Shiroku "Whitey" Yamamoto
442nd Antitank Company

Glider Training and D-Day Invasion

August 1944

The Antitank Company is detached from the 442nd RCT and trained to be glider infantry. After two weeks of tactical glider training near Rome, they participate in the D-Day invasion of southern France.

"Operation Dragoon" commences on August 15, 1944. With paratroopers securing fields for landing, 44 gliders make the dangerous attempt to land.

Their mission: hold the area until seaborne troops relieve them.

Detachment from 442nd

"The 442nd Antitank Company was detached from the 442nd after about two months of the battle, at the beginning. And we were pulled back down to Rome to go through the glider training for the southern French invasion which we took part, August 15."

For three weeks in the summer of 1944 the Antitank Company of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was stationed in the hills and towns outside Livorno, Italy. There weren’t many German tanks to destroy, so instead the men served as ration and litter bearers.

Then suddenly, on July 15, the Antitank Company was ordered to withdraw from the front line. The men didn’t find out why until several days later when they reached an airfield near Rome. They were attached to the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 1st Airborne Task Force.

Glider Training

Gliders were used to transport the 442nd RCT Antitank Company in the invasion of Southern France
Gliders were used to transport the 442nd RCT Antitank Company in the invasion of Southern France

"So we had the two or three weeks training down at the outskirts of Rome in the field. So we learned how to load the glider. The glider is just like a regular — almost like a small plane, but it’s big and bulky, square-shaped, motorless aircraft. The front portion, where you load — the cabin portion, where the glider pilot and co-pilot — that portion, the cabin of that, comes up and you can load your 57-[mm] British antitank gun on that, or a trailer full of ammunition, or you can load up a jeep, which is my case was jeep, and then a trailer with the supplies, you know. So each glider carries only one wagon with ammunition, a jeep, or that British pounder."

For two weeks they trained to be glider infantry. The Antitank Company spent many hours learning to load the gliders and to securely lash down the equipment.

"[G]lider is just a one-time mission. It’s made up, from my observation of the equipment, it’s just like a motorless aircraft. It’s made of canvas, aluminum tubing, and light wood materials. So when that one mission is done, that glider is useless. Of course, it’s all damaged already. And, from what I was told, one glider at that time cost $18,000 a piece (chuckles)."

The body of the glider was 48 feet long and 12 feet high - just large enough to fit a jeep, or a trailer filled with ammunition, or a British six-pound antitank gun. The Waco CG-4A gliders were made of metal tubing, canvas and wood. They had no motor, no armor and no armaments.

Two pilots from the First Airborne manned each cockpit, and three to six men from the Antitank Company rode inside. The men completed two training glider flights over Rome.

Glider fuselage
The glider fuselage is the central body of an aircraft, to which thewings and tail assembly are attached. It also accommodates the crew,passengers and cargo.

Invasion / Deployment

"So we had forty-four gliders crossing over for that southern France invasion. And we had DC-3 aircraft, or the Douglas DC-3 aircraft, or I may call it C-47 — and that aircraft will pull two gliders. And the linkage between the aircraft, C-47, is hooked on to the tail end of that ship. And our glider is attached to the cabin overhead — what you call that? — catch. So the C-47 will pull the two gliders across the ocean to Le Muy where we were released. And to release the glider from the C-47, the pilot or the co-pilot would reach overhead and would pull that lever, and that releases the …nylon rope. It’s just about this round. Nylon rope is very strong. And it stretches.

So when the plane takes off, it stretches, and when it comes to the end of the stretch, then it pulls up in the air. And when we cross over to southern France, Le Muy, that’s close by Marseilles, then the pilot or the co-pilot releases that catch and the C-47 aircraft will be gone, and we have to come down on the ground on our own. So whoever comes down first, he gets the chance to land wherever he wants to land, and the rest of them, I guess, no choice, (chuckles) you have to go in, because aircraft not going to be up there, it’s going to be coming down, right?"

On August 15, “Operation Dragoon,” the invasion of Southern France began. At 6 a.m., the paratroopers left. Their job was to secure the landing fields for the glider-borne troops. At 4 p.m., 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 tug planes took off, towing the gliders 350 feet behind. The gliders bounced and jerked on an 11/16-inch thick nylon rope. The 44 gliders flew from Northern Italy over the Ligurian Sea. The men looked down on the seaborne troops plowing through the water toward the French coast.

