The Pilots of the Flying Coffins of World War II
In 1933, Adolf Hitler was declared Chancellor of Germany and became head of the Nazi Party. By 1939, he had become absolute ruler, commanding his military to invade Poland in his first step toward world domination. In May 1940 he invaded France, bringing Great Britain into the fray, as they had been France’s ally since the 1850s. In May 1941, he invaded the island of Crete, using gliders to transport troops in a highly efficient and effective manner. In June 1941 he invaded Russia, who up to that point had been an ally of Germany, because of Russia’s invasion of the Baltic states. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, declaring war on the United States after the fact. Four days later, on December 11, 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States, who reciprocated with their own declaration of war on Germany. The lines were drawn, and the stage was set for a true world war.
Starting in 1942, Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States, began planning the ground war in Europe. They were both convinced that the only way to victory was to amass an overwhelming assault force of Allied troops that would storm the coast of France in one big, mighty push. The assault would be a highly complicated operation involving a large amphibious attack force combined with two aerial attack components behind enemy lines: paratroopers and glider transports of troops and equipment (based on Germany’s success in invading Crete).
Glider production and glider pilot training began in earnest in the spring of 1942. By that summer, there were four regional glider training programs across the United States. The Central Flying Training Command, 31st Flying Training Wing, consisted of 22 active flying units and 11 training schools, one of which was hosted by the city of Aberdeen. This is their story.
The Army Air Corps Comes to Town
With America engaged in a world war, things changed drastically throughout the country. Men up to age 36 were enlisting in various branches of the military, leaving families behind, while numerous materials needed for the war effort were being rationed.
Aberdeen, like every city in America, felt the loss of manpower and civilian industry due to wartime material restrictions. To fill these voids, the Aberdeen Civic Association formed a War Effort Committee to create new activities and projects. They had heard of the War Department’s plans for the Army Air Corps to train 3,000 glider pilots for commando raids, so they applied to be a training site. When it was announced that Aberdeen had been selected to host one of these contract schools, the city was elated. The school would be operational during the summer of 1942 and would run from June 1 through the end of August.
Shortly after the announcement was made to the public in the May 23, 1942, edition of the American News, the specifics of the training were provided. There would be two 10-week Class A courses for students with no flying experience, and a four-week, intensive Class B program for former aviation cadets with 50 or more hours of flight experience in Army or Navy planes and anyone else who had maintained a Civil Aeronautics Authority Airman Certificate. The plan was to train about 300 pilots ages 18 to 36 during this three-month period. The aviation cadets would be housed and fed at Northern State Teachers College, staying in Seymour Hall. Cadets would also take classes at Northern State in the areas of maintenance, instruments, navigation, meteorology, and chemical war defense and identification. College faculty members N.H. Mewaldt, Lloyd Johnson, George Schaunaman, Harold Jones, and Clarence Abeln would provide the classroom instruction. Anderson and Brennan Flying Service of Des Moines, Iowa, would provide the hands-on flight instruction. At first, the Aberdeen Municipal Airport was considered for the flight training portion, but it was soon determined that a more private, out-of-the-way place would be established for the actual flight instruction. Four sections of farmland were leased by Brennan Flying Service to serve as the training base north and east of Aberdeen. One quarter was leased from the county and the rest from private landowners.
Colonel Harold A. Gunn, Army Air Corps, and Captain M.R. Halbouty, Air Corps Medical Section, both from Kelly Field, Texas, approved the base site. A large building was soon erected, along with waiting depots and other buildings. Brennan Flying Service provided 20 civilian flight instructors, 30 mechanics, and nine guards who stayed at the training base. The base was highly patrolled and off limits to unauthorized personnel. The Army provided 27 officers and enlisted men to supervise flying and ground school training activities at both sites and to coordinate transportation needs.
By June 1942, the American military had streamlined their design of a glider and settled upon the Waco CG-4A. It was a vast improvement of the previous prototypes, but was still a very lightweight, engineless plane made from plywood. It had no armor nor armaments at all. Along with the pilot, it could carry 13 loaded for bear troops. Because of its construction, it earned the nickname the “Flying Coffin.” It was usually towed by a C-47 cargo plane using 300 feet of a one-inch in diameter tow rope. When close to the landing zone, the glider would be released from the tow plane and drift silently to a nice landing at the target area. In theory. In reality, once released the glider pilot never really knew what to expect as it free floated. Each drop was a new experience, and a good landing was one that people walked away from. Often times they did not, further reinforcing the nickname the “Flying Coffin.”
Because of the shortage of C-47s and actual gliders, cadets at the Aberdeen training facility learned their glider flying skills in a small airplane, rather than a glider, through a maneuver called a “dead-stick” landing. This involved the pilot taking a perfectly functioning airplane up to a desired altitude and intentionally turning off the power to the engine, forcing the pilot to try and glide the plane to a safe landing. The cadets trained using 54 airplanes ferried to the training base by the Army Air Corps Ferry Command. The training base airfield got its name of “Maytag Field” from the training cadets because they couldn’t tell the difference between the sound of these plane engines and the sound of a Maytag washing machine.
