Monday, March 2, 2009

The Death of General Don F. Pratt

A D-Day Glider Casualty

Compiled by Major Leon B. Spencer, USAFR Retired

The tragic glider crash that took the life of Brigadier General Don Forester Pratt, on D-Day, 6 June 1944, dealt a severe blow to the 101st Airborne Division’s invasion plans. As assis-tant division commander his leadership was sorely needed that day. The events leading up to his crash in Normandy have long been suspect. At least a dozen accounts have been written about the General’s death, most of them laced with inaccuracies. In the summer of 1995 I set out to try and uncover the truth. After months of research and first hand interviews with those who were there that day, here is what they say really happened fifty-two years ago. The story begins in England.

Aldermaston (AAF Station 467), an English airfield west of London in Berkshire, was the scene of frenzied activity on 4 and 5 June 1944. All furloughs had been canceled and American personnel were restricted to the base. Operation Overlord, the long awaited Allied invasion of German-held France was about to begin, and elements of the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were to lead the way. Personnel of the American 434th Troop Carrier Group and the 101st were busy preparing for the first glider serial, code-named “Chicago,” scheduled for the early morning hours of 6 June. Fifty-two Douglas C-47 Skytrain tow planes and a like number of Waco CG-4A gliders were to participate in this serial. Much of the 4th was spent loading and parking the gliders on each side of the runway in long lines The tow planes were lined up on the runway in such a manner that the lead plane could pull its glider from the line on the left, the second from the line on the right until the last glider headed down the runway behind the last tow plane. No time would be lost in launching the aircraft.

An alternating band of three white and two black stripes, each two feet wide, had been hastily painted on the wings and fuselage of both tow planes and gliders to identify them to Al-lied ground, sea and air forces. Everything was in readiness several hours before the sched-uled departure. All along the long line of aircraft small groups of men stood talking. Other groups lay sprawled under the aircraft wings, some with their eyes closed, sleeping or pretend-ing to sleep. The boarding order came about midnight. As the glider troops boarded the gliders the sky was dark and overcast, and there were periods of intermittent rain. Shortly after arriv-ing at their respective aircraft the glider troops had been given Dramamine tablets as a precau-tion against airsickness. It was expected that the circuitous 2 plus hours’ flight would get pretty bumpy over the English Channel. They were also given a luminous button to pin under the lapel of their jackets for identification purposes, and a metal cricket to be used as a means of signaling other members of their group in the darkness. One click of the cricket was to be answered by two clicks.

At precisely 0119 hours the lead aircraft roared down the runway towing General Pratt’s glider, “The Fighting Falcon.” A big white “1” was painted on each side of the nose section. Al-legedly, the “Screaming Eagle,” insignia of the 101st, was painted just aft of the nose section on the pilot’s side and an American flag painted on the copilots side. Following the Falcon down the runway at 30-second intervals were fifty-one other tow plane/glider combinations. Forty-four of the gliders carried personnel of the Airborne 81st Antiaircraft and Antitank Battalion
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and sixteen 57-millimeter antitank guns. These field guns would be used to support the lightly armed parachute infantry regiments that had jumped into Normandy earlier. Two gliders car-ried engineers of the 326th Airborne Engineer Company and a small bulldozer; two carried per-sonnel and equipment of the 101st Airborne Signal Company, plus staff members of the divi-sional headquarters; three carried medical equipment and supplies of the 326th Airborne Medi-cal Company. In addition to General Pratt, the lead glider carried Lt. John L. May1, the Gen-eral’s aide-de-camp, and the General’s personal jeep. The combined payload of the “Chicago” glider serial” consisted of 148 airborne troops and their equipment, 16 field guns, 25 vehicles, a small bulldozer, 2½ tons of ammunition, and 11 tons of miscellaneous equipment and supplies. Shortly after takeoff one glider broke loose from its tow plane and landed four miles from the base. Unfortunately, the aborted glider was carrying critical long-range command and control radio equipment that was needed by the airborne troops. The glider was retrieved and subse-quently made it to Normandy, albeit a bit late.

