Part 1: Grasshoppers, authored by Brigadier General William W. Ford, retired, gives an account of the actions that led to the birth of Army Aviation. Originally published in United States Army Aviation Digest, June 1982, Volume 28, Number 6.
The poem or whatever-it-is [below] (spoken with a Deep South accent), written for a celebration dinner at the end of World War II, concisely states the Field Artillery-man’s (Redleg’s) need for air observation, the solution devised, and—perhaps with some exaggeration—the results achieved.
Once “redlegs” sought in vain a tree
Up which to shinny and to see
The shells that came riproarlng out
Their field artillery cannon spout.
But then, “O-ho!’ the wise ones said,
“This ground observer stuff is dead.
Give us a chariot with wings;
We’ll leap aloft as though on springs
From hedgerow, beach or tennis court
And undertake the gentle sport
Of heaping quantities of lead
Upon the Kraut’s defenseless head.”
‘Twasdone! A million so-called pilots
(Never considered shrinking violets)
Forthwith began to strut their stuff.
Believe me, boy, it was enough!
They filled the air with Cubs, and though
They flew the damned things low and slow
They (ponder this with greatest awe:)
With some assistance won the war.
People who visited Ft. Rucker, AL, on 6 June 1982 to celebrate Army Aviation’s 40th birthday anniversary were apt to notice a score or more middle-aged characters wandering about the place, gawking at the newfangled machines and poking into things. On their coats, especially their blazers, some wore a large, gaudy emblem which looked like grasshopper. Well, by gosh, it was a grasshopper! The wearers called themselves Grasshoppers. They belong to the first generation of Army aviators. This is the story of how they came to be.
Air Observation and Its Flaws
The end of World War I found military air observation at a crossroads. The device upon which the
U.S. Army had depended since Civil War days, the hydrogen-filled, captive balloon, was due to be phased out. Its vulnerability to attack by hostile fighters and to the growing range and accuracy of antiaircraft fire rendered it completely obsolete. Some 265 balloons had been sent to France; of these, 77 had participated in action and 48 had been lost. It was too fragile a device for frontline observation purposes.
Fortunately, the same instrument that had brought about the demise of the balloon now provided a replacement: the fixed wing aircraft. Although the Wright brothers had first flown in 1903 and the U.S. Army had bought its first airplane as recently as 1909, by the end of World War I it had had 39 aerosquadrons in action against the enemy. These had performed “pursuit” (fighter), bombardment and observation missions, all of primitive type, using mostly open cockpit biplanes.
But enough had been learned to make it clear that the fixed wing aircraft (helicopters were way in the future) was the device to develop, for observation as well as other missions. When the Army Air Corps was created by Act of Congress in 1926 it began to develop specialized types of aircraft to perform its several functions; for observation a tandem two-seater, open cockpit biplane was generally used. Rather heavy, it required a hard surface runway or its near equivalent. The Air Corps furnished the plane and pilot for observation of artillery fire while the field artillery furnished the observer. Doctrine specified that such observation planes should be attached to corps and from there allotted to subordinate units on a mission-by-mission basis as the situation indicated.
The two branches quickly worked out a suitable technique. During 1930 to 1932, at Ft. Bliss, TX, I was reconnaissance officer of the 82d Field Artillery Battalion (Horse) of the 1st Cavalry Division. My duties included those of battalion air observer. On numerous occasions I went aloft as observer in an Air Corps plane and adjusted artillery fire during target practice at the Dona Ana Firing Range in New Mexico. Adjustments were routinely rapid and accurate, though slowed somewhat by the use of Morse code instead of radio telephone; a suitable set was not then available. (During this experience I became interested in flying and learned to fly at a nearby civilian school. Over the next few years I advanced through several pilot ratings—solo, amateur, private, limited commercial with instrument rating—and I owned two airplanes. I flew often from small fields and strips, gaining experience which was to bear fruit later.)
But, however adequate the technique, there were serious and I think fatal flaws in the arrangement just described:
- The plane furnished was always a fairly heavy type requiring a hard surface runway or near equivalent; it therefore had to be based at an airport or temporary field some distance to the rear, “on call.”
- When the call was made (if indeed it was heard) the pilot had first to find the guns he was to serve, since the artillery often had moved since the last mission.
- The observer, whether Field Artilleryman or Air Corps observer, was likewise in the dark as to gun position and target location: this had to be worked out by radio after the plane was airborne. It wasn’t easy. Of course the observer could be stationed between missions at the guns, and thus have all the information he needed, but the delay due to his travel overland from guns to airfield to begin the mission was unacceptable.
