Long Beach, California December 23, 1941

Of all the workhorse aircraft in World War II, none was more widely and effec­tively deployed than the Douglas C‑47 mili­tary trans­port. Nick­named the “Gooney Bird” by Amer­i­can crew­men and pas­sen­gers, the C‑47 Sky­train was a deri­va­tive of the Douglas pro­pel­ler-driven com­mer­cial air­liner, the DC‑3. (The British and Aus­tra­lians referred to the C‑47 as the “Dakota.”) Orig­i­nally designed as a pas­sen­ger sleeper plane for a U.S. trans­con­ti­nental air­line, the DC‑3 first took flight from Santa Monica Air­port near Los Angeles, California, on December 17, 1935.

The U.S. Army Air Corps (U.S. Army Air Forces, or USAAF, in June 1941) selected a modi­fied ver­sion of the DC‑3 for its first-of-a-kind mili­tary trans­port air­craft. The trans­port had more power­ful engines (two 1,200 hp Pratt & Whit­ney R‑1830-90C Twin Wasp air-cooled radial pis­ton engines), strength­ened rear fuse­lage and floor, stronger landing gear, a large two-panel port­side cargo door, hoist attach­ment, a roof-mounted astro­dome used for night­time navi­ga­tion, and at the fuse­lage’s tail a hook for towing power­less com­bat gliders. When con­tracts were awarded in 1940 for the C‑47 Sky­train, Douglas built a new production facility in nearby Long Beach.

The Skytrain made its maiden flight on this date, Decem­ber 23, 1941. Between Long Beach and Santa Monica in Cali­for­nia, and Tulsa and Mid­west City in Okla­homa, Douglas Air­craft Com­pany pro­duced 10,174 C‑47s; some com­mer­cial DC‑3s were im­pressed into mili­tary ser­vice early in the war. A limited num­ber of spe­cial­ized para­trooper vari­ants of the C‑47, the C‑53 Sky­trooper (troop carrier), were built and used in later stages of the war, partic­u­larly to tow gliders and drop para­troopers. Nearly 5,000 DC‑3-derived mili­tary trans­port air­craft (Li‑2s) were license-built in the Soviet Union starting in September 1942.

Typically unarmed, the C‑47 had a crew of four—pilot, co-pilot, navi­gator, and radio oper­a­tor—or three if co-pilot and navi­ga­tor duties were com­bined. As a transport plane, the C‑47 had a load capa­city of 12,000 lb (5,443 kg), a range of 1,600 miles (2,600 km), a maxi­mum speed of 224 mph (360 km/h), and a ser­vice ceiling of 26,400 ft (8,000 m). The air­borne freighter could hold a fully assem­bled jeep or a 37 mm can­non. As a troop trans­port, it carried 28 sol­diers in full com­bat gear. As a medi­cal air­lift plane, it had room for 18–24 stretcher patients and a 3‑person medi­cal team. Seven basic ver­sions were built, and the air­craft was given at least 22 desig­na­tions, including the AC‑47D (Spooky) gun­ship, the EC‑47 elec­tro­nic recon­nais­sance air­craft, the afore­men­tioned C‑53 Sky­trooper, and the 600 R4Ds in U.S. Navy and Marine Corps service.

Apart from every U.S. military branch, all major Allied ser­vices—but pri­marily the USAAF and Navy and the British and Cana­dian air forces—flew the C‑47. The air­craft oper­ated from every con­ti­nent and par­tici­pated in every major battle. The C‑47 is widely cele­brated for flying the treach­er­ous 500‑mile (805‑km) “Hump” from as many as 13 bases in India over Asia’s Hima­layan Moun­tains to Kun­ming, China, deli­vering nearly 740,000 tons of cargo to Amer­i­ca’s Chi­nese ally during the war; lost were more than 500 trans­port air­craft and 1,300 pilots and crewmembers.

