Excerpted from Mr. Piper and His Cubs by Devon Francis.
At daybreak on September 1, 1939, Hitler’s armies poured across the Polish frontier to launch World War II. Fighter airplanes and bombers, spreading destruction and terror, apprised Europe, America, and Asia that a new, strategic dimension had been added to man’s gift for annihilating his own kind. To the U.S. military, the defeat of Poland in one week was a profound shock.
On February 18, 1941, W.T. Piper, Sr., wrote the Honorable Henry L. Stimson, secretary of war:
The Piper Aircraft Corporation, representing 50% of the Light Aircraft Production in the United States, is anxious to know what it can do to further aid in the defense of this country. Although I cannot speak for the rest of the industry, I am sure that their desire and willingness to help is no less than ours…
On a separate sheet attached hereto are a number of suggestions for semi-military and non-military cooperation…
John E.P. Morgan, who presents this letter, is a director of our company and has my authority to discuss this matter with whomever you designate.
William, Sr., William, Jr., and Morgan had spent a lot of time phrasing the proposal. Notwithstanding the fact that President Roosevelt had begun galvanizing the nation the previous May against the chance of being drawn into the war in Europe, the possibility of using lightplanes as military instruments had received no official encouragement whatever. The jungles of Washington politics were impenetrable to the layman, and it was Morgan’s commission to do a selling job at the War Department, on Washington’s Constitution Avenue. William, Sr., suggested that lightplanes on the semimilitary side could (1) control troop movements, (2) evacuate wounded, (3) carry messages, (4) ferry personnel, (5) scout, (6) patrol, (7) drop bombs or torpedoes, and (8) be used for blind flying training. He appended a list of nonmilitary uses.
On March 24 Robert A. Lovett, special assistant to the secretary of war for air (and later secretary of defense), a man of delectable political acumen, replied that he liked the nonmilitary suggestions,
“but neither personnel nor funds are at present available within the War Department.” As for the semimilitary, items (1) to (4) “would appear to have elements of real interest to ground forces, whereas items (3), (4), and (8) would particularly concern the air forces.”
Much that bore on the proposed use of lightplanes in war had happened in the seventeen and a half months between the invasion of Poland and the dispatch of the Piper letter to Stimson.
In July 1940, 1st Lt. James M. Watson III asked Piper Aircraft if it could send some airplanes to Fort Beauregard, Louisiana, for army maneuvers in August. Tom Case of the Piper staff flew a Coupe to the camp on August 12 and demonstrated that it could land on and take off from a dirt road.
Henry S. Wann, Piper district sales manager for the far western states, was doing some missionary work on his own. He telephoned Fort Lewis, Washington, to make a pitch on lightplanes and got a lieutenant colonel named D.D. Eisenhower. Yup, said Eisenhower, he was aware of the lightplane’s uses.
Brig. Gen. Adna R. Chaffee called Lock Haven on February 9, 1941, to ask if a Cub could be flown to Fort Knox, Kentucky, the Armor School, to direct armored columns and adjust tank fire. Case flew a J-3 in the following day and conducted tests through February 15.
All this was informal. Nobody in uniform had any authority to use, much less buy, an airplane for the ground forces. Assistant Secretary Lovett made the situation clear between the lines of his March 24 letter: Anything that had wings was the province of the U.S. Air Corps. For years the Air Corps had been bucking for a separate service, coequal with the army and the navy. As the German panzer columns spearheaded by Stuka dive bombers knifed through Belgium in May 1940, the shock of the Polish campaign was compounded in political and military Washington. The Air Corps (to become the U.S. Army Air Forces a month later) was feeling its oats.
Notwithstanding the fact that U.S. aircraft factories had produced only 568 military aircraft in 1939, on May 16, 1910, Roosevelt told Congress: “I should like to see this nation geared up to the ability to turn out at least 50,000 planes a year… I believe this nation should plan at this time a program that will provide us with 50,000 military and naval planes.”
United States production of all types of aircraft currently was about 12,000 units a year. Of 6,500 military aircraft owned by the U.S. Army and Navy, only a third were combat-ready.
It was in this climate that John Edward Parsons Morgan assumed the job of extracting an admission from Constitution Avenue that puddle-jumper aircraft had a role to play, should war come. He didn’t know a spinner from a tail cone, but like Gordon Curtis he got around. He was blessed with a lot of bounce. He had been voted onto the Piper board at the request of Jim Warburg, the banker and his friend and mentor, and had been a vice president of Warburg’s Bank of the Manhattan Company. As a token of his imaginative thinking, Morgan had founded the National Ski Patrol to rescue skiers in distress. This became the basis for U.S. ski troop training in World War II. As assistant to the chairman of the Union Pacific, he built the country’s first ski lift at Sun Valley, Idaho, a resort in which both Warburg and Averell Harriman, the man who would become governor of New York and diplomat with and without portfolio to four presidents, were financially interested.
