Excerpted from TIME magazine, Monday, Aug. 16, 1943.
Fanny Rouge puttered back & forth a few hundred feet above the battery. From the flimsy two-seater liaison plane the observer could see the target : German trucks and men clustered around buildings off to the right. Fanny Rouge radioed their location to her artillery.
“Roger,” said the ground (meaning “understood”).
First burst was wide. “Five zero zero right, two zero zero over,” said Fanny Rouge.
The second shell was closer. Fanny Rouge again radioed corrections. The third burst was on the nose. “Target, target,” said Fanny Rouge. “Fire for effect—one round.”
“On the way,” said the ground.
“Repeat range—battery one round,” said Fanny Rouge. Again the battery obliged. “Mission accomplished—cease firing,” said Fanny Rouge. The target had been destroyed.
In less than five minutes, Fanny Rouge had located and directed the destruction, with eleven shells of a target that would have demanded a flight of medium bombers plus more than an hour of communications, preparations and operations.
Conversations—and results—like this were commonplace in Sicily last week. Unarmed, lightweight grasshopper planes, carrying a pilot, an observer and a two-way radio, spotted targets and directed fire on them with a speed and accuracy that suggested special blessings from Santa Barbara.*
No Hills. Fanny Rouge and hundreds of planes like her grew out of 1940’s Third Army maneuvers in Louisiana. Then artillerymen exploded after futile searches for hills high enough for observation posts or long waits for observation planes from the Air Corps. One West Pointer, Major (now Colonel) William Wallace Ford, a private flyer for seven years, knew the solution: light planes attached to each field-artillery battalion. Wallie Ford made little headway until the next summer when light plane manufacturers lent a dozen puddle jumpers for the 1941 maneuvers. A new colonel named Dwight Eisenhower was impressed. So was Lieut. Colonel Mark Clark. Flying observation posts soon were standard in the field artillery, ten to each infantry division, eight to each of armor.
“We just take what the CAA says don’t do—and do it,” is Colonel Ford’s description of the training of a grasshopper pilot, who comes to Fort Sill with 60 hours of elementary training from the Air Forces.
In six weeks he masters landings and take-offs from rock-strewn flying strips, edged with trees and telephone wires. Students learn to land on curves in rutted dirt roads, to take off and clear soft obstacles in 400 ft. Grasshopper tactics are simple: stay as low as possible, come down as soon as possible. Six hundred feet is the prescribed ceiling; from that altitude grasshoppers can make accurate corrections on targets six miles away. From 600 ft. pilots can land and hide their planes in heavy brush in less than one minute.
No Heavyweights. Most favored grasshopper is called the L-4, a military adaptation of the ubiquitous Piper Cub with the cockpit enclosed in plastic. The observer rides backwards to watch for planes attacking from the rear. His other jobs: 1) operating the radio; 2) keeping his weight down to 170 (to shorten take-offs); 3) studying targets and fire with naked eye (the grasshopper jiggles too much for field glasses). The L-4 cruises at 70 m.p.h., is powered by a 65-h.p. engine—far less than artillery pilots would like for a quick take-off and climb. Eventually helicopters may supplant the grasshopper—but probably not in this war.
Grasshoppers saw their first combat at Casablanca, when they were fired on by U.S. anti-aircraft crews who did not recognize puddle jumpers. One was potted by a U.S. gun guarding the field where it was to land. It was months before grasshoppers got a second chance. But by Tunisia’s final battles, there were 90 grasshoppers in action. Battalion commanders learned that they were worth their weight (800 lb.) in gunpowder. And pilots learned that they could escape from enemy planes by turning and twisting to the ground. One flipped away from four Stukas on his first combat mission.
Combat brought one operation never hinted at in tactics manuals. While flying over the Mediterranean during North Africa’s last days, one grasshopper spotted a small boatload of Germans. Pilot and observer fired their pistols. The Germans waved a white handkerchief of surrender and headed in to shore. The pilot landed on the beach, left his observer to guard the prisoners, flew off for reinforcements to come and take them away.
*Patron saint of gunners, Santa Barbara revealed her Christianity by cutting three windows (signifying the Holy Trinity) in a bathhouse her rich, heathen father had built for her. So she was sentenced to death, and her father himself beheaded her. On his way home he was killed by lightning (Heaven’s artillery). Santa Barbara is also the patron of miners and persons caught in thunderstorms and fires.
Editor’s note: This citation is mentioned on page 64 of Box Seat Over Hell (however, incorrectly quoted as from the September 16, 1943 issue). It also appears in Devon Francis’ Mr. Piper and His Cubs on page 105.