A ‘Pathfinder’ All His Life
“What is Your Secret to a Long Life? Good genes — and lousy German anti-aircraft fire.”
Interview by Ray Newton
The last surviving pilot who flew paratroopers into Nazi-occupied France during World War II is still telling his story throughout the United States — and sometimes, Europe.
He is David Hamilton, 97, who since 1994 has been living in Prescott Valley.
Hamilton was born into a family whose paternal genealogy stretches back to Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), an American statesman, politician, scholar, banker and economist. David boasts that his ancestor, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, was an influential interpreter and promoter of the U.S. Constitution. “We’ve got the best government in the world, and my ancestor helped make it that way,” David says. “His image is even on a $10 bill. Don’t you think I look like him?” David grins.
Witty comments like that are not uncommon from the still vigorous, agile and articulate Hamilton.
For instance, when asked the secret of his longevity, he grinned, “Good Hamilton genes — and lousy German anti-aircraft fire.”
That Hamilton was shot at by the Nazis is indisputable. He has no idea how many times he flew home from missions with bullet holes his aircraft.
Those missions began shortly before midnight on June 5, 1944. David was stationed in England. He climbed into the pilot’s seat of a Douglas C-47 loaded with paratroopers who were the first contingent of Allied forces to land in Normandy, France. He was one of 20 select pilots and crews trained in secrecy known as the “Elites” who were to drop pathfinder troops behind enemy lines to begin the D-Day invasion.
Just 21 years old, Hamilton flew across the English Channel 50 feet above the waves to stay below German radar. As he approached the shoreline at about 1:30 a.m., he increased altitude so the paratroopers would have enough height so their parachutes would open when they leaped from the plane. He and his crew then turned the plane around and headed back to England, again at a low altitude.
He recalls: “I was pushing that plane along at about 200 knots when my navigator yelled at me. ‘Hey, Dave, something’s wrong with the radar. It’s got spots all over it.’ My co-pilot took over. I went back to the circular radar screen, which was pointed down. It looked like it had measles — white spots all over the screen. You could have walked on the white dots from England to France. Then we figured it out. Those were the hundreds of ships and boats headed toward the Normandy beaches, loaded with the troops who were going to invade. I’ll never forget that scene.”
Hamilton and his four-man crew arrived in England about daybreak — 5:30 a.m. Following a debriefing and steak-and-eggs breakfast, they headed toward their barracks and bed. “But first, I had a good shot of I.W. Harper whiskey,” Hamilton grins.
How was it that a fuzzy-cheeked young man found himself among the other 19 elite crews in the 9th U. S Army Air Force, 436th Trooper Carrier Group, in North Witham Air Base, England, leading the way to Normandy?
Actually, it began on Dec. 8, 1941 — the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, marking the entrance of the United States into World War II. Hamilton walked into a recruiting station and volunteered for the Air Force as a private. Within weeks, Hamilton had trained at various air bases around the United States. Soon he was deployed to Africa and then Europe.
When Gen. Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower was named the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, he organized the invasion of North Africa in 1942-43 and the later successful invasion of Normandy in 1944. One of those Ike called upon to help his plan was David’s father. The senior Hamilton had been a pilot and officer during World War I.
Though Hamilton doesn’t say so directly, his selection as one of the 20 Pathfinder Elite pilots may have been influenced because of Eisenhower’s relationship with Hamilton’s family. Also, the Hamiltons were fairly well-known among the prominent in Britain and the Continent.
Hamilton’s parents were Pierpont Morgan Hamilton, sometimes called “Pete,” and Marisa Blair Hamilton. They had lived in England before the war because his father was an influential executive in international banking. That’s why David was born in Watford, England in July 1922. Not long after his birth, his parents moved to France, where his father continued working in the international financial market. Throughout David’s childhood, his parents associated with the wealthy prominent leaders and celebrities.
David laughs when telling about being taught to dance by famed vaudeville and Broadway dancers and actors — brother and sister act Fred and Adele Astaire, who frequently performed in Europe. The Astaires were family friends.
David and his two brothers, Philip and Ian, lived comfortable lives in France. It continued after the family returned to the U.S. They lived in New York City. His paternal grandfather, William Pierson Hamilton, had married Juliet, one of the daughters from the J.P. Morgan family, renowned as the dominant players on Wall Street and founders of the J.P. Morgan and Company financial empire. Concern about money was never really an issue.
