Gliding into Normandy, 80 Years Later, Part I: James Larkin

It is the 80th anniversary (June 6th) of the D-Day landing in Normandy France, marking 80 years since the celebrated and unprecedented beach landings of Operation Neptune and the ensuing battles of Operation Overlord. Supplies and troops also landed courtesy of newly-minted glider pilots who flew unarmed, motorless glider planes into landing zones, often in the dark, deep into enemy territory to clear the way for the rest of the battle for Normandy.

The Bossier Parish Libraries History Center is fortunate to have oral history interviews with two Bossier veterans who experienced glider flights into the Nazi-occupied territory in Normandy, pilot James “Jim” Larkin and paratrooper Bennie Matlock. They were serving the same objective, to take from the Germans the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, a key location in the line of defense along the road to Omaha Beach. Yet each had completely different experiences that showed both the significance and vagaries of glider flight, and the incredible risks involved in that day.

The Germans were the first to use gliders in a stealth role, penetrating a Belgian fortress in May, 1940. The Allied forces realized they needed to catch up fast. Once the US entered the war in 1941, the training of glider pilots had to happen before they even had glider planes on which to train. (US manufacturers were racing to create them to the military’s specification. The Waco CG-4 was the first successful result.) Minnesota-born 19-year-old James Larkin was one of the young men who rushed to sign up after Pearl Harbor. Because he had some college and passed a test, he became an aviation cadet. So many others had rushed to sign up at the same time that Larkin and other cadets had been waiting for two months to be processed and assigned, when a bulletin came out. Any aviation cadets who volunteered for the glider pilot training program could be on their way in just two days. After a couple of months of waiting around, the bored Larkin and some of his new buddies said, “Well, what the [heck]?”


Larkin said his training didn’t suffer much, if at all, from the initial lack of glider planes. First, he learned to fly a regular plane, and then used regular planes to practice gliding by cutting the engine and landing, including at night, at a civilian flight school in Kansas. In advanced training in Lubbock, TX, the future glider pilots got to practice on recreational “sail planes” as well as Piper Cubs and other small planes modified as makeshift gliders until the Waco CG-4 gliders arrived, while the military flight training facility was still being constructed around them.

In February, 1943, Larkin graduated from the program in Lubbock and went to tactical training in North Carolina, flying gliders for practice with the 82nd Airborne division stationed nearby, and learning infantry tactics for emergency scenarios. In October of 1943, Larkin left tactical training and joined his overseas outfit, the 437th Troop Carrier Group of the 9th Air Force, at North Carolina’s Pope Field. They trained with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, who were preparing to fight off the enemy first, and clear the way for the gliders to bring in the heavy equipment (like anti-tank guns and cannons) that couldn’t be dropped in by parachute. Following final staging procedures, they all shipped to England in early 1944, in preparation for the Normandy invasion and Jim Larkin’s first mission.

Just a few minutes into “the longest day” of June 6th, 1944, Jim Larkin took off from Ramsbury Air Base with 52 other gliders from his squadron for Normandy. Jim’s glider was last, #52 in the formation. He and his copilot carried with them a 16mm anti-tank gun to be attached to the Jeep carried in the glider in position #51, and a crew of 3 men from the 82nd Airborne Division to operate the gun. Paratroopers had preceded them by about an hour and a half to the 82nd Airborne‘s landing zone around Ste.-Mere-Eglise. As they came up from the Eastern side of the Cotentin Peninsula (the opposite side from the landing beaches to avoid confused friendly fire), the “tow-ship,” or plane that towed the glider, ran into clouds, German machine gun fire, and darkness. Larkin lost communication with his tow-ship, then witnessed it go into a diving turn toward its tragic end. The tow rope broke off, landing Larkin and his small crew 25 miles from their established landing zone.

Larkin and his co-pilot and his three Airborne crew had to work their way back up the peninsula to join the rest of the squadron, taking them about 18 days. “Those were exciting days” Mr. Larkin said, vastly understating what it must have been like to make an emergency landing in enemy territory:

…We went and introduced ourselves to a farmhouse late one night. We got in touch with some underground guys [French Nazi resisters] and they guided us. We’d walk at night, you know, towards our lines, but you couldn’t move very far because the Germans had all of the roads blocked up. They couldn’t move in the daytime because our guys would shoot ’em up, and we couldn’t move in the daytime because we’d be seen, so there we were trying to move at night. And we made it finally to the beach. All of our guys, we all got there without anybody being hurt.

Finally, they made it to a beach where they could rejoin their squadron. (Larkin’s interview does not say which beach, but they were perhaps in the area of Utah Beach, the Westernmost of the Normandy Landing’s beaches.) When they arrived, they saw that the US Navy had taken over the German fortifications there and turned them into “a luxurious deal,” allowing them to live “The Life of Riley” for a couple of days while staying with a Navy Lieutenant. There was an airstrip built a hundred yards from them, and they sent a radio signal to their squadron that they were there. The squadron, which was still sending equipment and supplies to the area in C-47 planes, radioed back that as soon as they had a load directed to that landing strip, they’d pick them up. Two days later, four of the squadron’s planes came in loaded with gasoline and other supplies. Larkin and his little group flew back to England, were given a leave of absence for a couple of weeks, then started getting ready for the invasion of Southern France on the 15th of August, 1944.

After WWII, gliders were replaced by helicopters for dropping troops and supplies behind battle lines. If you want to learn more about the gliders and their pilots, check out the documentary film, “Silent Wings: The American Glider Pilots of WWII” through Kanopy, available online through the Bossier Parish Libraries website, and stay tuned for part II, on the story of Airborne crew member Bennie Matlock, who also landed in a glider into Normandy. Don’t forget to attend World War Tuesdays on the second Tuesday of the month from 10:30 – noon at the History Center. The next meeting is June 11th and will be about the Normandy invasion. The History Center is located at 2206 Beckett St, Bossier City, LA. We are open M-Th 9-8, Fri 9-6, and Sat 9-5. Our phone number is (318) 746-7717 and our email is


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  • A U.S. Army Air Force Waco CG-4A-WO glider in 1943. National Museum of the U.S. Air Force photo
  • James L. Larkin. Bossier Press, Thursday, April 22, 1971

Article by: Pam Carlisle