Stepping back in history

Jim Lawler had never seen a plane that his dad had actually flown during World War II until this past January when he saw the C-47 “The S.N.A.F.U. Special,” in Normandy, France.

“I thought it was kind of neat. It was something that he had physically touched and flown,” said Lawler, of Mandan, when he first saw the transport plane at the Merville Battery Museum in the small town of Merville on the beach in Normandy, France.

Lawler’s dad, the late Murray Lawler, a native of Emmons County, was a transport carrier pilot during World War II, flying C-47s. Several years ago his name was found on a crew roster in the S.N.A.F.U. when the plane was being dismantled at a Bosnia airfield before being taken to the Merville museum.

Jim Lawler, his wife Sharon and their daughter Erin visited Normandy, France, earlier this year when the Lawlers accompanied their daughter before she started six-weeks of student teaching in England.

Lawler is manager of the Mandan Airport and a longtime member of the Dakota Territory Air Museum in Minot.

His parents met and married in England during the war.

“We visited Nottingham and saw the house where mom grew up and the church where they were married,” Jim Lawler said.

Margaret Lawler, who celebrated her 91st birthday in January and now lives in Boise, Idaho, was the first war bride to arrive in North Dakota. She arrived in the state in 1946.

After the war, the S.N.A.F.U. was sold to a Czechoslovakian airline, then to the French Air Force and then to the Yugoslavian military. The plane flew for the last time in 1994 when it was abandoned along an airstrip in Bosnia until a United Nations peacekeeper noticed it and recalled the Merville Battery Museum was searching for a C-47 for display. The museum people were contacted.

When a team from the Merville Battery Museum was disassembling the plane to take it to Merville in November 2007, a member of that group discovered a crew roster from World War II in the plane. “

“As I’ve been told, it was in the airplane when they took it apart and found this paper,” Jim Lawler said.

Murray Lawler’s name was on the roster.

Through correspondence with the pilots and their families, Margaret Lawler was located and confirmed that her husband was in photos that the museum had of the S.N.A.F.U.’s crew.

After the plane had been dismanted in Bosnia and taken to Merville, it was restored, painted and put on display at the Merville Battery Museum. It was dedicated on June 7, 2008.

Besides the S.N.A.F.U., Murray Lawler flew “The Duchess of Dakota” C-47 and probably other planes. Lawler named the Duchess in honor of his future bride.

“The story I’ve been told over the years is that when he met her, he asked her if she was a queen or princess the story varies and she said, ‘no, I’m just a common girl.’ He said from now on you’ll be ‘The Duchess of Dakota’ ” Jim Lawler said.

According to Lawler family history and other accounts, Murray Lawler, who was born at Temvik in Emmons County, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942 and became a transport plane pilot. He and Margaret Bradbury met in England. Margaret was from Nottingham and they met on a double date to attend a USO show at the American base. They got engaged three days before D-Day on June 6, 1944, but were not married until Oct. 27, 1944. Their wedding had to be postponed three times while they waited for permission from Washington, D.C.

Murray Lawler served in the European Theater during World War II. He took part in the Southern France and Italian Campaigns. He participated in the D-Day Normandy invasion, the Rhine Crossing, the Battle of the Bulge and Market Garden Operation in Holland.

Among Murray’s memorable missions was transporting the infamous, “Filthy 13,” an unofficial unit of young Army paratroopers within the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. The unit parachuted behind enemy lines on D-Day and perfomed key demolition missions. The movie, “The Dirty Dozen,” is a fictionalized account of the unit.

When the war was over Murray flew back to the U.S. in 1945. Margaret traveled to the U.S. on a hospital ship and then by train from New York to North Dakota, arriving in Bismarck in early 1946.

The Lawler’s raised a family of nine children and lived on a farm in the Linton area.

“He wanted to be a pilot, he loved flying,” Jim Lawler said. But he said Murray Lawler felt that he was obligated to farm since his dad had the purchased the land.

Jim Lawler said when his dad was asked about his wartime experience, he said he didn’t mind the experience but he wouldn’t want to do it again.

Murray Lawler, who died in July 2006, is buried in the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery near Mandan.

Jim Lawler said they have tried to trace the “The Duchess of Dakota” but have never found it. He said one of his brothers believes that at some time the plane was destroyed.

However, the Texas Flying Legends Museum, a group that has a number of World War II planes including a C-47/C-53, decided to name their plane “The Duchess of Dakota.”

Warren Pietsch, Minot, who is vice president of operations and chief pilot for the Texas group, said after Jim Lawler told the story about his father naming the C-47 for his future wife Margaret, they named their plane “The Duchess of Dakota” and invited Margaret to a veterans tribute in Oshkosh, Wis.

Last summer Margaret Lawler and several family members went to Oshkosh, where Margaret and several World War II veterans were part of the veterans recognition with the Texas Flying Legends Museum and its planes at the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2013 event.

Jim Lawler said he and family members are pleased that the Texas Flying Legends Museum group painted their plane with the “The Duchess of Dakota.”

“It’s quite an honor for dad. I’m pretty proud of it,” he said.