A new aerial war tactic was developed in World War 2 called "vertical envelopment" in which paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines near key positions and were followed by gliders carrying additional troops, JEEPs, howitzers, ammunition, food, and other war supplies. The idea was to overtake the enemy by a surprise action while utilizing an adequately equipped fighting force to hold territory until the arrival of the main ground force. The Germans exacted such precision assaults against enemy-held areas in their takeover of Europe and the Americans studied the results with keen interest. For the U.S. Army, the concept gained considerable steam in 1941 and the initiative called for a troop- and cargo-carrying glider as a result.
The Army received designs from no fewer than sixteen companies vying for the potentially lucrative military contract. The requirements stated two distinct glider forms, the first being an 8- or 9-passenger glider with the second being a dimensionally larger 15-seat model. After review of all of the received material, the Army ordered prototypes from eight entries including those from Waco Aircraft Company. After evaluation, Army authorities selected the larger Waco design seating fifteen as the "XCG-4".
After trials during 1942, plans were evolved for large scale production in which eventually sixteen different assembly lines from different companies around the United States participated in manufacturing the finalized Waco "CG-4A". Waco alone produced 1,075 of their product both all participants were surpassed by Ford Motor Company which produced 4,190 gliders thanks to their established mass production efforts. Its entire Kingsford facility - once committed to the building of family station wagons - was now converted to glider production with 4,500 employees working around-the-clock in eight-hour shifts and turning out about eight gliders per day.
Due to the difficult shipping process, Ford streamlined delivery of their finished gliders by cutting a 120 foot-wide, one mile path through nearby woods from its assembly line plant to the airport in Kingsford. Assembled gliders were pulled by tractor from the facility directly to the airport for transport to Army sites around the country. Ford's production process allowed the lowest procurement cost of all Waco glider builders - $15,400 each as most other builders charged a minimum of $25,000-plus for each aircraft. Military inspectors reviewed each CG-4A after final assembly to which then the gliders were disassembled, crated, and transport by rail to glider training schools. The plants involved outputted a combined 13,906 operational gliders by war's end for the U.S. Army and its allies.
As finalized, the CG-4A featured a wingspan of 83.6 feet and an overall length of 48 feet. The aircraft's frame was constructed of hollow tubular steel to help reduce overall weight and then covered over in a canvas skin process. The wings were of plywood and the floor of honeycombed plywood - a construction technique providing strength with minimal weight. The load bearing capacity of the floor enabled a CG-4A glider to carry 4,060 pounds, yielding an ultimate gross weight of 7,500lbs which was 620lbs more than the empty weight of the glider itself. In extreme circumstances, the aircraft could be loaded up to a maximum weight of 9,000lbs. It was designed for a maximum towing speed of 150mph though, in practice, it was typically towed at slower speeds of 110- to 130-mph.
The normal glide descent speed was 72 mph under perfect conditions, slowing to a standard landing speed of about 60 mph. If the plane slowed to 49 mph in-flight, she would stall and, without power, she could not recover and would crash. The CG-4A was designed with a high-wing structure on a box-shaped fuselage and a nose section that was hinged behind the two-seat cockpit. The nose could be tilted up by the troops once they disembarked, creating a 5x6 foot opening, enough to clear a JEEP or other cargo could for unloading from the main compartment. This made it possible to quickly load and unload the glider.
As required by the original Army specification, the CG-4A could accommodate fifteen fully-equipped troops which included the two pilots. Types of cargo commonly loaded were: 1 x 1/4 ton JEEP designed to carry varied equipment and weaponry plus three men, 1 x 75mm howitzer along with 25 projectiles and its two artillerymen, or 1 x Bulldozer with its sole operator. Some "reverse logistics" flights were needed from a combat area back to base for casualty evacuation so the CG-4A could also fit six stretcher of wounded.
Powered aircraft were flown directly overseas or carried on the decks of aircraft carriers, ready to fly upon arriving at the intended war zone. Gliders, on the other hand, had to be shipped unassembled in crates to which a sole CG-4A glider required five large crates needed for its final construction. Upon reaching their destinations, the wooden crates were unloaded from the holds of cargo ships over the course of days and the components were removed. Precise reassembly was required which forced specialized training and delayed delivery of many gliders during key points in the war - in turn delaying major operations. Reassembly times varied based on the familiarity held by the builders - hastily-built gliders were known to break up in flight due to sloppy building and fastening.
