Not long after I left the army I got to feeling that itch. The woods. The work. My last unit had specialized in hunting men in the woods. War games, I mean. Anyway, I missed it. So I went down to Camp Mabry in Austin to see if the reserves were hiring. I told the recruiter my history and what I was looking for. He told me, I did NOT want to work for him unless I wanted to put mess kits together. That was the only job he had. He went on to tell me who I DID want to work for was the National Guard. Because they had a small Airborne L.R.R.S. Detachment on post.
I smiled and told him “That sounds perfect.”
I was with them for about three years. And one of those years our annual training was to be in the war games at Ft. Polk La. Half of our unit was caravaning our vehicles down there while the rest of us rode in a Chinook helicopter. The trip was long enough that the chopper would have to refuel at College Station Texas. In a little “Mom & Pop” airstrip there.
I read a book on the way. Setting in down when we stopped to refuel. It would take about an hour so all of us began to disembark when the loading ramp of the chopper lowered to the ground. I remember seeing an old man rocking on the porch of the Club House. He had a small grin on his face as he watched us. It wasn’t every day an Army helicopter landed here.
Army rules stated you have to wear your headgear when outside. One of the few exceptions to this is when in or around aircraft. Because they can fly away and cause damage to the vehicle. But once we were clear of the rotor blast we had to put something on our head.
So, we came off the bird and headed to the Club House for lunch. Once we were clear of the bird we reached into our cargo pockets. Pulled out our maroon berets. Put them on our heads. And that old man’s smile turned into the biggest “shit eatin” grin I have ever seen. I remember several of the guys looked at those around them trying to figure what had made the man so happy. But all they got were shrugs. We wished him a good morning as we passed him to enter the building and he kept smiling and nodding as we passed.
The place wasn’t huge. Maybe four or five tables so there just wasn’t room for the twenty of us. I got my burger and chips and headed out to the thin porch with the odd old man. I found a spot in the shade and sat down as did many of my colleagues.
“So, what unit are your boys with?” He asked.
“143rd Airborne out of Austin.” Somebody answered.
He smiled and nodded some more. “I was a glider pilot in World War II.”
We had a few cherries with us who weren’t prior military. One of them whispered, “Glider pilot?”
And someone whispered back, “They’re family.” And somehow that answered the kid’s question.
I mean it IS true. They are. If you go to the Airborne Walk near Airborne School in Ft. Benning Georgia. You’ll see all of the unit patches displayed there along with the patches of the Glider units from WWII.
But regardless of all that. I now knew why he had such a big smile on his face. The minute he realised -what- we were. He knew he had a new audience for all his war stories. I wish I could recall all of his stories but it was just too long ago. Today I can only remember the worst and the best.
The gliders were made primarily out of balsa wood across a lumber frame. Cheap and light. They were flying into a landing zone in Burma. Several of them were hauling a 500 pound bulldozer that had been built for glider operations. Our man said the flight went smooth and the landing went smoothly as well. He brought the craft down into the grass, which was extremely high. They touched down with their flat belly sliding across the earth and nothing seemed amiss. That is until their left wing vaporized into the grass. One moment it was there and the next it was gone. He had no idea what had done that.
It wasn’t until his craft came to a halt and they exited the bird. That he and his copilot discovered they had lost about half their unit. You see, Pathfinders were a new thing. Like Airborne or Gliders. And this was the lesson that taught the Pathfinders why you walk the LZ. From a distance it looked like a big grassy field. The perfect size for this operation. Unfortunately the grass was almost ten feet tall. Plenty high enough to hide the numerous 2000 pound boulders sticking up out of the ground.
That was the worst.
The best. The funniest. The one where no one died. Was when his unit was transporting support people and equipment for the 82nd Airborne. His bird had a gun jeep and a Private from the 82nd to drive it.
“The craft is made of balsa wood.” They told the Private. “So when we come to a stop. You just hit the gas and blow straight through the tail of this thing.”
He nodded his understanding.
When they got close to their designated landing zone they told the Private to get ready. He jumped in the jeep and fired her up. They were coming in nice and easy. All looked good. Then a German opened up with a heavy machine gun and cut the tail right off the bird. The old man said he thought that Private hit the ground before they did.
Then that German started shooting at them. He got hit. His copilot got hit. And that German kept on shooting when they landed. He kept shooting as slid across the field. And he kept shooting as they slid into a creek. The old man shoved his copilot out the far window and climbed out after him. The copilot was hit pretty bad so the old man crawled and drug his friend behind him down that creek. Thankfully, that German didn’t see them leave the bird. Or at least that is what the old man assumed. Because that German was still shooting the hell out of that glider.
He drug his friend and drug. Up ahead he could see a low spot where there seemed to be a trail or something that crossed the stream. Just as he was about to get to it. That Private pulled that jeep in front of him with eyes as wide as dinner plates.
“GET IN! GET IN!” He screamed all loud and scared.
The old man threw his friend into the backseat and kind of roll flipped himself in on top of him. The kid hit the gas and they hauled ass out of there.
Years later they had a reunion of their old unit and someone invited that kid from the 82nd to join them. Though he was no longer a kid. During the celebrations they called him up on stage. They pinned wings on his chest for the most unique airborne landing in history. The wings looked like Airborne wings but in the middle. Instead of a parachute. There was the front of an Army jeep.
I don’t know if that old pilot is still with us or not. But I am proud that my friends and I could make his day.
Hayden D. Linder