In September of 1944 I was a glider pilot stationed at USAAF Station #467, Aldermaston, England, with the 434th Troop Carrier Group, 74th Troop Carrier Squadron. On the 16th of September the base went on full alert and was sealed from the outside world for the impending airborne liberation of Holland. It would start off on the 17th, a Sunday, with a massive parachute and glider landing by British and American Airborne forces. The drop and landing zones would extend over a sixty mile corridor, from the Belgium border to the Arnhem Bridge on the Rhine River. The Allies hoped, in one bold stroke, to open a direct route to the German border that would enable Montgomery's land armies to dash straight into Germany along this corridor, jump the Rhine at the Arnhem Bridge, break out and encircle the Ruhr Valley industrial complex, and thus end the war by Christmas 1944. Unfortunately this was not to be. The British phase, to secure the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem, turned into a disaster, aptly described as "A Bridge Too Far."
On the first day of operations, September 17, the 434th Group with ninety C-47s of the 71st, 72nd, 73rd, and 74th squadrons carried men of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. They jumped into three areas of Drop Zone-A between Eerd and Vechel. Subsequent flights by the 434th, on the 18th and 19th to LZ-W at Zon, outside the city of Eindhoven, would be glider tows carrying glidermen, medics, ammunition,supplies, artillery, and other support units of the 101st.
Early on the morning of the 19th, I reported to the flight line at Aldermaston to check over my CG-4A, which was loaded and ready to go. Our objective was Landing Zone-W between Zon and St. Oedenrode, on the main road of this airborne corridor leading to the Rhine. Due to a shortage of glider pilots, one of the three 101st glidermen in my glider, Lt. Tony Linz, was to sit in the right seat as my copilot because of some previous time he had in Piper "Cubs." The two other men in the glider were Pfc. Fred Miller, and Pfc. Hubert Warren. All were from the 321st Glider field Artillery Battalion. Tony did not show too much enthusiasm for the job, and I was only able to give him about ten minutes instruction on the basics of flying the big bird. I'm certain that his main concern was the possibility that I would get hit and he would have to take over and get us down in one piece. I must admit I gave this a great deal of thought throughout the flight.
Take-off was uneventful, and the 434th Group, after forming up with hundreds of other gliders and tow planes from other troop carrier groups, headed for the continent. Little did we know that this day would turn out to be "Bloody Tuesday." Before the morning was over, seventeen of the gliders were forced to ditch in dense fog over the channel, five others crashed over land because of bad weather, dozens of others were cut loose or broke loose over Belgium, and seventeen C-47s were shot down by enemy flak fire over Holland. Of the 385 gliders that had left England carrying members of the 101st Airborne Division, only 209 made it to the LZ in Holland.
Shortly after we crossed the English coast, and a quarter of the way across the channel, the entire formation flew straight into a heavy fog bank. If there's one thing in this world that really upsets a glider pilot, and I'm sure the tow pilots as well, Its flying into a dense fog in tight formation with over 700 planes and gliders. You have no way of knowing who's going to go where, when, or how, and the possibility of a midair collision or accidental release is enough to make your hair stand on end. I could only see about three feet of the tow rope and had to fly blind for what seemed like an eternity.
Fortunately I had the glider in perfect trim, so it practically flew by itself. Even so, I had no way of knowing what the tow plane would do. If he made a sudden change in any direction we'd be in big trouble. Fortunately for us he did not. When we emerged on the other side of the fog bank there was not another plane or glider in sight in any direction. It was the biggest vanishing act I have ever seen.
We had been briefed before take-off that things were not going too well in the landing areas, and the men and supplies we carried must get through. Our pow pilot Captain Bill Miller, being well aware of this, continued on towards the continent as if nothing had gone wrong. I had no intercom on this trip, but I knew what his intentions: to press on. What most glider pilots say in a case like this is: 'where he goes, I go." As long as the rope stays hooked, you have no choice.
