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A DC-3 Skytrooper

A "Wings of Liberation Museum" Coveted Relic

By Ron Kilber

This beautiful Dakota Skytrooper (N32MS) is a C-53 war bird (a DC-3 variant) painted to original US Army Air Corps specifications, now resting on the grounds of the "Museum Bevrijdende Vleugels" (Wings of Liberation) in The Netherlands, Europe. It's decked out in its WWII uniform -- US Army olive drab, sky gray on the belly, insignia blue on the stars and bars, and invasion stripes of black and white. Not many Gooney Birds decorated like this are left in the world.

C-53 Photo.
Photo by Tom Dorsey, Salina Journal.

The Skytrooper restoration project had its beginning with the Dutch museum, which was founded in 1984 by Mr. Jan Driessen and opened by His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard in honor of those Americans who fought for the Liberation of The Netherlands during World War II. Driessen privately owns and operates the museum in the community of Best near Eindhoven. The institution is a military war museum memorializing The Liberation of Holland and the Allied effort, code-named Operation Market Garden, which would not have been possible without the C-53 Skytrooper and other variations of the DC-3 such as the C-47 Skytrain. Therefore, it was only natural and appropriate that Driessen would eventually acquire a most-coveted war relic to add to the museum's growing display.

N32MS' History

N32MS was restored at Falcon Field in suburban Phoenix, Arizona, USA, then flown by a crew of five (including the author of this story) across the North Atlantic Ocean via Greenland, Iceland and Scotland.

The then flyable -- not necessarily airworthy -- trophy was found by a scouting team during the summer of 1996 in McAllen, Texas. After flying it to Mesa, Arizona, a $100,000 restoration project was underway. As anyone involved with an aviation love affair would understand, the endeavor quickly turned into a $200,000 venture. Perfectly justifiable -- as any good love affair is.

In early 1940 America, The C-53 was really a Douglas DC-3 configured by the US Army Air Corps to transport paratroopers to the battle front, thus the Skytrooper moniker.

Another DC-3 variation was the C-47, which was fitted to haul cargo, equipment and light vehicles such as jeeps, thus its appropriate name, Skytrain. The DC-3 was also know as a Gooney Bird, a US Navy R4D, and a Royal Air Force Dakota.

DC-3 production numbers vary, depending on which source of information is referenced. According to "McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920" (by Rene J. Francillon, Putnam, 1970, London, UK), more than 10,600 DC-3s in all variations were produced. The first unit rolled off the California assembly line in 1935 and made its maiden flight on December 17, which was the thirty-second anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight. The last DC-3 was produced in 1945.

Of this production number, just over 400 were configured as the C-53 Skytrooper, the troop-transport version of the DC-3, while the lion's share was configured as the C-47 Skytrain, which numbered more than 9,500 units, having a large cargo door, reinforced floor and beefier landing gear. Nine or so C-53s were remanufactured airframes, but by all counts I think it's safe to say approximately 400 Skytroopers were produced.

Aside from being a troop-transport conveyance, some C-53s were fitted with a glider hook. They then became a tug for crafts such as the Horsa, which could transport two jeeps, for example, as well as a limited number of personnel.

The Wings of Liberation Gooney Bird is a C-53 "C" model, which means it had a 24-volt electrical system, not a 12-volt system requiring thicker and heavier wire, which reduces the payload capacity of the airplane. Only 17 "C" models were produced.

There are two 28-volt, 200-ampere generators on board -- one on each engine. Remember, 50-plus years ago they only had high-current, vacuum-tube avionics equipment -- not the low-power luxuries available today. All together, that's 400 amps, enough wattage to power 112 light bulbs, each burning brightly and each having a 100-watt rating. Nonetheless, by today's standard, it's hard to imagine how they ever used or needed all that power.

This particular aircraft was originally ordered as a DC-3 for Northwest Airlines, however, it was never delivered. Instead, it was pressed into military service by the US Army Air Corps at a cost of 160,470 dollars (US). Inspection of the Douglas Aircraft manufacture plate reveals that this aircraft was completed October, 13, 1942, designated a C-53C, and assigned serial number 4,978. Another plate, by the US Army Air Corps, signifies it is a C-53C, assigned serial number AF43-2022, and accepted October 13, 1942. Less than three years later, on May 10, 1945, yet another Douglas Aircraft manufacture plate depicts that this ship was modified to a DC-3A, and once again assigned serial number 4,978.

