75 Years of Army Aviation:“Army Aviation is on its Way”
Looking Back / By Mark Albertson: [Source: Suggested from chapter 7, pages 9-15, “Grasshopper Infestation,” Vol.1, SkySoldiers: The Saga of Army Aviation, unpublished manuscript.]
Lieutenant William H. Butler, Jr., and Captain Brendon A. Devol, Jr., being readied for takeoff.
It was agreed between London and Washington that the Third Reich posed the greatest threat among the Axis Powers.(1) Yet it was Japan which attacked the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Hitler solved a potential dilemma by declaring war on the United States on December 11, 1941. Therefore what had been, for the most part, a European war was now a global conflict. December 1941, then, is the turning point of what we call the Second World War. Hitler’s defeat at Moscow and the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor changed the complexion of the conflict.
For the United States, then, the European Theater was the primary front. In 1942, the Red Army was locked in a make or break struggle with the Wehrmacht in the decisive land campaign; one which would determine the course of the land war for the entire Second World War. Concern here, of course, was if the Soviets with their manpower advantage, underrated industrial capacity and capable military leadership could turn the tide, then what was to stop the Soviet steamroller from crashing across Eastern, Central and Western Europe to the Channel: It was that American and British forces get onto the Continent. June 6, 1944, Operation: OVERLORD is repeatedly viewed as seeing the Western Allies serving Hitler his eviction notice from France and the Low Countries; a distressingly short-sighted view of a tremendous effort in planning, organization and execution. The underlying essence of Normandy was to get boots on the ground to insure that Western Europe remained in the Allied camp following the demise of the Third Reich. Hence the American, British, Canadians and Free French fighting men who risked life and limb on the beaches of France won the first big battle of the Cold War.(2)
But that is 1944. In 1942, the American and British armies were not yet ready to take on the Wehrmacht on the Continent. But an attack was necessary some place. And that some place turned out to be North Africa. By November 1942, General Bernard Montgomery had already defeated Rommel at El-Alamein and was pushing the Afrika Korps west across the Desert. Anglo-American landings at Morocco and Algiers saw fit to get American troops ashore to gain some needed combat experience on a secondary front, in addition to flanking Hitler’s Fortress Europa.
Like the rest of the American contingent, Air OP fliers were going to get their first taste of combat. Army Aviation was on its way.
* * * * *
The Western Allies opened the Second Front on land with the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa, known as Operation: TORCH.(3) The first great rollback of the Axis armies in the ETO(4) featured three prongs of attack:
- Troops of the Eastern Task Force, under the command of British Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson, were to hit the beaches at Algiers.(5)
- Ground forces of Center Task Force, commanded by U.S. Major General Lloyd R. Fredenhall, were to storm ashore at Oran. Both Eastern and Center Task Forces had sailed from Britain.
- The third prong of the attack had steamed from the United States. Rear Admiral Kent H. Hewitt, flying his flag aboard Augusta (CA-31), commanded 102 ships of the Western Task Force. Twenty-nine of these vessels were transports lifting 35,000 assault troops under the command of Major General George S. Patton, Jr. The flamboyant tankman was to land his forces in and around Casablanca.
Attached to the 3rd Infantry Division were four pilots of the fledgling Air Observation Post.
TORCH was Army Aviation’s first time at bat against the Axis.(6) In command of the little Air Op contingent was Captain Ford “Ace” Allcorn. On October 10, 1942, Captain Allcorn—then at Fort Sill—as ordered to pack his bags and report to Camp Pickett, Virginia. There Allcorn gathered with his little command: Captain Brenton A. Devol, Jr., and Lieutenants John R. Shell and William H. Butler.
The aviators were briefed by the artillery officer of 3rd Infantry Division; then, they were hustled aboard the destroyer Dallas (DD-199) for the dash to Bermuda to catch Hewitt’s task force.
Captain Allcorn and his men were piped aboard the aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-4).(7) Aboard the flattop were three L-4 Piper Cubs, all in need of servicing. Much of the crossing, then, was spent readying the flivver planes for action. The power plants were serviced. Fabric was patched and doped. And the SCR-609 radios were installed.(8)
Early in the morning of November 8, troops of the Western Task Force stormed ashore at Safi, Casablanca and Point Lyautey. Air cover was provided by Ranger(9) and four Sangamon-class escort carriers: Sangamon (ACV-26), Suwanee (ACV-27), Chenango (ACV-28) and Santee (ACV-29).(10)
Early on the 9th, Allcorn and his men got set to take off. Destination: Fedala, where a racetrack had been prepared as a strip for flying artillery fire direction missions. Sixty miles offshore, Ranger turned into the wind. The flattop was plowing up the Atlantic at 25 knots. Captain Allcorn was in the lead plane, followed by Lieutenants Shell and Butler. Captain Devol rode shotgun aboard Butler’s plane.
Bluejackets seized the tail of Allcorn’s Cub. The aviator revved the Continental power plant. Suddenly the tars let go. The Cub shot forward, into the teeth of a 35-knot blow. “I was in the air as soon as they let go,” said Allcorn.(11)
Allcorn circled the flattop until Shell and Butler joined up. The trio then pointed their noses for the coast, flying in an echelon right formation.
Altitude: 2,000 feet.
The flight was uneventful . . . that is, until three miles from the beach. The aviators shifted to an echelon left formation. Suddenly Brooklyn began winking like a Christmas tree. A 5-inch 38-caliber nearly took out Lieutenant Shell, bursting in the wake of his lumbering Cub.
Allcorn and his wing mates dived for the deck. Other ships in the invasion forces opened up. Tracers whizzed round the Cubs like angry bees. Flak puffs blossomed like flowers.
Allcorn wave hopped towards the beach. Around him, bullets splashed. A forest of geysers rose and fell. About a hundred yards from the breaking surf, Allcorn brought his Cub round hard and raced along the beach.
One of Captain Ford's flight taking off from Ranger.
Machine gunners from the 2nd Armored Division bracketed the intruder. The Cub’s windscreen shattered, showering Allcorn with a hailstorm of glass shards. Smoke belched from under the cowling, trailing off into the slipstream.
Vichy machine guns joined the raucus cacophony. French slugs chewed the wings, underside and fuselage. Pain shot up Allcorn’s right side, as bullets tore into his leg.
The beleaguered aviator found a spot, coaxed the mortally wounded Cub in and pancaked in a rush of broken gear, snapping struts and shredded fabric.
He hauled himself out from the wreck, then dragged himself clear as the L-4 tore itself to bits in a paroxysm of smoke and flame.
Meanwhile Butler and Shell, together with Captain Devol had set down near Vicky lines and
were taken prisoner.(12) They were soon released and rejoined friendly forces. Allcorn was
helped by civilians to American lines. The gallant aviator paid a hefty price for his brief passage in the history books: The first Army Aviator to fly off a carrier; the first in combat; the first to be shot down and the first to be wounded.
From his hospital bed at Walter Reed, a convalescing Captain Allcorn explained to a member of General Lesley McNair’s staff that it was premature to even consider that the recent North African debacle spelled the end of the Air Observation Post concept. He also dashed off a letter to Colonel Ford relating the series of events off Fedala. In turn, Ford forwarded a copy of Allcorn’s analysis to General McNair. The Ground Forces commander made sure a copy reached Chief of Staff George Marshall’s desk.(13)
USS Ranger (CV-4), 1938 / Public Domain, Wikipedia Commons
Colonel Ford’s analysis led him to conclude that there was a distinct lack of coordination with regards to communications and training between the Army and Navy. For instance, Lieutenant Colonel John W. Hasborough, attached to the Field Artillery section of General Patton’s staff, was responsible for making sure that Allcorn’s little squadron was assigned to Ranger and then prepared to lift off the flattop at the proper time. But it appears that precious little else was done once the Cubs had departed the carrier.(14)
Captain C.T. Durgin, skipper of Ranger, refused to break radio silence and alert the fire support forces off shore of the impending arrival of the Cubs. As commander of the only fleet carrier available in the Atlantic, Captain Durgin was apparently taking no chances. In consequence, those naval forces covering the beaches had no foreknowledge of Allcorn’s flight. The gunnery officer aboard Brooklyn could not find the silhouettes in his aircraft recognition log.(15)
However the lack of success of Army Aviation in its first time in action against the Germans fueled Hap Arnold’s aversion to seeing Cubs in a combat zone, and, certainly inflamed the Army Air Forces’ desire to abort the program.
But General McNair and no intension of crying uncle. In fact, more than ever he seemed ready to bull in his neck and stay in there and pitch. After all, the Army Air Forces indicated during the 1942 Joint Training Exercises that they were hardly in a position to assume the tactical needs required by the Ground Forces.
Thus far it was the Germans who had demonstrated modern Combined Arms Warfare on the battlefield, with the German Army and the Luftwaffe providing smashing examples of success. On the receiving end in 1941 and 1942 were the Soviets, who were undergoing a brutal education in the harshest school of warfare in the world, the Eastern Front. From June 22, 1941 till they stopped Hitler’s hordes at Moscow and had stabilized the front by March 1942, the Soviets had incurred some 2,000,000 battlefield dead and upwards of 4,000,000 taken prisoner; and of these some 2,500,000 were already dead as a result of Nazi captivity.
For America to avoid such heavy losses, the lessons of Combined Arms Warfare needed to be heeded, studied, learned and fashioned to an American doctrine able to take on the experienced Wehrmacht with any chance of success. And this demanded that the Ground Forces and Air Forces work together as an unstoppable team . . . regardless of service agenda rifts. However the outlook was not exactly promising as shown by the results of the 1942 Joint Training Program.
Seven corps maneuvers had been planned, but only five were actually conducted. The Support Command of the Army Air Forces was supposed to contribute 753 aircraft. Four hundred were made available of which some 263 “were in condition to operate.”(16)
Lack of training by both Air and Ground contingents was a problem. But General McNair understood the issues. The Army Air Forces were stretched and lacked training and experience. In fact, just how unprepared the AAF was evident when the only full squadron of dive bombers provided for the Joint Training Exercises was on loan from the Navy.
But the Ground Forces were on the upslope of a learning curve as well. Again something General McNair understood. But this hardly mitigated the growing disenchantment with the Army Air Forces by those in the Ground Forces.
Brigadier General Paul McD Robinett, CO, Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, wrote directly to General Marshall in December 1942. “The campaign in Africa,” wrote General Robinett, “was showing that the Germans knew how to use air support with decisive effect, and that the Americans did not.” He concluded, “My regiment had fought well, has had rather severe losses, but can go on. I have talked with all the ranks possible and am sure that men cannot stand the mental and physical strain of constant aerial bombings without feeling that all possible is being done to beat back the enemy effort. News of bombed cities or ships is not the answer they expect. They know what they see and at present there is little of our air to be seen.”(17)
Obviously this did not make McNair or Arnold very happy. But in reality it was irrelevant. For FM 31-35, Aviation in Support of Ground Forces, insured AAF basic control of tactical air assets. “Field Manuel 31-35 perpetuated the roundabout method of requesting direct support of the front lines, which had worked without great success in GHQ maneuvers  and which virtually guaranteed that there would be no communication between supporting aircraft and the ground unit being supported. A ground unit desiring air support was to pass the request up its own chain of command to the division or corps, where an air liaison officer would pass judgment on it. If the request met with his approval, he would relay it to air support command headquarters, where the request would be scrutinized. Only after headquarters approved the request would orders go out to an airfield for a unit to take off and execute the mission. Once in the air, the only communication between aircraft and ground units would be through the liaison officer at division or corps headquarters. The air-ground doctrine which the Army Air Forces took to the war had the advantage of keeping airpower concentrated in the hands of air officers, who would deploy it economically where it was needed most. The ground soldiers’ demands for direct support were not satisfied.”(18)
The situation hardly improved during the Joint Training Program of 1942. The AAF seemed to be clinging to the idea prevalent in the Air Corps Tactical School of the centralized control of aircraft. And, “that airpower was not to be employed against targets within range of artillery.”(19)
This left nary an alternative other than that of developing the Air Observation Post concept to sharpen the accuracy of the Field Artillery. Such a capability would be controlled by ground commanders to be utilized as they saw fit. To be sure, the road ahead was hardly smooth; the work ahead, hardly a labor of leisure. And the rent between the Ground Forces and the Airmen was only going to swell. Regardless, Army Aviation was on its way . . . A glorious epoch in the history of the United States Army was set to commence. . .
(1) See pages 41 and 42, chapter 2, “The Requirement,” Writing the Victory Plan of 1941, by Charles E. Kirkpatrick. “Roosevelt’s executive policy commitments to cooperate with the British began as early as January 1938, when he permitted Anglo-American naval conversations. Although he gave no guidance or explicit approval, the president also permitted the War and Navy Departments to write new war plans—the Rainbow Plans—that envisioned war against the Axis Powers. American officers conducted further discussions in London in August and September 1940, and the work of that Anglo-American Standardization Committee established closer ties and the habit of consultation which culminated in American-British Staff conversations in 1941, and the subsequent exchange of liaison officers. The secret but informal American-British (ABC) conversations conducted between the British and American staffs between January and March 1941 went further still. It was in those conversations that American military authorities agreed that Germany was the primary enemy in case of American intervention and that any eventual coalition would direct its efforts mainly against Germany with the goal of unconditional surrender. As a corollary, the United States necessarily accepted the fact that it would have to contain the Japanese, should a two-front war develop, until the principal enemy was defeated. Such a strategy was the only one that could guarantee the survival of Great Britain, a cornerstone of Roosevelt’s policy.”
(2) After the Red Army’s hard won victory in Berlin in May 1945, Averill Harriman, American ambassador to the Soviet Union, in his capacity as the representative of his country’s interests in Moscow, duly congratulated Stalin for his nation’s great victory over Nazi Germany. Instead of a simple thank you, the generalissimo fixed Harriman with a gaze as bland as the floor the two were standing on and replied, “Czar Alexander got to Paris.” Implication here is clear. Picture for a moment how the Cold War would have looked if T-34 tanks had reached the English Channel. Such was the underlying essence of OVERLORD.
(3) An earlier plan for the invasion of French North Africa was codenamed GYMNAST.
