Days into the Allied invasion of Normandy, the U.S. 4th Infantry Division was pinned down by enemy fire at Utah Beach. The beachhead was secured, but Allied forces had only captured half the planned territory. The remaining Nazi soldiers fiercely defended the area. Overhead, a P-38 Lightning strafed the advancing German unit, freeing the 4th Infantry to continue their mission to take control of the peninsula.
Ray Fagen was in the first wave of troops to storm the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. He fought in continuous combat with the 4th Infantry through the Liberation of Paris to the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded in that encounter and received the Purple Heart.
Ray didn’t like to talk about his months in battle. But in the rare stories he chose to share, he credited his life to the P-38 that saved him that day on the battlefield. Today that aircraft sits on display at Fagen Fighters WWII Museum, a tribute to the contributions of Ray and other World War II heroes.
Honoring a Legacy
Inspired by his father’s valor and love for flying, Ron Fagen took an interest in World War II aviation. A veteran of the 4th Infantry like his dad, Ron served in the Vietnam War and got his pilot’s license upon returning home. He purchased his first warbird in 1993 — a P-51 Mustang — and restored it to its former glory. A PT-19 followed. Then a P-40 Warhawk. The growing collection began to attract fellow history buffs.
“The collection just kept going and continues to grow. We thought we really needed to do something to make this an actual museum and honor this generation,” says Evan Fagen, Ron’s son, Ray’s grandson and chief pilot at the museum. “My folks came up with the idea. We opened it officially in June 2012 and it’s grown a lot since then.”
Housed in three hangars at the Lenzen-Roe-Fagen Memorial Airport in Granite Falls, MN, Fagen Fighters is one of the few museums that maintains fully operational exhibits. Visitors can view WWII aircraft on the ground and in the air. Hand-painted murals fill the hangar walls, depicting these planes in famous battles. The birds still take to the sky about once a week. And every three years, the family hosts the Ray Fagen Memorial Airshow, where 15,000 people come for a glimpse of vintage fighter jets in flight, WWII battle re-enactments and a country music concert.
Preparing for Takeoff
A Toolcat 5600 keeps these rare birds in line and maintains the museum grounds. The Fagens use a hitch to pull the planes to and from the runway and into position in the hangars.
“We needed something that was heavy duty and that had the stability and the horsepower to pull airplanes in and out,” Evan says. “As we got into bigger and heavier aircraft, we needed something that could move them around without delaying the flight.”
With 16 planes and counting — 13 of which can still fly — the Toolcat work machine spends most days transporting aircraft. It’s also critical to the preservation of the historic fleet. Debris on the asphalt can get into the engines and damage the jets. The Toolcat 5600 sweeps the ramp regularly to help keep the planes in flying condition. In the long Minnesota winter, that means clearing several feet of snow and ice for the planes and the museum’s visitors.
“The Toolcat 5600 can move the airplanes whether it’s icy out or not. It doesn’t struggle. It’s very smooth. It just does everything,” says Evan. “It can do everything we need and you don’t have to have three machines to do it. It’s just been great all around.”
Twelve years operating a Toolcat utility work machine at the hangar spurred Evan to purchase one for his own property. He sold his utility vehicle and tractor, handing the maintenance on his 12 acres of land over to a 5600.
“Now I can do it all with one machine. The Toolcat 5600 mows. It moves snow. I use the forks. I use the bucket. I use the tilt box all the time. They’re just so versatile. I wouldn’t use anything else.”