American Waco CG-4A glider being towed in flight (National Archives)
By George Morris
After a half century, World War II aircraft and airmen remain famous. Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 raiders bombing Tokyo. Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers dueling Japanese Zeros. British Spitfires and Hurricanes fighting off the German blitz. The Memphis Belle.
Less well known is another group of combat aviators — glider pilots. Yet, they were part of some of the war’s biggest, most dangerous missions.
“A bunch of us are lucky guys to be here,” said W.T. Owens of Baton Rouge in advance of a reunion of about 100 other World War II glider pilots.
Gliders had never been used in war until 1940, when Germany used them to transport soldiers and equipment during its invasion of Belgium. The Germans’ success prompted Allied countries to develop glider programs as well.
Gilbert Slaughter of Baker was part of the U.S. Army Air Corps glider program from its beginning in 1942. Trainees not only had to learn to fly unpowered aircraft but also received training as foot soldiers.
“Ninety-nine percent of them were volunteers,” Slaughter said. “Most of them were fellows who wanted to fly but they couldn’t qualify as an aviation cadet. Maybe some of them had a minor vision problem or physical defect that kept them out of the aviation cadet program.”
The primary American glider was the Waco CG-4A, which could carry 13 soldiers or equipment like a Jeep, howitzer or supplies. The British designed much larger gliders. The Horsa glider could carry 29 soldiers, and the Hamilcar, which had a 112-foot wingspan, could even carry a light tank.
Gliders were used in conjunction with paratrooper missions to put a significant number of men and equipment behind enemy lines. The equipment was too heavy to be dropped in by parachute. Cargo planes like the C-47 would tow gliders, sometimes two at a time, close to designated landing zones. Once released from the tow plane, glider pilots would have to quickly select a place to land.
“When he made a decision, it had to be the right one,” Slaughter said. “Sometimes it wasn’t, but that was the only choice he had. He couldn’t put the throttle to the wall, pick up and come around and do it again. He had to set it down. They flew by the seat of the pants.”
Early glider missions came with costly lessons. The first major use of Allied gliders was the July 1943 invasion of Sicily. Only 49 of the 136 gliders landed; some were shot out of the sky when the tow planes carried them over U.S. Navy warships,which mistook them for enemy aircraft. The second mission, on March 4, 1944, in Burma, was a success despite overloading that caused 15 of 54 gliders to crash.
Three months later, 517 gliders carrying American, British and Canadian soldiers were part of the epic Normandy invasion. The Germans were ready. In the most favorable landing fields, they erected large poles that would smash the gliders before they reached the ground. Since the glider landings were at night, pilots couldn’t see the poles.
Still, the gliders brought in more than 4,000 soldiers; 210 glider pilots were killed, wounded or missing. This was Owens’ first mission. In training, American glider pilots had to fly over a 50-foot obstacle then land within 600 feet. This duplicated the types of landings where hedgerows surrounded farmland.
“The Normandy invasion was the toughest one,” Owens said. “The British had all the beautiful, flat fields and we had the hedgerows and the short fields. I was flying a British glider and I had 29 Airborne (soldiers) on board.
“We were so overloaded that when we hit the ground we were eating it up pretty fast. We hit three trees going about 140 mph. My copilot got a tree in his face and he was unconscious 14 days.”
Once on the ground, glider pilots were combat soldiers until they could be brought back to their air base. Two months later, Owens was part of the southern France invasion.
In September 1944, Owens and Slaughter brought troops into Holland as part of Operation Market-Garden. Strategists underestimated the strength of German forces in the area, but the glider operation was highly successful. In six days, 1,900 gliders were used. Pilots suffered only 114 casualties. At one point, 300 glider pilots were called up to the front line. It is the only time in U.S. military history, Slaughter said, when only officers manned a front-line position.
“We got very little recognition for that,” Slaughter said.
Owens and Slaughter also flew in the largest single-day glider operation of the war. In March 1945, they went in ahead of British forces crossing the Rhine River near Wesel, Germany. The air armada was 500 miles long and took 3 hours and 20 minutes to pass a fixed point on the ground.
“In a way, I sweated the German invasion more than any,” Owens said. “I knew we weren’t going to have people like the French FFI, these underground organizations.
“Right after we landed and got organized, there was an elderly man … up in a tree shooting at us. I took this submachine gun and gave him about three bursts and cut the limb out from under him.”
After Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, there was only one more big glider mission — the Philippine invasion on June 23. Slaughter and Owens weren’t part of that assault, but Slaughter returned to the United States and was preparing to invade Japan when atomic bomb attacks ended the war.
War’s end also ended the gliders’ combat role. The development of helicopters gave armed forces a more versatile vehicle for bringing in troops and equipment. Still, glider pilots are proud of their little known part of the war effort, Slaughter said.
“The glider program overall was successful,” Slaughter said.