October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
A veteran news correspondent recalls his days as a spotter plane pilot
The idea is simple and sound and goes back at least to the American Civil War: to direct artillery fire intelligently, the higher you are above the target, the better. At ground level it’s difficult to tell just how far short or long your shells are falling. In the Civil War they used balloons; in the First World War they were still using balloons, along with airplanes equipped with telegraph keys; in the Second World War the airplane had supplanted the balloon, but just barely. The United States Army of those days was not a hotbed of innovation, and when I reported for training as an artillery spotter pilot at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in early 1942, there was still an enormous building on the post called the Balloon Hangar, even though no balloons were to be seen.
But before that, there was Fort Hays, which wasn’t a fort at all in the 1940’s but a town in western Kansas with a civilian airfield on the outskirts. I had enlisted in the Army Air Corps, hoping, like all nineteen-year-old American male movie fans, to become a fighter pilot, but one eye tested at 20/40, so the Army Air Corps gave me to the Army , period, to become what was called a “Liaison Pilot,” meaning artillery spotter. At Fort Hays, the civilians taught us to fly, and it wasn’t easy, for them or us.
The airplanes were Aeroncas, tandem two-seater monoplanes with sixtyfive horsepower engines. They terrified us but aroused only contempt in our instructors, who were accustomed to heavier stuff. Sometimes, out of sheer boredom at the end of two hours in the air with me, trying to teach me crossroad eights, lazy eights, and all the other primer moves the beginning aviator learns, my instructor would seize the controls and put the lumbering Aeronca through snap rolls at an altitude of five hundred feet. The Aeronca, to him, was not an airplane : it was a sort of tricycle which occasionally found itself in the air. An Aeronca can kill you as well as an F-14, of course, but my instructor obviously didn’t believe that, as witness the aileron-block affair.
Aileron blocks were two pieces of wood joined together with a bolt: when the airplane was through flying for the day, you shoved the bolt forward along the slot between the aileron and the fixed wing, to prevent the ailerons from flopping and banging back and forth in the wind, since that could damage something. A piece of red cloth ten feet long was attached to the aileron block as a warning not to take off with the block in place, since the ailerons control the banking and turning movements of the airplane: with block in place, no bank and no turn, a situation that could, as they said in the Army, ruin your whole day.
Nonetheless, one bright morning, as the first student out on solo in this particular Aeronca, I took off, thought the control stick a bit stiff, glanced out the window, and saw that awful red streamer, standing out stiff from the wing. Death, I thought, and I haven’t even seen a German yet. There was, however, torque, the force exerted by the spinning propeller. Torque tends to turn the airplane, and sure enough, after a wide, wide circle of some twenty-five miles, I found myself lined up with the grass airstrip and landed. I instantly jumped out and threw the aileron block into a ditch before taking off again, but of course my instructor had seen the whole thing. After chewing me out for being just flat-ass dumb , he said, “Well, now you’ll know what to do when they shoot your ailerons out.” To him, clearly, there was nothing to fear in an Aeronca, not even the Luftwaffe.
After about twenty-five hours of solo at Fort Hays, we were shipped to Fort Sill, to the real Army, for sixteen weeks of learning to do the impossible with little airplanes. The “Short Field Course,” it was called. Two hundred hours of instruction in what to expect in combat areas, and it took place in those little olive drab L-4s.
The L-4 was the Army’s version of a Piper Cub: two seats, one behind the other, a lot of Plexiglas all around, so you could see who was coming after you, and a sixty-five-horsepower, four-cylinder Lycoming engine which pulled the airplane along at a snappy seventy-five miles per hour, assuming no headwind. Speed wasn’t the point. The L-4 was made of aluminum tubing with doped linen stretched over it: one man could pick one up by the tail and pull it along behind him. This lightness meant the airplane could land and take off from places unthinkable for real airplanes, and in combat, everybody knew we were going to be in a lot of unthinkable places.
The Army instructors at Sill were a lot tougher than the civilians at Fort Hays. The Army instructors had a terrifying habit of chopping the throttle back just as you lifted the airplane off the ground and then pounding on your shoulder and yelling, “Where you gonna put it? Where you gonna put it?” The answer was, in deeds, not words, straight ahead, even if straight ahead was a tree line. Attempting a turn at low altitude and low speed was wrong, wrong, wrong , and by God, don’t you forget it. On these exercises the instructors would jam open the throttle again just as disaster loomed, and snarl, “All right, take it on up. ” You got to hate people like that, but of course they were right. The Army, I gradually learned, was always right.