- The overriding deficiency in this system was the limited amount of observation time available. There was need for air observation, not merely to fire on some target previously located (located how, please?) but to sit up there and find targets. Time spent by the airplanes on the ground or flying back and forth between landing area and gun position was a complete loss.
All this was well-known to every artilleryman, and much complaining was done, but little else. The stringencies of peacetime funding plus the natural preoccupation of the Air Corps with what it considered its more pressing responsibilities, strategic bombing and tactical air support, left scant opportunity for improvement in air observation for Field Artillery.
From Military Maneuvers to Organic Aviation
In 1939 war broke out in Europe, and by 1940 military activity in the United States was increasing by leaps and bounds, for it seemed likely that we would eventually be drawn in. (My class at Leavenworth was turned out in January 1940, ahead of the scheduled June, to go to units in field training.) Agitation for better air observation grew in intensity, led by the chief of Field Artillery, Major General Robert M. Danford. This attracted the attention of the three leading light aircraft manufacturers: Aeronca, Piper and Taylorcraft. Aggressive businessmen, they got into the act and placed one or more civilian aircraft with company pilots, at the disposal of every senior commander in every large scale Army maneuver conducted during 1940 to 1941 in Louisiana, Tennessee and elsewhere. Toward the end a veritable squadron of planes was in action during the Desert Maneuvers at Ft. Bliss: eight from Piper and two each from Aeronca and Taylorcraft. The missions performed were mostly courier and command reconnaissance, though there apparently was some adjustment (simulated) of artillery fire.
An amusing incident occurred in the course of the Desert Maneuvers. Henry Wann, one of the Piper pilots, was told to fly to the field headquarters of the First Cavalry Brigade and report to the commander, Major General Innis P. Swift. Wann located the headquarters, landed and reported. General Swift seemed quite impressed. He said, “You looked just like a damn grasshopper when you landed that thing out there in the boondocks and bounced around.” Thus “Grasshopper” became the proud title of the early Army aviators.
At this point my 20 years’ service as an artilleryman, my modest experience as an air observer, and my 7 years of private flying came into conjunctive focus: Why not make air observation organic to the artillery itself? Each battalion would have its own light plane operating from a nearby field or road, with its own artilleryman pilot and artillery observer, constantly in touch with the battalion fire direction center, constantly and instantly available to the battalion commander.
In the fall of 1940 I wrote an article along these lines, published in the Field Artillery Journal of April 1941, recommending organic air observation for Field Artillery. As to the need, I said, in part:
“During the Third Army maneuvers in the early part of 1940 this writer was a battery commander in the light artillery of a “streamlined” division. During successive division, corps and army exercises he participated in a number of field problems. Not once, during this period of 4 months, did he find a decent OP! Not once did he have a map or map substitute from which fire could have been computed! Not once was an actual air observer available to adjust the fire of his battalion!”
As to the feasibility and type of plane: “The plane for our Field Artillery battalion should go with that battalion at all times. The ‘flivver’ plane, with its light wing loading and its 75 HP engine, cruises at about 80 mph and lands at about 45 mph. It does not require a prepared landing field, but can land in almost any cow pasture or similar place. Hundreds of landings and take-offs have been made on highways. Even plowed fields are practicable provided the furrows are not deep.”
As to vulnerability: “Objection will be heard that such a craft will be quite vulnerable to hostile aviation. Well, what aircraft isn’t? Only the best of the fighters themselves. Does anyone think, for example, that our present service type observation ship, the O-47, would bear a charmed life in an atmosphere infested with enemy pursuit? Of what use are one or two flexible machine guns, firing to the rear, against the eight fixed forward guns of the modern fighter?
“Our little flivver plane will have no armament at all; its protection will consist in:
- General superiority of the air secured by our pursuit aviation. Let no one say we may not have this. We may not win the war, but we should try. We should try, likewise, to gain air superiority. No modern war has been won without it. Of course not even a definite air superiority on our part will render us immune from enemy air attack. But such superiority, or merely an equality, should make it possible for us to employ observation aviation without prohibitive losses, especially if other protective measures are adopted.
- Observing from low-altitudes over own territory. Low-flying airplanes, particularly if painted camouflage, are hard to see from above. If enemy fighters cruise at low altitudes our ground weapons should be able to make it hot for them.
- Maneuverability. Upon the approach of hostile aircraft our pilot will put the little ship into a series of tight turns, barely off the ground; high-speed enemy fighters, much less maneuverable, will have difficulty in bringing their guns to bear.”
Well, what happened? The article in the Journal excited much favorable comment; the light aircraft manufacturers placed a dozen or so planes and pilots at the disposal of the senior commanders in the maneuvers of 1941, but not much else took place.
