Aug 06, 2023
by: Matt Jaworowski Posted: Jun 6, 2023 / 04:30 AM EDT Updated: Jun
by: Matt Jaworowski
Posted: Jun 6, 2023 / 04:30 AM EDT
Updated: Jun 6, 2023 / 09:26 AM EDT
GREENVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — Tuesday marks 79 years since D-Day, the Allies’ famous invasion of Normandy, France, that established the western front and is considered one of the major turning points in World War II.
Operation Overlord was massive in scope. It is considered the largest amphibious invasion in military history. The mission included 7,000 ships and landing craft.
While the fact is not firmly settled, many historians believe one of Greenville's "Fighting Falcons" was the first to touch down in Normandy.
Gliders like the Fighting Falcon were manufactured in Greenville. A partially rebuilt glider, including some original parts, now sits proudly inside the city's Fighting Falcon Military Museum. Jerry Krick, the treasurer of the museum, explained that, like many companies across the country, Greenville's Gibson Refrigerator Co. switched gears during the war, doing their part to help in the fight.
"(Gibson) received a contract to build gliders and they didn't know anything about it," Krick told News 8. "They went out and hired an aeronautical engineer. He came in and they had literally bedsheet-sized blueprints and they started making gliders."
While Gibson brought in design help, the company received the contracts because of its manpower, skills and materials. The company had several other military contracts, including deals to manufacture wing flaps, fuel tanks, parachute flares and bomb casings.
But it wasn't just Gibson that got the gliders off the ground, it was the hard work and generosity of the entire community.
"(To cover the costs of a glider), the Class of 1943 at Greenville High School set out to raise $17,000 by selling war bonds. They actually ended up making around $72,000, enough to buy four," Krick said. "So, as part of the promotion, the government had them name it and then they had a presentation at Black Field."
The glider is 48 feet long with a wingspan of 84 feet, yet still weighs only 3,750 pounds. The central part of the frame is made of metal, but the rest is constructed with wood and built with the sole focus of keeping the weight light. One-half of the restored glider is finished, including the cloth exterior and the Fighting Falcons’ logo. The other is unfinished, showing the delicate woodwork that is neatly fastened together.
Gibson gliders were surprisingly versatile. Usually, they were used to transport troops. There would be two pilots, a lieutenant and his 12 troops, sitting six to each side, crammed along wooden benches along with their packs, weapons and ammo. They could also be reconfigured to carry a Jeep. Other times, the gliders were fitted with mounted machine guns.
Krick explains it was not a comfortable ride.
"There was no bathroom and there was no heat," he said.
Heading to Normandy, a Fighting Falcon took the lead and carried some special cargo: Brigadier General Don Pratt. It carried a Jeep and five men — two pilots, a Jeep driver, Pratt and his aide.
By approximately 4 a.m., the Falcon had reached its landing zone approximately two miles west of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, near "Utah Beach."
Although silent, military leaders knew the gliders — approaching at around 500 feet — would be susceptible to ground fire. To combat that, the glider was modified with steel armored plates. However, the added weight and several other factors eventually led to tragedy.
A historian with Arlington National Cemetery says pilot, Lt. Col. Mike Murphy, made a "textbook landing" and locked the brakes. However, the glider struggled to stop because of the added weight and the dewy grass. They slid more than 700 feet, ultimately crashing into a row of tall trees.
Murphy and Pratt's aide, 1st Lt. Lee May, were the only two to survive the crash. Pratt, who was riding in the Jeep, reportedly died of a broken neck suffered because of the crash's violent impact. Krick says that was part of the risk of using a glider. While effective, pilots and passengers are traveling at high speeds with minimal control.
"You’re going to go where the tug goes. There's no motor. The radio is a handheld radio. They have a couple of gauges for side orientation, front, back, left and right. There's a wind speed gauge. But if you look at the gauges, they are minimal," Krick said.
The Fighting Falcon is just one of several exhibits that make up the museum. Situated inside the old four-room schoolhouse on Cass Street, the museum includes artifacts from Gibson Refrigerator and other World War II artifacts. It also tells the story of several Greenville natives who fought proudly for their country.
Krick was among them. He served in the Marine Corps for three years including a stint in Vietnam. He has been with the museum for around 10 years now and has helped curate its Vietnam exhibit.
The museum also includes exhibits dedicated to recent world conflicts, including Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq, and artifacts dating back to the American Civil War.
The Fighting Falcon Military Museum is open from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Sundays between April and November.
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