Guillaume de Ramel did not realize the massive scope of the D-Day invasion until he met D-Day veterans and took part in the 75th anniversary in Normandy earlier this month.
“You see epic movies like ‘The Longest Day,’ ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and HBO’s ‘Band of Brothers,’ which give you … only a glimpse of some very specific events,” he said. “I never really understood how enormous the invasion really was until seeing the beaches from the air and driving hours between Sword Beach and Omaha Beach.”
Flying is in the 44-year-old de Ramel’s blood. The Newport resident earned his pilot’s license at Newport Airport when he was 16 and now gives flying lessons there. But perhaps no journey has held more significance than this one, when he piloted the Placid Lassie, a restored 1943 C-47 that flew missions over Normandy during World War II, to help honor the veterans of D-Day.
During the June 6 celebration, de Ramel stood on the Pegasus Bridge, which was the first structure liberated during the invasion, as the Placid Lassie flew in formation with 13 airplanes, all DC-3s or C-47s that had flown missions in WWII. “The total number of DC-3/C-47 airplanes assembled at Normandy was the greatest since the end of the war,” he said.
Two days later, de Ramel had his chance to pilot the airplane, recreating the flight path that was taken 75 years earlier. “Flying over the beaches, you’re in awe at the size and the distance,” he said. “The scale of everything in the invasion was enormous. You also see how big the tides are. At low tide, you could probably walk a half mile before touching the ocean. But at high tide, the ocean comes right up to the cliffs at Omaha Beach.”
Following the war, the C-47 flew as a commercial airliner for decades before ending up in dis- repair. In 2010, restoration began on the airplane. The airplane, then called Union Jack Dak because it had a Union Jack flag painted on its fuselage, flew at the 70th D-Day anniversary celebration. It was there when the pilots learned that one of its D-Day crew members, Ed Tunison, was still alive. Tunison was brought to Belgium to see his airplane, and he informed the current crew that during the war the C-47 was known as Placid Lassie.
Today, the C-47 is just as it was in 1944, with its original colors and markings. But it also lacks modern technology. “It’s not overly complicated to fly, considering its size and capabilities, but it flies like a lumbering giant,” de Ramel said. “The engines are delicate and have to be handled gingerly, which takes a bit of getting used to.”
The greatest challenge, he said, is flying in formation just 100 feet apart from other C-47s, with the wings nearly touching and pilots navigating on radio and with hand signals. “It takes a lot of skill and planning,” he said. “There is a lot of delayed reactions between each airplane. And on the evening of June 5, 1944, there were 800 C-47s flying towards Normandy in a giant formation.
“They were incredibly brave men. Keep in mind, they had no machine guns or armament. Their only defense was their olive drab paint and the darkness of night.”
The opportunity to honor those D-Day veterans is what compelled de Ramel to be part of the anniversary. “The more I learned, the more I realized how important it was to participate,” he said. “Honoring them now and being able to hear their personal stories firsthand was important.”
While on the Pegasus Bridge during the celebration, de Ramel met three surviving British paratroopers, including Nicolas Archdale, who landed at the bridge on D-Day and, within one week, was promoted from lieutenant to captain. The following day, while touring the Omaha Beach Museum, he met a veteran, Carl Petersen, who was wearing a hat with “WWII, Korea and Vietnam” embroidered on the front. “It took me a moment to process that he’d fought in all three wars!” de Ramel said.
Petersen, who lives in Portsmouth, was returning to Normandy for the first time since navigating landing crafts to Omaha Beach 75 years earlier.
De Ramel is spending the remainder of June flying Placid Lassie at a number of celebrations across Europe, including in a squadron of 17 airplanes in Berlin, Germany at the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, which remains the largest humanitarian airlift in history. He will then fly to Munich and Venice, Italy before heading home.
He expects to land in Oxford, Connecticut by the end of the month. The airplane is too big to land in Newport, so it will not be coming here. But there will be a 1942 T-6 and perhaps a TBM Torpedo Avenger at Newport Airport during Airport Day on June 29, an event geared towards Aquidneck Island children who are interested in learning to fly.
For de Ramel, who learned to fly before he could drive, it will be hard to match his experience in Normandy.
“Oh, my goodness, there are so many memories [from being part of the anniversary],” he said, “But meeting the veterans is at the very top.”