Light Plane Doubts Expressed
Opponents of the idea claimed, first, that Field Artillerymen couldn’t fly these little planes from roads and small fields, they’d break their necks; second, that if they did manage to fly them as proposed, the necessary maintenance could not be performed under primitive field conditions; third. that if it happened by some miracle that the planes could be so flown and maintained they’d be shot down the first day in battle.
So the “experts” were opposed. The Air Corps was opposed for an additional reason It had been too long under the tutelage of the Army not to know the uses of bureaucracy and it wasn’t about to let air observation slip from its hands any more than the Army, some years earlier, in the days of Billy Mitchell, had been willing to let the Air Corps slip from its hands to become an independent arm.
Despite this strong opposition, the idea would not die. The commanders who in the 1940 and 1941 maneuvers had been served by the light planes lent by the aircraft manufacturers were enthusiastic in their support. General Danford visited the artillery school in England during the summer, and came away impressed by the efforts being made there to use light aircraft for artillery observation. I talked to him later that fall when he came to Ft. Sill, OK, and was delighted to realize his strong support of the proposal that a test of my theory be made. His staff was plugging for it with G-3 of the War Department, and finally, on 5 December 1941, a formal proposal to this effect was made to the Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall.
Pearl Harbor Attack Spurs Action
It is doubtful whether the proposition would have gone any further in the absence of a strong push from a new direction. But 2 days later, on 7 December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor with devastating effect. The event caught some of the big brass, military and civilian, with their pants down, and scared the pants off nearly everyone else. People had nightmares of Japanese scaling the cliffs of California. On 10 December the Chief of Staff directed the chief of Field Artillery to proceed with the proposed tests.
I was called to Washington a few days later and worked with General Danford’s staff on the details of a directive which he would issue to the commanding general, Ft. Sill, covering the training phase of the program. This directive was issued on 23 December 1941, and on 2 January 1942, I was appointed director of Air Training.
On my way to Washington I had been visited on the train during the brief stop in Cincinnati by Major Gordon J. Wolf, a Field Artillery Reservist, who had heard of the program and wanted to join. He was an enthusiastic private flyer with several years’ experience, of great energy, intelligence and imagination. I gladly accepted his offer, and he became my second in command. He contributed outstandingly to the operation.
Incredibly, on 15 January 1942, actual training for the tests began. That so much had been accomplished in a scant month is explained only by the heroic efforts of all concerned under the impetus of war.
Arrangements had been made as follows:
- The chief of Army Air Corps had turned over Post Field, Ft. Sill, for use in the project; had furnished 24 Piper Cub airplanes (commercial J-3s painted olive drab) and associated equipment; and would supply 80-octane aviation fuel.
- The chief of Field Artillery had sent circulars to all field artillery units in the United States, inviting applications for participation in the test from officers and enlisted men having civilian pilot licenses with private pilot or higher grade. Fourteen officers and 19 enlisted men were thus selected and they reported to Ft. Sill for training.
- The Civilian Aeronautics Administration (CAA) lent Mr. Richard Alley to serve as chief flight instructor, and Mr. Stanford J. Stelle to serve as maintenance supervisor. It also recommended seven flight instructors of extensive experience in the type of flying contemplated. These instructors were hired by the Field Artillery School and served throughout the training period prior to the field tests. Included in their number were two, Tony Piper and Henry Wann, who had been active as pilots for the light aircraft manufacturers in the maneuvers of 1940 and 1941. Both of them, and Ted Shirmacher, another of the civilian flight insructors, obtained commissions and continued as military pilots throughout the war.
- The aircraft and engine manufacturers sent experienced people to assist: Mr. Forrest I. Nearing from Piper, and Mr. Chester Hammond from Continental.
It was a piece of cake. Probably no military group ever began a war mission with greater joy and enthusiasm. For here was an opportunity not only to serve their country in a highly promising war effort, but to do so while getting their fill of what they liked best to do—flying. Whereas flying hours had previously been limited due to their costliness, they were not bountiful and free.
The course laid out by Mr. Alley and Mr. Stelle under my direction was to last from January 15 to February 28. After that would come the field tests. One-half of each day would be spent in flying; the other half in maintenance, for we were training pilot-mechanics. The pilot had to be prepared to do all the usual day-to-day maintenance in the field. As far as practicable each pilot was assigned a specific airplane, which was exclusively his to fly and maintain. The CAA skilled flight and maintenance instructors were all over the operation, giving dual instruction, check rides and examinations in both subjects.
Low and Slow, Defying the Laws of Gravity
It was the flying, of course, which was the most unorthodox. In their previous civilian training these pilots had been taught to fly only from fields large enough to provide a generous margin of safety against misjudgment in landing and takeoff. They had been taught to maintain, except at the final moment of landing, a speed well above stalling. And they had been required to fly at an altitude high enough to provide reasonable safety in case of engine failure.