The gliders were usually towed behind a twin-engine transport as in the Douglas C-47 "Skytrain" by way of a nylon rope some 350-feet long. Other transports in play became the twin-engine Curtiss C-46 "Commando" and four-engine Douglas C-54 "Skymaster". The pilot and co-pilot - seated side-by-side in the wide cockpit - were trained as glider pilots first and warfighters second. Some held previous experience in powered flight training but all were a special breed who volunteered to fly the unarmed and unpowered plane without parachutes, taught to crashland their aircraft onto unknown terrain and often time behind enemy lines and under direct fire. Each glider had a simple instrument panel and only minor comforts for the crew and passenger. The crew managed the tow disconnect apparatus that separated the glider from the tow plane. The instrument panel held basics such as an airspeed indicator, altimeter, a rate-of-climb indicator, a bank-and-turn indicator, and a compass - very little of which could be controlled by the glider pilot at the mercy of his transport plane. U.S. Army General William C. Westmoreland said about glider crews:
"Every landing was a genuine do-or-die situation...it was their awesome responsibility to repeatedly risk their lives by landing in unfamiliar fields deep within enemy-held territory, often in total darkness. They were the only aviators during World War 2 who had no motors, and no second chances."
Before the D-Day invasion of Northern France in June of 1944, the Gliders were relocated to the English staging areas by way of cargo ship or towed behind bombers. During the summer of 1943, the first CG-4A made the journey towed by an American bomber while also being loaded with critical war supplies: vaccines, radios, and aircraft and engine parts. Soon, the first twenty-five gliders were in British service where they were designated as "Hadrian Mk I" and a revised-equipment model became the "Hadrian Mk II". The Hadrian name stemmed from the Roman Emperor and, as the gliders were lined up on the English tarmac, wingtip-to-wingtip, they resembled "Hadrian's Wall" - the classic 80-mile long defensive wall built across Britain to separate the "civilized" Romans from the neighboring barbarian tribes to the north.
The Glider Hazard
Back in 1942, the U.S. Army awarded extra pay of $50.00 per month to paratroopers for the inherent work hazards involved. However, glider infantry did not receive this bonus because their powerless crash landings were seen not regarded as equally dangerous as jumping out of a plane (with two parachutes no less). Glider-borne infantry, therefore, quickly developed nicknames for their wooded planes like "flying coffins", "tow target" and "silent wings". Veterans of glider flights said they were not silent at all but much louder than hell due to the glider's construction materials - simply canvas over wood - that provided next to no insulation from the roar of the tow plane's engines ahead and wind noise when traveling at 120+ mph. Couple to that was the sound of exploding enemy ground-based FlaK fire around the fuselage. The inside of the glider lacked creature comforts for the troops who sat on simple wood benches. Air pockets generated during 110- to 130-mph winds created heavy turbulence, forcing the glider to drop and rise without notice. Once near the Landing Zone (LZ), the glider would cut itself loose from the tow aircraft and immediately begin to lose altitude. The typical action then involved turning around the LZ in descent until the crash landing shook all occupants to the core. At times, the fixed undercarriage would break through the fuselage floor - such was the force of these landings - and could result in severe injuries to occupants.
Lessons Learned Over Sicily
The first operation involving a CG-4A was during the Allied invasion of Sicily in July of 1943 - "Operation Husky" - when during Operation Ladbrooke 144 of the gliders, loaded with British troops, were towed toward the their LZs near Syracuse, Sicily on July 9th. Over sixty gliders were released too early under orders from their American and British tow aircraft and this resulting in the gliders crashing into the sea resulting in 252 drowning deaths. The after-action report found the incident was not attributable to the design of the glider but a premature decision by commanders to cut the tow lines - the gliders being at the mercy of such actions.
