Excerpted from Sport Aviation magazine, June 1992, by H.G. Frautschy.
June 6, 1944. A date that sticks in the minds of many of us as “D-Day,” the day that marked the start of the Allies invasion of Europe during World War II. But for many pilots who flew during the war, June 6th has an other reason for being significant. On June 6, 1942, a memo from General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, United States Army, was addressed to Lt. General Lesley James McNair, Chief of the Army Ground Forces. The memo said, in part:
Your recommendation that organic air observation units be included in Field Artillery organizations is approved… Liaison airplanes will be authorized for Field Artillery units at the rate of 2 per light and medium Field Artillery Battalion, 2 per Division Artillery Headquarters, and/or Field Artillery Brigade Headquarters and Headquarters Battery.
Personnel will be authorized at the rate of 1 pilot and 112 airplane mechanic for each liaison plane authorized. Personnel sources: Volunteers, both commission and enlisted under your control, who are qualified to pilot liaison-type air planes, will be utilized to the maximum extent as pilots. Mechanics will be procured from sources under your control. The Commanding General, Army Air Forces will be responsible for; a) Basic flight training for additional pilots needed to fill your requirements, b) Training of mechanics qualified to perform limited maintenance and repair, and c) procurement and initial issue of airplanes, spare parts, spare materials and necessary auxiliary flying equipment requested.
It went on to define other details of these new Army aviation units, and included the following sentence: The airplanes will be commercial low performance aircraft of the ‘Piper Cub’ type….
This memo, considered the “Birth Certificate” of modern day Army aviation, defined a role for pilots and light airplanes that survives to this day in a refined discipline—that of commercial light aircraft used as liaison aircraft for field units of the U.S. Army. General Marshall further went on in the memo to authorize Lt. General McNair to organize a course of instruction at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, or any other station selected by him, for the operational training of pilots, mechanics and observers in the tactical employment of organic air observation and Field Artillery units.
This was the scene when the Free French Forces took delivery of their L-3C at Mascara, Morroco. 1st Lt. Mike Strok was present when a priest blessed the aircraft as part of the transfer ceremony. (photo cutline)
This was no overnight success story though—the ground work that allowed this memo to come into being had been laid out in advance, with the light plane manufacturers leading the way. Shortly after the U.S. entered the war in 1941, William T. Piper Sr., the patriarch of the Piper family and head of the aircraft company that bore his name, wrote to Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, and outlined his company’s capability, as well as a number of uses the light airplane could perform. Robert A. Lovett, the special assistant to the Secretary of War for Air, responded that while he liked the non-military suggestions included in the letter, there was no money or personnel available within the War Department to pursue the matter further.
The idea had not come to Bill Piper an a sudden inspiration—he had al ready seen that a light airplane had potential for being of great benefit to the military. In mid 1940, long before any formal arrangements would be made securing the use of light planes in military aviation, 1st Lt. James Watson III asked Piper Aircraft if it could send some airplanes to Fort Beauregard, Louisiana to participate in Army maneuvers. Lt. Watson and Capt. John Burr had been experimenting with a civilian Piper Cub they had rented from Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio, TX. Their experiments with radio communications and artillery spotting helped pave the way for the future. Others in the military were interested in applying the commercial light plane to a military mission. Major William Wallace Ford, a field artillery officer and private aircraft owner, wrote an interesting discourse concerning the use of light airplanes for artillery spotting in May of 1941. General Robert Danford, who had witnessed first hand the British Royal Artillery’s evaluation of the Auster Mk.I at Larkhill, Wiltshire, was enthusiastic about the light plane’s promise, but was met with little initial encouragement from his superiors. Fortunately, a few others in the U.S. military were beginning to see a use for the little “puddle jumpers.”
At Lt. Watson’s request, Tom Case of the Piper staff brought a Piper J-4 Cub Coupe and demonstrated its ability to takeoff and land off of a dirt road, or any other strip that had been crudely prepared. Later, a J-3 Cub and pilot Case were sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to work with an artillery observer to adjust artillery fire and direct armored columns.
