Thursday, June 06, 2013

Gliding Through D-Day....Part II

A few years ago I paid homage to my Uncle Buck for his service to our country during the very early morning hours of June 6, 1944 by writing Gliding Into D-Day.  Feel free to obtain a little background if you wish by clicking through and reading it first.

My uncle….Flight Officer Cyrus S. Carson…. was a glider pilot.

Gliders were actually the first stealth aircraft used by the military. The Gibson Refrigerator Co. received contracts from the U.S. Army Air Force for the production of CG-4A troop carrying gliders, and was one of 15 companies to do so. Each glider was made up of 70,000 individual parts.  Gibson built over 1,000 of the nearly 14,000 CG-4A gliders constructed during the war.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, Cyrus S. Carson was flying as pilot in command and John Winkler was flying co-pilot in a WACO CG-4A glider similar to the one I’ve posted below. Both men had graduated as second lieutenants from advanced flight training in 1943 from Lubbock, Texas.

A WACO CG-4A glider is pictured below.
The mission that my uncle and Winkler flew was serial 2B code name “Detroit” which was a pre-dawn glider borne combat assault in the American airborne landings in Normandy, made by elements of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. It was part of Operation Neptune, the assault port of the Allied Invasion of France, Operation Overlord.
Originally slated to be the main assault for the 82nd Airborne, the glider operation instead became the first reinforcement missing after the main parachute combat assault, Mission Boston. The landing zone for Mission Detroit was near Sante-Mere-Eglise, to the west of Utah beach.

The 434th Troop Carrier Group as well as the 437th participated at the same time.
My uncle and Winkler, pictured below, were flying the 82nd Airborne as the other group flew the 101st Airborne. Each group consisted of 52 gliders, making a total of 104 gliders to cross the peninsula of Normandy.

On D-Day my uncle and Winkler were flying glider number 6. Their mission was to carry field artillery and hook up with glider number 5 which had a jeep. Their tow plane was the C-45. The WACO CG-4A was 48 feet long with an 84 foot wingspan and weighed 3,790 pounds empty, 7,500 pounds normal load, and 9,000 pounds overloaded; made of plywood, canvas and steel tubing. There were no flaps, although spoilers above the wing were used to steep the glide.

From my uncle’s own account of the mission he writes, “Every odd numbered glider transported a jeep and five men counting the pilot and co-pilot. Every even numbered glider transported an anti-tank gun, five men and a stack of ammo.
….Our men took a map of the Normandy peninsula and located the beach that the troops would be using to land ashore. Straight across the peninsula on the south shore were [the two Channel] islands named Guernsey and Jersey. The navigator decided that if we positioned a ship about 40 miles straight south, with a spot light point straight up, we could head from England into the direction of Spain and pick up that spot light and go north [and get us in the position regarding where we wanted to land our gliders].

What we didn’t know …was that these two islands were the heaviest fortified places in all of Europe.”
Around 1:00 am in the morning my uncle and Winkler along with three soldiers from the 82nd Airborne took off from Ramsbury, England. The weather was so bad the mission should have been cancelled, but that had already happened once before.

My uncle remembers, “We assembled over England and when we reached the Channel, we dropped down to 100 feet over the water and flew until we found our spotlight, then headed north. As we crossed between the two islands, we could see thousands of shells going up just in front of every tow plane and glider. The only thing that saved us was the eight Air Force P-47s, P-51s, B-25s, and B-26s that flew at speeds between 250 and 275 mph.  We came along at 140 mph and the guns on the ground couldn’t adjust their lead.  Not a single C-47 or glider was shot down.”
They could not see the tow plane, although they could tell if they were high or low depending on which way the tow rope pointed looking out from the cockpit. There is no engine noise, although the glider does make a whistle noise from the various protruding rigging that is exposed to the slip stream.

My uncle continued, “At 2,000 feet over land we were flying in a cloud, solely on instruments. A glider’s instruments consist of keeping the three to four feet of tow rope pointing in the same direction. We were supposed to drop down to an altitude of 700 feet for glider release. We were approximately six to eight minutes from the release point when the C-47 pulling me made an 85 degree diving turn to the left. This caused the rope on my glider to break.”
My uncle’s co-pilot, Wilkerson recollects that something must have spooked the pilot in the tow plane as he ran into a thick cover of clouds.

My uncle states, “I made a driving turn to the right. If I had remained on course, and slowed down to 70 mph, there was a real good possibility that the C-47 behind me, would have collided with the rear of my glider.
I reduced my speed to 70 mph and at about 100 feet I broke out from under the clouds. This gave me a very short amount of time to find a suitable place to land my glider. I selected an open field to my right. This field had one large tree about one foot in diameter.