Seated at the controls of General Pratt’s glider was the unflappable Irishman, Lt. Colo-nel Michael C. “Mike” Murphy, a native of Lafayette, Indiana, and the senior US Army Air Force glider pilot in the European Theater. Murphy was in England on temporary duty from the states to supervise the final training of glider pilots for the Normandy invasion. His home base was Stout Field, Indianapolis, Indiana, where he was assigned to the Operations Division at Headquarters, First Troop Carrier Command. He was not originally scheduled to participate in the D-Day Normandy mission, but talked General Paul Williams, Commanding General of the Ninth Troop Carrier Command, into letting him fly General Pratt’s glider. Murphy wanted to get a first-hand look at the performance of glider pilots in combat. Prior to being called to ac-tive duty he operated his own flying service in Findlay, Ohio, so he was equally qualified as a power pilot. He frequently participated in air shows, thrilling pre-war crowds with spectacular aerobatics. He once built an airplane with landing gear on the top and bottom of the airframe, and was the first pilot to take off and land upside down.

In the copilot’s seat beside Murphy was Second Lieutenant John M. Butler, attached to the 53rd Troop Carrier Wing. Lashed-down behind them was General Pratt’s jeep. The vehicle carried the General’s command radio equipment and several extra 5-gallon Jerry cans of gaso-line. Pratt was seated in the front passenger seat of his jeep reading some last minute dis-patches by flashlight. He was wearing his parachute, Mae West life vest, and metal helmet. He had originally been scheduled to lead the seaborne element of the division into Normandy, but had persuaded General Maxwell Taylor, Commander of the 101st Airborne Division, to let him fly in by glider so he could get into battle sooner. He would have preferred to have parachuted with the first element, but was not jump qualified, so he had chosen to go in by glider. The War Department Report of Death, dated 24 June 1944, confirms that Pratt was not on flying status. The General’s aide-de-camp was seated on the small glider jump seat behind the jeep. He was holding in his lap a briefcase full of top secret documents and maps, and was heavily armed with a .30 caliber M1A1 Thompson submachine gun and a .45 caliber M1911A1 Colt automatic.

The pilot of the No. 2 glider in the “Chicago” serial, First Lieutenant Victor B. “Vic” War-riner2, a native of Deansboro, New York, watched Pratt’s glider as it was towed down the run-way and wondered why it took so long for it to become airborne. At the time the moonlight was bright despite occasional rain flurries. After what seemed like an eternity Pratt’s glider slowly rose into the air. Warriner, a member of the 72nd Troop Carrier Squadron, was not aware that the general’s staff, fearful for his safety, had ordered armor plating installed beneath the gen-eral’s jeep and under the pilot’s and copilot’s seats for protection against enemy flak and ground fire. Murphy would not learn of the armor plating until just before takeoff. With this
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considerable extra weight, plus the additional weight of the jeep radios and extra gasoline, the glider was probably over the safe load limits, but of greater import was the fact that the center of gravity had been altered significantly. Murphy said the glider was overloaded by 1,000 pounds, and handled like a freight train.

Warriner’s glider carried Captain (Dr.) Charles O. Van Gorder3, a surgeon, and member of the 1st Airborne Surgical Team, 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group, attached to the 326th Airborne Medical Company, 101st Airborne Division. The eight-man surgical team was composed of three surgeons, an anesthesiologist, and four enlisted surgical technicians. Accompanying Captain Van Gorder was three of the four enlisted surgical technicians, Sgt. Allen E. Ray, Sgt. Francis J. Muska and Sgt. Ernest Burgess. As a safety precaution the remaining surgeons were transported singly in other gliders. The 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group had been created as a World War II experiment to see if there would be any advantages in having a surgical team attached to a fighting force so that wounded soldiers could be treated right on the battlefield, rather than having to be transported to the rear to evacuation hospitals. In keeping with this new concept a front-line field hospital would be set up in Normandy in Chateau Columbieres, a large, 400 year old, country home near LZ (Landing Zone) “E.”

In addition to the medical personnel, Warriner’s glider also carried a two-wheeled jeep trailer filled with enough sterile medical supplies for seventy-five surgical procedures, plus 5 or 6 five-gallon Jerry cans of gasoline strapped to the sides of the trailer. These would be used to fuel the jeep that would tow the trailer. I learned from family members that the officer-in-charge of the surgical team, Major (Dr.) Albert J. Crandall, was in Chalk No. 10 glider and the fourth surgical technician, T/5 Emil K. Natalle4, was in Chalk No. 4 glider. The Chalk No.’s of the gliders that transported Captain (Dr.) Saul Dworkin, a surgeon, and Captain (Dr.) John S. Rodda, an anesthesiologist, are not known.