The Chindit Assault Force
The next major glider operation was on March 5th, 1944 - the second Wingate Chindit operation named "Operation Thursday" in Burma. The operation involved gliders landing in jungle clearings under the cover of darkness about 150 miles behind the main Japanese line (the Burmese troops were known as "Chindits"). The LZ was codenamed "Broadway" and became the first target on the night followed by a glider landing at Chowringhee on the following day. The first wave consisted of 52 Waco gliders towed by 26 Dakotas from the 1st Air Commando unit and the second wave numbered 28 gliders. An additional 600 gliders arrived during the following week, bringing 9,000 total Chindit warriors and over 1,000 pack mules.
The Almighty Mule
The multi-faceted pack mule proved a Godsend in the harsh jungle terrain where vehicles were largely prohibited by the thick bush. Military pack mules could be saddled with up to 20% of its body weight - this becoming 200lbs of heavy guns, ammunition, radios, C-rations, medical supplies, and the like. The mules could also provide the troops with an emergency food source once their loads had been used or if food drops were behind schedule. Since mules became so vital to the war effort, replacement mules were required when original mules were lost in combat. This required flying in more mules by glider. The CG-4A could carry three mules of the animals and their handlers in makeshift bamboo stalls, the mules harnessed to the sides of the glider for safety. Sometimes, the mules were parachuted into areas where gliders could not land - an action typically not ending well for the poor animal as some could not take the jerking action of the opening parachute causing necks to break. Additional injuries could also occur upon landing with broken legs being a regular occurrence. To reduce the loss of mules during drops an inflatable dinghy was used to wrap the mules and attached to six parachutes. All of this effort was needed as each British column had 306 men with 57 mules and their handlers in tow. These hardy animals were known for their strength, endurance, and sure-footedness. Despite their hardiness mules were occasionally lost in the jungles, some being shot by the Japanese while others falling to their deaths along steep mountain trails.
The American factories had done their part by producing and creating 2,100 Waco CG-4A gliders for shipment to England by February of 1944. The new problem became the number of untrained British civilians tasked with reassembling the aircraft and a fast measure was made to assemble the Wacos which completed the project with only five weeks remaining until D-Day.
Gliders Over Normandy
The most important vertical envelopment operation for Allied glider troops became the Normandy invasion of France on June 6th, 1944. The first gliders that landed at 12:16am were six British Horsas with 180 troops sent to capture the Orne Bridge. At 01:00am, two thousand British "pathfinders" jumped into France to mark glider LZs, blow up key bridges, and destroy the Merville gun battery. To the west, 13,000 American paratroopers 82nd and 101st airborne arrived by way of 1,087 Douglas C-47s. Between 3am and 5am, 5,000 warships and support vessels arrived off the coast of Normandy to shell the beaches and officially launch the invasion. At 03:35am, 55 gliders landed with the headquarters of the 6th British Airborne Division at Ranville. At 03:54am, 52 Waco gliders carrying 158 men, anti-tank guns, a baby bulldozer, a surgical unit, one radio JEEP, and one trailer with long-range communications equipment for contact with England to serve the 101st Airborne. 04:00am, 52 Wacos landed west of Saint-Mere-Eglise with the Headquarters of the 82nd Airborne.
More missions continued throughout the day with 517 CG-4A combat gliders participating in "Operation Neptune" involving an additional 3,937 glider troops. The gliders were forced to land in the small fields of the Normandy countryside, some less than 400 feet in length. Most of the Wacos crashed on landing but due to lessons learned over Sicily resulted in far fewer casualties, injuries, and equipment damage. Losses were unavoidable when under fire, however, and 44 glider pilots were killed and more than 20 men injured, many seriously - though the mission was labeled a complete success.
All of the gliders used for the Normandy assault were lost. After the action, U.S. Airborne High Command saw the hazards of glider landings, which proved equal to the dangers of paratrooper drops, which resulted in glider troops earning equal pay as their parachuting counterparts. These elements were also then granted the same equipment including jump boots and combat gear like the compact M1A1 carbine.
