Excerpted from United States Army Aviation Digest, June 1977. (Personal photographs by Joseph M. Watson Jr.)

Captain Joseph M. Watson Jr., and his Piper Cub “Mary Ellen,” used throughout most of Tunisian and Italian Campaigns.

Today’s army aviation program, with its proven air-mobile/air assault doctrine, began prior to World War II as an effort by individual members of the Field Artillery to obtain adequate aerial observation to adjust Artillery fire. The vehicles they judged best for their purposes were unarmed, unarmored, single engined, tandem two-seater aircraft which cruised at about 70 miles per hour and could be found any Sunday buzzing local civilian airports. They were powered by 65-horsepower engines. Their flight instrumentation consisted of airspeed indicators, nonsensitive altimeters and magnetic compasses—but with no turn-and-bank indicators, lights (they were not flown after dark) or navigational radios.

Observation always has been essential to the successful employment of an army in the field. Wellington swore at Waterloo that he would give up half his army to know what was happening on the other side of the hill. The U.S. Army’s first experience with aerial observation came during the Civil War through the use of balloons.

Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, Director of the Balloon Corps of the Army of the Potomac from 1861 to 1863, was the most successful balloonist. Using telegraph and a balloon over Fort Corcoran, outside Washington, DC, he directed Artillery fire in 1861 against Confederate positions across the Potomac River in Virginia. During the Spanish-American War, a balloon was instrumental in the American success in 1893 at the Battle of San Juan Hill.

During World War I, airplanes joined balloons to provide ground commanders with critically needed information. (Balloons, due to their vulnerability to airplane attacks and lack of mobility, were abandoned almost entirely by 1940.)

The role of air observation and the adjustment of Artillery fire was of critical importance to the Field Artillery during World War I. The increased range of its field guns added to the difficulties of locating, adjusting and hitting targets quickly on a rapidly moving battlefield. Corps aviation squadrons were assigned to corps headquarters exclusively to perform Artillery spotting missions. All requests were made through corps headquarters.

The assigned aircraft, stationed at an airdrome in the rear, flew to the front where it contacted the requesting division’s Artillery by radio. The gunners never knew or met the observers and, upon completion of the mission, the pilots returned to their airfield for another assignment.

Since the Air Service observers were not responsible to the Artillery commanders whom they served, the latter sacrificed a vital element of command. The Field Artillery found these aircraft few in number, rarely available when wanted, and unfamiliar with the needs of Artillery.

As part of Army aviation’s 35th anniversary the DIGEST is carrying the following story. It features the first published interviews with Joseph McCord Watson Jr., who played an unprecedented role in bringing about the birth of Army aviation on 6 June 1942.

An Army Cub takes off from a temporary forward landing strip in North Africa.

The Growing Artillery/Aviation Rift. The experience of World War I led Artillery and the Army’s air segment to conclude divergent doctrines. The rift widened during the interwar years. Major General Robert M. Danford, Chief of Field Artillery, was convinced that air observation was essential to the effective use of Artillery. He ordered a thorough study of the Field Artillery’s experience with balloons and aircraft during the previous war.

The study concluded that to be effective the airborne observer should be Artillery, familiar to and with the gunners being directed, and that the aircraft should be organic to the Artillery units they served. This meant they should be owned, operated and maintained in the same manner as the unit’s field guns and trucks. The pilots and observers should be members of the Field Artillery and regularly assigned to their parent Artillery units.

During the 1920s and 1930s, aviation made rapid technological advances. However, as aircraft became capable of flying higher, faster and farther, they became less suited to the air observation needs of the Field Artillery. Army observation aircraft became so heavy that they were limited to flying from permanent airfields with prepared runways. They also required elaborate repair and maintenance facilities. Tied to operating from these sophisticated airfields, they became less mobile while field armies were becoming more mobile.

The split in doctrine was more complex from the Army Air Corps side, which was established as a separate combat arm by Congress in 1926. It was complicated by psychological growing pains. Air observation and the adjustment of Artillery fire were only two of the roles the Air Corps had to perform. And, the Air Corps did not consider these to be its primary roles. Many aviators emerged from World War I convinced that military aviation should be an autonomous service coequal with the Army and Navy. They strongly felt it should not be chained to the ground combat forces in the observation, reconnaissance and Artillery spotting roles.

Development and devotion to the doctrine of strategic air bombardment led the Air Corps—short on funds and struggling toward autonomy—to weaken all elements of its ground support program. These suffered as the Air Corps battled to achieve the autonomy it considered essential to fully develop military airpower.

Rallying around their leader, Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell, most of those developing the Army’s air power advocated the doctrine of strategic bombing. This concept would mass aviation resources in long-range, heavy bomber aircraft groups capable of hitting strategic industrial and military targets deep within the enemy’s homeland. They were convinced the enemy would capitulate quickly, long before the armies could become decisive and naval blockades effective. While sincere in their desire to prevent future wars of attrition deadlocked in trench warfare, they also were aware that their claims for autonomy depended upon a weapons system and strategy distinct from either service.

The development in 1937 of the B-17 Flying Fortress, a fast, high altitude, four-engine heavy bomber, finally gave the Air Corps a weapons system capable of translating its theories into reality.

The Air Corps was suspicious of any effort to place aircraft under the control of ground force commanders. It had long fought any such move and was enjoying some success. The Artillery observers were to be members of the Air Corps. The reasoning was that furnishing a pilot and airplane to only transport an observer from Artillery about the battlefield demoted the Air Corps from the status of a combat arm to that of a taxi service.