After the war, records indicate that this aircraft was transferred to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation on January 12, 1946, and continued service with various airlines in the United States. Most recently it was a pilot trainer. During its service years, while accumulating more than 55,000 hours on its airframe, it performed a myriad of duties such as crop spraying, cargo hauling, fire fighting, and training.

Skytrooper Specifications

Specifications of the C-53 are fascinating. Each 14 cylinder, Pratt and Whitney 1830-92 radial engine can develop 1200 horsepower. Together, both engines burn 100 gallons of fuel per hour. The oil sump of each engine has a capacity for 25 gallons (vintage 1960s automobile gas-tank size), so together both engines require almost a full barrel of oil.

The wing span is 95 feet, the length is 63 feet, 10 inches, and the height is 16 feet, 11 inches (almost as high as a two-story building). The tail span is 26 feet, 8 inches, which is almost as wide as the main wing on many single-engine airplanes. The empty weight is 17,865 lbs., and the gross weight is 25,200 lbs. Cruising speed of the C-53 is 170 mph at 10,000 feet, and the maximum speed is 232 mph. With four each 200-gallon fuel tanks, the range is 1513 miles, with a service ceiling of 24,450 feet.

The Wings of Liberation Museum

The museum grounds today occupy one of the actual drop zones used by the 101st Airborne Division in Operation Market Garden in September of 1944.

Originally a military facility for storage, it was constructed during the Cold War. One of more than a hundred in The Netherlands, Jan Driessen now has conditional use of the compound, provided he doesn't sub-divide the property and build houses to sell. The government retains ownership of the property, and the museum enjoys rent-free use in exchange for maintenance of the grounds and improvements (not inexpensive). The only real hitch is eviction in the event the Dutch government needs the property again to deal with another Cold War situation, which is an unlikely possibility given today's away-from-communism trend.

The museum is a non-profit organization charged with the responsibility of carrying the eternal torch of freedom to remind forever, those young and those not yet born, that great men sacrificed in recent history, many paying with their lives, so that you and I, and later generations, can and will enjoy the most precious commodity on earth -- freedom. God bless those from World War II who gifted us with such a precious treasure. We did not earn this fortune -- it was bequeathed to us.

Today, as a symbol of the free world's fortune, the museum is ensuring everlasting life for the C-53 Gooney Bird. She will live on forever, never to die, and will carry the torch for all generations yet to come, reminding into eternity and paying tribute endlessly, to all those from whom we've inherited our precious freedom.

Museum Owner Jan Driessen

Jan Driessen is a familiar figure in The Netherlands, and well known for his bravery and accomplishments during WWII when the Nazis occupied his country. During early September, 1944, Driessen served the US Army, 30th Infantry Division Counter Intelligence Corps. At one point he gathered intelligence about bridge crossings, troop strength, tank numbers and disposition of the Nazis in and near Maastricht behind enemy lines, which the Division was able to easily take afterwards.

At the time, Driessen was already fluent in English, French, German, and of course his native tongue, Dutch. These skills proved invaluable to the Detachment Commander, Captain Melvin Handville, who used Driessen as an interpreter and intermediary in relations with the Dutch authorities. These responsibilities continued while serving under First Lieutenant, Richard G. Denlinger, whose CIC Detachment was assigned to an area near Stuttgart, Germany. Although Driessen was not a member of the US Army, he served without rank, pay or other benefits until after the end of the conflict.

As a young 23-year-old man, Driessen was a member of the Dutch Resistance, eventually a well-organized, civilian/para-military organization, which sprouted up to resist the growing German aggression in Europe. Captured three times by the Nazis, he was released three times, owing mainly to his fluent knowledge of the German language and his ability to always talk his way out of difficult situations. He had to; execution was mathematically certain for anyone so much as suspected of being a spy. Driessen's activities always went undetected by the enemy because of his crafty ability to place himself a step or two in front of the Nazi enemy. They would have had to get up very early to outpace Driessen.

Since WWII, Driessen has been awarded many honors. He received during May of 1970, a TRIBUTE OF APPRECIATION from the US State Department for meritorious service to both the people of the United States and The Netherlands towards the annual commemoration ceremonies of both Market Garden and the US 101st Airborne Division in Veghel, Holland.

