w w w . b a t t  l e o f s a i p a n .  c o m
Home    Battle of Saipan    Photos    WWII Experiences    WWII Resources    Prostate Cancer

WWII Combat Glider Pilot

First Lieutenant Raymond L. Bean, USAFR

Medals include 5 battle stars
Prepared By: CDR David Moore, USNR, Ret.
July 2003


One hot evening in July 1941, Ray and three of his friends were at Gus Larson's house in Evanston, Wyoming drinking a cold beer. One of the bunch said let's join the Air Corps and fly. Everyone thought that was a great idea as there was little work in town and life seemed boring. These were friends from the first grade: Frank Stine, Earl Larson, Dave Moore and Ray.

The next morning, three of the four left for Salt Lake City, Utah and enlisted. Dave did not go as he was in the CMTC training at Fort Douglas, Utah for a month to be a lieutenant in the infantry (he later failed the physical). Life plays strange tricks. Their families were shocked, but WWII had not started yet so adventure was at hand.

Training For War

After boot camp training, Ray and his friends were assigned to Moffet Field near Palo Alto for more advanced training. Ray was assigned to mechanic training, but the wild bunch stayed together. As the war heated up in Europe, the call went out for pilots, and each received a chance to fly: Earl went to the bombers, Frank to the fighters, and Ray to the gliders. All were to see heavy combat missions in the war and live! Dave with his poor eyesight went on to college receiving a deferment from the draft. Later, Dave would graduate as an engineer, memorize the eye chart, join the Seabees, and eventually go over the beachhead in the Battle of Saipan. He did not want to be held accountable for any cowardly misdeeds to his old buddies after the war. This war was fought for our freedom, and it was most important to youth of that age; we were damn determined not to become slaves to the Germans or the Japanese. Their rule in conquered countries told the true story of their intentions.

Glider Training

Ray learned to fly in the Horsa and WACO-G4a gliders. He flew by the seat of his pants as there is no motor to maneuver a glider to a safe landing, so you are either very good or very dead in that game. Ray, like his other two Army companions, had only a high school education with passing grades, as did most the Army pilots of those days, so learning the higher mathematics of flying was difficult. But they studied with a firm determination to fly those Army planes. Ray learned the art of flying both the gliders and the two engine C-47.

Flying a glider was simple; a tow line from a C-47 would pull the glider up as the C-47 flew, and Ray was airborne. There were a few rules. He had to fly by like keeping a glide path downward to a minimum of 70 mph, if you don't, you will fall like a rock. The prop wash from the C-47 could spin you, and the tow line could not be too loose or it could snap as it tightened. Also if there were two gliders being towed, stay the hell out of the road to the second glider for obvious reasons. One other consideration, if you are landing in the battlefield, be sure that two gliders don't choose the same spot because there is nowhere to go. Trees became bothersome as Ray witnessed when he landed in Holland and busted the wing. Night flying was hazardous at best; the pilot could hardly see to pick a landing spot. One last trick, Ray must land at 60 mph, so 10 feet above the ground he would pull hard upward on the stick and hope that the glider along with the glidermen ( infantry) would slam in with the nose just above the ground level and skid to a stop. So you see you are either good at your business or dead.

It is proper to mention some details of Ray's education to tell the challenges he faced and to show others where there is a will, there is a way. In those ancient days, to graduate from high school you needed only a course in plane geometry, and one in basic algebra. In his flight training, he needed to know how to fly as the pilot, how to read the instruments and put down the wheels and the like. As a copilot, he needed to know how to plot the course as the navigator to tell the pilot the direction of flight.

It was difficult, and the work required some trigonometry along with an ability to read the maps quickly in order come back in one piece. This creates quite an incentive to learn! Great credit goes to the leaders of the Army and Navy in WWII who devised the pilot training programs. They used condensed, common sense illustrations and basic lessons to teach the men in the shortest possible time. It must have worked well as Ray always flew on his mission, fought the battle, and found his way back. We were better trained than the Germans and Japanese. As proof, our air arm was able to clear the skies of German aircraft on D-Day of the Normandy invasion. Our air groups made some 14,700 missions in that battle; the German effort was only about 300, and we had our foot firmly in the door on the way to victory. Perhaps we could take a lesson from this marvelous technique in education to improve our present school system.

