell asleep but then was awakened by being thrown all over the plane. We had encountered more severe weather. I jumped into the astrodome to see the glider. All I could see was about half the tow rope that was a 350 foot long tow rope. A short time later the glider had cut loose and had tried to land on a winding country road near Huntington, West Virginia. It had crashed and the pilot suffered a broken leg. We had been ordered to Cincinnatti to await instructions. That’s where we learned the fate of the glider.
We were then given a 30 day furlough before reporting back to my outfit. I had been promoted from corporal to Staff Sergeant and had orders to ship out.
We took off from Ft. Wayne in a blinding snowstorm and headed for Palm Beach, Florida. The next day was Thanksgiving Day, which we had off. Next day we took off for Puerto Rico, overnighted, then on to Georgetown, British Guiana. From there to Belen, Brazil, near the mouth of the Amazon River. Next we flew to Natal, Brazil, and then, on December 1st, we left for Ascencion Island, about 800 miles from Africa. This is a small volcanic island about five miles wide and seven miles long. When we took off we flew through a narrow gap in the mountains . . . so narrow that I thought at one point we might catch a wing tip on the side of the mountain.
Next stop was Liberia where we were met by a bunch of natives, begging for food and cigarettes. They spoke a bit of English, thanks to some Methodist missionaries. We stayed in a barracks about 200’ away from the village and its grass huts. They beat drums and sang until about midnight when they finally quieted down and we could get some sleep. Our beds were covered with mosquito nets because of the heavy mosquito population.
Next morning we left for Dakar, which was then called French West Africa. It is now called Senegal. This was a seacoast town on the edge of the Sahara Desert. I think it is the junkiest town I ever saw. After a week here we left for Marrakesh, which is in Morocco. We had to fly at over 9000 in order to avoid the dust storms of the Sahara Desert. This is Muslim country and people looked pretty much like you see them today on television. I don’t think anyone there took a bath or changed clothes. You would see a pile of dirty rags and suddenly it would get up and walk off. It was here where we would eat in a large mess hall and when we took out the garbage the people would gather it up in tin cans and eat it.
On December 1st we took off for Gibraltar, where we gassed up with 1200 gallons of gas. We then took off and were under strict orders to stay at least three miles off the coast of Portugal as they were neutral. We were also under strict radio silence, told not to use our radios for any reason. We were to navigate by celestial navigation, using the moon and stars. Unfortunately, the clouds moved in and blocked out the sky. The weather continued to worsen and pretty soon we were in a terrible storm. Lightning, wind, hail, it was all there. We climbed to 15,000 feet and ice began to form on the wings. I could see the de-icer boots on the wing break the ice several times a minute and it would immediately reappear. Then ice began to form in the carburetor and the engines began to sputter and we began to lose fuel pressure. We turned on the cross-feed so the other engine could pump fuel to the one that was sputtering. We finally got the carburetor heaters to work so we managed to sort the problems out. We finally descended to about 1j00 feet off the water so we could see for about a half mile. The waves were running so high it seemed we could almost touch them with our props.
We finally saw a landmark and were able to figure out where we were. We were now about three miles off the coast of Ireland. This was also a neutral country so we had to maintain our distance. We finally got to the coast of England and flew directly to our destination, Oxford, England.
When we got there the primary runway was under repair so we had to land on an alternate. It had a very bad crosswind and it was all we could do to get on the ground. We had been in the air for 11 hours. We were a bit upset both at having been kept on the ground in Africa for so long, and then sent out in terrible weather conditions for a lengthy flight. It was then explained that this was intentional. We were unarmed and unarmoured and the German JU--88’s had been patrolling the several coasts and it was simply safer to fly through the storm rather than risk battle with the Junkers.
We lost two planes in this exercise. One went down in the sea, another broke radio silence and the Germans pretended to be British and directed his B-24 back over France. By the time the pilot recognized he was being deceived, the Germans opened fire and filled the plane full of holes. The pilot managed to get the plane home but he lost his leg during this skirmish.
On Christmas day, 1943, the commander of our base decided to throw a party and took everyone on the base to another base about a 30 minute flight away. Many personnel on this base had never flown before so the commander thought they would enjoy this. Unfortunately, a “cowboy pilot” showed up to handle the flight. He ignored about every safety rule imaginable. He didn’t preflight the plane, didn’t wait for a full crew complement, and then en route, piloted the aircraft like a roller coaster, seeing if he could make the passengers sick. At one time he even flew the C47 upside down. He repeated these stunts several times. After all passengers had been transported, he took off again, buzzed the field, did all types of aerobatics, which a C47 is not designed to do. I wonder if that pilot ever survived the war . . . or whether he ever killed any of his crew.
On Christmas Eve, 1943, I was assigned to the 434th Troop Carrier Group, 72nd Squadron. This was to be my unit for the rest of the war. We trained here for about 2.5 months and then on March 10, 1944, we moved to a new base about 50 miles east of London and began training for the invasion of Europe.
We practiced almost every day in close formation flying. Later we would practice drops with paratroopers, other days we would tow gliders. Sometimes the airports were so heavy with planes flying and practicing maneuvers that I was amazed we didn’t have more crashes.
One June 4, 1944, we got orders to paint two foot wide black and white stripes around the wings and fuselage of all our aircraft. This seemed like a stupid idea at the time but then we learned the reason. Some of the Navy boys had been shooting at our planes. These markings would clearly identify our planes as friendly.