Morgan’s qualifications in 1941 for merchandising lightplanes in the national capital included the persuasiveness of a confidence man and friendships in the vast shoal of prominent civilians being drafted by Roosevelt to help run a government swollen by the rearmament effort. Among those he could call by their first names was Robert Lovett, who had been a private commercial banker and a partner in Brown Brothers, Harriman & Company. The two had been friends since their college days when Lovett was at Yale. Lovett had a sympathetic ear. A former U.S. Naval Reserve pilot—his wings bore the number 66—he had taken some lessons in lightplanes at the Hempstead Aero Club on Long Island to renew his hand just before heeding Roosevelt’s call to Washington. Lovett, of all people, was aware of the simmering feud between the Air Corps and the ground forces. Was a lightplane a method of transport or an operational aircraft? Was it an airplane or a “vehicle”? The army was entitled to vehicles. But if lightplanes were airplanes, they belonged on the Air Corps’ pad.
“Obviously,” Robert Lovett commented in later years, “they were both. And awfully easy to fly.”
Immediately following Roosevelt’s fifty-thousand-airplane message, all airplane manufacturers large and small had been summoned to Washington to get production rolling. William, Sr., attended for Piper Aircraft. A panel of army and navy brass, and Henry Morganthau, secretary of the treasury, representing the president, sat at a table in the front of the room.
“General,” asked Ed Porterfield, a lightplane manufacturer, addressing one of the beribboned panel members, “will there be any place in the program for light airplanes?”
“No,” said the general, “at least not in the army or Air Corps. They’re impractical for military use.”
“How about the navy?”
“I’m afraid not,” replied a navy captain.
“It seems to me,” said William, Sr., getting to his feet, “that the lightplane hasn’t been given a chance to show what it can do. Now that we’re here,” he waved to his cohorts in the small plane business,
“we’d like to explain our side of the picture to somebody, some sergeant or corporal, maybe.”
The ensuing laughter was largely mirthless. It was no sale. With Morgan’s arrival in Washington in the late winter of 1910—41, there began one of the most adroit, unremitting public- and government-relations campaigns in the history of the American business community. By common consent Morgan was named lobbyist-in-residence not only for Piper but for Aeronca and Taylorcraft as well.
“What we’ve got to do is demonstrate our aircraft,” he told his clients.
Cynics could have charged him with concocting a scheme to extract money from the federal treasury for a handful of industrialists. That much was true. The rest of the story was too corny to be credible. The lightplane makers actually were convinced that their minuscule machines, with a top speed of less than one hundred miles an hour, could help defend the United States.
“We only have to paint the Cub olive drab,” said William, Jr., in the course of a family council with Morgan and Curtis, “to produce a military airplane. It can go into active combat.”
The price tag could do part of the convincing. A couple of Air Corps observation-type airplanes currently on test at Wright Field, the engineering and evaluation center, cost $25,000 each. Even if the U.S. Army asked for modifications in the Aeronca, Cub, and Taylorcraft, the three little planes would cost a tenth of that per copy.
In June, Morgan got a break. The Second Army was about to embark on maneuvers at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, and the Air Corps was asked to supply some observation aircraft. It had none to spare.
Assistant Secretary Lovett wrote Morgan suggesting the use of light-planes. At their own expense Piper supplied eight airplanes, Taylor-craft and Aeronca, two each. All were fitted with two way RCA radios for communication. All had sixty-five-horsepower Continental engines.
The experiment at Camp Forrest was hardly an unqualified success. Someone had failed to pass along the word. The army was puzzled by the presence of civilian pilots flying outsize kites. The utility of the things was too simple for the military mind to grasp. Lightplanes were not in the table of organization and, ipso facto, did not exist. Their pilots were given few orders. They slept under the wings of their planes. They scrounged their food. Some messenger, reconnaissance, and spotter flights did get flown. In the fourth and last week of the maneuvers the umpires discovered that they could find out what was going on only if they covered the terrain from the backseat of the civilian planes. That helped.
Okay, the puddle jumpers would try again, still at their own expense. This time it was the Third Army maneuvers at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, for two weeks dating from the middle of July. Two more Cubs were added to the liaison fleet. West Texas blistered under a copper sun. The orders cut for the signature of Maj. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, chief of the Air Corps, specified that the lightplanes were to report to Biggs Field, Laredo, for assignment to the 1st Cavalry under command of Maj. Gen. Innis P. Swift. The pilots would be billeted by the air forces and eat in the officers’ mess. But Arnold’s orders meant nothing to the post commanding officer, a national guardsman called up to active duty. What were civilians doing on his post?
