WW II Di­ary: Grasshopper Roundup

Tree­top War­riors in Fab­ric Kites

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - by James P. Busha

Not all war­birds had huge en­gines and breathed fire from mul­ti­ple gun­ports. Some were de­signed to serve ground troops in a man­ner no other air­plane could muster. En­ter the Grasshopper.

In the sum­mer of 1941, with a world war knock­ing at Amer­ica’s door, the U.S. Army was itch­ing for a “low and slow” ob­ser­va­tion plane. The Army wanted one that could loi­ter near and over the hid­den en­emy and, when spot­ted, could then co­or­di­nate with ar­tillery units to rain de­struc­tion down upon the foe. Dur­ing the Louisiana war games of 1941, three of the big names in avi­a­tion—Tay­lor-craft, Aeronca, and Piper— showed up to play, each with a proven, off-the-shelf can­di­date, in hopes of win­ning a lu­cra­tive mil­i­tary con­tact. The Stinson L-1 Vig­i­lant, al­ready on line, sig­nif­i­cantly dwarfed the civil­ian en­trants. Need­less to say, “big­ger” was not bet­ter, as the lit­tle “grasshop­pers” won the day.

As with all mil­i­tary air­craft, the three con­tenders were given al­phanu­meric des­ig­na­tions with their fresh coats of Army green paint. The orig­i­nal mil­i­tary let­ter code for an ob­ser­va­tion air­craft was “O,” but it was changed to “L” (for “li­ai­son”) in 1942. The “L-birds” were all fab­ric cov­ered, sim­i­lar in length and wing­span, and car­ried a pi­lot and ob­server seated in tan­dem sur­rounded by a glass green­house. The same well-built and proven “bul­let­proof en­gine,” the Con­ti­nen­tal A-65, pow­ered most of the early mod­els, un­til the pur­pose-built Stinson L-5 ar­rived with a big­ger air­frame and big­ger Ly­coming O-435 190hp en­gine.

Stinson L-1 Vig­i­lant

The Stinson L-1 Vig­i­lant was equipped with full-span au­to­matic slats on the lead­ing edges of the wings and pi­lot-op­er­ated slot­ted flaps on the trail­ing edges. Thus, Vig­i­lants were well suited for op­er­a­tions from short fields. With a length of more than 34 feet and a wing­span of al­most 51 feet, the top speed of the li­ai­son gi­ant was around 122mph via a 295hp Ly­coming R-680 ra­dial en­gine.

Dur­ing WW II, the Vig­i­lant was used in a va­ri­ety of roles, in­clud­ing tow­ing glid­ers, spot­ting ar­tillery, un­der­tak­ing res­cue mis­sions, sup­ply­ing front-line troops, and con­duct­ing clan­des­tine mis­sions be­hind en­emy lines. Some Vig­i­lants were con­verted as air am­bu­lances, with a set of lit­ters in the rear to carry wounded soldiers to field hos­pi­tals. Whether on wheels, skis, or floats, the Vig­i­lant was able to carry out its mis­sion when called upon.

Tay­lor­craft L-2

The first “civil­ian” air­craft to com­pete was from the Tay­lor­craft Com­pany, given the des­ig­na­tion O-57/L-2. The L-2 had a wing­span of 35 feet 2 inches and a fuse­lage length of 22 feet 9 inches. The empty weight was 875 pounds, with a gross weight of 1,300 pounds. With a max­i­mum speed of 98mph, the L-2 was the fastest con­tender in the field. Later mod­els in­cor­po­rated wing spoil­ers sim­i­lar to those found on glid­ers, al­low­ing the air­craft to make very steep ap­proaches to short land­ing strips.

Of all the mod­els con­sid­ered, the only one that re­mained state­side, never see­ing com­bat, was the L-2. De­signed and built by C. Gil­bert Tay­lor, the man re­spon­si­ble for the fa­mous Tay­lor Cub, which even­tu­ally be­came the J-3 Piper Cub, the L-2 proved it could adapt to any­thing the U.S. mil­i­tary threw at it, in­clud­ing hav­ing its en­gine re­moved and re­placed with a third seat.

The L-2 was de­signed by C. Gil­bert Tay­lor, the man re­spon­si­ble for the fa­mous Tay­lor Cub, which even­tu­ally be­came the J-3 Piper Cub.

