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Santa Clara Valley Lives: WWII aircraft speak of courage on 75th anniversary of D-Day


Courtesy of Robin Chapman
Historian Robin Chapman prepares to take a flight in “Witchcraft,” a restored World War II bomber. The Allies flew more than 2,000 bombers on D-Day, 75 years ago this month.

This June marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II. Overlord is the largest amphibious invasion in history and it began on D-Day – June 6, 1944.

“I remember it well,” said Chester “Chet” Clark, 82, of Los Altos. “I was 7 years old and I used to sit on my father’s lap and read the war news with him. I remember asking him what the ‘D’ meant.”

For the record, the letter “D” was a military placeholder for the chosen day – kept secret before the Allies launched the attack against Hitler.

I met Clark as we sat together at Moffett Field, waiting to fly in restored World War II aircraft, thanks to the Collings Foundation’s “Wings of Freedom” tour. It was Clark’s third such flight and my first. He was going up in a P-40 Warhawk. I was taking a ride in a B-24 Liberator, a trip I won in a drawing at the Moffett Field Historical Society Museum. The B-24 was imposing on the flight line, but after I crawled inside and we hulked into the air, it felt cramped and slow. With modern Silicon Valley below us, it seemed astonishing America won a war with these analog flying machines.

On D-Day, the Allies filled the skies with something like 10,000 propeller-driven aircraft. Not all brought death. Californian Douglas Riach landed on Omaha Beach that day and made it as far as Vierville before he was wounded. Medics took him to the beach on the hood of a Jeep and the crew of a rescue plane got him to England. He later rejoined his unit in time to cross the Rhine. His story is recounted in “World War II Reminiscences” (Reserve Officers Association of California, 1994).

We think of the victory as inevitable, but it was not. Ruth Dorney, now 95 and living at BridgePoint at Los Altos, first heard the news of D-Day in New York as she celebrated her college graduation with two friends.

“They both had loved ones overseas,” she told me. “We listened to the early reports on the radio and it was a tense time.”

Three-quarters of a century later, my B-24 flight took us only to peaceful Los Gatos and back. Yet that short journey brought to mind the brave souls who once flew these craft under fire. Today, most of us only know these planes from classic war films. Now, for me, the distinctive sound of their big, noisy engines will always evoke the courage of those who risked their lives to help hasten the end of a terrible war.

For more information on the “Wings of Freedom” tour, visit collingsfoundation.org.

Robin Chapman is the daughter of a World War II veteran.

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