After crossing the coasts we took a heading into Belgium which would take us to the Holland border and into enemy territory beyond. Captain Miller started to circle at this time, waiting to see if any other 434th planes would show up so we could go in together. He did not realize it, but his 360 degree turn kept getting tighter and tighter and it was all I could do to hold the proper position on tow behind him. By then we had been in the air for over three hours and my hands and arms were tightening up and beginning to cramp and fall asleep. I shouted over to Lt. Linz that I thought the tow ship was lost and did he want to cut loose here and make our way to the landing zone by land? I'm not sure he understood what I said, even though he shook his head in the negative, so we hung on. I don't think he knew how tired I was.
Miller, in the tow ship, at this moment received a go ahead by radio from our CO, Col. Strean, to proceed to the landing zone by ourselves, and we took off on a beeline for the Holland border, I hoped. As soon as I realized that this was the last leg of our flight, I began to wonder what kind of reception the Germans would have for one lone C-47 with a glider in tow at 600 feet. Even a duck hunter could hit us at this altitude! In about fifteen minutes we received an answer.
Our course brought us into the landing zone between the town of Best on our left and Eindhoven on our right, which was less than one minute away from our objective on the outskirts of Zon. At Best, off to our left, a battle was still raging between the Germans and our own paratroopers for control of a key railroad bridge near the town. Eindhoven was still not fully secured and some fighting was still going on in the streets between the 506th Parachute infantry and the Germans. As we flew past Best, at roughly 600 feet, a mobile flak wagon, which I could see on my left out of the corner of my eye, opened up on our tow plane. I watched, fascinated, as shells went up through the left wing and into the left side of the fuselage and exited out the top right side where the radio compartment is located. Small bits of aluminum from the plane and spent pieces of flak flew back and peppered the front of our glider. Just when I thought the enemy fire would move back along the tow rope and knock hell out of our glider, it stopped. We really lucked out on that one. Throughout the whole time we were under fire, our tow ship never wavered, changed course, or took evasive action. I found out later from Captain Miller that, on the way back out after we had cut loose, their plane was hit quite badly again in the tail section, but they managed to get back to England in one piece, and with no casualties.
In a matter of seconds the landing zone appeared directly in front of us, strewn with hundreds of parachutes and gliders. Some were in one piece, others had crashed badly and their cargo was scattered around the wreckage. The wreckage of two C-47s that had been shot down moments before were still burning in the craters they made when they crashed in the center of the LZ. I cut loose and made an approach well into the center of the area, just in case the Germans were in the dense woods around the edge waiting for us. I found out after we landed that indeed they were there, but some of the 506th paratroopers held their attention while we landed.
After we touched down, we came to an abrupt stop in the soft dirt of a potato field, which partially buried the nose of the glider. The first thing I did when I got out was to bend down and run my fingers through the dirt, it was so nice to be down in one piece. After about fifteen minutes of digging, we managed to get the front section of the glider opened up and the jeep and equipment unloaded Not knowing exactly where we were located, Lt. Linz and the other two men in the glider, Miller and Warren took off in the general direction of Best where the firing seemed to be the heaviest. I took off on foot across the landing zone to find the road to Eindhoven. On the way I stopped at the 326th medical tent which was set up on the edge of the LZ. Inside, a surgical team of airborne medics that had flown in by glider, were performing operations on the wounded and victims of glider crashes. Some of the medics there were the same ones that we, the 434th, had flown into Normandy on D-Day.
I stuck my head in to see if any glider pilots were being treated there. Some had been,and some of the crew members of the C-47s that had been terribly burned on the faces, head, and hands before they had bailed out were still there. Within sight of the hospital tent you could see what was left of their planes still burning on the LZ, and in the wreckage were what was left of the crew members that were unable to get out in time. All the time that these medics and surgeons were working on casualties, the Germans outside the perimeter were shelling the LZ at random. These courageous medics of the 326th never batted an eye, they just kept right on working.
