Introduction by Deborah Sellars
James J. Di Pietro was a CG-4 glider pilot in WWII. He joined the army in 1941 and was initially assigned to a medical training unit as a laboratory technician. While on KP (kitchen duty) one day, his first sergeant asked him if he wanted to be a glider pilot. PFC Di Pietro jumped at the chance without actually knowing what a glider pilot was!
After passing his interviews and tests, he began flight training in small airplanes and then on to small gliders. In Victorville, California, his training began on CG-4s. On Christmas Eve, 1942, his training was completed and PFC Di Pietro was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. He was then assigned to the 81st Squadron of the 436th Troop Carrier Group.
Shortly after VE Day (May 8, 1945), 2Lt. James Di Pietro was separated from the army and returned home safely.
The following is Mr. Di Pietro’s account of his participation in the D-Day Invasion at Normandy and Operation Market Garden.
Written by James Di Pietro
We were shipped to Camp Shanks, New York, which was to be our port of embarkation. A few days later we boarded the Queen Mary and landed in Glasgow, Scotland, where we boarded a train for Membury, England. Membury is a small town not too far from London with a large airfield and some old army barracks in the middle of a farming community.
Here we trained with the airborne infantry and had to qualify in every weapon from a .45 automatic to 50-calibre machine guns and bazookas. We were also checked out in the British Horsa glider. The Horsa was a large plywood glider designed to carry 29 fully equipped airborne infantrymen. This is the glider I eventually flew into Normandy on D-Day.
Two weeks before the Normandy invasion, we were restricted to the base where we were briefed and shown maps and mosaics of the beautiful fields we were to land in, in Normandy. “Top secret” we were told. Our instructions were, after we landed, to assemble with all the troops in the area and proceed to the command post with an airborne infantry officer in charge. The command post was a few miles southeast of St. Mere Eglise. While on the ground we were infantrymen with priority in being evacuated after the badly wounded.
Zero hour at 11 p.m., June 5, 1944. We were all assembled on the flight line when the commanding officer announced over the loudspeaker that the “beautiful fields” we had been briefed on were re-occupied by the Germans and that when we got a green light from the tow ship, to cut off and land. Apparently the tow pilots had some additional briefing. It was too late to ask questions; the planes were already warming up, and the gliders were being hooked up. It was time to take off.
My flight took off early in the morning. We were assigned a Horsa and I was to be co-pilot. As soon as we took off we noticed that the left wing felt heavy. We trimmed it as much as possible. It helped a little bit, but we still had to fight it all the way to Normandy. We had 29 men aboard, fully equipped. Sitting right behind me, a GI of Greek descent was telling me what he was going to do to the Germans when we landed. He was mad at them for what they had done to some of his relatives in Greece.
It was just about daylight when we flew over Omaha Beach. The tow plane began to lose altitude, and we looked over the terrain trying to spot a field big enough to land in. Any field that was big enough to land in was staked with 4 x 4’s six feet high and crisscrossed with barbed wire. We got the green light from the tow plane while we were about 200 feet and nowhere to land. We knew that if we didn’t release the tow line soon, the tow pilots would release from the other end, and besides we were getting some ground fire.
We finally saw two small fields divided by a hedgerow, so we cut off and began our approach to the closer of the two fields. Our plan was to dive toward the trunks of the trees, picking up enough speed to hop over the hedgerow and land in the next field. We were about 20 feet off the ground with airspeed of 145 mph heading for the trunks of the trees. At the appropriate time we both pulled back on the wheel to hop over the top. The nose of the glider would not come up, probably because it was overloaded or the left wing did not respond to the controls. We suddenly made a 90-degree turn, scraping the left wing on the ground. The forward momentum of the glider drove it into the hedgerow colliding with one of the biggest trees broadside on the right. The greatest impact was just behind where I was sitting. The glider split open and rolled over the top of the trees and most of us landed on the next field. I had been thrown from the glider and, when I quit rolling about 25 yards from the impact, I noticed that my seat bottom was still attached to me. Much to my surprise I was not hurt—a couple of scratches on my forehead caused by my helmet when I hit my head. Besides my seat remaining attached to me and my crash helmet, what prevented me from more serious injury was the Mae West I wore under my flak suit that inflated on impact and acted as a cushion when I landed and rolled on the ground.
After assuring myself that I was all in one piece, I surveyed the damage. Ben Ward, who was the other pilot, was walking around in a daze. He must have hit his head but came to when I yelled at him. We then counted noses; there was one man missing. We went back to the other field and found him all crumpled up at the trunk of the tree. He was the Greek GI who sat behind me during the flight. He must have taken the full impact of the crash and was the only one who did not survive. The team of medics took care of a few broken bones and other minor injuries. The rest of us assembled on a nearby country road and proceeded toward St. Mere Eglise which was between us and the command post.
