Utah Veteran glided behind enemy lines on D-Day - VA Salt Lake City Health Care System
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Utah Veteran glided behind enemy lines on D-Day

World War II Glider Pilot John

John "Jack" Whipple was one of the tens of thousands of American soldiers who took part in D-Day, but he didn't storm the beaches. He glided quietly behind enemy lines to support the airborne mission.

By Jeremy M. Laird
Wednesday, June 6, 2018

D-Day, June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious invasion in history. Over 150-thousand American, British, and Canadian troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, but over 15-thousand airborne soldiers dropped in behind enemy lines on D-Day. Most parachuted in, but over a thousand landed in Normandy inside gliders made of plywood.


Watch: Horsa/Waco


97-year-old Millcreek, Utah resident John “Jack” Whipple piloted one of the hundreds of gliders to set down in the fields of France on that June morning.

Flight Officer John "Jack" Whipple
Flight Officer Jack Whipple in 1944

Tow planes delivered Jack and hundreds of other fearless flyers to the air over Northern France. Jack was behind the controls of an Airspeed Horsa the day of the invasion. “When we came over Utah beach, we received some ground fire,” said Jack. “Then we flew over the Germans, and received a lot more fire.”

Gliders on airfield before D-Day

Horsa and CG-4A gliders staged on airfield before D-Day.

Allied forces used two gliders in the invasion: the Waco CG-4A and the Airspeed Horsa. These were not the modern sail planes of today, but cargo and troop carriers. The CG-4 carried a pilot and co-pilot, 13 soldiers and their equipment, or a jeep and 2 or 3 soldiers. Jack's Horsa carried him and a co-pilot, a jeep, an anti-tank gun, 4 soldiers that morning, but the Horsa could also be configured to carry 30 soldiers and their gear. The total weight of a loaded Horsa hovered around 15-thousand pounds.

After the tow planes cut the gliders loose, pilots had just moments to find their landing zone. “The quicker the better,” said Jack. “They were shooting at us – probably 3 or 4 minutes.”

To make matters worse, reconnaissance photos given to pilots were months old. “The photos had been taken in January or February and the trees had no leaves," said Jack. "When we got there, they [the trees] were in full leaves and we missed our main check point.”

Losing altitude, Jack picked a field to land in, but quickly realized it wasn’t big enough. He slammed the glider in to the ground, ripping off the landing gear. He then performed an intentional ground loop, digging one wing into the ground, thus slowing the glider and protecting the fuselage. A maneuver, which all these years later, Jack pointed out was authorized.

“We landed,” said Jack, “didn’t hurt anybody or the major equipment.”

Aerial photo of Horsa gliders on field France.

Horsa gliders abandoned in France after landing on D-Day.

At this point, Jack’s role shifted. “Glider pilots did the flying and right after we landed we became infantry men. Most glider pilots were trained as infantry men, but we couldn’t wear the infantry badge because we weren’t in their unit. We were still in the air corps.”

“We landed behind enemy lines,” said Jack. “We had about perhaps five or six horsa gliders. We got together after [landing], and helped those who were injured. We got attacked that night, but we were able to keep the group together and able to keep the enemy away.”

The airborne assault on German forces was a key part of the allied invasion. “It made it easier because the Germans then had to fight both sides of a squeeze,” said Jack squeezing his hands together. “The people coming on the beach—and the airborne.”

And while hundreds of gliders may not sound like a lot, the gliders provided the airborne units equipment to combat heavy and mechanized infantry, and needed supplies to operate behind enemy lines.Jack flew two additional combat glider missions—one in Holland and the final one as part of the Rhine Crossing.

After returning from the war, he earned his private pilot license, and flew all over the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

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