Camouflaged Piper Cub loaded on 2 1⁄2-ton truck for movement forward after dark.

The Air Corps was being affected by a rapidly expanding technology. It was involved in an interservice “war” with both the U.S. Navy and its parent (U.S. Army) service of which it was but a small component. And, it was suffering from limited appropriations that an extremely frugal Congress was doling out to the military with the approval of an isolationist American public. These conditions all helped divert the Air Corps’ interest from its ground support role. But the crux of the matter was that within the Army only the Air Corps had the authorization to purchase or use an airplane.

The Origins Of Organic Army Aviation. Charles Lindbergh captured the imagination of the world in 1927 when he became the first to fly the Atlantic alone. Aviation became the dream of youth as its
technological advances continued to rapidly supersede one another. Many Americans believed that within their lifetimes the private airplane would become almost as common as the automobile. Flying was the way of the future. The ownership of a light airplane was expected to be within the capability of every middleclass American family.

One unassuming young man who played a key role in making organic Army aviation a reality was Joseph McCord Watson Jr. Returning from the University of Alabama to his home in San Antonio, TX, in 1928, he went to work in his father’s prosperous retail shoe company. He believed in the future of aviation and was determined to learn to fly. He arranged to take lessons from two friends who held instructor ratings in civilian light aircraft. The next year, with 50 hours flying time, Mr. Watson became the 6,619th person
to receive his private pilot license from the CAA (Civil Aeronautics Authority).

Convinced that another war was probable, Mr. Watson and several of his friends in 1930 enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves. Following completion of the necessary courses at Ft. Sam Houston, TX, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Field Artillery Reserve. He became a first lieutenant 3 years later, all this time continuing to fly as a hobby.

Lieutenant Watson transferred out of the Reserves to 36th Infantry Division, Texas National Guard, commanded by Brigadier General Claude Birkead. The young officer served as S4 on the staff of the 61st Field Artillery Brigade. He began to develop his concept of Artillery spotting from the air in 1936. Confident that good air-ground communications could be established from a commercial light aircraft, Lieutenant Watson enlisted the support of Captain John K. Burr, the headquarters battery commander and a nonflyer.

From 1936 to 1938, Lieutenant Watson rented airplanes at Stinson Field. The rental fee came out of his pocket, with Captain Burr sometimes chipping in. The two men experimented with establishing air-ground radio communications between the airplane and trucks or jeeps on the ground. They would strap various types of Field Artillery radios on the shelf behind the second seat of a Taylor Cub (it became the Piper Cub in 1937) and dangle a 10 to 12-foot chain out the window to serve as an antenna. Satisfactory communications were achieved at distances up to 15 miles with line of sight being mandatory between the airplane and the radio vehicle on the ground. They also tried their hand at directing vehicles on the “march.”

The 36th Division was assembled at Camp Beauregard, LA, for maneuvers during its annual summer encampment in August 1939. The recently promoted Captain Watson rented a Piper Cub on several occasions to practice the adjustment of Artillery fire. He was the only man in the division who had a pilot’s license.

Army Cub lands on gravel strip constructed by the 34th Division Air Operations in Italy. The gravel was collected from Italian roads.
The strip was 10 feet wide and 150 yards long. The gravel enabled the Cubs to operate in any type weather. At right, an aerial view of the same runway.

In 1940 Captain Watson proposed to Brigadier General Robert O. Whiteaker, commander of the 61st Field Artillery Brigade, that the Piper Aircraft Corporation be asked if it would furnish a couple of its airplanes to experiment with the adjustment of Artillery fire. In July of that year, Captain Watson telephoned Mr. William T. Piper Sr., who promised to have Mr. Thomas A. Case, his district sales manager for the Eastern United States who was working with the Piper dealers in New Orleans, participate in the maneuvers.

The Piper Aircraft Corporation, located in Lock Haven, PA, formerly was known as the Taylor Aircraft Company. It marketed the Taylor Cub (the forerunner of the modern popular-priced American light airplane), developed by its president, C.G. Taylor. Mr. Piper was the treasurer until 1937 when he bought out Mr. Taylor, thereby becoming both president and general manager.

Mr. Taylor moved to Alliance, OH, where he started a new aircraft company named Taylorcraft. During its first full year of production in 1938, Mr. Piper sold 737 Cubs. Most were painted bright yellow for better visibility in the air. The factory produced 1,806 the next year and 3,016 the year after. The 10,000th Cub rolled out the doors before the end of 1941.

Piper Cubs in formation during a cross-country flight from Tunis to Oran.

As Mr. Piper promised, Tom Case flew a radioless J-4, a side-by-side two seater Piper Cub coupe, to Camp Beauregard on 12 August 1940 for a 2-day stay. Mr. Case thought the demonstrations went well. But he found the loud rendition of “Stars and Stripes” by the division band at reveille obnoxious. On the first day, he flew Captain Watson and other Artillery officers in slow circles above the batteries on the Artillery range while they practiced adjusting Artillery fire. Due to the airborne observers’ ability to see the explosions beyond the vision of the gunners, the latter were able to accurately hit the targets more quickly and with fewer shells than before.

On the second day, Mr. Case observed and controlled the brigade’s long column on its 93-mile return march from the Artillery ranges near Camp Beauregard to its base camp near Cavens, LA. Following the demonstrations, Tom Case flew back to the factory to discuss the details of the exercise with Mr. Piper. Captain Watson and Mr. Case continued their dialogue on the problems encountered and possible
solutions during the following months.