June 6, 1944, was D-Day and none of us got any sleep as we were up all night with preparations, briefings, and the like. We took off at 1:30am and circled for awhile while the rest of the planes joined up with us. We were bound for the Cherbourg Peninsula. At times we flew as low as 400 feet above the English Channel. We were towing a glider and my job was to give him a yellow light signal when we were over the drop zone and a green light when it was time to cut through.
We entered the combat zone and the Germans opened up with everything. We saw tracers that looked like upside down hail. As we had crossed the beach we saw 2500 ships waiting to send their troops ashore. We lost only one plane on this operation.
After we cut loose our gliders we headed back to England where we got a couple hours sleep before we had to go on another mission. Later, we would make more flights; this time, however, we would take supplies in and wounded troops out. This would continue for some time.
We carried both American and German wounded soldiers. We had nurses on board and many times I would see them covered with blood but still applying bandages to the wounded. I think those from tanks were the most severely injured, usually terrible burn wounds.
They would build landing strips for us almost anywhere, including pastures and farmland. We would sometimes carry 160 five gallon cans of gasoline.
Just some of the C47’s awaiting takeoff to support “Operation Market Garden”
On September 17, 1944, we flew our first mission in Northern Holland, on “Operation Market Garden,” a British operation. There is a movie about this called “A Bridge Too Far.” On our first mission we carried a group of demolition engineers. Their instructions were to blow the bridge if we were unable to hold it after having captured it. After the paratroopers had jumped we turned to return home. Another plane called us and said we were hung up with what looked like a bag of mines. Our pilot made a number of violent maneuvers to try and shake the package loose. No luck. We finally made a very delicate and nervous landing. We were very relieved to learn that the dangling package from our undercarriage was not a bag of mines but a bag of K-Rations.
The next four missions were all towing gliders. On one of these missions were drew fire and heard a loud boom. We weren’t sure where we were hit so carried on. After we landed I found a hole in the on-board restroom, which was about six inches from where I was stationed during the mission.
On the fourth trip the Germans were hitting us heavy with flak. We would see puffs of smoke ahead of us and fly right through it. Later, one of the paratroopers told me they thought we had been hit and blown out of the sky on several occasions. Somehow, our Guardian Angels continued to protect us.
On one of these flights a buddy of mine was shot down with his plane. The Dutch hid him and transported him back home. He was sent back to the USA. Unfortunately, he was assigned to the B-25 Mitchell Bomber that flew into the 72nd story of the Empire State Building. His name was Christopher S. Diamitrovitch from Columbus, Ohio.
We continued to fly two missions every day. In December the Germans began their campaign in southern Belgium. This was near a town called Bastogne. This was to become known as “The Battle of the Bulge.” The 7th Armored and the 101st Airborne Division were holding this town, being surrounded by Germans. All supply routes were blocked and now the weather prevented us from dropping supplies. The weather finally cleared and we were then able to drop our supplies to our troops.
On March 10, 1945, we returned to England. Earlier, on March 7th, out troops had captured the bridge at Remagan so we had to fly a mission to resupply that area with fresh paratroopers. Again, we drew heavy fire but, again, our Guardian Angel was with us.
Supplies being dropped to the besieged American troops in Bastogne, Belgium, the notorious
“Battle of the Bulge”
On May 7th, the Germans surrendered. We moved to Rheims, France, where we continued to resupply and transport troops. Many of the troops we transported were former POW’s. We also returned the French POW’s to Paris.
Then one day they told me it was over and time to go home. We flew from Rheims to Marseille, and then we returned to the states by the exact reverse of the route we had taken to get here.
On July 2, 1945, we landed at Savannah, Georgia, and left our plane there. That was the last time I saw it for 54 years.
I was given a 30 day furlough and then returned to Fort Bragg, awaiting orders. That was on August 7, 1945, the day after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On August 9th I had arrived at Ft. Wayne, Indiana. That was the day the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki. On August 14, the Japanese surrenedered. O Happy Day!
The next day they sent me to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where I was discharged. I took the train home.
I saw parts of every major campaign in Europe. They were:
2. Northern France
3. The Rhineland
4. Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge)
5. Central Europe
I also saw the Navy in action on D-Day. I visited 27 different countries on four different continents and saw many different culturs. I was in London, on leave, during the blitz. I saw many small towns in England, I flew about 100’ above the Eiffel Tower in France.
Altogether, I spent about 2000 hours on board my C47’s.
I’m pleased to report that the last plane I flew, serial # 293800, is on display today at an air museum in West Fargo, North Dakota. We traveled there following a squadron reunion and I was able to confirm that, indeed, it was the very same plane. It had been used for four separate governors in North Dakota before finally being retired to the museum. It is still there today.
We held our last reunion in San Antonio, Texas, last October. We stopped having them because every year they get smaller. Jack Free, our pilot, died in February of 2001 and I am 82 years old (at the time Waldo wrote this essay).
My long term memory is still fresh but my short term memory is fading fast it seems. I just hope we never have another war like this. We can’t afford to let our guard down at any time. I believe we must always be prepared, just in case.
/s/Waldo E. Alexander
434th Troop Carrier Group
72nd Troop Carrier Squadron
Editor’s Note: Waldo E. Alexander was 86 years old when he died this past January. Unfortunately, his story is not available for purchase as it is a family history. His cousin, Bob Alexander, lives here in Escondido. It was he who brought the story to us for publication.