With a short­age of glid­ers and glider pi­lots, the U.S. mil­i­tary turned to Tay­lor­craft for help, and the com­pany con­verted L-2s into three-seat glider train­ers called “TG-6s.” Easy to fly and cheap to build, the glid­ers helped train hun­dreds of men. Some pi­lots ended up fly­ing the big­ger ver­sions over the beaches and hedgerows of Europe dur­ing D-Day op­er­a­tions.

Aeronca L-3 De­fender

The next en­trant came from Aeronca Air­craft Com­pany in Ohio, re­ceiv­ing the mil­i­tary des­ig­na­tion O-58/L-3. Based on the civil­ian ver­sion of the 65TC, the L-3 car­ried the pi­lot in front with the ob­server in back, fac­ing for­ward or rear­ward de­pend­ing on the mis­sion. Some L-3s saw com­bat in North Africa, Europe, and the South Pa­cific.

The L-3’s wing­span was 35 feet, bolted to a 21-foot-long fuse­lage. It had an empty weight of 865 pounds and a gross weight of 1,300 pounds. Many Army pi­lots who flew “down­hill” in an L-3 tried to avoid the bul­lets com­ing “up­hill,” as they of­ten ex­ceeded the blis­ter­ing max­i­mum speed of 87mph. Around 1,500 L-3s were built by Aeronca.

“That damn 65-horse Aeronca De­fender (L-3) saved my butt. When I en­tered the ser­vice in Jan­uary of ’42, I had al­ready ob­tained my pri­vate pi­lot’s li­cense. I had a whop­ping 39 hours in the Aeronca, so when I went to Pri­mary, in­struc­tors didn’t have to tell me about chan­delles, loops, and spins be­cause I had that train­ing al­ready. My in­struc­tors had a lit­tle ‘fun’ with me, teach­ing me things I was sup­posed to learn in Ba­sic. I went on to Ba­sic and the same thing hap­pened; I was taught tac­tics and air work I was sup­posed to learn in Ad­vanced. When I got to Ad­vanced, I was la­beled a ‘hot pi­lot.’

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, I was sent to fighters. To this day, I still con­sider those 39 hours in the Aeronca as the most im­por­tant time I ever had in the air. Learn­ing to fly that lit­tle tan­dem two-seater built a foun­da­tion of stick and rud­der skills that car­ried over to both the P-47 Thun­der­bolt and P-51 Mustangs I flew in dur­ing com­bat with the 352nd Fighter Group over Europe, where I was cred­ited with 13.33 en­emy air­craft de­stroyed.”

—Lt. Col. Don­ald S. Bryan, USAF, Re­tired

“Learn­ing to fly that lit­tle tan­dem twoseater built a foun­da­tion of stick and rud­der skills that car­ried over to both the P-47 Thun­der­bolt and P-51 Mustangs.”

Piper L-4 Cub

The last con­tender of the orig­i­nal three— and prob­a­bly the best known—was the Piper O-59/L-4. The L-4 was a J-3 Cub of a dif­fer­ent color; Piper sim­ply cut the fab­ric away on the back and sides of the fuse­lage and re­placed it with Plex­i­glas. The Cub en­joyed a suc­cess­ful civil­ian life, with many men and women re­ceiv­ing their flight in­struc­tion in the vul­ner­a­ble J-3, and then it was time for the Cub to go to war. More than 5,000 L-4s were pro­duced and sent to all cor­ners of the globe, con­tribut­ing to the Al­lied vic­tory.

Dur­ing WW II, the L-4 flew off air­craft car­ri­ers, landed on beach­heads, and evac­u­ated count­less wounded men from the bat­tle­fields. One L-4 named “Miss Me!?” also par­tic­i­pated in one of the last aerial vic­to­ries of the war. On April 11, 1945, its pi­lot and ob­server, us­ing their semi-au­to­matic pis­tols, shot down a Ger­man ob­ser­va­tion plane. Not want­ing to leave the job un­fin­ished, the L-4 landed next to the wrecked Ger­man air­craft and cap­tured its crew.

The L-4 had a wing­span of 35 feet 2 inches and a fuse­lage length of 22 feet 3 inches. The Piper was the light­weight of the bunch, weigh­ing 695 pounds empty, with a gross weight of 1,220 pounds. The generic name given to all of these work­horses in 1941 came from a gen­eral who dubbed them “grasshop­pers” be­cause of their abil­ity to land and take off in very short dis­tances.

