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Finding Bill at the Library of Congress: History of WWII Glider Pilots and Glider Aircraft Manufacturing (Part 1)

This post was written by Nanette Gibbs, Business Reference and Research Specialist in the Science, Technology & Business Division.

Photos of planes, men in military uniform, and pilots; diaries and hand-written notes; a map; and article clippings.

Photo montage from author’s personal collection from Bill’s service during WWII containing 3 diaries, maps, newspaper articles, WWII glider aircraft and medals awarded. Photo by Shawn Miller, Library of Congress.

A box containing three diaries, a prisoner of war (POW) identification card, maps, medals, a letter, and photographs was sent to my home about 10 years ago with a note stating that I might be interested in its contents. Over the past 40 years, I had been contacted by several authors asking if I knew anything about a personal acquaintance of mine, Bill, his experience as a glider pilot and prisoner of war during WWII; and, if he was still alive. The only two documents these authors were able to reference were one that listed Bill as ‘missing in action’ and another as ‘killed in action.’ Further, as a child I had found a box that contained the telegrams stating: “We regret to inform you that your brother is missing in action.” All I could ever tell them was that he was alive and well; that he made it home, had a family now, and was working in the airline industry.

Databases, websites, and several sources I found at the Library of Congress pieced together the story from this box to include details of Bill’s capture by German soldiers in June of 1944. Sometimes I was fortunate to find his name in an index; and at other times, I found his name only by reading entire books such as The Glider Gang; An Eyewitness History of World War II Glider Combat by Milton Dank where Bill’s name appears in a listing of ‘Airborne Campaigners’ who agreed to be interviewed for the book.

In another work, Silent Wings at War; Combat Gliders in World War II by John L. Lowden, you can find a nearly complete account of Bill’s last glider flight:

“Thirty minutes after takeoff, I was approaching my landing zone at 600 feet, but there was no way I was going to use it. Even though it was all of two hundred yards long, it was planted with Rommel’s asparagus. Trees averaging forty feet in height bordered the field (hence the nickname ‘asparagus’) which was another surprise. During the briefing we had not been told about these trees and had assumed that hedgerows meant rows of hedges. The end came when I raised my head and discovered the muzzle of a German machine gun, only inches away and pointed at my head.”

One of Bill’s diaries describes his first assignment, not as a glider pilot or gliderman; but rather as a soldier tasked with building runways, barracks, and ditches in Bluie West, Greenland. Bluie West was later renamed Narsarsuaq South, Greenland after the base was returned to the Danish government of Greenland in 1958. The runways were constructed of steel interlocking mats produced by the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation and WES, the Waterways Experimental Station, in order to accommodate larger and heavier aircraft produced during World War II.

The United States’ interest in combat gliders, which had the ability to transport troops, jeeps, small artillery and radio equipment, developed as a result of intelligence reports that revealed the highly successful and surprise attack on Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium by Germany in May of 1940. The Germans realized the advantage of a noiseless, and engineless aircraft capable of assembling a group of combatants consisting of only 78 glidermen that could overwhelm 800 Belgium soldiers with explosives almost instantly. In fact, Fort Eben-Emael surrendered the next day. It took only 20 minutes. The Germans were experienced using gliders in the late 1930’s and were already successful in such operations.

Although the U.S. had multiple ‘soaring clubs’ where people flew what would be considered ‘sail planes’ and where they performed aerial stunts to include mail drops between aircraft, the U.S. military did not produce gliders for military purposes prior to 1940. In 1941, U.S. Army Air Forces Commanding General Hap Arnold ordered the production of an assault glider. A glider was made of plywood, had no engine, and was rendered airborne using a tow plane and a rope of about 350 feet. The British ‘Horsa’ glider, more often referred to as a ‘flying coffin’ because of its plywood construction was not preferred by American glidermen. Bill was assigned to the 71TCS, 434TCG (Troop Carrier Group), 9AF and was a flight officer on a British Horsa HS129 when he landed at Sainte-Mère-Église in France in June of 1944.

Photo taken from the plane, facing backwards towards the tail, with two gliders visible being towed by a rope.

