Monday, November 8, 2010

Operation Torch - 68 Years Ago This Morning


It was just less than a year after Pearl Harbor when the ships of Operation Torch gathered off the coast of French North Africa. The USS Ranger CV-4 and four Escort Carriers prepared to launch their Grumman F4F "Wildcat" fighters and Douglass SBD "Dauntless" dive bombers against Vichy French Targets.

One of the Escort Carriers, USS Chenango CVE-28 carried a load of Army Curtiss P-40 War Hawks. But all of these followed three unlikely warbirds already scouting targets over the African coast.
In the predawn hours of November 9, 1942 the Ranger's deck crew hauled three small green planes with yellow noses onto her flight deck. These were Piper L-4 liaison planes, the military version of the Piper Cub already famous even then.
This photo shows Captain Ford E. Allcorn who lead the small plane unit. In the rear seat is his radio operator, Captain Brenton A. Devall.
Some of you might ask, why cubs? The answer is the very things that make them seem unsuitable were their strenghts.
The Army needed slow moving light planes that could go down and look for hidden ground targets that their faster, high flying counterparts would never see. