- 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 L-4, which we came to call the “Maytag Messerschmitt,” was not a comfortable airplane. You sat with your knees almost up to your chest, the aileron cable rubbed the top of your skull every time you moved the stick to left or right, it was unheated in winter, and you couldn’t smoke because raw gasoline fumes filled the cockpit from the tank, which was right between your knees, just behind the instrument panel with nothing between the gasoline and a German bullet but air and thin aluminum. In summer it was often difficult to get the plane off the ground, because it didn’t perform well in hot air; in winter you had to wipe the frost off the wings or it wouldn’t take off at all. Unlike the glamorous folk flying real airplanes, we did not give our craft names: we named our jeeps and halftracks, but not our L-4s. They had numbers, not names, and they were expendable: people set fire to them on beaches when it appeared the infantry was not going to hold the beachhead, they ran them into ditches trying to land on narrow roads, they flew them into high-tension wires, at least one ran headlong into a train, another hit the radio aerial on a German command car and barely fluttered back to safety, one collided with an aerial tramway in France, and at Anzio one ran into a 155 shell fired by the pilot’s own battalion. There was even an L-4 that ran into a donkey on take-off, tearing off a wing and upsetting the donkey, without doing him any permanent damage whatever. The pilot in that case—me—was so enraged he ran to the tent for his pistol, intent on doing some damage to the donkey, but by the time he found the .45 in the bottom of his B bag, the creature had fled.
We lived, most of the time, in those tents, the pyramidal model, six or eight of us, and three months without a bath was not unusual. If you somehow went off and got a bath by yourself and then came back, your tentmates were intolerable: either everybody got a bath or nobody got a bath, and you could hardly have an entire air section off having a bath at one time.
We occasionally left laundry to be done in some village or other, but almost always the war moved on before the laundry was ready, and you moved with it. To this day I must have bundles of long Johns and woolen shirts waiting for me up the length of the Italian peninsula and France, Austria, and Germany.
Monte Cassino: the first time I saw it, from about twenty or thirty miles away, at three thousand feet, it was beautiful, a Disney dream of a mountain, rearing up from the floor of the Liri Valley almost as steeply as Yosemite’s Half Dome. Not quite that steeply, of course: you could hardly make war on the face of Half Dome, but my God, how you could make war on Monte Cassino. It dominated the valley, which broadens at that point to a width of some thirty miles, maybe less. To the south, where the Americans, British, and French were, the mountains were smaller, the valleys narrower. The Germans had fought bitterly to keep us from the broad Liri Valley, which leads to Rome: once arrived at the mouth of that valley, we found ourselves fixed in place, the fierce glare of German observers on that mountain making us as naked and vulnerable as the L-4s made the Germans.
It was truly a beautiful mountain, in the beginning. At the foot, the town of Cassino, a highway intersection, redtiled roofs, a provincial life, farms on the outskirts, and a hotel called the Continental. I did not enter the Continental Hotel until 1967, and by that time it had changed its name and the Tiger tank was no longer in the lobby. For months in 1943, the Tiger was in the lobby, while Americans and Germans fought each other in the rooms upstairs, tossing grenades back and forth, machinegunning each other on the staircases. A sort of Italian Stalingrad.
But of course as an L-4 pilot I was not obliged to take part in that. Our mission was primarily counter-battery fire: the Germans had amassed large amounts of artillery in the valley, and we fired back and forth at each other, all day, every day, week after week, month after month, while our infantry tried to take the heights around Monte Cassino.