I positioned my glider so that the tree would contact the center of my right wing, causing the right wing to be shred off and causing the glider to drop about five feet to the ground with enough force to break off the right landing gear. The left side of the glider came down slower and the left wheel remained on the glider. This caused one terrific ground loop. Nobody was injured and the equipment was not damaged.
Glider number 5, carrying a jeep was supposed to join up with us. This would have given us a 10 man anti-tank crew.”

Co-pilot Wilkerson reported that all five crew members were covered with dirt from the glider plowing up the field with the landing gear.
My uncle continues, “With hopes that the crew with the jeep would find us, we hid on a wooden knoll about 900 feet away from where we landed where we had a clear view of the glider. The first thing that came by was a truck load of about 20 German troops.”

Sadly two hours after John and Cyrus landed and while they were waiting next to their glider hoping to meet up with the crew from glider number 5, deputy commander of the 101st Airborne, Brigadier-GeneralDonald F. Pratt landed about 0400. His glider was over-loaded with a command jeep, radio set, and jerry cans of gasoline. In order to avoid stalling the glider, the pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael C. Murphy, came in over the hedgerow at about 90 mph and skidded on the damp grass and crashed head-on into a tree in the middle of the hedge. Murphy survived the crash with two broken legs, although Pratt died in the seat of his jeep with a broken neck.
Pratt was the highest ranking officer killed on D-Day.

At a family reunion a few years before my uncle died he told me about the glider crash that killed Pratt with tears streaming down his face.  He wrote “They overshot the landing field. The Jeep shifted when the glider hit a hedgerow causing it to move forward, severing the pilot, Tom Seward’s right shoulder.  He died instantly. The co-pilot received a broken back. They were surrounded by Germans fairly quickly. The co-pilot was taken to a German field hospital.  All they could do for him was roll up a blanket and put it under his back while lying face up.
Thankfully, the American front line overtook the hospital four weeks later.”

The glider crash that killed Pratt was fictionalized in the movie Saving Private Ryan.
My uncle and his crew waited as long as they could, but the area was full of Germans. I’ve posted a picture below of one of the gliders being inspected by the Germans soon after it landed below. 
At this point my uncle’s crew decided getting back to friendly territory was their prime objective. Unknown to them at the time, there was a total of 8 gliders that landed off course in the same area within about a 2 mile radius of them and there were also two German divisions there at La Chevalerie near Saint Germaine-le-Gaillard.

The men decided to split up with my uncle taking two of the soldiers with him and his co-pilot took the rest.
Immediately upon splitting up Germans were within eyesight.  My uncle explains, “The three of us were in a wheat field close to hedgerow when a truck of Germans entered the same field in a lower corner. I told them that everything takes time, if we jumped up, it would take time for them to recognize us as Americans, it would take time for each one to decide which one of us to shoot and it would take time to aim and fire. In my theory, before they could fire the first shot, we could be over the hedgerow and be gone.

Agreeing with me I told them we would count to three, at the word three, we would go over the hedgerow. On the word three I sprung up, hit my head and right shoulder on the top of the hedgerow, and pole vaulted to the other side.
Going over I saw three rifles come up, but no shot was fired.

I hit the ground running.
In 500 feet was another hedgerow.  I cleared it the same way. 

Then I stopped to let the other two catch up. 
I was surprised to find I was alone.

This meant that the other two didn’t have a second chance.”
My uncle never knew what happened to the two men.  He checked with headquarters as late as September, 1947 and there was no word as to their whereabouts.

Once alone he heads towards Cherbourg.  He spots another glider crew who has set fire to their glider, but they are hesitant to leave because a member of their crew was injured.  After 15 minutes or so my uncle sets off again alone moving slowly as the area is thick with German surveillance.
French resistance fighter, Valentin Lebatard picks him up on the afternoon of June 9th and drops him off with a small group of American soldiers. After 48 hours my uncle sets off alone again

He explains, “Two days later I thought I was three or four hedgerows from the American front line, when a German medic found me. The American medics go into battle with a first-aid kit and a stretcher; the German medics went into battle with a first aid kit and a rifle. I was taken to German headquarters which was about three blocks away where I was interrogated giving name, rank and serial number only.  Apparently the Germans had never heard of the rank “Flight Officer” before.”
While being held at the German headquarters my uncle met up with Second Lieutenant James Bowley.  Per Uncle Buck Bowley had “come ashore on the third day of the invasion at Utah Beach, and had been injured in the right hip by a German hand grenade.   He was just coming to when the Germans searched him finding his pockets full of German insignias that he had taken from dead German soldiers.  