For instance, when David and his brothers wanted to see a Major League game, all they had to do was call the family chauffeur, Smitty. He would take them to famed Polo Grounds Stadium, where they would sit behind home plate in their grandfather’s box seats. David recalls, “We got to meet all the great ballplayers — Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott — all of them.”
That kind of lifestyle continued as David moved into his teen years, even after he volunteered for the air corps.
When World War II started, David’s father immediately was called on to serve as an officer. The Pentagon stationed the senior Hamilton in London. That’s how he met Eisenhower and served on his staff as a colonel and later as a major general during the Korean War. The natural consequence of that relationship? When David became a second lieutenant and was serving in Europe, he was invited to soirees where he met Eisenhower and other key military decision-makers.
After flying the Normandy mission, David led supply planes into the 101st Airborne during the Battle of the Bulge. When the war ended, he became a civilian once again but continued flying. He flew C-47s and C-54s with Transair, a nonscheduled airline, with a route going from Newark to Miami and then Havana, Cuba. He later flew Constellations with American Overseas airlines. That airline was bought out by Pam Am. Hamilton was low on the seniority rating system, so he quit flying and entered the advertising business.
When the Korean War began in June 1950, David returned to what was then the United States Air Force, flying B-56s in 50 combat missions. In November 1952, he was named operations officer of air evacuation at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. He served there until he transferred to the reserves with the Eastern Air Defense Command. He retired from the military in 1964.
In civilian life, David became an executive with Heublein Inc., an alcoholic beverage and food distributor. His leadership role there had him moving regularly from coast to coast — California and Oregon on the West Coast and Delaware and Maryland on the East.
David was married to Lillian “Mitzi” Hamilton for 27 years. He laughingly tells of their wedding. “Mitzi wanted a parade for her wedding, so we got married on St. Patrick’s Day — March 17, 1945.”
They were the parents of two children, son Pierson Hamilton, now a teacher living in Phoenix, and daughter Lanier Hamilton, a veterinarian who lives in Lander, Wyoming. He is a grandfather and recently became a great-grandfather. He and his wife divorced in 1972.
After leaving Heublein in 1975, David moved to San Francisco, where he worked at various jobs until 1994.
Hearing David recall some of his adventures is like having a conversation with a 97-year old time machine. Some of his memories are shared in the following.
Prescott Living: We understand because of your family connections, as a young adult you knew many British royalty, including the Earl Louis Mountbatten and his nephew Prince Philip.
David Hamilton: During World War II, Lt. Mountbatten used to come up from Perdannac with a couple of buddies. He and I were members of the same club in London, which had the best music, the best food and the best bar in London. Most important was the bar and the music.
And I did know Prince Philip from earlier for he was in school in France where I was.
Prescott Living: You grew up in a British-style family environment, didn’t you?
David Hamilton: Yeah. But I took advantage of it (laughs).
Prescott Living: Your mother during World War II — what was she doing?
David Hamilton: She was running a Red Cross club in London. We had a top-secret flight from North Africa up to England. So when I arrived in England, a lieutenant came aboard my airplane. ‘Lt. Hamilton, Lt. Hamilton!’ I said ‘Here.’ He says, ‘Call your mother in London.’ So much for security.
Prescott Living: Your father was doing what at the time you were in England?
David Hamilton: He was back in the Pentagon by then. Father had been assigned there the minute he went back on active duty. He’d flown in World War I. He was a pilot. Then he went in the banking business. And he went from the banking business into the motion picture business. But he went into active duty in the air corps right after Pearl Harbor. And Gen. Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold sent him as his eyes and ears to Louis Mountbatten’s commandos in England. Father went on the Dieppe Raid and gave a report to Arnold on air ground.
Hap Arnold was head of the army air forces. My dad came back and made his report. He was told to take some leave and then report to a Gen. George Patton. He was a brigadier general in Norfolk, Virginia. Dad got to Norfolk, got aboard the airplane and found out that they were going to go to North Africa after briefings. An aircraft carrier had 40 P40s on it that could take off, but they couldn’t land. So they flew to Port Lyautey in Morocco. They had to land on the air base.
Dad and Col. Cora were looking for the commanding officer. They wanted to make liaison with the French and say, ‘We’re here to fight the Germans, not you guys.’ You may recall that we didn’t know when we went into Africa whether the French were going to fight us or not.
