Piloting a glider filled with troops and ammunition into combat during World War II has been described as akin to "flying a stick of dynamite through the gates of hell." But Martin Litton downplays his time at the controls of a CG-4A glider in the European theater, just as he downplays the fact that, at age 91, he still takes death-defying journeys.
"I did not have a spectacular career," says Litton, who served in the U.S. Army Air Force from June 1941 through February 1946 and today shoots river rapids, rowing a whitewater dory.
Litton logged about 400 hours in Army gliders during the war. He flew troops into Holland in 1944 as part of Operation Market Garden. He flew fuel and supplies into Bastogne and ferried the wounded to a field hospital in France. Litton also flew the engine-powered C-46 Curtiss Commando while in Europe and wrote occasional war dispatches for The Los Angeles Times. He later became a travel editor for Sunset.
A decade after World War II ended, Litton and his wife, Esther, became the 185th and 186th people to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. He offered the first commercial oar-powered trips through the canyon in the late 1960s.
Litton sold his guiding business 20 years ago, but he continues to run rivers, twice the oldest person to row the Grand Canyon - at 80 and 82.
Despite two artificial knees, an angioplasty and the loss of a kidney to cancer last year, Litton has no plans to slow down. The American Legion Magazine spoke with him.
Q: What was it like flying gliders into combat?
A: We didn't have it anything like the B-17 pilots, who were completely fatigued making those daylight bombing runs and dodging flak hour after hour. There were only eight missions in World War II in which gliders went into combat. I was involved in just two: Operation Market Garden and Bastogne. I never got a scratch in Operation Market Garden. Bastogne was awful. There was snow. Everything was frozen. There was blood everywhere. We were flying in fuel, ammunition and military hardware and taking wounded out. They stacked the wounded like cordwood.
Q: Are you still flying?
A: Yes. I have to fight the FAA harder than anyone else, but I pass all of the physicals with flying colors.
Q: You and well-known Grand Canyon guide P.T. Reilly were among the first to lead trips through the Grand Canyon. How did that relationship develop?
A: I met P.T. Reilly at a barbecue in Van Nuys, Calif., and he called me and started bugging me to row. He knew I rowed crew at UCLA, which, of course, was nothing like rowing the Grand Canyon. A couple of weeks before we were supposed to leave, I was thrown from a horse up in the Sierras and dislocated my shoulder. They used buckles and straps and chains and all kinds of things you couldn't imagine so I couldn't move my upper arm. I went down the river anyway, but I didn't row. The following year, we went again, and I rowed.
Q: You were one of the first to row Lava Falls, a legendary rapid that most boatmen were avoiding at the time. What was it like?
A: It was fun. I did a complete backward somersault in the rapid.
Q: How did you start Grand Canyon Dories and offering guided trips down the Colorado River in the late 1960s?
A: I just fell into it. People wanted to go and, not having any willpower, I couldn't say no. In those days, we charged $180 for a 21-day trip and we picked people up in Las Vegas.
Q: What keeps you running rivers at your age?
A: I keep getting invited on trips.
- Ken Olsen