8 July 2016 l Denver, Colorado — In military lingo they were referred to as “L-Birds.” But to all who flew and loved them they were Piper Cubs, or rather L-4s in military designation, and one of a small group of types commonly referred to as “liaison aircraft.” One of these small, unsophisticated airplanes served as U.S. Army Air Corps* (USAAC) 1st Lieutenant Bruce Howard Gale’s WW2 office.
Bill Stratton, an L-Bird restorer, is quoted in Hardy Cannon’s Box Seat Over Hell (page 7) as saying that the saga of L-Bird pilots, such as Gale, “is the story of courageous men and their romance with the sky . . . of men who flew in combat armed with a pistol who attacked the enemy in aircraft made of tubing, wires, and fabric.” Bruce’s tasking, as his son Michael explained, was to “basically fly around at low altitude until he got shot at and then direct U.S. Army artillery salvos via radio onto the enemy.”
The pilots lived with and shared the same environments, often very primitive, as the ground units they supported.
Liaison pilots pilots never received the notoriety of the fighter and bomber pilots during World War II, but the tasks they performed were perhaps more important because L-Bird reconnaissance permitted artillery units to shell strategic areas prior to assault. This greatly reducing casualties among friendly combatants. Thus, one can easily understand why the low-tech, petite L-Birds were considered by many to be the most potent, until the advent of Boeing B-29 Superfortresses and atomic bombs, birds in the sky.
Despite their obvious capabilities, initially light planes were viewed with disdain by the upper echelons of the U.S. Military hierarchy. However, three perceptive and influential U.S. Army leaders realized the potential of small aeroplanes. Then-brigadier generals George S. Patton and William Wallace Ford, and Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower, were licensed light plane pilots. These men knew the capabilities of Piper Cubs.
By 1940 Field Artillery (FA) command decided that USAAC was little interested in spotting for artillery and was concentrating on bombers and fighters. Therefore, FA leaders decided to take the initiative and obtain equipment and devise methodologies to protect and guide artillery units.
In June 1941, USAAC duly invited light plane manufacturers to furnish samplings of their products for evaluation as observation craft. In response, 12 planes with pilots and mechanics went to Camp Forrest, Tennessee, for maneuvers with the U.S. Army’s Second Army. One officer who participated was then-Colonel Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower would become the future Commander of Allied Armies in the European Theater. He flew in a Cub as an observer. The trial was deemed a success, for the performances “of the civilian-operated and financed planes convinced the Army of their value in military operations” (Hardy Cannon, Box Seat Over Hell, page 19).
Shortly thereafter these planes participated in exercises at Fort Bliss, Texas, with the Third Army. In was in the course of these duties that the liaison planes were termed “Grasshoppers” by the troops because their civilian operators had shirts containing a logo that incorporated an image of a grasshopper.
Piper Cubs were already plentiful in the government-sponsored “Civilian Pilot Training Program” (commonly known as “CPT” or “CPTP”). Pipers were also serving in a military marketing role as, in 1941, 48 Piper J-3 Cubs were painted with Royal Air Force markings. Each bore the name of a state of the union which was painted on the cowling. The goal of the initiative was to promote the American public’s financial support of the Mother Country (England), which was already at war with Nazi Germany, and the RAF Benevolent Fund. These planes were named “Flitfires,” the “fire” being derived from the already iconic Supermarine Spitfire flown by the RAF.
On 6 June 1942 USAAC turned over Henry Post Army Air Field at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to FA. FA then established the Department of Air Training on the installation. Primary flight schools for prospective pilots were also quickly established at Pittsburg, Kansas, and Denton, Texas.
Hardy Cannon points out (page 18) that the flying candidates were initially obtained from various branches of the Army, rejected cadets from flying training schools who, because they had what was considered by flight surgeons to be some minor physical defect, and/or the military-sponsored CPT.