Now all this was changed. They were to fly “low and slow,” formerly a prescription for trouble. Flying low was to provide some protection against hostile aircraft. Flying slow, during the approach for landing, was to permit them to get into the smallest possible field, or strip, since any excess speed would risk overshooting and cracking up. The fields to be used were to include, ultimately, those of smallest negotiable size and barest acceptability as to surface; the roads with smallest tolerable clearance as to wires, trees, telephone poles, fences and similar obstructions.
What fun it was! Like defying the law of gravity. Daring to do what you had been told, up to now, never, never to do.
But this was no foolhardy enterprise, no exercise in recklessness. We began by practicing this new style of flying under conditions where the dangers were only simulated. We began on practice fields and strips as large and as smooth as many small airports. We put up, at the approach end of the landing strip, two bamboo poles about 20 feet high, with a string bearing short streamers stretched between their tips. The pilot’s job was to come in over this simulated obstruction in a delicately controlled power-stall approach and land as short as possible, braking hard if necessary. If he overshot, being too high or too fast, there was still plenty of field left on which to make a landing. If he came in too low the only damage was to the string and streamers; if too slow, he might “stall out” and have a hard landing, possibly washing out the landing gear but nothing more. Actually, not a landing gear was lost.
After several hours of this, when the pilots had acquired a feeling of confidence in the power-stall approach and a fairly good feeling for what size field was acceptable, the scene shifted to smaller fields and roads. Nothing was simulated here; the obstructions were real. Landings on roads presented no problem except in crosswinds or where obstructions such as trees or telephone poles were too close to the road. In that case a less hazardous stretch of road was sought. After more experience a pilot skilled in this technique could even land on a curving road with confidence. The trick was simply to fly around the curve, banking just enough under part throttle to stay over the center line of the road, then settling gently to a one-wheel, tail-high landing. As soon as the landing roll was stabilized on one wheel, following the curve, the outside wing was lowered until the outside wheel touched the ground. Rudder control was then sufficient to keep the desired direction until, with throttle closed, the tail dropped gently, the steerable tail wheel touched, and the aircraft was braked to a stop.
During the latter part of this short-field work our “evasive maneuver” was introduced. Upon observing the approach of hostile aircraft the pilot was to roll into a dive, aiming for the ground. The hostile pilot could not follow this maneuver because of his much greater speed, and would thus be thwarted. Our pilot, having rolled into the dive, would immediately begin a gentle pullout, lest a dangerously high airspeed be built up, which might take him into the ground or cause him to lose a wing in pullout. Little training was required for this maneuver. In the production aircraft for field use the observer would be seated facing to the rear, with large plexiglass window areas giving him a good field of view for detecting the approach of hostile aircraft.
Fire Direction Field Tests Remove All Doubt
In the beginning the pilots had been given a review of basic flying maneuvers, lasting about 10 hours. Several were dropped from training during this period, due to lack of aptitude or unsatisfactory rate of progress. Then, after some 20 hours or so of practice on small fields and roads, came the third and final phase: the actual conduct of fire. The splendid Ft. Sill firing ranges were made available, along with well-trained firing batteries and skilled fire direction centers (FDCs). The observer, having conferred with the FDC as to the mission to be flown, would go to his plane nearby, the plane would take off at once, and as soon as the target area was in sight the command to fire was given. Adjustment would be rapidly concluded and the plane would land. The average time achieved, from takeoff to landing, was about 9 minutes. This was for personnel in training; skilled pilot-observer teams sometimes did it in as little as 6 minutes. During this part of the training the observer was usually a second pilot in the aircraft; but in the field the observer would be a junior officer in the Field Artillery unit served, he having been already well-trained, at Ft. Sill, in the conduct of fire.
The War Department had directed that the training phase at Ft. Sill be completed by 28 February 1942, after which the real tests, in the field, would be conducted. So it was. In less than 3 months since Pearl Harbor there had been assembled, trained and made ready a unit prepared to demonstrate the capability of an entirely new kind of military aviation.
Of the 14 officers and 19 enlisted men who reported for this training, 3 officers and 10 enlisted men failed to complete the course. Probably there would have been fewer failures had the course been not so condensed. The average flying time at the beginning of the course was, for officers, 187 hours; for enlisted men, 70. This explains the disparity of results between the two groups. The average number of hours flown during the course by students completing same was 39. Enlisted pilots completing the course were immediately promoted to staff sergeant.
There were no accidents! Well, no serious accidents.
