(August 15 – September 14, 1944)
Then on July 15, the Anti-Tank Company was withdrawn from the front line under secret orders. The men didn’t find out why until several days later when they reached an airfield near Rome and learned that they had been assigned to glider training. From there they were moved to Grosseto, some 100 miles north of Rome.2
For about two weeks they trained to be glider infantry, moving from airfield to airfield. The Anti-Tank Company spent many hours learning to securely lash down and load the equipment into the gliders. On August 5, they were attached to the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Airborne Task Force.3
The body of the Waco CG-4A glider was 48 feet long and 12 feet high, just large enough to fit an anti-tank gun, a jeep, or a trailer filled with ammunition.4 The gliders were made of steel tubing and canvas skin. They had a wingspan of 83.5 feet and no motor, no armor and no armaments.5 Two pilots from the First Airborne manned each cockpit. Riding along were three to six men from the Anti-Tank Company, armed with British “six-pounders,” which they had exchanged for their heavier 57mm guns.
On August 15, Operation DRAGOON, the invasion of Southern France, began. At 6 am, the paratroopers left. Their job was to secure the landing fields for the glider-borne troops. At 4 pm, the glider troops took off from the airfields in Italy. Their job was to land, quickly set up their guns and hold the area until the seaborne troops could relieve them.
The C-47 planes took off, towing the gliders 350 feet behind. The gliders bounced and jerked on thick nylon rope. The 44 gliders flew from northern Italy over the Ligurian Sea. Private First Class Wallace Kagawa, one of the Anti-Tank men in a jeep-loaded glider, remembers looking down out of the window, seeing the seaborne troops plowing through the water toward the French coast.6
As they approached the area around Le Muy, Kagawa recalls that it was a “beautiful day.” He states, “I could see the green fields and many parachutes, looking like giant flowers, red, yellow, blue… like giant morning glories.”7 The beauty of this “impressive” sight was marred as the gliders were greeted by slight bursts of anti-aircraft flak. The tail of one glider was hit, part of the tail falling off.8
As they got closer to the ground, the men saw that their landing would be extremely dangerous. Their briefing and the aerial photographs they had been shown had not prepared them for the bocage, or high, dense hedgerows, and the Rommelspargel (“Rommel’s Asparagus”), thousands of wooden poles that German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had ordered “planted” in open fields along the coasts to impede glider landings.9 The spiked poles were about 6 to 12 inches in diameter and up to 16 feet long, with up to 12 feet protruding out of the ground.10 Sometimes wire was strung diagonally across the tops and bottoms of the poles. Also, some were topped with trip-wired mines or grenades.11
At 3,000 feet, instead of the prescribed 100 feet, the gliders were cut off from their tug planes.12 As the gliders hurtled toward the ground, the pilots tried to adjust the angle of entry. But with a limited landing area, the pilots would only have one chance to decide where to land.
Staff Sergeant Frank Seto was in a glider carrying a jeep as its cargo. Seto remembers that the landings were “scary,” stating that even after the war, he was still anxious whenever landing in an airplane: “Every time I get on an airplane now… when we’re landing, I just freeze up.”13
Seto remembers seeing other gliders making rough landings, some landing upside down. His glider crashed into a tree and totaled their jeep. His knee was injured in the landing. His lieutenant, who was strapped into the jeep, also suffered an injury when his head hit the dashboard. Both glider pilots broke their legs from the impact. But thankfully, they were both alive, largely because the ropes and cables that strapped the jeep into place had held fast, despite being shredded in the landing.14
Kagawa, who was seated immediately behind his pilots in his glider, recalls that his team was not so fortunate. When they landed, the steepness and force of the landing cut all the ropes and the glider’s contents shifted forward. The jeep broke free, smashed into the cockpit and instantly killed the pilots.15
Nine men from the Anti-Tank Company were injured during the landing.16 Unfortunately, there were many other glider pilot casualties. But once the men landed, they had no time to consider their losses, as they immediately had to unload their equipment and proceed to their assigned positions.
Kagawa remembers that the night before the invasion, the paratroopers had invited them to a “pre-invasion rally” where they made speeches and wished the glider infantry all the best of luck. He states, “We had a very good relationship with them. We were with them for maybe two months.”17
Unfortunately, Kagawa says, many of the paratroopers lost their lives in the invasion. Deeply saddened, he recalls, “After our landing, we were marching toward our destination, and in a section, I saw about 10 or 15 paratroopers dead, you know. I felt sorry for them. They died for us.”18
Because of the “jumpers,” who had secured the landing area for the gliders, the Anti-Tank Company didn’t encounter any enemy attacks.19 The men set up their guns in less than an hour, and some units did reconnaissance.20 For two days they held their positions until they were relieved by the seaborne troops, which had pushed inland.
For the next two months the Anti-Tank Company guarded the exposed right flank of the 7th Army and gave anti-mechanized protection to the 517th Parachute Infantry. It also cleared mines, captured Germans, and guarded roads and tunnels.21
On October 20 the Anti-Tank Company was relieved and rejoined the 442nd in time to help in the rescue of the Lost Battalion.
For their actions in Southern France, the men each received a Combat Infantryman’s Badge and were the only ones in the 442nd to receive Glider Badges.22
- 1Dorothy Matsuo, Boyhood to War: History and Anecdotes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (Honolulu, HI: Mutual Pub. Co., 1992), p. 142; and Oral history interview with Masato Doi, September 26, 2003, Hawaii, Tape #4, Hanashi Oral History Program, Go For Broke National Education Center, accessed on February 23, 2015.
- 2Ben H. Tamashiro, “From Pearl Harbor to the Po: The Art of the Possible: The Antitank Company, 442nd RCT,” Hawaii Herald, August 15, 1986, reprinted by The Hawaii Nisei Story: Americans of Japanese Ancestry during World War II, accessed on March 9, 2015.
- 3The 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, The 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team (Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 1998), p. 37.
- 4Shiroku “Whitey” Yamamoto, “Glider Training and D-Day Invasion,” The Hawaii Nisei Story: Americans of Japanese Descent During World War II, University of Hawaii, accessed on February 23, 2015.
- 5Michael McRae, “The Flying Coffins of World War II,” ASME.org, accessed on March 9, 2015.
- 6Oral history interview with Wallace Kagawa, June 9, 1999, Hawaii, Tape #2, Hanashi Oral History Program, Go For Broke National Education Center, accessed on March 10, 2015.
- 8The 517th PRCT, p. 37.
- 10Tamashiro; and National World War II Glider Pilots Association, World War II Glider Pilots (Nashville, TN: Turner Publishing Company, 1991), p. 22.
- 11Gordon L. Rottman, World War II Glider Assault Tactics (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2014), p. 32.
- 12The 517th PRCT, p. 37.
- 13Oral history interview with Frank Seto, August 2, 1998, Southern California, Tape #2, Hanashi Oral History Program, Go For Broke National Education Center, accessed on March 10, 2015.
- 16The 517th PRCT, p. 37.
- 20Chester Tanaka, Go For Broke: A Pictorial History of the Japanese-American 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442d Regimental Combat Team (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), p. 64.
- 21The 517th PRCT, p. 37.
- 22Tanaka, p. 64.