By Jelane A. Kennedy
On our last visit to Michigan I talked my Mom and Eileen into going to visit The Fighting Falcon Military Museum in Greenville, Michigan about 40 minutes from Rockford where my Mom lives. I had done a little research a head of time to find out when they were open so that we could make a visit. The hours of operation were on Sundays from 2- 4:30 pm from May through Veterans Day and by special appointment.
For me the main attraction of the museum was to see a replica of The Fighting Falcon glider. The glider was known during WWII as the Waco CG-4A. It was made to carry a pilot, co-pilot and up to 13 infantrymen or small Howitzer or bulldozer. The idea for the glider was that it would be towed up into the air and released behind enemy lines and was one of the first stealth aircraft to be used.
It is considered a replica because it is not one that was built in one of the factories but was made of surplus parts found through out Michigan and even Germany. After the war the surplus gliders in their boxes were sold at auction. Many of the gliders were discarded in farm fields and barns as the wood from the boxes were used as building materials. Some gliders were also purchased and then built into homes and even travel trailers. 50 years after “Glider Day in Greenville” in 1993 a group of individuals began the process of collecting the parts and building a glider from start to finish.
One of the things that amaze me about the glider is that it was a one-way ticket. The pilot and co-pilot took on this job knowing that they would only once fiy this plane on a mission. It is hard to think about how the pilots would practice with their glider, get to know all it could do and all the creaks and funny sounds (like we do with our cars) and then know that once they left for a mission their beloved glider would be at the end of it’s life span. My guess it that the greater purpose that they felt for their work took over, it was the price they paid to do business.
Seeing the glider in person was unbelievable. It had over 70,000 individual parts. It was made of mostly wood and canvas. The height was 12’7” and it is 48’4” long with a wingspan of 83’8”. In many ways it look like a huge model airplane kit like the one’s you might buy at a hobby shop. The replica at the museum sits in a special room built onto the old Cass Street, Board of Education building, to hold the glider and it does not have a complete set of wings, the wings are clipped to fit in the room. Standing next to the glider and peering around inside you can see the intricacies of the plane. The number of hours it took to assemble one on the shop room floor itself was a feat to be imagined. One of the amazing things to see were pictures on the wall of the cockpit area hinged open to drive in a jeep or other big equipment and then think about it actually flying around with all that weight inside!
So how did a museum about The Fighting Falcon come to be in Greenville, Michigan? Well there are two stories to tell. The first was the story of the wartime contract. Gibson Electric Refrigerator Company was headquartered in Greenville, Michigan. The company was the merging of two companies one that built cabinets for ice blocks in Belding, Michigan and another competing company that built ice refrigerators. This all started in 1877 and the merger took place in the early 1900’s. Gibson’s as it was known in Greenville was a mainstay of manufacturing for the town (meaning jobs) until about 2004 when the headquarters and manufacturing plant was closed in Greenville after being bought and sold multiple times over the years (my sister’s husband has worked for this company his entire career). During WWII Gibson’s took on a couple of war contracts and one of those was for building the Waco CG-4 glider.
The US Army Air Force, US Navy, Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force (among others) used the Waco CG-4 during WWII. There were 16 companies that built gliders across the country. The two Michigan contracts were Ford Motor Company and Gibson’s. Out of the two Gibson’s was able get up to speed faster, building the gliders because of their history of working with wood. They still had at that time men in the shop with the wood working experience. The company that built the most gliders was Ford Motor with 4,190 gliders. Most of the other companies built less than that and Gibson’s was one of the top 6 manufactures with 1,078 built. 13,900 were delivered by wars end. The factories were open 24 hours a day during that time. The gliders were used in WWII and as late as 1950 for artic exploration.
The museum also has a small section upstairs discussing more of the war contracts Gibson serviced and other military artifacts through the museum. One of the upcoming exhibits will be about the war efforts on the home front. It would be great to hear more about the women and their jobs working in the factories. What it was like and the transition to factory work. I hope they are able to gather those stories before that oral history is lost.
The second part of the story is that in 1943, the students at Greenville Public Schools made the decision that they would see if they could fund raise enough money to pay for one of the Gibson made gliders. The students raised $72,000 in two-months time, which meant instead of one glider they had enough to purchase four gliders! May 19, 1943 was named “Glider Day in Greenville” and there was a big parade out to the football field and a glider was towed over head during the day.
At Black field a ceremony took place honoring the students with the Distinguished Service award from the US Treasury Department. The award is the third highest honor that is bestowed by the Secretary of the Treasury and is not presented very often. This was the first time it was given to school students.
Where my family history mergers is that my father was his class president all four years of high school at Greenville Public Schools and it was his senior year that this all took place. He was one of the students honored for collecting the most funds. My Dad joined and served in the Navy after high school as WWII was ending.
A long time ago when my Mom and I stopped at the Greenville Historical Society I remember one of the volunteers showing me an article about Glider Day, all I remembered is that he was in so way involved with the glider. My Mom didn’t remember this so when I suggested going to the museum she was not sure what I was up to but she was game. So she was very surprised when we arrived and at the door happened to be our former family eye doctor and his son (who plays the organ at Mom’s church in Rockford). I don’t know a lot about my Dad since he passed away when I was 7 and we moved to Greenville about that time. My Mom has been able to tell me bits and pieces that she knew of him. Before we moved to Greenville we had lived primarily in the Upper Peninsula in the Escanaba area.
While Eileen and I wandered the museum Mom got caught up with Dr. Dibble and his son. She later caught up with us. She did not know this history about my Dad and she got a kick out of see the old high school class photo, one we also had hanging around the house. Reading all the news clips and seeing the pictures added a new context to my father. My mom recognized some of the names in the article and was able to tell me more about what she knew of the connections. The slogan on the sign out front of the museum says “… whispers in the shadows” in many ways this sums up how I feel about my Dad.
In May 2018 the museum is planning an event to celebrate “Glider Day”, I am planning on attending. The question I still have unanswered is why did the student’s name one of the gliders “The Fighting Falcon” since the school mascot was the Yellow Jackets?
© 2017 Jelane A. Kennedy