Flak blackens the sky; a kaleidoscope of anti-aircraft tracers swivel and coil around your aircraft, and you and your passengers are going down. A normal descent is 72 miles per hour, your landing speed 60 mph, at 49 mph your plane could stall, crash, and kill everyone aboard. Manufacturers with names like Ford Motor Company, Gibson Refrigerator, Ward Furniture, a piano manufacturer, Schlitz Brewing Company, a coffin company, and Anheuser-Busch built the aircraft in your 1,400 plane air armada. What could possibly go wrong?
You’re sitting on your parachute because the plywood pilot’s seat is too uncomfortable on long missions. Shrapnel rips through the flimsy fabric covering a metal airframe and punches holes in the plywood floor. You have no power because you never did since your plane was constructed without an engine. You’re slipping to earth as the men aboard pray you paid attention during pilot training, for the soldiers inside your aircraft understand that landing in a Waco CG-4A Glider can only result in two outcomes: very good or very dead.
During late 1941 and after WWII began, the Army utilized sailplanes for glider training. That decision proved to be a huge mistake. A sailplane could take advantage of thermal conditions and soar to the delight of a sailplane enthusiast. An Army glider, on the other hand, required aerial truck drivers with the proficiency to land the equivalent of a trailer with a pair of wings in combat conditions. A loss rate for glider pilots of 78% was not unusual. Most glider pilots only flew one or two missions; Guy Gunter flew four major combat missions in the Waco. This is his story.
Atlanta native Guy Gunter was born on June 6, 1918. An alumni of Tech High and Murphy High School, Guy recalled the day bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. “I was working for G.E. at the time as a traveling salesman. We were eating lunch at an Atlanta restaurant when we heard about Pearl Harbor. You know, we knew a war had started but I didn’t think about it much. I guess I was too young to comprehend the significance.”
By late 1942, Guy had been reviewed by a Navy Flight Board in Macon and accepted for pilot training. “That’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “But in the meantime I received a ‘greetings’ from Uncle Sam. At the time a draftee could go into the Army and still receive a transfer to the Navy when a slot opened in aviation.” At Shepard Field in Wichita, TX, Guy trained in the Army on instruments then became an instructor and waited…..and waited, for a call from the Navy. The call never came; the transfer program had been terminated.
Guy applied for then was accepted for OTS (officer training school). “I made friends with one of the instructors,” he said. “I told him I wanted to fly. He called me two days later and offered glider school. I took the deal.” Thus began a lifelong love of aviation.
Sent to Hayes, Kansas, Guy learned to fly from fields cut out by tractors and bulldozers. “I got my wings in Piper Cubs,” he said. “I soloed after 4 hours of training. I loved it. I kept doing ‘touch and gos’, you know, landings and immediate takeoffs. Well, the instructors had to wave me down. I didn’t want to stop.”
Advance training for gliders took place in Lubbock, TX. “Actually, what they called a glider was an airplane with the engine removed,” he said. “We trained in Aeroncas and Taylorcrafts. Without engines there was room for 3 seats, trainee in front, instructor in the middle, and another trainee in back. The Waco gliders finally arrived, pulled in by L-2s with fighter pilots behind the controls of the gliders. That was funny, those fighter pilots were scared to death wrestling with dead stick aircraft.”
The first class of glider pilots graduated on November 14, 1942. “There were 109 of us in the class,” Guy recalled. “The Army said we would be assigned as instructors in Austin, TX. Yeah, right. We found ourselves on the former luxury liner SS Maripose headed for Egypt by way of Rio de Janeiro, an unescorted 45 day voyage.”
Egypt was barren land, and barren of gliders, too. “I flew copilot on C-47s or C-46s for about 30 days,” Guy said. “We also relocated to Algiers and Libya on occasion to fly cargo flights into Gibraltar, Oran, and North Africa. Naturally, a few of our missions were back to Egypt for whiskey runs.”
Gliders started appearing almost overnight. “We flew into Algiers one day and noticed gliders all over the place,” Guy recalled. “We started retraining in gliders, intense training, we had a bunch of fun but knew something was up.” Indeed, the British needed gliders for the invasion of Sicily.
Guy said, “We trained the British pilots for three weeks then they asked for American volunteers. Well, being as foolish as I am, I volunteered. We had 35 glider pilots on the first flight; only 16 of us made it back. It was a real slipshod affair. An old Army sergeant piloted our tow plane. The thick anti-aircraft fire got on his last nerve so he wanted to cut us loose. I knew we were too far out from the port of Syracuse and told him so; I said we couldn’t make dry land. Obviously he didn’t care. Here comes the rope; we’d been cut loose. We flew into a hornet’s nest. Shrapnel peppered my face and legs plus the glider took damage but the flight characteristics were okay. I put her down in the bay. We remained in water all night clinging to the Waco. A Captain in our group ask me to pray for everybody. Shoot, I told him to pray for himself, I was too busy praying for yours truly!” Luckily, a Greek destroyer picked up the men the next morning instead of German Naval vessels.