Later that night, still on my own, I crawled into a foxhole on the side of the road near the Wilhelmina Canal at Zon, which is just outside the drop done. The nights are the worst part of these landings behind enemy lines. It's dark and, being alone as I was, every sound, no matter how slight, is magnified threefold. Your skin crawls at any little noise and your imagination runs absolutely wild; you're your own worst enemy.
All night long, occasional artillery shells kept dropping into the area. Parachute flares went off every few minutes turning night into day, and trigger happy soldiers around the area, probably just as nervous and jumpy as I was, kept shooting at sounds and shadows. This was a good time to hole up and not be walking around. To top all this off, German planes flew over Eindhoven, which was only a short distance away, dropped flares and bombed the hell out of the town. The sound and concussion from this made the ground shake, and any kind of sleep was impossible. The thing that bothered me most was the fact I didn't know what was going on. At this stage of the game you start to pray a lot and promise God that, if he gets you out of this one, you'll lead a better life.
When the sun finally came up, I heard voices close by and, not knowing exactly who it was, I peeked slowly over the edge of the foxhole with my Thompson at the ready. There, directly in front of me, staring back at me from another foxhole ten feet away, were two British soldiers who had spent the entire night there also. We all breathed a sigh of relief, and they brewed up tea and shared their biscuits and jam with me. Both were from a British reconnaissance team that got separated during the night.
Shortly after this I started out on foot again down the road towards Eindhoven. Near Zon, alongside a large wind mill, a British tank had just been hit in the turret by an '88' and one of the crewmen was hanging out with his head blown off.
A little further on, in an open field, were a large group of German prisoners guarded by 101st men and a few glider pilots. One tough sergeant of the 101st, who spoke German, was shaking them down for concealed weapons and asking them a lot of questions about what unit they were from, etc. Occasionally he would come up against a really arrogant German who would not cooperate in any way. His favorite tactic then, was o plant the muzzle of his Thompson firmly under the guy's chin and push up hard while glaring straight into his eyes. From then on there was usually a sincere and humble spirit of cooperation from that particular individual and from the others that had been watching. I was tempted to stay around o see if he really would blow someone's head off that might have called his bluff.
About three hundred feet south of the temporary Zon Bridge - the original had been blown up by the Germans - two British lorries, in a convoy carrying ammunition,were coming towards me going north when they took direct hits from German tanks, backed up by infantry. These Germans were attempting a counterattack and trying to cut the road. When the ammunition on the trucks started to explode, I jumped into a ditch by the side of the road in front of a small white farmhouse. From the open front door a woman beckoned to me. Thinking that she needed help, I crawled over and went into the house, and there on the table in the kitchen were cookies and hot coffee. She and her husband pointed to a chair, so I sat down with them, and for a few precious moments we forgot there was a war on. Mind you, the tanks were still shelling the road outside. The counterattack was still in progress, and the ammunition in the trucks was still exploding.
While I was enjoying this respite, two P-47s came over. One peeled off and strafed the attacking enemy infantry column and tanks east of the road. The other followed it down and dropped two five hundred pound bombs in the same area The shelling and mortaring stopped, and the truck convoy continued north up the road. I thanked my two dutch friends and went back out on the road to hitch a ride. A Scottish motorcycle dispatch rider picked me up and we started south again. There were two speeds he used on this trip: full speed and dead stop, nothing in between - and it scared the hell out of me. I had both arms wrapped around his waist, with my head laying against his back and my eyes closed tightly. I didn't dare look.
We were held up on two more occasions by German attempts to cut the road by shelling it. The British, who were this far up the road, nipped it in the bud each time by calling in air strikes. The airborne men that I had left behind are a fantastic bunch of guys when the chips are down. They are highly professional, deadly, and dedicated to their job. I'm glad they're on our side. Before I left Eindhoven one of them conned me out of my Thompson, which was all right with me. They had more need of it.