We should say something about the WACO glider itself. It was very cheap to build; it had a metal tubing frame covered by a painted canvas. The floor and seats were made of plywood. Instruments were nil - like only a gage to tell the elevation of the glider. A light was installed to see the gage at night (the best time to land in battle was at night so the Germans would have trouble seeing you) and it was also used to see the towing release device. Trees were hard to see in the landing strip as well as the Germans. The gliders were called flying coffins; early in the war, some faulty parts were made by coffin manufacturers. These gliders, along with the glidermen, performed well in winning the major battles in Europe. Ray's lieutenant uniform carried the silver wings of a pilot with "G" in the center; some said "G" stood for guts, and you needed this attribute if you flew the gliders.

War Zone

After glider training was completed, Ray was sent to the east coast to await orders for combat. In that period, Ray would attend the USO dances, where he met his lifelong companion, Edith. But tragedy occurred in the war, in one of his battle moves, he lost his belongs and Edith's address. Ray is a damned determined man. After the war, he went back to Edith's hometown, a story I will soon address. Ray's role in the great battle in Europe is told which will help his grandchildren understand what a hero they have in the family.

Ray was sent to the staging area in England in late 1943 to prepare for the invasion of France. There, he was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division in the 325 Glider Infantry Regiment (325 GIR). Other units had parachute troops. The glider carried troops...15 in the WACO and 34 in the Horsa ; it also carried jeeps, gasoline, artillery pieces, ammunition, and food for the isolated front line troops. They landed behind enemy lines, completed their mission, and then fought their way out to connect with the American army.

Invasion of Normandy

On 6 June 1944, the battle for France began. Gliders of the 82nd were sent into battle a little after midnight. They were in the sector called Utah beach and were assigned to seize bridges some 6 miles from the beach at St. Mere Eglise, thus preventing German reinforcements from chewing up the Americans at the beachhead. What is not told is that if the Americans were stopped at the beach, the inland airborne divisions would be trapped and destroyed.

But Ray's division was also assigned the job of getting special equipment like hospital tents and supplies as well as ammunition, food and water over the beach. The Germans had placed obstacles in the ocean to prevent supply boats from landing. As luck would have it, a small number of gliders from the 325 GID were assigned this supply task and Ray's card was in this deck. After a couple of days, the German artillery was silenced giving Ray the opportunity to applying his training and courage.

Ray's first task was to land on the sandy stretch of Utah beach with a glider filled with much needed supplies. The sandy beach and no firing from the adjacent cliffs made the task easy; in fact, landing on the sand made life enjoyable for a change. His orders were to board the first boat back to England to pilot another glider full of supplies to the beachhead, and he did.

After several of these missions, Ray was assigned to fly C-47's to a strip in the area of the beachhead where he picked up the more seriously wounded for a trip back to England and treatment in a major hospital. On theses trips, Ray served mostly as the navigator, and when he was not busy plotting the course of the flight, he would go to the patient's stretchers and help the nurse change the bloody bandages; everyone helped regardless of specialty as it was war and our soldiers were dying.

Patton's Breakout

After some difficult fighting over a couple of months in the hedgerows of Normandy, Gen. Patton's tanks broke loose for the conquest of Paris and central France. The gas-guzzling tanks needed fuel to move foreword; since the gas trucks could not keep pace, Ray's group was tasked with this unfamiliar, but very important job if we were to win the war.