Eventually transferred to Sicily, Guy flew cargo planes until assigned as pilot on a four-seat single engine Fairchild 24. “I flew majors and colonels around the island for about 6 months,” he said. “There’s lots of spare time between missions for glider pilots. Shoot, I had a ball.” It didn’t last. Guy was transferred to England in preparation for the Invasion of Normandy: D-Day. Asked his thoughts on England, he replied, “Well, at least the girls understood what the heck we were saying.”
June 6, 1944, the Allies invade Europe: “We took off just after midnight carrying a pathfinder group of the 82nd Airborne. An hour later we put down about 25 miles south of the main front. We had no problems, we made it down, we were very lucky. I brought the glider in nose high, hit on the tail and plowed straight into a hedgerow. That was okay though, it stopped the glider. We’d taken Dramamine pills and a shot of scotch, so we were up to the task. I remained on the ground for about 6 days.” Asked what glider pilots do after landing, Guy replied, “Try to stay alive. Most of us had a carbine or Tommy gun so we joined the fight.”
Guy’s next port-of-call: a diminutive town near Mount Vesuvius in Italy. “Wasn’t much to it,” he said. “The base was scraped dirt runways and not much more.” Operation Dragoon was on the horizon; the men and gliders making ready for the invasion of Southern France. Guy recalled, “The fields of southern France weren’t the problem; the problem was all the tall poles the Germans put up to prevent glider landings. Shoot, we just landed between the poles. The tactic ripped the wings off but we kept the fuselages on course so we did okay. The paratroopers had a rough go of it. As they oscillated in their chutes many would slam into the poles, a lot of them broke their backs.”
Guy continued. “We fought against the Germans and Vichy French for about 48 hours. I didn’t have a lot of love for the Vichy French, none of us did. Anyway, after things calmed down I ‘confiscated’ a 1936 Model V8 Ford with a big charcoal burning tank on back. We had a ball in that car until we had to quit.” When asked to explain ‘quit’, he replied, “The dang fire burned out.”
Guy returned to England to participate in the largest airborne assault in military history: Operation Market Garden, the failed attempt by British Field Marshall Montgomery to enter Germany via the Netherlands. Not including ground pounders, airborne resources flew 34,600 troops into combat: 20,011 via parachute and 14,589 in 3,140 assorted gliders. A shortage of American and Allied glider pilots meant using one pilot per glider with an additional trooper occupying the copilot seat. The glider air armada was pulled to their landing assault areas by 1,438 C-47 or C-46 cargo or transport aircraft.
Guy recalled, “The gliders in our formation flew directly over a German anti-aircraft school. Scary when you think about it, but we came in too low for them to hit anything. We had a real smooth landing and we all got out safely, if 45 miles behind enemy lines can be considered safe. I grabbed my weapon and joined the battle, just trying to stay alive, as always. We assaulted the bridge at Nijmegen.”
He continued, “When a glider is cut loose from the tow plane he wants to get down quick because someone is always shooting at you.” When asked how quickly, Guy responded, “As fast as humanly possible!” One flight characteristic seemed unnerving. “We never looped a glider on a combat mission, but I looped several gliders in training. I couldn’t roll one, however.” When asked why not, Guy said, “Let’s put it this way, I never tried.”
Against all odds, Guy Gunter survived his 4th major combat assault as a glider pilot. He returned to England and flew as copilot on cargo planes until assigned to Reims, France to pilot C-46 Commandos. Volunteering for the last glider mission of the war into the heartland of Germany, the Army denied his request. “They claimed four was enough,” he stated. “Two of my best friends at the time got to go; it was their first mission as glider pilots. Neither one made it back.”
After the war Guy Gunter eventually went into his own business as an appliance distributor and stayed in the air with his personal aircraft, a Beech Bonanza and twin-engine Beech Baron. He still remembers one particular flight to Florida. “The Bonanza swallowed a valve and blew a hole in the block. I cut air to the engine which put the fire out, but oil was all over the windshield and I had no power, so I put’er down, took 6 trees with me and landed nose up. I had chipped bones in my ankles and the guy in the front seat broke his pelvis but nobody really got hurt. Lost a good plane, though.”
He also landed the twin-engine Baron without an operable nose wheel. “No big deal,” Guy said. “I kept the nose up until low speed and gravity forced the nose and twin props into the runway.” Guy’s hours behind the controls of military and civilian airplanes, including 1,800 in gliders, approached 30,000 when he retired his wings at the age of 92.
On June 6th Guy will celebrate his 97th birthday. Asked if he missed the wild blue yonder, Guy cut his eyes at this journalist and said, “I still have 20/20 vision, my faculties, and this dang walker. Tell you what, take me to an airport and stand me next to the wing. I’ll crawl up to the cockpit, I’ll pull myself into the pilot’s seat, and I’ll get that baby airborne. You bet’cha.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.