Maj. Charles Carpenter earned the nickname “Bazooka Charlie” during WWII while outfitting and piloting a uniquely armed Piper L-4H Cub1. Designed and intended for non-combat duties, the L-4 was regarded chiefly for its role as a spotter aircraft; in other duties the L-4 filled out its namesake role as a “Liaison” aircraft. Carpenter’s airplane was groundbreaking however, and his forward fuselage bore the artwork and insignia “Rosie the Rocketer”2 for good reason.
Small and unassuming, as one might expect of an unarmed airplane, Carpenter’s modified L-4 however offered consequential proof that any well born, deftly executed idea can succeed. Securely mounted on both left- and right-hand wing struts were three each M1A1 bazooka tubes3. A firing panel with six toggle switches located in the cockpit on the upper left wing root served to ignite the rockets. With the launchers angled upwards at a purposeful 20–25 degrees, the pilot while in a dive could see and accurately aim at a desired target. Carpenter’s efforts would yield results.
Improvisation and Prudence
March 1942, an Army Ground Forces reduction initiative, proposed by the War Department and directed by General McNair, set forth the following: No offensive weapons were to be removed from units, and proper organization was to be developed for new weapons such as the antitank rocket launcher, “bazooka,” then being issued. –US Army in World War II: The Organization of Ground Combat Troops by Greenfield, Palmer and Wiley.
A Piper Cub Tank Buster
End of Aggressions
/After the war, in September 1946, Carpenter’s aircraft was sold for surplus. It remained in Germany, then later Switzerland, until 1955 when it was moved to Austria. The Cub served in a flying club in Vienna for many years then disappeared in the Österreichisches Luftfahrtmuseum at Graz Airport in 1976. Piper L-4H serial no. 11717 was purchased and a restoration begun by Collings Foundation in 2018.
Army Aviation began its activities conspicuously unsung and distinctively unnoticed. This, in spite of the fact that its existence provided all the elements of “good copy” for any newsman who could be properly guided.
During the campaigns of World War II, the limited number of artillery air observation pilots were much too busy to exercise any effective type of public relations program, except by radiating their enthusiasm by word of mouth. Only such spectacular events as that of Maj. Charlie Carpenter of Moline, Ill., who mounted bazookas on the wing struts of his L-4 and chalked up kills on a Mark IV and four Panther tanks in October 1944, received printed notices.From Army Aviation Digest, February 1956, by Dario Politella, author of Operation Grasshopper.
Big Men in Small Planes Behind the Enemy Lines
Both the the L-4 and L-5 served as a Light Attack Aircraft when armed with bazookas. In Operation Grasshopper, first printed in 1958, Politella notes how the the glamour of a Hollywood film might serve to promote the deeds of the Army’s less-than-conspicuous use of light planes.
In 1952 Hollywood came to Korea for the filming by Columbia Pictures Corporation of the first commercial motion picture ever made concerning Army Aviation. “Mission Over Korea” was to tell the story of Army Aviation operations during the early days of the Korean conflict when fabric-covered L-5’s were used to seek out the enemy and to bring friendly artillery fire upon them. The story revolved around the operations of a field artillery battalion’s aviation section consisting of two pilots and three crewmen. Action in the picture began on Kyushu, Japan, where the first scenes of the film were taken. Politella himself was assigned as technical advisor to the Hollywood men. “Mission Over Korea” had the added distinction of being the first commercial motion picture to be filmed extensively in the combat theater.
The preliminary sequences of the film were ground out at Itazuke AFB in the south of Japan. Then an over-water flight to Korea in a C-47 and three L-5 aircraft was made to complete the film at six locations: Inchon, Kwangju firing point #9, Suhbong-ri, Pia-ri, Taegu and Uijongbu. At the end of every day’s shooting, the film was carefully wrapped and shipped by air to Hollywood via Tokyo. Many of the film’s stars never visited Korea and were later dubbed into the picture. In their stead, Army men and Politella acted as stand-ins. A total of 75:40 hours was put on the L-5’s, 37:40 hours on an L-20 (de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver) that was used to carry cargo and personnel, and 16 hours on a H-13 (Bell Model 47 Sioux or “MASH” helicopter) used as a camera platform.
Probably the most interesting flying project undertaken for the film was the firing of a bazooka which was mounted under the right wing of an L-5. A second L-5, carrying the cameraman, filmed the firing of the rocket from close formation. The motion picture was released in August 1953.