Additional Glider Operations
Glider missions continued in August of 1944 with missions over southern France. American forces surprised the Germans as 407 CG-4A combat gliders were used to quickly overrun enemy positions. However, the glider mission continued to be dangerous as 23 glider pilots were killed and 63 others were wounded. Next were drops over Holland with the Allies attempted to round the Germans by collecting three key bridges ("A Bridge Too Far"). Poor intelligence and a high level of ambition led to a partially successful operation ("Operation Market Garden") - this mission required more gliders than any other action during World War 2. Starting on September 17th, 1944, a large British and American force required 1,900 CG-4A combat gliders during the multi-day operation. The flat, open farmlands of Holland allowed the first 1,618 to land safely at their predestined LZs. A number of the gliders were released over Germany and all of the pilots and troops onboard were lost. During the operation, 40 glider pilots were killed, 37 wounded, and 65 went Missing-in-Action (MIA). The Americans objectives were successfully taken but the British failed to take the bridges at Arnhem to make the final cross into Germany proper.
On December 26, 1944, a small, unreported mission took place at the Ardennes during the "Battle of the Bulge". Before General Patton and his tanks arrived to help the beleaguered 101st Airborne, the Wacos arrived first - glider pilots in 61 CG-4As were the first to come to the aid of the surrounded 101st Airborne Division and delivered surgical teams to treat the wounded, artillery, ammunition, and much-needed fuel all the while under heavy enemy ground fire. Casualties for the "G-Men" was four glider pilots killed and eighteen wounded with all of the planes destroyed - however the replenishment/support mission was a success.
The Final Leg of the War
The next mission was Wesel, Germany on March 24th, 1945 - the first time gliders were used over Germany proper. 906 CG-4A American gliders crossed the Rhine River but the casualty rate proved high due to the stout German defense - 88 glider pilots were killed, 240 were wounded, and 31 went missing in the fighting. The losses made this the last large-scale use of gliders during World War 2. Less than two months later, on May 7, 1945, Germany signed the unconditional surrender at Allied headquarters in Reims, France ending the European portion of the conflict. However, Japan had not yet surrendered so gliders were transferred to the Pacific Theater for the invasion of the Philippines. The 11th Airborne Division assignment on June 21, 1945, was to attack the Japanese to help secure use of the Camalaniugan Airfield at Luzon. Gypsy Task Force would be transported by 54 C-47 Skytrains and 13 C-46 Commando aircraft as well as 6 Waco CG-4A Gliders which would land JEEPs and supplies for the force. Japanese resistance was rigid and the defense would hold until September 1945 when the enemy force became surrounded and was neutralized - noting the 11th Airborne Division's final combat operation of the war and also the last use of American gliders in combat during this far-reaching conflict.
All American glider pilots were awarded the Air Medal for each combat flight they made. The citation accompanying the Air Medal for Normandy was worded as follows:
"The magnificent spirit and enthusiasm displayed by these Officers, combined with skill, courage and devotion to duty, is reflected in their brilliant operation of unarmed gliders of light construction at minimum altitudes and air speeds, in unfavorable weather conditions over water, and in the face of vigorous enemy opposition, with no possibility of employing evasive action, and in their successful negotiation of hazardous landings in hostile territory, to spearhead the Allied invasion of the continent. Their respective duty assignments were performed in such an admirable manner as to produce exceptional results in the greatest and most successful airborne operation in the history of world aviation."
The Few and the Proud
The U.S. Army Air Force trained about 7,200 American military glider pilots and all were volunteers. The powered pilots silver wings had a shield in the center while glider pilots wore these wings with the letter "G" embossed on them in the center. The proud glider pilots have never hesitated to tell those interested what the "G" in the wings stood for - "Guts".
Waco Glider Last Use, Total Production, and Its Builders
Last official American military use of Waco gliders was in the early 1950s and many were then scrapped or sold off as war surplus. Operators beyond the United States and Britain became Canada and Czechoslovakia. Despite over 14,970 units being produced, only about a dozen remain as museum showpieces around the world. Production was undertaken by Babcock, Cessna, Commonwealth Aircraft, Ford, G&A Aircraft, General Aircraft Corporation, Gibson Refrigerator, Laister-Kauffmann, National Aircraft Corporation, Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation, Pratt-Read, Ridgefield Mfg, Robertson Aircraft, Timm Aircraft, Ward Furniture Company, and of course Waco Aircraft Company.