The first liaison squadron was formed during the summer of 1943 and based at Laurel, Mississippi. Those earning their wings were assigned the rank of sergeant. Trainees flew Vultee L-1, Aeronca L-3, Piper L-4 (a militarized version of the Piper Cub), and Stinson L-5 (a militarized version of the Stinson Voyager) airplanes.
One of the soldiers trained to fly an L-Bird was Bruce Gale. He was sent to the 21st Army Air Force (AAF) Glider Training Detachment (operated via a contract with the civilian company McFarland Flying Service) at Pittsburg, Kansas. There Mr. Gale and his classmates trained in Aeronca L-3s. Bruce was a member of Class 42-25.
Bruce Gale progressed well, but like many pilots, and especially inexperienced aviators, was involved in a mishap. Late (between 23:40 and 23:45) on the night of 14 October 1942 he and an Aeronca L-3B (AAF serial number 42-161961) piloted by rated pilot Lieutenant Curtis C. Fritchman collided. Cadet Gale was at the controls of L-3B 42-36320 (#33). The two men were flying night training exercises at Auxiliary Field #1 near Opolis.
In the official 8 November 1942 accident report, Bruce stated the following: “I was taking off in right hand traffic pattern and collided with L-3B #30 which taxiing east across runway. I struck other ship’s propeller causing my ship to ground loop to my left, or the west, stopping headed south. No injury to student.” The damage, as cited, included a destroyed left wing, wing strut, damaged to the right wing tip, and the tail wheel and the back of the fuselage were twisted. Fault for the accident was assigned to both pilots, but the “greater percentage of error” was “attributed to Lt. Fritchman. . . .”
Upon completion of the course the neophyte aviators moved on to standard front-line aircraft that included L-4s and L-5s. Gale was selected for a commission because he was a good pilot.
The newly-commissioned 2nd Lieutenant Bruce Gale and 1st Lieutenant Joseph R. McInerney were sent to Headquarters Battery, 947th Field Artillery Battalion as the unit’s allotted pilots.
The L-4A possessed a wingspan of 35 feet, 3 inches and a length of 22 feet, 5 inches. The type stood 6 feet, 8 inches in height and weighed 1,200 pounds. Notably, L-4s were usually equipped with no instruments to aid in blind pilot or instrument flying. Standard panel instrumentation, in addition to a tachometer which related the number of engine revolutions per minute, consisted of an altimeter, air speed indicator, magnetic compass, and oil pressure and oil temperature gauges.
An L-4’s fuel capacity was 12 gallons. The aeroplane’s 65-horsepower Continental A-65 consumed slightly in excess of 4 gallons per hour. The consumption rate depended, in addition to other factors and variable, upon the prevailing winds, climbing and cruising speeds, and the number of landings and takeoffs.
An L-4’s range was typically around 190 miles. The takeoff run was short, which was invaluable for working from improvised fields near the front lines. However, in hot and humid climates, such as in the South Pacific, climb could be lethargic due to the low horsepower and density (humid air) altitude. Peggy Preston of Preston Aviation, a Florida-based flight training facility based at Gilbert Field/Winter Haven Municipal Airport (KGIF) that operates a Cub, confirmed this fact by humorously quoting a comment uttered by imaginary Piper Cubs taking off and climbing in hot and humid climates: “I think I can, I think I can. . . .”
Once airborne, L-4s excelled at slow flight, stalling at only 38 miles per hour, and in the face of a stiff headwind an L-4 could practically hover above a fixed reference point on the ground. The planes had a rated maximum level speed of 85 miles per hour (mph) and cruised at 75 mph.
As a result of the capabilities detailed above, it is no surprise that L-4s proved nearly ideal for the job of artillery spotting and reconnaissance. As Hardy Cannon states (page 23), the “highly maneuverable Cub was the perfect platform for the surgically precise placement of artillery fire: from a light plane circling lazily at 55-60 mph at 1,000 feet, the mysteries of the ground were laid bare — every fold, hollow, and dimple in the earth was open to observation.”