From Army Aviation magazine December 31, 1992 – Prior to actual combat experience, it was generally believed that the small, fabric-covered, unarmed Cubs would be highly vulnerable. Their employment was planned for very short duration low altitude, behind the lines missions to adjust artillery fire. Surprisingly, combat quickly demonstrated the high survivability of light aircraft when operated in close coordination with antiaircraft weapons and artillery units. The enemy soon learned that the defenseless appearing Cub was actually armed with a full battalion of field artillery and that it was much healthier to hide from the Cub than to try and shoot it down. This point, demonstrated in World War II and again in later conflicts, is that, like the infantryman, aircraft can survive and fight in the most hostile environment if properly integrated into the combined arms team.
With proven survivability the Cub became the primary, not the contingent, means of fire adjustment. The missions for Cubs expanded and included: reconnaissance, column control, medical evacuation, wire laying, and the transport of commanders and staff officers. Some success was reached with wholly unorthodox anti-tank missions using bazookas fastened on the wing struts…
Lately I have been taking quite a few chances but my luck has been marvelous. Yesterday I got a bullet hole through the wing and hit a church steeple with one wheel. It was very little for what might have happened under the circumstances.The Cub, while unarmed, was fired on with corresponding bullet hole locations in the restored aircraft as described in a letter written by Carpenter to his family dated August 12, 1944.
One of the most successful applications of the rocket principle is the “Bazooka,” familiar to all ground forces. Here again full advantage is taken of the recoilless light launcher inherent to rockets. The portability and cheapness of rocket launchers suggested the use of heavier rockets as infantry weapons, especially in airborne operations and in difficult terrain. However, their inaccuracy and revealing blast at the launcher position have so far proved a great handicap.The Field Artillery Journal, October 1946.
Stars and Stripes and Guns and Mortars
From Vintage Airplane magazine July 1991, an article by H.G. Frautschy – Stories about L-4 exploits are legendary. From the delivery of blood plasma to the pounding of German tanks with bazookas mounted on the wing struts, the Cub in war clothes performed whatever task it was called upon to execute. In “The Stars And Stripes” newspaper dated November 6, 1944, writer Earl Mazo detailed the exploits of Maj. Carpenter of Moline, IL, known sometimes as “Bazooka Charlie,” who had four tanks to his credit. The L-4 could also help ground troops out of a desperate situation. According to this same story, Lieutenants Egbert Peters and John Cramer “saved a Sherman tank crew by dropping a hastily-sketched situation map enabling the tank to get into position to beat off attacking German armor.” Until the advent of the helicopter, few aircraft could offer the low speed utility the L-4 could boast.
From Sport Aviation magazine June 1992, another article by Frautschy, ’50 Years of US Army Light Aviation,’ punctuates, “Liaison pilots were a resourceful lot… from the unauthorized mounting of bazookas for tank hunting… the pilots did their best to complete each mission assigned to them, as well as invent others they could achieve.”
In U.S. Army Aviation Digest, July/August 1992, it is noted that Maj. J. Elmore Swenson pioneered in attaching rifles to the lift [jury] struts of the L-4. [While] other innovative Army pilots successfully launched rockets from their planes.
A thesis presented in 2000 by Robert S. Brown, The Development of Organic Light Aviation in the Army Ground Forces in World War II, notes other interesting uses of the L-4. In the ETO they served as a bomber and anti-tank platform. A few enterprising officers used their L-4s as bombers, dropping grenades and mortar rounds on German positions. Although these missions were not officially recognized, it reflects the tenacity of the observation pilots. Prior to the war Colonel C.L. Adams proposed a number of missions that would be well suited for the organic light plane. One of which was as an armed anti-tank platform. His contemporaries in the field artillery thought these ideas along with many of his others unrealistic. Maj. Charles Carpenter of the 4th Armored Division had the same thought and devised an interesting armament arrangement for this purpose. He equipped his L-4H, Rosie the Rocketer, with six 2.36-inch bazookas. The arrangement worked as Carpenter was credited with destroying five tanks. He also attacked entrenched enemy with his L-4. The idea was condoned by leadership of the 4th Armored Division and it assisted them in the breakout at Saint-Lô.
Bazookas on an Airplane
In Flight Journal magazine December 2017, James Busha intimates his investigation into light attack aircraft equipped with bazookas, citing 1st Lt. Thomas Rozga, USMC, VMO-4, Retired:
“As a Marine observation pilot, droning around above a battlefield talking on the radio calling in artillery, most of us were frustrated fighter pilots. We wanted in on the action, but with only a .45-caliber pistol slung on our hips, we knew we had to come up with something bigger to do any damage. One of the pilots in our squadron had the mindset of an ordnance man and came up to me one day and said, ‘Skipper, how’s about we mount some bazookas on the airplanes?’ I laughed and said, ‘Do you really think it can be done?’ He nodded his head up and down like an excited boy and said, ‘I know it can be done!’
