He Flew Sicily
"Hey, Buckles," I heard someone call from behind me on a slightly chilly English April night. He jogged to catch up with me and we both headed for the officer's mess for some more of what we called edible garbage. "Did you hear?"
I raised an eyebrow. "Hear what?"
I heard a lot of things in a day, so he was going to need to be a more specific.
He laughed and slapped me on the back. Henson wasn't a little guy, so his arm ramming into my 5'5" slight frame sent me stumbling forward a few feet.
"Sorry," he said. "Come on, you have to have heard about the new guy."
"What new guy?" I hadn't heard of any new guy. "I've been training in the L-bird all day."
We made it into the officer's mess and got our food. When we sat down, Henson got this serious look on his face. I couldn't help but think that this new man must be something special.
"Are you going to make me beg, Henson?" The suspense was killing me!
"A new glider pilot has been assigned to our group."
"I got that much. Get to the point."
Henson leaned in and whispered as if he was worried the other officers in the room would judge him for gossiping. "He flew Sicily."
I felt my jaw drop slightly. I'd never met a glider pilot who flew Operation Ladbroke which was part of the larger Operation Husky, British or American. They were the only GPs of the Allies who had flown combat missions in the European theater. Sicily didn't go as planned, especially for the gliders. In fact, the mission had almost killed the glider program right there. If Lt. Colonel Mike Murphy hadn't been able to convince General Arnold that gliders could work, Henson and I wouldn't be sitting in that officer's mess.
"What's he like?" I asked in a hushed tone. Since none of us had seen combat yet, I was eager to hear anything I could about it, even if it didn't go as planned.
Henson shook his head. "Don't know. I haven't seen him yet. He only got here a few hours ago. I don't even know his name."
As if preordained by fate, a small man wearing Class-A's walked through the door of the mess, still carrying his luggage. Henson and I looked at each other and smiled mischievously because the new guy was wearing glider pilot "G" wings. That had to be the Sicily veteran. I waved him over. He looked a tad skeptical, but he hobbled over weighed down by his kit bag, duffle, and clothes bag.
Henson got up and quickly grabbed him a tray from the mess line. The man looked dead tired as he let himself fall onto the rickety bench. He had probably been moving constantly for a week trying to get here in the most indirect way the army could manage.
"What's your name, soldier?" I asked as Henson returned with the tray.
"Perry Jenkins," he said succinctly. "I'm a glider pilot."
"We know," I said.
"So are we," added Henson. "Nice to meet you, Jenkins. I'm Bob Henson, and this is Charles Bennett. You can call him Buckles."
Jenkins raised a brow. "Buckles? How'd you earn that one?"
I sighed and hung my head. Not this story again.
Henson laughed. "He arrives at South Plains Army Air Field to do his advanced training, and his instructor decided that the entire class needed to ride in a Waco CG-4A as a passenger before he would let them fly the damn things. He also makes them wear their combat gear, so they know what the men they are carrying into combat will feel like. Bennett here shuffles in with the first group to go up. They are loaded with the whole nine yards: backpacks, weapons, helmets. The instructor comes in and briefs them on what's going on yada yada yada. He then gets in the pilots seat to go through the checklist with the copilot. They are about to take off when the instructor looks over his shoulder and see Bennett buckling his helmet."
Jenkins' laughed with wide eyes. "You didn't!"
I nodded gravely. "I did."
"The instructor calls the tug C-60 to stand down, climbs back and starts laying into Buckles. 'Did you just buckle your helmet, Bennett?'" Henson started imitating my former glider instructor with uncanny accuracy. "'Who the hell buckles their helmet in a glider? Were you not paying attention before now? You never leave your helmet fastened unless you want the landing to break your God damn neck! Do you want that, Buckles?'"
"And the nickname was born," I cut Henson off before he got to the part of me getting mocked by that instructor for the rest of the time at SPAAF. The bastard had insisted that everyone call me Buckles instead of Bennett. "I thought I'd get rid of it once I got my wings, but someone from my advanced class always seems to be around to tell the story."
"It's a doozy," snickered Jenkins.
Time to change the subject. "I see they haven't found you a bunk yet."
"What gave it away?" He huffed out of frustration. "At this rate I won't have a bed tonight. They wouldn't even let me store my crap somewhere until I get assigned. I managed to find a Sergeant who would at least hold on to my trunk."
"You'll end up in one of the glider pilot bunks," assured Henson. "You might be in No. 5 with us. If they don't assign you somewhere you can kip on our floor or something."
"Gee, thanks," he replied, obviously exhausted as he picked at his food.
"Where have you been stationed to just be getting to England now?" I asked trying not to blatantly admit that I knew he had flown Operation Ladbroke.
"I've been an instructor state side," he replied, still looking down at his food. "But I wanted to get out to the front again. There have been whispers of an invasion of the mainland for months, so I asked to be sent back out. I got my orders to ship out to England two weeks ago."
"Back out?" asked Henson. I could see the eager gleam in his eye, hoping Jenkins would tell us something about Sicily without us having to bring it up. You don't just ask soldiers about what they have done in war unless they bring it up first because you never know what memories you might drag up. Some were more likely to slug you than to tell you what you wanted to hear in the first place.