Prescott Living: So your dad was in a jeep hunting for French leaders?
David Hamilton: Dad’s in the jeep with his feet over the back, behind the passenger seat, holding a white flag of truce. A French flag and an American flag are wired to the front of the radiator. They come around this corner. A French machine gun opens up. And it hits Col. Cora — five bullets — kills him instantly. He falls over onto the lap of the driver. Dad jumps off. Dad spoke superb French. Both diplomatic and taxicab French. And he questions whether the father and mother of the commanding officer of that machine gun nest knew each other. He learns that under the tutelage of the Germans, the French learned to shoot on a flag of truce. So they return to Cora’s body. Father went in, removed Cora’s .45 pistol. He later gave it to me. I carried that .45 in two wars — Europe and Korea.
Anyway, my father ended up talking to a French general to locate a bugler. They drove up and down the French-American lines blowing the cease-fire all night long. They saved, according to Gen. Patton’s command, about 11,000 lives.
Father got put in for the Medal of Honor. I then was in aviation cadets. I got called into the commandant’s office of cadets, I thought ‘Oh boy, what have I done now?’ And he said, ‘Hamilton, for your information, your father has been awarded the Medal of Honor by the president of the United States.’
Prescott Living: That president would have been Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
David Hamilton: When that story about dad was published in Waco, Texas, about dad and me, I got 13 proposals of marriage. My ring is from Blackland Army Flying School in Waco. Twin-engine advanced. And you won’t find one of those planes in an American air museum anywhere. They sold every one of that they had.
Prescott Living: You were a cadet there?
David Hamilton: Yeah! Class of 43-C — March 1943. I got my wings and commission. I took basic at Perrin Air Force Station. Sherman-Dennison, Texas up on the Red River — Eisenhower’s birthplace.
I also went to C-47 school in Austin. United Airlines actually ran a school there. You got 30 days in a C-47 type airplane. I was a co-pilot learning how to fly one. The name of that field then was Bergstrom.
Prescott Living: Let me ask you this. How old were you when you enlisted?
David Hamilton: I guess I was 18 and a half. It was the day after Pearl Harbor.
Prescott Living: Why did you enlist the day after Pearl Harbor?
David Hamilton: Well, I was damn mad and cussing. In 1934, I’d sailed in Pearl Harbor. Oh, I learned how to swear from Major George Patton! He was a polo player. He had his polo ponies, and he used to play right below my house in New York. My mother said, ‘You boys playing on your stick horses better stick to that and bicycle polo. Stay out of the way of the grown-ups on their horses.’ I used to hot walk Patton’s horses. I got a quarter.
Patton’s wife, Beatrice Ayer, was from Boston, knew my mother slightly. Not very well but, they got to know each other better.
At one time, when I was flying fuel to Patton’s army in Europe, my commander called me and said, ‘The General wants to see you.’
So I went and he said ‘Hamilton? How are you?’ I said, ‘Very well, sir.’
He said, ‘Are you happy?’ I said, ‘As well as can be compared with what’s going on and everything.’ Patton said, ’Well you’ve been bringing gasoline over to my troops for a long time. Why don’t you stay for lunch?’
I said,’ Yes, sir.’So I sat down for lunch with Col. Charlie Codman and all of the generals. Here I am, a first lieutenant, being waited on.
Prescott Living: Did you go back and tell your commander about this?
David Hamilton: Oh, I told my colonel I had lunch with Gen. Patton. He looked at me and said ‘Hamilton, only you, only you.’ I’ve never forgotten his look on his face when he said, ‘Only you.’
Prescott Living: Who taught you to dance, Dave?
David Hamilton: Fred Astaire.
Prescott Living: How did that happen?
David Hamilton: Dad and my uncle — my dad’s kid brother — scheduled the Astaires, Fred and Adele. They used to open shows in London. Dad would fly over from Paris to London for the opening. And they set up the families with banks to save them money and invest.
Prescott Living: Fred Astaire physically taught you to dance?
David Hamilton: That and I took lessons at the same time. In the front hall of our house in Beverly Hills. 1935, I was what? 13? 12?
Prescott Living: I understand you also knew the famed British actor David Niven.
