In the grim early days of World War II when their big brothers and dads and uncles were off fighting, the children of Greenville, Michigan, wanted to help. When their town’s Gibson Refrigerator Company got an unexpected government contract, the kids knew what to do. Gibson was building military gliders, and the students were going to buy one for the Army Air Force.

They hit up their relatives, knocked on doors, mowed lawns, and babysat to buy Savings stamps with a Minuteman’s image they pasted into booklets, ala Green Stamps. One booklet of 75 quarter stamps worth $18.75 paid for a $25 War Bond with a ten-year maturity. The students’ goal was to raise $17,000 to buy one

CG-4A glider. But $72,000 later, Greenville’s children bought four gliders that were shipped to England for the coming invasion to liberate Europe and end the war.

One of the gliders christened The Fighting Falcon made history. When the North Air Force Headquarters found out four of the 52 gliders in their Chicago Mission had been bought by school kids from a small Michigan town, they ordered The Fighting Falcon to be the lead glider on D-Day. To make it clear to everyone, they chalked a big white “1” on its nose.

Thus at 1:19 a.m. June 6, 1944,The Fighting Falcon’s C-45 tow plane headed into the darkness from Aldermaston England across the English Channel, the first of these 52 floating gliders to launch the invasion of Normandy.

Glider pilots nicknamed these engineless planes “flying coffins” for good reason. Made of plywood and fabric and unarmed, when these original “stealth planes” were released by their tow planes on D-Day, they “glided” unprotected over devastating German gunfire to land behind enemy lines. Some of those that didn’t get shot down hit one of the 4 million land mines the Germans had planted along the Normandy coast. Others smashed into hedgerow trees. Over half the 52 gliders crashed.

Some of the 52 Chicago Mission gliders carried 13 troops with their gear behind the line of Germans dug in along the beach to begin the fight that would end World War II within a year. Other gliders, including the Fighting Falcon, carried a jeep and two soldiers.

At 4 a.m. D-Day, the Fighting Falcon crash landed ten miles inland hitting hedgerow trees that killed its VIP passenger General Don Pratt seated in his Jeep. Sitting beside him, Pratt’s aide Lt. May survived. The pilot, Lt. Col. Mike Murphy, the highest ranking glider pilot in the Army Air Force, broke both legs, and his co-pilot Second Lt. John Butler was killed. This was depicted in the movie Saving Private Ryan.

Greenville, Michigan, never forgot the heroism of those glider pilots. By the end of WW II, one-third of all glider pilots had been killed or wounded. Neither did they forget the patriotism of their town’s children, nor the honor of having contributed the glider that led the D-Day invasion. And on this 75th anniversary of the day that began the end of Nazi Germany, neither can we forget the sacrifices of the 209,000 Allied troops killed or wounded that day.

To commemorate their town’s D-Day history, Greenville’s veterans spent 11 years traveling the globe to collect enough pieces of WW II gliders to build the replica of The Fighting Falcon now housed in Greenville’s military museum.

Here’s the link to a TV story on The Fighting Falcon Military Museum that is free and open Sundays by appointment.