When we finally began our march toward the command post, the lieutenant in charge wasn’t sure we were going in the right direction. I saw a farmer milking a cow in a nearby field. I went over to him and, in my high school French, asked him if St. Mere Eglise was in that direction as I pointed where we were headed. He said yes and volunteered the information that about an hour previous some German paratroopers had landed on a hill up ahead. I relayed the information to the lieutenant in charge. He, in turn, ordered the troops to spread out and be on the alert. There were about 200 of us in all.
As we approached the hill we were fired on with automatic burp guns. We hit the deck and looked around but couldn’t see anyone. The firing ceased and we continued on. A short time later we heard the rumble of tanks. A bazooka team was dispatched to scout the tanks and we started to dig in. The bazooka team returned with the news that the tanks were American and that they had told the tank drivers about the German paratroopers on the hill. Soon we heard the tanks open up with their machine guns and they rumbled on. Under scattered sniper fire we finally arrived at the command post without casualty.
It was about mid-day while we awaited orders to evacuate the wounded and the glider pilots. The troops were bringing in German prisoners, and we glider pilots stood guard over the prisoners as they brought them in. The prisoners were eventually loaded onto trucks and hauled away.
Late that afternoon, the major in charge gave us the bad news. He said that St. Mere Eglise had been recaptured by the Germans. He gave us three options: advance with the airborne, dig in where we stood and take a chance that the Panzer Division moving in our direction would pass us by, or head back toward the beach for evacuation back to England if we could fight our way back through St. Mere Eglise, which was between us and the beach. We all opted to head for the beach.
The wounded were placed in jeeps and trucks and were at the head of the column. The rest of us, about 100 pilots, followed on foot. It was about 5 p.m. We marched with full pack carrying our guns and ammunition which we never had a chance to fire. As we started our march, a German plane flew overhead at a low altitude, but it did not have a chance to open fire because a P-51 was on his tail. We continued our march and we could hear German 88s whizzing over our heads. One landed at the head of the column putting a jeep out of commission, and the firing ceased. Apparently the Germans had zeroed in on the road with the intention of shelling it all night. I don’t believe they were aware of our presence. As we approached St. Mere Eglise we were under sniper fire, and the sun was beginning to go down in the west. I don’t know where they came from, but we saw two infantrymen with flak suits on, which we had discarded, one covering the other, in an open field, stalking the snipers. We continued on and heard an exchange of rifle fire and then, silence. Apparently the two men had taken care of the snipers.
It was dark when we arrived at St. Mere Eglise. We heard some scattered firing. The paratroopers and the airborne men had recaptured the town, and we marched through without incident.
As we approached the beach we encountered some GIs who had disembarked from landing craft. Some had to swim because their boat ran into some mines and were blown out of the boats. They were wet and had lost their guns and ammunition. We handed them our equipment as they marched by for which they were very grateful. Upon arriving at the beach and waiting to board a boat, we were strafed by a couple of German night fighters. Now it was close to midnight. When I finally got on a boat I was so tired that I put on a life jacket and laid down on the wet deck and fell asleep. The next thing I knew we were back in England getting off the boat and being transported to our home base in Membury.
Early in September, rumor was rampant about the invasion of Holland. Due to the bad flying weather the mission was on and then called off. Finally on September 17, 1944, the mission Market Garden was on. Colonel Williams, our group commander, informed us that the orders read something like “if the weather was bad and not conducive to flying, the mission would be on a voluntary basis.” It was cloudy over the little town of Ramsbury, but visibility wasn’t too bad. Weather conditions over the English Channel were uncertain.
The colonel sent down orders to take off, and all pilots were given their assignments. Because of the uncertain weather, a few of the pilots chickened out and refused to fly. My glider was assigned to fly on tow behind the colonel’s C-47. If I had any reluctance to go on this mission because of the weather, it was overcome by the fact that the colonel was towing my glider.
The CG-4A glider was ready. Fifteen fully equipped airborne infantry soldiers filed in and took their seats. I had no co-pilot, so one of the airborne men sat in the co-pilot’s seat. We were ready.
As we gained altitude it seemed that the clouds were getting thicker, but it wasn’t too bad until we flew over the cliffs of Dover and over the English Channel. At first we could see the water from above 4,000 feet, but as we flew over the channel, the fog closed in. It looked like finely shredded cotton at first and we could get an occasional glimpse of the water. The tow ship continued to gain altitude until there was nothing visible but about two feet of 1 1/2-inch nylon tow rope attached to the nose of the glider. I tried to keep a straight course, but not being able to see the tow ship it was impossible to stay on a straight course. Every once in a while I could feel the prop wash of the tow ship, so I knew I was on course, but a little low in reference to the C-47.
