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Granite Falls, Minn., museum event honors World War II glider, pilots

John Tennyson, director with Sleeping Dog Productions, of Green Lake, Wis., left, interviews Jim Carroll about his experiences as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division during the D-Day invasion. The interview was part of a special event at the Fagen Fighters World War II Museum. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

GRANITE FALLS - As teenagers growing up in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation, Gysbert and Wilhelmina Beukhof witnessed many horrors, but fixed their eyes also on one sign of hope.

They watched Allied aircraft carrying those who would liberate them ply the sky above their homes. 

They met some of their liberators on March 20, Kermit Swanson among them. The 94-year-old, retired farmer from Dassel piloted a glider craft on three combat missions in the European Theatre, including one in which he swooped in from the North Sea.

He landed that time with only four bullet holes in the windshield. “A nice landing, no problem at all,’’ said Swanson.

The Beukhofs — now living in Willmar and celebrating 65 years together — were among those who joined to honor Swanson and other liberators at a special event at the Fagen Fighters World War II Museum outside of Granite Falls.

The occasion was held to commemorate two exhibits at the new museum. It is home to a full-size replica of a CG-4A glider originally built by the Northwest Aeronautical Corporation in the Twin Cities during World War II. The gliders were used to carry infantrymen and equipment behind enemy lines prior to land-based assaults.

Jim Johns and Ingemar Holm devoted six years to building the CG-4A glider in a Villaume Industries warehouse in Eagan. The tubular metal and plywood-skinned craft included no fewer than 71,000 parts, many of which had to be made from scratch.

Fifty years after the war, only eight of the 14,000 gliders that were built by 16 companies during the war remained. Johns said they turned down offers from the Air Force Museum and the Smithsonian so that their glider’s home could be the Fagen Fighters World War II Museum, located in the state where the Northwest Aeronautical Corporation had built them.

Glider infantrymen had the highest attrition rate of any branch of service in World War II, according to Johns. He quoted the late CBS newsman Walter Cronkite: “If you ever have to go into combat, don’t go by glider. Walk, crawl, swim, float, anything but don’t go by glider.”

“And this comes from one who did, just once,’’ said Johns.

Mural complete

The museum also celebrated the completion of its third mural by artist David Reiser of Waverly, Neb. “Nightfall” depicts the 439th Troop Carrier group and the paratroopers with the 101st Airborne as they dropped through the hostile sky over Normandy on D-Day.

“Oh my God” are the words Jim Carroll, one of those paratroopers, said he yelled as he jumped. 

Reiser said his mural of the nighttime assault is a tribute to how the men worked together and “did the best they could under extremely difficult circumstances, extreme heroics.’’

His re-creation is based on the true story of pilot Marvin Muir, posthumously decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross. His plane was hit and flames licked the cockpit as it approached its intended drop zone. “Somehow this pilot, knowing full well he is not going to survive, held the plane steady so paratroopers could jump out,’’ said Reiser.

Keeping a steady hand on the controls was the focus of much training by Robert Erenberg, 92, of Benson. Among the honored guests that night, Erenberg recalled how he trained as a glider pilot in New Guinea and Okinawa with expectations of being among the first to invade Japan.

He knew well how vulnerable the powerless craft were. “You can only go down, that’s for sure,’’ said Erenberg.

Hitler disbanded Nazi Germany’s glider corps after a series of terrible losses.

Escaping death

Johns said General Dwight Eisenhower was “appalled” when 144 gliders carrying 1,200 infantrymen were towed by C-47’s across the Mediterranean Sea to begin the assault on Sicily.

Nearly half were released too soon and their crews and infantrymen plunged to their deaths in the sea. German aircraft knocked down most of the remaining gliders, except for 12 that reached the beaches. Their crews and infantryman were easily overwhelmed, killed or captured, said Johns.

Swanson counts himself fortunate to have survived three combat missions as a glider pilot, his first being the D-Day Invasion. He came in at midnight and made it safely on to French soil.

Luck was with him on his second mission too. He was assigned to be part of the second day’s assault during the failed Market Garden attack on Germany. The first day’s wave of gliders flew to the German guns like ducks to a hunter’s decoys.

“Biggest loss of the war,’’ said Swanson.

His third combat flight took him over the Rhine River in Germany. The first of the shots to strike his glider disabled its rudder. Four shots followed, hitting the tail of the glider and a Jeep inside with four infantrymen seated in it. The Jeep’s tires exploded and the gas tank began leaking as the fourth shot struck.

“It hit underneath my co-pilot’s seat,’’ Swanson said. “It hit and exploded and blew up his legs below the knees.’’

A piece of shrapnel from the exploding shell ripped Swanson’s cheek open. “If I hadn’t been looking at my co-pilot it would have went in the side of my jaw.  And that would have been the end because there were no doctors,’’ said Swanson.

Paratrooper Carroll escaped death many times in the months following his first drop at Normandy. His brother, serving with General George Patton’s Third Army, was among those who came to his rescue at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

Carroll related his war experiences in response to questions from a film crew intending to produce a show for cable television. Carroll told them he would do it all over again

“It’s just a great country,’’ said Carroll. “I hate to think what this country would be like if we had failed you know in the war effort.’’

Wilhelmina Beukhof knows what it would be like, and has told us why the heroics of these veterans matter so much. In 1992, she authored a book “Sheltered Under His Wings’’ that tells of her experiences under Nazi occupation.

She contributes all of the proceeds from its sale to the Children’s Hunger Fund, the memories of starving children still as vivid in her mind as that of the planes that once droned in the sky above her.

Artist’s murals set stage

GRANITE FALLS — Fierce-looking fighter planes ready for combat hold the floor, but it’s the art of David Reiser that set their stage in the Fagen Fighters World War II Museum.

The artist from Waverly, Neb., has created three, approximately 50-foot by 20-foot murals in the museum. He devoted about six months to create them.

The first mural depicts Raymond Fagen and others in the 4th Infantry Division as they charge from a Higgin’s Boat on to Utah Beach on the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944. The late Raymond Fagen is the father of museum founder Ron Fagen.

Reiser’s second mural shows the “Checkertail Clan” 325th Fighter Group, flying P-40 fighters and strafing General Rommel’s Panzer tanks in the Algerian desert.

Reiser’s third mural, “Nightfall,” is a tribute to the 101st Airborne and the 439th Troop Carrier Group on D-Day. It depicts the paratroopers dropping from the sky as anti-aircraft shells burst and pilot Marvin Muir maintains control of his C-47 to allow the entire stick of paratroopers to jump as flames consume the craft.

Museum info

Fagen Fighters WWII Museum in Granite Falls is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It is located at Lenzen-Roe Memorial Airport, 3 miles south of Granite Falls on state Highway 23. Admission is free.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335