World War II glider was key to Allied invasion 68 years ago
On June 6, 1944, one of the greatest invasions of all time took place on the northwest coast of France, at a place called Normandy. The U.S. Navy's battleships, cruisers and destroyers hurled tons of explosive shells at the shores of the invasion beaches defended by crack Nazi defenders. Transport ships unloaded soldiers and equipment who met murderous enemy machine gunfire as they came ashore on one of the beaches named -- Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah and Sword.
This story is about one new machine of war -- the glider. Without the invention of the glider and the development of this device as a tool of war, the invasion of Europe would have been more costly in terms of men and equipment, and the invasion on D-Day by the Allies might not have succeeded. Never before in history had any nation produced aviators whose duty was to deliberately crash land, and then for the pilot to continue and fight like combat infantrymen.
The CG-4A glider was the answer. Some 13,900 gliders were built between 1941 and 1945, by one of 16 companies, at an average cost of $25,000 each. Each glider consisted of 70,000 parts. The CG-4A glider was constructed of fabric-covered wood and metal and was crewed by a pilot and co-pilot. The glider could carry 13 troops and equipment, a jeep, a quarter-ton truck or a 75mm Howitzer loaded through the upward-hinged nose section.
The Nazi armies of German Dictator Adolf Hitler had overrun the entire continent of Europe, with the exception of Switzerland, Sweden and Finland. Allied military planners had long since decided beside landing thousands of ground soldiers on the continent of Europe, an airborne force composed of 513 gliders could bring thousands of Allied soldiers and equipment to land behind the front lines of the Nazi army in Normandy. Almost all of the gliders landing on D-Day were lost. Some were shot down by Nazi gunners, others were not re-usable, the result of "very rough" landings in Normandy during the early hours of the invasion.
The Army Air Forces charged the Troop Carrier Command with developing training procedures for towing, flying and landing gliders safely. The Sedalia Army Air Base (now called Whiteman Air Force Base) was one of the bases chosen for glider training operations.
The CG-4A could be towed at a maximum safe speed of 150 MPH, carrying a gross weight of 7,500 pounds. A one-inch nylon rope, 300 feet long, was connected to a C-46 or C-47 transport plane that lifted the glider off the ground and pulled it to its drop zone. Once the glider pilot released the control that disconnected the nylon rope from the transport plane, an irrevocable descent began at the rate of 1 foot per 10 feet of glide.
Every landing was a do or die situation for the glider pilot. It was the glider pilot's responsibility to land the heavily-laden aircraft containing combat soldiers and equipment in unfamiliar fields deep within enemy help territory.
Only three or four CG-4A gliders are known to be in existence and one of them is at Whiteman AFB in restoration status. This glider was given to Whiteman AFB by Jim Jones, a WWII veteran, who lived in Kansas City. Jones was looking for a place to put the CG-4A glider. Air Force retirees Robert Bauden and Melvin Bockelman visited Jones and made arrangements with the base commander to haul the glider and its parts to Whiteman AFB on May 1986.
The nose and the cockpit are in good condition. Once the repairs have been completed, the fuselage will have a new skin applied. The lift and control surfaces were made of wood and covered in fabric and through the years these parts have become severely water damaged, rotten and broken. These and the mechanical parts will be cleaned, restored and where necessary remade.
A glider pilot was reported to say "The Air Force never owned anything as ugly, yet as efficient, as the CG-4A glider." Gen. William C. Westmoreland said, "The glider pilots were the only aviators in World War II who had no motors, no parachutes and no second chances."
Harry Smith of Higginsville is president of the Whiteman Heritage Foundation which is seeking funds to build a permanent building to house the CG-4A when it is completely restored.