Some of the most unsung heroes of World War 2 were the little known glider pilots. The glider pilots were trained to fly a combat glider on a one way mission, filled with troops or supplies to land behind enemy lines. The glider was pulled by a tow plane, usually a C-47, and if things went as planned they would land, safely delivering troops or cargo to the landing zone. Most times things did not go as planned. After landing, the glider pilot’s job was then to try to get back to their base by any means possible.
The glider pilots were also trained as infantry soldiers if the need arose, many times that was just the case. Sometimes the pilots would join together to form a separate combat unit. One glider mission, near the Rhine river in the spring of 45, a unit of exclusively glider pilots fought off a German force, the first time a unit made totally of Officers was to do so.
Of the 5000 trained glider pilots, half died in accidents or were killed in action.
This story is about one glider pilot who survived.
Pershing Carlson was born on Sep. 28th, 1918, and raised in Minot, North Dakota. He went to high school then collage, at Minot State and 2 years at Grand Forks University, studying pre-law. While in collage he decided to learn to fly by way of the civilian pilot program. When the war started Pershing decided to join the Air Corps, he was especially intrigued by the newly formed glider program and volunteered. He started his training and eventually found himself in Colorado, flying light powered aircraft. He moved on to bases in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico but still had not even seen a glider! Finally he got to a base in California and saw his first big glider, a Waco CG-4A. They started flying them and doing practice landings, many gliders were damaged and destroyed during this training and a number of pilots were injured and killed.
On July 10, 43, gliders were used in the invasion of Sicily. Gliders were released from the tow planes too early and were dropped in the ocean, drowning many pilots and soldiers in them. Gliders that did make it to land were spread over a large area and missed their landing zones. It was a disaster.
This almost put an end to the glider program. In an effort to keep it afloat, on Aug. 4, 43, all the Air Force top brass from General Arnold on down were invited to Laurinburg – Maxton Air Base in North Carolina. Demonstrations included aerial retrievals of gliders, blitz landings and ended with a very impressive night landing operation. The brass were impressed, the glider program was saved.
Pershing was still in the states and he was sent to Louisville, Kentucky for Commando training, something that was required of all glider pilots. It was here that he met Miss Selma Beasy who was working as a USO Entertainer. Selma joined the USO shortly after war was declared and she performed as a singer with the Bowman Field Bombardiers, the world famous Gene Kupa was their drummer. Many celebrities performed with the Bombardiers, among them, The Ink Spots and Tiny Hill.
Before Pershing was shipped overseas in January of 44, Selma and Pershing were married.
Pershing was shipped to England and he ended up in the 94th Glider Squadron, 439th Troop Carrier Group at Upottery Air Field. More training was in store until the Normandy invasion where Flight Officer Carlson flew his first combat mission. On D-day plus one, (June 7, 44) Pershing did not fly the American CG-4A Waco but instead was assigned to pilot one of the British Horsa Gliders. The Horsa was bigger and harder to handle than the American Waco glider and had a faster landing speed. Pershing, along with his co-pilot, carried an infantry communications unit into Normandy and successfully landed the Horsa.
Pershing’s next mission was August 15th for the invasion of southern France, aboard a Waco, flying in troops and equipment for operation Dragoon.
His third mission was September 17, Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands. Pershing flew without a copilot this time because of a shortage of glider pilots. Pershing’s Waco glider carried General James Gavin’s (who led the American Parachute
Forces) command jeep. During the landing, Pershing was wounded when he was shot through his left hand by ground fire.
While he was recovering, the 439th TCG was moved to Chateaudun, France, south east of Paris. When Pershing was able to return to duty, he started flying as third pilot on C-47 supply missions, hauling supplies for Patton’s forces. This was very strenuous duty as they flew almost around the clock.
Pershing was most relieved when he was picked to fly a glider into Bastogne during the Battle of the bulge. He was anxious to complete his glider missions. This would be his fourth mission and after flying one more (5), he would have finished his tour and would have been able to rotate back to the states. Flying into Bastogne was considered somewhat of a milk run, it had been done the day before and all the gliders had made it in without much trouble. Unknown to the glider pilots and tug crews, the Germans had moved in a lot of antiaircraft guns on the approach to the landing area.
On December 27th, 1944, 50 C-47s (37 from the 439th TCG and 13 from the 440th TCG) pulled 50 CG-4A gliders, all from the 439th. They took off from the Chateaudun Airfield.