When we reached a small Belgium town just over the Dutch border, the Scotsman dropped me off, and I proceeded on foot toward Brussels where our C-47s were supposed to pick up returning glider pilots. Later in the afternoon, dog tired and almost out on my feet, I stopped at a tavern on the main street of another small Belgium town to spend the night.
Much to my surprise, it turned out to be the headquarters for the local resistance movement. Inside were about twenty partisans, heavily armed with weapons they had captured from the enemy, and looking as tough as any human beings could look. In addition they had a German prisoner with them who looked like he had been run over by a truck. I guess they had been taking turns beating him. He was in sad shape, with blackened eyes, his head had swelled up like a balloon, and I think his nose was broken, I actually felt a little sorry for him. After I showed up he stayed very close to me like a puppy dog looking for protection. They were impressed with the fact that I was a glider pilot returning from Holland and also an American to boot. They fed me well and put me up for the night. Their leader was a bleached blonde woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties, and had probably suffered at the hands of the Germans. She was by now one tough cookie out for revenge.
The next morning after breakfast, I told her that I had to leave and that I would take the prisoner with me. As much as I hated Germans, I still had sympathy for the poor bastard and wanted to get him away from these people. The answer was a firm no, and that is when the atmosphere turned very chilly. Nothing I said could change her mind. With great difficulty and in broken English, she told me that the filthy Germans were going to pay for what they had done to her family and to her country. After hearing her story I can well imagine what they had in store for their prisoner after I left. Being greatly outnumbered, a little bit scared, and not wishing to create an international incident, I let the matter drop.
Just before I started to leave she asked me for my .45 pistol, and I thought to myself, "oh-oh, this is it!! What do I do now?" Maybe they wanted me as a prisoner also, which really didn't make sense since we were on the same side, I hoped. Stalling for time so I could figure out what to do, I pointed to a mint condition P-38 she was carrying and, using sign language, indicated I would give her mine for hers. She slowly drew the pistol from its holster with no expression on her face, and I thought, "here it comes, the showdown." She handed it to me, and with a sigh of relief I handed my .45 over to her and got a big smile in return. After much hand shaking, back slapping, hugging, and cheek kissing from all of them, and a glass of awful wine, I continued on to Brussels. I carried the P-38 with me until the following march when it was stolen by a DP (displaced person) who got into our tent area at Mourmelon, France while we were away flying.
Before the day was out, I got to Brussels absolutely pooped and fell sound asleep in a sand pile at the edge of the airport. Fifty or sixty other glider pilots who had arrived earlier from the LZs were also waiting around for a ride back across the channel. We eventually hopped on some C-47s that arrived later in the day and were back in England by nightfall. I landed at an RAF base at Northolt, and they let my home base group (the 434th) at Aldermaston know I was there. Much to my surprise they sent a C-47 down to pick me up, and I felt like a real big shot. When the plane landed back at Aldermaston and I stepped off the plane alone, I was given a very warm welcome and wined and dined at the squadron mess hall (74th squadron).
Getting back to the landing in the drop zone: Lt. Linz, Pfcs. Miller and Warren took off in a jeep to find the rest of the 200 men in their unit, the 321st Glider Field Artillery Battalion. Within the hour they linked up, and their guns were set up and were firing support missions for the paratroopers and glidermen. The first round they fired hit the church steeple which was being used by their own forward observer. Possibly they did this to make sure he was awake and alert. Fortunately no one was hurt.
In the next few days Linz's unit worked its way north to Vechel and was involved with many fire missions in support of our airborne troops who were fighting off repeated attempts by the Germans to cut the road and retake the drop and landing zones. At times their own unit (the 321st) was cut off several times and came under heavy mortar, shelling, and machine gun attacks from the enemy. Their unit remained in combat over 49 days before being withdrawn, and finally was relocated to Camp Mourmelon Le Grand, located ten miles from Rheims, France. By then my own group, the 434th, had moved from England to France and occupied the airfield at Mourmelon Le Grande with our old friends, the 101st.
