- 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
German fighters in the daytime were not a serious problem after North Africa, where the Luftwaffe lost air superiority forever. Some German fighter units did develop tactics to cope with the L-4s: two fighters attacked straight on, two from above, and two from below. This usually brought down the L-4, but there were never enough German fighters available on the Western front to make the technique widespread. The fact that it was used at all, tying up six scarce and valuable fighter aircraft against one feeble, eighthundred-dollar L-4, is an indication of how the L-4s hurt the Germans. It was literally suicide for them to move anything in daylight within the eyesight of anybody in an L-4. My own battalion consisted of eighteen howitzers: at my command, all of them would pump a dreadful rain of high explosive on the target, and do it incredibly quickly. By the time the first shell reached the target from any given gun, the sixth shell was leaving the muzzle. The gun crews worked so rapidly that the ejecting shell casing had to be knocked out of the way by one of the gunners in order to make way for the fresh shell going into the breech. It was this quickness in getting on the target and rapid rate of fire that allowed the unarmed and unarmored L-4s to survive: a German antiaircraft battery knew it had to hit us with the first salvo, for we would surely spot their muzzle flashes and give them hell if they missed. Very few antiaircraft gunners are that sure of themselves, especially those with heavy-caliber weapons, since the heavier the caliber the bigger and more embarrassing the muzzle flash. Machine gunners and riflemen were not thus inhibited, but we usually flew at about three thousand feet, figuring a thousand yards was about the maximum unpleasant range of light weapons. Also, although the L-4s were unarmored as far as the Army was concerned, I had an iron stove lid in my seat beneath my parachute: that way I could at least avoid the worst.
The fact that we were unarmed was a constant annoyance. Many a tank or truck convoy got away because it was out of range of the 105s and the heavier guns took too long to get on target. Some attempts were made at firing bazookas from the wing struts, but accurate aiming was impossible. There was also a period when some L-4 pilots took to tossing out five-gallon cans of gasoline, which burst on impact like napalm, but that wasn’t accurate either and was hard physical work besides, so we finally just left it to the guns.
The time I most regretted not having rockets or cannon aboard came somewhere north of Rome, when I was flying point for an armored column, with John Buckfelder as my observer. (You didn’t always take an observer: rarely, in fact. It depended on whether the landing field was long enough to let you take off with extra weight. It usually wasn’t.)
Buckfelder and I had been having a quiet day, no targets, when about three in the afternoon we saw the impossible: a Tiger tank creeping along in the open on a narrow country road. The Tigers were monstrous: this one hung over the sides of the two-lane road and couldn’t have been doing more than five miles an hour. We started calling fire down on it, but the 105 shells just popped like firecrackers against that heavy armor, so we “went upstairs,” as the argot had it, and asked for 155-mm. Long Toms. They had more effect: a body suddenly appeared in the road behind the tank, apparently a crew member killed by concussion and dropped out the bottom, through the escape hatch. By now I had circled down to about three hundred feet above the road and Buchfelder and I were hollering into the microphones for more fire, more fire! You didn’t get a Tiger tank in the open every day, and we felt sure he was going to get away because the high-explosive shells weren’t penetrating his armor. But this Tiger had a gazogene unit bolted to the rear, one of those charcoal-burning contraptions the Germans used to save gasoline, and a 155 shell burst squarely in it. A small fire sprang up on the Tiger’s rump. The tank kept moving in a straight line off the road and down a cliff, where it burst into real flame.