Charles E. Skidmore, Jr. Flight Officer - Glider pilot - 91st Troop carrier squadron - 439th Troop carrier group
My name is Charles E. Skidmore,
Jr., better known as Chuck Skidmore. I am an American who was born
on January 17, 1920, in Columbus, Kansas, a small town in Cherokee
County, Kansas, just across the line from Joplin, Missouri. Following
my graduation with a journalism major from Kansas University at
Lawrence, Kansas, in June 1941, I enlisted in July 1941 in the aviation
cadet program. I completed 60 days of primary training on Ryan Aircraft
at King City, California and went on to basic training on Vultee
Trainers at Moffett Field near San Jose, California. I was eliminated
from the flying program there in the fall of '41 due to so called
"flying deficiency." I returned home, and finally in July
1942 enlisted in the glider program as a Class-A glider pilot, because
I already had a private pilot's license. Only a limited number with
no previous flying experience were accepted for a few weeks during
I took my dead stick training
at Pittsburgh, Kansas, 16 miles from where I was born in Columbus,
Kansas. Dead stick training means: flying up, cutting the power
off and gliding back to earth.
I took my basic training in gliders in Vanita, Oklahoma, 90 miles
from home, and my advanced training on the large CG-4A Waco Glider
at South Plains Army Flying School at Lubbock, Texas where I received
my glider wings in April 1943 and became a Flight (Warrant) Officer.
I took my combat glider training in North Carolina in late 1943.
I went overseas by ship on the U.S.S. George Washington to England
with the 91st Troop Carrier Squadron of the 439th Troop Carrier
Group in February 1944.
We were assigned to Balderton
Airdrome near Newark, England, in the Midlands, until a month or
so before the invasion, when we were moved to Taunton, near the
southern coast, for the actual invasion of Normandy.
June 1, 1944. It was time to
invade Hitler's fortress Europa. We could feel the tension in the
air. Then came June 3 and we were herded into a block of barracks
behind barbed wire. Uncle Sam wasn't about to let any of his invasion
party troops wander off downtown and give away any secrets that
we might have had. And that's not to say that a single one of us
knew our exact destination along the coast of France. Only Ike knew
the landing spots and he didn't disclose them until sealed orders
were brought to commander and flight planners 24 hours in advance.
The briefings for the aerial invasion of Utah Beach, our particular
designation, were serious matters, but not without a little pressure-relieving
levity upon occasion. Our 439th Troop Carrier Chaplain, Father Whalen,
had probably heard about all the profanity known to mankind because
he was a prison chaplain at Joliet, Illinois prior to volunteering
for the service. So he wasn't shocked at one of the briefings to
hear some profanity which included the Lord's name. Upon looking
around his listeners, the briefer stopped to apologize to the good
Father. "Don't worry about what I think," said Father,
"worry about what the Lord thinks."
One of the briefers was our own
91st Troop Carrier Squadron's captain named Merriman. As I listened
to him, I recalled that he was a former school teacher but quite
a roughneck when he wanted to be. I remembered that the time when
he took a carbine to the shower in North Carolina to see if its
charge would penetrate the wall of wood and galvanized steel. It
did. It went clear thought, crossed half the barracks, lodged in
a four by four of hard timber. I remember hoping that the American
armament would be that good on the beach. The conclusion of the
captain's briefing went something like this: "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." And I’ll
add that I never heard of any tow pilot needlessly cutting his glider
off during several invasions on the European continent.
Speaking of C-47s, those work
horses of World War II, they were actually underpowered for many
of the jobs they were called upon to do, including pulling heavily
weighted gliders. One of our C-47s carried a radio crewman who must
have weighed nearly 300 pounds. Nobody knew his exact weight. But
he was heavy enough to upset the trim of the C-47 as he walked to
the rear. His pilot, a Captain Anderson, joked to a buddy that he
intended to tie the sergeant to the seat at the radio because he
didn't want to worry about keeping his plane trimmed straight and
level during the assault on D-Day. My group briefing was somber
right up until the final moment. "Sir," asked the glider
pilot, "what do we do after we land our gliders?" 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." Perhaps it was true. I thought then
and there amid a lot of laughter, that maybe glider pilots really
were originally meant to be expendable in war. The best answer to
the question came from a glider pilot sitting next to me. He said,
"Run like hell."
