For several years an abandoned C-119 from 1953 – a piece of military history – has sat at the Battle Mountain Airport, filled with pigeons, waiting for a new life.
Known as a Flying Boxcar, the Fairchild C-119 was an American military troop and equipment transport aircraft designed to haul cargo, personnel and vehicles, and drop them by parachute. A Flying Boxcar could carry 30,000 pounds or 62 troops, and over 1,100 were built from 1947 to 1955.
John Will, president of Rolling Boxcar, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, and Dave Ciocchi, vice president and museum director, are in Battle Mountain for the next two weeks dismantling the C-119.
Will was a crew chief in the Air Force on KC-135s, and Ciocchi, an aeronautical engineer, ran a museum in Fort Worth, Texas for six years.
Rolling Boxcar’s mission is to celebrate the contributions of military personnel by honoring and supporting them using the highway-adapted vintage C-119 Flying Boxcar fuselage repurposed as a traveling Alaska and military art gallery, performance venue and museum. They will repurpose, recycle and sell parts to help fund the project, and all aluminum not used to build the Rolling Boxcar will be smelted down into aluminum ingots and made into jewelry. Inside visitors can buy Alaska-roasted coffees at the coffee bar, as one of their sponsors is Kaladi Brothers Coffee in Anchorage, and they have their own “Boxcar Blend” coffee. They are designing a sound stage between the two open clamshell doors to have bands play when desired. The deck section will be stowable when not in use.
Will said, “We’ll have interpretation panels talking about Alaska military history – we’re focusing on Alaska – just because there’s a big story there that doesn’t get told.”
“Most C-119s have been shot down, crashed, abandoned or are on static display at various air museums, Air Force bases, and even cemeteries for war dead. Without resurrection or re-purposing, these planes are destined for the scrap heap,” stated Will.
“We were looking for an airplane; we got the idea up in Anchorage,” said Will. “They auctioned it off, but they stipulated that it doesn’t fly ever again, and it can’t. That’s why we feel so good about it; we’re not taking a plane that could fly or be a big museum piece. We did some research on it and historically it’s never hauled a president or anything like that. It’s reached the end of its life.”
Ciocchi said it originally came from Fairchild Aircraft in Hagerstown, Maryland in 1953, in time for the Korean War but likely not used because it was delivered new to the Royal Canadian Air Force. They used it extensively in Canada and it may not have ever left there until it was sold by a corporation that disposes of military equipment. Ciocchi said, “This was one of the best jump ships out there because of the configuration of doors; they could empty the airplane in 4 seconds – 44 troops out the door.”
Will’s research indicates the C-119 may have supplied cargo to the Canadian part of the Distant Early Warning Line, also known as the DEW Line or Early Warning Line, which was a system of radar stations in the far northern Arctic region of Canada, with additional stations along the North Coast and Aleutian Islands of Alaska set up to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War, and provide early warning of any sea-and-land invasion.
When it was in Canadian service, troops did jump out of it for training. It was sold to the former aerial firefighting fleet of Hawkins & Powers, who ran it as a tanker dropping fire retardant, and probably smokejumpers and equipment.
Will and Ciocchi are removing the wings, tails, engines and landing gear, and will mount the fuselage on an International school bus chassis with a diesel engine and auto transmission. The cockpit will remain intact. Once the Rolling Boxcar is mobile and renovated with new paint, polished aluminum and nose art, they will drive it to venues such as air shows, air races, fairs and parades in its new life as a traveling coffee bar and art gallery. Rolling Boxcar will be donating to other nonprofits that promote veterans and their service.
When finished, the Rolling Boxcar will have DOT-approved steering and highway-safe controls. The controls will be engineered for removal, so while on display, veterans can take a trip down memory lane and visitors can experience the plane as it once was.
Battle Mountain resident Earl Johnson reflected on his experiences with the C-119, and stated they were all he ever jumped.
Johnson said, “I remember them vividly and the exhilarating experience of flying in one, getting airborne, but never landing in the aircraft – I had to jump out of it. In 1952, I was down in jump school in Fort Benning, Georgia and after that, upon my transfer, to Recon Company, 82nd Airborne Division where we functioned as aggressors for the U.S. troops when they were on various exercises in the field. Jumping out of an airplane was fun – every jump was exhilarating. Once you’ve gone through the seven steps of the jump command given to you in your training and by all cadre after that is to stand up and hook up, which means you hook your parachute to the anchor cable in the aircraft; check your equipment; verify your equipment check; then the things we all remember, shuffle and stand to the door – you’d do what we called an Airborne Shuffle. We shuffled along with our jump boots, got to the door and the jump master would be in the door, and he’d be watching for his green light from the pilot that tells him when to commence to jump. And he would say, ‘Go!’ and after that, you were on your own. And you went out. And unless you go out of a great big bird like this one, you can’t really appreciate how small and insignificant you are as a human being. But then you push forward on your risers – all four together, check your canopy, and if there are no holes any bigger than a helmet or if the shroud lines haven’t gone over so it looks like a giant brassiere – we used to call it a Mae West – then you’re going to be OK, just enjoy the ride. The parachutes we used in those days were from the second war, nothing fancy. I understand the aircraft now are better than the ones we had, the equipment is better, but I totally enjoyed jumping out of airplanes at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg. I left there 67 years ago and got ready for my Infantry adventure in Korea, which I volunteered for, with Audie Murphy’s old outfit, the 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, which is another story; but I appreciate the old 119. They could knock the back off this thing and you could push 2 ½ -ton trucks, jeeps and ¾-ton trucks, along with all the heavy re-supply parcels for the troops on the ground, like up at Chosin Reservoir. I looked at the C-119 as a way to get to where we were going, and I know what the exit was for. It’s a real pleasure to see somebody take an interest in this good old bird and make it so that my great-grandchildren, one of whose father is presently an NCO in the 82nd Airborne Division, can see it. And if we have our way, we’ll all three have served in the 82nd Airborne, and we’re happy with that.”
Rolling Boxcar will attract visitors from all over the country and the project is being filmed for a future documentary.
Will explained the transformation, “The belly will get cut out, we’ll take the bus controls and steering wheel, put it in the cockpit, put a seat in here, and we’ll drive it from here, and park at a venue. And when someone like Earl shows up, we can pull a few pins and that stuff comes out and it’s the cockpit and instrumentation, and we start talking and getting stories.” Stories are shared in their newsletter, “The Boxcar Bulletin.”
The Rolling Boxcar is currently seeking funding for major expenses such as dismantling and rebuilding, their bus and Willys jeep pilot car, and film documentation, and members can join and tax-deductible donations can be made at www.rollingboxcar.com and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/rollingboxcar/ and donors will be the first considered to be guest navigators.
“In two years, we will be back to drive this in the Fourth of July parade in Battle Mountain,” said Will.