2017-11-01 / Front Page

D-Day over Normandy: The rest of the story

By Billy Fleming

Download PDF detailing the C-47s’ D-Day mission at earlycountynews.com. Download PDF detailing the C-47s’ D-Day mission at earlycountynews.com. I was still at the office on a Tuesday night in July 2016 when there was a knock at the door. It was Mark Lewis of Irondale, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham.

Mark was there seeking some family history. His great grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. J.P. Donalson, in 1908, were among the founders of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church next door on College Street.

It was during our conversation that night that I learned the pilot of the lead aircraft dropping troops in Normandy on the eve of D-Day, Mark’s grandfather, was born in Early County.

Last week an excerpt from an article by Meg Jones which appeared in the the July 16, 2015 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel took us back to that fateful day over 73 years ago.

That Early County native, Lt. Col. John M. Donalson (438th Troop Carrier Group Commander), was Command Pilot aboard “That’s All, Brother,” the lead aircraft of the lead squadron dropping troops over Normandy.

Lt. Col. John M. Donalson, Command Pilot (438th Troop Carrier Group Commander), center, is pictured above with “That’s All Brother” and his D-Day crew. Lt. Col. John M. Donalson, Command Pilot (438th Troop Carrier Group Commander), center, is pictured above with “That’s All Brother” and his D-Day crew. “That’s All, Brother” led the pack because of its rare airborne radar that helped it home in on beacons in France. Its nickname was meant to send a message to Adolf Hitler.

Donalson, the 42-year-old Group Commanander, was specially chosen to lead the squadron on D-Day. The only time he flew “That’s All, Brother” was for the invasion, leading hundreds of planes across the English Channel in “Mission Albany,” the air dropping of 6,600 US paratroops into Normandy on the eve of D-Day.

Following the initial midnight flight, navigating through intense German fire and low clouds dropping the paratroops into Normandy, Col. Donalson returned to England to tow troop gliders over the invasion area. Afterward, he flew supplies into Omaha Beach and brought back wounded. Donalson had command participation in all major Airborne Operations in Europe.

In the boxes of Donalson’s photos and war memorabilia, none of the pictures is of Donalson standing in front of “That’s All, Brother,” instead he’s pictured with his usual plane, nicknamed “Belle of Birmingham” because most of the crew hailed from Alabama.

Gen. Donalson graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in Electrical Engineering. An ROTC student, he received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Flying Service. In 1924 he began flight training at Brook Field, Texas where he earned his wings in January 1925 along with Charles A. Lindbergh.

His flying career began with WWI vintage biplanes and ended with jet fighters.

He was among the first inductees into the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame, along with Orville and Wilbur Wright who ran the nation’s first flight school at Maxwell Field in Montgomery.

Donalson returned to Birmingham to establish the Air National Guard and became the first Commanding General/Chief of Staff. He later was promoted to Major General by Gov. James Folsom and was appointed Chief of Staff for the State of Alabama (both Army and Air National Guards). He retired from military service in 1961.

Following his highly decorated military career, General Donalson put his engineering and management talents to work in the steel industry, building the first commercially operated continuous casting unit in the United States at Roanoke Electric Steel Co.

Donalson then established Tennessee Forging Steel, building from the ground up one of the first mills in the world completely dependent on the continuous casting process. This continuous casting machine was of his own design. No other like it existed in the world.

Successful engineer, military aviator, inventor, business founder and family man, Major General John M. Donalson was truly one of the greatest of the “Greatest Generation.”

An exhibit featuring Gen. Donalson’s distinguished life can be seen at the Southern Museum of Flight at the Birmingham Airport.

The plane...

At the end of World War II “That’s All, Brother” returned to the United States and spent decades as a freighter, with a brief career as an executive plane. Eventually it was repainted in the colors of a Vietnam gunship, though it never served in Vietnam, and several years ago wound up in Oshkosh. By then its heroic pedigree had long been forgotten.

Seven decades after the D-Day operations, Staff Sgt. Matt Scales of the Alabama Air National Guard was researching Donalson’s story when he discovered “That’s All, Brother” was in a boneyard in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, slated to be cut up and converted into a modern turboprop.

The brakes were put on that conversion, and the Commemorative Air Force, purchased and restored “That’s All, Brother” to airworthy condition, in detail just as it was on the day it led the Allied invasion.

“This is a modern miracle,” CAF President and CEO Stephan C. Brown said of the discovery. “The aircraft was within weeks of being torn apart.”

Following the invasion, the plane participated in Operation Market Garden, the relief of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and the crossing of the Rhine River.

“That’s All, Brother” is based at the CAF national headquarters in Dallas, where it is the star attraction and a “flying classroom,” helping re-create for visitors the experience of that historic mission. The CAF also hopes to fly “That’s All, Brother” back to Europe in 2019 to participate in the seventy fifth anniversary of DDay.

Click here to view the "That's All, Brother" D-Day PDF Insert

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