One strange, but true story that happened during the "Market" mission is worth mentioning. It took place at the start of one of the glider serials. On the night before take off on the 18th, two glider pilots in the squadron, who had been drinking, got into a violent verbal argument which ended up in a tooth and nail fight on the barracks floor. One of them went after his Thompson submachine gun with the intention of killing his opponent. Fortunately he was disarmed by others in the barracks before he could pull the trigger. After the fight was broken up, they still vowed they were going to kill each other. When things finally calmed down, and they had been put to bed, everyone passed it off as pre-mission jitters and went to bed.
The next morning there were marginal weather conditions of low ceilings, rain showers, and patches of ground fog, none of which was suited for glider operations. In spite of this the planes and gliders were given the green light to take off. The 101st was in a jam in the Einhoven-Best area near Zon, trying to hold off German counter attacks and were in desperate need of this resupply mission. As the group approached the channel, the weather took a turn for the worse, with a solid fog bank ahead of them. Eighty of the C-47s with gliders in tow were given the signal to abort, and turned back to England. The rest of the serial did not get the recall message to abort and continued on straight into the fog.
When the 80 tow planes and gliders which had aborted arrived back at their home base, the ceiling had lifted from tree top to about 600 feet. The planes and gliders came over the field in echelons of four and began to cut loose. Two of the gliders, while still in the air, turned directly into each other, collided head on, and crashed on the field in a twisted ball of burning wreckage. Crash crews and medics dashed out and pulled the pilots and glidermen from what was left of the gliders, but it was too late, the two pilots and six passengers were dead. The pilots, one from each glider, were identified as the combatants of the night before who had vowed to kill each other. Their wish had been fulfilled, but unfortunately they took six innocent men with them. Fate had indeed dealt a cruel hand. Though it was a twist of fate and probably accidental, no one will really ever know.
So ended my second glider mission on the continent. I was a few years older, much smarter, I hoped and thank God still in one piece
After two days off, the glider pilots went back to work again, pinch hitting as C-47 copilots in in order to give the power jockeys, who had been flying night and day round the clock, a much needed rest. From D-Day, to this point in time, until the Ardennes breakthrough on December 17, 1944 ("The Battle of the Bulge"), all troop carrier groups were flying seven days a week carrying food, ammo, and supplies to the front. The big item we supplied was gasoline to Patton's Third Army tanks which were going hell for leather way out in advance of the infantry. The C-47s were often times landing in small grass fields still under enemy fire and, on the return trip, brought out wounded to rear echelon hospitals. In between all this activity we still flew glider training flights and ferried newly assembled gliders to various TC groups to replace gliders lost in Holland. Most of us hoped and prayed that the war would end before the big wheels planned another mission, but it was not to be.
Some empty bunks and a few names missing from the roster after each mission have a very sobering effect on you. You feel older than you are. Can you survive another landing behind enemy lines? Well, you try not to think about it.
My tow plane, flown by Bill Miller, on the way back from the LZ after I had cut loose, was hit so bad by flak in the rear fuselage and tail section, that he had great difficulty maintaining control. The tail surfaces were shredded, vibrating and shaking so bad that he contemplated landing somewhere in France or Belgium. Because the engines were functioning properly, and he was still able to hold his altitude, he made the decision to try for England. They struggled across the channel in their plane which could very well be called "Old Shaky" at this stage of the game. They landed at the first English airfield in sight to check the plane out before continuing on to our home base at Aldermaston. What they saw when they climbed out of the plane scared the hell out of them. The tail section was riddled, in tatters, and looked like it was ready to fall off. Miller after talking it over with the crew decided to continue on to their base. That beautiful old bird had brought them this far, and they had enough confidence in her to know she could get them home safely. They made it.