Three hours later they were on a truck….three feet deep with ammo and about 8 German soldiers. The truck was pulling an 88 mm anti-aircraft gun.”
Basically, they were riding in a half-track which is a cross between a tractor and a tank. The ammo the Germans were carrying was shells about 5 feet across and about eighteen inches in length. They could bring down a B-17 bomber at 30,000 feet as the flak from these shells brought down hundreds of bombers during the war.

My uncle and Lt. Bowley knew exactly where they were headed. When the Germans captured Allied soldiers they would march them or transport them to Paris where they would be loaded on box cars for the trip to Berlin and on to a concentration camp deep inside Germany. 
The Germans had their prisoners ride on top of the ammunition. At one section of the road which led to Paris, there was an area that was barren of any hedgerows and trees and was vulnerable since the American Air Corp had orders to not let anything go in or out of this area. When they would see any German vehicle it would be fair game.

By this time, a couple of P-47s were patrolling the road looking for German transports.  One of the fighters made a low pass and came around for the bomb run.
My uncle states, “On his last pass the pilot decided to drop a 500 pound bomb.  The bomb hit the pavement in front of me, dug through the pavement about one foot, rose back into the air clearing the gun and the truck and going about 200 feet into the living room of a French house. The bomb did not explode. We had about 20 minutes of fireworks as all the ammo in the truck exploded.”

Since the bomb did not detonate, the wing-man for the other P-47 was going to finish off the job with a strafing pass. As the fighter made its pass, the half-track was hit with 50 caliber machine gun rounds and it exploded in flames.
The Germans along with their prisoners took shelter at a farmhouse. The location was identified as “La Detrousse” in the town of Saint-Nicolas-de-Pierreport near La-Haye-du-Puits. At some point the German Lieutenant leaves the prisoners with a guard while he and the other men go in search of other transport.

While they were alone the Americans were able to talk more directly with the German soldier and even shared pictures of their families. My uncle and Bowley attempted to persuade the German soldier that they were all just pawns in the war.
Later, when the German Lieutenant returns he orders the prisoners to dig their graves.  The prisoners had become a liability and had to go.  The officer left with the other men and ordered the guard to kill the solders and catch up to them.

The guard took my uncle and Bowley to a bedroom and showed them how the mattresses were stuffed with straw.  He indicated the men should hide in the mattresses and not come out.  
A few minutes later they heard gun fire.  A couple of shots sounded a few seconds apart.

Then quiet descended on the place.
The German guard had left to rejoin his group now that the American prisoners had been “killed.”

My uncle and Bowley hid out on the farm for almost a month with the farmer providing them food and wine.  Around the first of July two French women arrived at the farm accompanied by a B-17 pilot who had been shot down in the area named Kenneth N. Haugard.  By this time my uncle was suffering from a high fever and Bowley’s hip injury was getting worse.
Thankfully within a few days the Americans were in control of the area and the men were had reached their goal – friendly territory.

Once in friendly territory my uncle learned that his co-pilot Wilkerson had also been captured by the Germans, but managed to escape through the hedgerows when a passing American plane distracted their captors.  His group was able to reach friendly territory by July 8th.
This story had had a happy ending because both my uncle and Wilkerson made it back to England in one piece. More than one-third of all glider troops were killed or wounded during the time between June 6th, 1944 and May, 1945.

Both men never flew another mission, although my uncle stayed on as a glider instruction in England as the glider was used in a few more missions including the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of Holland and the crossing of the Rhine into German. The Army Air Corp glider program was phased out in 1947, although one of the keys to the success of D-Day was the use of the glider.
Both men went on to have successful professions after the war.
My uncle, Cyrus S. Carson had a career with Lockheed Martin and one of his jobs was in the photography department. Cyrus retired after 30 years in 1982. An interesting note is that both Cyrus and John built a dark room together in England, and Cyrus used it to make a career profession.

On October 8, 2005 Uncle Buck finally managed to have a reunion with Wilkerson and talk over their experiences.
Both men provided interviews with the Palm Springs Air Museum in association with the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress and their glider experiences during D-Day were included in the book Forgotten Wings by Phillippe Esvelin.



Phil Hanson said...

A hell of a story....Thank you and thanks to your Uncle.

Brandee Green said...

Although I am not new to education, a 15 year veteran reading teacher, I will be integrating fifth grade Social Studies into my curriculum for the first time in the coming year. I find your blog very informative and interesting. :) Thanks for writing.
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