The Second World War was perhaps the most expansive conflict that the world has ever seen. The impact of the upheaval caused by the clash of the Allied forces against the Axis powers resulted in a revolution of the technology of the time, the dramatic shift in the world balance of power, and an upheaval of the way those who lived through the conflict fought and viewed warfare. One of those who saw the fighting in the European theater only too personally was John M Pachmayer, a resident of Wakefield and a veteran of the United States Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Through the course of his service in World War 2, he earned 5 battle stars and was involved in some of the wars most immortal events such as the Airborne landing during the invasion of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Allied occupation of Berlin. His time in the service highlights the evolution of wartime technology as well as how the war impacted and indeed was shaped by rural America.
John Pachmayer was born April 8th, 1919 in Ironwood Michigan to Charles and Anna Pachmayer and today resides in nearby Wakefield. His involvement in the military came about in 1942 when he was drafted into the United States Army. When asked about being drafted into the service he replied, “I’m not the only one who put in, a lot of good fellas made the sacrifice.” After being drafted he was placed into the 82nd Airborne Division training into one of the Glider Artillery units. Training was conducted in North Africa prior to the allied invasion of Italy. Many different factors contributed to delays in more thorough training procedures and exercises for most of the units. Mr. Pachmayer described the training period simply as “short, far too short.”
The Evolution of Airborne Units & Glider Technology
Despite some experimental plans during World War 1 the United States Military had not developed a plan or structure for airborne units by the time World War 2 erupted. After observing the success of the German Fleigerkorps and Fallschrimjager in their early war operations however the U.S. military could no longer ignore the feasibility of this new approach to warfare. The German Airborne victories in Belgium and on the Island of Crete also proved to expand commanders’ ideas of what such units were capable of achieving tactically. A major roadblock in the development of complementary U.S. versions of such units was a central debate over which division should encompass them. The German forces were split into air and ground divisions but they were well-coordinated as both fell under the Luftwaffe’s jurisdiction of command. However, under American forces, the Army Corp of Engineers, Army Air Force, and War Department G-3 all were convinced that this new force should be under their direct control. Eventually a cooperative command structure split between the Army Ground Forces and the Army Air Force was formed creating the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.
As Glider Infantry was seen as a key success factor to the German landings on Crete they were included in the structure of the American Airborne forces. Gliders were a weapon unique to World War 2 and were used to great effect in almost every Airborne operation of the war. Although a dangerously unstandardized model, the Waco CG-4A Glider offered unique tactical combat advantages hitherto unseen in warfare. Due to their unpowered nature gliders would be towed behind a C-47 Skytrain until they were within range of their drop zones. They would then be released and the two pilots would steer the craft down to the landing zone as best they were able. The gliders primary core capability as a tactical weapon was its ability to deliver its combination of 2 pilots, 13 troops, and gear such as a 75mm howitzer or jeep undetected to positions behind enemy lines. An additional benefit was their low cost and that unlike paratrooper units, infantry units didn’t require extensive drop training to be effective. Troops awarded their gliders names such as “Flying Coffins,” “Tow Targets,” or “Silent Wings.”
It was one of these gliders, loaded with a 75mm Pack Howitzer, in which John Pachmayer descended upon Normandy on June 6th, 1945. Interestingly the Waco CG-4A Glider and John had more in common than just their combat service, they may have shared a similarity in geographic origin. The Waco Aircraft Company of Troy Ohio was awarded the contract to design the glider model. However due to the manufacturing demand, partially borne out of the Gliders 70,000+ components, production was outsourced to other firms. One of these firms was the Ford Motor Company who retooled their Iron Mountain Michigan sawmill complex to produce Gliders in 1942, the same year John was drafted. Over the course of its production from 1942-1945 the Ford Iron Mountain Plant built over 4,000 Waco Gliders, more than any other of the manufacturing facilities. In addition to the sheer volume of production, the Ford plant is notable in that it produced the gliders at a much lower cost than its companion factories. This was likely due to the Ford Company’s considerable skill at mass production and assembly in addition to its considerable resources. Ford’s Gliders were sold to the Military at a cost of $15,400 with the closest competitor producing at an expense of $19,367.
The glider’s ability to land heavier gear such as artillery units was another key benefit with which they exercised influence on the battlefield. In regards to armaments they were equipped to carry, gliders were capable of bringing either a 37mm AT gun or an M1A1 75mm Pack Howitzer on a M8 Carriage. As mentioned, Pachmayer was a member of an artillery squad operating a 75mm Howitzer. The 75mm was an impressive weapon given its mobility, in addition to transport by glider it could also be broken down into 9 paracrate loads for parachute insertion, with 18 rounds of ammunition, and moved in pieces by troops or animals.
When gliders were used it was loaded through the nose of the aircraft and secured. Under ideal conditions, it could sustain prolonged fire at a rate of 150 rounds per hour firing either fixed or semi-fixed ammunition in direct or indirect firing positions. The variation of the weapon produced for the airborne units had specializations in both the firing mechanism and a caster wheel on the chassis to make for easier use and transport. Access to this higher caliber of artillery allowed Airborne units to commence effective attacks on enemy troops and fortifications. It also protected them from Infantry’s inherent vulnerability to hostile tanks and armored divisions.
The War Itself
Operation Neptune, more commonly known as the D-Day landings saw perhaps the most famed use of Airborne divisions in military history. Part of Operation Overlord, or the greater allied invasion of France, British and American Airborne units were dropped along the flanks of the naval landings behind German lines. They had a wide variety of objectives such as seizing towns and weapons sites but the overall strategy was to disrupt the German lines from behind.
