Warriors in their Own Words

Remarkable stories of war told by the men who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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Capt. James Penninger: Glider Pilot on D-Day

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Captain James Penninger served in World War Two as a glider pilot. He fought in the Invasion of Normandy, and was the first glider to cross the Rhine River.

During WWII, glider planes were used to carry ground troops, and sometimes a jeep, into enemy territory. Regular planes dragged these gliders via a rope, which was cut over enemy territory at the release point. The glider kept flying, to hopefully find a clear landing zone behind enemy lines. Since the gliders were flimsy, designed for a single flight, and always sent into enemy territory, flying them was a notoriously dangerous job.

To learn more about glider pilots during World War Two, visit ww2gp.org.

Ken Harbaugh:

Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.

I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Today, we’ll hear from Captain James Peninger. Peninger served in WWII as a glider pilot, and fought in the Invasion of Normandy. Glider planes were towed by regular, powered planes via a rope, which was eventually cut in the air, allowing the gliders to fly into enemy territory. The gliders often carried ground troops and sometimes a jeep.

Cpt. James A. Peninger:

I had my private pilot's license in a small airplane, and when the war broke out, I was 31 years old and I hoped of becoming a pilot for the US Army, US Air Force, and I learned that I was too old, and the instructor told me, "You have two choices, being a liaison pilot or a glider pilot." Well, I knew what a liaison pilot was. He was just carried messages from one general to another or one command to another one. But I said, "The glider pilot is something to be looked at because it was a compromise thing and it was also a challenge, and I've always liked a challenge." So he said, "Well, the best thing for you to do, you don't have time to get 200 hours to go as a private pilot." And I knew I didn't have because I was coming to the point of being drafted into the US Army, and I chose to be a glider pilot, and I told him so, and he said, "Well, go down to the post office in Shreveport, to the recruiting officer, and tell him what you want to do," which I did. And he said, "Well, I've never heard of a glider pilot." I said, "Well, there is one." So he got on his telephone and call Washington and found out that there was one, and he put my name in to become a glider pilot.

Well, it took about two weeks until I was confirmed, and one day before I was to report to the draft board, and he was very tickled. The fact that he was able to take my orders that come to him over the teletype. And with me in hand, went over to the draft board and was waving the paper in front of the officers over there, so he called him some kind of a dirty name, but I'm not going to say what it was. And he said, "Well, you beat me to him." Then he said, "Yes, I did, and I'll beat you some more." Well, he said, "You are going to Pineville, Louisiana in the morning on a train to Camp Beauregard," which I did. Pouring down rain for three to four days.

After I got to Camp Beauregard walked into the office there and told him I was a glider pilot. He said, "You are what?" I said, "A glider pilot." He says, "There is such thing?" I said, "Oh yes, there is too. I'm one." He said, "Well, let me find out something about this. Let's go out there and find you a place to sleep in one of those wet tents out there." And that was wet and muddy and cold. It was cool for July. Now July the 1st, 1942.

And anyway, time passed on three days. They finally called me and told me that I had been confirmed and that I was going to Randolph field, which I did the next day on a plane. That's how I became a glider pilot. No one even knew what one was. I didn't know what to do, but I knew that I was not going to be a ground soldier, a walking soldier. I didn't want that. I wanted to fly and the only thing I could fly was a glider or a liaison. And I told you I do not want to be that.

Well from Randolph field. I stayed there for about a month, and I was a very amusing little story if you'd like to hear it. I only weighed 123 pounds and the officer in charge of admitting there at Randolph said I had to weigh 126 before I could even become a glider pilot. So I said, "What am I going to do?" He said, "Well, if I was you, come back Monday morning, but Sunday go downtown and get you a dozen bananas. And when you get up..." He said, "Don't go to the bathroom and under conditions and start eating bananas on the way over here and I'll weigh you as soon as you get here." Well, I ate nine of the 12 bananas, and I couldn't eat anymore. And I hope, knocked on these doors. He says, "Come on in. You're ready to scales now." He said, "Pull off your pants and your shirt, leave your underclothes on and leave your shoes on, so we'll weigh them too." Put me on the scale, 126. I didn't weigh 126, but that's what he said. He said the bathroom was right down the road. Hope it all okay.