D-Day arrived for glider pilots
in England. Breakfast was at 4:00 in the morning featuring honest
to goodness fried eggs and a huge piece of chocolate cake. I suspected
that the cook believed that he was cooking a last meal for us, and
that the food glider pilots liked most was fried eggs and cake.
Where he got the fresh eggs, I'll never know. We hadn't had any
in the previous 4 months we'd been in England. "The condemned
ate the hearty meal," chirped on wag.
When I arrived at our glider
ready for the trip to Normandy, the other pilot and I carried our
parachutes onto the glider between two rows of airborne infantrymen
who were already seated on either side of the glider. We put our
parachutes in the seats, actually, because the seats were built
low on purpose to accommodate a seat pack and still allow tall pilots
room for their head. About that time, a burly airborne paratrooper
lieutenant stuck his head in between us two pilots and said, "There's
no use in you two fastening those 'chutes. We'd never let you use
them anyway." I thought that was putting it plainly, so I didn't
even bother to drape the straps over my shoulders. You didn't argue
with a airborne infantry officer.
One C-47 pilot in our squadron
was quite a comic. It happened he was a copilot on a goonie-bird
that pulled me into France on D-Day. All we had for communication
between the airplane and the glider was a telephone wire stretched
along the tow rope. As we flew along the east side of the Normandy
peninsula, waiting the right hand turn into the Utah Beach landing
area, I noticed numerous splashes in the water below us. Anderson,
"I asked on my phone, "what's making all those splashes?"
"Those are P-51s dropping their tip tanks." "Anderson,"
I replied, "you're a damn liar. There aren't that many tip
tanks in the whole Army Air Force." The splashes must have
been German shells falling in the water.
Two good glider pilot buddies
in my squadron were Johnny Bennett and Charlie Balfour, the latter
now deceased. Those two were as close as friends could be, but they
were forever arguing about one thing or another. One bone of contention
concerned whether or not glider pilots would ever be committed to
combat in Europe. Charlie said yes and Johnny said no, right up
until ,D-Day. They asked to make the Normandy invasion together,
and flipped a coin to see which would fly as pilot and which as
copilot. Bennett won the toss, and, along with a string of hundreds
of gliders, they crossed the English Channel, flew inland over Utah
Beach, and then Bennett released his glider from the tow and started
his descent from 900 feet. They glided silently for a few seconds,
and then Balfour broke the silence with these words: "Johnny,
they'll never fly gliders in combat." For several seconds,
there was hilarious laughter between the pair, despite the hail
of bullets that started coming up from the Germans below. The airborne
troops sitting at the rear must have thought the two were slightly
nutty. Luckily, all of them got on the ground unscathed.
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 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. 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. It was pretty funny,
though, to watch this big tall pilot as he dived down, came up,
shook the water out of his eyes, looked around, then dived again.
He must have dived down about 3 times before he found his little
Upon landing, we discovered the
source of the ground fire which 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. The 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.
We took refuge in a thatched
roof farmhouse nearby to get ourselves organized and were surprised
to find an American paratrooper in bed. He had jumped and had fallen
through the thatched roof. He broke his leg. He simply had crawled
into bed and was awaiting the outcome of the war. We left him there
after awhile, but at the time, he was being aided by a young French
lady and didn't seem to care whether the war continued or not. I
hope he made it back home.
By nightfall, we were looking
for somewhere safe to, maybe, catch a few winks. We came upon several
Americans busily digging holes in one small field, so figuring out
that misery loves company, several of us sunk our shovels at the
edge of the field. "Hey, you guys can't dig in here."
"Why?" we asked. "Because we're starting a temporary
American cemetery here." That did it. We went elsewhere.
Following two days of confusion
where there were no battle lines and the war was actually small
engagements between groups of Americans and Germans, we glider pilots
assembled and began a 3 mile hike which took us back to Utah Beach.
Having drunk all the canteen water, I was thirsty by that time.
I sighted a canvas bag of water being guarded - no kidding, this
is the truth - by a Lieutenant Colonel from the Army. He gave me
a half a can of water, and that included seaweed.
