Sunday, May 08, 2016
WW2 glider pilots braved primitive conditions in NM
New Mexico’s air space has blessed us with three Air Force bases, but it didn’t just happen. Civic leaders pitched their communities as the nation was gearing up for World War II, and for a time the state was dotted with airfields.
Fort Sumner snagged an installation that became Fort Sumner Army Airfield. This one trained glider pilots.
This had to be one of the Army Air Force’s more unusual programs. The boxcar-like WACO CG-4A gliders could carry 15 men – a pilot, co-pilot, and 13 heavily armed troops called “glider riders.” It could also carry a Jeep, an anti-tank gun or medical supplies and food. On release, the glider coasted down and made something like a controlled crash landing. The pilots, trained as commandos, then became infantry troops. The Brits had similar aircraft, and they all saw service in the D Day landing.
“The center of glider training was Eastern New Mexico and West Texas,” said John McCullough, of Lubbock, during the New Mexico Historical Society conference last weekend in Farmington.
In a former Civil Conservation Camp north of Fort Sumner, 162 men began work in July 1942 to create the Advanced Glider School Training Base. Living in tents even with snow on the ground, they persevered and erected enough tar-paper buildings to conduct training programs. They wouldn’t get barracks until 1944 – more tarpaper buildings with a pot-bellied stove.
They washed their mess kits in two barrels; nearly half the men had dysentery, one veteran recalled.
They trained initially in Piper Cub and Taylorcraft planes with the engines removed, one veteran told McCullough. For night flying, smudge pots lit grass runways.
The WACO gliders were 90 percent wood because of metal shortages during the war. More than 4,000 of these wooden ships would be built during the war – the third-most numerous in the war, according to McCullough. They would carry the 82nd and 101st infantry divisions.