The lead glider, “The Fighting Falcon,” destined to become the most famous glider of World War II, was built by the Gibson Electric Refrigerator Company of Greenville, Michigan, under contract to the US Army Air Force. The company halted its production of electric refrig-erators and started building CG-4A cargo gliders shortly after the war started. It was one of several companies that had no previous experience building gliders. Before World War II ended Gibson would build 1078 CG-4A gliders, and become the fifth leading supplier of this type air-craft. In early 1943 the public school children of Greenville decided that they wanted to help with the war effort. They agreed to sell War Bonds and Stamps so they could purchase one of the Gibson gliders and donate it to the Air Force. During their month long sales campaign in April 1943 they sold $72,000 in war bonds and stamps, enough to buy not one, but four Gib-son gliders. However, only one would be named. For their contribution to the war effort the children were awarded the US Treasury Department’s Distinguished Service Award, the first time this award had ever been given to a group of children.

The Falcon was christened and turned over to the US Army Air Force on May 19, 1943, following a much publicized dedication ceremony at Black Athletic Field in Greenville, attended by high-level government and local officials It was subsequently disassembled, packed in five huge wooden crates, and loaded on two railroad flat cars. Approximately 2 June, two weeks after its dedication, it left Greenville headed for Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania, where it was stored until it and a number of other gliders were moved by rail to a mid-Atlantic port for transit by ship to England. The exact date of its arrival on English soil is unknown, but we do know from extant records that in April 1944 it was uncrated and assembled by work crews of the 26th Mobile Reclamation and Repair Squadron (Heavy) at Crookham Common (AAF Station 429), Berkshire, England. The assembly crew was surprised when they saw the painted letter-ing on the side of the fuselage. After learning of The Fighting Falcon and its unique history,
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General Paul Williams decreed that it would be the lead glider in the D-Day invasion of Nor-mandy in recognition of the Greenville school children’s patriotic spirit.

On 3 June 1944, three days before D-Day, Colonel Murphy decided to replace the origi-nal Falcon with a CG-4A equipped with the frontal crash protection device, the Griswold Nose. After all of the publicity photographs were taken the original Gibson-built Falcon was shunted back to position No. 45 in the 52 glider “Chicago” serial. Murphy then ordered a hasty paint job on the replacement glider to make it look like the original Falcon. Flight Officer Robert (NMI) Butler5, a glider pilot from Battle Creek, Michigan, was selected to fly the original Falcon. Oddly, and quite by coincidence, there would be a glider pilot with the surname “Butler” in the cockpit of both the original and substitute Falcon. Robert Butler and his copilot, Flight Officer E. H. “Tim” Hohmann, were both members of the 74th Troop Carrier Squadron. Their glider load was a British 57 mm anti-tank gun, plus its three-man crew and several cloverleafs of 57 mm shells.

The original Falcon landed safely in Normandy on D-Day. Robert Butler said that be had Hohmann deploy the deceleration parachute just before the wheels touched down, which slowed the glider some. Skidding along the ground on its nose the glider struck a knoll further slowing its forward progress. One hundred feet later it rolled to a stop. Robert Butler and Tim Hohmann both survived the war. I submitted questionnaires to them in 1997 seeking first hand information about their flight into Normandy on D-Day. They both responded and both told me that there was no damage to the glider. Tim Hohmann lived in Glenview, Illinois, for many years. He passed away on 26 March 1998 at age 79. In August 2006, 90-year old, Robert Butler was living in Palm Desert, California, and was in reasonably good health. He still remembers a great deal about the Normandy invasion.