David Hamilton: (laughs) David Niven, who was a captain in the British Territorial Special Intelligence Forces. I knew him because dad had seen quite a bit of the Nivens in Hollywood the three years when dad was out there. He was charged by the bank of selling RKO. He finally sold it to Howard Hughes.
But back to David Niven. He was walking down the flight line by my plane one time when we were in France. He recognized me. I looked at him and I said, ‘Capt. Niven?’ And he said ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘I’m Pete Hamilton’s boy.’ He said, ‘I heard your dad got the big gong.’ Which in British terms, the big medal — Medal of Honor.
And I said, ’Yes sir he did. He’s back in the Pentagon building safe and sound.’ Niven said, ‘Well I’m delighted to hear it. Give him my best when you talk to him, or write to him.’
So I said, ‘What’s your story?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m trying to get back to London. I’ve completed my liaison mission here. I’ve got orders to go back by LCT, a ship.’
I said, ‘Would you like to get back a little sooner? I’ll get you back to London tonight.’
He said, ‘Wonderful. I’ll buy you the best steak dinner in New York after the war.’
Some 20 odd years later, I walked into Club 21 in New York. David Niven with his new wife was there. I see Niven sitting in the corner. For some reason his eyes and my eyes meet, an immediate recognition. The head waiter came over and said, ‘Your dinner tonight is on Mr. Niven.’
Prescott Living: Tell us how you came to be selected for the Pathfinder Elite pilot program when you were in England.
David Hamilton: I had been flying and delivering troops and military supplies and materials all over Africa and southern Europe. Finally we get to England. We’re flying about a month. The colonel calls me, says, ‘Hamilton, we’ve been reviewing all the flying time. Next to your squadron commander, who was a TWA captain, you have more instrument time than anybody else in the room.’
I said, ‘Well, sir, I had a private pilot’s license, and I used to spend $25 an hour for a Link Trainer. When I got in the Air Force and found it was free, I took advantage of it.’ I had over 100 hours in a Link Trainer.
I was a first lieutenant. And they said, ‘Well, Hamilton, colonel’s going to send you to Pathfinder School. You’ll go through Pathfinder School starting in February.’ This was February ‘44. I was 21.
Two requirements in Pathfinder. One, the colonel tears your instrument card up. He said, ‘I’ll give you a new instrument card when I fly with you before D-Day.’ I had no idea what that would mean. He said, ‘In addition, there’s a second requirement. You’re gonna be required to jump in practice with the troops you’re going to drop in combat.’ We had to jump with the paratroopers. They’re on an RAF base. This is top secret.
Prescott Living: How many Pathfinders were there?
David Hamilton: Total of 20 crews. The military said, ‘Well maybe we better figure out how to get the paratroopers where they’re supposed to be.’ So the Army looked around, and said, ‘Hey, you know those British dudes? They got these guys called Pathfinders, and the Pathfinders take the bombers where they’re supposed to go.’ That’s when the Pathfinders were formed for dropping troops. We had a $100,000 airplane with $500,000 worth of radar in there. All the radar was developed by the British and built by the Americans.
Pretty basic. We had SHORAN, we had LORAN, we had PPI — plan position indicator. That’s the big belly scopes that went around. The heavy bombers used them for dropping bombs on a target. We used it for low-level navigation at night. With the G Box and the SCR-717, I knew where I was within 25 yards — in North Africa and northern Europe.
After D-Day, Gen. James Gavin was having an air medal presentation. Gen. Gavin heard that the Pathfinders were having their air medal presentation for D-Day. So he arrived. He told our colonel, ‘Tell me all of the aircraft commanders that dropped in paratroopers.’ So he picked us all out, took us into another room and he, and, ‘Take off your blouses.’ We took off our blouses. He took the air force bug, this parachute bug. And he pinned it on us the way they do. You understand what I say? They stuck those on and then they hit them with the heel of their hand. Hurt like hell.
Prescott Living: V-E Day — Victory in Europe. Where were you?
David Hamilton: I was on leave at home. I celebrated by pushing my wife, my mother-in-law, my grandmother-in-law in the reservoir. You weren’t allowed to swim in it.
Prescott Living: Where was home at this time?
David Hamilton: Tuxedo Park, New York, Orange County.About 40 miles outside of New York City.
Prescott Living: So why were you home when the war ended in Europe? What did you do when the war ended? Where did they assign you next?