Jenkins looked up scanning us both. "Yeah, I asked to come back. I was one of the earlier classes through the program in '42. They sent a lot of us to train with British pilots in preparation for Operation Husky. More specifically Operation Ladbroke."
"You flew Ladbroke?" I prayed that I didn't sound too enthusiastic when I said that, but Jenkins didn't seem to mind.
He nodded slowly. "Co-pilot in a CG-4A with a British pilot named Reynolds. After that I was sent to the States to be a primary instructor."
Henson and I sat in silence waiting for him to go on, but Jenkins just went back to his dinner. Once there was nothing left on his tray, he looked up again.
"You want to know what it was like, don't you?" he said reluctantly.
"Yeah," said Henson instantly.
I kicked him under the table. "Only if you want to, Jenkins. If you're not up to it-"
"No, it okay," he cut me off. He didn't like me implying he wasn't up the telling us about it. I could tell Jenkins was a man who took people questioning his character worse than most. He took a moment to collect his thoughts. "I can't tell you what combat was like on land because we didn't make it to the objective. You see, there's a problem with invading the coast of an island, even on as big as Sicily, there's lots of water. We set off from Tunisia at night everything seemed fine, for a few minutes anyway. By some miracle our glider was one of the few that didn't get off course. Our problem was that the Alliance naval vessels down bellow started to fire on us. We got past it but out tug pilot was jumpy after that. He dropped out tow rope when we were still about three miles from the coast. Because of the bad weather, darkness, and friendly fire the tug didn't realize that we were too far out or that he had flown us in too low. There was no way we could make the beach, so Reynolds and I tried to land in the water as smoothly as we could, but we landed rough. Never been so scared in my entire life as when we were about to crash into that water."
I stared at him in wonder, making sure to keep my mouth closed. He was in one of the many gliders that hadn't made it to the beach. It had never occurred to me that he had crashed.
As Jenkins went on he stared off into the distance as if he were looking back in time to that day. "We landed at an angle, nose first in the water, but flat enough that we didn't sink instantly. The impact slammed everybody forward hard. You'd think landing in water would be softer than land, but it's not. The glider started to sink, slowly filling the fuselage with water. As one of the pilots, I knew I had to get the men out of the glider fast. I unbuckled my and looked over at Reynolds, but he wasn't doing the same. On impact his head had hit something. There was blood all over his face. I felt for a pulse, but I knew he was already dead. I'd never seen anybody dead before, especially not somebody I knew. There wasn't time to think about it though because we were still sinking. I didn't know how fast the Waco would sink or how far down the body, so we needed to get out. I climbed out of the cockpit and what I saw through the dark wasn't pretty. Five guys were already standing up checking on their fellow glider infantrymen, but after the impact, the six of us were all that was left. When we took off there were 15 infantrymen in our glider. Two of the survivors were pretty banged up, but they could walk or rather swim. I ordered them to leave their gear and the dead behind except for their canteens. We got the door open and climbed out into the water. It wasn't long until the glider was up to its wings so we climbed on top. From there we could see dark shadows of other gliders in the water. I couldn't tell if others were climbing out of their crafts, but I hoped they were. In the distance I could see the planes of our forces over Sicily. We were over three miles out, I guess. I knew we had ships in the area, so, hopefully, a rescue was underway. We waited for what felt like an eternity, but the glider started to sink again, we were out of time. I decided we would swim for Sicily and hope that a patrol boat would pick us up before we reached shore. One of the young infantrymen said 'Sir, I can't swim.' He looked scared to death. The rest of us assured him swimming was easy. You do anything you have to to keep your head above water and not panic. He nodded and we set off. We stayed together as best we could with the waves and current. One of us always stayed near the kid who couldn't swim so we could help him, but he did okay. We were still a mile or two our when we saw a PT boat and flagged it down. Those suckers are fast and in a jiffy we were plucked out of the water by sailors. I collapsed on the deck from exhaustion and someone wrapped me in a blanket. I will never be that tired again. I heard later that some men swam all the way to the beach. I'm not sure I could have done it except that I had to get those men because that was my job."
By the time he was done my mouth was hanging slightly open. "You wanted to come back after that?"
Jenkins looked me straight in the eye and said with all seriousness. "I signed up to be a glider pilot so I could fly missions. I'm here to honor my commitment."
"Fair enough," I said. I felt the same way about being a glider pilot. I wanted to fly missions not teach. I respected the men who were patient enough to teach the next group how to fly our silent wings, but I couldn't do it. Everyone knew that an invasion of the mainland would be coming soon and gliders would be a key part of the strategy. I was going to be behind the wheel of one of those gliders.
One of the clerical privates came into the mess hall. "F/O Jenkins?"
Jenkins raised his hand. "Yeah?"
The private sheepishly made his way over, holding a sheet of paper. He wasn't be allowed in the officers mess except on official business, so he was a bit hesitant. When he reached the table he saluted and handed Jenkins the sheet. "You're in building five, sir. Welcome to Aldermaston."
The private turned and walked quickly for the door without waiting to be dismissed.
Henson slapped Jenkins on the back almost winding him. "Let's go meet the fellas."
We got up from the table and each took one of Jenkins' bags. There is an instant comradery between glider pilots. Jenkins was going to fit in just fine and he would be able to teach us a thing or two.