Not all of us at Fort Sill could get it right. Much of the training involved taking off and landing over “obstacles,” which required a certain judgment of height and distance. The obstacles were two upright bamboo poles with a rope tied between them, rags fluttering from the rope, and many a time one saw L-4s staggering through the air, trailing poles, ropes, and rags from the tail wheel. That meant the student had misjudged his take-off: those who misjudged their approach and landing were often saved by two haystacks, one on each side of the obstacle. If the airplane stalled out as the student was trying to slow it down as much as possible, the L-4 fell off on one wing and flopped into the haystack. Since the stalling speed was about thirty-five miles per hour, this was usually not fatal, although it put the instructors into a terrible temper, and people who fell into the haystacks were washed out and sent elsewhere, never to be heard from again. Some 20 per cent went that way, as I recall.
Others went the hard way. The Army did not make it a point to tell us about fatal crashes, and with some two hundred pilots in training it was hard to keep up with everybody, but young men died often enough in those harmless-looking little airplanes, without ever seeing a German or a Japanese. I was sitting in the waiting room of the base hospital one day, waiting to be treated for some minor medical problem, when I noticed a terrible odor. I asked the orderly what it was, and he said the lab was boiling the brain of a student who’d been killed that morning, to see if there was any alcohol in his system. Rumor had it that if you were killed with a hangover, your insurance was canceled. Since we were restricted to the post all during the week, this was rarely a problem.
On the weekends a lot of us did overdo it in the fleshpots of Lawton, Oklahoma, which has been catering to soldiers since before Custer and the 7th Cavalry were stationed at Sill. We even sang songs, just like soldiers in the movies. There was a song about us, to the tune of the “Artillery Song,” the one where those caissons go rolling along, and so on, only our song went something like this: “Over trees, under wires, to hell with landing gear and tires, we’re the eyes of the artillereeee. We don’t mind the mud and sand, we don’t need much room to land, we’re the eyes of … et cetera. ”
Those of us who survived the Short Field Course were finally graduated, complete with a ceremony in which wings were pinned on our chests: it was pretty much the way Hollywood had told us it would be, except that we had to sign for the wings, as Government Issue property. That was a letdown, but before I had a chance to brood about it, I was assigned to the 93rd Armored Field Artillery Battalion, no longer a learner but a professional, or so the Army hoped, anyway.
Two pilots were assigned to each artillery battalion, but the other fellow gave me so much trouble I’m going to leave his name out of this. Anyway, the 93rd did not know what to make of two Piper Cub pilots, two airplanes, and a mechanic. The officers of the 93rd thought that L-4s were “vehicles,” with the accent on the first syllable, and while we remained at Fort Sill they were forever after us to grease our uehicles. Since we were only staff sergeants, we would look busy, but you don’t really grease an airplane; you don’t even wash it very often. Still, the 93rd believed in washing all üehicles, including Sherman tanks, so we washed the L-4s. That did not end our stateside misunderstandings with the 93rd Battalion, however. As pilots, we were issued aviator’s sunglasses and leather flying jackets, and the 93rd didn’t like that. The sunglasses were invaluable when you were called into the battery commander’s hut to be reamed over some infraction or other, such as not wearing your leggins (and the word was leggins , not leggings ). You stood there at attention in those dark glasses, your eyes roaming all over the room, avoiding the stern glare of the C.O. with no trouble whatever, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it: the glasses were, after all, Government Issue: G.I.
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.
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.
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.