David Hamilton: I was sent home. I had flunked my physical. I had flown 100 missions and lost weight. I went from 147 pounds to 107. That’s why they sent me home. I was assigned to Baer Field in Fort Wayne, Indiana as public relations officer for the troop carrier commander. I had charge of an orchestra. Bond tour. We had two broadcasts a week. One was 15 minutes, one was a half-hour, Sunday with the orchestra. Had a wonderful girl singer who went on to sing light opera after the war.
Prescott Living: You flew 100 missions?
David Hamilton: Yes, 100 in Europe before the war ended. But remember, as a troop carrier, we could get two missions in one day. Fly gasoline to Patton in the morning, go over and pick up a nurse and two techs and fly wounded back to England in the afternoon; you’d get two missions. So you could get 100 missions in in relatively short periods of time. That was in a 47?
After the war, I flew C54s commercially to Cuba. Trans Air was a nonscheduled, and in those days you couldn’t get your air transport command rating with a nonsched. Today, of course, you can. But in those days you couldn’t, so I had to make an arrangement to go with an airline that had some of my buddies flying in it. That was American Overseas Airlines out of LaGuardia, field constellations to Wiesbaden then home through Copenhagen, because Pan Am had Paris.
I had four years of active duty in duty in World War II. Then I went to Korea.
Yeah, in ‘52. Went to jet school in ‘53. I was assigned to Easton Air Defense Command at Stewart Air Force Base, Newburgh, New York. The best posting I ever had. Twenty miles from my home (laughs) in Tuxedo, New York.
After I was discharged, l was promoted in my company to Delaware state manager of the Smirnoff Vodka Company, part of the Heublein company. That’s where my retirement comes from is from Smirnoff Vodka. I don’t get a cent from the military.
Prescott Living: So, you were originally in the Army Air Corps. But then it became the U.S. Air Force in September 1947. So you were both Army Air Corps and U.S. Air Force.
David Hamilton: We were in blue uniforms. Yeah. I got promoted to second lieutenant on Nov. 11, 1943. I’ve never forgotten the day. I went from brown shoes to black shoes. I retired as lieutenant colonel.
Prescott Living: Have you returned to any of these places that you flew into? A holiday later in life? Did you ever go on vacation back to Sicily, Germany and back to France?
David Hamilton: I went back to Normandy in 1960 with my wife. Unfortunately, she got quite ill there. Most recently, on the 75th anniversary of Normandy, I was invited back to Lincolnshire, England, by the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). I was able to tour the base where I and my fellow pilots were trained for the Pathfinder mission.
I am the last surviving pilot from those crews. They took me on a tour of the airfield. Now runways are overgrown, but when I was there, we had more than 3,000 American troops. I also got to fly in the historic C-53 D-Day Doll, a World War II aircraft was restored by the CAF and is based in Riverside, California.
The CAF then took me on a C-47 across the English Channel back to Normandy. That was on June 5, 2019 — 75 years after I had flown over there. That is a memory I shall treasure forever. They took us to the cemetery at Normandy. I was sitting right behind the French President Emmanuel Macron. I had my Legion of Honor medal on. That’s the highest decoration the French can give you. I also had my other foreign medals, including the Order of William, given me by Holland. Mrs. Macron stepped up and wanted to personally greet all nine of us who were sitting on the stage.
I also saluted President Trump when he walked up front. I yelled at him, ‘Arizona loves you.’ Trump saluted me right back and said, ‘I love Arizona.’
Another memory I’ll treasure — being the guest of honor for the annual Wings Out West Air Show sponsored by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the City of Prescott this past Oct 5. Once again, I got to fly in the D-Day Doll. The memories that rekindled — awesome.
Prescott Living: We understand you recently were inducted into the International Air and Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air and Space Museum.
David Hamilton: That was quite a celebration. On Nov.23, seven other persons and I were honored during a program planned by Jim Kidrick. He’s the president and CEO of the Air and Space Museum. His brother is a faculty member at Embry-Riddle in Prescott.
One of the people inducted was Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world and the founder of Amazon. They picked him because of the aerospace exploration he is sponsoring.
I was the oldest guy there. When they gave me a standing ovation as an American hero, I choked up.
I think you’d agree with me that I’ve had an unusually rewarding life.
Photo: Dave on his 97th Birthday with Boogie Baby, the aircraft he flew that day. Photo by Gary Daniels.