D-Day’s last Pathfinder pilot has deep family roots
PRESCOTT VALLEY — The dapper-looking gentleman in a tan, patch-
covered Air Force jacket and blue Air Force cap who makes daily visits to the Prescott Valley Post Office doesn’t get much attention.
Dave Hamilton, who doesn’t look his 94 years, happens to be the great, great, great, great grandson of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, who was the first Secretary of the Treasury and authored 51 of the 75 Federalist Papers.
Hamilton, who refers to his Founding Father ancestor who died in a duel with then-Vice President Aaron Burr as “the last bad shot in the family,” has another important distinction. He is the last surviving Pathfinder pilot from D-Day in World War II. The Pathfinders were an elite group of C-47 transport pilots who flew into France on the night of June 5, 1944, to drop the paratroopers who would mark the drop zones for the paratroopers who would begin the U.S. invasion of Normandy.
Dave Hamilton’s father was a former World War I pilot working as a banker when World War II broke out. The Army recalled him as a major serving as a liaison for Gen. Hap Arnold with British Admiral Lewis Montbatten. He was air coordinator for the Allied raid on Dieppe on the French coast in 1942 to test defenses for D-Day. He later won the Congressional Medal of Honor for risking his life to cross back and forth over enemy lines and negotiate the French ceasefire in Morocco.
Young Hamilton joined the Army Air Corps the day after Pearl Harbor. He passed the air cadet exam and by Christmas 1943 he was flying a twin-engine Douglas C-47 “gooney bird” troop carrier plane with the 436th Troop Carrier Group along the Southern Route to Nottingham, England.
Prior to D-Day, the 21-year-old pilot became an air commander. He received green instrument rating card, which was unheard of for a young first lieutenant, and orders to make a practice jump with the young paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne that he would drop on D-Day. On May 28, 1944, eight days before the Allied invasion, the British hosts “bigoted” his unit, which meant no communications in or out until the invasion.
At 11:30 p.m. June 5, he took off in a three-ship formation headed toward St. Mere Eglise area of France — each with 18 paratroopers, four other crew members and an observer aboard. They went in at 800 feet and 200 miles per hour. Although he could hear ground fire pounding the plane, no one suffered any wounds and his “stick” of paratroopers jumped safely. On the return trip, he had to tip his right wing sharply to avoid cutting off the steeple of the Cathedral of St. Mere Eglise. The steeple became famous in the film “The Longest Day” when Red Buttons played a paratrooper who got hung up on the it. One bullet from the furious ground fire came in Hamilton’s C-47 windshield and damaged the controls he used to shut off the engines.
On the return flight, Hamilton’s radar operator called him back to see the screen covered with literally hundreds of bright blips representing the Allied invasion fleet advancing on Normandy. When he landed back at base, Hamilton had to stop fuel to the engines to shut them down in the absence of his damaged controls. The ground crew found more than 300 holes in the airplane — many of them from .25-caliber and 9-millimeter submachine guns that German ground troops carried. A 27-millimeter shell had taken off one of his wing tips. His ground crew chief said the plane had “caught the measles” on the flight.
Hamilton made additional drops of men and supplies in the South of France as well as over Bastogne during The Battle of the Bulge. He also made a number of troop drops in Holland. Between World War II and Korea, he flew for American Overseas Airlines but went back in the Air Force at the outbreak of the Korean War. He initially was to fly Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to be Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but the newly-wed was able get an operations officer assignment at Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, N.Y., arranging flights home for wounded soldiers. After two years, he flew B-26 bombers in Korea. Later, he went to jet school and flew F-86-D fighters. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1963.
He then worked for the Heublein Company as a liquor sales executive, retiring in 1973. Later, he bought and operated the Abercrombie & Fitch shooting school in California. On a hunting trip to Africa, he met and became friends with Hollywood personalities William Holden and Stephanie Powers. He also was friends with Gunsite Firearms Academy founder Jeff Cooper, who served in World War II on the USS Pennsylvania with friends of his.
Hamilton and his wife adopted a son and a daughter. They later divorced, and she died in 1992. Today, his daughter is a veterinarian in Wyoming, and his son is college teacher in the Valley.
Hamilton earned a number of combat decorations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with one silver and four bronze oak leaf clusters, the Presidential Unit Citation with two oak leaf clusters, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation, the Dutch Order of William and the United Nations Service Medal.
Early this year, he received the French Legion of Honor and a commemorative coin from the Pathfinders Association. He recently received the Warriors Medal of Honor from the Native American Nations of the United States of America.