Collier’s for February 17, 1945
Wing Talk, edited by Frederick R. Neely
FROM Mrs. W. B. Mohney, Topeka, came the suggestion that “an article in your magazine on Grasshopper planes would be interesting—not the Grasshopper of the Air Corps, but of the Field Artillery. It is a very important part of the Army and most people have never even heard about it.” She says that being the mother of an Army Grasshopper pilot, she knows “something of what it takes.”
Coincidental with the arrival of her letter, and as if by prearrangement of the most devious sort, we received a story from Captain Harold H. Strickland, of the Ninth Tactical Air Force in Europe. Captain Strickland is no Grasshopper pilot, but he did fly for fourteen months with the RAF’s famous Eagle Squadron; he compiled 197 combat hours in Spitfires and is one of that select group permitted to wear the wings of both the AAF and the RAF.
A hot-shot fighter pilot of his caliber could be expected to see nothing wonderful about the little guys in the unarmed Piper Cubs (L-4s, the Field Artillery calls them) who upset the prewar theories of some of our technical experts that these tiny primary trainers and sport planes could have no great part in military operations. But the Field Artillery took them in and now uses them to distinct advantage as flying observation posts for directing artillery fire. If you want to avoid being backed into a corner and talked to death about the wonderful work of these little putt-putts, never mention the word Grasshopper to a Field Artillery man. As far as he’s concerned, the Grasshopper and the Field Artillery are welded together forevermore in the art of warfare. Which leaves some red faces in the Air Forces, who wanted specially designed and built observation planes at several times the cost of the little Aeroncas. Cubs and Taylorcraft which could be—and subsequently were—bought right off the shelf and sent to war.
BUT you want to hear what this 42-year-old fighter pilot from Detroit has to say about the Field Artillery Air Force:
During our attack west of Saint-Lô (writes Captain Strickland), I watched our artillery Grasshoppers circling enemy positions. Occasionally German flak burst close to them, and they scattered like partridges, then cautiously edged back again. Thunderbolts dived very low and attacked with rockets, then the artillery fired onto a ridge and when many positions were being swallowed up in explosions, the Grasshoppers flew westward. Then the long columns of tanks, self-propelled guns and “destroyers” began to move, and clouds of dust rose above the treetops; the infantry moved up the steep slopes. The battle for Saint-Lô began.
Like most Normandy towns, Saint-Lô was built where several strategic roads cross. From within the thick stone walls and the surrounding hills, the Nazis controlled a natural corridor. The Grasshoppers were an important link in the infantry-air-artillery team that broke those strong defensive positions.
Some days before that push, I watched one of the Grasshoppers—Li’l Sourpuss—hovering over a tiny pasture near Isigny. Within the pasture there were slit trenches, foxholes and cows. Completely surrounding it were trees and concrete telephone poles. A 20-mile-an-hour wind was blowing across it, a gusty wind, too. It was raining. It was dark. And the field was small even for a Grasshopper.
THE pilot dragged it methodically, then straightened out for a cross-wind landing, gliding and crabbing into the wind with such a huge drift angle that the ship appeared to be flying sidewise. He did a neat turn around a beech tree at an air speed close to the stall. He maintained the large angle of yaw and a sideslip until just before it touched down; then straightened out in the direction of flight with down-wind rudder and aileron into the wind. He dropped it in about twelve inches.
It was a good landing under full control squarely in the middle of the pasture at a place where apple trees served as a windbreak. Yet, from our position in the hedgerow, we were wondering. He was rolling fast, and straight ahead of him were the cows. As usual, they wouldn’t budge. Having survived barrages, naval shelling and blockbusters, these Normandy cows cared little about the intricacy of a cross-wind landing. Grasshopper crews, though, have learned to evaluate one risk against another and sometimes considerable juggling of values is required.
Li’l Sourpuss headed into the cows, then decelerated at a remarkable rate. It was deceleration seldom witnessed in peacetime and was achieved because the pilot dropped it in, utilized the braking effect of tall grass and applied brakes heavily—for far back toward the tail his plane carried a spare propeller.