Ray was assigned to fly a C-47 loaded with gasoline to the lead battle tanks. Unknown to the world, a leading oil company laid a pipeline across the channel at the time of the invasion to large gas tanks and a spigot at a point called "Lucky Strike" on the French coast. Ray's team would load the C-47 full of special military 25 gallon containers, fly to the lead tanks, land on the highway, unload gas containers with the hands of an able crew, and get back to the spigot for more gas. Ray would keep his engines running while the crew was unloading the gas. If they were spotted by a German fighter, their eternity would be curtains with a ball of fire, so they wasted no time in getting off the ground. Of course, if the C-47 missed the roadway on landing, Ray would pay with the same price so he had to be a good pilot, or he would be a dead pilot. At the end of Patton's end run, the division was sent back to England to be outfitted for the next big battle.

Battle Of Holland

The battle plan for conquest of Holland was simple and began on 17 September 1944. American and British airborne forces would capture the bridges in the Nijmegen sector allowing the British Second Army to move through Holland and strike at the industrial heart of Germany, a promising way to win the war. And you guessed it, Ray's 325 GIR was selected along with other units of the 82nd Airborne for this mission. There was no co-pilot in Ray's glider on this mission. He said that another gliderman with his rifle was needed more than the co-pilot to win the critical battle. Thus, it was a one-way ride into death and destruction beyond the German lines. On the second day of the battle, the airborne linked up with the British. However, due to bad weather, Ray's group arrived on D+6 with reinforcing troops, anti-tank weapons, jeeps, and other needed supplies. The bridges were taken and Nijmegen was in our hands.

Ray's part in this operation was a nightmare. Bringing in his glider full of men met his first challenge as the field was too small and full of landed gliders. He spotted an opening and dove the nose of the glider into a tight spot, clipping his wing on a tree. He hit hard; so hard, it broke the wooden pilot's seat, cutting a gash in the vital area you need to sit with. The men in the glider were shook up, but ready to fight. Lady luck was with Ray that day.

Ray bandaged his wound and went into Nijmegen to find his way back to the headquarters for more flights. Old luck was again on his side again. He stumbled upon a quart of good vodka which served to disinfect his wound. He did not throw the rest of the bottle away as it might serve a good purpose later.

Since the orders were to get back to his base and leave the shooting to the glidermen, he climbed onto a British ambulance taking wounded from the battle scene. The ambulance traveled about 8 miles when the British driver stopped. Ray thought he heard nearby the rumbling noise of a large Tiger German tank. Germans were all over the place. Ray got off ambulance, thanked the driver for the ride, and took off for the woods; it was a good idea to stay out of sight. There was a explosion in the area of the tank, and Ray guessed the ambulance had been hit. He kept moving through the woods for several miles until he came upon some American troops with a passage back to his headquarters. The next couple of months were spent in a rest area near Rheims, France preparing for the next battle. It was winter and little fighting was at hand.

There was a movie made about this battle; as I recall, it was titled "A Bridge Too Far". It showed the initial success of the battle, but British could not hold the area under massive German counter attacks and were forced to withdraw.

Battle of the Bulge

This famous battle started as a surprise attack on 16 December in the front of where an unlucky American division was dug in for a bad, cold winter with plenty of snow. It seemed the Germans were about beaten, so why worry about an attack. But Hitler was out for blood, and he threw into the battle his best armored divisions against the sector of our 28th division, destroying its capability. The German plan was to drive to Werbomont, Belgium and seize Antwerp, cutting the Allies in two. German Army point consisted of two panzer divisions, three infantry divisions, and one parachute division.

This attack outgunned and overran the American position in the area of the Ourth River causing confusion and a serious retreat. The SHAEF fighting reserve consisted only of the 82nd and the 101st Airborne Divisions which were sent orders to move immediately to the front on 17 December. They could not wait for their friends on leave in Paris, nor for winter boots. The 101st was assigned to stop the enemy at the radial highway net at Bastogne (rough terrain in the area only permitted that road system) and the 82nd was to stop the Germans at Werbomont. After a bitter struggle against the odds, both the airborne divisions stopped the main thrust making it possible for the American to regain the offensive.

What was Ray's role in this operation? Holding Bastogne was critical to stopping the Germans, but its survival remained in doubt; only great bravery by our men and smarts by our generals saved the day. The battle became a legend. Therefore, much attention was given to holding this sector. We must look at the battle scene around Bastogne to identify Ray's important contribution. It seems fate played a gift on the side of the 101st, as the battle commander was Brigadier General McAuliffe (an old artillery officer).

