Vezzetti gets opportunity of a lifetime to honor D-Day

When we think of D-Day, we often think of the beaches of Normandy. D-Day began, however, in the sky. In the early dawn hours before the beach landings, the skies over the English Channel were filled with airplanes, the most important of which were the soldier-hauling Douglas C-47 Skytrain Dakotas (DAK’s). That night, under heavy fire, 24,000 brave soles jumped out of over 800 Dakotas into the dark over western France.

The people of the Copper Country have many ties to the sacrifice and heroism which took place on D-Day and throughout World War II. It is fitting that a Copper Country native was at the center one of the incredible commemoration events in Europe recently.

South Range native and 1962 Jeffers High graduate Eugene Vezzetti was part of what he appropriately called “an experience of a lifetime.”

On June 5, Vezzetti piloted a WWII era, twin-engine Douglas DC-3/C-47 as part of the DAKs Over Normandy D-Day commemoration. It was the first time since World War II that so many of the aircraft were assembled in the very place where they saw their finest hour.

Over 30 planes carrying about 250 men and women took off together as they did in 1944 from England’s Duxford Airfield. They then came together information and crossed the English Channel on the same route flown 75 years earlier. As they reached the original drop zones over Normandy, jumpers wearing WWII-style Allied uniforms, and using authentic military round parachutes, jumped, creating a spectacle that brought goosebumps to the all who witnessed.

It could be said that Vezzetti had been preparing for that moment his entire life. He had been immersed in aviation since he was a toddler. Some of his earliest memories are of flying in the skies over the Copper Country with his grandfather Caesar Lucchesi and uncle Gino. Caesar was a local aviation pioneer with an incredible history going back to the 1930s. Gino had run an aviation school for Michigan Tech students from the Houghton stamp sands airstrip.

After Jeffers, Vezzetti attended Michigan Tech from 1962-64. In 1965 he joined the Marines where he completed jump school. After serving his duty he returned to Michigan Tech in 1968 where he was active in Michigan Tech’s Flying Club. In 1969, he used his GI Bill to receive training and attain his pilot license. Vezzetti’s first commercial flying job found him transporting freight and mail in nonother than a Douglas DC-3 (civilian Version of the military C-37). Eugene went on to spend the next 30 years as a commercial pilot. His passion for aviation has continued since.

Ironically, Vezzetti and the DC-3 were both born in the same year as D-Day, 1944, making them all the same age. The plane’s owner, John Sessions, donated it to the Historic Flight Foundation in Washington State. Sessions along with his brother, Eugene, co-pilot Bill Mnich set off for the air-road trip of a lifetime.

The unpressurized DC-3’s must fly at lower altitudes and approximately one third the speed of modern commercial airliners. The aviators skipped their way from the west coast over the North Atlantic to Europe following the historic Blue Spruce route that was used in 1944 with stops in New Foundland, Greenland, Iceland, and Scottland. They carried life rafts and cold-water jumpsuits and joked about not wanting “to get wet.”

The days leading up to the historic commemoration have been filled with practice runs, photo shoots and various events in various parts of the United Kingdom.

Vezzetti reported that they and the other participants have received “unparalleled enthusiasm” everywhere they went.

“We are getting the VIP treatment everywhere. We have our 15 minutes of fame every hour. The English are still so appreciative. They tell us “thank you for doing this,” Vezzetti said. “There is so much in depth history here with England and WWII. They value history and kids are so involved. The crowds are huge everywhere.”

Vezzetti relayed messages stateside to his wife Karen and sister Maria Matson.

“We drank beers at the Eagle Pub last night,” he said in a recent call. “It’s a bar where pilots, British and American, went for a final beer before war flights out. Lots of names, dates on the walls over 75 years old.”

On the day of the D-Day anniversary flight, Vezzetti and crew had a unique honor on their D-Day flight. 96-year-old Lt. Col. David Hamilton, the last living pathfinder pilot who flew the mission on D-Day 75 years ago, was their passenger.

Hamilton was 21 when he piloted one of 20 Pathfinder squadron planes to drop the initial specialized units of paratroopers who would then mark the Normandy landing zones for the following wave of paratroopers and wooden gliders (build in Kingsford). They were the first American troops to step foot on occupied French soil.

“We flew at minimum altitude (across the English Channell) to stay below the German Radar. Then made the turn to climb up to 800ft crossing the French coast,” Hamilton said in describing the mission to reporters. “Then we hit a cloud bank almost completely over the area we were supposed to drop and we were separated from our flight leader.”

Hamilton explained that he later found out that the clouds caused his jumpers to be separated from the other two planes in his formation by 37 seconds, but he was right on target and 99% landed where they were supposed to.

Immediately afterward Hamilton’s plane came under heavy fire “They put 200 holes in my airplane…” he recounted. “The majority of the troopers were out by then,” he said. “As soon as we got the static lines in I hit the deck (dropped altitude and increased speed) and my co-pilot says “you better lift your right wing, your gonna take it off the steeple of the church at Sainte Mere Eglise,” he said. Hamilton then talked about flying the plane at high speed only 50 feet above the French countryside as it raced back over Marcouf Island on their way back to England.

“Seventy-five years doesn’t seem that long when you’re with this group,” Hamilton said. “It’s amazing, it brings everything back and yet it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago.”

Vezzetti invited Hamilton into the cockpit for the trip. Eugene let him sit in the right seat. Hamilton’s summary response after the commemoration flight landed safely back in England, “better than last time.”

As for Vezzetti, the hectic journey continued afterward to a commemoration of the Berlin Airlift. It has been quite the whirlwind already.

“Yes, we’re tired, but it’s an experience of a lifetime. I’m humbled by the historical big picture,” he said.

After all, his entire life has prepared him for this trip. Of the many people grateful for the efforts of Eugene and the others who have gone to great lengths to honor and commemorate the greatest generation, the people of the Copper Country are proud to know that one of their own was again in Normandy, selflessly doing their part for all of us.