After these demonstrations, William Piper felt the light airplane had a place in military aviation, and worked to be sure that the light plane industry as a whole would be given the chance to show what their airplane could do. He enlisted the aid of John Morgan, a man with contacts in the wide circle of men who were instrumental in planning the military production buildup that immediately preceded WWII. Shortly after President Roosevelt declared to Congress, on May 19, 1940, that the U.S. should gear up to produce 50,000 airplanes per year, a large meeting of aircraft producers was held in Washington. A number of light plane manufacturers were represented—Ed Porterfield and William T. Piper, plus officials from Aeronca, Taylorcraft and Interstate. During the meeting, Ed Porterfield asked one the the military panel members, “Will there be any place in the program for light airplanes?” “No, at least not in the Army or Air Corps,” came the reply. “They’re impractical for military use.” As detailed in Devon Francis’ book, “Mr. Piper and His Cubs” [p. 82], William Piper didn’t feel that the light plane industry was being given a chance. “It seems to me,” said William, Sr., getting to his feet, “that the light plane hasn’t been given a chance to show what it can do. Now that we’re here,” he waved to his cohorts in the small plane business, “we’d like to explain our side of the picture to somebody, some sergeant or corporal, maybe.”
After some polite laughter, it was apparent that the panel was not interested.
The three major light plane manufacturers banded together, and by common consent, John Morgan be came the Washington lobbyist for Aeronca and Taylorcraft, as well as for Piper. It was obvious to all that they would have to show the War Department hierarchy something that many in the lower levels of the U.S. Army already had come to realize—that the light plane was not only practical for a variety of military uses, but was outstanding in many applications, particularly artillery spotting. There was also the question concerning who would operate the airplanes—the Army Air Corps, or the ground forces? To many, the command of the little airplanes by the units that they were spotting for made perfect sense. Assigned to the artillery division whose fire they were directing was the most efficient method to ensure that the artillery barrage was completed with the most devastating effect. But to some in the War Department, however, the use of an airplane was defined simply—if it were based on a ship or a naval base, it belonged to the Navy, and anything else belonged to the U.S. Army Air Corps. Period. Fortunately, this time the extreme logic of the airplanes operating “organically,” as part of the artillery unit, would win out. Some effective sales work still needed to be done if the “higher ups” in the Army command were ever to approve such an organization.
The logjam began to show a few gaps when, in June, 1941, the Army was to hold maneuvers at Camp Forrest, Tennessee. The Second Army requested observation aircraft from the Air Corps, but their request was turned down—the Army Air Corps had none to spare at that time. Special Assistant Lovett wrote to Morgan, suggesting that the light plane manufacturers supply a few aircraft for the maneuvers. Piper supplied eight J-3 Cubs, Aeronca two Defenders and a Chief, and Taylorcraft a pair of Tandem trainers. Continental Motors also supplied two men to help maintain the Continental A-65 engines that all of the airplanes present had for power. Every one of the airplanes and their pilots were sent at each companies expense. The Army did not pay a dime for their participation. There was only one hitch in the operation—some one had not told the Second Army at Camp Forrest about the light planes arrival, and as a result, the small airplanes initially were given few orders and even few comforts—they slept under the wings of their airplanes or found their own sleeping quarters, and had to make do on their own when it came time to eat. Towards the end of the operations, the Army umpires of the war games found the little airplanes useful in spotting the maneuvers from the air. Chalk one up for the little airplanes!
On May 13, 1944, 1st Lt. Doug Corrigan, of the 307th FA Battalion, was flying this L-4 when it was hit by a German “88” anti-aircraft artillery shell while flying at 3000 feet. He and his observer, Lt. Lloyd were able to safely return to the airstrip at Venafro, Italy. (photo cutline)
The next month, the little “puddle jumpers” were given the next chance. Missed communications once again initially fouled up the intended operations at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, with the Third Army. The C.O. for Biggs Field, near Laredo, was not happy about having civilians showing up at his base, and was pretty uncooperative with the pilots and Ted Weld from the Piper factory as well as John Morgan, who had come to observe the airplanes in action. They moved off the field, and tried to get the recalcitrant C.O. to follow the orders that had been cut and signed by Hap Arnold himself. Finally, in an act of desperation, Morgan called his friend at the War Department, Robert Lovett. Lovett told the pilots to be in the C.O.’s office at 10 a.m. the next day. When the phone rang, it became apparent that the impasse was coming to an end very quickly, as the C.O. responded with a “YES, SIR!” to the caller on the other end of the line. The light plane pilots and their mounts were then quickly moved onto Biggs Field, and assigned to be used by the U.S. Third Army under the command of Major General Innis P. Swift.
