World War II glider pilots swap stories at National World War II Museum

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  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    World War II glider pilots swap stories at National World War II Museum

    World War II Glider Pilots

    By Coleman Warner
    October 10, 2009, 5:00AM
    They each flew one combat mission in a quiet, hulking glider, in the European theater of World War II. But memories the two aging veterans brought to New Orleans this week differ sharply.

    For George Theis, 85, the flight carried a sense of adventure, of color. He recalls a flawless landing as American soldiers, including a few from his plane, poured into Germany, crossing the Rhine. He captured a pair of German soldiers without so much as a scuffle.

    But a sense of loss travels with Verbon Houck, 90, who piloted one of a flock of glider planes ordered to deliver supplies to desperate American paratroopers in Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge.

    Many of those involved in the mission were lost. Houck wound up captured by the Germans, then spent five months as a prisoner of war.
    "The fellows who gave their lives that day, I knew and respected, " he said Thursday, taking care to avoid any swagger. "I don't like to pop off about it."

    Theis, from Texas, and Houck, from Washington state, are part of a band of about 30 former pilots of motorless gliders who, accompanied by 100 or so relatives, came to New Orleans to catch up with old friends, swap stories, tour the city and visit the National World War II Museum.

    Back in 1985, when members of the National WW II Glider Pilots Association held a reunion in Colorado, the event attracted nearly 800 people, including roughly 500 pilots.

    Like many organizations affiliated with military units from the World War II generation, the glider pilots and their kin, because of dwindling numbers and the frail health of many, are pondering an end to reunions.

    There will be one next year in Lubbock, Texas, where the association has a museum. Beyond that, it's uncertain that those willing and able to gather will number enough people to negotiate a bargain hotel rate.

    george_boyle.JPG

    John McCusker/The Times-PicayuneGeorge Boyle of California is one of the World War II glider pilots who traveled to New Orleans for the 39th reunion of the National WWII Glider Pilots Association.

    For Mel Fox, 89, widow of former glider pilot Eugene Fox, who died in 1984, this year's reunion -- the 39th -- nicely blended history and socializing.

    Such gatherings make it possible for some veterans to open up about the tougher details of their war experiences, often after decades of silence, and Fox said she wants them to continue as long as possible.
    "You form relationships with people and so you want to meet together. There's a lot of camaraderie, " said the Louisville, Ky., resident. "There's so much tradition, and we want to let the young people know what the glider pilots did."

    What the aviators -- numbering more than 5,000 at the high point -- did accomplish was delivery of soldiers, vehicles, supplies and cannon to strategic points behind enemy lines in battle zones ranging from Normandy to Holland to Sicily. Towed usually by bulky C-47s and then set loose near drop zones, the gliders were designed to approach an enemy with minimal noise and warning.

    But they were also defenseless, fashioned mostly from wood and canvas. Those piloting or riding in the planes suffered high casualties as a result of anti-aircraft flak, bad weather, tree limbs and other hazards on the ground. In short, it was among the more dangerous jobs in the war.

    The American pilots repeatedly demonstrated the military value of gliders bearing equipment and fighting soldiers, refining an idea employed as early as May 1940 by the Germans. At the personal directive of Adolf Hitler, the Nazis used a surprise glider attack to overtake a Belgium fortress that had seemed invincible, said Seth Paridon, director of research for the World War II Museum in New Orleans.

    The American gliders later displayed great courage, he said.
    "Early in the war, they were kind of looked at like a suicide mission, " he said.

    Amid risky flights in training and combat, the pilots piled up a rich history, one gradually documented through the years through books, oral histories and museum displays.

    For Theis, participation in Operation Varsity, a massive aerial invasion of Germany at Wesel, on the Rhine, offered a long-awaited taste of war adventure. Carrying a Jeep, three soldiers and a co-pilot in his plane, the pilot relishes the memory of March 24, 1945.

    "I was a kid of 20 years old, and it was an experience that I'll never forget," he said. "I was really along for the ride, doing what I had to do, and hopefully avoiding the enemy."

    Theis recalls "a perfect landing," but only after some tense moments as his craft was set free of its tow rope over the battle zone.

    "When we got to the Rhine River, there was such a large smoke cover caused by the artillery, bombs and whatnot that had been thrown in to help disguise the (Allied) ground forces converging in," he said. "We couldn't even see the ground when we got cut loose; we had to find our way. Fortunately, we broke out of the smoke, and we were able to see a field ahead, and landed with no trouble."

    After the successful landing, Theis soon encountered an American general who had gotten separated from the men under his command -- and needed a map of the countryside. Recalling he had just such a map in his ditched glider, Theis headed back toward the plane.

    George Theis got a picture of the Germans who surrendered to him.
    "One the way back, I took a short cut through some hedgerows, and out came two Germans with their hands raised, yelling 'Comrade! Comrade!' Well I wasn't about to shoot them. So I marched them out to the glider, and I had another guy hold a gun on them -- while I took their picture."

    Not long after, the pilot handed off the two captured soldiers to a military policeman passing by in a Jeep.

    Some historians have wondered about the sanity of thousands of young men who, hungry for action and determined to earn flight wings, volunteered for the Glider Corps. The pilots, by many accounts, had stubborn and brash tendencies, reminding others that the G letter on their pilot wings actually stood for "guts."

