'Flying coffin' glider pilot from WWII gets overdue medal
By Erik Lacitis | The Seattle Times | Published: August 17, 2013
There is something about guys like Bob Swenson, who for two days back in World War II took part in a heroic mission. Bodies were on the ground, gunned down by the Germans.
Swenson is now 90, retired as a bank analyst for the state and living in Bellevue.
He's very low-key about how earlier this month he finally got the Bronze Star for bravery in action on March 24, 1945.
He was a pilot on a glider sometimes nicknamed "The Flying Coffin." It was an unwieldy flying crate that carried up to 15 men on a one-way trip. It's hard to imagine the nearly 49-foot-long things flying, but they did.
Few people have even heard that the gliders -- really, this country's original stealth plane -- were used in that war and something like 6,000 men trained as their pilots.
Swenson was 21 back then.
"At that age you're not scared. Life is still an adventure," he says.
The Waco CG-4A glider was pulled into the air attached by a 350-foot nylon rope to a C-47 transport aircraft.
The fabric-covered gliders would get towed behind enemy lines, with the pilots then landing, as the book, "Silent Wings of War," described it, amid flak and small-arms fire, "in some farmer's potato patch or grazing meadow bordered by tall trees. ..."
Explains Charles Day, a historian and secretary of the National World War II Glider Pilot Association, based in Lubbock, Texas: "Most people think of a glider as a soaring glider with one or two places (for passengers). These were large enough to put in a Jeep, or a quarter-ton trailer, or 57 mm anti-tank gun, or a 75 mm howitzer.
"If you parachuted in the howitzer, it had to be disassembled into components, and each of those pieces would drop who knows how far apart. If you parachuted in men from a plane going 120, 130 miles an hour, those guys could end up a quarter-mile apart or more."
With a glider, says Day, the soldiers all arrived in one spot, with artillery immediately ready for action.
"G" is for guts
There were nearly 14,000 of the gliders made for the U.S. military. In later years, helicopters evolved to take over that task.
The gliders weren't exactly known for a comfortable ride.
"It was like riding inside a bass drum," Swenson remembers. "It was just that fabric hull around a metal frame, no insulation. There was all this noise of the air going from side to side."
Swenson went to flying school, hoping to be a fighter pilot, and went as far as advanced school.
Then, he says, "I didn't pass the test ride."
But the Army Air Corps wanted glider pilots, even if they had washed out as fighter pilots.
"They'd take anything that was alive," says Swenson.
The glider pilots were a proud bunch, especially because some pilots of powered planes looked down upon them.
On its website, the Glider Pilots Association says about the "G" on the silver wings that pilots wore. It stood for "glider."
But, says the site, "The brash, high-spirited pilots were not a bit bashful about letting everyone know that the 'G' stood for 'Guts.'"
And why not?
The glider pilots took part in eight major operations.
Swenson was in Operation Varsity, which involved 1,348 American and British gliders.
They were taking troops and armament to take the strategic city of Wesel, Germany, to deliver "the final, fatal blow to the Axis forces," says the Glider Pilot Association.
Normally, the glider pilots were told to meet at a central point after landing so they could make their way back to base.
But there was such a shortage of infantrymen that Capt. Charles Gordon of the 435th Troop Carrier Group of glider pilots, of which Swenson was a member, volunteered his 288 men to become infantrymen upon landing. Swenson was equipped with a machine gun.
The gliders were towed for 2½ hours from their base in France.
Nearing the landing site, Swenson remembers, the 13 soldiers and two pilots made sure to sit on their flak jackets, in case a bullet came in through the bottom.
The Allies had used smoke machines to make the gliders less visible to the Germans.
Still, the flak and bullets punctured the glider. "Nasty," Swenson remembers.
Landing in field, jumping out of the glider, the Americans were immediately greeted by sniper and artillery fire. The men lay flat on the ground until it slowed a half-hour or so later.
Later, a buddy of Swenson's gave him photos he had taken of the battlefield.
There, in front of one glider, are two dead Americans, gunned down as they disembarked.
Swenson remembers seeing a glider friend of his, a bullet having gone in and out of his back. He remembers seeing dead American paratroopers suspended from trees, caught in the limbs during landing, and shot by the Germans.
Around midnight that day, the glider pilots and infantrymen, repelled some 200 German infantry that came with a tank, artillery and flak guns to break through the line. One flight officer managed to hit the tank when firing a bazooka for the first time in combat, says the Glider Pilot Association.
Swenson was not hurt in the mission that ended the afternoon of the next day. Some 1,100 German soldiers and armed civilians were captured, according to military records.
Day says some 90 glider pilots from the 435th and other groups were killed in Operation Varsity.
Swenson returned home, eventually went to the University of Washington and in 1951 earned a degree in economics and business. For a couple of years, he was recalled to duty for the Korean War and served as a supply officer.
Then he went into the banking business.
Finding the pilots
It wasn't until 1995 that all the men in the 435th Glider Pilot Infantry Company were awarded the Bronze Star.
But some of the men could not be located, some had passed away, and Swenson, for whatever reason, was never contacted.
He was finally honored Aug. 10 in a ceremony at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Seattle Airport, with the Army presenting him with the medal, complete with a color guard and Army brass ensemble.
This was all due to the efforts of Patricia Overman, a Des Moines woman who researched the history of her late dad, Elmer Lee Whitmire, also a glider pilot.
She found Swenson.
With their numbers dwindling because of age, says Overman, "This may be the last award presented to a WWII veteran in this state, especially this high of an award."
Swenson, who, in a time when we are used to hype, keeps it low key.
"It never comes out even," he says of his medal. "Some guys are over-recognized, some underrecognized.
"I was fortunate. I got some breaks."