(4) ETO or European Theater of Operations.
(5) On November 8, 1942, the assault troops of Eastern Task Force were commanded by Major General Charles Ryder, U.S. Army. The following day, November 9, the Anglo-American ground forces fell under the command of Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson, British First Army.
(6) Not only was TORCH the combat debut of Army Aviation, but for most of the soldiers and sailors of Western Task Force. As recently as 1940, many in Hewitt’s command had been attending college, ushering in movie theaters or jerking sodas. Take the light cruiser Brooklyn (CL-40). Of 65 officers aboard, less than half were reservists; with only nine able to boast of three or more years of experience. Of 1,050 officers and ratings, half were going to sea for the first time, with the entire complement making its combat debut.
(7) USS Ranger (CV-4), launched February 25, 1933, was the first American flattop designed as a carrier from the keel up. Langley (CV-1) had been a converted coal collier, the Jupiter. Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3) had been originally designed as battle cruisers. In accordance with the limitations on naval armaments set forth by the Washington Naval Agreement of February 8, 1922, the pair’s construction as surface combatants ceased and both were converted to aircraft carriers.
(8) SCR-609, AKA Signal Corps Radio 609 or Set Complete Radio 609, was a popular type found aboard Air OP aircraft. There were hand-portable, frequency-modulated two-way communicators. SCR-600 series radios were used by the Field Artillery. SCR-500 series radios were used by the Armored Forces.
(9) USS Ranger was the only fleet carrier available for TORCH. Lexington had been lost at the battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942. Yorktown (CV-5) would find a watery grave at Midway, June 7, 1942. Wasp (CV-7) took the deep six off Espiritu Santo, September 15, 1942, torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-15. And the gallant Hornet (CV-8), which had launched Doolittle’s Raiders on April 18, 1942, was lost at the battle of Santa Cruz Islands, October 26, 1942. Saratoga and Enterprise (CV-5) were licking wounds incurred following battle actions in the Solomons; and, none of the new Essex-class flattops were as yet in commission. Hence the Navy’s reliance on converted tanker hulls to supplement Ranger for TORCH.
(10) Perhaps an explanation is in order here as to the Navy’s alphanumeric designation of the Sangamon-class baby flattops. On February 14, 1942, namesake of the class, Sangamon, was classified as an Aircraft Escort Vessel with the designation AVG-26. Then on August 20, 1942, Sangamon was reclassified as an Auxiliary Aircraft Carrier with the designation ACV-26. On July 15, 1943, Sangamon was classified as an Escort Carrier with the designation CVE-26. But at the time of TORCH, Sangamon and her sisters were considered Auxiliary Aircraft Carriers with the alphanumeric designation beginning with ACV.
(11) See page 36, “The War Years,” Part VI, The Army Aviation Story, by Richard K. Tierney.
(12) See page 150, chapter 5, “Initial Deployment and Combat in the North American and Mediterranean Theaters, Eyes of Artillery: The Origins of Modern U.S. Army Aviation, by Edgar F. Raines, Jr. Raines offers that Butler and Devol had been captured by the Vichy French; while Lieutenant Shell managed to land his L-4 at the race track at Fedala.
(13) See page 10, “Disaster off Casablanca: Air Observation Posts in Operation Torch and the Role of Failure in Institutional Innovation,” Air Power History, September 22, 2002, by Edgar F. Raines, Jr., www.thefreelibrary.com/Disaster+off+Casablanca%3A%air+observation+posts+int. . .
(14) See page 7, “Disaster off Casablanca . . . ,” Raines.
(15) Years after the war, Colonel Robert R. Williams engaged one of the naval gunnery officers of the covering force off Fedala. When he posed the question as to why the ships’ gunners had opened fire on Allcorn’s flight, he was told the L-4s were not in the recognition books. The naval officer did admit, “that his assistant had said the planes looked like Cubs.” But the gunnery officer looked at Colonel Williams and asked, “Now, what would you have done in my place? If you were 60 miles at sea and saw a Cub putting by, would you believe it?” See page 125, chapter III, “The War Years: North Africa, Sicily and Italy,” The Army Aviation Story, by Richard K. Tierney and Fred Montgomery.
(16) See page 13, chapter II, “Air-Ground Training in 1942,” Army Ground Forces and the Air-Ground Battle Team, Including Organic Light Aviation, No. 35, by Colonel Kent Roberts Greenfield, Infantry Res.
(17) See page 19, Greenfield.
(18) See pages 180 and 181, chapter 10, “After Maneuvers Defects and Remedies,” The U.S. Army GHQ Maneuvers of 1941, by Christopher Gabel.
(19) See page 73, chapter 4, “Development of Doctrine at the Air Corps Tactical School,” History of the Air Corps Tactical School, 1920-1940, Studies No. 100, by Richard T. Finney.
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