Once we were at the beach, glider
pilots were given a job of herding German prisoners on to an LCI
(Landing Craft, Infantry) ship, for the start of their trip to prison
camp in England. From the LCIs they were put into larger LST boats
for the short trip back across the English Channel. My own personal
experience in this aspect of my duty had a strange beginning. After
an American major turned over a group of Krauts for the boarding
of the small craft, he asked us for our rifles. He overruled our
protests by telling us that the rifles were where they were needed
and there was no logical reason for us to take them back to the
land of plenty, England. Also, because we were officers, we still
had our trusty 45 revolver on our hip. It all made sense so we surrendered
our rifles. It developed, however, that once we did get back to
our home base in. England our supply officer couldn't see the wisdom
of the whole thing and actually threatened to take action to make
us pay for them. Luckily, our commander vetoed this idea.
Roy Samples and I were successful
in getting our group of Germans onto the LCI and then in the LST
for the trip back to England. The LST was anchored next to an American
oil tanker which later attracted the attention of a German E-torpedo
boat. The E-boat fired one torpedo into the tanker which exploded
and sank almost immediately. One sailor 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.
One of our Kraut prisoners was
an overaged German major who had been stationed in Normandy to recover
from wounds received earlier on the Russian front. When we passed
out the dreaded K-rations for a midnight meal, the major refused
to eat. We asked an English speaking German corporal what he major's
complaint was, and we were informed that the major was used to good
meat and dairy products of Normandy and didn't appreciate our canned
product. One of my friends told the corporal to inform the major
that it was K-ration of nothing, and if he didn't eat that we might
stuff them right down his throat, cans and all.
The LST was a mess. We had 1,200
German prisoners on the main tank deck and only 4 GI cans to serve
as toilets. Among the 1,200 were several officers who were pretty
well subdued, except for one Nazi storm trooper. This lieutenant
insisted that every German prisoner passing by him give him the
Nazi salute. One glider pilot finally tired of this and told the
corporal to tell the lieutenant - without the preliminary Nazi salute
- that if he, the Nazi, saluted one more time, he, the glider pilot,
intended to emphasize his point with a bayonet on the end of his
rifle. That was the end of the saluting.
I got fairly well acquainted
with the prisoner that was a corporal after using him for 2 days
as an interpreter. I discovered he was the son of a German father
and a British mother. At the outbreak of war in 1939 when he was
still a youngster, the family was visiting and got stuck in Germany.
He was eventually drafted into the German Army. I believed his story
enough to give him a ,note of appreciation to take along with him
to his eventual prison camp in England. I hope he was able regain
his English citizenship, because that's what he wanted.
A couple more incidents on the
boat: The German commander of the E-boat was taken from the water
suffering from a wound in his leg. I helped carry him to the operating
table below deck where an American medic got ready to work on the
wound. When the medic indicated that he wanted to cut apart the
officer's prized sealskin pants, the latter raised all kinds of
hell. It seemed he prized the pants above his well-being. "If
he wants them that bad, let him keep them," the sympathetic
medic said. So he pulled the pants off of that wounded leg. It must
have been dreadfully painful, but the Kraut never uttered a sound.
And that reminded me of another German who caught his ring on a
nail while descending on a ship's ladder. The ring tore into his
flesh so badly that the same medic had to take a surgical saw and
remove the ring. He did it without painkiller, which, for some reason
the German refused. Again, the pain must have been terrible, but
again, no sound. Most German soldiers had guts, but so did a lot
of Americans I knew during the war. Glider pilots and German prisoners
made it back to England okay on my ship, and we were glad to be
there, and I imagine the Germans were glad to be there too.
As I record this on April 4, 1988, this is what I remember from
my experiences as a glider pilot on the invasion of France in June
Our general instructions were
to get back to the coast as best we could and get on a ship for
the return to England. We landed about a mile and a half from St.
Mere Eglise, the scene for the movie "The Longest Day,"
wherein actor Red Buttons witnessed a day-long battle while swinging
in his parachute from a church roof. I spent some time with some
artillery guys manning a 105 cannon, and some time with a communications
outfit of the Army. I saw a burning C-47 aircraft on the edge of
the field where I landed. I could still make out the number on the
tail and I knew it had been flown by a good buddy of mine. 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.