Sherfey T. Randolph
2nd Lieutenant - Glider Pilot - 80th Troop Carrier Squadron - 436th Troop Carrier
The Preparation for Normandy
I was attending my sophomore year at Asheville College, North Carolina
when America entered World War II. During that year, I picked up
my pilot’s license as a course in the Civilian Pilot Training
Course. I got credit towards my degree and had fun, to boot.
In March 1942, some of my friends and I heard about the newly started
U.S. Army Air Force glider program. A glib Army recruiter with a
quota to fill found a rapt audience with us. By having my pilot’s
license and passing a perfunctory physical, I was a prime candidate
for this new training.
Starting in May 1942, about 75 glider pilot trainees reported to
Shaw Field in Sumter, South Carolina. There we enlisted as privates
in the Army Air Force.
Moved down to Ft. Jackson, S.C., our group was formally in-processed
into the military. The archetypical shot line, uniform issue, and
yet another physical that essentially consisted of being able to
breathe and walk upright followed.
Following the abbreviated introduction into the military, I traveled
by train to a civilian-run preliminary light airplane gliding instruction
school at Goodland, Kansas. The flying there was actually conducted
in powered light aircraft. In my case, Piper Cubs were the primary
Everything we did at Kansas was a repeat of private pilot training
with a heavy emphasis on deadstick landings. We flew a landing pattern
and on the downwind leg, the instructor would pull the throttle.
It was up to the student to fly the rest of the pattern and get
the plane down on the field. This was really effective at developing
judgment and distance estimating in a young pilot.
The guys that couldn’t do it after a couple of tries, and
the patterns grew longer and longer from the touchdown point, were
eliminated from the program. Since we had enlisted, those guys were
sent to jobs elsewhere. Not what we young guys wanted, so I worked
really hard at being good at milking the plane’s glide as
far as possible.
After Kansas, the we moved on to Amarillo, Texas’ England
Field. It was here that they got our first true sailplane training.
Flying mostly Schweitzer and Laister-Kauffman 2-place sailplanes,
I learned the basic theory and operation of the tow-plane/glider
This was the most fun flying I ever had. I’d get towed to
three-four thousand feet, release the tow line, and after flying
whatever the simple pattern required for that flight’s lesson
– could be a loop, a 360 around a point or what have you-
but after that lesson requirement was met, I could play and experiment
for as long as I had altitude.
The true gliders we flew at England Field were very different from
the power off Cubs. In the Cub, when you pulled the power to simulate
the tow release, the weight of the engine and the shorter wings
ensured that you were going into an immediate descent. In the Schweitzer,
that wasn’t the case. With those long wings, you could do
a lot of stuff and not really lose a lot of altitude. I really enjoyed
flying those gliders.
By the winter of 1942, I had
been promoted to Staff Sergeant and was sent to the cold, windswept
panhandle of Texas outside Dalhart. It was here that I had my introduction
to the CG-4A ‘Hadrian’ combat glider. I always figured
that this would be the only aircraft I see combat in.
The CG-4A is a big aircraft. With a wingspan over 80 feet and a
load carrying capability of more than its own weight, it dwarfed
anything any of my classmates or I had ever flown before. After
settling into the left seat of the CG-4A, I discovered that as fun
as the sailplane training had been, it wasn’t particularly
applicable to the big glider.
With the CG-4A, once you ‘cut-off’ from the tow rope
– by the way in almost no case did the tow plane release the
glider, rather it was the glider that released the tow rope. If
you didn’t or if the tow rope snapped, the end from the tow
plane came whipping back and could tear a hole in the Plexiglas
or the fabric or what was worse, wrap around a control surface or
the landing wheels. We lost a lot of guys in training and in combat
due to a broken towrope.
Anyway, once you cut off, the CG-4A was a big heavy ship. If she
wasn’t being dragged forward, she was going to go downhill.
If you kept the speed up above 80 mph or so, she handled very well.
You could maintain position behind the tow ship with only slight
moves of the rudder. In free flight, the controls weren’t
particularly heavy until the speed dropped off. At that point, you
weren’t far from the stall and the controls were a bit sloppy.
I graduated and was commissioned a Flight Officer on 27 February
1943. I was immediately sent to Ft Knox, Kentucky area for combat
infantry training. While there, I learned to use and maintain all
the U.S. small arms: M1 rifle, M1 carbine, .45 pistol, bazookas,
mortars and machine guns.