Once airborne the tow plane/glider combinations circled the airfield while forming in groups of four, echelon to the right, and lining up in trail. When the last combination had taken off and formed, the lead aircraft turned towards the English Channel and headed for Normandy. According to Colonel William B. Whitacre, Commanding Officer of the 434th Troop Carrier Group and pilot of the C-47 towing the Falcon, the moonlight was then bright enough to see the outline of trees and fields below. Whitacre’s copilot was Major Alvin E. Robinson. Brigadier General Maurice M. Beach, Commander of the 53rd Troop Carrier Wing, was a pas-senger aboard the aircraft but did not take a turn at the controls according to Major Robinson. At least one Michigan newspaper reported that General Beach flew the aircraft, but this was not the case.

Colonel Murphy said that the armada flew at 2,000 feet across the Channel, lowering to 1,500 feet as they approached the Cotentin peninsula from the west. The glider train flew be-tween the German-occupied British Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey to avoid enemy fire. This was the same route taken earlier by the paratroopers. Captain Van Gorder looked out a window of his glider and marveled at the sight. As the tow planes made wide sweeping turns he could see the blue formation lights on top of the wings stretching like a ribbon for miles. Just after passing the coastline of the peninsula the formation dropped down to 600 feet and maintained that altitude to the glider LZ. Things were quiet and peaceful until the German gunners woke up and opened up on the formation about halfway across the twenty plus mile peninsula. The formation was under fire from there to the cutoff point. Van Gorder, in the No. 2 glider, said he watched the tracers make lazy arcs in the night sky and associated them with the Independence Day fireworks displays back home. It was an awesome but deadly sight, he said.
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As the formation continued across the peninsula Pratt’s glider took some small arms hits, but no serious damage was done. Murphy said that it sounded like popcorn popping as the slugs passed through the taut glider fabric. It was learned later that the No. 2 glider, flying beside Pratt’s glider, took ninety-four small arms hits in the tail section, but no one inside was hit. As the gliders approached the LZ the sky became cloudless. As the formation passed just west of LZ-E, near the little French town of Hiesville, and some 7.5 miles inland from Utah Beach, Murphy saw the green release light flash on in the astrodome of Whitacre’s C-47. Ac-cording to Murphy’s watch the time was about five seconds past 0400 hours. They were right on schedule. As he hit the glider release knob he heaved a sigh of relief. He and Butler were arm and leg weary from trying to keep the unstable glider in level flight for over two and a half hours.

Warriner’s glider, on Murphy’s right, received the release signal simultaneously with Murphy. He was puzzled when he saw the No 1 glider make a steep climbing turn to the left, and disappear from sight in the darkness. The standard practice, dictated by Murphy and the 1at Troop Carrier Command, was to turn and maintain level flight until the glider slowed to normal glide speed before descending. Murphy had violated his own mandated rule for a good reason. He wanted to gain as much altitude as possible so he could determine the best way to handle the unstable glider before starting his descent. Satisfied that he could control the un-wieldy glider he started down. He said later that the moon was shining and that he could see the outline of the fields below. As the glider began its descent he was able to make out his landing zone. It was a thousand to twelve hundred feet in length, slopped downhill and was surrounded by tree-studded hedgerows. The Poplar trees growing on the hedgerows were 40 to 60 feet tall, not 30 to 40 feet as briefed. As Murphy began his landing approach, the No. 2 glider was preparing to touch down just ahead and off to his right. Unplanned circumstances would result in the No. 2 glider landing before Pratt’s glider.

In view of the heavy load it was carrying, the final approach speed of the No. 1 glider was somewhat above the normal tactical speed of 70 mph. Murphy said that he touched down on the first third of the field at 80 mph. He immediately pushed the glider down on its nose and jumped on the brakes to stop the glider quickly. To his astonishment the glider’s forward speed didn’t appear to diminish at all. A fully loaded CG-4A could normally be stopped in 200 to 300 feet. That morning the ill-fated substitute Falcon continued to slide on the slick, dew covered pasture grass for about eight hundred feet before crashing into a hedgerow. Some sources say at 50 mph, but Captain Van Gorder said that Colonel Murphy told him that he hit the hedgerow at a higher speed than that.

Warriner, whose glider crashed into the same hedgerow some 150 feet or so away, said that the ground literally shook when Pratt’s glider slammed into the hedgerow. Miraculously, the momentum of the No. 2 glider was halted by a Poplar tree, 18 inches in diameter that ended up between the pilot’s and copilot’s seats, but caused no casualties. Warriner told the author that when his glider came to rest his face was pressed against the tree. The Normandy hedgerows were earthen dikes from four to five and a half feet in height, covered with tangled hedges, bushes and trees, large and small, some 70 feet tall. They established the boundaries of a farmer’s field and were formidable barriers. Only a tank with a bulldozer blade could penetrate them.