Piloting the airplanes allowed the aviators to escape the heat, humidity, and routine of ground warfare in the South Pacific. For a few hours each day they were aloft and in somewhat cooler air as the thermals and wind currents bounced and buffeted their rugged craft. Furthermore, liaison pilots, more than any others, could literally see the big picture.
The tasks performed by the L-Birds were widely varied. They performed a multitude of tasks including spotting targets, transporting mail, delivering personnel, dropping smoke and small aerial bombs, laying telephone wire, photographic and visual reconnaissance, delivering supplies and ammunition, and evacuating wounded. Additionally, they occasionally operated to and from aircraft carriers, and in some instances were launched from specially modified U.S. Navy Landing Ship tank (LSTs) vessels. Others sported pontoons for water landings and takeoffs.
Bruce Gale began his operational flying from Midway Island and for the most part island-hopped across the vast shark-infested South Pacific. In a single-engine light plane these were undoubtedly unnerving excursions. Long flights over water in a single-engine airplane were out of the routine for the Army L-Bird pilots. Auxiliary fuel tanks were installed in the cockpits to provide the fuel capacity needed to fly between distant islands.
The 947th was engaged during the Battle of Hollandia, which was part of the New Guinea campaign. The fighting took place in April and May 1944. Hollandia was a port located on the north coast of New Guinea, which had been part of the Dutch East Indies. It was strategic because Hollandia provided the only anchorage between Wewak to the east and Geelvink Bay to the west.
Bruce Gale soon found himself in the air spotting for American, Australian and New Zealand ground forces, and whenever flying he wore a “lucky” baseball cap.
What did the enemies think of the liaison aircraft? Cannon writes (page 123) that a Japanese POW stated that more fear was generated by the sight of an L-Bird than by any of our other planes. The reason: “When they saw the Cubs, they knew artillery fire would follow.”
Bruce Gale related that spotters had a 70 to 80% mortality rate. He remarked that, “The Japanese did not want to shoot at me because by doing so they would give their position away. Nevertheless, I got shot at often. I would fly low and slow, probably only a couple of thousand feet above ground.”
Spotting was dangerous work. Remarkably, during the conflict not one of the nimble L-Birds was lost to attack by an enemy aircraft.
Bruce Gale often flew “figure 8” patterns while spotting. If artillery fire he was directing hit an enemy fuel dump, there would be a fire ball that would come up and he would have to fly in such a way that it would not engulf the plane, and although enemy soldiers tended to keep their heads down when the L-Birds were about, some fired up at the airplanes. On one sortie a bullet came through the floor of the L-4, traveled upward between Gale’s legs, passed through the bill of his “lucky” hat, and then exited through the top of the airplane. The incident was both shocking and thought provoking: Bruce Gale realized that one could get killed in his line of work.
Perhaps the aforementioned incident contributed to Bruce’s decision to arm his L-4. He had bazookas installed on each of his wing struts. The rocket-firing bazookas were not part of manufacturer-produced modification kits but rather a jury-rigged, ad hoc armament system. Gale felt that the unapproved installation provided some notable offensive capability and thus provided him with “a chance to shoot back and make a getaway when facing heavy fire from a battery of anti-aircraft guns or machine-gun armed tank.”
Bruce would routinely carry a battle map for reference. He explained, “Artillery units would radio and request assistance in registering (targeting) on a base point. Liaison pilots placed a priority on shelling fixed installations such as warehouses, fortifications, and railway junctions. Secondary targets were artillery or anti-aircraft, machine gun and mortar positions followed by tanks, other armored vehicles, and trucks. Sometimes groups of enemy troops were targeted for barrages.”
Operating conditions were sometimes appalling. Bruce added, “On the islands there were often no airstrips and we often had to land on a beach.” There were also short takeoffs and landings on dusty hard ground, muddy flats, and strips of grass.