I also continued my flight training, gaining experience and confidence
handling a glider in a variety of flying conditions with heavy emphasis
on night flying.
For our night training, often times, the instructors would set out
two smudge pots to mark the end of the runway, then string a rope
between two poles that was our ‘obstacle’ we had to
clear, and then another two pots to mark the desired touchdown point.
If we landed too long or too short, we caught an earful from those
instructors. Nobody wanted to be thought as ‘not cutting the
mustard’ so we got pretty good at hitting the mark.
I was assigned to the 80th Troop Carrier Squadron in the 436th Troop
Carrier Group. I stayed with the 80th until its deactivation in
late 1945 after the war.
After more training, culminating
in division-size glider assaults in the rugged terrain of northern
North Carolina, my group shipped out from New York aboard the RMS
Queen Mary on January 2, 1944.
I arrived in Scotland on January 6 and soon was on my way south
to my group’s home at Membury Field, England. From then until
April, we new glider pilots practiced flying in formations ranging
from single ships up to Wing-sized drops. It was during this time
that I also practiced my first double-tow flights. In this configuration,
one C-47 would tow two CG-4As. With careful planning and skillful
handling by all three pilots, it was a viable combat configuration.
If it was rushed or a pilot was ham-fisted, it could be a disaster.
I flew every chance I got. In addition to his scheduled flights,
I’d hang around the squadron and group ops areas and anytime
somebody needed a pilot or co-pilot, I was ready to fly. Eventually,
all of my group’s glider pilots were sent to a British navigation
course and then we would fly as C-47 navigators. After building
up some ‘Gooney Bird’ time, we served as C-47 copilots
thus doubling the number of C-47 crews available if a glider tow
wasn’t the mission.
If we were doing tows, you rotate before the tow plane at about
75-80 mph, and go above him. Not too far or you’d dump the
tow on its nose before he was airborne. It was a real short flight
if you did that.
After you saw the tow get up, you’d settle in trail behind
him about 4-6 feet above his tail. That kept you out his propwash
and let him make any turns he needed without having to worry about
you hitting him on the inside of the turn. At night, however, you
had to fly slightly below him because the only reference you had
was his exhaust flames. You’d get tossed around pretty good
while the group was forming up, but it would generally settle down
once everybody was heading the same way.
About April, the planners for the airborne portion of the D-Day
landings realized that the number of troops and amount of supplies
to be airlifted exceeded the expected number of American gliders.
Turning to the British, the we borrowed some Airspeed A.S.51 Horsa
gliders and assigned them to some of the tasked glider units, mine
On my initial checkout on the
Horsa, a Brit NCO sat in the left seat and I sat in the right. We
were pulled up and at pattern altitude we released from the tow.
Except a bit on the downwind, I didn’t touch the controls.
After we landed, the NCO said ’You’ll do just fine,
mate.’ And with that, I was checked out. As a matter of fact,
I was able to train additional glider pilots on the Horsa. There
weren’t any designated instructors so we had to help each
other hone our skills after the initial Brit checkout.
The Horsa was a much bigger craft than the CG-4A. The cockpit was
almost completely separated from the cargo area whereas in the US
glider, the two pilots were right in front of the payload. Indeed,
in the CG-4A, the cockpit was hinged at the top to swing up and
out of the way to load and unload. In the Brit ride, the cargo was
unloaded via the tail. It also carried almost double the load of
the American glider.”
Randolph continues in his description of flying the bigger model,
“The Horsa was a much different type than the American glider.
It came with pneumatic-type flaps. The CG-4A had manually operated
spoilers to dump speed. With the Horsa’s flaps, you could
crank in 80 degrees and drop down in a hurry and also bleed off
speed quickly. Very good tricks to have going into a ‘hot’
LZ (landing zone).
I kept up my habit of trying to fly any chance I could get. I racked
up almost 60 hours in the Horsa before flying into combat. Some
guys, unfortunately, only had 4-5 hours before facing gunfire.
