That’s All Brother
In the summer of 2015, in a silent boneyard in Wisconsin, there sat an abandoned old aircraft. Like the rest of the planes there, its original use had been long-forgotten. It hadn’t graced the sky in decades. It was corroded and covered with rust, inside and out. Only a rotting skeleton in a valley of dry bones remained.
Little did anyone know, this silent airplane had an amazing story. On a cloudy day in June of 1944, it took to the war-riddled skies. Under the control of a brave flight crew, piloted by Lt. Col. John M. Donalson, it carried in its cargo hold a stick of nervous paratroopers. Their names have been lost to history, but they were boys of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the famous 101st Airborne Division. Like all parachute jumpers in the second world war, they came from a variety of backgrounds, and had undergone rigorous training.
Weighed down with parachutes and pounds of combat equipment, the boys sat in the plane’s rumbling hull as it sailed over the English Channel. They were nervous and scared. Outside, streaking tracers flashed past. They heard the thudding and crackling of live ammunition slamming against the plane. If it penetrated, it could severely injure or kill them before they even made it to their jump point. If they survived until then, their troubles would only just begin, because they were about to partake in one of the most daring assaults in military history. Their plane, named “That’s All Brother,” had an important role in that assault. With 800 other C-47s behind it, “That’s All Brother” led the charge in the first wave of the famous Normandy Invasion.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like. There was no one for “That’s All Brother” to follow. It all lay on her and her nervous crew. No matter what happened, or what waited for them, they would be first. Despite the onslaught, the strong plane held together and dropped those nervous boys to their intense mission. Under the proud leadership of “That’s All Brother,” the battle to liberate France began.
It was enough to give any plane her stripes, but “That’s All Brother” wasn’t done with Europe. The plane went on to participate in Operation Market Garden, the fight to liberate the Netherlands from Nazi hands. It also played a role in the famous Bastogne campaign in the Battle of the Bulge. Finally, it partook in Operation Varsity, one of the last major offensives in the European theater, and the largest Airborne assault in a single day.
After the war, her heroic deeds done, “That’s All Brother” plopped into the hands of private civilians, passed along between sixteen different owners. Through the years, its original mission became cloudy, and by 2008, its leading role in the D-Day invasion had slipped entirely off the pages of history. What remained of it, a rusting hulk, got acquired by Basler Turbo Conversions LLC, a conversion-company boneyard located in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “That’s All Brother” wound up on the slate for conversion to a BT-67 Turbo Prop plane. The original engines would be stripped and replaced with turbo props. The cockpit would be completely gutted, and the fuselage severely modified. A precious piece of history was about to be forever lost.
With the plane fast approaching its sad demise, Staff Sgt. Matt Scales of the Alabama National Guard entered the picture. He had been doing some research on John M. Donalson, the plane’s pilot. Like everyone else, Scales assumed “That’s All Brother” had been scrapped after the war. However, through deep and intense research, he discovered the plane was still alive, albeit not so well, in the boneyard in Wisconsin. The discovery came just in time, because it was weeks away from being torn apart for good.
The Commemorative Air Force, a non-profit organization dedicated to the restoration of historical aircraft, became involved in the rescue of “That’s All Brother.” They launched an intensive fundraising campaign across the internet to pull the plane from the chopping block. They acquired the necessary funds to pull it off the scrap heap, and they didn’t stop there. They decided to restore “That’s All Brother” to its complete historical prime. It would be a massive undertaking, and they combined their efforts with Basler Turbo Conversions. Work started fast with a dedicated team of engineers, veterans, and historians, and it continues as of this writing.
There’s a long journey ahead for “That’s All Brother,” with incredible amounts of work to get it in flying condition. Despite the challenges, the CAF hopes to have it flying for the D-Day reunion in Normandy in 2019, expected to be the last in which veterans will attend.
I got a chance to see this historic plane on display at Airventure 2017 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The restorations are coming along, and they have enhanced the eerie energy that exists inside that plane. When I walked through that empty fuselage, and beheld the silent cockpit, I could feel them. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see them through over seventy years of time. I saw them praying, I saw them jitter, perhaps clutch a rosary. I could see the hard faces of the crew, deep in concentration. Energy doesn’t die, and it’s all still there inside that plane. Soon, it will be even easier to see, because “That’s All Brother” will look just like it did then.
I was thankful not only for the World War II generation and their great sacrifice, but also for people who want to preserve a part of that for future generations. An important piece of history will soon be restored to its prime. A fading picture will be given flesh, and the past made new again. Memories resurrected. We can hold the lessons in our hands, and hopefully then, we can learn from them.
Commemorative Air Force
Experimental Aircraft Association (Airventure 2017)
“That’s All Brother” – Keegan Chetwynd, CAF Curator
All Photos by M.B. Henry. For more on Warbirds, please visit my photo gallery.
UPDATE: On January 31, 2018, “That’s All Brother” enjoyed a successful test flight post-restorations in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. There is still a lot of work ahead, but it’s a promising step towards having the plane fully airworthy for the D-Day Reunion in France in 2019.