Part 2, 1944–1946, by Dr. John W. Kitchens, Aviation Branch Command Historian, U.S. Army Aviation Center, Fort Rucker, AL. Excerpted from Aviation Digest, July/August 1992

The Field Artillery Branch of the Army Ground Forces (AGF) tested aerial observation and fire adjustment from lightweight organic aircraft from 1940 to 1942. The tests led to the establishment of organic Army Aviation on 6 June 1942. Part 1 in the last issue related the details.

Rivalry between the AGF and the Army Air Forces (AAF), later the U.S. Air Force, over the role and mission of organic Army Aviation began with the initial testing of the concept and continued for over 30 years. The AAF viewed organic aviation with wariness, when not with outright hostility.

The air forces failed to furnish the ground forces with the type and quality of aerial support being provided by organic aviation. In spite of this, leaders blocked the expansion of the tiny new air arm of the AGF and, on occasion, attempted to absorb or abolish it. Conversely, the AGF sought to expand the size, mission, and authority of organic Army Aviation. Disputes between the two Army commands were allayed temporarily through compromise or War Department edict, only to resurface later.

Organic Army Aviation Aircraft

Army Ground Forces flew first in Piper L-4s (below) and later in Stinson L-5s (right). (photo cutline)

The principal aircraft used by organic aviation during World War II (WWII) was the Piper L-4. It was an excellent plane for daytime artillery fire adjustment, as well as for several other types of missions. From the time the L-4 first entered combat in North Africa in 1942, however, several shortcomings became apparent: limited range and speed, inability to operate at high altitudes, and problems involved in nighttime flying.

The liaison plane most widely used by the AAF was the L-5, manufactured by the Stinson Aircraft Division of Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation. Compared to the L-4, the 185-horsepower L-5 was faster, could operate at higher altitudes and carry more weight, had a longer range, and was easier to operate at night.

As early as the North African campaign, some ground units began to request the larger Stinson aircraft for use in mountainous areas. Although the ground forces managed to acquire a few L-5s for testing in 1942 and 1943, no others were authorized for the AGF until 1944.

One reason why the AGF did not request more L-5s was ground forces leaders believed the acquisition of higher performance aircraft would intensify the AAF opposition to organic Army Aviation.

The L-5 aircraft generally were not needed for artillery fire adjustment. Moreover, the War Department, as well as the AGF, tended to be cautious with regard to any suggestion of officially expanding the mission of organic Army Aviation. For, example, it was widely known portable cameras were used in L-4s for aerial photography. In February 1944, however, the War Department disapproved a proposal to upgrade this aircraft by mounting cameras because of AAF opposition.

Army Ground Forces in Italy

Top: Oxen teams and aircraft share a runway in Orbetello, Italy. Left: M.J. Strek (right) and R.W. Blake leave on a night flight. Above: An L-4 pilot on patrol looks over a house in Italy. (photo cutlines)

In mid-1943, the AGF in Italy acquired a few L-5s intended for the AAF but mistakenly sent to a Field Artillery unit. According to several sources, the ground forces first used L-5s in combat following the allied breakthrough at Anzio in early 1944.

It seems, however, the AGF may have sent a couple of the L-5s acquired for testing to North Africa in 1943.

Air Forces-Ground Forces Rivalry in 1944

In January I944, the AAF made another concentrated effort to abolish organic Army Aviation. Air forces leaders were alarmed by the attempts of some ground commanders to obtain higher performance aircraft. They were also concerned about the rapidly expanding use of the L-4s for various missions that had been assigned to the AAF. This concern precipitated the air forces’ attempted takeover of January 1944.

In a memorandum for the chief of staff of the Army, General (GEN) Henry H. Arnold, the commanding general of the AAF, charged that organic aviation was overextended, wasteful of resources, and unsound in principle. Furthermore, he claimed, it was being used primarily for unauthorized and unintended purposes.

He then repeated (but more vigorously than on prior occasions) the air forces’ recommendation to discontinue organic Army Aviation and resume all liaison and artillery fire adjustment functions by the recently organized AAF liaison squadrons.

GEN Arnold was correct in charging that the de facto role and mission of organic Army Aviation had expanded considerably beyond what had originally been authorized. He ignored the fact, however, that the expansion had resulted from the exigencies of combat and from the failure of the AAF to provide the AGF with adequate liaison-type aerial support.