Colonel Murphy found himself hanging half in and half out of the smashed nose sec-tion, his torso restrained by his seat belt. He looked down and saw that his lower limbs were entangled in the bent and twisted metal tubing of the glider’s nose section. Both legs were bro-ken, one severely, and his left knee was badly injured, but he was still conscious. Lt. May,
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Pratt’s aide was stunned and bruised, but was otherwise unhurt. He told Lt. Warriner some-time later that when he realized that the glider was going to hit the hedgerow he placed himself
back of the jeep and let it absorb the impact of the crash. It turned out to be a wise move. Moments after the glider came to an abrupt halt, Murphy glanced across the cockpit and saw the badly mangled body of his copilot crammed into the floor section of the cockpit and knew instinctively that he was dead. The glider had struck a large hedgerow tree on that side. The impact with the immovable earthen bank had jarred every bone in Murphy’s body. He was giddy for a few minutes but did not lose consciousness.

As his head cleared somewhat Murphy said he was alarmed to see several German vehi-cles that he said were tanks, poised just across the hedgerow, no more than fifteen feet or so away. He froze for fear that they might shine a light on him. From their vantage point further down the hedgerow, Lt. Warriner and Captain Van Gorder saw the same tracked vehicles. Van Gorder also described them as tanks, but Warriner said that they were tracked armored recon-naissance vehicles. All of them agreed that there were German soldiers seated on the sides of the vehicles with rifles across their laps. The lead vehicle stopped in front of Murphy’s glider and two soldiers jumped off. They entered his wrecked glider with flashlights, poked around for a few minutes, got back on their vehicle, and hastily departed. Murphy, trapped in his seat, played dead, as did Lt. May. Perhaps the continuous roar of the low-flying tow planes overhead and the frequent din of crashing gliders scared them off. As a precautionary measure, Murphy remained still for several minutes after the Germans had departed. He then began to try and free his legs from the twisted metal tubing. The extraction was slow and painful. Once free, he lowered himself to the ground hanging on to the smashed glider framework. He tried to stand but his legs collapsed under him and he fell into a shallow ditch. While he was laying there Lt. May walked up and said that he feared the General was dead. He had tried to find a pulse, he said, without success.

Captain Van Gorder, after checking on the condition of the passengers in his glider, hurried over to the No. 1 glider a short distance away. The doctor said he didn’t expect to find anyone alive, but found Colonel Murphy dragging himself along a ditch brandishing his pistol and Lt. May standing guard beside the wrecked glider clutching a submachine gun. When Van Gorder started to examine Murphy, the latter stated that he thought his legs were broken. A preliminary examination revealed that indeed he had sustained a compound fracture of the fe-mur in one leg and had suffered a simple fracture of one of the bones in the lower part of the other leg. He also suffered a severe injury to his left knee. He refused a morphine injection to ease the pain. Van Gorder said that Murphy told him he wanted to remain alert so he could shoot Germans. He said in a 1956 letter to Dr. Albert Crandall that he did some shooting where he thought it would help.

Lt. May asked the doctor to check on General Pratt, which he did. He had to remove his gear in order to get through the twisted metal fuselage of the glider which was bent almost U-shaped. While he was doing this, the General’s aide rounded up some glider troopers to stand guard over the glider. Van Gorder found the General slumped in the passenger seat of his jeep with his chin resting on his chest. His seat belt was still fastened and he was wearing his steel helmet. A cursory examination revealed that the general had suffered a broken neck, very likely from whiplash. The violent forward motion of his head on impact with the hedgerow had probably severed his spinal cord, Dr. Van Gorder said. Since he was seated on his parachute his head would have been raised four or five inches. It is possible that his helmeted head had slammed into one of the metal cross members of the glider airframe breaking his neck on im-pact with the hedgerow. In either case he had probably died instantly. Pratt was the second

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American airborne general to die in combat since the war began. General Charles Keerans of the 82nd Airborne Division lost his life in Sicily.
On reflection, General Pratt’s chances of survival on D-Day were slim to none. Too many factors militated against his glider landing safely. It was overloaded; its center of gravity
had been altered making it unstable and hard to handle; it landed downwind with a reputed 27 mph tailwind; the landing speed was higher than normal because of the extra weight; the field it landed in sloped downhill; and the tall pasture grass was covered with slippery dew. It was a miracle anyone survived. War Department Battle Casualty Report, dated 19 June 1944 indi-cated that there was no investigation into the general’s death.

