A prototype of the US Navy amphibious assault glider being towed at takeoff in 1942

In 1940, the German armed forces made the first significant use of glider aircraft to transport combat troops during their assault on Belgium. Eighteen months later, in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, US planners realized that the war against Japan would consist of a series of amphibious landings on Japanese held islands, starting in the South Pacific and progressing northward to the home islands. The conventional approach called for armored naval landing craft to transport US Marines from Navy troop ships to the beaches.

But some wondered if there might be a better way to get the Marines ashore. US Navy Captain Mark Mitscher and others, aware of the German successes in Belgium, thought that amphibious gliders might be a superior solution. The Bureau of Aeronautics agreed and, in early 1942, commissioned several prototypes, designed to transport 16-32 Marines to the assault beaches. Pleased with the results, the US Navy contracted with Allied Aviation of Baltimore to build 100 gliders for further testing. If the tests were successful, hundreds, perhaps thousands, more would be built.

Allied did not have the facilities in Maryland to do the work. After analysis of the requirements to build a canvas-over-wood-frame aircraft, it was determined that North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad area, well known for its furniture factories, had the skilled workers to get the job done. In February, 1942, Allied took over the former Planter’s Tobacco Warehouse at 840 North Trade Street, right at the junction with West Ninth Street, in Winston-Salem. Robert L. Evans was dispatched from Baltimore to oversee the conversion of the warehouse into a glider manufacturing plant.

The local office of the newly formed United States Employment Service was tasked with finding and training the people who would actually build the gliders. It was a difficult task. Director Claude Frederick pointed out to a Winston-Salem Journal reporter that this was a bit more than building tables. “Do you know what a ‘mock-up assembler’ is?” he asked. He soon learned. Sidney Morish, from the state office in Raleigh, put it more bluntly: “Just because a man has whittled for ten years in his basement doesn’t mean that he is a woodworker capable of helping build gliders.'” But soon the local office was hiring and training the future glider builders.

By late spring of 1943, dozens of area men were nearing the completion of their training. And Evans had 60 men putting the finishing touches on the plant. Special jigs and fixtures were being made in the machine shops at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The Journal sent reporter Robert A. Erwin to Baltimore to write a series of articles about Allied Aviation and how their operations would be applied in Winston-Salem. The series began its run in the May 16 issue of the paper, and continued for over a week. But by the then it was meaningless.

In analyzing the battle for Guadalcanal and other actions in the area, naval experts realized that they had underestimated the ferocity of the Japanese defenses that would be encountered from island to island. The probability that unarmored gliders would survive to deposit Marines on the beaches was near zero. On May 18, 1943, the Navy canceled the active glider program.

Soon, Robert Evans returned to Baltimore. The men being trained for glider production were released or reassigned. By the end of the war in 1945, the building at 840 North Trade was again just the Planters Tobacco Warehouse. Richard Miller, the ex officio historian of North Trade Street, tells me that the warehouse burned in the 1970s.

And so Winston-Salem’s opportunity to become the glider capitol of the universe disappeared forever.

Belt salesman during the tobacco market at Planter’s Warehouse, 840 North Trade Street, 1939.