Up to Operation Neptune, it was widely thought that Glider and Paratrooper operations should be conducted during the night. Despite deadly repercussions of this strategy during the drops into Sicily, Airborne commanders thought that this would give the troops and Gliders better cover from anti-aircraft weaponry. Pachmayer reminisced about several details of the approach during the landings. He remembers how the gliders brought them in on a low approach to try to avoid German flak guns. Despite the glider design being constructed for stealth for the passengers inside it was anything but. As the gliders were designed with barebones construction to save as much weight as possible there was no insulation for sound. Between enemy anti-aircraft fire, the C-47 tow plane’s engines, and the natural elements Donald Mcrae, a glider pilot during D-Day described the interior as “louder than hell.”
If there was one thing that characterized the initial Airborne landings during Operation Neptune it would be chaos. Due to the poor communication and navigation of the time, and further complicated by the nocturnal nature of the mission, units frequently missed their drop zones and were separated from their comrades and objectives. There were a great number of casualties as a result of this, primarily from crashing gliders and units being separated from supplies. Pachmayer described the fighting during the following days as ferocious and chaotic, he characterized this as partially due to Airborne’s lack of equipment and supplies dropped with them. When his squad ran out of ammunition for their howitzer they loaded shells with anything they could find in order to keep suppressing fire upon the German forces. Even as the inevitable end of the battle for the Normandy beachhead came to an end. Pachmayer remembers many Germans who would fake surrender with exclamations of “Kamerad! Kamerad!” before pulling pistols. This had been a tactic which had crossed over from the First World War and as one American Corporal noted it wasn’t safe to accept the surrender of any Germans who still had bullets to fire.
After the success of Operation Overlord, the Allied progression through Europe progressed steadily despite heavy resistance. Motivated by both Nazi propaganda and accounts of the growing savagery of the combat on the now collapsing eastern front, German soldiers fought a fierce retreat through Europe. As the western front of the war moved closer to Germany Airborne glider units saw combat in some of the most pivotal engagements such as Operation Dragoon, the attack on the Arnhem bridges, Operation Market Garden, and Operation Varsity. Their success was particularly notable in Arnhem and Market Garden where, despite operational confusion, Airborne units were able to make a significant effect on the battle. The 82nd Airborne also performed a crucial combat role in the Battle of the Bulge to repulse the last German counter-offensive of the war.
As the noose of defeat began to close around Germany a major question was circulating among the Allied forces. Pachmayer reminisces about the soldiers debate about who would reach the axis capital of the European front first, “Who was gonna get there first, the 82nd or the Russian Army” Pachmayer stated. In the end due to overwhelming numbers and the sheer force of will of their soldiers, the Soviet army arrived first to Berlin and occupied the city after savage fighting on all sides. It had been decided by the Allied command staff that while it may have been possible to reach Berlin before the Soviets, it would’ve required a much higher loss of life which would not have yielded tangible benefits as they believed the war to be almost won. Stalin on the other hand had pitted his generals against each other in their efforts to race to the German capital. He was motivated dually by his desire for the post-conflict gains he could acquire through the occupation as well as secrets of the Nazi atomic program which they believed resided in Berlin.
Regardless within a few weeks of the soviet occupation American and British forces moved into Berlin. Pachmayer remembers the Red Army soldiers as a hard and tough group. “They always had vodka, I don’t know where the Russians got their vodka,” he chuckled. As the Red Army was comprised of a greater variety of culture and technology than any other fighting force at the time they had never ending supply issues throughout the war, especially for essentials such as food and comfort supplies. To compensate for this difference Soviet soldiers were issued rations of vodka. As a result of this drunkenness was common among the Soviet troops sharing the occupation with the American forces, inevitably this led to a number of violent confrontations between the two factions.
After the conclusion of the war John moved back to the Bessemer area. He married and had four daughters. He recently celebrated his 100th birthday and received recognition for his service from the Commander First U.S. Army as well as several Michigan politicians. John Pachmayers extraordinary combat service tells a personal story of the far reach the Second World War had on the United States. A young man drafted into the armed forces, soaring into combat in revolutionary technology manufactured less than 2 hours away from his hometown in rural Michigan. World War Two was largely one via the United States approach to the war as the arsenal of democracy. Stories like Johns comprise the backbone of what became the allied victory.
- Pachmayer, John. Personal Interview 28 September 2019.
- Glisson, P.J. “Pachmayer celebrates 100th year with government honors” Your Daily Globe 8 April 2019.
- Department of the Army. (1948) 75-mm Pack Howitzer M1A1 And Carriage M8. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
- Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan C. (1992). “TO WAR ON TUBING AND CANVAS: A Case Study in the Interrelationships Between Technology, Training, Doctrine and Organization,” School of Advanced Airpower
- Zaloga, Steven J. US Airborne Divisions in the ETO. E-book, Osprey Publishing, 2007.
- Ferguson, Niall. “Prisoner Taking and Prisoner Killing in the Age of Total War: Towards a Political Economy of Military Defeat.” War in History, vol. 11, no. 2, 2004, pp. 148–192. JSTOR, www.jstor.org.
- Davis, Kenneth C. The Hidden History of America at War: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah. New York, Hachette Books, 2015.
- MacRae, Micheal. “The Flying Coffins of World War II”. ASME
- The Menominee Range Historical Foundation, World War II Glider and Military Museum. 2019