Flying into Combat
On June 3, 1944, our crews were briefed on our part of the impending
invasion on June 4th. The weather wasn’t consulted, however,
and refused to cooperate so the initial drop was slipped by a day
to the evening of the 5th, D-Day (D-1). As part of that drop, the
82d Airborne Division dropped both paratroopers and gliders into
their objectives around Ste.-Mere-Eglise.
My squadron was on deck to fly the evening of June 6th. Due to scattered
drops and heavy German resistance in the initial 82d assault, our
designated LZ was still in a hotly contested area. Since the radios
for the 82d’s commander, Major General Gavin, were destroyed
on landing, he had no way to communicate back to England that the
LZ would be very hot.
On the afternoon of June 6th,
I was briefed on the target area. Small fields surrounded by hedgerows
would make for very sporty landings. Reconnaissance photos also
showed small objects in the field as “cows.” Those cows
would turn out to be anti-invasion obstacles planted by the Germans
to foil just such landings.
The take-off time was set for 2100. At that late hour, it would
still be twilight, but dim enough so that any unforeseen obstacles
on the glide in would be hidden until touchdown.
My copilot, Joe Bickett, and I walked out to our chalk or spot where
our ship was on the runway. As we approached, we saw some airborne
troops loading their equipment. They stopped and looked at us and
we looked at them. Finally, the NCO of the bunch, Sgt Wallace Edwards,
introduced himself and his men. Joe and I reciprocated.
After watching them secure their load, we checked it to make sure
it matched the manifest. We tipped the scales at 16,767 pounds.
Max gross of the Horsa was supposed to be 15,800, but I wasn’t
too concerned. I just would have to watch my stall speed a little
more closely since it would be higher due to the extra weight.
That evening when it was finally time to get going, just as the
start engines flare went off, Sgt Edwards leaned forward and shouted,
“Get us on the ground in one piece and we’ll keep you
from harm on the ground.” That phrase has stuck with me all
these years. When he said it, he meant it and he sure did keep his
When it was our turn, the tow plane gradually started its take off
run. As it did, it pulled the tow rope taut and started the Horsa
rolling. Unlike the CG-4A, which had a single point attachment for
the rope, the Horsa had two points, one on the underside of each
wing. You had to be more vigilant in flying with this arrangement
than a single point system since it was easy to overstress an attachment
rope while the other went slack. If that happened, the line could
break and the glider would quickly roll around the still-attached
wing- a catastrophic event in a heavily loaded glider with frail
Flying over the Channel, I saw
the thousands of ships involved in the amphibious landings. All
those lights reminded me for some strange reason of a Christmas
tree. I soon snapped back from my daydreaming after crossing the
coast when a couple of rounds of ground fire twanged off something
in the back, either the howitzer or the jeep. Stuff hitting the
plywood floor made a dull thud.
At 400 feet, the light from the tow flashed and we cut off. In the
gathering dark, it was tough to see the details I wanted. We turned
left through 90 degrees following standard procedure and couldn’t
make out the ground. Still descending, another 90-degree turn, and
a burning tree casts a little light on the field. Another 90 and
we line up for the landing.
At 75 feet, we brush through some tree tops and the horizon is barely
visible. We drop full flaps and take an elevator ride down with
the nose pointed at the dirt. At 30 feet, I pull the wheel deep
into my stomach as Joe is calling out altitude.
We hit pretty hard but in one piece and after only a couple of hundred
feet come to a stop. Just as we stopped, another Horsa came whizzing
by and smacked into a hedgerow at high speed. We also discovered
the LZ was still under fire so the troopers unloaded us in a hurry.
In less than five minutes, we had unloaded and beat feet to impromptu
rally point at one end of the field. Here we found another dozen
82d troopers. During the night, more and more guys joined our position.
Next day, D+1, we located ourselves
in relation to the battle. We were northeast of a road between Les
Forges and Ste Mere-Eglise. Our assigned post-landing battle station
was the headquarters command post. Since nobody knew where it was,
we stuck with Sgt Edwards and his guys, moving from skirmish to
I saw just how frightening and numbing ground combat can be for
the next three days. Finally, all the glider pilots were ordered
to accompany some walking wounded to the beach and turn them over
to some medical guys there. We then found the beachmaster and he
loaded us on a transport back to Plymouth, England.
Although the invasion glider force as a whole suffered massive losses
during the Normandy operation, amazingly every single 80th Troop
Carrier Squadron pilot came back in one piece.