During September, 1975, Driessen received the US Army CERTIFICATE OF APPRECIATION FOR PATRIOTIC CIVILIAN SERVICE for his contributions to the continuing friendship between the US and Holland, and for his efforts to keep alive for thirty years the role of American involvement in the liberation of The Netherlands. His efforts continue today.

In 1984, Driessen founded the "Museum Bevrijdende Vleugels", which was dedicated by His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard in honor of those Americans who fought for the Liberation of the Netherlands. Since then, the museum has served to commemorate the liberation and to educate the Dutch youth.

During the ceremonies of the 50th Anniversary of WWII, Driessen's Museum Bevrijdende Vleugels was presented the US Department of Defense's COMMEMORATIVE COMMUNITY award for activities honoring WWII veterans, their families, and those who served on the home front.

During September, 1994, Driessen was awarded the 101st Airborne Division Air Assault HONORARY MEMBERSHIP CERTIFICATE for his service and friendship.

The WWII Paratrooper

ParatrooperThe WWII paratrooper was loaded head to toe with equipment. Besides his main and reserve parachutes, he carried an M1 carbine, which is a 30-caliber rifle with a folding metal stock, stowed in his Griswold bag at his side. Under his harness was a Mae West life preserver, which he hoped didn't inflate prematurely, as happened on occasion almost squeezing to death before the harness could be unbuckled. His trench knife was attached to one ankle. He also may have had attached to one leg a heavy machine gun, which he jettisoned just before hitting the ground. That way, it lessened the impact load and chance for injury. His musette bag was attached to the front of him, and his gear consisted of a knapsack, gas mask, mess kit, rain gear, toilet articles, socks stuffed in his helmet and a combat jacket. He also had chocolate bars, a canteen and a two-day supply of K-rations, which were stuffed in the cargo hold of his fatigues. Attached to his helmet, he had a first-aid kit, which included a syringe and morphine. Aside from all of that, he had ammunition for both guns, as well as hand grenades. Not counting his heavy machine gun, the weight of all his gear probably totaled 80 pounds.

Operation Market Garden

Operation Market Garden was a WWII Allied effort into Nazi-occupied Holland to capture some strategic territory between Arnhem and Belgium, a distance of about 100 miles. By reclaiming vital land, the Allies hoped to isolate the enemy in the western part of the country from those in Germany, and also to create a base of operation to eventually strike into the Nazi homeland. By isolating the Germans in western Holland, it was thought that they would surrender easily, and more importantly for England, success would mean an end to the German V1 and V2 rockets, which were aimed and fired incessantly at London.

From a military perspective, it was important to establish a base of operation north of the Rhine near Arnhem. Anywhere else meant the armies had to deal with rivers and dikes, both of which are insurmountable obstacles when attempting to move men and armor. Not only that, bridges are vulnerable to attack and destruction by the enemy. No army can survive for long without resources, so it's always better to establish any base of operation in an area with the best chance for transporting supplies.

To establish the new base of operation, men and equipment had to be moved from Belgium all the way to Arnhem, and they had to do it through Nazi-occupied territory. Along the way, there were five rivers which had to be crossed, and each bridge crossing was controlled and protected by the Germans. Before any Allied army in Belgium could successfully fight its way to Arnhem, the bridges across the rivers had to be first taken and then controlled. That's where the airborne paratroopers came into the picture.

Operation Market Garden included the single, largest, airborne military operation in the history of the world to date. Almost 39,000 armed men, including US, British, and Polish troops, participated in the airborne action. Due to limited airlift capacity, the operation had to be performed in three waves into three invasion zones in Holland, including an area north of Eindhoven, an area south of Nijmegen, and an area west and south of Arnhem. These areas were selected for the drop zones because they were near the bridges, which had to be taken and held so that Allied ground forces could move northward from Belgium towards Arnhem, and create a base of operation to eventually strike into Germany. From twenty-three air bases in England, the airborne effort commenced on September 17, 1944, and continued until September 25, 1944. On the same day, the ground operation also started from its base in Belgium.

Apart from Market Garden's airborne effort, the ground operation was the responsibility of the 2nd British Army, which included a Belgian and Dutch Brigade. They were assembled and ready to fight their way just as soon as the airborne troops captured and held the bridges along the road to Arnhem. Altogether the entire Allied ground operation numbered about 100,000 armed troops. When you count the air and ground forces in Operation Market Garden, all together they numbered close to 140,000 fighting men from armies of six separate countries. The road they traveled became known as Hell's Highway, and was named so by the US Army 101st Airborne Division.