The 36th Division, a veteran of the Meuse-Argonne Campaign in 1918, again was activated on 25 November 1940. It was assembled at Camp Bowie near Brownwood, TX. When the Artillery ranges were completed, General Whiteaker wrote to Mr. Piper requesting more extensive tests in light of the favorable results achieved the previous summer. He wanted to compile the factual data necessary for a formal recommendation for organic aviation.

Recounting the experience of the first demonstration, the general noted that the Cub’s ability to maneuver at low speeds and extremely low altitudes allowed the airborne observer to give commands directly to the battery commanders either by voice or by dropping messages attached to orange or red streamers. This avoided the delays encountered using Air Corps aircraft.

The target could be hit quickly and with fewer rounds of ammunition. In fact, General Whiteaker wrote that the savings of 40 rounds of 155 mm or 200 rounds of 75 mm shells would exceed the retail purchase price of a Piper Cub ($1,700).

Use of the Cub for column control during the long road march from the Artillery range convinced General Whiteaker of the light aircraft’s value for these functions. Other merits of the Cub were:

  • Its ability to land and takeoff from unprepared fields near the batteries or on any country road without obstructions within 500 feet.
  • The small consumption of fuel and lubricants which limited the burden upon the supply system.
  • The ease with which a pilot with limited training could successfully fly the aircraft.

General Whitaker suggested that a built-in radio would be superior to the Field Artillery’s SCR 178 and 194 sets whose bulk interfered with the freedom of movement of the pilot and observer. Folding or detachable wings would enable the airplanes to be transported by truck when not needed—or when grounded by weather.

Captain Watson’s initiative in contacting the Piper Aircraft Corporation was the catalyst that led to the establishment of organic Army aviation. Many thought the commercial light airplane was superior to the standard AirCorps observation aircraft, and the value of air observation to the Field Artillery was undisputed. But Captain Watson was the first to undertake actual experiments with light aircraft—and at his initiative and expense. He approached Piper because he could fly the Cub and he knew it was suitable for the role. Aeronca and Taylorcraft produced similar airplanes.

It was an uphill struggle for organic Army aviation, but Captain Watson could not have enlisted the support of a more vigorous advocate than William T. Piper Sr. He already was a successful businessman in 1929 when C.G. Taylor asked him to invest $600 in his fledgling aircraft company.

Mr. Piper believed in the future of light aviation in America. The practical, affordable and dependable little airplanes he sold were an exponent of his philosophy. He believed that only by getting a large number of Americans to fly could the future of light aviation be secured. It was only common sense that some of these pilots were going to want to buy their own airplanes. The young Lieutenant Watson’s unusual request did not seem unreasonable to a man who often traveled long distances to demonstrate the capabilities of one of his airplanes to anyone who showed the slightest interest.

Concerned that light aviation might be overlooked in the confusion surrounding the Nation’s rush to rearm, Mr. Piper sent a letter to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson suggesting a number of military and semimilitary uses of light aviation. Surprisingly, the adjustment of Artillery fire was not among them. Included were control of columns from the air, liaison, evacuation of the wounded, and their use as radio- controlled flying bombs. Although a commercial venture, Mr. Piper pointed out that his company represented 50 percent of the country’s light aircraft industry and wished to contribute to the Nation’s defense. He informed Secretary Stimson that the bearer of the letter had his authority to act for the company.

The bearer of the letter was banker John Edwards Parsons Morgan, who had known little about aviation when he was voted onto the board of directors at Piper. A man of great energy, Mr. Morgan founded the National Ski Patrol. It was intended to both rescue skiers in distress and also serve as a model for American ski troop training during World War I. He also was responsible for building the first ski lift, which was located at Sun Valley, ID. Equally important, he knew many of the Nation’s prominent citizens, including Robert A. Lovett from college days at Yale.

Mr. Lovett was a former U.S. Naval Reserve pilot who had taken up flying in light airplanes as a hobby when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him Special Assistant to the Secretary of War and later Assistant Secretary of War for Air.

Mr. Morgan remained in Washington where he became an effective lobbyist for the Piper company. He also later served as a spokesman for the Aeronca and Taylorcraft aircraft companies whom he asked to join in a bipartisan campaign to sell light aircraft to the Army.

Another who played a large role in the development of Army aviation was Major William W. Ford, a career Soldier in the Field Artillery. Major Ford began flying as a hobby in 1934 and by 1941 accrued more than 500 hours as a pilot. He wrote an “explosive” article, “Wings For Santa Barbara,” for the April 1941 issue of The Field Artillery Journal (see June 1974 DIGEST for a reprint of the article). In it, he noted that not once during the 4 months of maneuvers with the Third Army during 1940 were actual air observers available to adjust fire of their Artillery battalions. More importantly, Major Ford believed the flat terrain at the Artillery School at Ft. Sill, OK, misled gunners into thinking that observed fire and good maps were the rule—not the exception. Major Ford’s article greatly impressed Major General Robert M. Danford, the Chief of Field Artillery, who also played an instrumental role in bringing about the birth of Army aviation.

Never during the Third Army exercises did the terrain allow for observed fire. And, the maps used were inadequate. The airplane was the solution, but Major Ford wrote in his article, “The trouble is that we do not have an adequate number of planes or observers for this purpose; nor are they on order; nor are the types of planes we contemplate the best suited to the job.” He advocated a pilot and “flivver” type commercial airplane organic to each Artillery battalion to carry a trained Field Artillery observer. There “were thousands of commercial light planes in this country, available upon requisition” and “thousands of civilian pilots holding CAA certificates of competency to fly them.” An inadequate number of observers and aircraft were available and Major Ford saw little hope of improving the situation without such a program.

