- 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
Our own antiaircraft fire was III notoriously inaccurate, partly, Sas»«/ no doubt, because the crews had very few targets to practice on, and we often had reason to thank God for that. I think most L-4 pilots were shot at by their own side at least once. The U.S. Navy found it impossible to distinguish between L-4s and German aircraft, and flying anywhere near a U.S. warship during an amphibious landing was a hairy experience. At Anzio, where we sometimes had to fly courier runs from Monte Cassino, there was a rule that the L-4s had to enter the beachhead area precisely at the point where the front line curved down to the sea. This was supposed to tell the Navy that you were friendly, but it didn’t, and the Germans knew you weren’t friendly. The result was a sky filled with carpets of U.S. Navy gunfire, while the Germans below emptied machine guns and rifles into the air. Bill Leonard, who is now president of CBS News, was a gunnery officer on a destroyer during that war, and once when he and I were exchanging war stories, it gradually developed that he had personally shot at me all over the Mediterranean.
The Navy had nothing to do with my most upsetting experience with American antiaircraft, however. We were operating out of a cow pasture near the German village of Frankenhofen, attached to a fresh division whose L-4 pilots were very green. One morning hundreds of German soldiers started trickling out of the surrounding woods to give themselves up, since the war was obviously ending. We made them sit down in a corner of the pasture and went on flying missions, but at noon a German Red Cross nurse turned up on a bicycle and told us, in French, that an SS armored detachment was in the next village, about ten kilometers away, and the SS did not think the war was obviously ending. In fact, the nurse told us, the SS people were so annoyed by the soldiers who had surrendered to us that they were gearing up for an attack on their comrades and us. I immediately told the inexperienced captain commanding the division air section that we should get the hell out of there, but he pooh-poohed the idea, saying he didn’t think the nurse was telling the truth, so we kept on flying missions throughout the afternoon.
Finally the sun went down, the flying stopped, and I braced myself for a very uneasy night. Then, just before bedtime, the nurse turned up again; this time she said the SS were on the way. Instant pandemonium. Gear was tossed into half-tracks and trucks, the captain pointed out on the map a bombed-out German airstrip to our front and said we’d fly there.
We took off in pitch darkness. Over the radio I heard the other aircraft calling, trying to establish the compass course and warning one another to stay out of the way. These were fruitless instructions, since you couldn’t see any other airplanes. The radio traffic was heard by our battalions, of course, and all the fire direction centers came on the air, demanding to know what was up. We told them they’d get details later and meanwhile to stay off the air. I kept droning along at about two thousand feet, hoping I had the proper compass course and wondering how I would spot the bombed-out airfield even if I was on course. A half-moon came out from behind some clouds, which helped a little: you could see reflections on rivers and ponds, but not much else. Suddenly, there was a great burst of orange flame on the ground below us, and what seemed like every antiaircraft weapon in the U.S. Army opened up, spouting tracers in all directions. I dived, hoping my altimeter was reasonably accurate and that there were no high-tension lines in the neighborhood, and hollered into the radio to the 93rd to tell the antiaircraft people to cut that out. A German bomber had unloaded on a bridge that was heavily defended against aerial attack. Presumably he had picked up our L-4s on his radar and had sneaked in under cover of those radar reflections, knowing American radar couldn’t distinguish him from us.
We got past that and actually found the bombed-out German airfield: the concrete of the ruined runways gleamed in the moonlight, and there was just enough left of one of them to put down an L-4. One pilot did get lost for about an hour and called frantically and constantly over the radio for help. Finally the division captain told him we would fire a .50-caliber machine gun and he could home in on the tracers. We fired into the air, and instantly every other .50-caliber in the neighborhood did the same, apparently under the impression that another air raid was in progress. Some of their rounds came quite close to the lost pilot, to judge by the squeaking tone which came from him over the radio, but he finally found us and landed. It was a very busy night, and we never did find out if the SS detachment made a run at our Frankenhofen strip.