As America gets ready to celebrate Veterans Day on Saturday, Nov. 11, one group of veterans slowly fading away is the generation that fought and won World War II.
Most surviving veterans are in their 90s, but for soldiers and airmen like Stoughton’s David Cuff, the years haven’t dimmed the memories and experiences they had as young men and women, serving their country in the largest, deadliest war the world has ever seen.
Cuff was born in Rio, just north of Dane County. Growing up in the rural area, he had experience flying Piper Cub aircraft, and he earned his pilot’s license before he graduated from high school in 1941. The next year, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army Air Force to get into pilot’s training.
He got training all right, but not in a fighter plane or even a bomber. He would be one of the first airmen to join the country’s fledgling glider program.
“They needed glider pilots, so I got the bum’s rush,” Cuff told the Hub last week. “They didn’t tell you anything, you just got on a train and went.”
The early gliders were basically copies of a German version and would hold up to 13 people or a combination of people and vehicles – or as they would find out in Africa – even animals. He said flying a glider was quite an experience.
“They were towed behind planes with nylon rope, so the airplane would be doing about 60 knots when it hit the rope, and the rope would stretch and stretch,” he said. “Then, things come tight real quick and you go from zero miles an hour to 60 knots in a manner of seconds.”
Cuff spent six weeks in basic training in Texas, where he learned all he could about gliders and how to fix them before shipping out to Fort Bragg, N.C., the home of the Airborne Infantry. There, he would begin working with the men whom he would fly into battle – and join as a common infantryman when they hit the ground.
“We got to be airborne soldiers and run 20 miles a day and sleep in the mud,” Cuff said.
After a fatal glider accident prompted the grounding of the entire program for a month or so, the gliders and pilots were shipped to North Africa, where they would play a role in Operation Torch, the first combat action for U.S. troops in the European theater.
Going with the flow
Landing in Casablanca, Morocco, in May 1943, Cuff and the green Americans joined up with experienced British forces.
The Brits already had been battling the Germans and Italians back and forth over Northern Africa for several years. The Americans weren’t used to the enemy or the climate.
“When we got there, we had on woolen underwear, woolen pants, woolen shirt and a field jacket, and it was about 90 degrees, which wasn’t actually too hot compared to the rest of Africa,” he said. “The first thing we did was march up a mountain.”
Gliders were being sent there to be assembled for the impending invasion of Sicily, but Cuff soon learned he wouldn’t be heading to Italy at the controls of one. British commander Bernard Montgomery wanted the more experienced British glider pilots to go into combat, so Cuff helped out the engineers instead.
He ended up flying aircraft that were about as different as can be from the “disposable” gliders – the massive C-47 transport plane, hauling freight and helping engineer units when needed.
“They found stuff for you to do,” he said of the new mission, which changed once again after the Allies landed in France and began to steamroll their way toward Germany.
“Moving across Europe, we became medevacs,” he said. “We followed about 20 miles behind (U.S. General George) Patton and picked ’em up, and if we could, we’d haul em over to Western England.”
It was during his year in Africa and Italy that Cuff found out all about Allied ingenuity – or experimenting.
Officers consulted Army veterinarians to determine the practicality of loading burros onto the gliders for use on the hilly island as pack animals, creating a novel airborne “force.”
“One engineer asked them how the burros were going to respond to that, and they said, ‘How the hell would we know?’” Cuff remembered with a laugh. “So we hauled a few burros, but under the condition that someone was there with a shotgun in case you got a bad burro that started to take over the glider.”
Once the glider program was shut down, Cuff started flying anti-submarine patrols around the Mediterranean in British Wellington bombers.
After the D-Day invasions of June 1944, his unit was transferred to an old Royal Air Force base about 100 miles north of London, called Cottesmore. From there, he flew many resupply missions into Nazi-occupied Europe, including the famous relief of the Bastogne, Belgium, area around Christmas of 1944.
It was while stationed in England that Cuff experienced the terror of a German V-2 rocket attack, even though he was more than a mile away from the blast.
“That’s as close as I’d ever want to be,” he said. “The shock wave from the explosion moves at 20,000 feet per second. I just happened to be looking in that direction and could see everything just coming up before your eyes. The next thing you know, you’re flat on the ground.”
By May 1945, it became obvious to “almost everyone the war was almost done,” Cuff said. He had met a British girl who worked in an airplane factory, and the two were married May 4. The war ended May 9.
After the wedding, Cuff and his unit were stationed at an old French army base in the northwest of the country. Soon, the roads were filled with “Gypsies” returning to area after spending the previous few years hiding from the Nazis, who had routinely captured them to be sent to concentration camps.
The base soon turned into a massive refugee camp, right in front of their eyes.
“Engineers came in and created a runway, then the army came in and started putting up tents, tents, tents,” he said. “We didn’t know what was going on. It just exploded. We were the reception committee.”
Soon, Cuff and his fellow flyers were converting bombers into transport planes and flying all over Europe, bringing displaced people – mostly Jews – back from concentration camps.
“They were a sorry lot, and most of them didn’t know if they had any relatives, they were just walking and walking,” he said. “I was there only six weeks, and I don’t think I could have maintained my sanity any longer. It was horrific.”
Finally, with the war over, the more experienced service members got to return home. After a roundabout trip to Antwerp, Belgium, to wait for a transport home, seven days later he was pulling into Boston Harbor.
Cuff stayed active in the service, and in 1949 he joined the Air National Guard, where he served as a technician for 38 years, including more than six years of active duty. He retired as a senior master in 1983.
“They kicked me out when I was 60,” he said.
His first wife died in 1969, and he remarried after meeting his current wife, Mary. The couple lived in Madison for about 30 years before moving to Stoughton in 2006, where they enjoy gardening, taking water aerobics classes, staying active and watching their grandchildren grow up.
“We like Stoughton,” Mary Cuff said. “It’s a great community feeling.”