Since orders came for the 101st to move immediately to the front, and all the senior officers were on assignment elsewhere, this general inherited the command. His proper use of the artillery would play a vital part in the city's defense. After the division arrived on the 18th, the battle began in earnest the next day. The 101st had arrived just in time. The heavy artillery pieces were placed near the middle of the 2.5 mile defense ring that surrounded the city. The tanks and infantry were located along the rough ring with many phone lines into the command center, so if there was a threat at many point on the ring the reserves and the artillery could be brought to bare on the German attack.

As the days progressed, the outlying units stretched too far out would be taken into the circle. Then, on the night of the 20th the Germans (some in American uniforms) overran the last road intersection closing the circle from outside supplies. There were many German tank and infantry probes into our lines; all were stopped by the splendid cooporation of our tanks, artillery, and reserves, but this action used up the limited artillery and small arms ammunition. By noon on Dec. 22nd, it was estimated that the 101st had only 10 rounds of ammunition per heavy artillery piece left.

Gen. McAulliffe knew that elements of Gen. Patton's armor were on the way, but could they arrive in time to prevent disaster was the real question. Unknown to the 101st ,they would not have any truck supplies until a day after Christmas so they would have to look to another source of supply for saving their freedom. And that was the airdrop, where Ray would play an active role.

Now, I must put some spice into the story as I turn to discussing the extreme conditions of morale and show by examples the courage in a hopeless defense against great odds. On Dec. 22nd the city had been surrounded, cutoff for two days and pounded hard. Later, information at the end of the battle would reveal from prisoners at least five of the best German divisions were in the life-or-death struggle against the 101st division, Combat Command B (armored), as well as some of our small units including artillery left behind in the retreat.

Around noon, with a white flag four Germans showed up at Col. Harper's 327 Glider regiment with surrender conditions for Bastogne. This paper was taken to Gen. McAuliffe, who was a very busy man with all this shooting. As he glanced at the terms he said "Nuts." With Patton's army on its way, with airdrops programmed for the next day, and with the do-or-die determination of his men, he held the winning hand. As he was pondering the reply, one of the staff said why don't you use the word you just uttered.

Not to waste any of the two hours the Germans gave him, or there would be wholesale destruction of the city, he scribbled the word "Nuts" on the paper and sent the Germans on their way. As the Germans departed for their lines Col. Harper was obliged to explain the answer to them as follows: "If you don't understand what "nuts" means, in plain English, it is the same as "go to hell". And I will tell you something else - if you continue to attack, we will kill every goddam German that tries to break into this city." Thus, we have these famous words that were entered into the journals our American freedom. So, on to the airdrops and the continuing fight for survival.

The survival of the "Battered Bastards of Bastogne" (a proud classical term given by the military) was in serious doubt with the food and ammunition carefully rationed on Dec. 22nd. The German armor was on the defense ring waiting for the last artillery shell to fall. On this day, the Germans had given their surrender demands. But the ingenious Americans had other plays to make in this battle.

Back in England the outstanding IX Troop-Carrier Command had gathered up its gliders and its C-47's and was waiting for the nasty fog to clear so they could airdrop the critical supplies in a small field, near McAuliffe's headquarters. It was marked by banners, and the pilots were very good at hitting this mark. The bad thing was that the German gunners generally knew where the planes were going to dump their load.

The weather cleared somewhat on Christmas, but due to problems, the planes and gliders would not operate until the next day. This Carrier Command was Ray's outfit and that day Ray would pilot the C-47. The command had three wings, the 50th, the 53rd and the 52nd. The first two wings served with the airborne troops at Normandy where Ray had part of the action. On the 26th, Ray was in one of the 301 planes that flew, along with 11 gliders, on the re-supply mission. They lost one plane.