“I had named my new L-4 ‘ Miss Me!?’ for two rea­sons. One was be­cause I wanted the Ger­mans to miss me when they shot at me, and the other rea­son is I hoped some­one was miss­ing me back home.

On that day’s mis­sion, Lt. [Wil­liam] Martin was again spot­ting from the back seat as we flew out ahead of the ad­vanc­ing col­umn look­ing for tar­gets. We were fly­ing at be­tween 600 and 800 feet when we spot­ted a Ger­man mo­tor­cy­cle with side­car that came rac­ing out of a tree­line be­low. This guy was par­al­lel to the front lines, and we as­sumed he was a mes­sen­ger. Our plan was to see where he was go­ing, then we would fly along­side of him and pop a cou­ple of rounds off at him from our .45s. We were all set to do just that when, all of a sud­den, a Ger­man Fieseler Fi 156 Storch flew right be­low us at tree­top level.

The Fiesler Storch tried his best to out­ma­neu­ver us, but it is darn near im­pos­si­ble to out­ma­neu­ver a Cub! I flew at him head on, and nei­ther one of us was chang­ing course or alti­tude. At the last minute,

I jinxed back on the stick, and as we flew over him, miss­ing him by a few feet, I re­mem­ber think­ing there was a lot of glass win­dows over the Storch’s cock­pit. I re­al­ized that both the Ger­man pi­lot in the front and the guy in the back had just seen us be­cause their eyes were as big as saucers. Lt. Martin and I started to fire at him with our .45s as we passed over­head. The Storch was 30mph faster than we were, but in­stead of run­ning, he tried to cir­cle up­ward for alti­tude. I could turn tighter than he could, so it didn’t take us long to get back into a fir­ing po­si­tion as we let loose again with our hand­guns. This time, I un­loaded my en­tire mag­a­zine.

I had to hold the L-4’s stick with my knees as I dropped my empty mag­a­zine out of the air­plane; there was no way I wanted that to lodge un­der my rud­der pedal. I con­tin­ued to fly with my knees as I put a fresh mag­a­zine into the .45 and I be­gan to fire at the Storch again. I was get­ting close to him at that time and still above him, so I led him just a lit­tle bit. When I thought I had the right lead, I be­gan to crank off rounds as fast as I could. I saw a small flash near his en­gine cowl­ing and on his fuse­lage, so I knew I was hit­ting him, es­pe­cially when I saw fuel stream­ing from one of the fuel tanks. The Storch be­gan to turn left and climb, and then sud­denly made a hard right and dove into a corkscrew turn. I was still above him as I emp­tied my last mag­a­zine into him. We were fi­nally able to drive him into the ground as the Storch tried one last turn. Be­cause his wings were much longer than mine, he mis­judged his height and his right wing dug into the ground. It was more of a con­trolled crash than it was a land­ing as the Storch plowed into a beet field, wip­ing out his gear and right wing.” —Lt. Mer­ritt Duane Fran­cies, U.S. Army, Re­tired, 5th Ar­mored Di­vi­sion, 71st Field Ar­tillery, 9th Army, 11 April 1945, Ves­beck, Ger­many

Stinson L-5 Sen­tinel

Built by the Stinson Di­vi­sion of Con­sol­i­dated-Vul­tee Air­craft in Wayne, Michi­gan, which had also built the L-1A, the L-5 was the big­gest of the tan­dem-seat grasshop­pers. Re­port­edly, the govern­ment had ap­proached Stinson to build more L-1A Vig­i­lants, but the com­pany stated that it could de­sign a dif­fer­ent air­plane that would be less ex­pen­sive and less com­plex yet would do the job just as well as the much larger Vig­i­lant.

Thus emerged the L-5 Sen­tinel, de­signed and built spe­cially for get­ting in and out of tight, rough places. With a wing­span of 34 feet and a length of 24 feet, the L-5 had an empty weight of 1,550 pounds and a gross weight of 2,200 pounds. It was con­structed of chro­moly steel tub­ing with wood wings, all cov­ered with fab­ric. Its wrap­around Plex­i­glas green­house gave the pi­lot and ob­server an un­ob­structed view. The L-5 had three times the power of its smaller war­bug cousins ow­ing to the 6-cylin­der, 190hp Ly­coming O-435 en­gine. With the other L-birds, the L-5 proved its worth and was the sec­ond­most-used li­ai­son air­plane in WW II next to the L-4 Cub. The air­plane was def­i­nitely a fly­ing jeep, and the later mod­els had large lit­ter doors in­stalled in the rear fuse­lage area to carry the wounded.

