On 12th January, Taxi Charity drivers, volunteers and supporters headed to Haverhill in Suffolk to surprise WWII veteran, Bill Gladden, for his milestone birthday. We spoke to Taxi
Charity Vice Chairman and London cabbie, Colin Mills, about Bill’s celebrations.
What a wonderful age, how was Bill’s party?
Colin: Everyone was sworn to absolute secrecy, as Bill thought he was going out for a birthday meal with his family. We didn’t want to spoil the surprise party that his niece, Kaye, had worked so hard to arrange.
Around 100 members of family, friends and Taxi Charity volunteers headed to Haverhill for the party, which was held at a local football club. There was a huge amount of press interest in it and those who interviewed him before the party also had to keep mum.
When he arrived, he was met with a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday from guests, while cameramen and journalists from the BBC, the Associated Press and the Press Association recorded his entrance and reaction. To say he was surprised is an understatement! The absolute joy on his face was something I will never forget.
Do you know Bill well?
Colin: We all do! He is such a wonderful man who has always been a hugely important part of so many trips with us to Normandy and the Netherlands. He loves painting and many of us have portraits of our pets that he's done for us. He also loves singing and everyone looks forward to him entertaining us after dinner with a song from the ‘40s. How he remembers the lyrics I will never know. When he sang at his birthday party the room fell totally silent!
What is Bill’s D-Day story?
Colin: Bill was a dispatch rider with the 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment and landed in Normandy on D-Day, 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 Normandy beaches.
Based in an orchard outside the village of Ranville, Bill spent 12 days making forays into the surrounding countryside to check out reports of enemy activity. On 16th June, he carried two injured soldiers into a barn that was being used as a makeshift field hospital. Two days later, he found himself at the same barn, his right ankle shattered by machine gun fire.
I remember him telling me that, as he was lying on the grass outside of it, 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.” Can you imagine seeing that?
Fortunately, Bill didn’t lose his leg, but he spent the next three years in the hospital as doctors, including renowned surgeon Archibald McIndoe, performed a series of surgeries, including tendon transplants, skin and bone grafts.
How significant are the trips to Normandy for Bill?
Colin: Visiting Normandy to remember the friends that didn’t come home is so important, not only for Bill but for all the other veterans we have the pleasure of supporting. In 2022, during the D-Day visit, we were able to take him to see the barn he had been carried to. The French owners couldn’t have been more hospitable and took him inside to see where his life had been saved. The emotion on his face and us being able to do this for him is what makes the Taxi Charity so very special.
Last year, Bill read a poem at the D-Day service, at the Pegasus Museum. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the building:
Come and stand in memory,
Of men who fought and died,
They gave their lives in Normandy,
Remember them with pride.
Soldiers, Airmen, sailors,
Airborne and Marines,
Who in civvy life were tailors,
and men who worked machines.
British and Canadian,
And men from USA,
Forces from the Commonwealth,
They all were there that day.
To Juno, Sword and Utah,
Beaches of renown,
Also Gold and Omaha,
That’s where the ramps went down.
The battle raged in Normandy,
Many lives were lost,
The war must end in victory,
And this must be the cost.
When my life is over,
And I reach the other side,
I’ll meet my friends from Normandy,
And shake their hands with pride.