Also, some of Arnold’s allegations (for example, his charge that only 5 percent of organic aviation’s missions were “for the purpose of adjustment of artillery fire”) were gross exaggerations. When organic aviation was authorized in 1942, it was intended not to replace but “to supplement the AAF’s responsibility for aerial adjustment of artillery fire” from high-performance aircraft.

Since few of the AAF squadrons that were to have provided this support were actually organized, however, organic aircraft of the AGF provided almost all fire adjustment as well as many other liaison functions during WWII.

In May of 1943, the AAF obtained authorization to organize liaison flights or squadrons, in lieu of the discredited air forces observation squadrons, to support the ground forces. These flights were only beginning to be organized in early 1944. GEN Arnold wanted to hasten the process by having the AAF flights absorb organic Army Aviation and take over its assets and functions. Apparently none of the new AAF liaison flights arrived in the European Theater until mid-1944. Between then and January 1945, the AAF assigned a total of eight liaison squadrons of 32 planes each to the AGF operating in Europe.

In response to GEN Arnold’s memorandum of January 1944, Lieutenant General (LTG) Lesley J. McNair, the commander of the AGF, took issue with some of Arnold’s exaggerated charges about the use and cost of organic Army Aviation. The thrust of his rejoinder, however, was to observe the main issue was satisfactory air observation for Field Artillery. He asserted artillery air observation by the AAF had never been satisfactory, but that organic aviation was performing this mission in an outstanding manner.

As to wasting resources, LTG McNair observed the cost of organic aviation was “microscopically small as compared with the cost of the air forces as a whole,” and was hardly even a factor in the discussion. He, therefore, strongly objected to GEN Arnold’s proposed change—especially at that critical time of the war.

The War Department accepted LTG McNair’s recommendation that no change be made in organic aviation. To avert a renewal of the controversy, however, the War Department spokesman warned that, should the mission of the ground forces aviation arm be expanded in the future, GEN Arnold could renew his demand that organic aviation be transferred to the AAF.

The War Department also expressed the hope the new AAF liaison squadrons would provide the requisite courier and other liaison service so organic Army Aviation would no longer be diverted from its primary mission.

While GEN Arnold doubtlessly would have desired the total abolition of organic Army Aviation, his demand for such an action may well have been intended, as practical matter, to prevent its further growth. At any rate, his demand and the War Department’s threat to reconsider it appears to have contributed to increased caution on the part of the ground forces leaders. For a few months, they were somewhat quieter with regard to acquiring higher performance aircraft, making modifications on the L-4, and obtaining official recognition of the de facto expanded role of organic aviation.

Few, if any, of the AAF liaison squadrons being organized to support the AGF reached Europe before the beginning of the Normandy invasion; therefore, it was necessary for the ground forces to acquire a few high performance liaison planes to carry out their operations.

By mid-1944, several army, corps, and division headquarters preparing for Operation Overlord [Battle of Normandy] had obtained one L-5 each for “special missions.” The overwhelming majority of the L-5s used by the AGF during WWII, however, were not received until late 1944 and early 1945.

Organic Army Aviation began its third year with the 6 June 1944 major assault against the German forces in France.

Combat: The European and Pacific Theaters of Operations

During the Normandy invasion, some L-4s were dismantled and shipped across the English Channel to Normandy on LSTs (landing ship, tanks); others were flown across with auxiliary fuel tanks in the rear seats.

Major (MAJ) J. Elmore Swenson flew his L-4 across the channel on D-Day and conducted one of the first fire missions on Omaha Beach. He subsequently pioneered in attaching rifles to the lift struts of the L-4. Other innovative Army pilots successfully launched rockets from their planes.

As the Allied Armies moved across France and Germany, organic Army Aviation continued to perform the various missions conducted in North Africa and Italy as well as several new ones. In northern Europe, L-4s also were used to direct tank columns and supply trains, to deliver blood plasma and medical supplies, and to rescue downed fighter and bomber pilots.

On Christmas Eve of 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, Lieutenant (LT) Kenneth B. Schley, a 28th Infantry Division observation pilot, flew a supply of penicillin to the besieged garrison at Bastogne. On some occasions, observation planes were equipped with skis so as to be able to land and take off in deep snow.

The “Horsefly” technique was much more widely used in the European Theater than in Italy. The L-4 did not have adequate range and speed for this mission, but after mid-1944, the AGF had enough L-5s to perform it on a regular basis. These aircraft, with AGF observers, were used in Horsefly missions principally by units of the XII and XIX Tactical Air Commands in cooperation respectively with the Seventh and Third Armies.

