United Boeing 767/757 First Officer Zach Cromley had never heard about World War II glider pilots until he moved to Loveland, Colorado, where his new neighbor was Roger Smith, a veteran of this unique squad of flyers.
The two have formed a friendship over the last decade. Cromley has even honored Smith by creating a memorial album and sharing his collection of war photos and documents with the National WWII Glider Pilots Association (NWWIIGPA).
As the grandson of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress flight engineer whom he never met, Cromley has had a longstanding interest in World War II. His fascination with and research into Smith’s combat glider mission in Southern France during Operation Dragoon (the code name for the Allies’ landing operation in Provence) earned Cromley the opportunity to become a member of the NWWIIGPA research team.
As a researcher, Cromley provides information to the family members of World War II glider pilots about their missions and campaigns. “It’s a true honor to continue the legacy of these brave heroes, and it’s something I plan to do forever,” Cromley says. “Becoming friends with Roger, you could say, made it all come full circle.”
Thanks to mutual connections and his research journey, Cromley was contacted by the Best Defense Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to honor and celebrate our veterans from past conflicts. The foundation was funding an all-expenses-paid battlefield return trip to Normandy for the 79th anniversary of D-Day and wanted Smith to join. He was unable to, but Cromley saw an opportunity to step in and help. And so, his journey to Normandy began.
While on the trip, Cromley provided 24/7 support to the veterans to ensure their safety and personal needs were met. He was paired with 102-year-old Richard Stewart, a communications linesman in the 459th Signal Construction Battalion and one of only 2,000 Black soldiers deployed to Normandy.
“I spent every extra minute I could talking with the veterans and learning about their experiences,” says Cromley. “I spent a lot of time talking to Mr. Stewart, specifically. It was incredible to learn about his experience, especially being in a segregated army unit and what that was like.”
The group visited many locations, including Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, Pegasus Bridge, Pointe du Hoc, Carentan, Sainte-Mère-Église, La Fière, La Cambe German War Cemetery, and the Normandy American Cemetery. At many of these stops, there were parades or ceremonies to recognize and honor the returning veterans—and also to pay respect to those who sacrificed their lives.
“Undoubtedly the most profound moment of the experience, for me, was sitting in the town of Sainte-Mère-Église and having a one-on-one conversation with Cliff Stump of the 82nd Airborne Division,” Cromley says. On D-Day, Stump was in an artillery company that rode on gliders behind enemy lines into a field near where the group was visiting.
“He told me about riding aboard the glider with an anti-tank artillery gun, and then how they fought on the ground, helping to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the rest of the American landings,” Cromley continues. “I could then show him on a map the general area of where he would have landed in his glider. Mr. Stump then asked me a few questions he’d always wondered about the gliders, and I was finally able to answer them for him.”
On the last day of the program, the group visited a school in France where nearly 1,000 children had the chance to meet the veterans and ask them questions.
“This truly was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Cromley says. “It was a privilege as a researcher to help provide historical context to many places we visited—but, most of all, it was such an honor to rub shoulders with 43 heroes from the Greatest Generation.”