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Look Back:  Glider disaster, 1943

by Tim O'Neil --- Maj. William Robertson, an aviation pioneer here and co-founder of Lambert Field, had a factory that built gliders for World War II. St. Louis mayor William Dee Becker was a big promoter of the airport. The gliders were dangerous contraptions for dangerous missions in World War II, and on Aug. 1, 1943, Becker and Robertson were among dignitaries on a demonstration ride at Lambert. The day before, reporters had asked the mayor whether he was nervous. "They're asking our boys to use these things. Why shouldn't we?" Becker said. "When our time comes to die, there isn't much we can do about it." Moments before lifting off, passengers smiled for photographers. From left are Charles Cunningham, Max Doyne, Lt. Col. Paul Hazelton, Mayor William Dee Becker, Thomas Dysart, Maj. William Robertson, Harold Krueger and Judge Henry Mueller. At 3:55 p.m., the glider freed itself from the transport plane at 2,000 feet. Moments later, its right wing folded and broke away. The stricken craft plunged and slammed nose first into the ground near the runway. All 10 aboard were killed. Post-Dispatch Archive photo

ST. LOUIS • Maj. William Robertson, an aviation pioneer here and co-founder of Lambert Field, had a factory that built gliders for World War II. Mayor William Dee Becker was a big promoter of the airport.

The unpowered Army gliders were made of steel tube, canvass and plywood, and were designed to carry soldiers and equipment. They were pulled aloft by transport planes on nylon tethers and let loose to descend into rough landings behind enemy lines. They were dangerous contraptions for dangerous missions.

On Aug. 1, 1943, Becker and Robertson were among dignitaries on a demonstration ride at Lambert. The day before, reporters had asked the mayor whether he was nervous.

"They're asking our boys to use these things. Why shouldn't we?" Becker said. "When our time comes to die, there isn't much we can do about it."

Margaret Becker, his wife, wanted to go along, but Army regulations barred women from military aircraft. The passengers posed for photographers before a C-47 transport slowly pulled them from the runway before thousands of spectators.

"Now, watch the glider," said a voice over the loudspeaker.

At 3:55 p.m., the glider freed itself at 2,000 feet. Moments later, its right wing folded and broke away. The stricken craft plunged and slammed nose first into the ground near the runway. All 10 aboard were killed.

Among the stunned witnesses was Margaret Becker, who was rushed to their apartment at 5374 Delmar Boulevard and was placed under police guard. Aldermanic President Aloys P. Kaufmann became mayor. The next day, residents filled the Scottish Rite Cathedral in midtown for the funeral for Becker, 66, a former judge and Republican who had been elected mayor in 1941.

Army investigators found poor grades of metal in fittings that held the wing struts to the fuselage. They traced them to a subcontractor and grounded 200 Robertson gliders. A federal grand jury downtown slammed Robertson's quality control but issued no indictments.

Refitted Robertson gliders took part in the pre-dawn attacks on Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The company closed at war's end.

Also killed in the crash were Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Dysart; city officials Max Doyne and Charles Cunningham; St. Louis County Presiding Judge Henry Mueller; Robertson Aircraft chief engineer Harold Krueger; the pilot, Army Capt. Milton Klugh; the mechanic, Pvt. Jack Davis; and Lt. Col. Paul Hazelton of the Army material command. Their names are etched into a marble memorial on the main staircase in City Hall.