After examining Lt. Butler, Captain Van Gorder informed Colonel Murphy that his copi-lot had died from blunt force trauma on impact with the tree. After exiting the glider the doctor returned to splint Murphy’s legs as best he could. As he was administering to his patient he looked up and saw a figure walking across the field towards him. It was Major (Dr.) Crandall, the leader of the surgical team, who was a passenger in the No. 10 glider. He had landed nearby and was looking for the rest of his surgical team. By dawn Crandall had rounded up a jeep, and had located the Chateau Colombieres. With the help of other surgical and medical team members he began setting up the field surgical hospital. He returned to Pratt’s glider several hours later to pick up Captain Van Gorder.

According to pages 241and 242 of Gerald Astor’s book, “June 6, 1944,” about mid-morning on D-Day, Lt. Beaver, platoon leader, and Bill Lord, members of the 82mm mortar pla-toon, 3rd Battalion, 508th Parachute Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, came upon a glider that had crashed against a big tree. Inside they found the body of a one-star general, but didn’t know who he was. Later they were told it was General Pratt, assistant division commander of the 101st Airborne Division. I question this encounter, since Col. Murphy and Lt. May were still in the area at mid-morning and they made no mention of them.

Later that day, according to Cornelius Ryan’s book, “The Longest Day,” the general’s body was removed from the glider by a small group of airborne officers who wrapped him in a parachute and buried him near the crash site. There was no official salute of guns during the solemn burial, but the sound of American and German field guns and small arms fire re-sounded in the area. In the late afternoon of D-Day, Lt. Warriner, the pilot of the No. 2 glider, said that he returned to the site of Pratt’s crashed glider. He said he did so out of morbid curi-osity. He saw that that the general’s body had been removed, but noticed his steel helmet with the one white star on the front was still laying on the floor of the glider. He picked it up and thought for a moment about keeping it, but put it down where he found it, immediately feeling better. During his brief visit to the glider he said that he noticed the armor plating under the jeep, but he didn’t examine the cockpit area.

The above scenarios by Corneliua Ryan and Lt. Warriner are in conflict with the Graves Registration Form No. 1, dated 3 July 1944, on file at Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington, Virginia. It notes that Pratt’s body was not buried at Hiesville until 2100 hours on 8 June 1944, so he could not have been buried on D-Day and his body would have still been in the glider when Lt. Warriner visited the glider on D-Day. Lt. Warriner insisted to me that the gen-eral’s body was not in the glider when he visited it. Perhaps both parties are wrong about the dates. Pratt’s Grave Registration Form No. 1 notes that the following personal effects were found on the body before burial; eyeglasses and case, cigarette case, picture case, wallet con-taining one dollar and 1500 French Francs. It also notes that an Andrew Hill was buried on his right at Hiesville.
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At 1900 hours on 3 July 1944, the general’s body was exhumed and reburied at Blos-ville, France. The reburial form states that there were no personal effects on the body at the time of the reburial. Pratt’s body was exhumed for the second time in 1948 and returned to the states for burial in Arlington National Cemetery. He was formally interred there on 26 July 1948 with full military honors in Section 11, Site 707 SH. His gravesite was marked with a standard military headstone.

Because of the unsettled battlefield conditions Murphy remained in the ditch near his glider until he was picked up by a jeep in the afternoon and driven to the chateau. When he arrived, Monsieur and Madame Robert Cotelle, owners of the Chateau, offered Colonel Murphy their bedroom during his short stay there. A photograph of Mrs. Cotelles standing beside Mike Murphy appeared in an unknown publication in France in 1977 during Mike’s visit to the site of his crash. The accompanying article notes that the two were reunited in France after 33 years.