However, this loss was compensated by the gliders which brought in 736 rounds of the 155mm ammunition that would easily take care of the large German Tiger tanks. The next day, there were 164 planes; 13 were downed by flak. In summary, almost a hundred men were lost out of this command during the re-supply flights from the 22nd through the 27th. Nineteen planes were lost, 211 damaged (50 seriously). After showing this bond of comradeship, the Bastards of Bastogne would be off rations and throwing a lot of hell in the direction of the Germans.

Let's look at Ray's trips into this inferno. After a long trip from England, Rays's flight was required to approach the drop zone along a prescribe glide path following the other planes. At the desired height and moment, his crew would drop the packages by chute precisely on target. This had to be professional and accurate, or else the Germans would get the packages.

On an early flight over Bastogne, Ray's plane dropped canisters by chute stuffed with overcoats taken from our soldiers in England for our men in the snow on the miserable front lines. The German AA batteries had a great advantage as they could see this flight approaching the city at a low level and were determined to choke off the supplies. On the 26th of December, Ray's plane approached the target, and the air was filled with German flak.

As his plane came into the drop zone it was tossed in air by shell bursts. It was eyeball to eyeball conflict, and our side didn't blink; as Ray pulled the nose of the C-47 up, he knew he had won and would live another day. But this was not all. On the return flight the steering handled with difficulty, and after they landed in England to pick up another load, a walk around the plane revealed the tail section was filled with holes. The Germans must have had bad eyesight because if the German gunner had led the plane by some 20 feet, Ray would have had a cockpit full of German steel.

As it was, Ray's plane joined the special group of 50 badly damage planes. There were no cowards on that mission: these pilots and crews were determined to give the Bastards of Bastogne on the ground the food and ammunition they needed to finish the job. Perhaps, we should think of Ray and his crew as one of the Flying Bastards of Bastogne, a distinction for that battle.

The Finale

By the end of February, after freeing Bastogne, the American front became a unified mass of armor and men driving the Germans out of Belgium and Luxemburg into Germany. The 82nd continued to fight through the Huertgen Forest, breaking through the famous Siegfried line in a move on the Ruhr River.

At this point in March, the division was taken off the front lines and given a well deserved rest at Rheims. Ray made some C-47 flights, but none noteworthy. Finally, as the end of the fighting neared, the 82nd was ordered to move near Cologne, Germany, and on April 5th crossed the Rhine River to occupy Cologne. Then, in the night of April 30th, a successful assault on the last bridgehead over the Elbe River was made by the 505 PRI Regiment (paratroops) of the 82nd Division. And the next day (1st of May), the 504 PRI Regiment (paratroops) of the 82nd moved into this fight. This outfit was followed by the 325 GIR Regiment (glidermen). Again Ray played his part by bringing in a glider loaded with troops to a perfect landing, playing out his last role in combat.

This last massive strike was too great for the Germans. On May 2nd M. General James M. Gavin of the 81st Airborne Division accepted the unconditional surrender of the entire 21st German Army with some 150,000 troops.

The war with Germany was over and Ray was going home at last! Soon the war with Japan would also be victorious. Ray had plenty of "combat points" to get on the "early out list," and with his Honorable Discharge papers, he stood in line for the next move by the Army; he was on one of the first ships to the States that brought these courageous veterans home. Sadly, we pay the greatest respects to our many comrades in arms who did not return to enjoy a happy family life and the fruits of freedom.

Lady luck had smiled on Ray; he had a central goal of finding his lost love, Edith, and went to her home town. The postmaster gladly gave our hero her new address, they were soon married, and they lived happy ever after in an ageless world resembling a fairy book story.

Dedicated to the family of Lt. Raymond Bean

Web sites with other information on glider pilots in WWII

http://www.pointvista.com/WW2GliderPilots/GliderInfantry.htm - A tribute to American combat glider pilots of World War II

http://www.normandy1944.com/anglais/frame_page_agenda.htm - A dedication to the Normandy invasion

http://www.assaultgliderproject.co.uk - The Assault Glider Association website. See the interior shot of the cockpit of a British Horsa glider.