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D-Day veteran, 100, dies before he can honor fallen comrades one more time


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British army veteran Bill Gladden, who survived a glider landing on D-Day and a bullet that tore through his ankle a few days later, wanted to return to France for the 80th anniversary of the invasion so he could honor the men who didn’t come home.

It was not to be.

Gladden, one of the dwindling number of veterans who took part in the landings that kicked off the campaign to liberate Western Europe from the Nazis during World War II, died Wednesday, his family said. He was 100.

D-DAY: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE HISTORIC WORLD WAR II BATTLE

Although weakened by cancer, Gladden had been determined to make it back to Normandy to take part in this year’s D-Day commemorations. With fewer and fewer veterans taking part each year, the ceremony may be one of the last big events marking the assault that began on June 6, 1944.

"If I could do that this year, I should be happy,’′ he told The Associated Press from his home in Haverhill, England, in January, even as he celebrated his birthday with family and friends. "Well, I am happy now, but I should be more happy."

Born Jan. 13, 1924, Gladden was raised in the Woolwich area of southeast London. His mother worked at the nearby Royal Arsenal during World War I and his father was a soldier.

He joined the army at 18 and was ultimately assigned to the 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment as a motorcycle dispatch rider.

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On D-Day, Gladden landed behind the front lines in a wooden glider loaded with six motorcycles and a 17,000-pound tank. His unit was part of an operation charged with securing bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal so they could be used by Allied forces moving inland from the beaches.

Based in an orchard outside the village of Ranville, Gladden spent 12 days making forays into the surrounding countryside to check out reports of enemy activity.

On June 16, he carried two wounded soldiers into a barn that was being used as a makeshift field hospital. Two days later, he found himself at the same hospital after machine gun fire from a German tank shattered his right ankle.

Lying on the grass outside the hospital, he read the treatment label pinned to his tunic:

"Amputation considered. Large deep wound in right ankle. Compound fracture of both tibia and fibula. All extension tendons destroyed. Evacuate."

Gladden didn’t lose his leg, but he spent the next three years in the hospital as doctors performed a series of surgeries, including tendon transplants, skin and bone grafts.

After the war, he married Marie Warne, an army driver he met in 1943, and spent 40 years working for Siemens and Pearl Insurance. He is survived by their daughter, Linda Durrant and her husband, Kenny.

Over the years, Gladden had regularly joined other old soldiers on trips to battlefields in Normandy and the Netherlands organized by the Taxi Charity for Military veterans.

"He had a wonderful gentle voice and loved nothing more than singing some of his favorite wartime songs,’’ said Dick Goodwin, the group’s honorary secretary. "Earlier this year, we had the joy of celebrating his 100 birthday in Haverhill and, testament to the man he was, the hall was packed with all those who knew and loved him.’’

Though he was happier talking about his family than reminiscing about the war, Gladden chronicled his wartime story in a scrapbook that includes a newspaper clipping about "the tanks that were built to fly," drawings of the glider landings and other memorabilia.

There’s also a scrap of parachute silk left behind by one of the paratroopers who landed in the orchard at Ranville. As he lay in the hospital recovering from his wounds, Gladden painstakingly stitched his unit’s shoulder insignia into the fabric.

The edges are frayed and discolored after eight decades, but "Royal Armoured Corps" still stands out in an arc of red lettering on a yellow background. Underneath is a silhouette of Pegasus, the flying horse, over the word "Airborne."

"These are the flashes we wore on our battledress blouses," reads the caption in Gladden’s neat block letters.

The same insignia decorated the top of his birthday cake in January as family and other guests belted out a round of "Happy Birthday to You."

But even then, Gladden was thinking about traveling back to Normandy to honor his comrades, especially the two soldiers he carried into that barn 80 years ago. They didn’t make it.

"He wanted to go to pay his respects,’′ his niece Kaye Thorpe's husband, Alan, told The Associated Press. ″I’d like to think he’s with them now. And that he’s paying his respects in person.’’

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