Compiled from the memoir of Flight Officer Charles E. Skidmore, Jr., Glider pilot with the 91st Troop Carrier Squadron, 439th Troop Carrier Group.
Charles (Chuck) Skidmore, Jr. knew right from his pilot’s briefing for the Invasion of Normandy that a glider pilot’s life could be a short one. His group briefing was somber right up until the final moment, when he recalled the following: “Sir,” asked a glider pilot, “What do we do after we land our gliders?” Chuck relayed that there was a brief period of silence, after which the briefing officer, a non-flying person, admitted, “I don’t know. I guess we never really thought of that.” Chuck considered that maybe glider pilots were actually considered to be expendable, as he stated that the best answer to the question came from a glider pilot sitting next to him: “Run like hell.”
But one of the briefers, a 91st Troop Carrier Squadron’s captain named Merriman, showed pilots that certain officers were going to make sure that they had the support they needed to make their destination. Chuck recalled the captain explaining: “Glider pilots will release when the pilot of the C-47 leading the formation starts a gradual turn to the left to return to the coast. If any C-47 pilots cuts his glider off during an invasion without sufficient reason, and there shouldn’t be any, he’d better keep on going because if he comes back here, I’ll be waiting for him.” Chuck added that he never heard of any tow pilot needlessly cutting his glider off during the several invasions that took place on the European continent.
Cutting the cord
The moment of truth, as Chuck Skidmore, his co-pilot, and 13 troops passed through the thunder of anti-aircraft, rushing wind, turbulence and the roar of C-47 radials over the Normandy coastline, is best shared in his own words: “When the other pilot and I cut ourselves free from the tow planes for the Normandy landing, we caught a burst of machine gun fire from the ground which missed my head by about a foot, and then stitched the right wing from end to end. The first bullet – I was flying copilot – just missed my head as we turned our plane to the left, and that’s why it didn’t get us. If we’d gone another second farther (or a half second) it would have gotten us both right in the face and we’d have probably all gone down.”
“Germans had flooded our proposed landing area, so we landed in 3 feet of water,” he continued. “I went out the side of the pilot section by tearing off the canvas and tumbling in the water after first removing my flak vest. One guy didn’t have the presence of mind to take off his jacket and fell into a hole where the water was over his head. Luckily for him, the other glider pilot rescued him after a series of frantic dives…Upon landing, we discovered the source of the ground fire that nearly got me. It turned out to be a bunker containing about a dozen conscripted Polish soldiers with one German in charge. After the glider infantrymen from several gliders, including ours, directed a hail of rifle fire at the bunker, the resistance ceased. There was silence in the bunker, and then a single shot. Then there were shouts and laughter, and the Poles emerged with their hands held high and surrendered. They weren’t about to fight the Americans so they simply shot the Kraut sergeant.”
The cost of freedom
On the edge of the field where he landed, Chuck saw a burning C-47. “I could still make out the number on the tail and I knew it had been flown by a good buddy of mine,” he explained. “All aboard were killed, I heard later. I guess I was just lucky to get off so easy. A lot of other guys weren’t so lucky.”
By nightfall, Chuck had joined with a group that was looking for a place to bed down for the night. They came upon some GIs digging holes in a small field. “Figuring out that misery loves company, several of us sunk our shovels at the edge of the field,” he stated. But the response was not what he expected:
“Hey, you guys can’t dig in here.”
“Because we’re starting a temporary American cemetery here.”
“That did it. We went elsewhere,” Chuck declared.
Following his general instructions to get back to the coast and board a ship to England, Chuck spent some time along the way assisting a crew manning a 105 howitzer and later helped a communications outfit. Once at the beach, glider pilots were assigned to load German prisoners on to LCIs (Landing Craft, Infantry). From there, the prisoners were transferred to LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) to be moved to prison camps in England.
Chuck hitched a ride in an LST to make the return trip across the English Channel. The ship was crammed with 1,200 German prisoners on the main tank deck and only “4 GI cans” to serve as toilets. And just because he made it off the beach, didn’t mean he was out of danger.
“The LST was anchored next to an American oil tanker, which later attracted the attention of a German E-torpedo boat,” shared Chuck. “The E-boat fired one torpedo into the tanker, which exploded and sank almost immediately. One sailor, along with a dog who was on top of the mast as lookout, were the sole survivors. The LST crew fished them out of the water. The E-boat’s luck ended with the sinking, because at practically the same second as the American ship’s sinking, a British ground attack aircraft swooped down with rockets and machine gun fire and destroyed the German attacker. At the end, it was like watching a newsreel as we observed the whole drama, from the deck of our LST.”