Glider detachment training camp. An aerial “tug boat” tows gliders high above the field in 1942. This is an example of how the gliders were attached, although Bill would have been at a different training camp for the U.S. Army. Photo by Alfred Palmer or Pat Terry, Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Waco Aircraft Manufacturing Company of Troy, Ohio was the manufacturer of choice for the U.S. glider given the Horsa’s reputation. Other American companies such as the Ford Motor Company, Cessna Aircraft Company, the Timm Aircraft Company and Robertson Aircraft also produced gliders. Furniture companies such as the Ward Furniture Manufacturing Company were used as production construction sites during this time and were considered essential to the war effort. The Waco glider was smaller than the Horsa and two Waco Gliders were needed to transport a howitzer, a towing jeep, and the crew. The CW-47 was the model of the plane that towed a Waco glider (see Janet R. Daly Bednarek in Air Power History, winter 1996, p. 40-43). In 1941, for the heavily armored assault glider that was in development, Brigadier General Benjamin W. Chidlaw of Air Materiel Command stated that it was a “damned fool idea” and convinced the Chief of Staff’s special assistant to cancel it in 1943.

Ultimately, the U.S. gliders were developed by the Waco Aircraft Manufacturing Company based in Troy, Ohio in 1942. The original design, which was designated CG-4A (C for cargo, G for glider), was for an aircraft approximately 48 feet in length with nearly an 84-foot wingspan that could carry a pilot, co-pilot, and thirteen fully-equipped infantrymen or one jeep, bulldozer, or another piece of equipment (to a maximum of 3,750 pounds). A second, larger model, the CG-13A, was designed to carry thirty men. The gliders were towed on a 350′ nylon rope, most commonly by C-47 transport planes and, once released, began a rapid descent to a designated target area.

Made of a welded tubular steel frame, thin plywood, and lacquered canvas, and designed for single use, the gliders were so dangerous that it was said that once released from the tow plane, those on board had a life expectancy of just 17 seconds. Many men lost their lives or were injured when the gliders crash-landed. Pilots and co-pilots were crushed when rough landings caused the cargo to break free from its moorings and come crashing forward. Some did not survive the glider training program. The dangers earned the 3,700-pound planes the nickname “flying coffins.”

Two men smiling looking towards each other standing in front of a light plane.

Family photo of Bill and Tom pictured in front of an ‘Aeronica Model K Scout’ after a flying lesson. This plane was the successor to the popular C-2/C-3 line. Photo from author’s collection.

Because the Army Air Force needed a large number of gliders, construction contracts were awarded to sixteen manufacturers around the country that could efficiently produce the necessary components but were not involved in building the powered aircraft needed by the military. The Northwest Aeronautical Corporation (NAC) of St. Paul, headed by John E. Parker, was given one such contract in 1942 for the delivery of 30 CG-4A gliders – a number later increased to 300. NAC subcontracted the work to two primary manufacturers, Villaume Box and Lumber Company of St. Paul, and the De Ponti Aviation Company in Minneapolis. Villaume had the capacity to build the wooden wings and honeycombed wood cargo floors, while De Ponti handled the steel components, such as the frame for the fuselage, the tail assemblies, and landing apparatus. Glider manufacturing in the Twin Cities employed thousands of workers, including a large number of women. By the beginning of 1945, when glider production stopped, NAC had produced some 1,500 CG-4As, each costing an average of just over $24,500, and 47 CG-13A gliders.

Gliders were first used in combat by the U.S. in July 1943 when 137 gliders participated in the invasion of Sicily, although only a small percentage of them reached their target area, and many were lost at sea. The following March a smaller group flew a more successful mission, bringing troops and supplies into Burma. Hundreds of gliders played an important role in the Normandy Invasion in June 1944 and were engaged in the attempt to secure bridges in Holland in September of that year. On March 24, 1945, 1,348 American and British gliders were used in a mission to aid the Allied forces in crossing the Rhine. All glider missions were perilous and, even when successful, cost lives.

Read more about Bill, his experience as a glider pilot, and the D-Day invasion in part 2 of this post, coming next week.

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