published Sunday, November 11th, 2012

World War II vet flew 'canvas coffins'

Clinton Riddle, a 91-year-old World War II veteran, talks about his time in the glider corps in the "War Room" of his Sweetwater, Tenn., home Wednesday. Riddle, who was a member of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, now frequently travels to schools and events, sharing his wartime experiences to keep WWII history alive.
Clinton Riddle, a 91-year-old World War II veteran, talks about his time in the glider corps in the "War Room" of his Sweetwater, Tenn., home Wednesday. Riddle, who was a member of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, now frequently travels to schools and events, sharing his wartime experiences to keep WWII history alive.
Photo by Alyson Wright.

ABOUT VETERANS DAY

The holiday began as Armistice Day in 1919, to be observed on Nov. 11 each year, commemorating the anniversary of the end to World War I.

Congress passed a resolution in 1926 for an annual observance and Nov. 11 became a national holiday beginning in 1938.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation in 1954 to change the name to Veterans Day.

Some confuse today with Memorial Day, a holiday established to honor war dead following the Civil War.

SWEETWATER, Tenn. — This time of year Clinton Riddle's phone rings pretty often.

The 91-year-old World War II veteran embodies a unique experience of war that will likely never be seen again.

He is one of a few remaining glider infantrymen who rode in or piloted flimsy "canvas coffins" that, by design, resulted in crash landings on nearly every flight.

"They said you had to be half crazy to get on one of those and I said, 'Well, I meet the qualifications,'" Riddle said.

Today, on Veterans Day 2012, veterans across the country will be honored in speech and song, parade and prayer by comrades in arms as well as relatives, public officials and complete strangers, all on behalf of a nation grateful for their service.

Riddle is among a dwindling population of 1.8 million living World War II veterans, according to the 2010 U.S. census, down from 5.7 million counted in 2000. Nearly 13 million Americans served in the war.

In the past decade Riddle has spoken at dozens of local schools, nursing homes and veterans groups about his service during the war. He owns shelves of war history books that bear his name and youthful U.S. Army photo as the subject of authors' interviews on the subject.

He's scheduled to talk Monday at Decatur Middle School for Veterans Day events.

After being drafted at 21, the Loudon County native was assigned to the 325th Glider Infantry with the newly formed 82nd Airborne Division soon and sent to Casa Blanca, Morocco, for the Army's North Africa campaign.

His unit invaded Italy, liberating parts of Naples and helping the people re-establish a local government.

But the men were soon loaded on ships and sent to the United Kingdom for a much larger invasion -- D-Day.

The massive assault in 1944 combined paratroopers, beach landings and scores of gliders towed into the sky by large transport planes and then set loose to crash down behind enemy lines and help move the invasion forward.

His made the Normandy landing in a British-made glider that held 33 men and nearly came to pieces on landing.

For most of the trip gliders floated high enough to be out of range of small arms fire and were pointed toward spots just out of the fighting, so soldiers could exit the aircraft and regroup before patrolling on foot to attack the enemy.

After fighting 33 days and nights, liberating French villages and losing more than a third of the unit's soldiers, the men were sent back to England for an assault on German-occupied Holland. This time the ride was somewhat more comfortable in a smaller American-made glider that held 13 soldiers.

Riddle co-piloted that flight and tore off a piece of the hull upon landing, later writing on it the name of each man aboard. The artifact is framed in his home.

Shortly after the Holland battles wound down Riddle remembers sitting in his foxhole there, reading his New Testament and praying.

"I told the Lord if he let me get home then I'd do what he wanted me to do," Riddle said. "Of course I had to go through the Battle of the Bulge after that."

The soldier felt a "hedge" around him throughout his time in combat. On a day he was called up to work briefly in the command headquarters, his replacement on a patrol was killed along with 18 others in a German machine gun ambush.

"I can't explain it," he said.

Near that preserved piece of the glider is another batch of names in a thin black notebook he found while in Naples. He had each man in the unit write his name and age as they headed to the next battle.

Riddle's finger glides over names as he flips pages, recounting memories of the men.

It hovers over the name of one he shared a foxhole with. "Worthers -- Robt. D." reads the black ink. To the far right, in blue ink, Riddle had scrawled three letters -- KIA.

"That stands for killed in action," Riddle said.

The Columbus, Ohio, man died in the ambushed patrol along with Riddle's replacement. Riddle remembers Worthers sharing photos of his new infant son sent to him while the men were fighting in Italy.

Years later that son contacted Riddle and he shared what he knew of the man's father.

When Riddle came home he kept his word to God and became a Baptist minister, a career from which he has since retired.

Like many of his generation, he seldom talked about his war experience until he was asked to talk with a history class years ago. Since then he tries to visit as many groups offering invitations as he can.

"The more that I shared with people the less it bothered me," he said.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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