Ford noted in his article that the “flivver” airplane had a low horsepower engine and a slow cruising and landing speed. It could land on roads, cow pastures and lightly plowed fields (although the editor noted that recent tests showed “repeated” landings on “cow pastures” caused the landing gear to break).

Major Ford thought the “flivver” would be more survivable than the standard heavy Air Corps observation airplane due to its maneuverability, ability to fly below tree level, and its need to be in the air only during the few minutes required for the fire mission. Air observation would be available whenever the battalion commander needed it. And, the close teamwork essential to effective Artillery fire would result from “belonging” to the unit it served.

The light “flivver” airplane cost about $1,500, whereas the standard Air Corps observation airplanes cost 20 to 30 times more and required large ground crews and sophisticated facilities far removed from the battlefield. The standard commercial airplanes were available, meaning the money and resources needed to procure the Air Corps observation aircraft could be used to purchase more needed combat aircraft.

The Piper Flying Circus. While Mr. Morgan was conducting his “assault” on the War Department, the Piper company was contacting other Army commands with an offer to demonstrate the usefulness of their airplanes. As a result, Tom Case made several short trips to Ft. Sill.

W.T. Piper responded to Brigadier General Whiteaker’s request to return for more extensive testing. Tom Case joined Mr. Piper and three other company pilots—all in radio-equipped Cubs—at Camp Bowie, where they lived in the field from 9 to 23 May 1941. Captain Watson was in charge of running all the tests and seeing to the needs of the guests and their airplanes.

Mr. Piper and the general were of similar personalities and formed an amiable relationship. Tom Case was impressed most with the accuracy of the gunners. With practice, the air observers would get on target after firing two to four rounds. The gunners would lay their sights on the airplane flying above the target. Using fence line intersections as targets, they could place a shell in each of the four quadrants within 10 feet of the intersection. The brigade’s three Artillery regiments were using 37 mm guns in place of their 75 mm guns which had been sent to the British fighting in North Africa.

In addition to taking Artillery officers aloft to adjust Artillery fire, the Cub pilots also tested air-to-ground communications, camouflage effectiveness and observation. They practiced column control during a 6 1⁄2-hour road march from Barkley, TX, back to Camp Bowie. The pilots landed their Cubs on roads and refueled at local filling stations.

Large-scale maneuvers continued as the Army continued to absorb the influx of draftees and work out flaws in organization, doctrine, tactics and equipment. The war in Europe was nearing the end of its second year. The maneuvers were not games, but a race against time. American warships were engaging German submarines as convoys crossed the Atlantic to Britain—a weary survivor of the air battle over its home islands. England faced the threat of invasion from German armies which also were slashing deep into Russia, routing the Soviets as they went.

As war clouds threatened, the United States scheduled an important series of maneuvers for the summer and fall of 1941. Second Army maneuvers around Camp Forrest, TN (2 to 28 June) were followed by those of Third Army at Ft. Bliss near El Paso, TX (14 to 26 July) and at Ft. Beauregard (11 to 30 August). The Second Army joined the Third in combined maneuvers at Ft. Beauregard for the entire month of September. The First Army held two series of maneuvers (6 October to 1 November and 3 to 30 November) in the Carolina maneuver area.

Army jeep and motorcycle on flight line prior to Oran, North Africa conference which Generals Eisenhower, Clark and Rider, among others, attended during the summer of 1943.

Robert Lovett, recalling Piper had provided some light airplanes for tests with the Field Artillery at Ft. Sill, wrote to Mr. Morgan early in June, “It might be a useful experiment to have 10 or 12 of these light planes, piloted by men you might select, attached to an Artillery unit.” Mr. Morgan replied that Piper would be happy to supply 10 or 12 airplanes and also would ask Aeronca and Taylorcraft each to send aircraft to make it an industry test.

General Henry “Hap” Arnold, Chief of the Air Corps, approved the arrangements. The manufacturers supplied the radios for their airplanes, while the Army provided ground radios and the observers, and also housed and fed the men and furnished gasoline. Two Air Corps squadrons of O-49 observation aircraft also were assigned. General Arnold directed that all ground units make complete reports on the value or use of the light airplanes in the maneuvers. The tests were to be official!

Tennessee Maneuvers. On 18 June 1941, Henry Wann, Tom Case, James M. Helbert and Jules Parmentier flew their Piper Cubs to Manchester in eastern Tennessee where the Second Army was to conduct its war games around Camp Forrest. They were joined by four additional Cubs and two airplanes each from the Aeronca and Taylorcraft companies. All were equipped with RCA two-way radios.

It was not an unqualified success because someone had failed to get the word to all involved. The “brass” was puzzled by the appearance of civilians flying puddle-jumpers. Consequently, the volunteer squadron received few orders and it was not until the fourth (and last) week that the umpires discovered that the only way to find out what was going on was from the backseat of the little civilian airplanes. The squadron pilots slept under the wings of their airplanes and had to scrounge for their food.