With these extraordinary assurances of deceleration, he rolled close up to the nearest cow, executed a neat, controlled ground loop into the wind, then asked if there were any unexploded shells around.
It wasn’t all luck. It was good airmanship and good headwork of the kind that is required every day from the wartime Grasshoppers. Others came in the next day while the Long Toms were firing.
Nazi prisoners have gnashed their teeth and held their ears while describing the effects of American artillery. One SS Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) was indignant about Grasshoppers. He said that it is not uncommon to see them behind German lines. When many guns start shaking the Earth, Grasshoppers climb up regularly from pastures and apple orchards.
Altitude means a lot to the artillery. Like the fighter pilots, artillerymen know of a special advantage that is synonymous with altitude. Among other things, it often means enfilade protection for the guns and visibility for the observer. Often it means range. Observation is the main advantage, though, and regiments have battled for days to secure one hilltop favorable for artillery spoiling.
Soldiers all know that planes like Black Bait and Who Dat? play a role out of all proportion to their size. Near the front, eight-gunned Thunderbolts might patrol near by while one like Li’l Sourpuss staggers for altitude with a load of generators, radio, batteries, maps, binoculars, parachutes and flaunting a large buggy-whip antenna scarcely contemplated in the plane’s original design.
Nazis set flak traps for them. Messerschmitt 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s sometimes evade the friendly fighter cover and shoot them down, because German strong points might be pulverized, mechanical transport might disintegrate, indirectly caused by the little Grasshopper.
THE crews live a rugged life behind the battle lines, moving with the guns, sleeping on the ground, flying unarmed. When landing on a strange site, they don’t mind live cows in it, because Grasshoppers which have landed on antitank mines aren’t here anymore. They often land down-wind, especially when it is uphill. They have lots of fun when they must take off down the hill and down the wind; they say it is like the roller coasters back home.
In taking off from tight spots and over high obstructions. pilots study the wind very carefully and sometimes squeeze over the treetops by very gentle S-turning. They often fly to a new site with an L-4 so stuffed full of K-rations, ropes, bedrolls, pup tents and camouflage netting that its sides bulge, and an aeronautical engineer might be baffled trying to discover where the center of gravity has disappeared to. Before flying, some of them just hold the tail off the ground and if it “hefts” all right, they take off.
Alter landing near the front, the Grasshoppers taxi quickly beneath sheltering trees or hedges. A hatchet is standard equipment for clearing the way and providing leafy cover. Camouflage netting is quickly draped over the wings and tail. A dark cover is placed over the windshield, stakes are driven and the Grasshopper is bedded down. Many time Focke-Wulfs have flown directly over them only to fine that the Grasshoppers have disappeared into the landscape.
ONE Grasshopper pilot landed and yelled out. “Scrub one Messerschmilt!” The Messeischmitt 109 had dived. The Grasshopper went down in a loose tailspin, then pulled out very abruptly. Apparently the late Messerschmilt pilot had tried it also.
They do not always escape. Focke-Wulf 190s have attacked them with four Mauser cannon and have blown Grasshopper and crew into small pieces. They have no armor protection. They rely on friendly fighter cover, antiaircraft fire, concealment, alertness and their ability to fly around haystacks.
There is no one who would deny that those early experiments of the Field Artillery, with the assistance of the Civil Aeronautics Administration in the initial training of Grasshopper crews, were not highly successful. These crews are veterans now.
Some Grasshoppers, perhaps, have helped to direct almost as many tons onto Nazi heads as a thousand-bomber raid. The little ships are proved veterans of this war and when the big Libs and Forts reach their Valhalla. I think they will reserve some space there for the Grasshoppers like Who Dat?, Flak Bait and Li’l Sourpuss.
[photo cutline pg. 8] Ruined Castelforte, Italy, as seen from a Piper Cub, one of the audacious, tiny, unarmed “Grasshoppers” that spot the enemy for our Field Artillery.