Restoration Reunites WWII Veterans

Former Pilot, Paratrooper Revisit Old Friend at SMX

There was a World War II reunion of sorts this week in Santa Maria, as three Army veterans came together.

Frank Goins, a flight officer with the U.S. Army Air Corps, Bindo Grasso of Guadalupe, a paratrooper with the U.S. Army who served in France in the months following D-Day, and a Douglas C-47B Skytrain were brought together by a restoration of the venerable aircraft that many Army veterans fondly dubbed a Gooney Bird.

The group, associated with the Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles, just finished restoring the plane at ArtCraft Paint at the Santa Maria Public Airport. The volunteers and the craftsmen at ArtCraft carefully restored the plane to its flat, dull green and gray camouflage look.

“It’s a wonderful airplane. A combination of pilots and engineers developed this airplane, so it’s a pilot’s airplane,” said the 91-year-old Goins, who traveled from his Modesto home in hope of flying in the plane from the Central Coast to Chino, where it will visit the Lightning Strike Chino air show.

“When I first went over there, yeah, I flew out of England. Got in on the coast of France on runways that were as slick as glass,” he said.

There’s a possibility that Goins and this particular airplane might have crossed paths during the last two years of the war.  Goins flew cargo all over Western Europe, and the plane was set up to carry both supplies and troops.

“We know it’s a combat veteran of the European theater,” said Hector Camacho, who grew up in Guadalupe and Nipomo, and taught school at Righetti High before becoming a pilot, mechanic and instructor.  Camacho was one of many volunteers working to restore and recertify the big plane.

The Paso Robles Gooney Bird group — Glenn Thomson, Gary Corippo and Sherm Smoot — formed a nonprofit corporation to buy and operate the airplane and have traced the plane’s lineage from the Army Air Corps to military service in Belgium, France and Israel before it was discharged into private ownership in Canada.

Corippo, director of the Paso Robles-based museum, said the plane sat idle in Israel for 31 years and has just over 9,000 hours of flight time on it.

Gooney Bird volunteer Rob Kinnear said the group has worked hard to research the plane’s background and narrowed it down to the 302nd Air Transport Wing, 27th group. They named the plane “Betty’s Biscuit Bomber,” paying homage to its supplies-flight background.

Goins, who attended flight school in San Antonio and Waco, Texas, was assigned to the 10th TC Group in Grenada, Miss. before finally reaching the war in Grove, England. He piloted planes that carried supplies to the troops and towed British troop-carrying gliders.  He was eventually assigned to follow Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army on its march across France in the summer of 1944.

“We didn’t call them missions. We just flew. I got over 1,000 hours in less than six months,” Goins said forcefully, for somebody who has seen nine decades. “Carried high test gasoline and ammunition. And when we’d come back we usually had a boat load of wounded aboard. We carried a nurse on board the flights — sometimes two.”

Goins said the pilots highly respected the nurses who flew with them. He said many were former commercial flight attendants who knew the planes as well as some of the pilots.

The versatile plane with twin Pratt & Whitney 1,200-horsepower engines had a range of over 1,500 miles and a top speed of 232 mph. Goins said they normally flew between 150 and 170 mph when they were loaded, often as low as they could.

“We didn’t have any way to weigh and balance, so one of the tactics we’d use was at 45 mph, if that tail came off the ground we’d fly it. If it didn’t come off the ground at 45, we’d shut ‘er down and unload some stuff,” he said.

“That way we could fly right on the deck or if we could find a cloud, we’d get in it. Fighters wouldn’t come down and get you if you’re right on the deck,” which he joked was 17 inches above ground. “The (enemy ground troops) — you’re gone over them before they knew you were there. They could hear you, but they didn’t know where you were.”

The Gooney Birds also dropped troops all over Western Europe, including Grasso, who was part of a small group of paratroopers known as the “pathfinders” who parachuted into France ahead of the D-Day invasion.

Grasso’s first combat jump was near Sainte-Mere Eglise the night before the Allied troops hit the beaches of Normandy. They set up Eureka beacons to light the way for the troops following.

He said it was a fluke he ever became a paratrooper. A New Jersey native, Grasso was stationed in Southern California at a Pasadena horse racing track guarding Japanese Americans who were being shipped to internment camps.

Harry Masatani, whose family has owned Masatani’s Market in Guadalupe for 91 years, was among those relocated during the war. The sharp 86-year-old Masatani, whose family wound up in a Colorado camp, went through Pasadena where Grasso worked.

He said he and Grasso are now good friends and members of Guadalupe American Legion Post 371.  Grasso was later transferred to the airbase in Santa Maria where his military career literally took wings.

“You know a bunch of guys get together and say ‘Let’s join the parachute group.’ You know it was 50 bucks more a month,” Grasso explained. “I didn’t want to join because I was in the Fourth Air Force West Coast Defense. They talked me into it and we all joined. Of the six, I’m the only dummy that passed. The rest were shipped back to Santa Maria. The next thing I know, I’m overseas.”

Grasso made three combat jumps in Europe, all out of C-47s.  “We’re all excited. I guess you know we were afraid, but you’re not going to say anything,” Grasso remembered. “You can’t say you’re not jumping, but I guess if I had to do it all over again I’d do the same thing.”

Goins took a typical pilot’s opinion when it came to jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.  “The only way you’d get me out of an airplane is if it’s on fire or if there’s structural damage. I saw too many paratroopers with broken collar bones, broken legs, into barbed wire fences.”

5/1/13 •  By Brian Bullock/Staff Writer/