It all began with every glider pilot on his first station. Like mine, it was Okmulgee, Oklahoma. And we were all greeted by a full colonel. And he says, "All of you people, now you are going into a glider training and I want to tell you now that a glider is very good airplane, but at the same time, it's excusable." And he said, "That means you as well as anybody else in the glider." In other words, we were condemned before we ever got in one. Everybody in it was expendable together with the glider. And they gave us a very bitter feeling to feel that we were as one piece of dirty rag. You had to control your own temper from then on. Because everywhere we went, we were glider pilots, and we were not treated too well.

You have to be knowledgeable of the flight angles of the glider that you're in and the distance between you and the ground, and you and the place where you're going to stop. They've all three got to come together and coalesce in order for you to bring that glider down and make a three-point landing in it. And I've done that lots of times. I learned that because I did have very good peripheral vision and turned out to be a pretty good pilot. I never did have trouble landing one, not even at night. I don't know why, but I didn't.

I was afraid. I was scared. Anybody that said they’re not, they’re stupid. But I was afraid because I was flying, of course, a glider, which was the English glider. And that glider fully loaded with everybody, and it weighed 16,846 pounds. I have the manifest at home. I can prove that without any problem. That's what it weighed.

And when we took off from our landing field, when my pilot and I, it was Max Sanchez, we couldn't get off the ground because the airplane couldn't get up enough speed. And we kept trying to bounce the glider into the air and it wouldn't bounce. And we saw the end of the runway coming up and we finally struggled into the air just very, very slowly. And then the two pilot that was pull towing us, he came off the ground about five inches and he retracted his landing gear, and they gave him an additional eight miles an hour. And he clipped the tops of the trees as he went over them. And we went on to Normandy and then landed. I went between Utah Beach and the other beach- is two of them there.



Cpt. James A. Peninger:

Omaha, and we were between them. And I can remember telling Max, I said, "Max, look below you. That's the most beautiful thing I believe I ever saw, more or less like the huge 4th of July." He said, "Jim Peninger..." He said, "I always thought you were nuts and now I know it." I said, "Well, it's pretty. Look at it." And he did. And all the other guys in the glider came up and looked too. But all the time we were being peppered small arms fire as we went across the shoreline. And we landed about two miles near the Church of Sainte-Mère-Église. And we had a very small place to land in and we clipped the tops of the trees as we came off a roof. Never over 500 feet in the air at all, at any time. And when we stopped, we had about 12 feet spare before we hit the trees and we unloaded, helped the men unload the glider. And then we went on about our business. They went well on about their business.

It was right at dusk. We landed at the worst time in the world to land on any kind of an aircraft. It's dusk because you can't judge distances in the semi-darkness. But we managed to come in this little landing field.

We were behind enemy lines, and our mission was to find General Matthew B. Ridgway. He was the general over there. We knew where his command was, but we had to find it. We had little small maps and we had little tiny flashlights that we could use to determine where we were. And we picked a way to go by the map, and we found this little... Well, it's a cartway that the French choose to carry their vegetables and things to market. And we were seven of us had gotten together and we're marching there. And I was the leader simply because I was the second lieutenant and I had the famous little cricket, and you see one click was to stop. Two clicks was to take cover and three clicks was to gather back together again.

Well, we had gone about maybe 200 or 300 yards towards General Ridgway's command post. And I heard this noise up in front of me, some loud talking, but it was German talk. And I snapped it one time and they all stopped and came over. I said, "Hear that?" So we got behind the ridge way there, I mean the ridges where the trees were planted. And there was eight Germans come by. There was a patrol of some sort and they paused right in front of us. And one of the boys had a Thompson submachine gun and so did I. And we could have cut them down without any problem. We knew better because we had been more not to fire because that would announce our presence and they did not know we were there. So they stood there for about three or four minutes and then merely went on their way talking and laughing and we resumed our way to General Ridgway's headquarters, which we found. And the 76-troop carrier squadron, which was my squadron, we were instructed to be the perimeter guard of General Ridgway. And he showed placed us that night, and all the training led up to that. You see, I trained with the 101st, the 82nd and the 17th Airborne, all three of them and consular with all of us in the 76 went through that and we became pretty good soldiers. And General Ridgway was one of the nicest people I ever met in my life. He was superb commander and he was very quiet, but he was very forceful. He knew what he was doing and he did it in the right way.

