by Ray Newton
Lt. Col. David Hamilton of the U.S. Army Air Force was barely 22 when he took the controls of a Douglas C-47 loaded with paratroopers and flew 50 feet above the English Channel as part of the first contingent to take troops to Normandy, France, June 6, 1944.
Now known as D-Day, it commemorates the date the defeat of the Nazis began in Europe.
Hamilton, who lives in Prescott Valley, is the last living Pathfinder pilot who flew on D-Day. Pathfinder pilots were among elite volunteers from the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions.
Hamilton was the guest of honor for the annual Wings Out West Air Show. The Oct. 5 event was a part of the OctoberWest Homecoming activities sponsored by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU). It is the third year the City of Prescott has co-partnered with ERAU to sponsor the air show.
An air show highlight was a tribute to the 75th anniversary of D-Day. A historic C-53 flew and dropped paratroopers into the clear blue sky. They landed near the Prescott Regional Airport runway.
It’s hard to believe that same C-53 — called the D-Day Doll — 75 years earlier had dropped fully armed American soldiers into Nazi-occupied France. The D-Day Doll later flew dozens of missions following World War II into Germany as part of the Berlin Airlift operation.
Hamilton was piloting a C-47 that same day, and he, too, dropped troops into France.
During OctoberWest, he dressed in his full military uniform and greeted the paratroopers as they marched back. Medals pinned to his uniform jacket included four Air Medals, nine stars on the ETO campaign ribbon, two Presidential Unit Citations, the Order of William from Holland, and the French Legion of Honor Medal.
Hamilton, who smiles readily and is quite agile and spry, other than using a cane to help maintain his balance, chuckled when responding to a question — “To what do you attribute your old age?” He grinned, “Good genes — and lousy German antiaircraft weapons.”
This past June, because of his distinguished record, Hamilton was invited by the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) to return to Lincolnshire, England and the base where he and his fellow pilots trained for their missions over Europe. Hamilton says they trained in secrecy.
Hank Coats, president and CEO of the CAF, said of Hamilton, “He is a true American hero. He and his fellow Pathfinders flew a dangerous and vital mission in advance of the main D-Day invasion. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to back this trip for Dave, to give him a chance to return to his old British airfield and to share his story with the residents of North and South Witham in Lincolnshire.”