As the tugs and gliders got within 30 miles to Bastogne, Pershing noticed a lot of black smoke coming from the area and he suddenly got a bad feeling about the mission. As they got closer, a lot of ground fire started to come up. When they got within 10 miles of Bastogne, the tugs and gliders came under a withering fire from the German antiaircraft guns. One by one the tug and glider combinations were shot down. Sweat beaded up on Pershing’s forehead, his glider was carrying a load of 135mm artillery shells. The last thing loaded back at the base had been a box of explosive primers for the shells. Put these in a safe place they had said. Pershing was flying without a co-pilot again so he put the box of primers right next to him on the co-pilot’s seat. He had taken off his flak jacket and along with the unused copilot flak jacket, had wrapped them around the box. Pershing knew that if one shell got through to the primers, it would be all over.
When they were about 6 miles from Bastogne, Pershing saw his tug plane hit almost simultaneously by three bursts of flak and both engines caught fire. He was reaching for the release handle just as his glider was hit, tearing the nose section away under his feet and wounding him in the right ankle. Pershing reached for the handle again and succeeded in detaching himself from the flaming C-47 as his glider was hit again by a burst above him that sent pieces of metal into his neck, shoulders and back. The glider was hit by another burst and Pershing thought for a split second about jumping out the gaping hole under his feet but by then he was only about 200 ft high and thought he’d better ride it in. He quickly found a clearing and the glider touched down in the soft snow and slowed to a stop. The glider was on fire and now the fire started to engulf the gliders wooden flooring. Knowing he had just seconds before the artillery rounds started to go off, Pershing dove out of the glider but his chest parachute opened up, spilling out in front of him. Pershing struggled out of the harness and started to run. He had gotten several hundred feet from the glider when he dropped down on his belly and started to crawl. Just then the artillery shells started to cook off with massive explosions, sending shrapnel flying inches over his head. Pershing got to a thickly wooded area and found a place to hide. As he peered from his hiding place a German half track pulled up and several German soldiers got out and looked over the smoldering wreckage. They saw the burned parachute in what was left of the glider. They must have thought the pilot was killed so they got back in the halftrack and drove away.
Pershing had grabbed his bag when he got out of the glider, inside was some chocolate bars and what was left of a fruitcake his wife had sent him for Christmas. He moved into a heavily wooded area, the wind was blowing and quickly covered up his tracks in the snow. Pershing found a large evergreen and burrowed in under the heavy foliage of the lower branches next to the trunk where it was fairly dry and free of snow.
The new Mrs. Selma Carlson had left Lewisville by train on her way to Minot ND after Pershing was sent overseas. She was going to live with Pershing’s parents (whom she had never met) to wait out her husbands return. The 2 day train trip to Minot was on the Empire Builder with a load of soldiers headed for the west coast. Selma became fast friends with these soldiers on the way to Minot. When she finally got off the train at the Minot depot at 10:30 in the evening, all the soldiers were hanging out the open windows, waving, and bidding her goodbye. She returned the waves and yelled above the noise of the train “Goodbye boys” and “good-luck”. Selma turned to her in-laws waiting for her on the platform. They met her with a stern and unsmiling greeting. They were of very conservative Swedish stock and didn’t know what to make of this new daughter-in-law who was carrying on in such a way with all those soldiers. Selma had made a very bad first impression! Soon, however, they all became better acquainted and things went along just fine. Selma was born and raised in Kentucky and it was quite a shock to come to wide open North Dakota with its cold and snow. The next morning after she had arrived, she stepped outside and was very concerned when her nostrils froze shut. Mr. Carlson said “Well you know, it’s 30 below” Selma asked “30 below what?” She had never heard that term before!
As Selma got settled in, she eventually made many friends in Minot. She got to be good friends with Micki Saunders. Her husband owned the Saunders’ Drug Store in Minot and Micki gave Selma chocolate bars to send overseas to Pershing. Mr. Carlson introduced Selma to a family friend, the well known North Dakota Senator, Bill Langer. Senator Langer would call Selma, “His Kentucky Belle”.
Selma, due to her singing experience with the USO, landed a job with a local radio station in Minot, KLPM. She had her own show called, “Selma’s Serenade”, with Dick Dickerson, who played piano. Gabriel Heater, the war correspondent, came on right after Selma’s show. He was famous for starting his newscast by saying, “Ah, there’s bad news tonight” or “…… there’s good news tonight”.
Soon after Pershing was shot down in Belgium, a telegram was sent to the Pershing home. Mr. Carlson had told Selma many times, if anything ever happened to Pershing, “Don’t tell Mrs. Carlson”. Selma got the telegram and read it. It said Pershing was missing in action. Mrs. Carlson asked what it was about? Closing the telegram and trying hard to keep her composure, Selma lied, saying it was a telegram for Mr. Carlson about the Public Service Commission where he worked. Later that evening, when Mr. Carlson come home, Selma gave him the telegram. He then broke the news to Mrs. Carlson. Mrs. Carlson was quite upset with Selma for not telling her. Selma and her in-laws waited for the other shoe to drop, the second telegram that would say Pershing was dead. They prayed this telegram would never come.
