I shook his hand. A pleasure to share
a meal and a story 60 years later.

The Sergeant Who
Captured A Division


by Wallace Wood

Clive Ridpath
Eve of July 4, 2004

As a way to mark the Fourth of July celebration I visited my old Homestead Mobile Park friends in Santa Cruz, California, for a dinner and get-together. Of course we had a wonderful time.

I happened to sit next to someone I never met before, a heavy-set man of average height who had trouble walking. Halfway through his conversation with a woman across from him, my ears picked up something like ..."Yes, the Yanks had serious trouble at Omaha Beach, but so did the Brits at Sword , Juno and Gold..."

That got my attention.

"Were you there?" I asked.

"Oh, yes. Not on the beach. I was flying a C-47 dropping supplies and towing gliders and such."

"Ah, the old Gooney Bird."

He gave a short laugh. "Yes, what an aircraft. Designed in 1933 or so as a passenger plane. Could take fantastic amounts of damage and keep flying; parts blown off, bits of the wing, bits of the tail, but she would bring you home."

While he expounded his theory of why the Gooney Bird could survive

Gooney Bird with D-Day markings. Courtesy
www. bragg.army.mil

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such damage, I studied him. Dark hair with little gray, very sharp almost protruding eyes. Didn't look old enough to be in the war. His Brit accent had an odd burr.

..."You see, the German gunners were very good. You had to aim ahead of the aircraft, lead it like a hunter shooting a rabbit, and of course you were aiming for the center of bulk. But the

Flak over Germany courtesy www.angelfire.com
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C-47 Dakota had nothing in the center but cargo. The crew was all crammed up front. So the bullets passed right through without much damage.."

With all the recent WWII focus, he was glad to find an audience and get a little attention for what he had done as a defining moment of his life.

..."I was only 20 and so was our crew. When the paratroopers
climbed on board, I could almost hear them thinking: 'our lives are in the hands of these kids?' "

"D-Day was bad," I observed. "A lot of mistakes."

..."Oh, the worst mistake was the night drops. Not possible to see where your parachute was coming down. They landed in trees, on rooftops, on steeples..."

"But wasn't that better than daylight when the enemy could shoot you like sitting ducks?" Another neighbor had joined in. Our flier had an audience of five now, including the lady conversationalist across from him.

..."I don't think so," he answered. "You could see where you were going and so could the pilots. So many paratroopers simply got lost, especially at night, but even in daylight."

Then there was the disaster at Arnhem, a Dutch town, where paratroops were trying to capture bridges into German territory and spearhead a killer strike into the Reich homeland. "You know, 'A Bridge Too Far..." he meant the movie. (See Market Garden)

"I was towing gliders in, and looked down on the Ardennes Forest. I could see hundreds of German tanks and thousands of troops hidden in there. They knew we were coming. They

Paratroop drop courtesy
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didn't know when, but they had a good idea where. You've heard it said, 'your blood runs cold'? Well, my blood ran cold when I saw that."

C-47 with D-Day markins. Courtesy

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"You let the gliders loose anyway?" someone asked.

"Had to. Couldn't go back. And had to bring in another set as reinforcements next day. Told the staff, of course, at de-brief. Just shook their heads. Was already planned."

He added he had heard "a lot of rat-a-tat drumming" during the flight." When he checked his plane, "it had a neat row of dents underneath from machine guns. I thanked God they didn't

penetrate." Later, at the Battle of the Bulge and "the last push of the Luftwaffe, I looked up to see a Focke-Wulf 190 heading right toward us. I put the stick forward and dove. We had no armament, not a thing. Your only hope was to get down to treetop level and make a steep turn (the C-47 was very slow). The fighter pilot had to slow down to get at you, and you hoped he would lose control at such a slow speed and crash."

Fortunately, as his eyes bugged out at the sight of the charging FW 190, another sight came into view. "A P-51 Mustang saw what was going on and came after the '190. Well, the German pilot knew wars are not won by dead heroes. He got the hell out of there. I don't know who that P-51 pilot was, but I'm eternally grateful."