During the deployments mechanics toiled continuously to keep the light aircraft flying. The L-Birds were refueled most often by hand from gasoline cans and strainers. Necessity dictated the methodologies of aircraft maintenance and servicing. If metal fuel strainers were not available the mechanics utilized chemise cloths, or if nothing was available for filtering simply dumped the petrol into the aluminum tanks. The primary goal was to keep the indispensable L-Birds in the sky.
Cannon bluntly states (page 77) that the L-Birds “would not have been successful . . . had it not been for the untiring efforts of . . . the mechanics willing to work under the shade of a tree or even out in the open.” On page 137 the writer pays tribute to the maintenance personnel by referring to Ecclesiastes 12:13 and stating the following: “I would add, for all the pilots past, present, and future: Fear God and keep his commandments . . . and respect your mechanics.” Of course, the pilots, too, often serviced their own aircraft.
Subsequently, the 947th Field Artillery Battalion and Bruce Gale operated in support of the 41st Infantry Division, which landed on Biak Island on 27 May 1944. The Battle of Biak was part of the New Guinea campaign. The fighting encompassed 27 May to 17 August 1944 and was part of U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur‘s offensive to clear New Guinea in preparation for an invasion of the Philippines. Some 11,000 Japanese troops defended Biak and its airfields.
The 947th received a commendation for their timely and accurate fire support on Biak. That effective and devastating fire was directed by L-4s, one of which was piloted by Mr. Gale.
Beginning in latter part of October 1944, the 947th assisted with the retaking of the Philippines. Bruce Gale stated, “While with the 1st Cavalry Division we were the first to reach Manila, Luzon, and recapture that city.”
Regarding the area around Antipolo, Gale said, “I wish I had a dollar for every hour I flew over this area. Later the town was pretty much destroyed.”
At a reservoir near the “Wack Wack Golf and Country Club,” which had been “a very exclusive country club” according to Bruce, the Imperial Japanese Army had positioned some antiaircraft guns.
It was a prime site for the 947th pilots and gun crews. As a result, there was considerable shelling and airborne bazooka fire emanating from the Americans.
“I did a lot of firing on them.” Subsequently, Gale said, “I lived here and operated off the strip during fighting in Manila.”
At one point, Bruce recalled, there was an artillery strike on one of the islands which took out a Japanese headquarters. Gale arrived shortly after the pummeling, and found enemy corpses strewn all about the area. The site provided a prime venue for souvenir hunting. He first liberated a Japanese blood-stained flag.
“It was customary for Japanese officers to carry a flag with them into battle,” he said. Gale also collected a samurai sword, a pistol, and a holster.
The next major engagement Bruce Gale flew in support of was the Battle of Iwo Jima, which took place between 19 February and 26 March 1945.
Iwo Jima was believed to be strategically significant because the island provided basing for Japanese fighter planes. These warbirds were intercepting U.S. Army Air Forces long-range Superfortress bombers and conducting attacks on the Mariana Islands.
Thus, it was thought that the capture of Iwo Jima would, in addition to ending interference with B-29 missions, drastically reduce the range of the strategic bombing flights to Japan. Possession would also provide basing for North American P-51 Mustang escort fighters. Furthermore, occupying Iwo Jima would provide the Allies with a staging area for the anticipated future invasion of Japan.
During the battle Bruce did not always know who was radioing him for information. One time Mr. Gale replied to a radio query. At the time Bruce was unaware of the fact that he was talking to a fire control director aboard a U.S. Navy battleship.
Seconds later, half a mountainside was blown up into the air by a salvo from the seaward battlewagon’s (14-inch or 16-inch) main batteries.
Obviously that incident came as a great surprise and shock to Bruce Gale, who was sitting in the sky not far away in his tiny, fragile airplane.
Bruce stated, “During the time we were overseas almost 100% of the artillery shells fired were directed onto targets by my fellow L-4 pilot and me.”
On 22 November 1945 Bruce Gale was aboard USS Admiral C.F. Hughes (AP 124), which was under the command of Captain A.L. Ford, U.S. Coast Guard, and enjoying a Thanksgiving Day meal provided by the ship’s company. The sumptuous banquet had been arranged for Coastguardsmen and a detachment of U.S. Marines who provided security for the ship. Bruce, being an officer and “guest,” received an invitation.
