Here's What You Need to Know: Light observation aircraft performed in a variety of roles in World War II.
Despite being caught up in the tide of isolationism prevalent duringthe interval between the world wars, the United States Army was lucky enough to have Congressional funding for the further development and expansion of its fledgling air arm, known initially in 1926 as the Army Air Corps and in 1941 renamed the Army Air Forces. The potential of air power, as exhibited during the conflict of 1914-1918 and hinted at by the rapid technological advancements in aircraft designs and capability in the two decades after that conflict guaranteed its participation in future wars, assuring its inclusion in all the military arsenals of the world’s major powers, including the United States.
Throughout the period, the U.S. Army procured and tested new tactical aircraft, built bombing and gunnery ranges, created training and tactical doctrine, and finally, the Air Corps built a worldwide aircraft communication system that emphasized air-to-ground and ground-to air capability. Although the Air Corps had mostly tactical aircraft in its inventory during the interwar years, it nevertheless stressed as part of its training and doctrine an ever-widening role for aerial reconnaissance and observation.
Problems did surface between U.S. Army aviators and ground commanders about what constituted observation and reconnaissance from the sky. Part of the ongoing disagreement was the issue of what type of planes should be used to execute those tasks. One school of thought that took hold among the Army hierarchy was that aerial observation should be limited to the immediate or adjacent battlefield areas and used mainly for the adjustment of friendly artillery fire. This approach called for the use of slow-flying machines that could loiter over the target area for the maximum time possible. Detractors of this theory, mostly Air Corps officers, argued that such aircraft designs would be at the mercy of enemy antiaircraft as well as small arms fire and susceptible to fighter attack. They went on to claim that the slow, unarmed observation craft would need friendly escort fighters with them over the target area to make sure the mission was accomplished. These conflicting concepts continued unabated into World War II.
When America was plunged into World War II on December 7, 1941, the country was woefully unprepared. Its Army numbered merely 190,000 troops, including the Army Air Corps, and much of its weaponry was outdated. Major military maneuvers of 1941 and 1942 were designed to test new weapons and new doctrine. It was during these exercises that the U.S. Army decided to test the reliability and capability of certain aircraft to be used for aerial observation and artillery spotting. Once again, the Army Air Corps and the Army ground forces clashed over what type of aircraft should be designated for these jobs. The former continued to promulgate the thesis that observation missions required modified combat aircraft due to the need to perform aerial reconnaissance with the least risk as possible from hostile fire, whether originating from the ground or the air. The latter view, as espoused by the Army ground forces, favored a small, lightweight, and inexpensive machine to serve solely as a vertical extension of an artillery observation post. These aircraft, in their opinion, would not be required to penetrate far beyond the enemy’s front lines.
With its goal in mind, the Army ground forces proceeded to test the effectiveness of small aircraft for artillery spotting, aerial observation, command control, communication, wire laying, and medical evacuation. In the summer wargames of 1941, the Army tested commercially built aircraft designs that were unofficially designated liaison or “L” aircraft. The term became official during the April 1942 military maneuvers. Equipped with two-way radios, these two-seater single-engine craft were manned by a pilot and an observer.
Commercial aircraft manufacturers such as Piper, Taylorcraft, and the Stinson Division of the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation built the liaison aircraft used by the Army ground forces in World War II. Piper built the ubiquitous L-4, which was one of the primary observation planes used by the Army during the war, while Taylorcraft supplied the L-2 and L-3 models, essentially variants of the L-4. In 1943, Consolidated Vultee produced the L-5, which was based on the other L series models but was the only designed and purpose-built military observation aircraft used by the United States during the entire war.
The “L” planes variants were inexpensive, easy to operate and maintain, aerodynamically sound, and could land almost anywhere, which earned them the nicknames “puddle jumpers” and “grasshoppers.” By February 1942, the Army had 1,600 of these on order with the condition that they were to be used mostly for artillery spotting and remain 1,800 yards within friendly territory when on a mission. Subsequent Army regulations allowed pilots to determine for themselves what constituted 1,800 yards of friendly ground. This was a wise directive since World War II liaison pilots were very often too preoccupied dodging enemy antiaircraft fire to determine the friendly land boundaries within which they were supposed to stay.
On June 6, 1942, an organic Army aviation program was established. This provided Army ground forces with two pilots and one aircraft mechanic for each field artillery battalion and additional one or two pilots for the artillery headquarters. Each Army division was slated to have a minimum of six pilots and six planes to a maximum of 10 pilots and 10 aircraft. This number would be raised by the end of the war to 16 aircraft per Army division. During the war the Army Air Forces were given the responsibility for the procurement of liaison planes, spare parts, repair materials, and all auxiliary flying equipment.
In early 1942, the Army established the Department of Air Training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and in June of that year began to organize organic Army aviation. The department’s function was to train pilots to fly fire adjustment missions for the Army’s field artillery. Lt. Col. William F. Ford, both an artillery officer and a certified pilot, was selected to be the organization’s first director. In addition to Fort Sill, flight training was also carried out at Pittsburg, Kansas, and Denton, Texas. By the close of the war several thousand pilots had passed through the department’s training facilities. The first class began the course work at Fort Sill on August 1, 1942, and comprised 19 students. It finished its training on September 18 the same year. The first five classes at Fort Sill were made up of officers and enlisted men from the Army ground forces and the Army service forces. During 1943, however, the Army discontinued bringing enlisted men into its organic aviation program because its needs were such that qualified enlistees were being sent to officer candidate schools to fill vacancies in the armor, artillery, and infantry branches. As a result, fewer pilots were trained, but the Army made up for this shortfall in pilots by using the training slots for liaison aircraft mechanics. Liaison pilots were in turn given some cursory maintenance training to allow them to make simple repairs to their planes in the field.
On November 9, 1942, three Army liaison L-4s, under the command of Army Captain Ford E. Allcom, took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ranger cruising off the coast of North Africa during the opening phase of Operation Torch. This signaled the first combat mission ever undertaken by U.S. Army liaison aircraft. The little planes had no problem lifting off the carrier and then proceeded to a landing strip near the coast, all the while maintaining radio silence. While over the Allied invasion fleet, the planes were mistaken for German aircraft and were shot at. Taking evasive action, Allcom’s flight continued to head for the coast, where he was fired on again, this time by antiaircraft gunners of the U.S. 2nd Armored Division, believing the American flyers were German. With part of his cockpit shot away by the friendly fire, Allcom managed to land safely only to be wounded by machine-gun fire from Vichy French forces. The captain was fortunate enough to be aided by area civilians, who rushed him to a U.S. Army aid station for treatment.
A number of significant problems arose from the use of liaison aircraft during the North African campaign. The most troublesome was that there were not enough planes to effectively set up a workable artillery-spotting regime. Many times, the available planes were employed for other purposes such as command and control and communication missions, thus reducing their use for their main job of providing needed artillery adjustment for infantry and armored units. A second critical problem was the shortage of trained aerial observers. This caused some ground commanders to try to solve the issue by hastily training rear echelon personnel—cooks, clerks, infantry, and artillerymen—to be flight observers. The lack of results was predictable, and the chronic shortage continued throughout the North African operation. It was not until late 1943 and 1944 that the Department of Air Training addressed this issue by greatly expanding its training of observers.