    They also had a reputation for irreverence, with "little use for the conventional military virtues and the rigidity of military life, " according to one historical account, "The Glider Gang," by former pilot Milton Dank. "They fostered a disdain for saluting that drove their commanders wild and a nonchalance for rules that kept company court-martials busy assessing fines and confined to quarters."

    'I learned how to pick a spot'


    Pride in the independent streak was evident even this week among the aging pilots. Robert Parker, 89, attending the reunion from Brownsville, Calif., said as he took part in missions in Holland and at the Rhine, he discarded the gradual "slow glide" landing taught by the Army Air Corps. He said his own rapid-drop landing technique proved superior.
    "I never had a difficult landing because I know what I'm doing, " he said. "I learned how to pick a spot and go to it."

    Parker conceded that the glider pilots were a "unique breed" and attracted snide remarks. But he insisted: "We come together as a team when there's a job to be done."

    The mission handed to Houck on Dec. 27, 1944, was straight-forward: Land the glider, unmanned except for the pilot, in the vicinity of 101st Airborne paratroopers and help replenish their ammunition, depleted from holding off a fierce German offensive. But he and many others trying to reach besieged Americans from the sky faced a wall of enemy ground fire and flak.

    Thirteen C-47s and the gliders they towed were lost, he said. Anti-aircraft fire hit the C-47 towing his glider, killing the pilot and co-pilot. Cut loose from the tow rope, Houck managed to land in a snow-covered field, but was immediately met by small-arms fire. He surrendered and was taken prisoner, then faced months on a virtual starvation diet.

    Houck had amusing moments at the hands of the Germans: He was hauled to an interrogation center in the back seat of a Volkswagen bug, and his captors, unable to wrest much useful information from him, fought over who would take his watch.

    But the veteran still feels bad that he didn't deliver ammunition, as ordered, to the dug-in paratroopers. And he still struggles to comprehend why friends died while he managed to stay alive.
    "There are so many circumstances that you survive, and you don't know why, " he said.

    More than a dozen videotaped histories assembled by the World War II Museum preserve the memories of glider pilots, and taped interviews by Stephen Ambrose, the famed war historian who helped found the museum, capture those of many others. The growing oral-history collection is accessible only on a limited basis, to scholars with specific research needs.

    But museum visitors of all sorts can actually step inside the nose of a recreated CG 4-A Combat Glider on the museum's third floor,
    fashioned in part from the front of a true relic of the war. Late Friday morning, Virginia resident R.C. Moore Jr., 91, a one-time glider pilot who made runs in the Normandy, Holland and Rhine River combat zones, stopped by with other reunion participants. He scanned the display -- complete with the rat-tat-tat noises of machine guns firing nearby -- and dubbed it "very good."

    Leaning on his cane, Moore peered into the no-frills seating and controls perch for two pilots and mused, "You notice, we didn't have too many instruments. We didn't need them. We were going to be on the ground very shortly."
     
  2. vikingBerserker

    vikingBerserker Well-Known Member

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    Excellent info, great post!
     
  3. Glider

    Glider Well-Known Member

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    In our gliding club we had a member who flew gliders during the war, he wouldn't talk about it much apart from jokingly swear that he once thermalled a Horsa to avoid a machine gun post spotted at the edge of a field he was aiming for.
    One interesting thing was that when not on operations or training for ops he spent a lot of time as a co pilot on C47's. The first time he did this he hadn't had any training on any powered aircraft and the idea of being in charge of a plane like a C47 put the wind up him.
     
  4. Messy1

    Messy1 Well-Known Member

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    Just read about a slightly incredible/humorous situation that occurred during the crossing of the Rhine in Citizen Soldiers. A solider was ordered to accompany a jeep across in the belly of a glider. He was ordered into the jeep and to have the jeep running while the glider was still in the air as to be ready to move out the instant the glider landed. A few meters above the ground, the glider was hit, and the nose swung up ejecting the pilots. The lines holding the jeep in place broke, and the jeep was sent out the front of the gilder, dropped the few meters to the ground, and touched down in a perfect 4 wheel landing. The driver of the jeep immediately drove to the pilots to check on them. Both pilots were ok from the ejection, but were later wounded. I'll try to get the names of the three men involved.
     
  5. RabidAlien

    RabidAlien Active Member

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    I talked to a British gentleman at the Love Flight Museum in Dallas a few years back, he flew Horshas. He told me a story about the Rhine crossing, he was all set on course, but the Engineers had smoke-pots going upstream to create a cloud to cover the crossing...which, with the ever-friendly wind, also covered his landing field. He knew roughly where he was, and didn't really have any other choice, so he set down as slowly and gently as possible. As he was coming in, he finally spotted the ground about 6 feet below....he looked up and saw two GI's standing in his field with a handful of German POW's. Said all he could really see were these huge eyes and open mouths as these guys finally noticed the silent glider about to land on em! I guess they all hit the deck, because he said he missed em, put the glider down, and bounced to a stop against a small stone wall at the end of the field. His troops exited the glider in good fashion, and the Lt in charge of them came forward long enough to shake his hand and thank him for "quite a ride".
     
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