In Europe the C‑47 played unfor­get­table roles in the Allied libe­ra­tion of Europe, first in the inva­sion of Sicily in July 1943 (Oper­a­tion Husky), dropping 4,381 Allied para­troopers onto the Italian island. Eleven months later 850 or so U.S. Sky­trains and British Dakotas dropped 50,000 para­troopers and glider-borne infan­try­men in the first few days of Oper­a­tion Over­lord, the June 1944 D‑Day inva­sion of Normandy, France. During the 6‑week-long German Ardennes Offen­sive, better known as the Battle of the Bulge (Decem­ber 16, 1944, to Janu­ary 25, 1945), C‑47s air-dropped criti­cal muni­tions and medi­cal sup­plies to the vet­eran 28th Infan­try, 10th Armored, and 101st “Screaming Eagles” Air­borne Divi­sions besieged in the Bel­gian village of Bas­togne until the sol­diers were relieved by Gen. George S. Patton, Jr’s U.S. Third Army 4th Armored Division on December 26, 1944.

Douglas C-47 Skytrain and Dakota Transport Aircraft During World War II

C-47 wearing Operation Overlord invasion stripesC-47 as medical transport

Left: The Douglas C‑47 transport aircraft played an integral role in the Allied victory in World War II. Fact is, the Douglas C‑47 was the most ubiq­ui­tous air­plane of the war, per­forming a variety of air­borne ser­vices in all thea­ters of the global war and trans­porting, among other things, hun­dreds of thou­sands of tons of petro­leum pro­ducts in 5‑gallon jerry cans, war materiel and muni­tions, small vehicles, ration cans, medi­cine, blood, person­nel, clothing and shoes, and logis­tical aid. Little known is the role of C‑47 crews in evac­u­a­ting liber­ated Allied POWs, enslaved civil­ians, and dis­placed per­sons from Nazi pri­soner of war, concen­tra­tion, and death camps. Between April and June 1945 more than a quarter-mil­lion repa­tri­ates were returned to their home­land or a place of refuge. Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Supreme Com­man­der of Allied Expe­di­tio­nary Forces in Europe, ranked the C‑47, along with the jeep, bull­dozer, 2½‑ton truck, and DUKW amphib­ious vehicle, as one of the five pieces of equip­ment most vital to Allied suc­ces­ses in defeating the fascist enemy. Pictured here is a USAAF C‑47A Sky­train, which flew from a base in Devon, England, during the D‑Day Normandy inva­sion. Fresh from an air­show, the plane sports “invasion stripes” on its wings and fuselage.
Right: The versatile C‑47 served as military cargo planes, troop trans­ports, and tug planes for power­less, unarmed, canvas-covered U.S. Waco and British Horsa com­bat gliders through­out the war. A few C‑47s were con­verted into gliders capa­ble of carrying 40 para­troopers at a top towing speed of 290 mph (467 km/h), which was 90 mph (145 km/h) faster than any other trans­port glider. In this photo, a wounded soldier on a stretcher is being lifted aboard a C‑47 for medical evacuation from France to a hospital in England.

C-47 as paratrooper transportC-47 paratrooper drop during Operation Dragoon, France, August 1944

Left: Fully armed American paratroopers aboard their C‑47 before jumping into German-held Normandy in North­western France in June 1944. A C‑47 could carry 28 para­troopers and their gear. More than 13,000 sol­diers of the elite Amer­i­can 82nd and 101st Air­borne Divi­sions, as well as sev­eral thou­sand elite para­troopers from the British 6th Air­borne Divi­sion, were dropped by over 1,200 C‑47 air­craft in the early hours of June 6, 1944, sev­eral hours before amphib­ious troops successfully planted themselves on the five Allied invasion beaches.

Right: Nine thousand U.S., British, and Canadian para­troopers filled the skies when they jumped from their C‑47s over South­eastern France during Oper­a­tion Dra­goon on August 15, 1944. They were among the 94,000 sol­diers and com­man­dos and 11,000 vehicles that landed on the French Mediterranean coast that day and the next.

Battle Stations: Douglas C-47 Troop Carrier and Airborne Freighter