On 28 February 1942, the training detachment, later to become known as the Class Before One, was divided into two groups: Flight” A,” consisting of 11 airplanes and 14 officers and men, to go to Ft. Bragg, NC, for service test with the 13th Field Artillery Brigade; Flight “B,” consisting of 10 airplanes and 14 officers and men, to go to the 2d Infantry Division, Ft. Sam Houston, TX, for the same purpose. I was not a member of either group, although I led Flight A on the flight to Ft. Bragg and remained there as observer and consultant for most of the test period, then moving to Ft. Sam Houston for the same purpose.
The field tests were to be made with troops actually on maneuvers, where the utility and practicability of organic air observation for field artillery could be assessed. A new element was now introduced for evaluation: the vulnerability of these small planes to hostile aircraft. Actually this was the only element in doubt. If the little planes could live in battle, there was no doubt that they could operate from landing areas or roads somewhere near the guns they served; there was no doubt that they could maintain the planes in operational condition; there was no doubt that they could bring fire, unerringly, upon any target within range of the guns, and this by staying over our own lines, out of reach of enemy ground fire. But what about hostile aircraft? We hoped that the evasive maneuver previously described would neutralize this danger.
Shortly after Flight A arrived at Ft. Bragg, the 13th Field Artillery Brigade moved to Camp Blanding, FL, where the actual tests were to be run. Flight A went along, finding an acceptable landing strip on a sandy lane in the pines near brigade headquarters. An Air Corps fighter squadron, based nearby, was designated to furnish the air opposition. Flying P-39s equipped with gun cameras, they were to take pictures of our Cubs in the air, thus proving the Cubs would be shot down while flying their observation missions, and on the ground, proving that our attempts to hide planes under trees while not on missions were ineffective.
We were worried about this. Not only at the prospect of having some high-speed fighter whiz you a few feet away (suppose he miscalculated?), but more so at the thought that he had just taken a picture of you as he shot you down. These pictures might convince higher authority that our whole scheme was impractical.
A bright idea occurred to us. If he wanted to play at shooting us down, why shouldn’t we play at shooting him down? Not from our plane, of course, which had no guns, but from the ground? All the artillery units underneath us were generously equipped with machine guns for defense against low-flying aircraft as well as against ground attack. Why not equip each machine gunner with a camera to “shoot down” (that is, take the picture of) any hostile plane that pursued a Cub so low as to present a good target? This would render the picture war a stalemate. This was done, and the game was entered into with enthusiasm by all concerned: the fighters, the Cubs, the men on the ground. The ultimate in evasive maneuver by a Cub pilot was reached one day when Lieutenant Coune came in from a mission with a section of pine tree about 3 inches in diameter and 3 feet long stuck in the leading edge of his right wing. Attacked by a fighter, he had barely pulled out of his evasive dive when he flew through the top of a pine tree, clipping off a piece. The plane was repaired in the field and remained in service.
Brigadier General Mark Clark came by to have a look at all this, and I took him for a ride from a secondary road with pine trees close to our wing tips on both sides. We landed on the same strip. He seemed favorably impressed.
Organic Air Observation Adopted
After a few weeks at Camp Blanding I went to Ft. Sam Houston, where Gordon Wolf was leading Flight B through a highly successful test with the 2d Division. The field tests at both places were soon over, and enthusiastic reports from both generals concerned went on their way upward through channels to Headquarters, Army Ground Forces. A curious thing happened here. Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair, who commanded the Ground Forces all over the United States and did a magnificent job of training them, was away on an inspection trip at the time and his Chief of Staff, General Clark, who had flown with me, was in charge. Ever willing to take responsibility, General Clark promptly approved the reports and sent them up to the War Department Chief of Staff, General Marshall, recommending that organic air observation for Field Artillery be adopted as standard. The War Department approved. It was rumored that General McNair, upon his return, was somewhat displeased at this precipitate action. I asked him later about this, believing that having served under him at Purdue ROTC I had his confidence. I asked him didn’t he believe we could do what we claimed we could do. He said oh, yes, he believed the concept was sound but that the Air Corps, being the traditional operator in the flying domain, should have been allowed to handle it if it wished. However, he made no effort to undo what had been done. He and General (Hap) Arnold chief of Army Air Forces, were very respectful of one another’s prerogatives.
So it came about that on 6 June 1942, a War Department directive established “Organic Air Observation for Field Artillery,” allotting two planes, two pilots and one mechanic to each field artillery battalion, and the same to each group, division artillery and corps artillery headquarters. It was wealth beyond our wildest hopes.