“I know nothing about you,” he snapped, “or why you’re here.”
The lightplane pilots, hot, tired, dirty, and nettled—Strohmeier and Tony Piper among them—flew to the Laredo civil airport and checked into a downtown hotel. For two days Ted Weld and John Morgan, who had come down to oversee the operation, argued with the Biggs commandant.
“What do you have to have,” demanded Morgan, “a verbal command from a big shot?”
“Yes, if you dot the ‘o’.”
In desperation Morgan telephoned Lovett in Washington.
“Be in the commanding officer’s office at 10 A.M. tomorrow,” said Lovett.
Morgan and Weld were there when the telephone rang.
“Yes, sir,” responded the C.O. “Yes, sir! Yes, SIR!”
Whereupon the lightplane contingent moved onto Biggs Field and into the officers’ mess.
The Texas maneuvers proved to be the payoff. In the biggest desert operations ever undertaken by the U.S. Army, in temperatures ranging up to 115 degrees, the little airplanes bounced in and out on blistering runways hastily scraped by army engineers on dry lake beds, on the slopes of hills, and through cactus with spikes that left festering sores if a man brushed against them. The lightplanes not only were durable, they were easily repaired as well. In one instance three of them were ordered to land on an unprepared field. The first two pilots stubbed their toes on landing and spread their gears. The third got down without damage. He radioed the base for repair parts. In one hour and twenty minutes both the damaged airplanes were flying again. The air force fly boys crash-landed their big Consolidated-Vultee O (for Observation)—Ones [O-49] so consistently that orders were finally issued that no military aircraft was to use a newly prepared field until the lightplanes had been in and out of it for forty-eight hours. Any damaged air force observation plane had to be trucked to a main base for repair.
General Swift was impressed by the ease with which the small planes carried out their courier duties. At his headquarters fifty miles north of El Paso he growled about the delay in getting radio messages through.
“Send a Grasshopper down to Biggs Field,” he told an aide.
“What’s a Grasshopper?” asked the aide.
“They’ll know when you tell them.”
The name stuck. Within a month Grasshopper lapel pins had been struck and distributed.
As for the Grasshopper sent to Biggs Field, its pilot arrived thirty minutes ahead of the radio message announcing its dispatch.
John Morgan’s propaganda campaign had all the subtlety of a bank holdup. “Give the officers a ride,” he kept saying to the lightplane pilots, “especially the generals.” By the time the Third Army had been trucked to Fort Beauregard, Louisiana, for August maneuvers, Morgan could count on the fingers of one hand the top brass he had not had aloft in a Grasshopper.
Participating in the August Third Army exercise in Louisiana was a colonel who was himself a lightplane pilot.
“Watch him,” said an aide to assembled newsmen over the evening’s Scotch and sodas, “he’s going places.”
On a given day the colonel was assigned Strohmeier as a pilot to go aloft and check the worth of the camouflage used by the troops for their equipment. The colonel had won a private flying license in the Philippines in 1936 but hadn’t flown much since. Strohmeier was nobody’s fool. He was there to sell Cubs.
“You fly it,” he said to the colonel as they climbed into the airplane.
The colonel was a good pilot. After a time he feather-landed on a road to gas up from a truck convoy, and returning to a firing range that was being used as a landing field, squared away for his approach. The field was narrow, though its length of eight hundred feet offered plenty of room for the Cub to get down. The problem was that the strip was surrounded by trees, and a brisk crosswind was blowing. The colonel put the plane down with the aplomb of a seasoned fly boy.
“That was a good job, Colonel Eisenhower,” said Strohmeier.
It was the same Dwight David Eisenhower that Henry Wann had talked with on the telephone the previous year at Fort Lewis, Washington. On the friendliest of terms with the Grasshopper squadron, each evening in the oppressive August heat the colonel borrowed an airplane to go aloft and cool off.
But this was not resulting in any contracts for aircraft, and Morgan began getting testy feedbacks from the home offices of Aeronca, Piper, and Taylorcraft. A giant war game for the Second and Third armies was being planned for the month of September at Camp Polk, Louisiana.
On August 23 Lovett wrote Morgan at Camp Polk, “It may interest you to know that we (have been) notified that the Third Army would like to have the planes that have been on maneuvers.
We suggested that they rent them….”
While the air force would have to approve any outright purchase of aircraft, renting them was something else again.
Eisenhower, chief of staff to Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, Third Army commander, called Morgan into conference.
“You’re not getting paid,” said Eisenhower.
“Would you like to?”
“We’d be delighted.”
“Get me a figure.”
William T. Piper, Sr., had arrived at Lake Charles, Louisiana, to watch what everyone assumed would be the last chukker of the Grasshopper squadron vs. the U.S. Army Air Forces.
“We’re going to get some money,” Morgan told William, Sr.
