When paratroopers dropped into Normandy on D-Day, the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment was among the troops who jumped from a plane and landed behind enemy lines.
Those soldiers trained for that task and many others at Camp Toccoa in Stephens County more than 70 years ago. After training, they were stationed at Fort Benning for enhanced training before being sent to Europe in 1944 for D-Day when Allied troops invaded western Europe.
Remnants of the training camp still exist at Camp Toccoa. Recently, efforts to restore the camp to resemble the way it looked during the war have been underway. The most recent endeavor to add to the camp’s authenticity is the arrival earlier this month of a World War II-era C-47 aircraft.
While it is in several pieces and in need of repair, it is typical of the planes flew in WWII. And members of the Camp Toccoa at Currahee Project plan to restore it to its former glory.
However, the aircraft’s history is not yet known. But once identifying information is located on it, the Camp Toccoa at Currahee Project members will uncover its years of service and campaigns.
“We know that it’s a World War II aircraft, we just can’t say for sure exactly what it flew in,” said Patrick Hall, construction coordinator for Camp Toccoa at Currahee Project.
Gary Bellamy, president of the Camp Toccoa at Currahee Project, explained airplanes were not at the camp during the war. While training jump were done there in the beginning, they were later moved as the runway wasn’t long enough.
But the new aircraft addition completes the story of the training of the men who went to war, he said.
“We wanted it to feel like (the soldiers) felt as they went into battle,” he said. “It’ll take some time but we will get there. There’s no doubt.”
The acquisition of the plane was no easy task. Project members located a military vehicle collector in Florala, Alabama. He had purchased four C-47s out of Mississippi and used pieces from each plane to rebuild one for his collections. He was selling the extra pieces when Hall and Bellamy contacted him a year ago.
Project members were unable raise funds to buy the C-47. Instead they asked about a trade: a bulldozer for the plane.
The collector agreed, and the plane arrived in Toccoa in early May.
“So we’re now the proud owners of a C-47 WWII-era airplane,” Hall said. “It looks a little rough, but we’re just putting it on static display. Basically it’s like taking an old car and doing a cosmetic restoration.”
The first step to restore the plane to look as it did on D-Day will be to the outside. The second step will be restoring the interior. Bellamy and Hall estimate it will take a year or two to complete.
It is not the only restoration the Camp Toccoa at Currahee Project is conducting. The project is aiming to restore the camp to resemble its appearance during WWII, and several are in the works.
Organizers are concentrating on their D-Day banquet first.
Once that’s done, they will enclose the pavilion, rebuild four barracks and construct a bathhouse on the property.
In the meantime, Hall and Bellamy hope to clean the plane by power washing it and possibly replacing some broken windows.
They will also work to secure supplies and parts for the plane.
For example, project members will search for bolts to hold each wing to the fuselage. The plane’s wingspan is 95 feet. The wing requires 328 bolts to attach to the 65-feet-long fuselage.
Although the plane had only been in Toccoa a few weeks, Hall said it’s already gained a lot of attention. Some people have said they want to help restoring it.
The Toccoa group has contacted aviation enthusiasts from Oshkosh, Wis. They are making the lead aircraft from D-Day airworthy again in time for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019. They plan to fly it at Normandy.
“Those gentleman have a wealth of knowledge and a lot of extra parts,” Bellamy said, indicating the project curator has already come to Toccoa.
Bellamy said the curator plans to donate plaques with original parts from the lead aircraft that aren’t airworthy to be auctioned off at Camp Toccoa’s D-Day celebration.
When the plane restoration is finished, it will sit in a grassy area near the camp’s entrance.
“When the plane gets on display, it’s going to change Camp Toccoa,” Bellamy said.
Organizers hope to eventually expand Camp Toccoa to accommodate large groups for long weekends. They eventually want to acquire more land to construct an obstacle course and green space for other activities.
“The more you accomplish, the more you want to accomplish,” Bellamy said. “We’re kind of dreaming really big at this point. This is a project that will go on past our lifetime, so we need to do it right as we’re doing it. It’s real exciting though.”