Pershing waited in his shelter. He was sure the Allied forces would soon overrun the Germans and he would be rescued. He heard a lot of small arms fire and artillery but had no idea what was happening. Pershing ate his fruitcake and candy bars, ate snow to quench his thirst. Pershing was dressed very warm but as he lay in his shelter the bitter cold crept through his clothing and chilled him to the bone. He was also very weak from loss of blood. Pershing’s cake and chocolates ran out by the second day, several times he heard and saw German solders laying mines near his hiding place so he dared not move or make a fire. Pershing stayed put for 4 days and on the fifth day, cold, hungry and weak, he knew he had to make a decision. He felt he could not live another night in his shelter so he crawled out, come what may. He started walking west. Pershing had high hopes that perhaps he would run into an American patrol. Only after walking several hundred yards, he looked up to see a very young German soldier. The soldier brought up his rifle and fired twice. Pershing heard the bullets snap as they passed within inches of his head. Pershing threw up his arms and was captured. With his hands on his head, followed by the German with his gun pointed at his back, Pershing was marched into the headquarters tent of a German military unit that was holding another American prisoner, an artillery Sergeant. Pershing and the Sergeant spent several days as prisoners of German clerks and typists. They were treated very well, given food and medical attention. At one point, a heavy fire fight broke out and all the headquarters personnel left their paperwork, grabbed rifles and ran out. This left the 2 Americans all by themselves! They were not being guarded so they could have easily slipped away in the confusion. They made a quick decision. With all the firing going on, they thought it safest to lay flat on the floor and wait for the Americans to overrun the position, which they were bound to do, and rescue them.
Things did not go as they had hoped, the Americans were beaten back and the headquarters personnel returned.
Soon, Pershing and the Sergeant were marched away from the front to where the Germans were holding several hundred American prisoners, getting them ready to move into Germany. All the prisoners who were Officers, were gathered together. The Germans said there was transport arranged for the non-ambulatory wounded and for the Officers. However, one Officer would have to stay with the noncom prisoners that were to walk.
The Officers consisted of one Major, a couple Captains and a dozen or so Lieutenants, all regular army, infantry and artillery Officers. Pershing was lowest rank of them all, a lowly Air Corp Flight Officer.
The American Major looked at the other Officers, his gaze fell on Pershing. He pointed at Pershing and said, “Fight Officer, you will stay with the enlisted”. Here is Pershing Carlson, an Officer pilot who has never commanded men, being ordered to take control of several hundred personnel on a march, so the Major and the other regular army Officers could ride. Pershing did not remember the Major’s name but he never forgot his face or forgave him for his cowardly decision.
The men were given some food before they started walking and they thought the march wouldn’t last more than a couple of days. There were about 300 prisoners in all and no food was given to them for the rest of the journey. The march lasted for 22 days, all the way to Frankfurt. Around 100 men died before the march was over (some of these may have escaped during the march). On the way they had to do the best they could, surviving on frozen potatoes and turnips along the road that had bounced off trucks. Things got much worse as the march continued, men were so weak and many had pneumonia. Most nights the prisoners had no shelter and every morning some of the prisoners would be dead. Pershing remembered one night some of them were able to find shelter in a barn. The barn was connected right on to the farmhouse. In this barn were several milk cows and a couple of the prisoners were so hungry that they were trying to milk a cow. All the sudden the door to the house came open and an old German farmer came in and caught them. He did not get mad but went and got some potato soup and apples for the prisoners. Pershing did not know German but was able to talk to the farmer in Swedish. Pershing said, this man’s kindness will never be forgotten. Other times along the march, German civilians would give food to the prisoners and would be berated by the guards for doing so. Not all the civilians were kind to the prisoners, especially in the larger cities that had been bombed. When the marchers got to the bombed out railroad station at Frankfurt, they were met by a large group of women who had just got off their shift, working in a factory. The women stood and stared at the prisoners, then one picked up a brick from the rubble of the bombed out buildings and threw it at the prisoners. It wasn’t long before all the women were picking up bricks and throwing them. If it were not for the guards, many of the prisoners would have been stoned to death. The guards fired over the women’s heads and made them stop. After getting out of Frankfurt, they ended up in the interrogation center. Pershing had quite a hard time there. He would state his name, rank and serial number. Believe it or not, but Pershing’s serial number was 001111. When he would say, “one, one, one, one”. The Germans would get mad and say, “No, your real number! Around and around they went. Pretty soon Pershing almost just made up a number to give them but thought better of it in the end. After interrogation, Pershing was loaded on a train with other prisoners which was hazardous due to the railroads being targeted by air attacks. This happened several times. One time they were in a railway yard that was under attack. Pershing could see through the slats in the boxcars, fires raging all around them. They were saved by German civilians pushing the boxcars out of the yards by hand.