The overall Market Garden operation was commanded by General Bernhard Law Montgomery of the British Army, who in turn reported to the Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Force, General Dwight D. Eisenhower of the US Army. Lieutenant General Brereton of the USAAF was the commander of the First Allied Airborne Army, which, amongst other participants, incorporated the US 82nd , the US 101st and the British 1st Airborne organizations. Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks of the British Army was commander of the XXX Corps, which executed the ground operation from Belgium.

The US Army 101st Airborne Division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Maxwell Taylor, used about 1,300 planes, more than 800 gliders and roughly 11,000 men, plus hundreds of jeeps and other equipment needed to support the operation. The 101st jumped into the Eindhoven area, whose boundaries include the cities of Best, Son and St. Oedenrode. The 101st jumped in three waves over a three-day period.

The US Army 82nd Airborne Division, commanded by Brigadier General James Gavin, used more than 1,300 planes, about 800 gliders and roughly 12,500 men, not counting heavy guns, jeeps and other ground support equipment. They, too, landed in three waves over a three-day period, and jumped into the Grave/Groesbeek/Nijmegen area.

The 1st British Airborne Division, commanded by Major General Roy Urquhart, used roughly 1,100 planes, almost 700 gliders and more than 10,000 men. They jumped in two waves into the Wolfheze area west of Arnhem on the first and second days.

The Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, numbering about 750 men, was commanded by Major General Stanislav Sosabowski. They used about 100 planes, approximately 35 gliders, and they jumped into an area south of the Rhine River at Driel. They also jumped on the third day to join the First British Airborne in the Wolfheze area.

In summary, more than 39,000 fighting troops were involved in the airborne operation, of which roughly 21,000 were delivered by parachute and about 18,000 by glider. Of this number, the majority were American, 10,300 were British, and about 750 were Polish. These figures do not count support personnel in England and elsewhere.

About 5,000 troop-carrying and supply aircraft were used in Operation Market Garden, of which roughly 1,300 were paratrooper transport, about 2,300 were gliders for troop and equipment transport, and almost 1,300 were for re-supply missions. The airborne operation included aircraft such as the US C-53 Skytrooper, the C-47 Skytrain, and B-17 Flying Fortress, and the British Halifax and Stirling bombers, which were used as glider tugs and for supply missions, and the British Albemarles used as tugs and paratrooper transport. More than 6,000 sorties were flown in support of the operation by fighters and bombers, and approximately 5,000 tons of stores were flown in.

Market Garden fell far short of its objectives. The Allies never managed to create a new base of operation north of the Rhine, nor did they manage to isolate the Germans in Western Holland. The Arnhem bridge turned out to be "A Bridge Too Far", and the paratroopers there after nine days retreated south across the Rhine. While the US 101st and the US 82nd successfully captured their bridges and controlled Hells Highway, Market Garden effectively created more front line, which had to be defended and protected with already scarce resources. The Nazis in the West retaliated against the Dutch people with starvation tactics, which, together with one of Europe's worst winters, resulted in the death of more than 20,000 civilians.

After Market Garden, the statistics paint a grim picture of the huge price that was paid in an effort to only partially liberate Holland. Of the 39,000-plus fighting men, the fatalities were grave. The US 82nd lost 1,432 troops, the US 101st Airborne--2,110, the 1st British Airborne Division--1,300, and 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade--378. These fatality figures are made worse by the many thousands who were wounded in action, as well.

A total of 164 aircraft and 132 gliders were lost during the Market Garden Operation.

The Allied effort was mostly stalled until January of 1945, when things began moving in favor of the Allies again. Of course, the end of WWII brought total liberty and freedom for The Netherlands and total defeat for the Nazis.


Roland Korst is my dear friend whose love and respect for the WWII American GI puts tears in my eyes. Korst is a Dutch citizen and Market Garden historian living in Vlijmen, NL.

Special thanks to Len Capon with the Champlin Fighter Museum at Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona. Capon hails from Sheffield, England, where he was only 12-years old when WWII broke out. He remembers all too well the air raids in London, which continued for six years from 1939 to 1944.

Special thanks to members of the US 101st Airborne Division, who jumped into Market Garden during September in 1944.


Copyright (C) 1997 Ron Kilber You may reprint this story for non-commercial use provided this copyright notice is left intact. Permission will not be unreasonably withheld for all other uses.

© Copyright 1996 - 2003 Ron Kilber All rights reserved.