EDITOR'S NOTE: On June 6, 1944, Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy in a massive military invasion credited with turning the tide of World War II. As the 75th anniversary of D-Day nears, Dave Lobeck in March visited France, where he toured the landing beaches and the national cemetery as well as Pointe du Hoc. This is the third in a series of columns about his experience.
The D-Day Invasion at Normandy was the largest military invasion in world history. More than 150,000 Allied soldiers stormed the beaches on June 6, 1944. Can you imagine that? Of these, 15,000 were soldiers sent BEHIND enemy lines. How were they delivered? Gliders. The soldiers had a nickname for them: "Flying coffins."
We saw these gliders firsthand at the Sainte Mere Eglise Airborne Museum. When I think of a glider, I certainly think of a smallish plane. Boy was I mistaken. These things were huge. The CG-4A fuselage was 48 feet long, constructed of steel and canvas skin. Its plywood floor could support more than 4,000 pounds. It could carry two pilots and up to 13 paratroopers, or a combination of heavy equipment and small crews to operate it. The nose section could swing up to create a cargo door opening that could accommodate the delivery of Jeeps, 75-mm howitzers, or other military vehicles.
With a wingspan of 83.5 feet, the "Waco" glider maxed out at 150 mph when connected to its tow plane. Once the 300-foot length of 1-inch nylon rope was cut, typical gliding speed was just over 70 mph.
The Waco Aircraft Co. of Troy, Ohio, a niche manufacturer of civilian airplanes, won the contract to design and build America's first combat glider. Big names like Ford, along with a dozen or so smaller firms, also won glider contracts, but only if they weren't already producing powered aircraft for the war effort. With more than 70,000 parts to assemble — that’s right, 70,000 parts — and with little or no standardization or time to create test gliders, some manufacturers produced a few lemons, unfortunately with occasional tragic results.
Liz and I were able to step into a restored glider, where they had mannequins dressed and situated as paratroopers would have been during their drop into Normandy. Another section of the museum property had a rather new high-tech building that was meant to re-create what these paratroopers experienced as they were being positioned to parachute over the swamplands of Normandy. The noise was unbearable and the building shook as a glider would have during flight. As you looked down, you could see the terrain that you were about to jump onto.
The ceiling, which overlooks the restored glider, is draped in D-Day parachutes. On D-Day, the color of the parachute identified what role the soldier fulfilled in the invasion and what supplies and equipment he had with him. Red is ammunition, white was medical, blue was fuel, black was mail and yellow was communication. Paratroopers who didn’t survive were wrapped in their parachute and buried. One of the more disturbing vintage pictures we saw was a wrecked glider with eight deceased American soldiers laid out in front for display.
General Westmoreland had this to say about the soldiers in the gliders and the glider pilots, themselves.
"They were the only aviators during World War II who had no motors, no parachutes, and no second chances."