This cooperative effort was studied by a mixed AAF-AGF board in late 1945. Representatives of the two commands came up with opposing recommendations for future close air support (CAS}, as was the case with so many other issues involving organic aviation.

Ground forces analysts favored the expanded use of light aircraft with ground forces observers, while air forces analysts favored the use of AAF aircraft to lead fighter-bombers on Horsefly missions.

The AGF concern for ensuring proper and adequate CAS by being involved in it would continue to influence relations between the Army and the Air Force for years.

In the island-by-island war against the Japanese in the Pacific, organic Army Aviation performed essentially the same missions as in other theaters. Adjustment of naval bombardment and bombing the enemy with hand grenades were apparently more common in the Pacific than elsewhere. In the Pacific, as in North Africa and Europe, Army observation pilots captured enemy prisoners on a few occasions.

In the Pacific campaigns, L-4s had to be disassembled and transported by sea; they then took off from the decks of LSTs and other type ships and flew to the islands being invaded to adjust fire and perform other missions. When carriers were not involved in an invasion force, the L-4s usually had to land on the beaches. In some instances, wooden floats were attached to L-4s so they could land and take off from water.

The Brodie Device

L-4s successfully landed and took off by means of 300 feet of cable stretched from booms on LSTs and cargo ships (illustration at right). (photo cutline)

It became possible for the L-4s to return to an LST after the development and deployment of a rig called the “Brodie Device“—named for its inventor, LT James H. Brodie. LT Brodie obtained a $10,000 appropriation in 1943 to develop a portable rig for landing and launching small planes in a tightly confined space.

He built a device consisting of cables stretched between masts, which could bring a small plane equipped with a specially designed hook to a slow stop. The plane could then take off from the cable, or it could be lowered to the ground or a deck for refueling or other purposes and then raised again for take off. LTG McNair witnessed a demonstration of the device in February 1944 and ordered it be tested for Field Artillery observation planes. One of the rigs was installed on an LST and was used effectively by the 77th Infantry Division during the invasion of Okinawa.

The missions performed by organic Army Aviation in the U.S. Third Army during the latter part of the war in Europe represent those conducted throughout WWII. A total of 22,972 hours were flown for fire adjustment; 26,260 hours for reconnaissance; and 19,034 hours for administrative and patrol purposes between 1 August 1944 and 8 May 1945. The artillery observation planes in the Third Army were used for specific purposes: courier services; transportation of personnel; liaison between units; aerial terrain studies; photography; tracking services for friendly antiaircraft artillery; and control of moving motor units. Other specific purposes were for locating friendly units, intelligence information, Horsefly activities, command and staff reconnaissance, column control, radio relay, wire laying, emergency resupply, evacuation, and camouflage checks.

The AGF observation planes were used for many purposes other than artillery fire adjustment throughout WWII. Although this was true, ground commanders were generally unable to acquire aircraft properly equipped for the missions until near the end of the war. The two reasons for this problem were as follows: the AAF controlled the procurement and issue of aircraft and aviation equipment; and air forces leaders strongly opposed providing the AGF with planes equipped to compete successfully with the AAF in the performance of liaison missions.

Ground forces leaders, on the other hand, were reluctant to press for higher performance planes or for recognition of many of the missions being performed by organic aviation. They feared raising such issues would lead to the disestablishment of organic Army Aviation.

Pacific Theater

Top: Unloading an L-4 from an LST in New Guinea. Above: An L-5 from the 5th Liaison Squadron flying over Burma. Left: L-4s at Sandburg Field in the New Hebrides. (photo cutlines)

AGF Organic Aviation

The War Department G3 responded to the overwhelming evidence from the field that larger and better equipped aircraft were required by the AGF. In May 1944, the Department ordered the AGF to initiate procedures to procure a plane better suited to its purposes than the L-4. This was a period of the search for and testing of various planes to replace the L-4. During this period, the long-standing AAF position that AGF planes be used only for artillery fire adjustment suddenly changed.

In a declaration of long-term policy, dated 10 October 1944, the deputy commander of the AAF subscribed to the principle of organic aviation. Not only did he do this, but he also observed that the new plane being selected by the AGF would possess capabilities far beyond those required for artillery fire adjustment. Furthermore, he observed, the AGF should “be encouraged to make maximum use” of those capabilities.

The AGF selected the Piper Corporation’s L-14 [3-seat derivative of the PA-14 with a 125-hp Lycoming engine] as its new standard Field Artillery liaison plane. This versatile aircraft was not produced in significant numbers before the war ended [only 14 completed]. The ground forces acquired only five before the contract was terminated. Consequently, L-5s as well as L-4s were used as ground forces replacement aircraft from late 1944 until the end of the war.

