A brother's sacrifice, a sister's love and an old airplane come together on an abandoned runway in Vichy
Even though it was over 70 years ago, Margaret Ray vividly remembers the last time she saw her brother, Philip.
"I was taking a tennis lesson. He came by the court to say good-bye."
That day in 1942, Lt. Philip Sarrett left his hometown of Ada, Okla., to serve in World War II. But like so many young men of that generation, he would not return.
Now, at 92 years of age, Margaret stands on an abandoned runway in Vichy, Mo., looking at a derelict Douglas C-47 transport plane. But this is not just any plane; it is the aircraft that Philip flew on June 6, 1944, as he piloted a group of 16 82nd Airborne paratroopers to their drop zone in Normandy.
'He wanted to fly'
Margaret remembers Philip as a popular person, a well-rounded young man with many interests. They both attended East Central State College in Ada.
"He was in a fraternity and I was in a sorority," she says. "We had a lot of dances together."
While at East Central State, Philip was able to pursue a new passion.
"He wanted to fly," recalls Margaret.
East Central State offered classes through the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a government initiative designed to increase the country's pool of aviators. Philip signed up for ground school and basic flying lessons. He eventually took an advanced flying class in Texas over the summer.
On several occasions, Margaretwent flying with her brother.
"I'd go up with him to practice his landings," she says.
Sometimes, Philip would turn off the engine to perform a "dead-stick" landing. She laughs and shakes her head. "I was scared to death!" But Philip, she remembers, was always calm.
Then came that fateful Sunday in December of 1941.
"We got out of church, and we heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor," Margaret recalls. "And Mother said, 'Philip, you know what that means.' And he said, 'Yeah, I sure do.'"
Philip entered the Army Air Corps and was eventually assigned to the 313th Troop Carrier Group. He participated in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, and probably flew in support of the invasion of Italy. In May of 1944, his unit was transferred to England.
Once in England, Philip's unit was assigned to the airbase at Folkingham. The aircraft he was assigned was C-47D 42-32827, which he christened Ada Red in honor of his hometown.
Early on the morning of D-Day, Philip flew Ada Red into the skies over Normandy in Mission Boston, Serial 22, as Chalk 27. The 16 paratroopers he ferried were from the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and they jumped into Drop Zone "N" near Etienville and Beauzeville-la-Bastille.
Philip's plane was hit by flak and small arms fire, but he managed to fly Ada Red back to base. In the following months, he flew a number of missions, mainly to resupply troops on the ground.
One last mission
Late in the war, plans were made for Operation Varsity, the last airborne push into the heart of Hitler's Germany. By this time, Philip had flown enough missions and could have sat out this final operation.
"He had been real homesick," says Margaret. "But they asked for volunteers, and he volunteered for it."
So on March 24, 1945, Philip flew a new Curtiss C-46 cargo plane to a drop zone just over the Rhine River near Wesel, Germany. Seconds after the last paratrooper jumped, Philip's plane was hit by flak and caught fire.
He attempted to turn the plane, but flames began to spread over the right wing. Philip ordered the crew to bail out. One by one, they exited the burning aircraft until only Philip and the navigator, Capt. Richard Ketchum, remained.
As Ketchum prepared to bail out, he turned and saw Sarrett come out of the cockpit and pass the radio operator's station. Relieved that Sarrett was right behind him, Ketchum jumped and pulled his ripcord. Philip, however, never got out.
In an after-action report, the pilot of a nearby plane described how he watched Philip's big C-46 as it "nosed into a clearing and exploded." Philip Sarrett was only 23 years old. Forty-five days later, the war in Europe ended.
Ada Red comes home
After the war, the plane Philip flew on D-Day, C-47D 42-32827, was sold as surplus. It went through a number of civilian owners, working as an airliner in Minnesota, an executive plane for the Champion Spark Plug Company, and a cargo plane in Manitoba. Finally, in 1979, it was purchased by Baron Aviation Services, of Vichy.
At Baron Aviation, owners Lee Maples and Ed Schmidt flew 42-32827 to haul cargo for Federal Express.
"I put in a lot of hours in that plane," recalls Maples. As he speaks, you can hear a nostalgic fondness in his voice. "It was a real pleasure to fly."
In 1991, Baron Aviation replaced the old plane with a newer turboprop model, and 42-32827 was parked on an abandoned runway along with several other C-47s owned by the company.
Then, in January of 2008, a tornado came through the area and severely damaged the aircraft. The winds caused landing gear on each plane to collapse, and other structural damage made the planes unserviceable.
As he recalls the aftermath of the storm, Ed Schmidt shakes his head sadly. "It was a real shame," he says. Ada Red and the other C-47s have sat there ever since.
A rediscovered history
Last summer, I received a call from a friend here in Springfield, Mo.
"You like World War II aircraft, right? I know where some old C-47s are. Do you want to take a road trip and have a look?"
So in July of 2012, we drove up to Vichy to see them.
During our visit, I wrote down tail numbers and took lots of pictures. When I returned home, I did basic research on each of the three planes. Two had relatively unremarkable histories, but I found that the third, C-47D 42-32827, possessed a distinguished combat record. During the war, it had moved from Algeria to Sicily and to England.
And then I discovered that the aircraft was a D-Day veteran. For that mission, the pilot listed was a Lt. Richard Philip Sarrett, of Ada, Okla.
Further research led me to the Pontotoc County Historical Society, which provided me with some old newspaper articles describing Lt. Sarrett's service and death. Finally, an obituary for another member of Philip's family led me to a Margaret Ray in Sulphur, Okla. I called her number and after some explaining told her that I was looking for the family of Richard Sarrett.
"Yes," she said. "He was my brother."
Later in an email exchange with a member of Margaret's family, I was told that if it were at all possible, Margaret wanted to come up to Missouri one day and see her brother's plane.
A reunion of sorts
May 16, 2013, is that day. Margaret Ray's daughter, Marsha Funk, has driven her mother up from Oklahoma. When they arrive that afternoon, Ed Schmidt and I meet them at the door to his hangar. Margaret looks frail and moves very slowly, but she is sharp and alert.
We walk into Ed's office, where he shows her pictures of the plane when he flew it. We talk for some time about Philip, his service and his loss. Finally, Ed says, "Well, shall we go take a look at the plane?'"
We drive across the airstrip, which has recently been resurfaced, to a disused runway where the C-47s sit. The asphalt of the old runway is cracked, and weeds and bushes have grown up around the planes. Philip's aircraft sits with its left wing tilted up as if it were banking into an easy turn to the right. And though the plane has a rather forlorn appearance, it still seems to have a stoic dignity about it.
We step out of the car and walk up to the plane.
"This is it?" Margaret asks.
"Yes,' says Ed. "No doubt about it. This is the plane that Philip flew on D-Day." She stands for a moment and looks at the aircraft, taking it all in. It is large, but appears even larger next to her tiny frame.
Guided by her daughter, Margaret walks closer and stands below the cockpit. "It looks a bit sad," she says.
Then, she reaches up and places her hand on the side of the plane. It is a poignant moment, one that speaks of loss, but also of faithfulness to the memory of her brother. For a few seconds, we watch quietly.
The moment passes, though, and we start to mill about the plane again, talking quietly and snapping pictures. Finally, we decide that it is time to go.
As we start back towards the car, Ed turns to Margaret and says, "Well, Philip would be proud."
She smiles and says, "Yes, I believe he would be."
Then she pauses and looks back up to the cockpit window where her brother sat so many years ago.
"He was a good person."
William Garvin is a university archivist at Drury University, Springfield.