Because of the sheer number of critically wounded Americans, Germans and French ci-vilians it was 0200 or 0300 hours the following morning before Colonel Murphy was taken to the makeshift operating room where his fractures were reduced. He said he remembered that the room smelled like it did back home when they butchered hogs. Following the surgery he said that sodium pentothal took over until 1000 hours the next morning. When he awakened, he said that General Maxwell Taylor, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, was in his room. The general wanted to confirm the glider plans for D+1, 2, and 3.

Murphy remained at the chateau from Tuesday until Friday morning, 9 June, before be-ing evacuated. He was placed in one of three field ambulances and driven to the Normandy beachhead. Fortunately for him, just before midnight that same day a German bomber dropped two large HE (High Explosive) bombs on the chateau causing severe damage. Eleven persons were killed and fifteen wounded. Six of the dead were medical personnel. Captain (Dr.) Van Gorder came close to losing his own life during the bombing. One of the bombs fell where he would have been had he not left his tent to get a cup of hot chocolate.

On the way to the beach, the ambulances were fired upon by snipers, and were stalled in one spot for close to an hour while airborne personnel cleared the area. At the beach Mur-phy was put aboard a DUKW-353 amphibious vehicle for transport to an LCT (Landing Craft Tank) standing offshore. The DUKW driver was unable to locate the LCT so Murphy and the other wounded aboard were returned to the beach where they were made comfortable by med-ics and the Red Cross. When he later heard that the chateau had been bombed, Murphy said that he was indeed blessed with the luck of the Irish.

In Colonel A. E. Robinson’s memoirs he states that he and Colonel Whitacre picked up Lt. Col. Mike Murphy at an airstrip just back of Utah Beach, probably late Friday, 9 June, and flew him to Preswick, Scotland, where he was transported to England and admitted briefly to the 53rd General Hospital in the United Kingdom. He was then airlifted to the states where he was admitted temporarily to the AAF Convalescent and Regional Station Hospital at Mitchel Field in New York, remaining there only two days. He was subsequently flown to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he became a patient at Billings General Hospital, near his home base, Head-quarters, First Troop Carrier Command. Colonel Murphy was among the first D-Day casualties to be returned to the United States.

For the next six months he underwent a number of operations on his legs to repair ex-tensive vein damage caused by the s hattered bones in his legs. Much of the damage was suc-
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cessfully repaired, but he would be hampered for the rest of his life by painful circulation prob-lems in his legs. By Christmas 1944 he was able to hobble around on two very stiff legs, and was still battling considerable edema. He said in a 15 June 1945 letter to Major Crandall that his injured knee joint restricted the range of motion in his left leg by 30%.

No record has been found to indicate that Murphy ever complained to his superiors about the heavy armor plating installed in his glider without his knowledge or approval. After his release from active duty in 1946 he was employed by the Ohio Oil Company (subsequently the Marathon Oil Company) of Findlay, Ohio, as manager of the aviation department. He worked for the company for twenty-six years, receiving a number of prestigious flying awards. Mike passed away quietly in Findlay, Ohio, on 11 April 1981. He was 74 years old and had lived a full and fruitful life.

T/5 Emil K. Natalle, one of the surgical technicians of the 1st Airborne Surgical Team, visited the Falcon on the 10th or 11th of June. His glider, No. 4 in the Chicago serial, piloted by Flight Officer Arthur H. Vogel of the 74th Troop Carrier Squadron, overshot LZ-E and landed in an adjacent field. During his visit to Pratt’s glider Emil said that he observed armor plating in the nose of the glider, but did not notice any in the cargo area. He stated that the armor plat-ing in the cockpit area was semi-circular in shape and conformed to the interior nose of the glider. An examination of the metal structure of the cockpit suggests that such a metal plate would be impossible to install and would make the glider extremely nose heavy, and probably unflyable. Metal plates could have been installed under the seats.

Sometime after D-Day, Flight Officer James J. “Red” Malloy, the glider engineering offi-cer of the 72nd Troop Carrier Squadron, informed Warriner that he knew about the protective armor plating installed in the glider, but after fifty-two years Warriner couldn’t recall the de-tails. It is puzzling that the Commanding Officer of the 434th TC Group, Colonel Whitacre, would permit the General’s glider to be overloaded to the extent that it was, unless he too was unaware of the metal plating. Sergeant Homer Pabst of the 458th Air Service Squadron, 318th Repair Group, was alleged to have been in charge of the crew that installed the armor plating. It was said to have been ¼ inch thick and was installed in the cargo section, but did extend somewhat into the cockpit area.