Much has been written about the infantry battle, one of the worst for both sides during the whole war in the West, but from the air, it was episodic: rarely did I have any sense of a planned campaign or even of massive effort. There were exceptions, of course: a regiment of the 36th Division crossed the Rapido River, which joins the Volturno at Cassino. A regiment was three battalions of infantry, roughly three thousand men. They crossed at night, on Treadway bridges, which were simple affairs, designed to carry trucks or tanks: two parallel strips of perforated steel planks. The regiment passed through the 93rd’s area, which was just south of Monte Trocchio, the closest fold in the terrain to Cassino (that is, the closest large enough to shield 105-mm. howitzers), and a battery of the 93rd was scheduled to cross at daylight to provide close support, but at daylight all hell broke loose. The Germans shelled and destroyed the Treadway bridges, and when I arrived above the river about 5:30 A.M. , that regiment of the 36th Division was flattened on the bare, naked, hostile ground on the wrong side of the Rapido. There was no cover, not even a bush, much less a ravine, and German artillery and mortar fire was landing on the area incessantly. We fired at dozens of muzzle flashes, but the effect was negligible: the German stuff kept coming, 88s, 105s, 150s, even Nebelwerfers , the shortrange heavy German mortars that the infantry called “Screaming Meemies,” because of the fierce howl the projectiles made as they came down. It was, for me, and God knows for the GI’s on the ground, a horrible, helpless feeling. The German fire went on all day, and some of the infantrymen of the 36th broke and tried to swim the Rapido. I saw dozens plunge into the water of the river, which was only some fifty feet wide, but I saw none make it to the other bank. The Germans had, with superb military foresight, dumped coils of concertina barbed wire into the river to lie two or three feet below the surface, invisible from the banks. Military barbed wire, of course, is not like the barbed wire you see on an American farm: the barbs are three or four inches long, very numerous, and they seize a soldier’s uniform like steel cactus. I flew back and forth over the Rapido, directing fire all over the Liri Valley, whereever I could spot German batteries in action, and watched those little brown figures jump into the river and disappear. I’m not certain now, but I believe I cried: I was, after all, only twenty-two years old, and the 36th Division was the Texas National Guard Division. I grew up in Texas, and I had childhood friends in that regiment. Three of them never got back across the Rapido.
Oh, Monte Cassino, Monte Cassino! That beautiful, beautiful mountain: flying above Mignano, the destroyed town that dominated the approach to Cassino, the mountain loomed in blue haze, smoky: its peak appeared to be topped with eternal snow, but as one drew closer, the haze cleared and you saw it was not snow, it was the abbey, the abbey of Monte Cassino, white, white, whiter than snow, glittering, pure, high above the grunt and stink and killing of the valley. Founded some fourteen hundred years before our arrival, a marvel, a monument to God and man. Well, that didn’t last long, once we got there.
After the war there was a great ” deal of argument about the I abbey. The Vatican said no German soldiers were ever in or near it, and the Germans said the same thing. Well, that’s bull: on several occasions I saw German machine-gun tracers coming from its northeast corner. The gun was either inside the abbey itself or firing from a position built into the exterior wall. I called fire on the spot each time, and the 93rd responded each time. After months of infantry assaults that broke against the mountain and the town at its foot, the Allies decided they would bomb their way through Monte Cassino. Though rarely mentioned in historical accounts, the first bomb attacks were made by P-40s based at a field near Naples: they dived with five-hundred-pound bombs. I was at three thousand feet, to fire the 93rd at any Germany flak batteries that opened up on the P-40s, and I can still see the fighters diving, their .50-caliber machine-gun bullets sparking on the mountain as they zeroed in, then the steep pull-up, followed seconds later by the geyser of smoke, flame, and dirt of the bomb’s explosion. As they pulled out and away, headed for home and a hot shower, they zoomed all around me in my seventy-five-mile-an-hour machine, so close their slip-stream rocked and jolted the L-4.
But that bomb attack didn’t work: the P-40s had concentrated on the mountainside, avoiding the abbey and the town of Cassino itself. They hit fortified German positions on the slopes and provided the Americans with a flood of bomb-shocked German prisoners, driven out of their minds by concussion, but bombing the mountain did not open the way to Rome. When the next attempt came from the air, it was a disaster.
If I ever knew what the tactical thinking was behind the second attack, I’ve forgotten. In those days, we all thought that heavy bomb raids were demoralizing and so destructive that nothing could survive in the target area, so, somewhere up the chain of command, the decision was made to bomb Cassino town and the abbey with medium and heavy bombers—B-25s, B-26s, and B-17s. I saw those types in the air: there may also have been B-24s, but they didn’t cross my vision. What did cross my vision, floating over the abbey at three thousand feet—assignment: suppress heavy flak—was an oncoming and seemingly never-ending fleet of bombers, approaching from the south. The mediums were at about six or seven thousand feet; the heavies way up there, just silhouettes. The heavy German flak, mostly 88s, went mad: the floor of the Liri Valley was sprinkled with redorange muzzle flashes as the Germans threw everything they had at this incredible number of American bombers, a number seen up to then only over the Heimat itself. It must have struck the German flak crews as a splendid chance to get even, but they needn’t have bothered. I saw not one American airplane hit by flak. I did see American bombs exploding all around the compass, twenty miles beyond the target, twenty miles short of the target, twenty miles to the left, twenty miles to the right. A fair number even landed on Cassino town and the abbey, but most landed in Allied territory. To watch a bombing run of that magnitude, involving hundreds of aircraft, was an awesome thing, to put it mildly; those heavy bombs sent up volcanoes of dirt and fire, the air shook, you could see ripples running across the surface of the earth as though an earthquake were in progress, and you felt the concussion even at three thousand feet. But my God, how inaccurate they were! The result of this second raid, which went on all morning, was that the town of Cassino was turned to rubble, making it impassable for American tanks, which were poised to attack, and the abbey also was turned to rubble, even though no Allied soldiers were near it. Fourteen hundred years were blown away that morning.
