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Monday, March 18, 2019

The World War II Airborne Demonstration Team of Frederick, Okla., came to life in 1998 to honor America’s veterans. During the war, similar demonstration parachute teams staged exhibition jumps across the country to show the public the new airborne forces and to sell war bonds. They don’t sell war bonds today, but team members are proud to share the story of paratroopers of the 1940s.

As the number of World War II veterans diminishes each year, it becomes increasingly important to remind the public of the achievements of “the greatest generation.” From its inception, the motto of the team has been “Remember, Honor and Serve”; and that has been its driving force ever since.

During World War II, there was a rapid expansion of U.S. armed forces. Training facilities were desperately needed and sprang up across the country. The flat and sparsely populated Oklahoma prairie around Frederick was well suited for construction of a B-26 bomber training airfield, and in September 1942, Frederick Army Airfield was born. When the war ended, so did the need for the airfield. The Frederick Regional Airport and a lone 1942 vintage aircraft hangar are the only evidence left of the World War II airfield. These remnants became the core of the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team’s base of operations in 2005, after it operated until then from a member’s property in Alderson, Okla.

The team acquired an original wartime C-47 in 1999 and a C-49 in 2015. Known as Boogie Baby and Wild Kat, respectively, the planes are painted olive drab and light gray accompanied by the characteristic black-and-white “invasion stripes” that were used to identify Allied aircraft during and after the D-Day invasion. These aircraft serve as the jump platforms for the team’s jump school operations.

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Members of the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team prepare to board an original World War II C-47 at their Oklahoma base.
(Credit: Gina Lee Noel)

Drawing Crowds

Whether it’s during a home-station training event or front and center at an airshow anywhere in the country, the 230-member team is like a magnet, attracting veterans and the public. At many airshows where the team performs, World War II veterans easily draw a crowd as they describe their jumps into Sicily; Salerno, Italy; Normandy, France; Holland; Corregidor, the Philippines; or across the Rhine River into Germany. Young admirers seek autographs and pose for photos with these warriors of another age.

Just reading or hearing about the events and accounts of airborne history isn’t good enough for an increasing number of men and women. They’re eager to experience for themselves the emotional challenge of “standing in the door” of a C-47 or C-49, wearing a steel jump helmet and brown jump boots. Since 2005, the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team has annually conducted several FAA-approved, round canopy, static line jump courses. What makes this parachute course unique is the effort to duplicate the World War II experience. Students are housed in GI-style open-bay barracks and take meals in the mess hall. In between, they perfect their parachute landing falls in the PLF pit and become intimately familiar with emergency procedures in the suspended harness.

While attending classroom sessions, students are taught the principles of canopy control, the cardinal rules of parachuting and the five points of performance. Special training aids simulate the interior of the plane where actions in the aircraft are practiced until they become second nature.

Later, a written test and practical examination allow students to demonstrate their command of the concepts and required skills. Those passing the evaluation await the moment of truth. After completing five parachute jumps, their achievement is recognized during a formal ceremony where their wings are pinned on by a World War II airborne veteran.

The newly minted parachutists have universally expressed their pride in receiving their award from a World War II legend. This tradition also bridges generations and honors those who went before.

All in the Family

While all members of the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team have a strong interest in World War II history, many have a personal connection. Several members have a father, grandfather or uncle who served in the airborne, and being on the team is a way to reconnect.

Wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, William McKinley of Martinez, Calif., earned his gold wings in 2015. McKinley’s father, Staff Sgt. William McKinley, served with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Staff Sgt. McKinley didn’t share much about the war with his son, leaving only some photographs and a few mementos. The younger McKinley confided that earning his wings brought him closer to his father. Staff Sgt. McKinley would be proud to know his son and both grandsons also earned their wings.

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After qualifying to become a member of the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team, Mark Castiglione is awarded his gold wings by World War II veteran Donald Rutter, who has since passed away.
(Credit: Gina Lee Noel)

Mark Castiglione of North Haven, Conn., carried a photograph of his father, Pfc. Frank Castiglione, on his five qualifying jumps. During World War II, Pfc. Castiglione served in the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

This is also a time when many students make the transition to full-fledged members of the team. While some students are content with making their five qualifying jumps, many others return year after year, sharpening their skills and expanding their knowledge. The bonds of camaraderie run deep, and a dedicated cadre returns each cycle to make it happen once more.

Team membership represents the four corners of the country and increases each year with graduation of another student class. Several members from the earlier classes have assumed leadership positions and collectively maintain the team’s forward momentum. Every member is a volunteer and arrives on-site at their own expense. This in itself is a testimony to the dedication and deep belief the members have in the organization’s mission. 

Back to Normandy

Later this year, the world will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy. The event will be attended by heads of state of several nations, and activities planned will expound upon the courage and valor demonstrated on June 6, 1944. One event will hold a special significance for those attending. On D-Day, the predawn parachute and glider assaults isolated the beach areas and assured the amphibious landings took place with minimal disruption.

To recognize that crucial event from 75 years ago, a fleet of over 50 original C-47 transport aircraft will take to the sky as they did in June 1944. Departing from an airfield in Great Britain, and carrying 300 parachutists, the air armada will pass over the English Channel, crossing the Normandy coastline to the designated drop zones.

Representing the American airborne forces, 70 members of the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team will help fill the sky over France, fulfilling their promise to “Remember, Honor and Serve.”