Growing up, I had heard my grandfather fought in WWII, but as a kid I really didn’t know in what capacity. My family knew the basics: he was in the ETO; at various points he was in Iceland, England, France, and Germany; he had medals; and worked with the gliders. He rarely spoke of his service and on the off-chance he did, he was vague. Everyone knew better than to pry too much. He avoided flying and planes, and later in life, he suffered PTSD. When he passed, his secrets and experiences died with him.
Two years later, the miniseries Band of Brothers renewed our family’s interest in Grandpa’s service in WWII. We went through his papers with a fine-tooth comb, rediscovered the medals and patches, and found he had both paratrooper and glider wings. It let us piece together a little of his story. Then, thanks to the internet, we could learn exactly what the gliders were and their function during the war.
The Germans were the first to use the gliders in their invasion of France. In response to the German’s success, both America and British created their own versions. Nicknamed the “Flying Coffins,” a high-wind cabin aircraft, the gliders’ framing consisted of plywood and sometimes aluminum, covered in canvas fabric. They connected the glider to a C-47 via a cable and towed it (“gliding” along). Without an engine and propellers, it flew silently and undetected by the enemy. The “glider riders,” however, insisted it was deafeningly loud on the inside.
Depending on the type of glider, it would either be transporting fifteen men or supplies, jeeps, and other equipment. When the glider was near its LZ (Landing Zone), it would detach from the C-47 and crash land. Yes, crash land. The survival rate wasn’t promising. It was suicidal, really. The glider pilots would have to navigate the engineless aircraft as best they could, avoiding trees and any stakes the enemy had erected, and hopefully land it somewhere near its LZ.
The gliders would also be under assault from the Germans. One story I heard was of a man in a glider awaiting the landing who felt stunned when the laces on his boots suddenly stood on end. He too numb from the adrenalin coursing through his veins to realize the enemy had shot him in the foot. Following the crash landing, if they survived, the men would disembark from the glider and immediately enter combat.
They used the gliders in many major airborne operations throughout WWII: the invasion of Sicily, D-Day, Operation Market Garden, Operation Varsity, and Operation Thursday in the Far East. In the various operations, the causalities were heavy. The gliders were instrumental during the war, and the “glider riders” proved themselves invaluable time after time.
After WWII, the military discontinued the gliders in favor of the helicopter. In comparison with the paratroopers, history has largely forgotten the gliders, and the men involved. There are a few books for those who want to do more in-depth research, but more often than naught, the gliders are a footnote or a small mention on a documentary.
How could these “glider riders” take part in such dangerous—and most times—thankless operations? Many looked down on them, including the paratroopers. The military did not even issue them jump boots. It wasn’t until July 1944 that they “earned” their right to wear glider wings and receive hazard-duty pay. During WWII, eventually the government drafted most men into the military, but to be a “glider rider,” was voluntary. The strongest and the best persevered against all odds. Why and how could these young men—including my grandfather—do what they did?
I believe only the deepest, strongest patriotism could have driven them… along with the fact that they were young and away from their homes for the first times in their lives. The gliders were something relatively new, untested, and risky. It was an adventure like no other. In the end, those young men played their part in fighting against evil.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Leigh has been published in several anthologies and her work has appeared on GoWorldTravel.com and the Artist Unleashed, and she has published a couple of fictional stories. She makes her home in Indiana with her family and her furbabies. To learn more about her, visit her blog.