Operating from a landing strip 298 paces long on a heavily wooded mountainside, the Cub pilots observed 155 mm gunfire by flying at 1,000 feet above and behind the guns. The excellent visibility they enjoyed, their slow speed, and the ease with which one man was able to handle the aircraft favorably impressed the officers with whom they worked. Besides the adjustment of Artillery fire, the provisional squadron performed scouting missions, delivered messages, and transported commanders and staff officers about the battlefield as they performed their duties. They also worked with the regular Air Corps observation squadrons.

The unique ability of the light aircraft to land almost anywhere was demonstrated in 102 landings upon dirt roads, fields and pastures. When the exercises were completed, they dropped flares in front of some hard-charging tank units to inform them so. When one commander failed to comprehend, a Cub landed in a nearby field and taxied up the road to the startled tankers.

The rapidly expanding Army was suffering growing pains as it was forced to take half-trained cadres to staff newly formed divisions. It lacked adequate numbers of modern equipment (civilian trucks posed as tanks and wooden guns as antiaircraft weapons) but found the volunteer squadron to be one of the highlights of the maneuvers.

Army Piper Cub on Reconnaissance mission over North Africa in 1943.

Ft. Bliss Manuevers. The volunteer squadron, composed of the same airplanes and pilots from Piper, Aeronca and Taylorcraft, and joined by two additional Cubs, flew to Ft. Bliss. This was in response to an invitation to participate in the desert maneuvers from 11 to 26 July 1941, among the sand, cacti and clumps of grass.

General Arnold cut orders for them to be based at Biggs Field, outside El Paso, TX. The post commander, a National Guardsman called to active duty, told them, “I know nothing about you or why you are here.” He refused to allow the motley gang of civilians with their Sunday-flying airplanes onto the airfield. After several frustrating days at the civilian airport in El Paso, Mr. Morgan telephoned Secretary Lovett who quickly got the commander straightened out.

The nickname “grasshopper” was bestowed upon the light aircraft during these maneuvers. Major General Innis P. Swift, commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division, was startled to see a Piper Cub land on the desert beside his headquarters, 50 miles outside El Paso. He invited the pilot, Henry Wann, to share his lunch with him, telling him that he looked like a “damned grasshopper” as he bounced along the ground during the landing. Forty-five minutes later a radio message arrived to inform the general that Mr. Wann’s airplane was being dispatched to assist him and was then leaving Biggs Field. The general sent Wann with his aide back to Biggs Field to get some fresh hams for the headquarters mess. Meanwhile, angered at the delays in getting radio messages through, General Swift decided to send for Mr. Wann and the Cub and told an officer to send a message, “SEND GRASSHOPPER. SWIFT.” When the officer asked, “What’s a grasshopper?” the general replied, “They’ll know when you tell them.” They did, and the nickname was born.

Members of the squadron quickly fashioned a Grasshopper emblem which they painted on the sides of their ubiquitous little airplanes. Mr. Morgan sent a Grasshopper lapel pin to Secretary Lovett.

The biggest desert operations yet undertaken by the Army took place in temperatures up to 15 degrees and at elevations from 4,000 to 6,000 feet. Dry lakebeds were used as landing fields. In one instance, three Cubs landed on an unprepared field where the first two damaged their landing gear. They radioed for repair parts and both were flying again within 80 minutes. On the other hand, the Air Corps’ O-49 aircraft crash landed so often that orders finally were issued that no Air Corps airplanes were to use a newly prepared airfield until the Grasshopper Squadron had used it for 48 hours. Damaged Air Corps aircraft had to be trucked 50 miles or more to Biggs Field to be repaired.

Louisiana Maneuvers. The Grasshopper Squadron flew to Ft. Beauregard for the Second Army maneuvers from 11 to 30 August 1941. On the way, Mr. Case stopped off at Camp Bowie to brief Captain Watson and Brigadier General Whiteaker on the results of the Ft. Bliss Maneuvers. Meanwhile, General Danford, enthusiastic over the performance of the light aircraft in the summer maneuvers, had flown to the United Kingdom to visit the Royal Artillery School at Larkhill. Impressed with the British use of light spotter airplanes with their Artillery, he requested War Department permission to officially test organic light aviation.

The Grasshopper Squadron flew 12 to 14 hours a day during August. Secretary Lovett wrote to Mr. Morgan, then at Third Army headquarters, Camp Polk, LA, that the Third Army had requested the use of the Squadron in the combined Second and Third Army maneuvers scheduled for the same area in September. Secretary Lovett suggested that the Third Army rent the airplanes. Up until this time the airplane companies were paying their expenses and providing the airplanes free of charge.

Colonel Eisenhower. Back in April 1941, Henry Wann, in his capacity as western district sales manager for the Piper company, was trying to drum up some business with the Army. He telephoned Ft. Lewis, WA, where, being unfamiliar with Army organization, he talked with various desk sergeants and junior officers. Finally he was put in touch with a lieutenant colonel. The officer was pleasant and told Mr. Wann that he himself had a pilot’s license, but that Ft. Lewis had no authority to purchase any airplanes.

The officer that Henry Wann talked with was Dwight David Eisenhower, who soon was promoted to colonel and was chief of staff to Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, commander of the Third Army. While the Grasshopper Squadron was participating in maneuvers with the Third Army in Louisiana, Colonel Eisenhower came to inspect them with the chief of the Third Army Air Corps, Lieutenant Colonel Sam Davis. Colonel Eisenhower later returned to the football field which the Grasshoppers were using as an airstrip and flew with one of the Grasshopper pilots.