Reversal of the AAF policy on multiple missions and the acquisition of higher performance aircraft for organic aviation encouraged the AGF to attempt to expand the theoretical role of organic aviation. This policy change would make the theoretical role more closely correspond to the de facto role.

The first efforts were modest and solidly based on requests from theater commanders. On 5 January 1945, the AGF requested the assignment of L-5 liaison planes to cavalry reconnaissance squadrons. This would mean two additional planes would be assigned to armored divisions so as to improve their reconnaissance capabilities.

The War Department G-3 promptly rejected this request, however, because of the shortage of L-5s and the need to conduct further study of the performance of AAF high-performance tactical reconnaissance aircraft in ground reconnaissance missions.

CPT John W. Oswalt stands with the L-5 Stinson that he used for “Horsefly” missions, later called forward air control missions. CPT Oswalt, who later became a colonel, flew these missions north of Rome, Italy, in 1944. He was inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame in 1976 for the period 1942–1949. COL Oswalt, one of the first L-Pilots sent to a WWII combat zone, landed in Morocco with General Patton’s Western Task Force in 1942 (notice his cap tilted “tanker-style”).

COL William W. Ford established the Flight Training School and developed its courses at Fort Sill, OK, from 1942 to 1944. The success of these graduating “Liaison Pilots” in World War II, a direct outcome of COL Ford’s vision, paved the way for later development of Army Aviation as we know it today. COL Ford was inducted in the Army Aviation Hall of Fame in 1975. (photo cutlines)

To comply with the War Department’s recommendation for further study of the air forces’ use of its tactical reconnaissance aircraft, the AAF sent two observers to Europe and other theaters in early 1945. These two observers were Colonel (COL) John C. Bennet, former WWI pursuit pilot, and Lieutenant Colonel Robert R. Williams, who served in both AGF and the AAF during WWII.

They recognized and reported that the enlisted AAF liaison pilots lacked sufficient knowledge about the requirements of the AGF to perform their assigned missions adequately. Their reports were forwarded to AGF headquarters in April. These reports coincided with the ground forces’ point of view in every respect. The AGF used them to justify their new request for the expansion of organic aviation.

Top: An L-4 is temporarily grounded by a flood in Rambervillers, France, in 1944. Bottom: The L-4 uses a German Autobahn for an airstrip in 1945. (photo cutlines)

Accordingly in May 1945, the acting commanding general of the ground forces proposed that five light planes be provided to each infantry, airborne, armored, cavalry, and mountain division; he also proposed two planes be provided to each cavalry reconnaissance squadron. The request was accompanied by endorsements from theater commanders and a mass of testimony from the front regarding the need for these aircraft.

In spite of the earlier indication that such organic aviation missions might be acceptable, the new deputy commander of the AAF, LTG Ira C. Eaker, renewed the claim air forces liaison squadrons should perform all liaison missions except for Field Artillery.

The new commander of the AGF, GEN Jacob L. Devers, strongly supported the proposal to expand organic aviation, as did also the chief of staff of the Army, GEN George C. Marshall. In a memorandum to the commanding general of the AAF, GEN Marshall observed he had studied the matter and strongly suggested the AAF “go along with this wholeheartedly and not reluctantly.”

GEN Devers then met with the deputy commander of the AAF. They emerged from the meeting with an agreement for an even greater expansion of organic aviation than originally requested.

In the agreement approved by the War Department on 9 August 1945, six (instead of five) light planes were to be assigned to each infantry, airborne, and mountain division; nine to each armored division; seven to each cavalry division; two to each cavalry squadron and separate tank battalion; one to each separate engineer battalion; and two to each cavalry group and tank destroyer group. Since more appropriate aircraft had not been produced, the planes were to be L-4s and L-5s. The war came to an end on 14 August 1945, a few days after the expansion of organic Army Aviation was authorized. In the meantime, the AGF had proceeded to gather evidence from the field to support requests for the extension of organic aviation to include ground reconnaissance as well as other uses which had been and could be made of light planes.

Convincing evidence was collected and tests were conducted supporting the use of L-5s for close-in bombing and reconnaissance at night; as a moving platform for rocket launchers and for the new recoilless gun; and for dropping supplies and evacuating wounded. The war ended before the results of most of these studies and tests could be reviewed adequately or implemented in systematic fashion.