As I noted earlier, German flak crews were very cautious in shooting at the L-4s, but of course there were times when they thought the odds were in their favor and would let fly. Flak came in various calibers, from the big 88s on down to 20-mm. rapid-fire cannon, often mounted on half-tracks or flat-bed trucks. The 88s usually fired a “ladder” of six rounds, apparently hoping you’d fly into one of the three pairs, and people sometimes did. But the muzzle flash of the 88 was so large and bright that you couldn’t miss it. In the Vosges in France I was flying near Bitche when six brown bursts appeared off my right wing, not close enough to do any harm. However, I had seen the muzzle flashes from a village across the Rhine, and when I radioed the 93rd’s fire direction center and gave them the coordinates, they poured thirty-six rounds into the village; there were no more “ladders” from that quarter. On that mission, I became so intent on watching the effect of the fire that I made the supreme error of not keeping my head moving: you had to keep looking up, down, behind, and on all sides. Although the Luftwaffe was occupied primarily at that stage with the Eastern front, there were fighter squadrons in the West, too. And sure enough, when I finally looked away from the target area, a Messerschmitt 109 was boring straight in at me, about a hundred yards away. I froze, unable to move the controls, and just sat there staring at the enormous, bright red spinner on his prop, certain this was it. But he zipped past beneath me, rocking the L-4, without firing a shot. I assume he was returning from a mission and had run out of ammo.
One of the strangest experiences I had with flak occurred near Dijon. The weather was atrocious—a cloud cover at about five hundred feet and misting rain. I was cruising back and forth near a village, at about three hundred feet, when I spotted six small, rapid muzzle flashes from the main street of the village. I depressed the button on the mike to give coordinates, but before I could speak, the six 20-mm. rounds burst around the airplane. I hollered into the open microphone, “Jesus Christ! The bastards are shooting at me!” The fire direction center said, very calmly, “Coordinates please.” Very unprofessional behavior on my part. Anyway, I dropped down and hedge-hopped while I gave the coordinates, the fire direction center radioed, “One round smoke, on the way!” I pulled up to three hundred feet again, and the white phosphorus round burst alongside the flak wagon, which in this case was a flat-bed truck. I dived again, told the 93rd to fire for effect, again they radioed, “On the way!” and again I pulled up, to see six rounds of high explosives smother the truck. It’s marvelous to be young and have reflexes which make you push the mike button before the enemy’s rounds even arrive in your neighborhood: alas, those days and those reflexes are gone forever. Nowadays I can’t even tell when a network vice-president is after my ass, until it’s too late to take cover.
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.
German artillery, tanks, and flak I batteries could not avoid giving away their positions as soon as they went into action, of course, but the German infantrymen were wizards at the art of cover and concealment. From the air, they were almost never to be seen, either in attack or retreat, but I do recall one remarkable exception. Flying under a heavy overcast at about five hundred feet in Burgundy, I was astonished to see a column of some fifty German soldiers riding bicycles along the shoulder of a secondary road, not a quarter mile away. They must have heard my engine, but there they were, pedaling along at a leisurely pace, rifles slung across their backs. The road ran straight for about two miles, then bent into a horseshoe curve around a small hill. I radioed the coordinates of the horseshoe bend to the fire direction center, adjusted the smoke rounds until they were landing in the bend, then waited for the bicycle column to arrive at that spot. When it did, we fired six rounds from each gun in B Battery, making thirty-six high-explosive shells in all. An officer of the 93rd visited the area the next day and found some twenty mangled bicycles lying alongside the road.