“When we got or­ders to move to the Pa­cific The­atre, we crated the L-5s, put them in con­tain­ers, and loaded every­one on the boat and set sail for Aus­tralia. We were the first li­ai­son squadron sent to the South Pa­cific. Upon ar­rival in Aus­tralia, I re­ported to the 5th Air Force, found the duty of­fi­cer and told him very proudly, ‘The 25th Li­ai­son Squadron has ar­rived and is ready for duty!’ The of­fi­cer looked up at me and asked, ‘What is a li­ai­son squadron?’ Be­fore I could an­swer, he said, ‘Don’t get in the way of the bombers and fighters, there’s a war on, ya know!’

Things were be­com­ing very busy for the group. I would send two or three dif­fer­ent flights out to the com­bat units to look for downed air­men, to drop food and sup­plies to ground units, haul wounded out, or just de­liver mail and sup­plies. We fi­nally got to a point that, af­ter we took a cou­ple downed pi­lots out of the jun­gle, we re­al­ized what our role was in this war. All in all, when I was in com­mand, I be­lieve we res­cued over 50 bomber and fighter pi­lots from the jun­gle. The fighter and bomber boys grew to ap­pre­ci­ate us. If any of the ‘land­ing sites’ looked too short or too tight for the L-5s to get in, we would bor­row an L-4 Cub from one of the ar­tillery units and use that for a spe­cific mis­sion.

We built up quite a rep­u­ta­tion, and with that, I felt the group needed to have its own name and sym­bol. Some­one in the group came up with the name ‘Guinea Short Lines,’ and we had an artist in the group paint a kan­ga­roo un­der the name be­cause ‘we were just hop­ping around ev­ery­where.’ We would be for­ever known as the ‘Guinea Short Lines.’”

—Lt. Col. Frank J. Bar­lett, USAF, Re­tired

Ba­zookas on an Air­plane?!

“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 [the 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!” —1st Lt. Thomas Rozga, USMC, VMO-4, Re­tired

The rudi­men­tary ap­pear­ance of the Vig­i­lant be­lies the fact that it was a so­phis­ti­cated piece of aero­nau­ti­cal engi­neer­ing. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

As if the Con­sol­i­dated-Vul­tee-Stinson L-1 wasn’t tall enough, am­phibi­ous floats gave it a higher pro­file as well as in­creased util­ity. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

Serv­ing pri­mar­ily as a state­side trainer and li­ai­son hack, the L-2 did much of its ser­vice con­verted to glid­ers. (Photo by ben­twing.com)

Later L-2s were equipped with spoil­ers on top of the wings, which killed some of the type’s well-known float on land­ing. (Photo cour­tesy of EN-Archive)

One of the less nu­mer­ous L-birds, the Aeronca L-3 non­the­less saw its share of com­bat around the world. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

Un­der­neath the olive drab paint is a nearly stock J-3 Cub. It had more Plex­i­glas and ra­dios, but that was about the only changes made when it was drafted as an L-4. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

Lt. John Don­nolan with his L-4 just af­ter D-Day. (Photo cour­tesy of Jack Cook)

Lt. Wil­liam Martin (ob­server) and Lt. Mer­ritt Frances in­spect­ing the Storch they had just downed. This is one of the few aerial vic­to­ries by an L-bird dur­ing WW II. Also, it’s pos­si­bly the only one brought down with 1911 .45 Colts. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

Ev­ery mil­i­tary avi­a­tor is—and was—a fighter pi­lot at heart, in­clud­ing L-bird pi­lots. Many went out of their way to join the fight. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

The L-5 Sen­tinel was es­pe­cially well suited for duty in the Pa­cific, where it had to deal with weather and ter­rain is­sues. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet) Caption 5

Al­though much larger than the other com­mon L-birds, the L-5 still lent it­self hand­ily to be­ing crated and shipped where needed. It was sim­ple enough that it was easy to as­sem­ble in the field. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

1st Lt. Thomas Rozga, a frus­trated Marine L-5 pi­lot on Iwo Jima with VMO-4, poses with his so­lu­tion for do­ing more than just ob­serv­ing the en­emy: three ba­zookas un­der each wing. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

Lt. Rozga was sur­prised that the blast from launch­ing the rock­ets had al­most no ef­fect on the L-5. He could fire them one at a time or in salvo mode. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

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