LST’s (Landing Ship, Tank) were modified in the Mediterranean theater of operations to act as aircraft carriers. The “Poor Man’s Flattop,” so dubbed by a UPI correspondent, had a 210 ft. deck of plywood or steel planking that allowed the taking off of as many as eight L-4s. The L-4s were used to support the amphibious operations during the invasions of southern France and Italy during the summer of 1944. It was a one way trip—the L-4s could not land back on the LST, they had to land on a strip improvised on the beachhead. Look carefully, you can count nine L-4s on this ship. The rudders on the L-4s next to the deck have been removed for clearance for the L-4 taking off, and were installed just prior to departing on their mission. (photo cutline)
During what was up to that point in time the largest desert operations ever undertaken by the U.S. Army, the little airplanes proved their mettle. Operating from just about any open clearing, the General was impressed by the light airplane’s capability, and would also give it an enduring moniker. According to former Piper employee 1st Lt. Mike Strok, the past editor of the Cub Club’s “L-4 Grasshopper Wing” Newsletter, General Swift looked out past the flap of his tent one hot, dusty day and saw a Piper J-3 bouncing through the mesquite and grass clumps of the west Texas hills. After the landing, General Swift remarked to the pilot, Piper employee Hank Wann, “You looked like a darn grasshopper when you landed that thing in the boon docks and bounced around!” The name stuck for the duration, and would be adopted by the Army field artillery and infantry as the unofficial title of the light plane class. The Grasshoppers began to win the brass over, including some who did not need much convincing.
After the success at Fort Bliss, the airplanes went on to do well at maneuvers held at Fort Beauregard, Louisiana and then, in the fall, in the sandy pine forests of the Carolinas. During the maneuvers near Lake Charles, Louisiana, a colonel who had held a Private pilots license since 1936 was one of the brass that was to make use of the J-3. When J.M. “Moe” Helbert of Piper found out the Colonel was a pilot, he let him take the controls. After handling a stiff crosswind with aplomb, he was on good terms with the boys in the Grasshopper squadron, and would occasionally take a plane up in the evening to cool off. A number of other Piper pilots flew with the Colonel, including William Strohmeier. The Colonel’s name? Dwight David Eisenhower! As his career progressed, Eisenhower would appreciate the usefulness of the light airplanes even more as the invasion of Europe worked its way through France and Italy.
Still, although the airplanes were performing well, no orders had been placed, and the manufacturers were still supplying the airplanes gratis to the Army. Before the fall war games at Camp Polk, Louisiana, Eisenhower would rectify that situation, helping push through orders that would allow the Army to “rent” the airplanes and pilots during the maneuvers. An order for a few airplanes to be used for evaluation finally came through in August of 1941. The order for 4 Taylorcraft DC-65s, 4 Aeronca 65TCs, and 4 Piper J-3 Cubs was cut and the 12 “off-the-shelf” airplanes were delivered. Other light planes had previously been evaluated in March of 1940, including a Stinson 10, a Rearwin Sportster, and an Ercoupe, designated as a YO-55. Fairchild sent a Fairchild 24, and Bellanca entered the Cruisair Jr. Interstate was represented by the Cadet. The trials at Wright Field did not generate a lot of enthusiasm within the military brass, who were still trying to define the role of the light airplane based on the experiences gained with the current crop of large, heavy observation planes like the Vultee-Stinson O-49, which weighed nearly 3 times as much as an L-4, with more than 4 times the horsepower. The Wright Field trials did not reflect the uses that were being found for the “Grasshoppers.” Nonetheless, in November 1941, the General Staff at the War Department decided that the intended uses of the light planes would be met using airplanes of the type evaluated at Wright Field and during the maneuvers the previous summer. It was intended that these airplanes would replace the O-49 in Army Air Forces inventory. Remember, as yet the decision concerning the command of the airplanes by the artillery had not yet been made—General Danford had again recommended that the airplanes be assigned as part of the artillery units, but once again his proposal was met with little enthusiasm.
