Gliding through tough memories

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Retired Judge Lenton Sartain wears his Army leather jacket that he wore in World War II. On D-Day, Sartain landed in Normandy as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division's 319th Glider Field Artillery. Buy this photo
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Retired Judge Lenton Sartain wears his Army leather jacket that he wore in World War II. On D-Day, Sartain landed in Normandy as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division's 319th Glider Field Artillery.

In his first two years in the Army, C. Lenton Sartain Jr., of Baton Rouge, qualified as a paratrooper, served in North Africa, fought in Italy and trained endlessly with his unit.

But nothing was like D-Day.

When American, British and Canadian forces invaded German-held France on June 6, 1944, no one had it easy. But Sartain, then a lieutenant known to his men as Charlie, may have had one of the most dangerous ways of getting into Fortress Europe.

Sartain was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 319th Glider Field Artillery Battalion. While most of the soldiers arrived by boat or parachute, Sartain was among those who came on clumsy aircraft ill-suited for this occasion.

Regardless, those aboard them helped begin the eastward push that ended in Germany’s surrender 11 months later.

“The glider landing in Normandy was very crucial, but it was very costly,” said Sartain, 92, now a retired judge. “We lost a lot of people just by Normandy having such small fields. … It was a touch-and-go situation there for a while.”

Delivering troops by gliders instead of parachutes meant groups of soldiers would land at the same location rather than scattered, and they could bring vehicles and other heavy equipment with them. Germany used them in combat first, and British and American militaries started their own glider units.

Many soldiers assigned to such units had become parachute infantry, or airborne, soldiers, which carried a certain status. So, a lot of them didn’t like being assigned to the 319th.

“They were not pleased at all being in a damn glider outfit,” Sartain said. “But we were in a glider outfit, and we didn’t have much to say about it. The glider outfit, it was not appreciated. But once in it, and we saw a couple of campaigns, we were pretty well satisfied.”

The 319th did not use gliders for their landing in August at Maiori, Italy, near Salerno. They fought there for three months before being shipped to Northern Ireland, then England, to train for the invasion of France. They eventually were headquartered at Papillon Hall outside Market Harborough, about 40 miles east of Birmingham, England.

Though Italy’s hilly terrain made glider assaults impossible, the Normandy countryside was thought to be flat enough to make gliders useful on D-Day. Aerial photos of the area showed small fields that were surrounded by what appeared to be hedges.

“They took the pictures at noon, which showed the trees looking like shrubs,” Sartain said. “We thought they were going to be shrubs, but we found they were tall trees on the hedgerows. That’s what ripped up the gliders. It tore the gliders all to pieces.”

In many of the fields, defenders erected poles designed to destroy gliders before they landed. Although attack was at night, antiaircraft fire opened up at the sound of the airplanes towing the gliders once they reached the French coast.

Sartain’s glider managed to land without anyone being injured, coming down in a lane that cut through a hedgerow, which tore off the wings as the plane slid to a halt.

Many gliders and paratroopers landed far from their designated sites.

“It worked out. We were scattered,” Sartain said. “By being so scattered, we scared a lot of people, particularly the Germans, who were the ones we wanted to scare in the first place.”

Sartain’s battery used the small, 75 mm howitzers they brought by glider. After linking up with troops who’d landed at Utah Beach, they used 150 mm artillery. They fought for a month before returning to England. Of the 337 men who flew into Normandy, half of the officers and 35 percent of the enlisted men were casualties. Sartain estimates that half of those casualties came from glider crashes.

He also participated in the invasion of the Netherlands, Operation Market-Garden, in September 1944. For the glider troops, getting in was a breeze — wide-open fields that made landings easy — but the operation failed in its ultimate goal of paving a quick invasion route into Germany.

The 82nd Airborne remained on the continent for the rest of the war, including the bitterly cold Battle of the Bulge, and drove into the heart of Germany. They liberated the Wobbelin concentration camp near Ludwigslust, Germany, and required local residents to dig graves for hundreds of unburied corpses buried there.

“The townspeople said they didn’t know, they were horrified at Wobbelin,” Sartain said. “The hell with that. It was no farther from here to the road out there.”

After the war, Sartain returned to his hometown, finished law school and began a career that led him to a 1st Circuit Court of Appeal judgeship. His daughters, Lynn Kilgore and Charlotte Provenza, said he never spoke about the war until after she convinced him to take her sons to see the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

In 1986, while the family visited England, they went back to Papillon Hall. After they toured the grounds, a woman who lived there invited them inside and asked his name. She retrieved a teapot containing notes written by other veterans who had visited after the war. Many of the notes mentioned him.

“She kept them all for visitors to read,” Provenza said. “It was very emotional and really cool. (She) offered for Pops to take the notes that were written to him, which were a lot, but he said, ‘Nope.’ ”