This legend begins in the early months of 1942. The Gibson Refrigerator Company in Greenville, Michigan had just received a contract from the U.S. Army Air Forces for production of CG-4A troop-carrying gliders. At that time, there were 15 companies in the U.S. given these cost-plus-a-5%-fixed-fee contracts to manufacture the gliders. Most of the companies were small civilian aircraft manufacturers; the exceptions being the Gibson Refrigerator Company and the Ford Motor Company. The glider was constructed with over 70,000 individual parts, had a height of 12'7", wingspan of 83'8" and overall length of 48'4". The crew consisted of the pilot, co-pilot and 13 infantrymen. Gliders were actually the first stealth aircraft used by the military. The glider was towed by either a C-46 or C-47 and released behind enemy lines. They were used to get men and equipment behind enemy lines without the need for a landing strip.
At that time, Gibson had many other defense contracts; including 40-lb. incendiary bombs; 100-lb. mustard gas chemical bombs; 500-lb. U.S. Navy practice bombs; B-24 bomber wing-flaps for Ford Motor Company; and bomb shackles for all major bombers. The glider contract was a fascinating challenge for all concerned. Bill Delp was a 22-year-old tool engineer, working for the factory manager and the master mechanic. Bill recalls being handed the CG-4A blueprints and says they were as big as bed sheets! Gibson urgently needed someone with aircraft manufacturing experience and they hired a 24-year-old aircraft manufacturing engineer named Eric Guenther. Eric came from Taylorcraft Aircraft Company in Alliance, Ohio. He was a genius, and mainly through his efforts, the first CG-4A glider was flown at the Grand Rapids airport in just six months. This was even ahead of the Ford Motor Company. In March of 1943, the students of Greenville Public Schools decided to try to raise enough money to purchase one of the Gibson-made gliders. In just two months' time the students raised over $72,000, enough to purchase four of the Gibson made gliders. On May 19, 1943, the school students christened one of these gliders "The Fighting Falcon" at a prestigious dedication ceremony on Black Field, climaxing a community effort that touched all Greenville residents. The students received the coveted Distinguished Service Award from the United States Treasury Department, the first time in history to be received by a group of school students. The fighting Falcon was then disassembled, re-crated at the Gibson factory, and shipped overseas to Crookham Commons, England with hundreds of other gliders.
Aldermaston, an English airfield west of London in Berkshire, was the scene of frenzied activity on June 5, 1944. Operation Overlord, the long awaited Allied invasion of occupied France, was about to begin. Personnel of the American 434th Troop Carrier Group and the 101st Airborne Division were busy preparing for the first glider mission scheduled for the early morning hours of D-Day, June 6th. Fifty-two C-47 towplanes and a like number of CG-4A gliders were to participate in this mission, code-named "Chicago." In recognition of the students' patriotic efforts, the Ninth Air Force Headquarters ordered that the Fighting Falcon be the first glider in the echelon of 52 gliders heading into Normandy on D-Day. At 1:19 a.m. on June 6, 1944, the lead aircraft roared down the runway towing its glider,"The Fighting Falcon," with a big "1" chalked down its nose. Seated at the controls of the No. 1 glider was Lieutenant Colonel Michael C. "Mike" Murphy, the highest-ranking glider pilot in the Army Air Force. He was qualified to fly both gliders and powered aircraft. Prior to entering military service in 1941 he had thrilled pre-war crowds as a barnstorming stunt pilot at air shows. In the 1930's he was known as the Flying Irishman. In the co-pilot's seat beside Murphy was Second Lieutenant John M. Butler, attached to the 53rd Troop Carrier Wing. Lashed-down behind them was Brigadier General Donald F. Pratt's personal Jeep. The vehicle was loaded with command radio equipment and several extra 5-gallon cans of gasoline. The general was seated in the passenger seat of his vehicle reading, with the aid of a flashlight, some last minute dispatches handed to him just before takeoff. First Lieutenant John L. May, the general's aide-de-camp, was seated on the small jumpseat behind the jeep holding in his lap a briefcase full of top secret documents and maps.
The Fighting Falcon was headed for Landing Zone "E" in Normandy, France as part of the 101st Airborne's "Chicago Mission." As the formation continued across the peninsula, the Fighting Falcon took some small-arms hits but no serious damage was done. Murphy said it sounded like popcorn popping when the slugs passed through the glider fabric. It was discovered later that the No. 2 glider had taken ninety-one small-arm hits in the tail section alone. Just west of the LZ "E", near the village of Hiesville, and ten miles inland from Utah Beach, the tow-plane pilot, Colonel Whitacre, signaled with a green light in the plane's astrodome (a transparent dome fitted in the cabin roof of an aircraft to allow the use of a sextant during astro-navigation.) that it was time for the glider pilot to release. According to Colonel Murphy, the time was just seconds
after 4:00 a.m. They were right on schedule. As he hit the glider release knob, Colonel Murphy heaved a sigh of relief as 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. From an altitude of only 450 feet, Lt. Col. Mike Murphy began his descent into the Normandy countryside. The early morning hours of the invasion and the slippery conditions of the landing caused the Fighting Falcon to skid into a tree-studded hedgerow. Colonel Murphy found himself hanging half in and half out of the glider, his torso restrained by his seat belt. Both of his legs were broken and he had a severely injured left knee, but he was still conscious. The general's aide was stunned but miraculously uninjured. In the wrecked glider were the bodies of General Pratt and Lt. Butler. The Fighting Falcon was a total wreck, incapable of ever flying again as were over half of the remaining gliders in the echelon. This portion of our story is depicted in the Steven Spielberg movie "Saving Private Ryan".