Secretary Lovett’s suggestion to General Krueger that the Third Army rent the Grasshoppers was turned over to Colonel Eisenhower to implement as chief of staff. The colonel was on the friendliest of terms with members of the squadron since he often went out to their field and borrowed an airplane to escape the heat of the hot, humid August evenings, with J.M. Helbert of Piper. Colonel Eisenhower told Mr. Morgan to get a figure. Mr. Morgan talked with W.T. Piper who had just arrived for the maneuvers and who told Mr. Morgan, “If we don’t get it, let’s not get hasty and pull out our planes. The Army needs the planes more than we need the money.”

Colonel Eisenhower gave Mr. Morgan a “maneuver order” for $24,000 and sent him to the quartermaster general, Major General Edmund B. Gregory, who told him to “draw up a contract” and “make it short and simple.” Mr. Morgan already had telephoned Secretary Lovett and his Army Ground Forces counterpart, John J. MeCloy. Mr. Morgan drew up the contract and General Gregory signed it. Mr. Morgan had drawn up the contract with no authority whatsoever from either the Piper, Aeronca or Taylorcraft companies. It was never questioned and the Army promptly paid the bills upon presentation.

[The following is also quoted in Box Seat Over Hell, pg. 94]

General Eisenhower (then a junior officer) had served on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff in the Phillippine Islands during the mid-1930s. As they worked to build up an indigenous army, they realized the need for a small “air force” to reach their 90 training camps. They needed light airplanes that could takeoff and land on short airstrips in order to reach the camps, since the 7,100 islands of the Phillippine archipelago had only a primitive roadnet, except for the island of Luzon.

An airfield was informally established outside Manila in 1936 and Colonel Eisenhower, at age 46, began pilot instruction. He passed his license examination on 19 July 1939. By the time of the Louisiana Maneuvers he had logged more than 600 hours in light airplanes.

General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, was so pleased by Colonel Eisenhower’s work in the Louisiana Maneuvers that he promoted him to brigadier general in late September. On 26 July 1942, General Eisenhower replied to a letter from Brigadier General Ralph W. Coane, commanding the 41st Infantry Division’s Artillery in Australia. General Eisenhower knew General Coane from Ft. Lewis and had been a student of the 41st Division’s commander, Major General Horace H. Fuller, in 1926 at the Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth, KS. He asked, “By the way, he (Fuller) and I were always interested in getting some little puddle-jumper airplanes for each Infantry division—to be flown and maintained by the division organization itself, entirely separate from the Air Corps. The idea was that they were merely flying motorcycles and were to be for command, liaison and limited observation missions. The use of the plane was to be limited strictly to the divisional area and to the rear. “General Eisenhower wanted to know if the 41st Division had ever received any.

Grasshoppers’ Indian Summer. Following the monthlong maneuvers in Louisiana with the Second and Third Armies, the volunteer Grasshopper Squadron flew to the Carolinas. There it participated during October and into November in First Army maneuvers. Two airplanes each from the Rearwin and Interstate aircraft companies joined the Grasshopper Squadron for these maneuvers.

Through the summer the Grasshopper Squadron flew more than 400,000 miles and completed more than 3,000 missions. Not one airplane was lost in the line of duty. There were not any engine failures or aircraft grounded for more than 24 hours for repairs. During the same period, the Air Corps had to write off 11 O-49s at a cost of $25,419 each (the Cub, with radio, cost $2,432).

The O-49 was three times heavier than the Piper Cub, and its 55-foot wingspan was 20 feet longer. It took 6,000 manhours to build and, unlike the Cub—which took 300 manhours and could land on the highway and taxi up to the local filling station—it required 100 octane aviation fuel. On 12 September, Third Army Air Operations showed nine O-49s in service and 12 out of commission, while all 11 Grasshoppers were available. One Cub used as a spare was lost when a sudden wind squall at Camp Polk tossed an O-49 up in the air and dropped it on top of the Cub.

The Grasshoppers proved to be indispensable wherever they went. Even General Krueger used a Cub to untangle an Armored column enmeshed in a huge traffic jam. Flying at 20 feet, the general used a megaphone and straightened out the mess in 20 minutes.

The Air Corps’ problems were not due simply to the superiority of the Grasshoppers to the O-49s. As with other components of the Army, it was having difficulties reorganizing and mobilizing for a wartime footing. Major General Lewis H. Brereton, commander of the Third Air Force, had set up and operated the two Air Corps maintenance commands for the opposing armies in the east Texas and Louisiana maneuvers. He found that he lacked sufficient trained staff to handle the maze of organization and detail. “We simply could not put supplies in the places where they should be and in the quantities required,” he said.

[The following is also quoted in Box Seat Over Hell, pg. 94]

Another Armored Force officer who appreciated light aviation’s potential was George S. Patton Jr., then acting and later commanding general of the 2d Armored Division. During 1940, he incorporated light planes in all his exercises, using them to transmit orders to subordinates in the field, to locate and identify units, and to fly himself and his staff officers quickly to their destinations. He experimented with light airplanes that could use open fields unsuitable for other military aircraft and came to prefer the Piper Cub.

On 12 December 1940, General Patton sent the 2d Armored Division on a 400-mile round trip from Columbus, GA, to Panama City, FL. The 4-day trip, the longest march yet undertaken by an American Armored division, used light airplanes to control the columns composed of 1,100 vehicles.

General Patton wrote to his friend, Lieutenant Colonel W.C. Crane, then on General Leslie McNair’s staff at Army General Headquarters, in the spring of 1941: “I am personally getting so air-minded that I own an aeroplane and expect shortly to have a pilot’s license. Next time you come down here (Ft Benning), I may be able to take you for a ride it you have sufficient insurance.”