In his opinion, "two things won the war. The C-47 with all the supplies and troops it carried, and the Jeep."

His last story was a good one. Transferred to India after VE-Day, his squadron was ferrying men and supplies to the front (he didn't fly The Hump, but just about everyplace else).

"We heard the news that Japan had surrendered. Two days later, we found out why (meaning the atomic bombs). (See

FW-190 courtesy
macswitch.tripod.com/ berlingermany/
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Trinity, THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS) We still had hard work to do bringing in food and supplies to the prison camps held by the Japanese. Most of those prisoners were starving. We had taken off from Rangoon (Burma) headed for Saigon (Vietnam). You've heard of a wall of water? Well, we saw a solid wall of water in front of us, full of rain and lightning, up to 35,000 feet or more. The C-47 wouldn't fly much over 15,000. No way we were going to fly into that. We tried to go around, but couldn't. It was coming too fast. We couldn't make any base now.

"Nothing to do but look for a "found" airstrip, anything to land on. The jungle was just like a green carpet. Then we saw a red-rock airstrip below. Stood out like a sign in the green jungle. Not an aircraft anywhere. Empty. Nothing. After a couple of look-sees, I took it in.

"No sooner had I cut the fans and rolled to a stop than a truck full of Japanese soldiers drove out of the jungle headed right for us.

"We looked at each other in the cockpit. All we had were our sidearms. Nothing to fight a lorry full of soldiers. "When we exited, the soldiers were all around us. The Japanese officer marched up to us and saluted. I almost fainted with relief."

Gooney Bird with D-Day markings. Courtesy
www. bragg.army.mil

Click image for a larger view
The fliers were driven to the Japanese camp. "It was a whole division! We were ushered into the office, and there was a Japanese adjutant who spoke better English than I did. He explained to me as the pilot that they had heard of the surrender. He said the division general wanted to offer his troops' surrender to someone, and would I mind if he surrendered to me?

"So we had a little ceremony where I accepted his sword and pistol."

The adjutant had lived in England., he said, and made sure the prisoners of the Japanese were well-treated, an exceptional thing among Japanese occupiers. "They treated us very well indeed. An ex-P.O.W. told me that the Nip troops got, the prisoners got, all due to that adjutant."

The aircrew gassed up and flew on once the storm had passed. After landing, he explained to his staff officer about the surrender.

"Wot! You're just a bloody staff sergeant, not an officer. How dare you accept a surrender?" the officer demanded.

"Well, sir, I told him, I sure as hell wasn't going to argue about it."

I asked this lucky C-47 pilot his name.

"Clive," he told me. "Clive Ridpath, sounds like Red Path. I'm English, of Scottish descent."

Later, when I told him I was writing down his story, he made some corrections and additions. "I joined the R.A.F. at seventeen-and-a-quarter, right out of the student Air Training Corps. Don't know why they insisted on that 'quarter'. I'm 80 years old now. I served with 512 Squadron, R.A.F. 46 Group flying out of Broadwell, Oxfordshire. I'm not sure it was the Ardennes Forest we flew over, since Arnhem is in Holland. We flew over a lot of forest, that's all I know.

"But the most important thing is to mention the work we did flying out the wounded. If the troops got hit, they could be at a hospital in England in a few hours. As fast as the engineers could lay down the "Summerfeld" tracking over the grass ---that was interlocking metal mesh invented by the Americans --- we flew in with a nurse to pick them up after D-Day. It was often so close to the front you could almost hear the fighting. It meant a lot to those lads to know they would be home soon."

I shook his hand. A pleasure to share a meal and a story 60 years later.

Wallace Wood (no relation to the famed Mad Magazine cartoonist) is a San Jose State University journalism graduate. He worked for the San Jose Mercury/News as a stringer, then briefly for the Sunnyvale Standard/Mt.View Register-Leader (now defunct) before spending years at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. All California papers. He is now "retired".

A series of his on paper subdivisions won third place in Associated Press competition for the tiny Sentinel statewide behind two L.A. Times writers. But another series on the business of death at funeral homes had greater impact, leading to many self-imposed reforms in the industry.

Wallace Wood
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