No guns, no engines, no second chances: the little-known story of WWII's glider pilots - The San Diego Union-Tribune

These are people he would have enjoyed hosting for dinner. That’s how Scott McGaugh chooses his book subjects.

The people in his new book, due out Tuesday, were glider pilots during World War II. They climbed into planes so new they hadn’t been invented when the war started. Planes that had no engines, no defensive armament, and carried no parachutes. Styrene Monomer In Bulk

No guns, no engines, no second chances: the little-known story of WWII's glider pilots - The San Diego Union-Tribune

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There’s a reason McGaugh titled the book “Brotherhood of the Flying Coffin.”

Gliders played a key role in the early hours of the war’s largest airborne assaults, including D-Day. They got towed into position by other planes and were then released to fly behind enemy lines with two tons of troops and equipment.

Every mission was one-way; every landing was a crash landing. Most of the gliders that made it that far encountered German machine gun fire and artillery shells.

The pilots — there were about 3,000 — knew going in that their bosses expected only half of them to make it. They went anyway. All of them were volunteers.

“Who does that at the age of 21 or 22?” McGaugh said during a recent interview at his Tierrasanta home. “They just had the bug to fly and serve their country and were willing to do whatever it took to fulfill that.”

It’s the “whatever it took” that fascinates him, the courage and trust to be hurtled through the air into the teeth of combat, dropping like a brick at 950 feet per minute and searching for a farmer’s field, a vineyard, a trail between trees — any football-field sized place to nose down their 48-foot long, fabric-covered planes.

The flights were considered so dangerous that each one earned the pilot an Air Medal, the equivalent of a ground soldier’s Bronze Star. By comparison, it took bomber pilots five flights to earn one Air Medal.

In addition to D-Day, they were at the tip of the spear during Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge and other campaigns that military leaders and historians said helped the Allies defeat Nazi Germany.

McGaugh’s book mentions the strategic gains, but that’s not really what it’s about. For him, the people are paramount: Who they were before duty called, how they felt about flying, how much it hurt to see fellow pilots — strangers before, friends now — go out on missions and never come home.

“If it’s not about the people, if I can’t tell the story of neighbors and grandfathers, it’s not for me,” he said. “I’ll leave the detailed military history to the military historians. If there is such a phrase, I’m a people historian. It’s about the people and what they do and what they’re willing to sacrifice for the rest of us.”

McGaugh didn’t start writing books until he was in his early 50s — he’s 70 now — but he’s been interested in wrestling words into sentences for much of his life.

Born and raised in San Diego, he went to Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley. “I was the only student in high school English class, I’m sure, who loved it when the teacher said a term paper was part of your grade,” he said.

He worked for the school newspaper, and after getting a bachelor’s degree in political science at Arizona State University, made journalism his career at a small weekly in Durango, Colo.

In 1985, he returned to San Diego and shifted to public relations. Then came what he calls “the real fork in the road of my life.”

A group of San Diegans was trying to bring the retired aircraft carrier Midway here to serve as a museum on the waterfront. McGaugh agreed to work for three months, pro bono, on their campaign.

Three months became eight years, and when the USS Midway Museum opened in 2004, he was the museum’s marketing director. He held that post for 17 years, retiring in December 2020. He now serves on the organization’s board of directors.

Early in his tenure with the Midway, “almost as a lark,” he decided to write a book about the ship’s history. Published in 2004, it was his first. His new one is his 11th.

His other books include “Battlefield Angels,” which came out in 2011 and tells the stories of combat medics whose work not only saved lives but transformed medical care. Anesthesia has ties to the Civil War. World War I brought the first widespread use of X-rays. World War II was a proving ground for blood banks and antibiotics.

When McGaugh was researching that book, he learned about a medic who was part of an unusual Japanese American combat team in World War II. That led to a book about the unit, “Honor Before Glory,” which was published in 2016.

Working on that story, he saw a reference to Japanese American soldiers who had fought in France during the war. They had arrived at the battlefield by airplane. But not just any airplane.

In a notebook McGaugh keeps for ideas about future books, he wrote one word: gliders.

Mention gliders to people in San Diego and they think of sailplanes or the small, nimble aircraft that soar at Torrey Pines. The gliders that flew in World War II — five major missions in nine months — weren’t like that. They were lumbering giants with 84-foot wing spans.

“You can’t really imagine it until you come around the corner here and get a load of the real thing,” said Sharon McCullar, curator at the Silent Wings Museum in Lubbock, Texas, which has a fully restored World War II glider.

It’s so big and ungainly, she said, sometimes people look it up and down, shake their heads and say, “I don’t think it could ever fly.”

The museum, started by glider veterans worried that their story would be forgotten, also has in its collection oral histories, diaries, letters, accident reports and other artifacts. McGaugh used them in researching his book, an important resource because very few glider pilots are still alive.

“A lot of time with these World War II books that are based on people, it’s what’s available,” he said. “Who shared and who didn’t before he died, and how much? Did the family keep the letters he sent home? The journals? I’ve had a number of book ideas over the years, but the raw material isn’t always there. This time it was.”

Lubbock was worth visiting for other reasons. It’s where most of the U.S. pilots trained, in the prairies outside town. Walking there, feeling the wind, seeing the soil — that helped McGaugh get a sense of what it was like.

“One of my greatest joys with these books is when I have the opportunity to research where these things took place,” he said. “Shrapnel I picked up in Europe, from a battlefield, that adds so much to the story.”

The tale he tells in “Brotherhood of the Flying Coffin” is jaw-dropping at times for the built-from-scratch nature of the glider program and the courage of the pilots.

Tragedy abounds — pilots killed when wings fall off, or when jeeps they’re carrying in the back crush them during landings. One of those killed, by a sniper in Holland, was Gordon Chamberlain, who had been a student at San Diego State before the war.

But there’s triumph, too, when the gliders get past the anti-aircraft flak and deliver their much-needed payloads to besieged Allied troops.

“Never before in history had any nation produced aviators whose duty it was to deliberately crash land, and then go on to fight as combat infantrymen,” U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland said after the war.

“It was their awesome responsibility to repeatedly risk their lives by landing heavily laden aircraft containing combat soldiers and equipment in unfamiliar fields deep within enemy-held territory, often in total darkness. They were the only aviators during World War II who had no motors, no parachutes and no second chances.”

After the war, the gliders became obsolete, replaced by more cost-efficient and safer technology: helicopters. McGaugh recounts in his book how the surplus gliders were sold for scrap.

They came unassembled in five large wooden crates, and the crates were what the buyers wanted. There was enough lumber to build a small house, or to add a room to an existing one.

The cost for a surplus glider? $75.

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No guns, no engines, no second chances: the little-known story of WWII's glider pilots - The San Diego Union-Tribune

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