Operation Marketgarden. The name conjures up controversy and debate to this day. The plan was a daring gamble that failed and cost many lives. The Allies were pushing back the German armies in the low countries in September 1944. Allied planners were concerned about securing key bridges across the Rhine, the wide river at Germany's western edge. They conceived a bold plan to drop massive numbers of paratroopers into Holland to seize several key bridges. This plan called for fast-moving armor to penetrate through German lines and cross the secured bridges into Germany.
The main assault was made on September 17, 1944. The first British Airborne was dropped near Arnhem and Oosterbeek, the U.S. Eighty-second Airborne near Nijmegen, and the U.S. 101st Airborne near Son and Veghel. British paratroopers occupied the north end of the bridge at Arnhem on the first day, but Allied intelligence had failed to discover that two of Germany's crack panzer divisions were in the area. The surprised Germans acted quickly to reclaim the bridges, and Allied armor never would break through.
Gerald Galarneau was born in Minneapolis and enlisted in 1941 after graduation from the University of Minnesota. He volunteered for service as a glider pilot, a unique breed of fearless fliers. The gliders were unforgiving and required careful piloting from trained professionals. The towplane controlled when the gliders would be released to land, regardless of the intensity of ground fire. The towplane brought the gliders in low to the ground, making them easy targets as they neared the landing zone. The speed of the gliders dropped off considerably after release, increasing their vulnerability and reducing the possibility of a safe landing. Furthermore, as the glider was made of little more than wood and canvas, the pilot was the first to go if the glider hit a tree or a German antiglider barrier.
Only six thousand glider pilots flew in World War II. They were invaluable because of their specialized training, so headquarters made every effort to control the number of men lost on each mission. Consequently, the men's orders upon landing were clear: get back to Allied lines. They were not to risk their lives in combat. In reality, these orders were difficult to follow. Gliders by definition landed behind enemy lines, and there was generally no easy way back until the fighting was done. They were not about to tell the glider troops they carried in that they would not fight alongside them until they contacted the main units.
Galarneau underwent advanced glider pilot training at Victorville, California. During training, he and his copilot managed to survive a glider crash when their plane went into a tight, uncontrollable spiral. The near-death incident was a turning point for the young man, who wrote: "I looked death in the eye and it backed down; and the something beyond death looked me in the eye and I backed down....At that moment, everything changed and my life has never been the same."
Galarneau graduated from advanced training on February 8, 1943, and was appointed a flight officer. Soon thereafter he was assigned to the 316th Troop Carrier Group, whose motto was "Valor without Arms." He participated in several landings in the Mediterranean theater but missed the D-Day-minus-one landing. The Americans loaned some of their best pilots including Galarneau, to the British. The American glider units did so well that the British gliders never went in. Galarneau felt bad that he had missed being with his comrades in the colossal D-Day expedition.
Galarneau's load for Operation Marketgarden was six men from the Eighty-second Airborne Division and a Jeep. His targeted landing zone, sixty miles behind German lines, was near the town Nijmegen, Holland. The paratroopers were to hold a key bridge over the Waal River and prevent the Germans from destroying it. Galarneau's orders after delivering the men and equipment to the target were to disengage with the airborne and make his way back to the Allied lines. Unfortunately German panzer divisions stood in his way. He happened to run into his good friend and fellow pilot Bob McQuillan.
We became engaged in the process of bringing order out of the chaotic conditions around us. In other words, we began looking for a safe place to wait until the British Army arrived. This was not going to be easy, but we did stumble onto the airborne command post set up by General Gavin who was the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne. His command post was hidden in a pine forest and we reasoned that if anyone would survive this mess, it would be the general.
German artillery exploding in the treetops and showering the area with shrapnel prompted the two pilots to abandon their half-finished foxholes and move on.
Galarneau and McQuillan came across twenty paratroopers of the Eighty-second. The commanding officer requested their support in stopping German tanks reportedly coming into the area. Galarneau later wrote "With nothing better to do and with little choice, we volunteered." The two pilots marched down the road with their new comrades for about half an hour. The officer ordered his men to dig in, then instructed Galarneau and McQuillan to follow him. Galarneau wrote:
The three of us continued down the road for about another mile. Here the terrain narrowed and any approaching tank would move down on the road in order to advance. At this place, he handed us his bazooka and a couple of rockets and told us to dig in. Our duty was to stop any tank or tanks from getting beyond this point. It was becoming dark and he left us with the chilling words, we would be relieved in the morning. At that moment, we knew if any tanks came down that road we would never see the morning. We could possibly get of one shot or maybe two and alert the officer and his men, but tanks do not come alone, but usually in groups and their infantry follows close behind. Luckily for us there were no tanks that night and in the morning we were relieved by the officer.
Galarneau and his buddy made it to Allied lines three days later with the help of the Dutch Resistance. Operation Marketgarden was a disaster, with some twelve thousand Allied casualties. It was the last great glider raid against Germans.
Gerald Galarneau returned home to Minneapolis a second lieutenant. He married and raised a large family around which he built a good life. He died on February 11, 2004, at the age of eighty-five. He is buried in section 20-A, grave site 838, at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.