Glider Pilot

E-History by Harold M. Goldbrandsen

 

It was a sunny day in Italy August 15, 1944, and I was sitting in the pilots seat of a Waco CG-4A combat glider about to take part in the invasion of Southern France, D-day on the Riviera was about to Begin. At 21 years of age I was one of the younger pilots and a long way from Logan, Utah. In just two years with the Army Air Corps I had trained at airbases all over the United States, picked up a wife and had a three and one half month old son.

 

Ground crews had begun early in the morning attaching C47 towplanes to over 332 Waco gliders carrying a complete glider infantry battalion plus guns and support troops, a total of 2,250 men with large amounts of materiel. Secured in my glider was a caterpillar that, if all went well, would exit through the hinged nose of the glider and construct a runway for a small aircraft carried in a companion glider.

We had been briefed to anticipate arrival over the landing zone in "standard spacing", a normal landing procedure, discharge of cargo and rendezvous at the airborne command post. A chateau called Valbourges had been designated as the airborne command post and I wasn’t looking forward to a long hike to get there. For weeks I had been suffering a bad case of athletes foot that almost kept me off the flight list. As usual a fellow pilot a few years my senior named John Foster was enjoying himself at my expense; "snap-shit junior, your not getting out of this thing that easy".

Takeoff finally began around 3:00 P.M. with the towplanes and tethered gliders staggered on either side of the runway as far as you could see. Towplanes and gliders moved one after the other to the center of the runway accelerating for takeoff. Thick dust and rough air kicked up by so many propellers added to the already difficult task of controlling the glider with its heavy cargo. As we gained speed the wings arched and groaned in their struggle to lift the overloaded glider; I wondered if we would even get off the ground in one piece.

Finally the long towplane-glider train formed and flew north along the Italian coast, crossed over Elba and the northern tip of Corsica, heading for landfall just north of Saint Tropez. Over Corsica the lead Waco developed a serious vibration in its tail, and the towplane turned away from the formation. As they had been trained, the front group followed their leader back toward Italy. Eventually the glider cut off and ditched in the Mediterranean, after which the group realized its error, turned around and took up new positions in the middle of the formation.

As we flew over the rolling hills parallel to the Argens River valley the fields were a combination of green pastures and brown vineyards. All was going well except for the altitude we had gained to avoid those in front of us while those behind us were climbing even higher. The unexpected turn by the front group had ended the carefully planned time interval between formations.

By the time we reached the landing zone aircraft was stacked from 1,000 to 2,500 feet with C-47s, gliders on tow and gliders in free flight. So much for "standard spacing". With gliders plunging from all directions and altitudes you had to drop through a mass of Wacos, select a landing site and keep a sharp eye out for other gliders. Any idea of holding the Waco’s standard seventy mile per hour glide speed was gone as dozens of pilots plunged and jockeyed toward suitable fields at the same time.

From higher altitudes the fields appeared ideal but as we got lower things weren’t so friendly. Many of the fields were filled with "Rommel's asparagus" antiglider poles up to six inches in diameter, set in long rows fifteen to forty feet apart and supposedly tied together by wires triggering land mines.

I spotted a short clearing just wide enough for one glider and free of polls. It looked perfect, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Avoiding gliders on both sides I came in nice and easy. It was looking great until at 200 feet my copilot shouted, "Jesus Christ, look at that bastard." Another pilot had picked the same spot and was approaching from the other direction, we were on course for a nose-on collision; someone had to move.

We still had good airspeed and I could feel pressure on the stick so I banked right toward a tree topped hill hoping there was clear space on the other side. The glider jerked onto a collision course with the entire treeline as one tree embedded itself in the right wing and broke off. Instantly we were wrenched back on a course to a clear downslope as a piece of the left wing disappeared into the trees. With full spoilers and the wheels finally on the ground I put the glider up on the skids, the cockpit filled with dirt, dust obliterated our view and the glider shuddered to a stop.

We were on the ground, buried in dirt up to our knees and less than 100 yards in front of us stood the lovely Chateau Valbourges with its spacious terrace and delicate windows. If we hadn’t hit the trees we would have hit the Chateau. So much for the long hike.

Gliders continued to plow through the vineyards as we dug ourselves out and checked on our passenger and cargo. With the front of the Waco full of dirt no one was sure if the nose would open or the caterpillar would just crush its way out. The operator engaged the transmission and promptly exited to the outside as we watched the nose hinge up in a cascade of falling dirt.

Clear of the Waco the operator climbed aboard the moving caterpillar anxious to complete his task before the arrival of any opposition. Similarly the passenger-pilot in our companion glider, which landed near by, assembled his aircraft and took off. We watched as he circled and spotted target areas for dive bombers delivering their ordinance.

It was 7:30 before the last glider came to a crunching halt in the vineyards around the Chateau. By the time they had been unloaded it was dusk. Foxholes were dug in the lawn and some of the guys lined them with parachutes; others dragged the inflatable rubber dinghies from the gliders to serve as beds.

During the night the sounds of ripping cloth could be heard from the surrounding fields. At dawn we could see paratroopers and glider infantrymen cutting the Army Air Force insignia from the glider fuselages and wings to spread on their jeep hoods for the benefit of friendly aircraft.

On one side of the Chateau beds of hay had been laid for the wounded. There I found John Foster with a broken leg. We joked that he was going to get a free ride home while I would have to march German prisoners back to the beach on sore feet and eventually wind up in the South Pacific theater if the war continued.

As the fog burned off they lined up several hundred German soldiers to be marched to the division POW enclosure. Fortunately I was able to wangle a jeep ride back to the coast past the advancing infantry. They didn’t think much of cocky young pilots in silk scarves. They thought even less of assurances we had secured the area and they may as well go back.

Within days I caught a ship to Corsica and a flight back to the airfield in Italy. Some of the guys took advantage of the situation to tour southern France and Italy. For the next month MPs were rounding up cocky young glider pilots claiming to have become hopelessly lost on their way back to the coast.