Gliders played a major role in the invasion of Europe in World War Two. This is the story of how a small Michigan town became one of the biggest producers of these silent troop carriers and how the highest ranking casualty in all of D-Day lost his life in one.
Greenville, Michigan is a relatively quiet town sitting about forty-five miles north of Grand Rapids. Being a manufacturing powerhouse during the second World War, it’s not really a surprise to think of Michigan as a major supplier of wartime vehicles and material. What may be a bit surprising is who-or what- specifically fulfilled these contracts to help the effort abroad. Sleepy little Greenville was home to Gibson Refrigeration Company back in the day, which would turn into one of the largest producers of Waco CG-4A gliders, the type used during D-Day. These complicated pieces of machinery had thousands of parts that had to be expertly made and put together for the whole thing to work. If all went to plan, these un-powered creations could drop down silently without the sound of standard aircraft engines that were all too easy to use to determine the number and direction of aircraft movements.
Gibson Refrigeration secured many contracts for the United States Government in support of the war effort. Everything from an order for one hundred thousand, hundred pound mustard gas bombs, to a good portion of the incendiary bombs that were used in Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo, to wing flaps for the B-24 heavy bombers all rolled out of the buildings in Greenville. Many of the contracts secured by Gibson Refrigeration were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1940s money, worth millions today. The Army Air Forces, for example, places an order for B-7 and B-10 shackles to hold bombs in racks in heavy bombers, a contract worth more than two million dollars. These devices were stamped and pressed pieces of sheet stainless steel, small enough to be held in one hand, but when installed in a B-24 or B-17, could rain all manner of destruction down from untold heights.
The weapons and tools made by Gibson, although important, are not nearly as historically important to the town as the gliders. The Waco CG-4A glider is an engineless, wood and canvas build with steel tubing along the fuselage. These silent troop carriers were surprisingly larger than one might expect. The nose was hinged to lift up, revealing a payload of up to fifteen fully equipped infantrymen and a jeep, seventy-five millimeter pack howitzer M1A1, thirty-seven millimeter anti-tank gun, specially built bulldozer, or any of a number of options to help the men behind the lines. When all was said and done, Gibson refrigerator ended up producing a total 1078 gliders (7), or a little less than eight percent of the total number made.
At the same time, the students of Greenville high school held a war bond drive in early 1943 and raised enough money to purchase four of these Waco Gliders. With their original goal being one, the excess was astonishing. Even enough to get the students awarded Distinguished Service Award from the US Treasury Department. Historically, this was the first time the award had been received by a group of students. One such Glider was set up on the football field in town, Black Field, and christened “The Fighting Falcon”. The Ninth Air Force Headquarters, seeing the work and effort the students had put into the purchasing of the gliders, determined that the Fighting Falcon be the lead glider in the formation of fifty-two heading into normandy.
The use of gliders in combat is simple. They are a silent way to deposit men and material behind enemy lines where they can perform reconnaissance, capture strategic objectives and cause general mayhem among enemy lines. The nitty-gritty details are where things normally get hairy. The gliders used in the invasion were to simply land in designated fields, deploy, and go about their various tasks. In some cases, like with D-Day, infantry already on the ground via parachute preceded the gliders to help them land and support them. In these cases they could help the pilots miss trees and other obstacles in the typically dark landing zones. Gliders were almost always unarmored, so landing by cover of darkness was sometimes a necessity. Lieutenant Colonel Michael C. Murphy, the pilot of the Fighting Falcon on the Longest Day, said the bullets passing through the taut canvas skin of the glider sounded like “popping Popcorn” (1).
Outside of Operation Overlord, gliders had their place in other worlds. Many gliders and glider cut outs were towed behind powered aircraft and used as targets. This way ground crews, using anything from machine guns to large caliber guns, could practice aiming and range finding. As with the ground crews, fighter pilots used these cut outs to practice aiming. Leading the target is all that more important when fighting airplane on airplane, and the more direct the hit, the better, regardless of platform.
To get these beasts in the air, there are several options. The most popular is to have the gliders staggered along the runway, with the tow plane, popularly a C-47 Skytrain, have a tow rope attached and off they go. In the field, without a proper runway, another way stands. A loop is made in the tow cable and it is propped up so to be off the ground. The tow plane would have to have a hook trailing to pick up the loop and start taking cable with it. The glider has a spool of this cable and a brake drum, and as the brake is applied, the craft accelerates. By the time the brake is locked in place, the glider is off the ground and on its way. This technique is useful if you have high ranking officers or wounded that need to be moved elsewhere and they simply can’t wait for ground transport.
For the Invasion itself the gliders purchased by the students were crated and sent overseas. The Fighting Falcon, the first of those that glided silently over German lines, had special cargo. Brigadier General Don Pratt rode in the front of a quarter-ton Jeep with the glider to help lead his men in combat. This man was special enough to warrant steel plates to be welded to the underside of the normally unarmored aircraft to help stop bullets and fragments from hitting the jeep, its cargo, the pilot and the co-pilot. This armor plate of course means more weight. LT. CO. Murphy remarked that the glider felt like a freight train and was probably a thousand pounds overweight(2). Aircraft armor may be thin in the grand scope of stopping projectiles, especially to modern standards, but every pound counts when your gravity powered craft is at risk of falling apart over certain speeds.