I called the colonel on the intercom and explained the situation and asked him to get out of the fog. He came down to about 2,000 feet and the channel came back into view but only for a few minutes. I jockeyed the glider back into proper position and once again the water and tow ship disappeared into the fog. I tried to call the colonel on the intercom, but during my maneuvering to get back into tow position, the intercom line had snapped and it was dead.
I hung on the best I could with only about two feet of tow rope visible. The rope would swing from right to left and back and forth. I fought to keep it straight and take up the slack. Suddenly there was a clearing in the fog and I saw a C-47 on the right side and below. I assumed it was my tow ship, so I made a sharp turn to the right in an attempt to get in tow position behind it. As I did, the 1 1/2-inch tow rope snapped like store string. The C-47 I saw was someone else’s tow ship! To this day I don’t know how I avoided colliding with another airplane. The sky was full of them and they were invisible.
By this time we were about halfway across the channel and my several feet of tow rope were dangling uselessly from the nose of my glider. I was in free flight with a glider halfway across the English Channel in a thick fog.
There was complete silence in the glider. Finally the airborne infantryman sitting in the co-pilot’s seat broke the silence by saying, “What do we do now?” This is a position I had never been in before and hope to never be in again. I looked over at my “co-pilot” and said, “This is a good time to pray.”
We had been thoroughly trained “by the book” on ditching procedure. After the initial shock of the realization of our predicament (yes, I was scared), I began instructing on ditching procedure. The main part of the instructions was to hold tight and keep the seat belt on until the second impact. We would land tail first, first impact, and then the front of the glider would hit the water, second impact. Don’t open the doors, but punch holes through the fabric at the top of the glider and scramble out to the wing and sit there until we were picked up, or until the tow ship drops a dinghy. I told them the glider would float (I wasn’t sure of that). In the meantime I was watching the altimeter and airspeed indicator and looking for a break in the fog or some sign of the channel. By this time I was at about 500 feet and doing about 150 mph, and still couldn’t see the water.
We were losing altitude fast, 400 feet, 300 feet, 200 feet, and we were still enveloped in fog. Finally at just a little over 100 feet, I saw the water. It was smooth. There are times when the channel gets pretty choppy and the fog sits right on top of the water. We were lucky. As soon as I sighted the water I started figuring my approach. I leveled the glider and slowed it down from about 150 mph to 50. As we approached the surface of the channel I brought the nose up and I felt the first jolt. The tail had hit the water and the drag slowed us down considerably. The second impact the nose hit the water and the glider came to an almost immediate halt. The fuselage began to fill with water. I was still strapped to my seat. I looked back; all the seats were empty. My ditching instructions were followed. They had punched holes in the fabric on the roof of the glider and were sitting on the wing. Two of the men came back to help me out. By this time the fuselage was full. I scrambled up to one of the holes in the roof and with the assistance of two of the infantrymen; I found my way to the top of the wings. It floated!
Within about 15 minutes a British Lockheed Hudson flew low and circled our position. About an hour later we were picked up by a British air-sea rescue launch and returned back to England where I turned over my 15 men to an airborne captain and headed back to home base.
When the British launch picked us up they gave us dry clothes and fed us. The outfit I was fitted out with was a heavy, baggy blue turtleneck sweater, a woolen knit hat, a pair of nondescript trousers, and an old pair of shoes about two sizes too large. No wonder people stared at me in the railroad station and on the train. I got off the train at Hungerford, a small town about five miles from the base, and went to the local police station and called for transportation.
This was about 10 p.m. When I told the voice on the other end of the line who I was and what I wanted, there was a silence. Then the squadron commander, Major Brack, a former airline pilot, came on the line. He asked, “Is this Lt. Di Pietro?” I answered in the affirmative. Then silence. He asked a couple of confused questions and then said, “Wait there and we will send a jeep out for you.”
When I arrived at the barracks there was a lot of stirring around. Major Brack came over to me and said, “You were reported missing in action. This is why I could not believe it was you when you called for transportation.” Then he told me the story.
The colonel, my tow pilot, had returned to the base and reported that I had hit the water head on at high speed and that there were no survivors. Apparently the colonel had seen another glider crash into the channel and assumed it was mine. Others had suffered the same fate as I—some were not quite as fortunate.
Out of this experience comes one consolation. After reading the book, A Bridge Too Far, I was glad we had landed in the channel instead of Neimegen, Holland, which was supposed to be our destination.
According to the story and firsthand reports from some of my buddies who came back (some didn’t), landing in the channel was safer than landing in Holland.