The 2d Armored Division moved West in early 1942 to test tank doctrine and train for desert warfare. In a report to General McNair on 20 May 1942, General Patton wrote, “…since it is the first time to my knowledge that a fairly large group of Armored vehicles were successfully commanded from the air by voice radio, the report may be of interest….” When he wrote the lessons learned in “Notes On Tactics And Techniques Of Desert Warfare (Provisional), 30 July 1942,” General Patton concluded that the commander should exercise command from the liaison plane by two-way radio until contact was made with the enemy. Then a staff officer should replace the commander in the airplane while the latter leads the attack from the ground.

The officers and men of the 2d Armored Division never knew when or where General Patton would show up to witness their progress. He used jeeps, sedans, tanks, halftracks and light airplanes to move about among his dispersed units. General Patton nearly lost his life while landing his Cub near his headquarters, narrowly missing some nearby telephone poles. Upon their initiative, his troops cut down the offending poles and buried the wires underground.

Tanks, Horses and Cubs. The Armored Force was established on 10 July 1940. Brigadier General Adna R. Chaffee was assigned as chief of the Armored Forces and commander of the I Armored Corps. General Chaffee was aware of the implications of airpower to Armored warfare. The Nazi blitzkrieg, unleashed against France in May 1940, married the dive bomber to the fast moving German Panzer units. This led to the rapid collapse of what most people considered the finest army in the world.

General Chaffee telephoned William Piper Sr., on 9 February 1941, and asked if he would send an airplane to the U.S. Army Armor School, Ft. Knox, KY. The general wanted to test his ideas on directing Armored columns and methods of adjusting tank gunfire from the air. He believed that light aviation should be organic to all branches of the combat arms. Mr. Piper agreed and Tom Case flew the now veteran (Cub), still without a radio, to Ft. Knox. He worked closely with General Chaffee and his staff from 10 to 15 February. After further tests at Camp Bowie, Mr.Case flew to Lock Haven, PA, where the Piper factory installed a standard radio. Although not designed for the aircraft, the radio did provide adequate two-way, air-ground voice communications. Four days later (on 23 April) Mr. Case returned to Ft. Knox to continue the tests.
Ft. Riley Demonstrations. A Piper Cub demonstrated the advantages of light aviation to Cavalry officers from 12 to 14 June 1941, at Ft. Riley, KS. Convinced that light airplanes and horses were compatible, the enthusiastic officers arranged for a more extensive demonstration. This took place from 1 to 8 July 1941 when four pilots, with a mechanic, returned in Piper Cubs. They directed Cavalry operations while living in the field with the troopers. Official reports evaluating the success of these experiments were forwarded to Washington.

Organic Aviation Becomes A Reality. Eleven Air Corps and 21 federalized National Guard squadrons were assigned in 1940 to the ground units. They were subject to periodic withdrawal for Air Corps training. When this system proved unsatisfactory, General McNair (General George C. Marshall’s chief of staff and in charge of all field training) ordered field exercises for the observation squadrons in conjunction with the field force maneuvers in July and August 1941.

Air Corps ground support aviation was reorganized on 25 June 1941 into five air support commands, one for each of the four field armies and one for the Armored Force. They included pursuit, bombardment, dive bomber and observation squadrons. The last included a mixture of reconnaissance, observation and liaison airplanes.

General Danford made another official request (the first had been in July 1940) for organic aviation manned and maintained by the Field Artillery. This again was rejected by G3, War Department General Staff. General McNair concurred in the rejection because he wanted to give the new air support commands a chance for a fair trial.

The new commands, however, failed to provide adequate support during the test period. General Danford renewed his request for organic aviation on 8 October 1941, stating, “The only uniformly satisfactory report of air observation during the recent maneuvers comes from those Artillery units where… light commercial airplanes (Piper Cubs), operated by civilian pilots, were used.”

In again rejecting General Danford’s proposal, General McNair replied on 21 October 1941, “There is a grave question in my mind whether it is feasible or desirable that a ground arm attempt to operate aviation. The ground arms can and must learn to cooperate with aviation, and the process may as well begin with observation.”

General McNair’s refusal was based upon an unresolved dilemma between centralization and decentralization of aviation assets. He agreed with the Army Air Forces’ planners because the battlefield reports indicated that ground support aviation worked best when it was flexible enough to be promptly concentrated at the decisive points. Decentralization, on the other hand, led to misemployment, ineffectiveness, and violated the principle of economy of force. Both the British and French found that observation aviation could not survive without control of the air.

Confusion In Doctrine. Much of the confusion resulted from a failure in the prewar period to establish a doctrine on air-ground support that conformed to modern war. Observation aviation, which was only a part of air-ground support, was divided into three functions: (1) reconnaissance, (2) observation and (3) liaison. A major part of the problem was the result of trying to develop a single airplane to perform all three functions.

Battlefield experience showed combat air reconnaissance more related to the Army Air Forces than the Army Ground Forces. Concerned with the deep penetration of enemy territory, survival depended upon using fast fighter and bomber aircraft equipped for the purpose with special cameras. Observation was concerned with the battle zone and the enemy’s immediate rear areas. It needed fast fighter aircraft armed with cameras. Liaison was conducted in friendly rear areas up to the battleline.

