World War II Pathfinder pilot Lt. Col. David Hamilton from Prescott, Arizona, visited the same British airfield from which he and fellow pilots launched a pre-D-Day invasion strike on June 5, 1944.
Hamilton’s visit to RAF North Witham in Lincolnshire, England, on June 2, 2019, is part of the activities taking place in England surrounding the 75th anniversary of the commencement of the Liberation of Europe, better known as D-Day. Hamilton, 97, is the last surviving Pathfinder pilot from a dangerous and top secret mission.
“Dave Hamilton is a true American hero,” said Hank Coates, president and CEO of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). “He and his fellow Pathfinders flew a dangerous and vital mission in advance of the main D-Day invasion. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to back this trip for Dave, giving him a chance not only to return to his old airfield, but to share his story with the residents of North and South Witham on the 75th anniversary of this historic event.”
Hamilton was part of an elite Pathfinder unit made up of air crew from the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) IX Troop Carrier Command and volunteers from the U.S. Army’s 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. They spent months at RAF North Witham training in secrecy for the mission — to land in darkness behind enemy lines, secure landing areas and set up navigational aids to guide in the main airborne invasion force of C-47s carrying paratroops and towing gliders.
At 21.54 hours on June 5, 1944, the first of their 20 Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft took off from RAF North Witham – USAAF Station 479 – laden with specially trained paratroops and flying at 50′ over the English Channel to dodge the radar.
The Allied amphibious fleets were well on their way to Normandy when the Pathfinders took to the air. Aircraft jumpmasters would have witnessed the spectacle of the Allied fleet crossing the Channel as they passed overhead.
Within hours, hundreds more airborne troops would land in Normandy, many transported in C-47s flying from airfields around Grantham. They were joined by more paratroopers and assault gliders from bases in southern England.
Hamilton flew as a Pathfinder pilot during World War II for the Normandy mission, Operation Dragoon in Southern France, Operation Market Garden in Holland, and led the supply planes into the 101st Airborne when they were surrounded during the Battle of the Bulge. He continued his service into the Korean War where he flew 50 combat missions in B-26s, and shares his experiences with the public at air shows and other events.
Hamilton was taken on a tour of the airfield, its runways now overgrown but still atmospheric, publicly accessible and with little trace of the huge American operation that existed in 1944, when it was home to more than 3,000 American troops.
He then travelled to South Witham where he was joined by local school children for the unveiling of a commemorative bench marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day, paid for by sales of “poppy cushions” made by pupils.
While visiting the RAF North Witham, Hamilton was honored with a fly-over of the Commemorative Air Force’s C-53 D-Day Doll, an aircraft based in Riverside, California, that flew on D-Day in 1944.
“It was our honor to be able to give him a salute and bring back the sights and sounds of World War II to the old airbase,” said Bill Prosser, one of D-Day Doll’s pilots. “Opportunities like this are why we made the journey to Europe to participate in the 75th Anniversary.”
Hamilton’s trip to England and then onto Normandy was made possible through donations from CAF supporters and is part of a larger schedule of activities surrounding the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. The Commemorative Air Force, along with many other organizations, will participate in a mass fly-over of American aircraft, known as the D-Day Squadron. The main event, Daks Over Normandy, was scheduled for June 5, 2019, with about 30 aircraft from around the world flying across the English Channel with hundreds of paratroopers reenacting the mass-paratroop drop of the Normandy Invasion. Hamilton was aboard one of those C-47s, Pan Am, to retrace the historic cross Channel flight.