Realistically, the glider would have been much safer, but the armor would have also changed nearly everything from the pilot’s perspective. Major Leon Spencer, retired from the USAFR, did no small amount of digging into the death of general Pratt. He said in his report, “[The Glider] was overloaded; its center of gravity had been altered making it unstable and hard to handle; it landed downwind with a reputed 27 mph tailwind; the landing speed was higher than normal because of the extra weight; the field it landed in sloped downhill; and the tall pasture grass was covered with slippery dew. It was a miracle anyone survived.” (2) General Pratt was in the passenger seat of the Jeep, helmet strapped on, wearing his seat belt. Unfortunately when the glider slammed to a stop in the adjacent hedgerow, the added weight added to the whiplash and the General perished from a broken neck.
The landing zone the Falcon was destined for, known as LZ-E, was clear of the poles rigged with wire and explosives known as Rommel’s Asparagus and flooded ditches, as D-Day was well planned and observation missions had done their job. The landing itself went well, but the cool morning air made the field itself slippery with dew, causing the glider to skid into an adjacent hedgerow. As the dust and debris settled, the pilot was heavily injured, and all but the General’s aid were deceased. Brig. Gen. Pratt was the highest ranking casualty during the entire invasion that morning. The poplar tree that now rested between the pilot and co-pilot was the main thing that stopped the now crumpled glider.
The Falcon itself was wrecked, as were a high portion of other gliders that morning. These “flying coffins,” as they were sometimes referred to, had done their job, however. With the paratroopers to support them, the glider troops were able to dismount and help. Lack of experience, poor nerves, and shotty training led to heavy losses, but the men did their duty where they could. Landing in the early morning before sunrise certainly did not help their situation.
Here’s the thing, though. The glider that crashed with General Pratt in it was not the one christened in Greenville. A few days before the invasion, the original Fighting Falcon was moved to a different landing zone with a different payload. A new, substitute Falcon was selected for the actual drop. This glider was fitted with a Bolt On Griswold nose protection device, or BOGN, to further support the cockpit upon landing. The BOGN is effectively a steel construction that forms a cage type of protection for the pilot and co-pilot. The substitute was painted as if it were the original, but the actual Falcon landed elsewhere perfectly safely and deployed as planned (3). This replacement was not made common knowledge, and as both gliders were already shipped over to England, it did really matter to the public. The other main reason it would not matter much that they substituted the Fighting Falcon is the substitute was also made at Gibson Refrigeration Company, again out of Greenville.
The glider that was actually named and sent overseas did land in europe, but it landed elsewhere with a much different payload. The original glider landed with a fifty seven millimeter British anti-tank gun, presumably a QF six pounder, and crew and ammunition for the endeavour. Unlike the glider that carried General Pratt to his fate, this glider landed with the use of a deceleration parachute on an uphill slope and apparently received no damage at all (2). Gliders were designed to be multi-use, but to the industrial powerhouse known as the United States, it was easier to just make more. This led to the vast majority of even the more pristine gliders being left on the fields of normandy until they could be removed and scrapped.
Although neither aircraft was recovered entirely, especially in the case the replacement Falcon, the fabric insignia of the screaming eagle and logo from the substitute is on display in a museum dedicated to the late General in Campbell, Kentucky (3). In Greenville, Michigan, the old school house just off from downtown has a replica of a CG-4A with cutaways and clear sections to view the internals. Also in this museum lie detachable fuel canisters designed for fighters, and an empty mustard gas bomb, among other memorabilia, all built at Gibsons plant. The plant itself was bought out by Electrolux, and then the whole factory moved out many decades ago, the building changed hands over the past several years. The local economy took a huge hit when the factory left, but recently the city has made a come back and appears to be doing just fine.
A region such as Michigan and the Midwest is rich with historical significance. Our industrial powerhouse once being the pride of the Allies. Michigan and the surrounding states were known for everything from tanks, to powerful tank destroyers, to aircraft that rained hell from above, and many of the men to serve with them. It takes a special eye to realize that even the smallest of towns can have, or had, unsuspecting facilities that held unexpected roles in the conflict. In the second World War, everyone did their part, big or small. Total war is an ugly thing, but it leaves no corner of the country barren of history, and the memories of even the smallest town can cast shadows from the past that only need a chance to share their stories.
- “The Fighting Falcon.” The Fighting Falcon, 2002, . Accessed 4 Nov. 2019.
- Spencer, Leon B. The Death of General Don F. Pratt. The Death of General Don F. Pratt
- “Silent Partner of the Plane.” Popular Science, February 1944, p. 98.
- Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Jun 8, 1944; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune pg. 1
- Day, Charles L. “The National World War II Glider Pilots.” The National World War II Glider Pilots.
- Lyon, Jeff Chicago Tribune (1963-1996); Dec 3, 1995; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune pg. SM12
- Jackson, David D.“WWII US glider manufacturing sites.”Warbirds and Airshows. Retrieved: 30 May 2015.
- Jones, Meg (2018) The highest-ranking U.S. soldier killed on D-Day in Normandy was a University of Wisconsin alum Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
- Haskett, Norman. The Daily Chronicles of World War II: 365 Days of Text and Images That Capture the Conflict in Every Theater. Norm Haskett Designs, LLC, 2016.