When 20-year old Jackson County native Fletcher Williams was drafted Nov. 18, 1942, for service in World War II, he became a participant in some of the most historic events of the 20th Century.
The young recruit was first sent to Fort Thomas in Northern Kentucky where he was assigned to the 325th Glider Infantry of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne division. Next stop for Williams was Fort Bragg, N.C., for basic training and then glider training.
Gliders were the stealth aircraft of World War II, constructed of tubular steel and canvas skin. Built to be towed and then released by C-47 aircraft, these “Silent Wings” as they were called, contained no engines and were unarmed. More cynical observers dubbed gliders “Flying Coffins.”
Williams, now almost 92 and a resident of Morning Pointe in Richmond, said the purpose of gliders in World War II was to send soldiers most anywhere and land them behind the lines to reinforce troops. “Once we landed, we became regular infantry,” he said.
Just after the early D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, the young soldier was aboard a glider being towed at nighttime across the English Channel. “We flew right over Utah Beach so low we could see the Allied troops down there in the water.”
How did he feel on that momentous day when the Allied invasion of northern Europe began?
“We were told there would be 60 percent casualties at the beginning,” he said last week. “We got into that glider and flew over in the dark to avoid, as much as possible, the risk of being shot down.”
There was very little talk among the 13 infantrymen and two pilots on board his glider that night.
After the glider was released from its tow plane, Williams and his fellow infantrymen landed inland behind enemy lines in the Normandy countryside. The fighting was so fierce that his unit lost every officer. Williams was wounded July 4 and taken to a military hospital in England. Only seven of the enlisted men returned alive to their Englis base on July 7.
“We still had on the same uniforms we wore on D-Day, except maybe for a change of socks and underwear,” he recalled.
For his service in the European phase of World War II, Williams brought home a number of medals, including the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and a campaign ribbon with six stars for each of the campaigns he fought. He began his service as a private, was promoted to corporal and finally to sergeant.
Williams’ commander after D-Day was 26-year old Captain Wayne Pierce who later wrote a book called “Let’s go,” that told the story of the men who served in the 325th Glider Infantry.
Williams treasures his copy of the book that contains this inscription, “To my good buddy Fletcher Williams. Your service in Company C helped to make the 325th an outstanding regiment. I am proud to have served with you.”
Capt. Pierce signed the inscription on April 22, 1998.
Williams’ first taste of combat was a month before D-Day in Sicily during heavy fighting against both Italian and German forces. Next, the unit was sent to Salerno, Italy, where Williams left a “souvenir” in the sea water.
“We landed at night in landing crafts, pulled onto the beach, and a gang plank was dropped on either side of the craft, one on the right side and one on the left,” he explained.
In the dark of night, Williams chose to disembark on the right side and ended up in water over his head. He had to drop the 90 pound mortar weapon he was carrying to avoid drowning.
“It is still there as far as I know,” he chuckled.
After two weeks of fierce fighting, he and his fellow soldiers had to move to another position that required crossing over a mountain.
“We were on one end and the Germans on the other. We stayed on that mountain about two weeks, mostly fighting at night.”
In Naples, Italy, his unit had a more pleasant task of guarding bread lines and water lines for thousands of Italian civilians who were suffering from effects of the war.
His service also included a campaign in Holland called Operation Market Garden which was an unsuccessful attempt to secure a bridge along the Rhine River. A 1977 movie, “A Bridge Too Far,” based on the book by Cornelius Ryan, details this campaign. It featured an ensemble cast that included Sean Connery, Robert Redford and Ryan O’Neil.
Williams’ unit also fought in the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, when the Germans made a desperate attempt to repulse the western Allies.
He has vivivmemories of the salty language and the incredible leadership skills of Gen. George Patton, who died in an accident shortly after the war’s end and is buried in the American Cemetery in Luxembourg.
Williams was in Holland when word came that President Franklin Roosevelt had died on April 12, 1945. “I had never heard of Harry Truman, who was the vice-president. But he went on to become a very good president,” the veteran said.
Fletcher Williams is the youngest of four children born to N.B. and Sada Williams in the Kerby Knob community of Jackson County. Only he and a sister are still living.
He left Jackson county at age 18 to work for Huffman Manufacturing Company in Dayton, Ohio. He was there making bicycles and service station equipment for two years when he received his draft notice.
After the war, Williams got a job at the Blue Grass Army Depot and took training to become an ammunition inspector, a job that took him to ordnance facilities in the U.S. and abroad until his retirement June 30, 1973.
He has two daughters, Sandra Carol Brandcamp, a nurse, in Cincinnati, and Joy Foti, who works in the school system in Baton Rouge, La. There are five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He says with a big grin that those grandchildren and great-grandchildren are “just dandy.”