This WWII documentary film titled, “Perishable Rush,” shows how the Army Air Forces during World War II flew wounded men from Pacific battle areas to mobile army surgeons hospitals, hospital ships, and finally major hospitals and eventually home towns in the United States. Fast forward to the 3:18 mark to see L-4 in action. At 3:30 the L-5 is shown receiving a patient on a stretcher.
Link to the original video source and description. © Periscope Film LLC, all rights reserved.
Evacuation of Casualties
The 71st Liaison Squadron, using L-4’s and L-5’s based at Ledo, evacuated the great majority of Marauder casualties from the combat zone after they had been treated by Medical corpsmen or surgical teams. The light liaison planes, landing on drop areas, rice paddies, or gravel bars along the rivers, flew the wounded, often within a period of a few hours after injury, to rear air strips or to collecting and clearing companies along the Ledo Road. –Merrill’s Marauders, published June 4, 1945.
Evacuation in the L-4
The Piper L-4 was well-suited to operations in Burma. By early 1944 the U.S. Army Air Forces had 2,079 L-4s in service, and a handful were assigned to Merrill’s Marauders as they fought their way south through the Burmese jungle. Their presence was swiftly required by the Marauders after a fierce engagement at Walawbum on March 4. Eight Americans had been wounded, two seriously, and Lt. Col. Charles Hunter requested their evacuation by air. As the L-4s took off from Ledo for Walawbum, approximately 95 miles southeast, Hunter had his men clear a landing strip in the jungle. One of them, Bob Passanisi, had an idea. “In order to communicate with the L-4s that were used for artillery spotting and liaison, we had to set up a 284 radio [SCR-284], the only one that covered the aircraft frequencies,” recalled Passanisi, one of only seven Marauder veterans still alive. “I instituted the idea of strapping an SCR-300 [a portable version] to the pilot’s seat so we could communicate with greater ease.”
In the hands of a skilled pilot the L-4 proved capable of landing on sandbars or rice paddies, but mostly they used hastily cut jungle strips, as they did at Walawbum. “Although Lionel Paquette and Pete Leightner died before and during evacuation, six wounded men who could not return to duty were successfully evacuated,” said “Doc” Hopkins. “The knowledge that our sick and wounded could be taken out by plane from improvised airstrips was a big boost to the morale of the men.”
The aircraft had another purpose that Hunter put to use at the end of March when his radio stopped receiving incoming messages at a critical moment in the campaign. Unable to locate one of his three battalions, Hunter summoned an L-4 at first light. Once he was airborne he soon spotted a column of troops moving south through the jungle. “Urging the pilot to get down on the deck, I could tell it was McGee (the battalion CO) and that he had been in a fight,” recalled Hunter. “I could see one man, a blood-soaked bandage on his head, riding a horse, as well as several wounded being carried on improvised litters.”
The men were successfully evacuated by L-4s, as was Kermit Busher when he was shot on April 5. “It was a light machine gun,” said Busher. “And I must have got about 15 or 20 bullets… they blew out my leg completely. I lost the bone and it was just hanging there.” Busher was brought to Hopkins, who thought that a surgeon at a base hospital could yet save his leg.
An L-4 arrived a few hours later at a place called Hsamshingyang and Busher was loaded on board. “They tied the tail down to something that would hold it and then they let the engine rev up as much as possible,” recalled Busher. “They chopped the rope holding the tail and it had a catapult action. We didn’t get to rise that quickly because I remember looking off to the side and there were monkeys looking around before we got above the trees.” A day after being shot, Busher was at the 20th General Hospital in Ledo recovering from a successful operation to save his leg.
The airstrip at Hsamshingyang was set up close to a hill village, Nhpum Ga, where for two weeks the Japanese besieged the Marauders’ 2nd Battalion. A day after the siege was lifted on April 9, Hopkins wrote in his diary: “Eighty-seven wounded were carefully checked and prepared for evacuation by the small L-4 planes. The evacuation process was slow but otherwise efficient, and all were taken out by the end of the day.”
For the Marauders, the health of the soldiers was of paramount importance and a crucial psychological weapon in a brutal campaign against a cruel enemy in an unforgiving environment. “We had the highest respect for the pilots of those small planes,” said Bob Passanisi from his home in Brooklyn. “They would land in some of the most difficult places to help our wounded.”