They finally got to Stalag Luft I at Barth, located north of Berlin. The camp was very overcrowded, holding many more POWs than it was designed for and food was very scarce. Red Cross parcels were a God send, many POWs would have died from starvation if it were not for the parcels. Due to the long march and lack of food, Pershing was very weak and he came down with yellow jaundice. He was put in the camp hospital which was little more then another barracks, no medicine or better food, just a little warmer then the other buildings. An English Doctor there did what he could with what little he had to help the sick prisoners. Pershing was so weak he just laid in one of the bunks, he hardly had the energy to eat. One of the patients in the hospital happened to be from Fargo ND. He got a package from home and it had several packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes. He gave Pershing one whole pack. Pershing smoked one cigarette after another, all twenty, tell they were gone, and it made him feel a little better. He then ate burnt potatoes the doctor gave him and little by little he got better and regained his strength. Pershing credited the cigarettes and the charcoal on the potatoes in getting him well again.
Pershing said he got to know several of the English prisoners in the camp. He couldn’t get over how well versed in American history they were, the Civil War etc… Pershing enjoyed history and it was interesting talking to them, although many times they knew much more about American history then the Americans did! The Americans enjoyed playing records that were broadcast over the camp speakers, the English just loathed the country western records they played, they thought they were just awful!
Later in the spring of 45, rumbles started to be heard far east of the camp. It was the Russian artillery and as the days passed by the sounds of battle got closer. During morning roll call formation the POWs started taking up a chant….Come on Joe, come on Joe, come on Joe. The Germans were at first very puzzled as to what this meant. When they realized it referred to the Russians they were very upset.
With the Russians approaching, the camp was prepared for evacuation. The American Senior Officers of the camp, Colonel Hub Zemke and Lt. Colonel Francis Gabreski, told the German Commandant that they were going to stay put. If the Germans tried to force a march, Zemke said he had ordered the 9000 prisoners to overwhelm the camp guards with rocks and clubs. The Commandant decided to avoid any bloodshed and marched his own men out, leaving the camp to the prisoners. On May 2nd, the Russians reached the camp. Pershing remembered wagons, ridden by men and women soldiers, pulled by horses, filled with German loot. Pulled behind the wagon would be an artillery piece. The whole Russian caravan moved very slowly. When the Russians got into Barth, the civilian population was attacked mercilessly and the town was looted. For 10 days the prisoners were under control of the Russians, there was talk of the prisoners being marched to Odessa under Russian guard. On May eighth, VE day, the prisoners celebrated by burning the guard towers. One of Pershing’s friends walked into Barth to look around. While there, a Russian soldier came up to him and in broken English, said he needed his help. In the jail they had some men in American uniforms. The Russians suspected they were Germans. Pershing’s friend went to see them. Not one of them knew a word of English. He told the Russians they were imposters. The Russians immediately put them up against the wall and shot them! Pershing’s friend was sorry he had told the Russians that they were not Americans.
The morning of May 12, the prisoners were told to be ready to leave by 3 in the afternoon. Pershing couldn’t believe it. They were marched several miles to the airfield at Barth where B-17s started landing to fly the prisoners out. Pershing was eventually flown out and ended up at Camp Luck Strike in France to be processed.
Unknown to the prisoners, at the same moment the planes were landing at Barth, a renegade Russian General, Andrei Vlasov who had been fighting on the Germans side against Stalin, who was in custody of the Americans, was being turned over to the Russians. If it were not for this exchange, the Russians may never have allowed the American prisoners to be evacuated by air.
The Carlson family had been waiting all winter and spring for word on Pershing. Finally, in May, just a couple days before victory in Europe, they got a telegram. It said Pershing was alive and in a German POW camp.
At the time Selma was working as a secretary for JC Lund, Superintendent of the Minot Hospital. There was a salesman in Mr. Lund’s office when the telegram was brought to Selma. Selma burst into tears of joy and ran in to the office, showing off the telegram to Mr. Lund. When Selma left the office, both the salesman and Mr. Lund had tears in their eyes.
Pershing Carlson finally made it home in July of 1945.
Pershing and Selma made their home in Minot and raised three children, later they moved to Mandan ND.
Pershing passed away on Sep. 17, 2002
After World War 2, the glider program was discontinued.
SOURCES: Personal interview with Selma Carlson, taped interview of Pershing Carlson – KRIEGIELAND, Conversations with Ex-POWs – University of North Dakota. Books: Silent Wings by Gerard M. Devlin, A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan, The Last Escape by John Nichol and Tony Rennell, Untold Valor by Rob Morris.