Matthew Carter Bates and Dr. Frank W. Clawson, Aerospace Studies
In an age of supersonic jets and satellite-guided bombs, it is hard to imagine that the United States would ever send American troops behind enemy lines in little more than a plywood box covered with canvas, but during World War II that is exactly what happened. In fact, a team of six to ten men assembled America’s first stealth fighter in about eight hours using only a kit of five oak crates and no power tools (Brennan 1991,16-17). It was called the WACO CG-4A, a glider aircraft that carried the heralded 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions into World War II’s greatest battles.
World War II veterans are dying at the alarming pace of 1,200 a day. Many leave behind them the stories that helped shape the outcome of that conflict and the world in which we now live. Having only imperfect memories of the stories that one of my grandfathers left behind, I was determined to not make the same mistake with my other grandfather, 1st Lieutenant Andrew L. Bates, a glider pilot who still keeps the flight suit he wore into Normandy neatly tucked away in his closet. In order to better understand his story I traveled to Vancouver, Washington to attend a mini-reunion of the National World War II Glider Pilots Association to compile information about the men who served in these positions. Given that most of these men are now in their 80s, the trend I mentioned above will rapidly accelerate. Approximately 2,000 of the 6,000 trained glider pilots are now deceased. In a few years there will no longer be any surviving glider pilots, or other WWII veterans, who can tell us firsthand about the dreams and fears they experienced. Of those remaining, I recorded the stories of only about 20 glider pilots. Of course, the snapshots and medals will remain, but the stories will vanish if left unrecorded.
The primary goal of this research was to record as much information as possible as quickly as possible. The fact that surviving glider pilots are spread out across the nation makes it difficult to record their stories. Attending the mini-reunion was the most cost effective and time saving way of gathering the information I was seeking. The reunion lasted from May 3-5, 2001. I spent all three days with these men and their spouses, listening to their stories and recording what I could. During my time there I traveled with them to local areas of interest and to dinners held in their honor at Vancouver’s Elks Lodge. As an interviewer it is hard to compete for attention when war buddies are catching up with each other over dinner, or spouses are insisting on visiting the Marina! I found that the best way to conduct my interviews was to interview both the glider pilot and his spouse in my hotel room. I sat them side-by-side and mostly addressed the glider pilot, but also addressed his spouse where appropriate. The interviews lasted approximately 15-20 minutes a piece. The only equipment I used was a video recorder on a tripod, and several blank tapes. The end result was about 6 hours worth of interviews.
As an interviewer, it is important to be sensitive to the interviewee’s willingness to discuss some subjects. There is no “right way” to do an interview, but there are certainly several “wrong ways.” Obviously, the subject matter is being discussed in the context of war. Several of the men I interviewed had lost close friends in the conflict. Some had been prisoners of war. I was interested in this kind of story, but had to constantly gauge how willing the glider pilot was to broach such topics. I found the safest and most effective interviews were done by leading them through their experiences from the start until after the war. Issues we discussed included their reactions to Pearl Harbor (when America entered the war), basic/flight training, specific missions they flew, and any special experiences they would like to share. Often the spouses would discuss what was going on at the home front. It was important that I would lead the interview in the direction I wanted it to go, but not control the interview. It was sometimes difficult finding the right balance, but the effort usually ended up with far less tangential stories and far more exciting or meaningful ones.
The National WWII Glider Pilots Association holds several reunions a year across the United States. Many of these veterans are still vibrant and full of life, always anxious to pack up the Winnebago and head off to the next reunion. Others are now unable to attend because they or their spouses are in poor health. As time passes on, fewer and fewer glider pilots and their spouses will be left to tell their tales. The National Glider Pilots Association will one day be dissolved because there will be no one left to run it. The twenty stories I gathered could be easily recorded by other Air Force ROTC cadets attending colleges throughout the nation. As a graduate of BYU, and now as a Public Affairs Officer in the Air Force, I am drafting a proposal that would make it possible for others to compile oral histories in a similar manner. Hopefully, all those who visit the WWII Glider Museum that is now being constructed in Lubbock, Texas will enjoy the end result.
- Brennan, George F., Edward L. Cook, and David H. Trexler. 1991. World War II Glider Pilots, Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, Kentucky.