“My concern was that the fabric-covered tail section or elevator on the OY-1 [Marine L-5] would be burned completely off from the flame that exited the rear tube of the bazooka. The smile from the pilot’s face departed and he became more serious, thinking about the question I posed. ‘I guess it’s possible, Skipper, but we won’t know unless we try it out. Want me to mount one on each side?’ I thought about it for a second and said, ‘Hell, if we’re going to do this right, then let’s put three bazookas on each side. Now go find some bazookas!’
“We had installed six toggle switches on the instrument panel to fire each of the bazookas. The handling was beautiful, no adverse effect whatsoever, and no fire exiting the rear tube. As a matter of fact, once the projectiles have left the bazooka, it becomes a hollow tube with no resistance and excellent airflow. It made for some great Marine Observation payback!”
Headlining 80 Years Later
Charles Carpenter is featured in numerous contemporary stories, appearing in Sport Aviation (Aug 2023), Air & Space (Apr 2020), and Piper Flyer (Jun 2023) magazines to name a few. In a recent book, Bazooka Charlie: The Unbelievable Story of Major Charles Carpenter and Rosie the Rocketer, author James P. Busha, who is credited with bringing the story to life, highlights the remarkable character of this historic figure before, during and after the war.
Busha tells of Carpenter, a U.S. History teacher before the war, who joined the Army and trained in L-3, L-4 and L-5 aircraft starting in 1942. One requirement of a Liaison Pilot was a 170 pounds weight limit to which Carpenter made an effort to qualify. He was assigned to the 4th Armored Division and became Gen. John S. Wood’s personal pilot—one of the many roles assigned to Army Air Force liaison airplanes. Carpenter would see battle on the faces of advancing armies, as well as from 500 feet AGL flying in tandem with the General. Carpenter would cross the English Channel in his L-4 after D-Day.
Though never given “approval” for the bazooka installations, Carpenter’s persistence with the concept saw it adopted into service by a handful of pilots. On September 19, 1944, he battled with his 4th Armored Division near Arracourt in eastern France resisting the invading German forces. On making a second diving attempt his bazooka fire impacted a German tank causing it to burn. On a third approach his fire took out another vehicle. Carpenter would land and rearm twice more that day launching a total of 16 bazooka rounds. He was afterwards commended for his role in halting the German advance.
Carpenter was a gentle philosopher with a poetic bent, a man of inestimable courage and deep introspection who was drawn to teaching and dedicated to improving the lot of those around him. He faced challenges that might easily defeat the best of us—and he did so not as the square-jawed cigar-chomping hero of the propaganda posters but as a real human being with a deeply human mix of virtue and vice.Hal Bryan, Sport Aviation
Ordnance: The Piper L-4 “Eyes in the Sky”
The Piper L-4 and Stinson L-5 liaison aircraft were important air assets employed by the United States during World War II.
Although most liaison pilots always attempted to sidestep areas where enemy airpower and/or ground fire could hinder their work and even cause their destruction, some intrepid liaison skippers went looking for ways to make life difficult for the Nazis. A vivid case was the action of Maj. Charles “Bazooka Charlie” Carpenter, chief of the U.S. 4th Armored Division’s reconnaissance aircraft detachment. On September 19, 1944, the opening day of a series of tank battles on the Western Front spanning 11 days and known as the Battle of Arracourt, fought in the Lorraine region of northeastern France and second only to those armored engagements fought during the Battle of the Bulge, Carpenter was conducting a routine reconnaissance patrol. Seeing German tanks sneaking around a platoon of American tank destroyers, he put his L-4H into a dive and out of the rain and fog attacked the offending panzers with 2.36-inch bazooka rockets he had fitted to the fuselage of his plane. Although he failed to score any hits on the enemy armored vehicles, his actions were enough to alert his comrades on the ground to the potential danger. The U.S. tank destroyers as a result were able to turn the tables on their would-be attackers and eliminate the advancing enemy armor. Later the same day, Carpenter once more assaulted enemy tanks, diving at an 80-degree angle and pulling up only 1,500 feet from the ground while delivering hits from his missiles on two German tanks, causing their crews to abandon both vehicles. –WWII History magazine December 2018.
- Same as the Piper L-4 & L-4A except with Army Ground Forces radio equipment and larger windows. ↩︎
- Rosie the Riveter was a moniker given to the many working women who assembled aluminum aircraft—held together by thousands of rivets—during WWII. Hence, Rosie the Rocketer pays homage to well known title. ↩︎
- The M1A1 “Bazooka” was a reusable, shoulder-fired, 2.36-inch diameter, anti-tank rocker launcher. While simplistic in design, it was cited by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower as one of the major reasons the Allies won WWII. ↩︎