“The intrepid pilots who flew the gliders were as unique as their
motorless flying machines. Never before in history had any
nation produced aviators whose duty it was deliberately to crash
land and then go on to fight as combat infantrymen. They were
no ordinary fighters. Their battlefields were behind enemy lines.”
“Every landing was a genuine do-or- die situation for the glider
pilots. It was their awesome responsibility to repeatedly risk their
lives by landing heavily laden aircraft containing combat soldiers
and equipment in unfamiliar fields deep within enemy held territory,
often in total darkness. They were the only aviators during World
War II who had no motors, no parachutes, and no second chances.”
General William C. Westmoreland, U.S. Army, Retired
My grandfather, Irwin “Hap” Kaufman, was a World War II glider pilot. He proudly served the United States of America in Burma during World War II. Burma, which is now called Myanmar, was the link between India and China. It was partially occupied in the north by the Japanese. The allied forces wanted to control the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre because they thought that it might offer a shortcut to Tokyo. They thought that Gliders might be used to land behind Japanese lines and bring supplies and men to build landing strips for airplanes to bring in supplies. Kaufman flew one of these missions in 1944 and this is his story.
Hap Kaufman was born in Los Angeles in 1917. He lived with his Mom, Dad and sister in the L.A. area while he was growing up. Kaufman was an excellent student and after high school, he went to college at the University of Southern California. After graduating from USC, he started work as a radio announcer for KFWB in Los Angeles. When the United States got involved in World War II, Kaufman was drafted or, as he would say, “dragged by the neck” into serving in the U.S. Army.
Kaufman did his Basic Training at Fort MacArthur in Los Angeles, California. Basic training lasted six weeks. Kaufman described it as “something that you would not wish upon your worst enemy.” During basic training, the men had to get health scans and many shots, learn about all the different Army procedures and rules, and learn how to march in rank and file. They were given a serial number and told that they had to follow all orders and serve the United States.
After basic training, Kaufman was sent to work at the base hospital at March Field in Riverside, California. After about 6 months, Kaufman thought this job was boring and when a recruiter for the new Army Glider Corps asked for volunteers, he raised his hand. They accepted Kaufman into the Corps and sent him for flight training all around the U.S.A. Kaufman did some pilot training in North Carolina at Johnson Field. He also trained in southern Texas and Louisville, Kentucky. Kaufman said that when he joined the Glider Corps, he was made an officer because all pilots were officers. Kaufman said that flight training was interesting and that he enjoyed a lot of down time playing cards with the other pilots. He learned to play bridge at a very early age from his Mom. This made him an excellent card player and he won a lot of money during the down time in his pilot training. He was trained, as both a normal pilot and a Glider pilot, during his flight training. In order to get pilot wings, each pilot had to fly a minimum of forty hours. In order to keep their officer status they had to keep practicing and logging flight hours.
Kaufman had some interesting stories about flying gliders and airplanes. During his flight training, Kaufman was flying in a glider tandem. That means two gliders were being pulled by one C-47 cargo plane. The glider plane that was on the left was supposed to detach first (Kaufman’s plane) and the plane on the right was supposed to detach second. Kaufman said, the scariest moment in his training was when the plane on the right detached before him, and the tow cable wrapped around his glider wings and tore it off. Kaufman then had to fly the plane in circles to land the broken glider. Luckily, he landed safely and could continue his pilot training.
Another one of Kaufman’s scary moments was when his officer in command at the airbase in Louisville, Kentucky asked him to fly over the Kentucky Derby and film the race. He was flying the plane and the cameraman was strapped into the back of the plane behind him. When Kaufman was looking over his shoulder at the race, he saw something flash by him. It turned out to be another airplane flying over the race. Kaufman was within 45 feet of the other plane and almost had a head on collision.
At a different airbase, some of his friends wanted to go flying because they all needed to log a certain amount of hours. Four planes took off, and headed off together. They spotted a train, and dove down and started to fly next to it. They were flying alongside the train, waving to people, when the lead plane peeled off when Kaufman wasn’t looking. Kaufman almost flew right into him. He was very terrified that he might have run right into his friend’s plane. All of the planes made it safely back to the airbase, and Kaufman continued with his flight training.
Kaufman’s scariest moment of his pilot career was when he was assigned to fly in combat in Burma and crash land in enemy territory. This is the mission that he and the other glider pilots had trained for. The Army needed to build airplane runways behind Japanese lines in Burma. The idea was to load the glider planes with men and baby bulldozers, so that they could land silently and then build airstrips for the airplanes to land. The thing that was so scary, he said, was that he had a mini bulldozer in the back of the glider. If he didn’t land perfectly, the bulldozer would fly through the cockpit into Kaufman.
The U.S. tried to land many of these gliders loaded with bulldozers in Burma, but most of them did not make it. Many glider pilots were killed. What the Army didn’t know about landing in Burma was that the tall grass had camouflaged fallen logs on the ground. So when the gliders tried to land, their fuselages were ripped into pieces. Kaufman flew on one of these missions, but he was lucky. He was able to land his glider safely. I was not able to ask him how he was able to get out of Burma because he was very emotional after telling me the story of how so many glider pilot friends did not make it back. He did tell me, that these glider missions were so dangerous that when the pilots from his mission got back, the Army cancelled the glider program and offered all the pilots early release. Kaufman said that this was the scariest thing he has ever done. I definitely believe him.
The Glider Program was important to the United States during World War II even though it was not very successful in Burma. The CG-4A gliders, which were the same gliders that Kaufman flew, were used for other types of missions during the war, including the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in 1944. During World War II, about 6,000 glider pilots were trained, and almost 14, 000 CG-4A gliders were built. 3,600 of the CG-4A gliders were actually used in combat. Almost all of them were destroyed I battle. The government estimates that glider pilot casualties were about 40%, but from Kaufman’s experience, the casualty rate was much higher.
When I asked Hap Kaufman whether he thought his war time service was a plus or a minus to his life, he said that it was both. He said no war is good, but that he felt that World War II was the only war fought in his lifetime that actually accomplished something. He said that he was proud to have served in the Army. From listening to Kaufman’s story, I could also tell that he had made friends in the Army and that it had been an important part of his life. His service in World War II was a disadvantage to Kaufman’s life though. He was just beginning his career in the radio business and had to put all of that on hold to go into the Army. Kaufman said that he had to work under many people in the Army who were not very good leaders, in his opinion, and that was frustrating to him. Overall, I think he would say that he was proud of his service to his country, and I am that I could tell his story.
As a conclusion, here are some words from Walter Cronkite, who flew into Holland on a CG-4A glider to report on the war: “If you have to go to war, don’t go in a glider!”
Interview by Alex Jacobson in June 2009.
St Mark’s School 8th Grade World War II Oral History Project
Faculty Advisor: Mike Fargo