Compared with the Germans, we were prodigal with our artillery ammunition. They had to be rather miserly, but we shot at anything that moved or even looked suspicious. On several occasions I chased solitary motorcycle riders with 105-mm. rounds that cost about ninety dollars each, without ever hitting one, so far as I know. The motorcyclists were considered worthwhile targets because the assumption was they were dispatch riders carrying orders back and forth between various headquarters, so we would pump out dozens of shells at them. I was doing just that one day north of Rome when, with that marvelous peripheral vision granted the young and healthy, I saw a horse run out from the woods with a man hanging on to its bridle, struggling to drag the horse back under cover. I was low enough to see he was wearing Feldgrau , so I called for a round of smoke in the woods. It burst, and immediately dozens of horse-drawn artillery pieces, caissons, field kitchens, and wagons came plunging out of the trees onto the road, headed north at full gallop. They had obviously holed up there waiting for nightfall before moving into new positions, but they now found themselves on a straight stretch of road in broad daylight. The horsedrawn column was thoroughly raked, and all because one horse had bolted into the open, driven berserk, no doubt, by the noise of our shells chasing the motorcycle rider.
During the week-long battle of Montélimar in the Rhone Valley, I came as close to ground combat as I ever care to get. We were operating from a farm near the village of Loriol. The farm family had fled, leaving the place in the charge of a hired hand, who was clearly not right in the head. The battle had developed when a combat command column of armor, artillery, and infantry had raced northward from southern France along roads paralleling the Rhone, then turned westward north of Montélimar, cutting the main highway. The German 19th Army was trying to go north to support the German defenses in Normandy, so this created a problem. The highway was soon littered with shot-up tanks, trucks, and artillery pieces, burning hulks strung out over ten miles. From the air we could see a German counterattack starting up from the northeast, and since the infantry was heavily engaged along the highway to the west, there was nothing to stop the German attack but artillery. The shooting was frantic and incessant: on one day I flew more than ten hours, landing every two hours or so for gasoline, but the German armored cars and light tanks kept edging closer and closer and by nightfall of that day were within about two miles of our farm. Assuming they would push on during the night, we built a hollow square of hay bales in the barn, and crawled inside it, pulling another bale over the entrance. The idea was that the German infantry, when they came, would go right on by. And sure enough, they did come, Schmeisser machine pistols burping bullets in every direction, but we were perfectly safe in our hay-bale cave. Unfortunately, however, we had given that hired hand a cup of instant coffee during the day, the first he’d had since the war began, no doubt, and he chose this moment to come into the barn with a kerosene lantern to thank us for it. In horror we watched the light get brighter through the cracks between the hay bales, then he pulled away the one covering our entrance hole, leaned in, and said, with the beautiful smile of the idiot, “Nescafé est bon!” We waited for the Germans to jump him and us, but they didn’t. By the time the night was over, we were ready to shoot the hired hand ourselves, since he repeated the same stunt four more times. Years later, my mother heard from the mother of our mechanic that he had recurring nightmares in which he woke, shouting, “Nescafé est bon!” and she wondered if my mother could ask me about it. You just don’t need civilians at a time like that.
There were exceptions, of course: when I landed my L-4 in a field in southern France, after taking off from an LST which had been fitted with a plywood flight deck, I jumped out of the airplane before it stopped rolling and crawled into a clump of bushes. The situation was, as they say, “fluid,” and I didn’t know where the infantry line was located. Lying there, I heard somebody running in my direction and puckered up considerably, expecting to see a German rifleman. Instead it was a French farmer carrying a bottle of red wine and a smeared glass. He filled the glass, handed it to me, and shouted, “Bienvenue! Bienvenue!” I fell in love with La Belle France on the spot and have remained in love with her ever since.
We went on through France, finally crossed the Rhine near Strasbourg, turned southeast through Germany and on into Austria. Taking off one morning from a field outside Imst, I was astonished to find the roads crammed with German vehicles of every description. Paradise for an artillery spotter! But when I began radioing fire directions, the battalion called back, “Wait.” This happened several times, and I got angrier and angrier, until finally the fire direction center radioed, “Cease all forward action.” When I landed, I discovered that meant the war was over. It was a terrible letdown: I had assumed the war would never end, or that I wouldn’t be there when it did. According to my logbook I had flown 368 missions and turned a lot of beautiful German hardware into scrap. Aside from falling in love with the perfect woman, nothing has ever seemed so important or exciting since.