Thus ends the tragic story of the substitute Falcon and the untimely death of General Don F. Pratt. Though many accounts have been written about the general’s demise I believe mine to be the most complete and accurate to date. This version is based on the eye-witness testimony of glider pilots, airborne personnel, and medical personnel, who landed near the Fal-con on D-Day, and revelations made by Mike Murphy about the mission in a letter to Dr. Van Gorder, dated 12 June 1956.

By January 2006, the headstone of General Pratt in Arlington National Cemetery had deteriorated badly. The normally smooth, polished marble of the headstone has dissolved away by the effects of air pollution and acid rain in the Washington, DC area. It is in far worse con-dition than similar government headstones from the Civil War in other parts of the country, and should be replaced.

F - I - N - I - S

The Death of General Don F. Pratt, Cont’d Page 10

Footnote 1: George E. “Pete” Buckley, a WWII glider pilot assigned to the 74th Troop Carrier Squadron, 434th Troop Carrier Group, and official historian of that unit, phoned me on 18 March 2000 in response to a letter I had written to him. He told me that there were two CG-4A gliders that flew into Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944, with the name, “The Fighting Falcon,” painted in the sides of the fuselage. Buckley’s glider was Chalk #49 in the Chi-cago serial.

Footnote 2: This research paper was compiled by Leon B. Spencer of Prattville, Alabama, a former WWII glider pilot, on 26 November 1996. Some minor additions were made on 19 December 1999, 31 December 2002, and 4 January, 10 February and 30 July 2006 due to newly learned information. This research paper was first published in the June 1997 issue of the Silent Wings newspaper, the voice of the National WWII Glider Pilot Association, with the title, “Normandy D-Day CG-4A Glider Crash Claims Life of General Don. F. Pratt.” It also appeared by per-mission in the November-December 1997 issue of The Screaming Eagle, a newspaper published by the 101st Air-borne Division Association, and in the March 1998 issue of the Voice of the Angels, a newspaper published by the 11th Airborne Division Association.


Note 1: Lt. May’s name may have been Lee J. May. He was sometimes referred to in publications as Lee May.

Note 2: Victor B. Warriner, former glider pilot, who was released from active duty as a major on 20 October 1946, passed away in Fort Worth, Texas on 17 May 1999.

Note 3: On D-Day, 6 June 1944, thirty-one year old Captain (Dr.) Charles O. Van Gorder had already served in the North African Campaign. He was a graduate of the University of Tennessee Medical School. After the war, he and former Captain (Dr.) John S. Rodda, a member of the Normandy invasion surgical team, built a hospital in the small
community of Andrews, North Carolina and he remained there until his death on 28 November 2002, at age eighty-eight.

Note 4: Former T/5 Emil K. Natalle of Perry, Iowa, passed away there on 5 December 1998. He corresponded with the author frequently.

Note 5: Ninety-one year old former 2nd Lieutenant Robert (NMI) Butler, the pilot of the original Fighting Falcon, was living in Palm Desert, California, in July 2006. He continues to correspond with the author. In 2005 he visited the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with his family to see the fully restored CG-4A glider bearing the name,“The Fighting Falcon.” The Fighting Falcon Military Museum in nearby Greenville, Michigan, also has on display a partially restored CG-4A bearing the name, The Fighting Falcon.”


  1. Can you get in touch with me regarding your correspondence with Mr. Natalle? I am working on a history of the 326th and any information you might be able to provide would be extremely helpful. Thank you.

  2. Almost e-mail is wwii_medical_reenacting(AT)

  3. PFC John Sicurella 'A" Battery, 81st Airborne AAAT Battalion, 101st Airborne was one of the men from the second Glider that helped remove B/Gen Pratt's body from the 'Falcon' My Uncle John Sicurella was KIA in Belgium (Battle of the Bulge) on 12.21.44, age 20 years old from Luzerne, Pennsylvania. He is burried in Hamm, Luxembourg American Cemetery.