June 6th, 2019 marks 75 years since D-Day and the invasion of Normandy. The invasion was by far the largest and most complex invasion ever staged in verifiable, recorded history, and as historians look back on D-Day, they all agree that without the C-47 Skytrain — a dual-engine transport plane that lumbers along at 120mph — it wouldn’t have been possible for the Allies to have even planned such a massive attack, let alone carry it out and defeat the Nazis.
California’s Douglass Aircraft produced over 10,000 C-47s for the war effort, and this meant that the US needed pilots. One of those pilots was Alfred Pepper, a young butcher from Pennsylvania who had always wanted to fly. His wish came true after he failed to master becoming an airplane mechanic. As Mr. Pepper puts it, “They tried to make a mechanic out of a meat cutter, and it didn’t work.” His training as a C-47 pilot went well, however, and he eventually logged over 1,200 hours flying troops and supplies in the Pacific Theater during WWII.
“We flew over what they called ‘coastal waters’, dropping supplies and troops,” Pepper told me. Amazingly, Pepper sometimes carried out these missions without a navigator, relying on a watch, compass and the patterns of waves below him to find his drop zones. By the time the war had ended, he’d flown in New Guinea, the Southern Philippines, Luzon, and the Bismark Archipelago and was adorned with five service stars for his service in the South Pacific, a Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation, a Good Conduct Medal, a Philippine Liberation Ribbon with another battle star, and a World War II Victory Medal. After all this, Mr. Pepper returned to the USA, married his sweetheart, and commenced a long career in the meat industry.
Lieutenant Alfred Pepper is now 98-years-old. Pepper’s grandson saw an article I’d written about the standard TOCKR D-Day C-47 watch, the dial of which is made from scrap metal from a C-47 named “That’s All Brother” that led the paratrooper invasion of Normandy. This article alerted the Pepper family to the fact that there are over 20 restored C-47s still flying in the US, all operated by the Commemorative Air Force.
As I write this, the CAF’s pilots are flying a dozen of those noisy and slow C-47s over the Atlantic to Normandy to help celebrate D-Day, but before they embarked on that journey they received one very important mission Stateside: to take Lieutenant Alfred Pepper up in a C-47 for the first time in 75 years.
Austin Ivey, founder of the aviation-oriented TOCKR Watches, is the grandson of a WWII C-47 pilot named Eugene Xerxes Martin Jr, who flew the famous Skytrains in the China-Burma-India Theater throughout WWII. It was his grandfather’s service as a pilot that inspired Ivey to start TOCKR back in 2016, which released its first watches in 2017. When Ivey learned about Mr. Pepper and his scheduled flight, Ivey immediately set out to make him a special timepiece, which has since been named the D-Day C47 Alfred Pepper. The Pepper is a 42mm bronze pilots watch made with metal from the aforementioned C-47, “That’s All Brother.”
In May, Mr. Ivey, his parents, good friends, and TOCKR co-founder Sophy Rindler travelled to Urbana, Ohio where a C-47 awaited the veteran’s arrival. Ivy would present Mr. Pepper with #001 out of just 75 of the limited edition Alfred Pepper watch. The other 74 watches are currently for sale, but only #001 has a strap painted with Mr. Pepper’s squadron’s insignia.
After Mr. Pepper arrived and made his way to the cockpit of the C-47, it became clear that this was the place and time for Mr. Ivey to present the watch. Ivey took the co-pilot’s seat, turned to Mr. Pepper and began to speak. As Ivey thanked the former C-47 pilot for his service and explained that the watch was Mr. Pepper’s to keep, everyone I could see began to tear up, myself included.
When Mr. Pepper saw his squadron’s insignia painted on the strap, his tears flowed more freely, and he instantly pulled off his own watch, handed it to Ivey like a dirty rag, and said, “That baby is officially retired.” As the cameras clicked around the fuselage, Mr. Pepper turned to make eye contact with his family members, which included his daughter, son, grandson, and great grandson. This young boy was just old enough to grasp the significance of the occasion, and he and his great grandfather clearly adored each other.
The weather, however, didn’t seem to grasp the significance of the moment, as it cast a cloud pattern that Ivey’s father, also a pilot, told me, “are not the kind of conditions you want to fly a plane like that in.” Alas, we all evacuated the fuselage and crowded around the Coke machine in the tiny airport lobby in a kind of impromptu reception party. The only one who wasn’t disappointed by the canceled flight was the 98-year-old Mr. Pepper, to whom his family had decided not to mention the flight for fear of cancellation.
Then the clouds broke, just a little. Then there were men in WWII pilot’s uniforms huddled over an iPad looking at maps. Then there were phone calls, and then the captain of the C-47 — a handsome older man wearing a captain’s hat, RayBan aviators and a bomber jacket — asked Mr. Pepper if he’d like to fly in the C47 we’d all just exited. A child’s wide-eyed grin came across Pepper’s face, and he instantly replied, “You bet your boots I want to fly!” Everyone cheered. Mr. Pepper was assigned a chaperone, an 80-year-old veteran wearing a khaki jump suit and combat boots, and about 30 minutes later, a handful of us were airborne inside the roaring bare-bones plane on our way to Columbus, Ohio, about a half-hour’s flight.
Flying in a C47 is thrilling and somewhat terrifying. For me it was mostly a thrill, but for Mr. Pepper it was pure joy. As he put on his headphones in order to listen to the flight commands, Mr. Pepper seemed to know exactly what was going on. (His knowledge was confirmed when after the flight he rattled off the formula by which one would calculate the delicate balance of fuel capacity, head winds, running load and distance.)
Once we settled into the half-hour flight, I couldn’t stop thinking about what being a newly trained soldier getting ready to jump out of this plane over a territory full of heavily armed Nazis and their notoriously aggressive Panzer divisions must have been like. My respect and gratitude for these veterans was enormous, and I regretted having failed to formally thank my recently deceased father for his service in WWII. A watch would have really done the trick.
The original TOCKR D-Day timepiece in steel was a stunner, but the bronze version frames the beat-up, army-green dial with a classy warmth that makes the Alfred Pepper model very special. Bronze will eventually gather a patina that will only strengthen the connection between the case and dial of these three-hand pilots watches, while the automatic ETA 2834-A6 movement ticks away with modern accuracy and reliability. By the time we landed in Columbus, I’d lost count of how many times Mr. Pepper pulled back the sleeve of his handsome WWII officer’s dress uniform to look at his new watch. His tears and smiles just kept coming.
I wish commercial pilots could land their planes as smoothly as these men from the Commemorative Air Force landed the C-47 that day. The plane had handily beat the caravan of cars carrying family and friends to the landing site, and this gave Mr. Pepper, his son and me a chance to chat quietly as we waited for the others. Because he was 98-years old, I’d suspected that Mr. Pepper would be tuckered out after all this activity, but the man was even more alert and chatty after the flight. He recounted some dicey missions, and the fact that he learned to fly without a navigational team using just his watch and a compass at night.
As he told us about these feats of daring, he repeatedly looked down at his eponymous TOCKR D-Day C-47 bronze watch, and he continually craned his neck to take in the C-47 parked outside, as if to confirm that all of this was actually happening. I will never forget his smile.
Thank you Lieutenant Pepper, and all the brave people who defended our freedom, for your service.