I was very severely wounded on June the 7th, 1944, the next morning on when the Germans started to come by us and the first shot out of that cannon hit a tree that I was under. And I received some fair bad wounds on the back. And so, I never did finish Normandy. I was put on a Red Cross ship and shipped back to England and supposed to be in there only about six days. And I ended up there with about seven weeks. I developed gangrene in the shoulder and in the left arm and the left shoulder to such an extent that they were thinking of removing my left shoulder and my left arm. But somehow or another, they managed to get me well again. And I went back to the squadron four days before Market Garden. And the rules and regulations of the Air Force, if you are wounded in action and you return to your base, you have to wait 14 days before you are able to fly again. And you have to go through a series of physical examinations together with flight instruction before you were put back on flying status.

So I was only there four days, so I did not get to fly in Market Garden. I was merely a advisor to the glider pilots and to the pilots themselves. And I told the pilots themselves, I said, "Remember this gentleman..." I said, "You have got the lives of these glider pilots in your hands. We'll come into the fog-bound English Channel. Remember that the glider pilot can only see seven to nine feet of the rope. And if you don't fly straight, he's going to fly crooked too. And you're going to south end up killing somebody. So take your advice of the person that knows what he's talking about and act accordingly." And as a matter of fact, the entire 76 went across without any problems.

I was the first glider to cross the Rhine River and I was also the first glider to land on German soil in anger. Charles Gordon was the commanding officer of varsity, and I was the next in command under him. And I led 156 gliders and double-toe on that mission. But I would like to tell you in approaching the Rhine River, I had been flying for four hours and 30 minutes. I was on short toe, so therefore I was the first glider across the Rhine River and my commanding officer, Colonel Robert Lewis, was towing us. And as he crossed the Rhine River, the machine gun nest below us hit his left engine and set it to fire. But he dows it, of course, with this mechanism in the wing. But the second burst destroyed part of his aileron and part of the stabilizer and the pieces of it was flying back and hitting my glider.

Well, I figured that Colonel Lewis was going to give me the red light that he was in distress and couldn't go any further. The C-47 has a blister on top, which is an observation blister. And I could see the person in there and I could see the flight gun in his hand, but he never did give me the red light and he did not give me the green light. The green light was to take the leave, or the red light was that he was in distress. So I said to myself, I said, "Colonel, if you've got the guts to fly on one engine, I've got the guts to fly with you." And Drew Anderson, my very good friend, was on long toe, and I knew that he would not cut off unless I did. So Colonel Lewis flew the rest of the eight miles on one engine towing two gliders.

And when we got to the LZ or the landing zone, I got the green light and I cut off and I landed my glider, beet field, just a sugar beet field. And I was the first one to land, and I'm very proud of that. In one way, the fact that I stayed with Colonel Lewis, he received the distinguished flying cross for his efforts. And I received the distinguished flying cross for the same thing.

And the most exciting thing that happened, it was after I had landed, I was going about 35 miles an hour and I could see some activity up in front of me, I didn't know what it was, but I kept looking at it and I finally saw it was a man coming out of a hole in the ground and he was frantically trying to get a machine gun in operation. So I knew I didn't have a chance of the world to get by him if he got it in firing position and he was frantically working on it. So I started to move over so I could run him over, I'm going to run over you, I'll get you out of the way one way or the other. And the sergeant in the 17th Airborne, I was carrying 17th Airborne, he said, "Captain..." He said, "You're getting in the way of the glider behind you, you better move over." So I moved over to the right and it was Drew behind me, Drew Anderson. And you noticed a little window in the nose of the CG-4A, see the glider, but he shoved that little window open and with a 45 made one shot and it hit him right here in the head. The german. I've got a picture of it and the picture is now in the possession of Bill Horn. The luckiest shot of the war. Had he got that machine gun in operation, he would've killed us all. I mean he'd shot at us, shot the way to kill us enough. But we were afraid I was going to run him down, I was going to run over him.

