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Sam Fine, left, and Howard Johnson, U.S. World War II glider pilots, stand in a war cemetery in Syracuse, Sicily. The two traveled to Sicily last week for events marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion.
Sam Fine, left, and Howard Johnson, U.S. World War II glider pilots, stand in a war cemetery in Syracuse, Sicily. The two traveled to Sicily last week for events marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion. (Kendra Helmer / S&S)

SYRACUSE, Sicily — Howard Johnson sat in the co-pilot seat of the fabric-covered wood and metal glider, scanning the night sky for Sicily’s beaches.

It was July 9, 1943, the first Allied air operation of World War II.

Johnson was in one of 140 gliders hooked to tow planes that left Tunisia for Axis-held Sicily. Enemy fire and searchlights lit up the sky.

“When we approached, somebody got the idea there was too much flak over Syracuse and they turned out to sea,” said Johnson, 83. “We cut our own [tow] line and did our best to try to get in. Fortunately we didn’t.”

The glider crashed into the sea, 100 yards from what Johnson thought was a beach.

“The next morning we found out it was a nice, solid rock cliff,” he laughed. “So I’m glad we didn’t make it.”

Johnson and another U.S. Army Air Force glider pilot, Sam Fine, 90, returned to Sicily last week for the 60th anniversary of the invasion. At a memorial Wednesday at the Syracuse war cemetery, they joined British veterans and young troops from the 1st Battalion King’s Own Royal Border Regiment from Cyprus.

The two Americans walked around the cemetery and reminisced about their role as volunteer co-pilots with the British army. They were among 6,000 troops who trained as pilots in the engineless aircraft, which could carry 13 troops and their equipment or even a jeep while relying only on the wind.

On July 9 and 10, 1943, about 160,000 Commonwealth and U.S. troops invaded Sicily. Part of that force involved airborne troops in 48-foot-long gliders in an operation called Ladbroke.

Enemy fire and gale-force winds forced 60 of the 140 gliders into the sea.

Fine’s glider made it to land, but it wasn’t easy.

Fine, a co-pilot, flew the glider because British pilot Sgt. E.B. “Lofty” Wickner couldn’t see the tow plane’s light. The tow-plane pilot was ready to cut off, but Fine disagreed because they were too far out to sea.

“He suggested he go in at a higher altitude,” Fine said. “I said, ‘Fine, give me a chance to glide in.’ ”

They cut loose around midnight. Using a cigarette lighter, Wickner read the altitude and airspeed. To avoid a stone wall, Fine hooked the left wing into a tree, bringing the aircraft to a halt.

Within moments, the pilots and 15 airborne troops came under fire. Fine said he was hit twice in the back of the neck, “just flesh wounds.”

The enemy retreated, and the group headed for a bridge in Syracuse, where Italian troops attacked them again.

“They were dropping 3-inch mortars on us. We were losing men pretty fast,” Fine recalled. “It was decided we better give up before we all got killed. I was the only one who had a white handkerchief, so we used that.”

One of those killed was Wickner. Fine stood at his grave Wednesday, head bowed and hand over his heart.

Fine was a prisoner for only an hour or two. His group came upon a British ground force, which scared away the guards with their fire. Fine grabbed the guards’ weapons as they fled.

Johnson, whose glider landed in the sea, swam with the other troops to land. Enemy fire pinned them down all night as they took cover in rocks in a breakwater.

“When we got out of there, we were looking for something to eat,” he said.

He and the pilot came upon an Italian barracks.

“We found a bottle of sweet vermouth,” he laughed. “We split the bottle between the two of us and then we went out to win World War II.”

Both Fine, who was in the military for 3½ years and received a Purple Heart, and Johnson left the armed services as first lieutenants. Fine entered the egg-distribution business in his home state of New York, while Johnson, a Worcester, Mass., native, worked in metallurgy sales.

The two regularly see each other at World War II Glider Pilots Association functions.

WWII gliders at a glance

The CG-4A was not designed to be a thing of beauty, and Air Force power pilots joked about its ungainly appearance, but few of them poked fun remarks at the guys who flew them, according to the National World War II Glider Pilots Association Inc.

Glider pilots were an independent, tough, ready-to-fight group and were not reserved about letting anyone know that the “G” on their silver wings stood for “guts.”

Specifications of the CG-4A glider:• Wing span: 83 feet, 8 inches• Length: 48 feet, 4 inches• Height: 12 feet, 7 inches• Weight: 7,500 pounds loaded• Armament: None• Engine: None• Maximum towed speed: 150 mph

For more information on gliders, see the National World War II Glider Pilots Association Inc.’s Web site, www.ww2gp.org.

— Source: The National World War II Glider Pilots Association Inc.

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