The men who came to this glider pilot training program were from all across the United States. They trained hard, but also looked for ways to relax. Mayor O.M. Tiffany urged the citizens of Aberdeen to welcome these men, and encouraged people to invite them into their homes for food and friendship. Aberdeen took his words to heart. To help them feel at home as much as possible, the community provided numerous recreational activities for both married couples and single men. The old downtown YMCA building was open to these aviation cadets free of charge, courtesy of the Aberdeen Civic Association. A gathering place at the Y called “The Dugout” was also created. Dances were held here quite often, and the men could bring their wives or meet local women invited to attend by the Y. Other activities provided to the cadets by the community included volleyball and basketball leagues, swimming lessons, and dance lessons. Existing programs at the Y were moved to other spaces within the community so they could provide these activities to the cadets. Northern State Teachers College also held events and provided entertainment. The first dance for the cadets, a two-hour event, was held in the Spafford Hall gym, with local residents serving as hostesses and chaperones and providing the music. Aberdeen women also set up a sewing shop at Northern to mend the cadets’ clothing during several scheduled sessions during the summer.
There were two major events that occurred near the end of the three-month glider training program that had a significant impact on Aberdeen. The first involved a fatal crash. A student pilot, Tech Sgt. Thomas F. Quilan, 27, of Los Angeles, California, and flight instructor R.P. McClure of Brennan Flying Service were killed when their training aircraft crashed in a stubble field 19 miles southeast of town on August 20, 1942. The cause of the accident was unknown, and this was the only serious mishap that occurred with the glider training detachment in Aberdeen.
Just four days later, a headline in the August 24, 1942, American News revealed another tragedy: “HUB SLAYING…Body of Girl, 19, Found in Creek Near Night Club.” A local girl, Dorothy Blair, had been missing for about a week. Her body was found floating in the early morning of Sunday, August 23, 1942, in Foote Creek behind The Last Roundup night club, located two miles southwest of Aberdeen. During an eight-hour, intensive investigation, the crime was solved by local law enforcement. Robert Bruce Vanderwalker, a 21-year-old glider pilot, confessed to the slaying of Dorothy on the morning of August 18, 1942, after an all-night drinking binge.
The military was informed, and they immediately took Vanderwalker into custody. Elmer Thurow, Brown County state’s attorney, stated he would wait for the release of Corporal Vanderwalker to civil authorities, at which time he would file a charge of murder against him. Lieutenant R.W. Voigt, commanding officer of the air force glider training detachment, said he had contacted the Corps area headquarters at Omaha, Nebraska, to learn whether Vanderwalker would face a military court or be turned over to local authorities.
The Aberdeen glider pilot training school’s last date of operation was Saturday, August 29, 1942. As the detachment cleared out on Sunday and Monday, they left one of the students behind—Corporal Robert Bruce Vanderwalker. He was charged with first-degree manslaughter by local officials and the judge hearing the case sentenced the young man to 25 years in the South Dakota State Penitentiary. In an interesting turn of events, in August 1944 South Dakota Governor M.Q. Sharpe reduced the sentence of 25 years to 11 years as recommended by the state parole board, making Vanderwalker eligible for immediate parole.
With the closing of the school, the 54 aircrafts were flown to various other Army flight centers across the country. The ten frame buildings built at “Maytag Field” were sold to local residents. Of the 300 or so cadets stationed in Aberdeen, 80 percent completed the glider pilot training program here and went on to more advanced training and to serve in World War II as United States Army Air Corps glider pilots. But the legacy of Aberdeen’s glider pilot program, and the many other sister programs across the country, does not end here. This was only the beginning.
The Rest of the Story
As these early glider pilots were being trained, Churchill and Roosevelt formulated a plan called “Operation Sledgehammer.” It was the first plan to invade northwest France and was scheduled for the spring of 1943. As the war progressed, so did the planning. Spring 1943 arrived, and both leaders agreed to delay their invasion plans because things didn’t feel quite right yet. Glider pilots continued to be trained and retrained. Finally, in early summer a decision was made to “test” the ability of their invasion forces by creating a diversionary campaign. In July 1943, U.S. and British forces invaded the island of Sicily using glider insertion of troops and equipment for the first time, and with great success, to complement the amphibious landing forces. Within two months Sicily was in Allied hands, so on September 3, 1943, they moved forward and invaded Italy.
Through the winter of 1943 and spring of 1944, Churchill and Roosevelt continued to revise their plan to invade France. The German command was now convinced that the main invasion force would come through Italy, since that is where General Patton’s 3rd Armored Division was. By late spring 1944, over 6,000 glider pilots had been trained, double the number of 3,000 planned for in 1942. “Operation Sledgehammer” was now changed to “Operation Overlord,” and on June 6, 1944, Allied forces invaded the beaches of Normandy in France, while glider pilots carried commando forces into the country back behind enemy lines. It is now known as D-Day. Check out the movie The Longest Day made in 1962.
Three months later, in September 1944, the largest mass troop movement by glider occurred in “Operation Market Garden,” where thousands of Allied troops were taken in by air to secure nine key bridges along the Rhine River from the Netherlands to create an invasion route of 64 miles into Germany. For the most part it was successful, as it secured 60 of the planned 64 miles. The last bridge was not secured, and at the eight other bridges a foothold across the Rhine River was not obtained. Check out the movie A Bridge Too Far made in 1977.
So that is the legacy of the Aberdeen glider pilots and the thousands of others from all across the United States. This is what the boys trained to accomplish during the three months of the summer of ’42. // –Mike McCafferty