The Glider Boys

Glider (CG-4A) in flightAmerican 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.

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A tough way to enter Europe

SartainDday159.jpg Lenton Sartain, part of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 319th Glider Field Artiller Battalion (Photo by Patrick Dennis, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

In his first two years in the Army, C. Lenton Sartain Jr., of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, qualified as a paratrooper, served in North Africa, fought in Italy and trained endlessly with his unit.

But nothing was like D-Day.

When American, British and Canadian forces invaded German-held France on June 6, 1944, no one had it easy. But Sartain, then a lieutenant known to his men as Charlie, may have had one of the most dangerous ways of getting into Fortress Europe.

Sartain was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 319th Glider Field Artillery Battalion. While most of the soldiers arrived by boat or parachute, Sartain was among those who came on clumsy aircraft ill-suited for this occasion.

Regardless, those aboard them helped begin the eastward push that ended in Germany’s surrender 11 months later.

“The glider landing in Normandy was very crucial, but it was very costly,” said Sartain. “We lost a lot of people just by Normandy having such small fields. … It was a touch-and-go situation there for a while.”

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Airborne: First to arrive on D-Day

D-Day, Ike with paratroopersGen. Dwight Eisenhower speaks with paratroopers shortly before they board airplanes taking them into Normandy on D-Day. (National Archives)

By George Morris

Vincent Russo Sr. of New Roads, Louisiana, was already beyond fear. Russo was one of thousands of airsick paratroopers bouncing through the skies in C-47 transport planes in the earliest hours of D-Day.

“A deep breath of fresh air was the only thing on my mind,” Russo said.

Finally, a green light signaled it was time to jump, and men of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions stepped into the night illuminated by searchlights, anti-aircraft bursts and machine gun tracer rounds. They had to secure the roads and bridges leading from the invasion beaches. It was about 2 a.m., and, along with British paratroopers to the east, they were the first Allied combat soldiers to touch French soil.

At that hour and in that weather, it was impossible for the paratroopers to know whether they were going to land in an open field, in a tree, on a building, or …

“I hit with a great splash,” Russo said.

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