A Department of Air Training was instituted at the Field Artillery School. I was appointed director, and most of the personnel who had been in the test group remained as members of the initial staff. The course of pilot training was refined and somewhat extended, and training of mechanics was begun on a corresponding scale. When the supply of persons already holding civilian pilot licenses gave out, the Air Corps contracted with civilian flying schools to fill this need. Volunteers from all over the Army were first given primary training at the civilian schools, coming later to Ft. Sill for advanced and special training. It was a great satisfaction to those of us who had been the pioneers in this activity that, although starting from scratch after the war began, it developed fast enough to supply each Field Artillery headquarters entering combat in any theater of operations its organic air section.
That, then, is how Army Aviation got its start, though under another name. How it went on in World War II to fulfill richly the predictions which had been made for it; how it came to serve many needs beyond those of the Field Artillery; how it came to employ a new type of aircraft, the helicopter; how it proved itself over and over in two more wars; how it stands today in robust maturity and is still developing—these are chapters in a remarkable story for which there isn’t the beginning of enough space here. Some other time; some other reporter.
Anyone who makes bold to write for the information or entertainment of other people ought to be able to scrape up as a parting shot some bright thought, some gem of wisdom. I give you the words of Tom Jenkins, who was wrestling coach at West Point a long time ago. His maxim was: “There ain’t no holt what can’t be broke.” It is as true in military science as in wrestling, whether you are making the holt, or breaking it.
Part 2: Building a Training Program, written by Richard K. Tierney. Originally published in United States Army Aviation Digest, July 1982, Volume 28, Number 7.
Training the Army Aviators
The Department of Air Training’s first class of 19 students reported in on 1 August 1942 and began training two days later, flying the L-4B Piper, the L-2B Taylorcraft and the L-3C Aeronca. Sixteen of them were graduated on 18 September.
Post Field at Fort Sill was turned over to the Army Ground Forces by the Army Air Corps. Thus Army Aviation had its first airfield with 23 aircraft on hand and 100 L-4s plus 50 L-2s on order. Several small auxiliary fields were built either on the reservation or on nearby leased land. Some tactical training strips also were built.
Upon completion of Air Corps primary training the students were given silver wings, and then they reported to Fort Sill for tactical flight training that would make them Army aviators. They showed up at Fort Sill a little cocky, with 50-mission crushed hats, and without any respect whatsoever for Colonel Ford’s desire that everyone stay off the grass. Only a few of their number experienced the wrath of the veteran from the Field Artillery before they quickly gained a little humility—and stayed off the grass!
Army Aviation was an instant success in combat and soon branches other than Field Artillery were clamoring for light organic aviation to support their operations. In fact, it became a common practice among the combat arms to borrow the Cubs whenever possible. This situation did not go unnoticed at the War Department. As a result, in August 1945 it extended organic aviation to five more users: Cavalry, Infantry, Engineers, Armor and Tank Destroyer. The War Department also approved additional light aircraft to accommodate the expansion.
A 29-year era in Army Aviation history ended at Fort Rucker on 29 June 1971 with the combined graduation of 35 Army Aviators of initial entry fixed wing classes. Part of the graduation ceremonies included an impressive—and highly nostalgic—flyby. It was a final salute back through the years to all of the fixed wing classes, to and including the Class Before One. In fitting tribute to this “End of an Era Flyby” Colonel J Y Hammack, then the senior Army aviator at Fort Rucker, led the pass-in-review (of L-19s and helicopters) in an L-5.
Part 3: Combat, written by Richard K. Tierney. Originally published in United States Army Aviation Digest, July 1982, Volume 28, Number 8.
Army Aviation’s Entry Into Combat
Army Aviation’s initial entry into combat was far from glamorous. It began on 10 October 1942 at Fort Sill, OK, when Captain Ford E. (Ace) Allcorn received orders to report to Camp Pickett, VA. There he was directed to select three people from a group of Army aviators that had been assembled there and then report to the divarty (division artillery) commander of the 3d Infantry Division at Hampton Roads, VA. He selected Captain Brenton A. Devol Jr., and Lieutenants John R. Shell and William H. Butler. At Hampton they were told that three L-4s were aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger and that they were to fly them ashore to direct artillery fire during the invasion of North Africa.
The four joined the Ranger at Bermuda where they quickly discovered that the L-4s were in bad condition. But by the time they were off the North African coast, the group had their Cubs ready for combat.
On 8 November the invasion started and the four Army aviators were placed on alert. As they waited, word from the shore was discouraging. Inexperienced American troops on the beach had shot down several of the Ranger’s planes.
Aiding the French in Morocco
The next day the Army aviators were ordered to take off. A request to notify American units on shore that the L-4s would be approaching from the sea was refused by the skipper of the Ranger who declined to break radio silence. The Ranger had been under torpedo attack and was running in moderate seas at full speed of about 25 knots. That meant the L-4s had to take off into a 35 knot headwind about 60 miles at sea. “Taking off was no chore,” Captain Allcorn recalled later. “Some of the crew held the plane back while I gunned it. I was in the air almost as soon as they let go.”