And so the battle-weary men feasted while vessel was steaming from Manila to San Francisco.
Upon postwar discharge Bruce H. Gale, having attained the rank of captain, could proudly boast of service from July 1942 through January 1946.
In the 1960s Bruce became involved with the Boy Scouts of America and escorted troops to Lowry Air Force Base. There he taught them about aviation and undoubtedly inspired more than one Scout to earn his wings.
Bruce Gale’s grave is in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery.
The fact is that airpower alone could not have won the Second World War. It required infantry to occupy territory and troops could not always take ground objectives without the aid of artillery and the liaison aviators. Bruce H. Gale and his colleagues performed an invaluable function. Through their efforts and professionalism, the L-Bird pilots saved many American lives and expedited the conclusion of the Second World War. We owe them our gratitude.
*Note: The U.S. Army Air Corps became a subordinate element of the U.S. Army Air Forces on 20 June 1941. Since the Air Corps was established by statute in 1926, its disestablishment required an act of Congress. This action did not take place until 1947. Thus, between 9 March 1942 and 18 September 1947 the Air Corps continued to exist as a combatant arm and most personnel of the Army Air Forces were still assigned to the Air Corps (Source: Air Force Association 2015 USAF Almanac).
The author (John T. Stemple) salutes the late Bruce H. Gale for his service and sincerely thanks son Michael and contributing writer Susan Gale for their gracious cooperation and assistance during the preparation of this article. Bruce Gale’s comments were made before his death to Michael and obtained from hand written notations on the back of his personal wartime photographs.
L-Bird: The Little Plane That Did. DVD. Brian Shipman, Gary Ellison Productions & International Liaison Pilots Association, 2010.
Sources & Suggested Readings
1st Cavalry Division, 1941-1949
1st Cavalry Division
1st Cavalry Division (United States)
1st Cavalry Division History
1st Cavalry Division
1945 Piper L-4 Grasshopper
History of the 947 Field Artillery Battalion,” by Paul G. Hollister
Atkinson Municipal Airport
Battle of Biak
Battle of Hollandia
Battle of Hollandia
Battle of Iwo Jima
Cannon, Hardy D. Box Seat Over Hell: The True Story of America’s Liaison Pilots and their Light Planes in World War II, San Antonio: Alamo Liaison Squadron, 2007.
Civil Air Patrol
Civilian Pilot Training Program
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Fort Sill’s Henry Post Army Airfield
Gailey, Harry A. The War in The Pacific: From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay, Presidio Press, 1995.
George S. Patton
Henry Post Army Airfield
History of Fort Hunter Liggett
How It Flies
L-Bird: The Little Plane That Did. DVD by Brian Shipman, Gary Ellison Productions and The International Liaison Pilots Association, 2010.
Love, Terry. M. L-Birds: American Combat Liaison Aircraft of World War II, New Brighton, MN: Flying Books International, 2001.
Luzon 1944 – 1945
Marine 155mm Gun Battalions in the Philippines
Moore, Don. Low and Slow: A Personal History of a Liaison Pilot in World War II. Upland: San Antonio Publishing Company, 1999.
New Guinea campaign
North American P-51 Mustang
Philippines Campaign (1944–45)
Piper L-4A Grasshopper
Piper L-4 / O-59 / L-18 “Grasshopper”
Royal Air Force
Schultz, Alfred W. and Kirk Neff. Janey: A Little Plane in a Big War, Middletown, CN: Southfarm Press, 1998.
Smith, Robert Ross. The Approach to the Philippines
The 1st Cavalry Division History
Taylorcraft L-2M Grasshopper
The Flitfire Cub: Piper’s Little Known Pre-WWII Contribution
The Piper Cub and the LST Aircraft Carrier
Wack Wack Golf and Country Club
William Wallace Ford
Winter Haven Municipal Airport