Although the Grasshoppers flew into enemy territory during maneuvers (umpires counted them destroyed if they saw them) and later in battle, they did so when friendly air superiority was achieved. The functional differential between observation and liaison made the selection of a single type of aircraft almost impossible.

The 1941 maneuvers revealed commercial light airplanes to be superior in many ways to the O-49 airplane. The confusion evaporated and the Observation designation was changed to L(iaison) for the commercial light airplane types by War Department directive in April 1941.

Those in the Army Air Forces were strained to the limit in 1941. They were trying to build an air force of 3,000,000 with 90,000 aircraft and to establish a production rate of 3,000 airplanes a month. (The Army and Navy together purchased only 921 aircraft in 1939.) Thus it became apparent that the Army Air Forces could not provide the support needed by the Field Artillery. General McNair recognized this and reluctantly ordered a test of General Danford’s twice rejected proposal. Delayed by the confusion following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the test was rescheduled for March 1942.

The favorable results of the tests caused the Army Ground Forces to recommend that “the program be expanded without delay to include all Field Artillery units.” The War Department, acting in General McNair’s absence to meet a deadline, approved the recommendation. At the same time it was made clear that Army Air Forces observation units still were to share responsibility for adjusting Artillery fire. General McNair did not think the tests were conclusive, but he soon became convinced of the program’s value. Thereafter he gave it his full support.

The Class Before One. The War Department authorized the Chief of Field Artillery to organize and equip the Artillery components of one Infantry division and one corps Artillery brigade with airplanes, pilot-mechanics and maintenance crews. The purpose was to test the concept of organic air observation for Field Artillery.

General Danford appointed Lieutenant Colonel W.W. Ford, who while a major authored “Wings For Santa Barbara,” to command the training. The Army Air Forces loaned Colonel Ford 24 YO-59s, its designation for the (L-4) Piper Cubs it had purchased after the Ft. Bliss maneuvers. Mr. Henry Wann and Thomas F. “Tony” Piper, W.T. Piper’s son, were among the nine civilian instructors. A couple of first lieutenants, both with civil pilot licenses, who had been working on behalf of the program for a year, together with a reserve major named Gordon J. Wolf, aided Colonel Ford in setting up the program at Ft. Sill. The lieutenants were Robert R. Williams and Delbert L. Bristol, both destined to play key and continuing roles in the development of Army aviation. The Class Before One was composed of 14 officers and 21 enlisted men with civilian pilot licenses—all from Field Artillery. Training was at Ft. Sill from 15 January to 28 February 1942. Twenty members of this unique class were graduated.

The Class Before One was divided in Flights A and B. Flight A joined the 13th Field Artillery Brigade at Ft. Bragg, NC. Flight B was assigned to the 2d Infantry Division at Ft. Sam Houston. Each group contained 10 pilot-mechanics, an engineering officer and three mechanics.

From 1 March to 16 April the 10 L-4s with the 2d Division logged 607 hours. Nearly every one of their 3,400 takeoffs and landings were on dirt roads and open fields. Even in the rocky, wooded hills of the Leon Springs Military Reservation, suitable landing areas always were found. Despite difficult terrain, there were no injuries, aircraft damage or engine failures. In fact, the engines were found after the tests to be in superior condition.

The series of tests included: (1) adjustment of Artillery fire; (2) general and road reconnaissance; (3) column control; (4) selection of possible battalion areas; (5) location of enemy batteries; (6) spotting of targets on the map for prearranged fires; (7) surveillance of fire; and (8) battery camouflage checks. The slow speed of the L-4s allowed the pilots to read messages off a blackboard without difficulty.

Some limited tests were conducted in competition with an Army Air Forces observation airplane stationed at nearby Brooks Field. The Army Air Forces airplane averaged 30 minutes to receive and complete a fire mission while the L-4 averaged 10 minutes.

The L-4s did not fare as well in a 2-day “survival” exercise, when several were “destroyed” in the air and one on the ground by the camera guns of P-40s [Curtiss P-40 Warhawk single-seat all-metal fighter and ground-attack aircraft]. But unofficial Army Air Forces observers were of the opinion that the P-40s, flying at treetop level, would have themselves been destroyed by ground fire. An Army Air Forces pilot from the 22d Observation Squadron remarked in his report that, due to its maneuverability and in the presence of friendly antiaircraft support, the L-4 was safer in the air than on the ground against the P-40.

Objective Achieved. The test board concluded that short-range air observation should be provided for all Field Artillery units without delay. Subsequently, on 6 June 1942, Army aviation was born! The War Department directed that a team of two liaison airplanes, with two pilots and a mechanic, be made organic to each Field Artillery battalion plus two in each brigade and corps Artillery headquarters. This meant 10 airplanes for each Infantry division and six, later eight, for each Armored division. The number for each Artillery brigade varied with the number of battalions it contained. The Army Air Forces were to buy the airplanes for the Field Artillery, as well as furnish spare parts, repair materials, auxiliary flying equipment, and provide basic flight training for the pilots.

The Grasshoppers went into action in North Africa in November 1942 and soon were flying in combat in every theater. The Army Air Forces made an attempt later in the war to regain control of the program. But General McNair would not allow it because the Army Air Forces could not perform the Army aviation duties it had relinquished by default.

During the war the L-4s became as useful as the jeep and within minutes could direct massive Artillery barrages on enemy positions. Indeed, they became indispensable to the Army Ground Forces. In a short while they proved the concept of Army aviation and laid the foundations of the U.S. Army’s current airmobile/air assault doctrine.


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