- Historic Sites
When I Landed The War Was Over
A veteran news correspondent recalls his days as a spotter plane pilot
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
The leggins were a constant problem for a pilot, since they had little hooks along the sides to hold the laces, and those hooks caught in the exposed rudder cables in the cockpit of the L-4. You could not make an artillery officer understand that, or at least you couldn’t within the continental limits of the United States, or Zone of the Interior, as the Army called it. Once outside the Z.I., the 93rd realized what the L-4s could do, and nobody cared what we wore.
In time, the 93rd Armored Field Artillery Battalion was sent to North Africa. The L-4s were packed into huge boxes like railroad freight cars, and I had my first real intimation that the Army might be asking us to perform out of our league: a manifest tacked to each enormous box said, among other things, “Aircraft, L-4, cost to US Govt, $800; crate, 1942 M-2, cost to US Govt., $1200.” The thought that our airplanes cost less than the boxes they came in was disquieting.
Our ship sailed from Staten Island. We had staged at a camp up the Hudson River, then taken the train for Staten Island, and we arrived at the Battery about five-thirty in the afternoon, just as all those commuters were boarding their trains, to go the other way. The nine hundred members of the 93rd Battalion streamed off our train, each man laden with two barracks bags stuffed to bursting (“place the contents of your A bag in your B bag and now proceed to pack your A bag with the following additional items”) as well as various weapons hung about the person, and one and all suffering a certain nervous anxiety, mixed with equally nervous hilarity. Somehow a feeling swept through us that the ferryboats to Staten Island wouldn’t wait for us—we would miss the war!—and we all started running. Just ahead of me my half-track driver tripped and fell, and lay in full view of all those commuters, pinned to the ground by those two barracks bags and two Thompson .45-caliber submachine guns slung across his chest. As I stumbled past him I saw that Louis, in his nervousness, was, in his supine position, peeing great fountains up through his od’s, and couldn’t free his arms from those barracks bags in order to hide his shame from all those civilians. La Gloire ! By God, we were off to war at last.
At Staten Island, the troopship, a converted banana boat, was modified to carry some eight hundred men. Through some mix-up or other, for which the Army and Navy blamed each other, twenty-four hundred men were at dockside, and all had to be crammed aboard. It was done, of course, (“place the contents of your A bag in your B bag” et cetera). As we stepped on deck, a Naval officer buckled an inflatable life belt around each man’s waist: below decks an officer of the 93rd, trying to shove me and my barracks bags and submachine guns into the topmost tier of an eight-high bunk rack, pushed me so hard the strings on the belt caught, the vest inflated, and I was stuck, half in, half out of the bunk. Somebody finally deflated the vest by puncturing it with a trench knife, and the next thing I knew, we were off.
The term “air section” perhaps requires explanation. It referred to the battalion’s two pilots, the airplane mechanic, the armored half-track driver, and sometimes a 6 X 6 driver, a 6 X 6 being a two-and-a-half-ton truck used to collect gasoline and other supplies from appropriate dumps. The half-track was part of the air section only because we belonged to an armored battalion: its sole function for the air section was to beat down the grass in rough pastures we used for landing fields. We were not a fighting unit on the ground: attacked by German infantry, the half-track would have surrendered immediately, despite the fact it usually mounted one .50-caliber and three .30-caliber machine guns.
As a rule, we were not within range of even the most ambitious German infantry. At first, we located ourselves on farm fields as close to the battalion as possible, but a 105-mm. battalion must be pretty close to the front, since the effective range of the guns is only some ten thousand yards. The sight of L-4s landing and taking off within full view of German ground artillery observers was something those Germans could not resist, and they shelled those forward landing strips with such intensity, once night fell and we could not retaliate, that we learned prudence and stayed back a few miles. The L-4 was not built for night flying: it lacked the instruments and we lacked the training, and directing artillery fire at night is not easy in any case. You can’t find the ground references, such as road intersections or bridges or farmhouses, which correspond to the references on your map. And without those, you can’t tell the guns where to shoot. You did not say, “Jesus! There’s a Panther tank over by the woods! Let him have it!” No, you said, “Baker One Able, this is Baker Three Able. I have a target for you, co-ordinates one niner niner three, six niner two, enemy tank, one round smoke when ready,” assuming those numbers to be the coordinates nearest the Panther tank—or the artillery battery or the column of soldiers or the lone man on the motorcycle or the staff car or whatever it was you’d spotted. There was also the problem of German night fighters.