Top: Corporal Beahan, the first WAC instructor in the Department of Air Training’s Maintenance Division, explains carburetors to a class of students. Bottom: L-4s line up at Fort Sill, OK. (photo cutlines)

The maximum number of organic Army aircraft in service during WWII is not easy to determine. Statistical records on equipment during the war were less complete than during later periods, and many of the records collected had subsequently been lost. According to a widely cited study by a U.S. Air Force historian, 750 air observation post sections had been activated by the end of January 1944; about “1,600 suitable liaison aircraft were available.”

During the following year, the acquisition of 100 aircraft per year was intended to replace those lost through attrition. For most of 1945 and the early part of 1946, about 175 aircraft per month (with the ratio of six L-4s to one L-5) were acquired by the AGF.

If the attrition rate averaged about 100 per month during 1945 and declined significantly during early 1946, the maximum number of organic Army aircraft may have approached 3,000. Of this number, as many as 300 were probably L-5s. The estimated total of about 3,000 is supported by the artillery air operations reports of the armies operating in Europe in 1945.

These reports enabled The General Board, U.S. Forces, European Theater, to report “approximately 1,380 Field Artillery aircraft were operating in the European Theater as of 1 May 1945.”

Also, according to Andrew Ten Eyck, writing in 1946, “organic Field Artillery air observation… [came to have] more than 3,000 assorted Piper L-4s and Stinson L-5s in 1945.”

In early 1946, through disposition of aircraft by the Surplus Property Board and otherwise, the number of aircraft in the inventory of organic Army Aviation rapidly declined. The inventory apparently fell below 300 before the Army began purchasing L-16s [Aeronca Champion] and L-17s [North American Navion] in late 1947.

Army Aviation Training, 1943–1945

COL William W. Ford continued as director of the Department of Air Training at Fort Sill, OK, until January 1944, when he was given a field command. MAJ Wolf was executive officer until COL Ford’s departure, when, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, he became director.

Top: The Brodie device connects an L-5 used for aerial observation to a ship in the Pacific. Bottom: An L-4 on floats conducts sea plane training in 1944. (photo cutlines)

Private contractors under the auspices of the AAF continued to conduct primary flight training for AGF pilots. However, this training was discontinued at Denton, TX, in November 1943 and conducted only at Pittsburg, KS, until the end of 1944.

The AAF then terminated its contracts with the civilian flying schools. Beginning in January 1945, the AAF used its instructors to conduct primary flight training for AGF pilots at Sheppard Field, TX.

Relations between the AAF and AGF concerning the training of ground forces personnel were less stormy between 1943 and 1945 than before or what occurred later.

From mid-1942 through 1945, flight classes generally began every 2 weeks; the class size usually ranged from around 20 to 40 students—depending on the need for pilots at a particular time. The primary phase of the training lasted from 11 to 14 weeks, and the advanced phase, conducted by the AGF at Fort Sill, from 5 to 14 weeks.

The length of the courses had to be shortened from time to time because of serious shortages of trained pilots at the front. According to one respectable study, 2,630 pilots and 2,252 mechanics been trained by the end of WWII.

There were two significant additions to the training conducted at Fort Sill during the latter part of the war. First, seaplane training was inaugurated for pilots and mechanics in April 1944. Second, the Department of Air Training began conducting training on the use of the Brodie device in October of that year.

On 7 December 1945, the Department of Air Training of the Field Artillery School was redesignated as the AGF’s Air Training School. The commandant of the Field Artillery School, Major General Louis E. Hibbs, was named commandant of the new training school. COL William W. Ford was named assistant commandant for air training. The AAF continued to provide the primary flight training at Sheppard Field until May 1946.

During the course of WWII, organic Army Aviation gained the acceptance and acclaim of almost all AGF leaders. From 1943 until the end of the war, field commanders incessantly requested more organic aircraft. Even the AAF came to accept the validity of the fundamental concept of organic aviation.

In the last major wartime air forces attempt to takeover in January 1944, for example, GEN Arnold proposed to leave the liaison aircraft under the field control of the ground forces units to which they were assigned, while establishing AAF ownership of planes and personnel.

The very survival of organic Army Aviation, throughout the war and the subsequent period of demobilization, was itself a significant achievement, as well as a tribute to the WWII era pioneers. This was especially true in the face of the initial skepticism of many ground leaders and the determined opposition of the AAF.

The successes of these pioneers on the battlefield, on planning boards, and in the Pentagon ensured Army Aviation would live on and be afforded more opportunities to prove itself.

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