Monday, July 18, 2011

My Father's D-day story

My Father’s D-Day Story

In looking back on how I fell into storytelling, I began to realize my Father is a great storyteller. As a child I heard stories about my family, but on some occasions I would hear my Father talk about his experiences landing a Glider on the early morning hours of D-Day behind the beaches of Normandy.

My Dad (Dr. Byron James Sharp) was a young Lieutenant in what was then the United States Army Air Force. He was trained to fly a plane called a DC-3, or “Gooney Bird” as they were known and the Glider that he later flew. He said, they’re built of canvas and wood, there really isn’t any metal in them. So if something ever happens, like a crash landing it’s bad.” I should say that they have a metal skid plate of some kind on the belly of the craft, but only enough to keep the glider intact for a landing, since weight is a key factor as well.

They had many false starts for D-Day and the Gooney Birds would tow the Gliders out over the English Channel and they would be called back. My Father said it was hard to sleep those nights before and after. Finally on one particular pre-dawn call they made a real dash across the channel and passed over the continent to be released by the tow planes. My Father said as he came in for a landing he could see many of the Gliders smashing into the hedgerows and killing the crews and their troop compliments. The intelligence work on the landing site underestimated the distance between hedgerows which look like over grown hedges but conceal hard packed earth banks beneath with trees sticking up at intervals from the bank. There were also poles planted in the ground by the Germans on some of the larger fields to prevent Glider landings. My father skimed one of the trees on the way in to help slow the Glider. He then chose the comand post that had been set up in the center of the field as a way to slow the Glider and perhaps they would all live through the experience. So heading for the make shift building, he planned to set one wing against the building as he stomped on the airlions with all his might. The Glider slowed enough to stand on its nose as the right wing spun it around the shack. The troops inside, members of the 82nd airborne, along with the jeep they carried were all bunched up in the nose of the ship. Every single person in the Glider lived through the experience with some serious bruising, but many of the Gliders and their crews and troops did not. My Father said that eighty five percent of the Troops and Gliders sent that morning were casualties.

The survivors collected together and some groups took certain tasks and the group of Glider Pilots along with their Paratrooper escort began to head for the beach which was under assault at that moment. Along the way the Paratroopers encountered some sniper fire and captured the snipers, my father realized they were just young boys, around sixteen or seventeen. My father is a kind man and said he thought at the time, “Now the War is over for you guys and you can sit this one out.” That was not the case unfortunately for Paratroops do not take prisoners and it is impractical to do so since it would endanger everyone’s life. So they were taken behind one of the hedgerows and shot.

After a frightening night and day the next night after the beach heads were taken the Glider Pilots waited on the beach in the starlight to be collected by an out going landing craft and taken back to England. The Allies ruled the skies at that point, but during the night a lone Messerschmitt ME109 hunted along the coast looking for targets during the night and the Glider Pilots were silhouetted on the sand and some were smoking cigarettes. The fighter plane began to strafe the beach, but as he did so the ships in the channel opening up turning the night sky to day. My Father said he could see the frightened look on the pilots face as he pulled away from his attack just short of the group of Pilots.

It was some hours later that a landing craft came to take the waiting Pilots off the beach to a ship in the channel. They all boarded the craft and headed for a large LST. As they pulled up the Glider Pilots began to climb up the rope netting that hung over the side, and just as they did the crew from the LST began climbing over the side on top of them to get in the much smaller landing craft. In the confusion the larger ship had struck a mine and was busy sinking at the very moment the landing craft tried to unload its passengers. Now the small landing craft was really crowded and moved out into the channel, with one pass by a Stuka dive bomber that missed entirely, they found another LST and arrived safely in Briton that day.

My Sister bought our Dad a D-Day Glider Pilot ball cap, he’s our hero and from all those family stories I have a lot to live up to. I’ll be happy if I’m half as good of a person because I’ve had some great role models, and that was only one of my Father’s courageous acts through out his life.

* I took my Dad to lunch and read him the article and he informed me about my mistake of which airbourne group he brought in on D-Day. It was the 82nd instead of the 101st. The command post was also the thing that he spun the Glider on not a tree in the center of the field. It's good to get it straight, and I laughed and told my Dad I did listen sometimes to the things he said.

David Sharp

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