Glider

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About 2100 I got my first glimpse of France to our right. Huge clouds of smoke were billowing from burning villages near the shore. Everything seemed to be going smoothly and according to plan. At 2100 we were heading in toward the northeast beaches of the Cotentin Peninsula. Below us were hundreds of naval craft of all sizes, shapes, and descriptions.

Shortly before 2130 we crossed Utah Beach and could see our proposed landing zones. The formation began descending. I was at the controls while Bill oriented himself and sought a field fit for landing. Suddenly I became aware of small flashes of fire coming from the area where we had been briefed to land. Germans were still there! We promptly decided to hang on and look for safer refuge, but some of our gliders were landing directly into that enemy fire.

Bill signaled that he would take the controls. I relinquished them and seized the intercom.

“Glider to towship, glider to towship, come in towship,” I called.

“Towship to glider,” a metallic voice responded in my earphones. “Looks like this is it, fellas. Good luck.”

“We’re cutting loose,” I said. “We’ll see you later—I hope!”

Bill gave the high sign, and I pushed the big red knob of the release lever. We were coasting free through that misty, smoke-filled, shell-ridden air. The towship was hightailing into the distance. And below us—?

The fields were not so large as we had expected, and the trees were anywhere from forty to a hundred feet tall and seemed at least three hundred to us. Bill approached a rectangular field on the north side of a country road. The air was filled with descending gliders, every one seemingly intent upon getting into that field ahead of us. A glider cut in our left; Bill had to swerve right and do the best he could to get into the rear pasture of a farmhouse. It was less than a hundred yards long, surrounded by trees, graced with a stone barn, covered with stumps and chuckholes, and traversed by a power line upheld by sturdy posts. We had arrived in the bocage of Normandy.

We hit a tree with our left wing. There was a terrible rending, crashing sound. The glider careened to the right. The ground crash shock was taken by our right wing and landing gear. The nose wheel came up through the fuselage, the skid crumpled, and the floor buckled. A good-sized tree passed by my side of the nose with inches to spare.

The nose of our glider was the only portion not completely demolished. Bill and I looked at each other in stupefaction. When we mustered enough courage to look back and see how our airborne charges had fared, we found one man had fractured his arm, but the rest were not seriously hurt. We had been fortunate. During our landing approach I had fleetingly observed a big Horsa somersaulting over some high trees before crashing sickeningly on its Plexiglas nose.

The enemy was lobbing mortar shells into our area. We found the main road extending north through Ste.-MèreEglise to Cherbourg, moved up it, and soon met some other glider pilots who had landed nearby, including several from our own squadron. We were mighty glad to see them.

An airborne captain arrived in a jeep and informed us that we were needed to stand security on a number of Sherman tanks just arrived. The tank jockeys had been hard at it since 0300 that morning. I was dead tired, but not so much so as to not note the fireworks going on all about us.

In the morning about forty of us glider pilots were formed into a combat patrol and to our dismay learned that our mission was to knock out a German fieldpiece, a dreaded eighty-eight, which had been raising the devil with our tanks along the road to Ste.-MèreEglise. But two Sherman tanks fired on it, and by the time we worked our way along the hedgerows up to the emplacement, the gun was deserted.

In the field in front of it were three gliders, one completely burned, the second a mess of kindling wood. The third had apparently made a perfect landing, but directly into the face of enemy machine-gun fire. The two pilots sat stiff and cold in their seats.

We went back along the main road to a spot near where we had maintained our watch the previous night. For the first time I saw German prisoners being brought in. They were a tired, bloody, beaten-looking group of men. As they passed, one of them smiled wearily at me, as much as to say, “Well, I guess we’ve had it.”

In a field nearby lay a great number of dead covered with parachutes and shelter halves. Some of them had already been buried in rude, temporary graves marked by sticks with dog tags attached. I hurried away from the dismal place.

At about 2000 that evening of June 7 orders came through for us to be evacuated. Dog-tired, we finally reached Utah Beach about 2330, and about 0830, June 9, we landed at Portland Bill on the south coast of England. It was a long ride to Greenham Common in an open truck, and rain poured down for about half the distance. At long last, around 1630, we arrived at that blessed base. Next to home I know of no spot on earth that ever looked so wonderful. Everyone at the base was overjoyed to see us. The greater part of us had been given up for dead in the pessimistic reports given by the power pilots who had towed us into that inferno.

An immediate count of our squadron casualties revealed only one glider pilot definitely known dead, Flight Officer John Mills, whose Horsa I had seen cartwheeling. Five of our men had sustained serious injuries—two would never fly again—and four were missing. Later we learned two of the missing were dead.