“If we don’t get it, said William, Sr., “let’s not get hasty and pull out our planes. The army needs the planes more than we need the money.”
Morgan reported back to Eisenhower.
“Okay,” said Eisenhower, “but nobody in the army has ever rented an airplane. You’ll have to find out how to go about it. Try the quartermaster in Lake Charles first.” Eisenhower knew the niceties of chain of command. He handed Morgan what he called a “maneuver order” for $24,000.
Morgan telephoned John J. McCloy (later U.S. high commissioner to Germany and president of the World Bank), Lovett’s opposite number in the ground army, and Lovett. At 3 p.m. of the day following his interview with Eisenhower he was ushered into the presence of the quartermaster general himself, Maj. Gen. Edmund Bristol Gregory. Morgan told his story and showed Gregory the maneuver order.
“Draw up a contract,” said Gregory. “Make it short and simple.”
Morgan was no lawyer, but his banking experience helped. The quartermaster general signed the contract. So did Morgan—with no legal authority whatever from Aeronca, Piper, and Taylorcraft. The U.S. Army was now fighting a mock war with hirelings, Hessians all. Not a word of the Morgan contract was ever questioned. The army paid the succeeding bills promptly as they were presented.
The role of the lightplane pilots in the war games did not end in September. They flew, often twelve to fourteen hours a day, with the First Army on through October and November in the Carolinas. The story was the same wherever they performed: the Grasshoppers were indispensable.
“Do you mind putting that in writing?” Morgan told the soldiery when he was offered verbal testimonials.
No less than General Krueger himself had beseeched a lightplane pilot for help on a hot day when a column of armor had entangled itself in a pretzel-shaped traffic jam.
“I’ve got to clean up that mess,” he told the lightplane pilot who was the namesake of his father, Gordon Curtis.
“Get a megaphone,” said young Curtis. They shoehorned into a Grasshopper. The general was a big man. It is doubtful that Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, former chief of the Tank Corps, American Expeditionary Forces in 1918, former executive officer of the War Plans Division of the General Staff, former commander of the Eighth Army Corps, and now commanding general of the Third Army, ever before had been given the order now barked by a Grasshopper pilot. “Suck in your gut,” said Gordon Curtis, Jr.
With Krueger bellowing orders from an altitude of two hundred feet, the armored column got straightened out in scarcely more than twenty minutes.
Morgan missed no tricks. He organized a congressional flying club. Representative (later Senator) Jennings Randolph of West Virginia was the first president. Morgan arranged for Jack McCloy to take flying lessons. Morgan’s secretary, Jean Ross Howard, herself a pilot and an inventive propagandist, organized a Fuddy-Duddy Flying Club. Piper supplied it with an airplane. Miss Howard, always with a pocket of Grasshopper pins to distribute, cajoled scores of newly minted light and bird colonels into taking lessons.
Morgan cultivated the generals, among them Devers of the Tank Corps, Hodges of the infantry, and Huebner, chief of the training branch of Operations and Training. His campaign was paying off in kudos. It remained to be seen whether the lightplane, despite the opposition of the U.S. Air Forces, would become a viable piece of military equipment.
As the weary Grasshopper pilots returned home, an order was transmitted through the air forces for Grasshoppers—a mere eight airplanes each from Aeronca, Piper, and Taylorcraft. Morgan and the officers of the three lightplane companies held a council of war. Morgan trudged back to Constitution Avenue.
“On our echelon,” McCloy told him, “we can’t recommend the procurement of planes unless the ground forces demand them and give them a priority.” Lovett echoed him.
On the eve of Pearl Harbor two dozen companies were manufacturing light aircraft. In volume, only three continued to count—Piper, Aeronca, and Taylorcraft. Piper continued to dominate the field. In three years the company had built and sold 8,020 aircraft of the 17,727 in the “private” category that had been manufactured by the industry. These included a generous sprinkling of planes that were far too big and powerful to be classed as lightplanes. Even so, Piper had 45 percent of the total market. In 1941 alone, Piper turned out 3,197 airplanes. Taylorcraft and Aeronca, expanding production, produced 1,000 and 999 aircraft respectively.
The company had been forced into an expansion of its physical plant. A huge new warehouse was in being. In all, the facilities measured 204,000 square feet, more than twice what they were when it moved to Lock Haven. A manufactory was operating in Canada. The Piper payroll numbered almost two thousand persons.
(Epilogue p. 249) The J-3 and its war-time prototype, the L-4, began the tradition that gave homeric quality to the name, Piper Cub. The United States government helped pump up the high curve of Piper destiny in the war years when Lock Haven aircraftsmen produced 5,673 planes for the military. The world gave its heart to the tiny “grasshoppers,” fabric and glue and a 65 hp. engine.