February, 1944 – Anzio Beach. L-4’s assigned to the 1st Armored Division of General Mark Clark’s 5th Army are kept in revetments to help protect them from artillery shrapnel. (photo cutline)
After the events in Pearl Harbor that took place on December 7th, 1941, things began to move a lot quicker. Finally, on December 22, 1941, Col. R. W. Beasley wrote to confirm plans that the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) would arrange for the training of pilot/mechanics at Fort Sill Oklahoma, who would then be assigned to the artillery, even though actual approval of the assignment of light airplanes to the artillery had not yet been accomplished. The plan also required the services of at least six flight instructors who were, in the words of the memo from Col. Beasley, ”to be experienced pilots and instructors in flying of the barnstorming type (italics ours); at least two of the men to be pilots who had taken part in this year’s maneuvers.” The instructors, under the command of Lt. Col. William Ford, with his assistant Major Gordon Wolf, came mostly from the ranks of Piper Aircraft, with Richard Alley of the CAA as the chief light instructor. They, along with help provided by Continental Motors, would lead the experimental test class of 14 officers and 21 enlisted men who would be come known as “The Class Before One,” in reference to the fact that the class was taught just prior to the establishment of the formal Field Artillery School, Department of Air Training. After taking the class, “The Class Before One” wrote a report reviewing the usefulness of the puddle jumpers during Air OPs. (Air OP stands for Air Observation Post, referring to the primary mission of Army light aviation—that of reconnaissance.) That report would serve as the rationale for the order issued by General Marshall on June 6, 1942. This class would form the nucleus of the fledgling U.S. Army light aviation units. Finally, on June 6th, 1942, the memo detailing the assignment of U.S. Army light planes and pilots to field artillery units was issued, setting the stage for an effective, efficient method during Air Ops for reconnaissance, flight photography, and control and direct artillery fire, as well as pursue other operations such as courier duty, VIP transport (many high-ranking Army officers found the Grasshopper to be indispensable when it came to moving about within the area under their command), medical evacuation, supply, and just about anything you could think of.
Liaison pilots, trained both as mechanics and pilots, were a resourceful lot, and a number of times their ingenuity came in handy. From the unauthorized mounting of bazookas  for tank hunting to dropping supplies to stranded troops on the top of a mountain with a makeshift parachute drop system, the pilots did their best to complete each mission assigned to them, as well as invent others they could achieve. The accomplishment of the primary mission was paramount, and to that end, the liaison pilots and their Grasshoppers would make artillery history with the extreme accuracy available from the observer now above the battle, and able to see the enemy emplacements easier than a ground based observer could see. With a Grasshopper in the air, there proved to be an additional side benefit—as long as a Grasshopper was in the area, the enemy gunners learned to be quiet and not fire their guns, lest they give their position away. Small arms fire proved to be one of the greatest dangers to the low and slow liaison pilot, but enemy ground forces had to still be careful about taking a shot at a Grasshopper, or a rain of shells would fall on their positions. Hostile air attacks on the Grasshoppers were an ever present danger during the early stages of the war, until the Allies gained air superiority in each theater of operations.
The liaison airplane is one part of the artillery fire control system. Each one of the elements that make up the system all worked in concert to achieve the desired results. The aerial observation post, the airplane, would relay, via the tactical radio, the comments of the observer to the fire direction center, which would then be translated into specific instructions for each gun emplacement. All these elements had to work for the system to be effective. The basics of this type of operation, still done today with both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, were ironed out during this type of operation, with enlisted men trained as pilots and artillery men doing the bulk of the duties. Pilots and observers, as well as those pilots trained to perform both functions, were highly trained individuals to be able to correctly give the information needed by the artillery to accurately fire their guns. Only recently has the extent of the liaison pilots and observers mission during WW-II come to light, thanks to groups like the Cub Club‘s “L-4 Grasshopper Wing,” begun by 1st Lt. Mike Strek in 1987, and Bill Stratton’s International Liaison Pilots Association, as well as the numerous restorations of “L-Birds” that have been appearing on the fly-in circuit during the past few years. Organizations like EAA’s Warbirds of America and the CAF have also been instrumental in getting liaison aircraft and their crews the recognition they have long deserved. Let’s look at a few of the aircraft that have served the liaison mission throughout the years…
The 25th Liaison Squadron was the pioneer liaison squadron in the Pacific, and was originally deployed to New Guinea in November, 1943. The characteristic kangaroo logo adorned nearly all of the squadron’s planes, including the UC-78 used as the unit hack. (photo cutline)
Paula and Dave Henderson’s Piper L-4B
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The Piper L-4 was the most prolific of all the liaison planes used during the Second World War, with almost 5600 of the L-4 variants being built for the U.S. Army, and 200 delivered to the Navy. Others in the Piper Cub family would also serve, including the HE-1, a variation of the J-5C Cruiser. The Cub would serve with distinction mounted on wheels, skis, or floats, and sometimes without an airport! The Brodie Device was a system of cables and a hook that would allow a Cub to be launched or recovered without ever touching the ground, using a method similar to that used by the Curtiss Sparrowhawks on the airship Macon. With a hook mounted above the cabin, an L-4 pilot would maneuver to join up with a trapeze mounted and strung up on cables. The system would allow a Cub to operate over inhospitable terrain, or from a LST (Landing Ship, Tank) fitted with the Brodie Device. Other LSTs were modified with a short ski jump type of takeoff ramp, for use during amphibious assaults. The L-4’s would take off and perform their mission, and then hope they would be landing at a makeshift shore-side landing strip. The L-4 would serve with distinction in both major theaters of operations during the war, until it was slowly augmented by the the Stinson L-5, which had a better load carrying capability, as well as better performance at high density altitudes. As a further testament to the utility of these early Army liaison planes, both the L-4 and the L-5 would serve during the early stages of the Korean conflict.