As the men approached the green fields around Le Muy, they could see many colorful parachutes lying on the ground, like giant yellow, red and blue morning glories. They also were greeted by bursts of anti-aircraft flak. The tail of one glider was hit.

The name “Operation Dragoon” was supposedly picked by Winston Churchill, who was opposed to the plan and claimed to having been "dragooned" into accepting it.

"And the Germans were smart, too, they had about ten-foot pole, or about fifteen-foot pole, with cables holding up the poles. And they knew just about where we were going to land, and they must have studied, that’s what’s going to happen."

As [the gliders] got closer to the ground, they found that the terrain was not as they had been briefed. They hadn’t counted on the high hedges or “Rommel’s Asparagus.” German Field Marshal Rommel had ordered that thousands of wooden poles be erected in open fields to impede glider landings. The spiked poles were about four inches in diameter, 10–feet-tall, and were criss-crossed with barbed wire. Many poles were mounted with Teller Mines, which exploded on impact.

Glider cockpit
The glider cockpit is where the pilots were accommodated.

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"Hopefully, the pilot will be able to find a little space that can be safe enough to land safely. But all of us, we got involved, all of — some of the guys are not that bad, but others landed on the tree, and couple of them got killed, especially the glider pilot. Yeah, because one of them, well, they couldn’t just push forward, it wasn’t fully secured. So coming down, naturally, sloping down, I guess he’s trying to avoid the enemy, probably have the opportunity to shoot us down, right? Because we’re all coming in. So they landed on the tree and then I guess the pilots were crushed from the equipment that was on the backside. So that’s what happened. And a couple of boys became casualties, too."

At 3,000 feet, instead of the prescribed 100 feet, the gliders were cut off from the tug planes. As the unarmed, motor-less, fabric-covered gliders hurtled toward the ground, the pilots tried to adjust the angle of entry. But the landing area was limited, and the pilots would only have one chance to decide where to land.

One glider crashed into a tree. Both glider pilots broke their legs from the impact. Their cargo, a jeep, was totaled. Fortunately the 28 ropes lashed to the jeep, though shredded, had held.

Two other glider pilots weren’t as lucky. The steepness and force of the landing cut all the ropes and the gliders’ contents shifted forward. The jeep broke free, smashed into the cockpit and instantly killed the pilots.

Nine men from the Antitank Company were injured during the landing. There were many glider pilot casualties. The men tried to help the pilots, but they were ordered to immediately unload their equipment and go to their gathering point.

At 3,000 feet, instead of the prescribed 100 feet, the gliders were cut off from the tug planes. As the unarmed, motor-less, fabric-covered gliders hurtled toward the ground, the pilots tried to adjust the angle of entry.

Shiroku
Shiroku "Whitey" Yamamoto reunited with Frank and Red of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Touet de L’Escarene, France. September 1944.

"Paratroopers would go down, they don’t have heavy equipment, they have strictly rifles, paratroopers. So they would go down and establish, so that we could come in, because we were heavy equipment, like the 57-mm British antitank guns. So we would be able to take care of any advance of the German tanks that come toward us. So we were sent over for that particular mission, is to have that antitank guns available, in case the enemy sends in the tanks, and we would be able to be in position to repel the tanks’ advances."

As one team of Antitank men marched toward their objective, they were saddened to see 15 dead paratroopers. The Nisei had good relationships with the “jumpers,” who invited them to a party the previous night. But thanks to the jumpers, the Antitank Company didn’t encounter any enemy attacks. The men set up their guns in less than an hour, and some units did reconnaissance. 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 Antitank Company guarded the exposed right flank of the 7th Army and gave antitank protection to the 517th Parachute Infantry. It also cleared mines, captured Germans, and guarded roads and tunnels.

As one team of Antitank men marched toward their objective, they were saddened to see 15 dead paratroopers. . . . But thanks to the jumpers, the Antitank Company didn’t encounter any enemy attacks.

Rejoining the 442nd

On October 20 the Antitank 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 received a Combat Infantryman’s Badge and were the only unit in the 442nd to receive the Glider Badge (the Southern France Campaign Glider Badge with Assault Star and Bronze Arrowhead).

Whitey Yamamoto's interview reprinted courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Whitey Yamamoto. Historical information courtesy of Go For Broke National Education Center.

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