We had a house there that Major Gordon... Well, he was Major Gordon then, used at his headquarters. Now he was our commanding officer as I told you. And he took me in there and he says, "I've got to go over here to interrogation. I just got a runner telling me with my order." She said, "You are in charge now while I'm gone, and I'll be back as soon as I can." When he was gone about 10 hours. And all that time I was the commanding officer of all that went on at the Battle of Burp Gun Corner.

Well, you'll have to picture in your mind the house that we were stationed in and just at a straight line in front of us was about three or 400 yards before he came to a wooded area. And in this wooded area was a German battalion with three tanks, four self-propelled guns, and three mortar guns. And we knew that they were going to try to break through us.

Now remember this, we had had training through three airborne units. We knew what we were doing, and I had to place the men as best as I knew how along the canal there going into the little town of Wesel. It was the Wesel canal, W-E-S-E-L. They pronounced it Vesel, we pronounced it Wesel. And I think about seven o'clock the Germans started out of that woods with the first cannon. And it didn't make it because First Lieutenant Jella rode up the tread and dropped a hand grenade in deterrent and put it out of commission, killed all three of the Germans in the tank. And then the two other fellas emptied their guns on the second tank and put it out of commission. And two of the self-propelled guns, they left 46 dead that had come out to try to overpower us. They left 46 dead and 12 wounded and they backed back into those woods. They came out the second time, and this time, we got the third tank and the other self-propelled gun and they backed back in again. And this time they left five more dead. And I counted them myself. It was dark, but I counted them myself and I know that my figures were correct. Well, I went back to the headquarters with my other men, and I commanded one of the men to come with me and I fixed a little white flag on the end of a pole, and I was going to walk up there to that end of that wooded area and try to talk the Germans into surrendering. But I never got there because about halfway there, a German Messerschmitt plane landed, and I had to go there and see what it was all about because it was wobbling in the air. He managed to get it down, the pilot did. But he was dying and his navigator was already dead. And that kept me there for about 15 or 20 minutes. And in the meantime, the rest of the German battalion came out waving a white flag. And that ended the battle of Battle of Burp Gun Corner. And all during that time we did not lose one man through death or by wound, not one glider pilot.

The glider pilots that are here with you right now will tell you right now that they were proud to have been a glider pilot. And if you ask every one of them if they do it again, 99% would say they would. I know I would.

We would all called nuts and crazy and this and that and the other. Any kind of name they could think of, we just let it slip off of shoulders, it didn't bother me.

The uniqueness of being a glider pilot is a pretty bad word, but that's about all I can think of right now. Because it was very unique. It had never been handled before except by the German people and they had a complete failure of it. And to give you an idea of what made us so proud of what we had done, that we learned that the Germans had invaded the island of creek off of Greece and they had 75% casualties in the gliders. And General Eisenhower in September of 1944, called all the glider pilots to Greenham Commons in England and said, "I am proud of you, men. I have nobody that I know of, that I can give the accolade to because of your actions and what you did." He said, "I know now that the figures you came back with from Normandy, you had a less than 2% casualties." Now that made us feel awfully good.

The personnel I was associated with, they were all great people. Our squadron was one of the best. It was. In fact, I think it was the best.

I lost Max Sanchez when I flew into Normandy. He went into Southern France and he was killed in Southern France. Had I not been in the hospital, I'd been probably gone on the same mission, but he was killed down there and he was a low blow to me.

The whole glider program to me was a big challenge and I felt like that I met it and I disposed of it in the best manner possible.

Ken Harbaugh:

That was Capt. James Pennniger.

If you missed it, make sure to check out the first part of his interview, where he talks about serving on the USS Tennessee during the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Tarawa.

Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on twitter @Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.

Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.

Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

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