Captain Allcorn took off first (in L-4 No. 204) and made a 360-degree turn before joining up with the other two aircraft. The plan was to fly to Fedala where a racetrack was to be used as a landing strip.
The Cubs flew at about 2,000 feet to a point 3 miles from the shore where they were fired upon, and narrowly missed, by the USS Brooklyn. The Army aviators immediately dived for the surface and flew what might be called “nap-of-the-sea” toward the shore. Meanwhile, almost all the 200 ships in the invasion convoy opened fire with 20 mm guns on the three L-4s, despite the fact that they were painted with invasion markings.
Lieutenant Butler, flying one Cub with Captain Devol riding as observer, and Lieutenant Shell, piloting the other L-4, headed north away from the invasion site. Later they landed near a French fort and were taken prisoner for a brief period.
Meanwhile Captain Allcorn, flying between the swells and taking fire from shore batteries, flew along the coast. When he was off Fedala he pulled up and headed inland. Immediately units of the 2d Armored Division peppered his L-4 with 30 caliber machinegun bullets, disintegrating its windshield and blowing away portions of the cockpit. He recalled, “I stayed as low as possible and as I got farther inland I realized I was not going to get to the racetrack and that I was getting ahead of the Allied advance.”
Suddenly a burst of fire from a Vichy French machinegun hit Captain Allcorn in the leg. At the same time the L-4 burst into flames and Captain Allcorn had to slip the airplane into the ground in a controlled crash. He crawled from the cockpit and dragged himself about 50 feet across the ground to a point where he watched the L-4 explode and burn.
Captain Allcorn, aided by friendly civilians, was taken to an American aid station. Later X-rays revealed he had been hit five times in the leg by 25 caliber slugs. In addition to being the first Army aviator in combat, Captain Allcorn was the first to fly a Cub from an aircraft carrier, the first Army aviator to be wounded in combat and the first to be shot down—not a dubious honor under the circumstances.
Besides the four who flew from the Ranger, there were other Army aviators from the first three pilot classes who participated in the invasion of North Africa. These included Lieutenants John W. Oswalt, Bob Ely, Eugene Gillespie and Robert Johnson.
Aiding the British in Tunisia
In late November and early December a number of Army aviators were attached to British units which were heavily engaged with the German Africa Corps in Tunisia. It was during this period that Lieutenant Paul A. Dewitt became the first Army aviator to fly an artillery mission in a Grasshopper in World War II.
In January 1943, the first air observation post sections were organized within American tactical units in North Africa. Lieutenant Oswalt organized the 1st Armored Division Air Section while the 1st Infantry Division’s was initiated by Lieutenant Jesse Overall III. Meanwhile, Captain Delbert Bristol organized a senior tactical headquarters in II Corps to control employment of the division air sections. He also handled aviator assignments and flight records, and established the first Army Aviation parts supply system in a combat zone.
[The following is quoted in Box Seat Over Hell, pg. 89]
As the Army aviators became more proficient they developed more and more missions in support of the ground forces. Their ability to gather intelligence, coupled with the fact that they could trigger instant and devastating firepower (from artillery), was of great importance, as illustrated by an incident that occurred in March 1943. After Army aviators had uncovered a major thrust being launched by the German 10th Panzer Division, they were able to direct a withering artillery barrage that helped stop the assault. A penetration of the Allied lines was averted.
The ingenuity of people associated with Army Aviation was directly responsible for its growth and success. An example was Captain Devol who had flown from the deck of the USS Ranger. He constructed a flight deck on an LST (Landing Ship Tank) taking only 36 hours of work. The runway was 12 feet wide and 70 yards long. It was constructed of timbers covered with metal landing strip mesh. Four Cubs took off from an LST in the Sicilian landings. The operation was successful and the LST “aircraft carriers” were effectively used at Anzio and in Southern France. Captain Devol was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work.
Field expediency also was demonstrated in Italy by Army aviators as related in the story of the Futa Pass “Ski Jump” airstrip. Due to rugged mountain country it was extremely difficult for Fifth Army Commander General Lucius K. Truscott to visit units under his command. Traveling by jeep was not practical, so General Truscott made frequent use of the Cub to get about in the Futa Pass area. General Truscott’s headquarters was a 30-minute jeep ride (and an often-times impassable river) away from the nearest airstrip. Disturbed over this, General Truscott told his air officer, Captain Jack Marinelli, to get an airstrip built near the command post—”and the sooner the better.” After much study, the airstrip was built on a mountainside. It was 735 feet long and 30 feet wide. The upper end was 98 feet higher than the other end, and the whole airstrip had the appearance of a ski jump. The lower part ended abruptly with a sheer 2,000 foot drop-off to the valley below.
