At the outset of most wars, combat strategies and tactics often must play catch-up to the tremendous advances of weapon technology and lethality since the previous war. Shoulder-to-shoulder frontlines in the 1700s crumbled under artillery fire in the 1800s, and combat aircraft and tanks in World War II made the previous war’s trench warfare obsolete.

In 1941, young Americans began volunteering for airborne combat by flying an aircraft not yet invented when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The combat glider was the brainchild of General Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

In the post-Pearl Harbor crush of mobilization, Arnold was in a hurry even though American invasions at Normandy and then across Europe would not take place for more than two years. And when that day came, how could American troops mount frontal assaults on Utah Beach and cross rivers toward a waiting enemy without devastating losses? In part, through vertical envelopment: the ability to suddenly strike the enemy’s rear area.

That would require pathfinders, paratroopers, troop carriers, and even gliders. These defenseless aircraft would be towed by modified DC-3 aircraft within range of enemy small arms miles past the frontline into German territory, release at five or 600 feet, descend, and slide to a stop as quickly as possible.

With a descent rate of 950 feet per minute at 100 miles per hour, glider pilots would have precious time to find a field, line up, skid to a stop, and unload any combination of glider infantry, small artillery, vehicles, ammunition, communications or medical personnel. Always under fire, almost always immediately surrounded.

After more than two years’ research and writing Brotherhood of the Flying Coffin, I remain fascinated by the notion that young men would fly a glider covered only with reinforced fabric with no motors, no parachutes, and no second chances on one-way missions into enemy territory.

They did so only after enduring a madcap training program whose eligibility and curriculum were constantly revised. Oftentimes chaos trumped regimen. In one instance, a glider pilot in training was towed from Texas to Arizona instead of California.

The glider manufacturing program was even more chaotic. Quality control was nearly non-existent. One company tried building gliders in a circus tent in Florida before a storm destroyed it. Military inspectors found another company had built its glider prototype in a former dry cleaning shop, its wings protruding out two windows. When one prospective manufacturer was asked for his company’s name, he replied, “I’ll tell you in the morning.”

Training could be deadly when glider wings fell off, or when a tow rope broke or wrapped around a glider’s tail, cutting it off. More glider pilots would be killed in the “line of duty” during training and noncombat flights than in combat during World War II.

I sometimes shivered when reading their after-action combat mission reports. “Despite my having the stick full back, the glider made contact with the ground at a diving angle. As a result, the nose came off and I was hurled out,” wrote Henry Hobbs. “I could hear the bullets hitting the heavy ammunition I was carrying, and I was praying that they would not hit the detonators that I had hanging next to my seat,” recorded John Hill.

These volunteers were part of the “tip of the spear” in Europe’s major invasions, sometimes only weeks apart. Their missions read like a World War II highlight reel: Operation Neptune in Normandy; Operation Dragoon in southern France only two months later; Operation Market Garden six weeks later in Holland; a humanitarian mission in the Battle of the Bulge the day after Christmas; and then Operation Varsity across the Rhine and into the Fatherland only three months later.

In each, the element of surprise was a fantasy. The last glider squadron of 12 pilots approaching its landing zone in the gliders’ final mission of the war (in Germany) suffered three killed, 11 taken prisoner, and only one glider pilot able to return to base.

In effect, they were test pilots from one mission to the next. Photo intelligence taken at midday for Normandy failed to reveal the lethal height of hedgerows. Spacing waves of inbound gliders only ten minutes apart in southern France created horrific chaos over the landing zones.

“Christ what a mess!  Everywhere I looked, there were gliders in free flight or still tagging along behind tow planes taking evasive action trying not to run into each other … I watched one glider come whistling in at about one hundred miles per hour, hook a wing, and go cartwheeling down the field like a cheerleader at a football game,” wrote Jack Merrick. “I later heard stories about a glider in free flight just being missed by a falling jeep and even some being shot at by ships in our own invasion fleet.” 

Nearly the size of a B-25 bomber and containing zippers for assembly and maintenance, the gliders proved surprisingly sturdy under the circumstances. Yet the pilots’ nicknames for the revealed the remainder of their story: Tow Target, Purple Heart Box, Death Crate, Flak Bait, and Plywood Hearse, among others.

Once they had completed their missions and sometimes had fought their way to a designated combat post, glider pilots essentially were orphans. Their senior commanding officers remained back at their base. They might be assigned to guard prisoners, but their overall orders were to get back to their bases in France or England any way they could, sometimes hitchhiking rides in jeeps in the rear and securing a seat on a boat headed for England.

For many, it was only later in life that they began sharing their experiences in interviews, stowed-away journals, and recorded oral histories. A treasure trove of this material from the archives of the Silent Wings Museum in Lubbock, Texas, and from the Silent Wings Museum Foundation’s National World War II Glider Pilots Committee was made available to me. Brotherhood of the Flying Coffin would not have been possible without both organizations’ extraordinary collaboration.

Although decades had passed, many accounts laid bare the pain the pilots had endured during the war and then had kept hidden when they returned home. To me, they sounded like a fictional thriller. I had to remind myself they were written by young men, far from home, whose survival was uncertain.

“Gunfire and other explosions ebbed and flowed all around us. We could identify the spatter and crackle of small arms fire and the heavier boom of artillery … We also listened to the whine of missile launchers and to men shouting at each other. The worst of all … was the horrible din…the sound of voices calling for medics … We puny humans had not changed the course of nature one iota … as I think back … I could cry over the futility of war,” wrote glider pilot Ben Ward.

Some memories proving haunting. “It was then that I learned the true meaning of the word ‘terror.’ For as I watched, tracers [swept] the [farm field] row we were in at that time, a few feet from me … I lay still. I could not think. For the first time I was so scared that I could not think. In a few seconds, I started to breathe again. And we started moving … the first [glider pilot] I saw was Ben Winks’ copilot. ‘Where’s Ben?’ ‘Ben’s dead.’ I’ll never forget those words as long as I live. He had so much confidence. He was so sure he was coming back,” wrote glider pilot Richard Libbey.

Their missions were so dangerous that they earned an Air Medal for each, the equivalent of a Bronze Star (bomber pilots required five missions for an Air Medal, fighter pilots, ten).

Equally remarkable, their legacy was forged in only ten months, beginning with Normandy on June 6, 1944 and concluding with Operation Varsity across the Rhine River on March 24, 1945. An estimated 4,000 gliders pilots forged an outsized contribution to Allied victory in a sea of three million American troops in Europe on VE Day.

Survivors had volunteered as strangers and then became a band of brothers. “I keep getting flashbacks of things that happened … I had high school friends, college friends, frat brothers, but I never put them close to the category that I do of those glider pilots … courage that you would never believe,” said glider pilot Harry Loftis.

Others had a different perspective.

Years after the war, glider pilot Guy Gunter was philosophical in reflection. “We were a bunch of wild Indians, I guess you might say. You had to be crazy to be one [glider pilot], I guess. Or a little bit on the nutty side, to get into something without an engine. But we were just doing our duty.”