Sporting the markings of the 82nd Airborne during the Normandy invasion, here’s Dave and Paula Henderson’s Piper L-4B. (photo cutline)
Gene Oshrin and Steve Perlbinder’s Aeronca L-3C
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At the same time Piper was changing the familiar J-3 Cub into the L-4 (then known by the designation O- 59), Aeronca was modifying the tandem trainer known as the Defender into the L-3 (O-58). With the aft seat perched higher in the cabin by 5 inches, the L-3 would allow an observer in the back seat an excellent view, and would also make an excellent choice for a liaison pilot trainer.
Soon after the decision was made to send the Grasshoppers overseas, a logistical choice was made. In order to simplify the supply lines, it was determined that there would be one type of light airplane selected to be shipped out. With its slight advantage in low speed handling and payload, the Piper L-4 was the type selected. But there was a big Job ahead, one that required the use of many airplanes. The Taylorcraft L-2, Aeronca L-3, Interstate L-6 and other planes would be used for the stateside training of the liaison pilots, and some of these aircraft types would also be exported overseas for use with foreign governments.
Day in and day out, the L-3 and its fellow light planes would absorb the rigors of training in the hot and dusty conditions of Ft. Sill. The L-3 proved to be equal to the task of taking a lot of the punishment dished out by both student and instructor.
By 1943, the L-3 was declared “operationally obsolete,” which simply meant that they could continue to be used, but they would not be replaced with the same type aircraft. But that did not mean that the L-3 would never see combat service…
The Stinson L-5
The Stinson Model 76, better known as the L-5 Sentinel, popularly known as the “Flying Jeep,”was the outgrowth of the Models 74 and 75. The Model 74 was designated as the L-1 Vigilant, the Army’s first STOL type of airplane. The Army wanted something in a smaller, lighter, less complex type of airplane than the L-1, and the Model 76, based on the popular Stinson 105 and Model 10 series, was the result. Its leading edge slots gave the L-5 excellent low speed handling. Coupled with a good payload carrying capability, the L-5 possessed good “hot ‘n high” performance, enabling it to perform well in all theaters of the war. It was also one of the most popular mounts of the liaison pilot, with 3,590 aircraft delivered to the military during its production run. The L-5 is powered with a Lycoming O-435C of 185 hp. The L-5 was even used during the early stages of the Korean war, alongside Piper L-4s. They would be replaced by the Cessna L-19 as it be came available.
The Stinson L-5, known as “The Flying Jeep”, was widely used during the last half of WW-II, and in the early stages of the Korean Conflict. This example is on display in the EAA Air Adventure Museum’s Eagle Hangar, serving as a tribute to all planes and personnel who have served the liaison mission. (photo cutline)
The birth of U.S. Army light aviation 50 years ago gave the ground forces of the Army an effective tool to accomplish the tasks assigned to them, and the pilots, observers and mechanics who supported this effort were a different breed—self-sufficient men who worked tirelessly to accomplish their missions and be “the eyes of the artillery.” Happy 50th Anniversary!
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1) December 3, 1944 – Visit from Capt. Reed (XIX Corps Arty Air Officer) to discuss, among other things, rest periods for pilots. He believes some really need it, such as the pilot who was installing a 30-caliber machine gun in his L-4, but believes that all units in the Corps have a scheme. He will check and advise further on this. (An extract from the HQ NUSA Air Journal for 1–31 December 1944, compiled by Lt Col. R. M. Leich, Army HQ Arty Air Section at Maastricht). Quoted from Ken Wakefield’s The Other Ninth Air Force.