“The interesting feature,” according to Captain Marinelli, “was that we had to use full throttle to taxi to the top of the strip after landing. But you could also take off down the strip without power.”
Pushing North Into Italy
Many general officers made frequent use of the Cubs, especially General Mark Clark, who on one occasion had his pilot, Captain Eugene P. Gillespie, land his L-4 on the Boulevard Carrageola in the heart of the city of Naples. Many Neopolitans were astounded, but the general made it in time for an urgent meeting that he could not get to by other means of transportation. A short while later, in the assault on Rome, General Clark and his pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Jack Walker, made the famous L-4 landing near Rome inside a school courtyard formed by buildings and an 8-foot brick fence. When it was time to depart, Colonel Walker assured the general that he had enough room to take off. “He did,” General Clark recalled, “by a margin of 3 inches.”
During the assault on Rome, Captain John Oswalt landed his L-4 on a racetrack on the outskirts of the city to contact lead tanks and armored cars. Within minutes Captains Bill Holden and Bill McKay landed to help coordinate the attack. After Rome fell, Army aviators flying L-4s pressed the surveillance of the German Army as it retreated north. During the pursuit, the first L-5 Sentinels, heavier type liaison planes, were employed in increasing numbers by the Fifth Army.
Comparisons, L-4 and L-5
The addition of the L-5 brought many comments at the front. Some felt the L-5 was too heavy and should not be used, while others thought the L-4 was underpowered and preferred the L-5. But both airplanes had their good points. The L-4 was extremely maneuverable and able to get in and out of many more confined areas than the L-5. On the other hand, the L-5 carried more of a payload, and it had a few instruments and a lighted instrument panel which made it more effective in night operations.
During the invasion of France in June 1944, most of the Army’s liaison planes were dismantled and loaded on trucks that were moved across the English Channel on ships. However, a few were flown across.
Captain James Gregorie, 4th Infantry Division Artillery Aviation Officer, landed at Utah Beach with the 4th Infantry on D Day. The next day he found a suitable area for an airstrip and sent a message to Lieutenant Dave Condon to have the division’s L-4s and L-5s flown from England.
The L-5s carried enough fuel to make the trip, but it was necessary to equip the L-4s with oxygen tanks filled with fuel and attached to the back seats. A fuel line running from the oxygen tank to the main tank gave the L-4s 20 additional gallons of gas. By the time the aircraft arrived in France the division’s artillery was set up, but the guns were not registered because hedgerows limited visibility. Since the primary concern was to get the guns registered and firing, Captain Gregory and Lieutenant Condon immediately took off in an L-5 and registered the first artillery fire on Utah Beach.
Meanwhile Major J. Elmore Swenson and his “29th Air Force,” as he called his 29th Infantry Division Artillery Aviation Section, arrived at Omaha Beach. In minutes Major Swenson was directing the first artillery fire in that area.
As the Allies began penetrating the Brittany Peninsula, the liaison airplanes often were the only source of contact with the rapidly advancing armored columns. The planes also flew out in front of the Allied advance, keeping track of the enemy’s positions. In addition, the cubs directed supply columns and flew food, ammunition, and medical supplies to patrols and/ or troop units.
Cubs in the Pacific
As in Europe, the role of the Cubs became increasingly more important to the ground commanders in the Pacific. The liaison pilots fighting the Japanese demonstrated just as much ingenuity and initiative as their counterparts did in Africa and Europe.
During the invasion of Okinawa the light planes effectively operated from the Brodie Device mounted on an LST. Named for its developer, Lieutenant James Brodie, it consisted of four masts which supported a strong horizontal steel cable that provided a straight, smooth, clear runway for landing and taking off. A trolley with an attached sling underneath caught a hook mounted above the center of gravity of the airplane. The trolley ran along the cable and allowed landing and takeoff runs. The airplane was raised from or lowered to the deck by tightening or slackening the cable.
In the Pacific the device was mounted on LST No. 776 which also became known as the “USS Brodie.” It was at Okinawa that the device paid off. There was an urgent requirement to set up artillery units in the Kerama Retto Islands to bombard the Japanese on nearby Okinawa. Photography and aerial observation were needed by the artillery batteries, but there was no place to set up a landing strip. That’s when the “USS Brodie“”steamed” to the rescue. It launched and retrieved numerous airplanes throughout the invasion, and not an Army aviator or plane was lost.
In the Pacific the liaison pilots also directed transport planes and ground troops, dropped food and ammunition to surrounded troops, and guided tactical air strikes.