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Finding Bill at the Library of Congress: History of WWII Glider Pilots (part 2)

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

This post continues Finding Bill at the Library of Congress, part 1, where Nanette explores items belonging to a personal acquaintance named Bill, and uses Library resources to learn more about his experience as a glider pilot in WWII.

The following table gives the mean temperature for the coldest and warmest months. February is the coldest month, dropping to negative 11 degree Fahrenheit in some locations. July is the warmest month reaching highs only to 49 degrees Fahrenheit,.

Average temperatures in Greenland, prepared as background information by the British Foreign Office in preparation for the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

Although Bill was a licensed pilot before being drafted, he was not identified as having this skill for the Army. The diary written in Greenland revealed harrowing details of working in ‘oil-skins’ (similar to rain wear) for 18 hour days building runways on moraine, which is an accumulation of earth and stone carried by a glacier. Bill regularly began the diaries with a comment about the weather, referring to it as dismal, winds blowing down tents and ‘flapping like a flag in a hurricane’, building barracks, standing in the rain; and, stoking fires to keep warm. He observed the constant fog suddenly ‘lifting like a big blanket revealing the lofty mountains’ and ‘one of the mountains seemed to turn a deep blue.’ This was in a July 1941 entry and Bill speculated about what the winter would be like. While writing this blog post I checked the weather for July 2022 and, surprisingly, it’s still pretty much the same. A September 1941 entry stated that at 4 p.m. “the fog lifted and the sun blended the mountains in a million of colors and shades but I still want to go home.” Interestingly enough, Bill revealed they had to buy their own socks and they did not have warmer clothes. As always, he addressed all entries to his beloved “sweetheart” stating that he regrets to tell her that he can’t be cheerful. However, in one entry he injected a bit of humor when he spoke of an assignment stacking coffins. He wrote that “with the help of the meals they give us we stand a good chance of using them.”

On, August 14, 1941 Bill met the Commander and was told that he would be recommended for a transfer. When the Army identified licensed pilots among its ranks, arrangements were made for a transfer to the Army Air Forces Glider Group. Bill was told there would be no mail for two months. Bill wrote: “I never believed anyone could live like this.” August 23, 1941: “Today I’m told I’m too old” to be an Army pilot and at the same time he was told he would be transferred to the Air Corps. He was only 24 years old. By November it was snowing, stoves no longer worked and they waited for Panamanian freighters to bring food with rumors that one had been sighted off the coast and “all I could do was hope for the best and I have no books to read.” Thanksgiving came and Bill was assigned to kitchen patrol. The freighter arrived after Thanksgiving. No mail. December 1, 1941, “rumors going about there is trouble with Japan.” December 7, 1941,”listened to uproar from the soldiers while listening to the radio of the Japanese bombing of Honolulu—I guess it’s here at last.” December 8, 1941, “listened to F.D.R.’s speech—it was so quiet here you could hear a pin drop. We are defenseless here. If attacked, we would be wiped out.” December 23, 1941, “I just finished Arrowsmith.”

Cursive handwriting on a folder page.

Diary of Bill written from Stalag Luft III, a prisoner of war camp. From the author’s personal collection.

The final diary takes us to June 6, 1944, D-Day, when over 1000 gliders landed behind enemy lines in Normandy. Bill, now a flight officer, landed in Sainte-Mère-Église. Referred to as ‘Mission Keokuk’ it was the smallest mission in terms of numbers of gliders. A mere 32 Horsa gliders of the 434th Troop Carrier Group took off at 1830 hours from the airfield at Aldermaston, a village in England. As they approached their landing zone (LZ) near Turqueville and Ecoqueneauville, they drew fire from German troops of the 795 Ost-Bataillone. Among the glider pilots were Bill and Steve Odahowski of the 71st. After coming under fire from light guns, they managed to land his Horsa, nicknamed “Chicago Kid” (which is what Odahowski was). The Horsa was loaded with a jeep and cargo trailer, ammunition and three additional men. Two of the men were killed as they stepped out of the back of the glider. The third, along with Bill and Steve were captured and taken for interrogation at a German command post.

I had an opportunity to speak with Flight Officer (F/O) Odahowski, and unlike Bill, he encouraged me to ask questions about anything I wanted to know. The Mission was referred to as “Mission Keokuk” and F/O Odahowski told me that he and Bill were captured by paratroopers of 6 Fallschirm-Jager-Regiment and taken to interrogation. He also related that the German soldier who was driving the truck spoke impeccable English and wanted to know how the Chicago Cubs were doing. He and Bill were put on a diet of bread and water for 18 days, sent to Stalag Luft III near Silesia, close to the German border with Poland. As the Russians advanced, they were moved to Stalag VII A near Moosburg, where they were liberated on April 19 by General Patton’s U.S. Third Army.

Map showing areas in northern France and Germany, with names of camps in red.

Prisoner of War and Civilian Internee Camps in Europe; location of camps containing Americans. From the author’s personal collections. Photo by Shawn Miller, Library of Congress.

Hand holding open a worn book to the title page that says Maybe I'm Dead.

The title page of the book Maybe I’m Dead. Photo courtesy of Nanette Gibbs.

Years later when I called Bill to tell him that I took my first glider flight he was thrilled to know that I followed in our family’s interest in aviation. He wanted to know every detail to include when the tow plane dropped the rope and how it made me feel to fly with the thermals. When I told him the pilot asked if I wanted to go to zero-gs and I agreed, it made Bill laugh. Zero-gs is a “one of a kind opportunity” to experience true weightlessness and zero gravity. However, when I attempted to ask about the prisoner of war (POW) experience, he told me I could find everything I needed to know by reading the book, Maybe I’m Dead.

At the time of U.S. entry into World War II, Army Regulation (AR) 600-550, issued March 6, 1936, governed the reporting of battle casualties in that branch of the service, and it required no information other than that a soldier had been killed, wounded, or was missing in action. In August 1942, this AR was revised to require the addition of a soldier’s military status, including flight status. In October 1942, the Statistical Control Division, Office of Management Control, Headquarters, Army Air Forces (AAF), undertook a seven-month study of the methods employed by the Army Air Service after World War I to determine the fate of airmen reported missing in action during that conflict. The study also reviewed the sources of information then available to the AAF on the subject of missing airmen. Concluding that these methods and sources were inadequate, the AAF recommended in May 1943 the adoption of a special form, the Missing Air Crew Report (MACR), devised primarily to record the salient facts of the last known circumstances regarding missing air crews. The MACR would also provide a means of integrating current data with information obtained later from other sources in an effort to conclusively determine the fate of the missing personnel.

Using both the National Archives collection of “Missing air crew reports M1380” and Fold3, a subscription database available on-site at the Library, I was able to locate accounts of Bill’s capture written by soldiers who witnessed his capture.

I was captured about 2200 6 June 1944 and treated by German medics on the field. At the same time that I was being treated the Germans were gathering captives on the same field, those that were uninjured were marched away. I saw F/O William blank T-798, 71st T C Sq and F/O Steve P Odahowski, T-1296, 71st T C Sq among the captives being marched away and yelled at them, they nodded to me. I did not see them again. The German medic who treated me was armed wtih a German Luege pistol. I do not know F/O Alfred J. Sapa, T-468, 71st T C Sq, and I cannot say for sure whether or not he was among the captives. Rovert Croft F/O T-123375. Subscribed and sworn before me this 11th day of June 1944.

The missing air crew report for Bill from June 11, 1944.

All these years have passed and I believe I understand why among family members we were always told not to ask Bill about ‘it.’  In addition to authors curious about Bill’s story, I have had some interesting experiences along the way to include meeting a woman on an airfield in southern Egypt in the middle of nowhere. I was filled with dread that I would never make it home again until she asked me: “Are you Bill’s daughter by any chance?” Before I had a chance to answer she said: “Wow, he is one of the nicest people at Eastern Air Lines and we love him.”

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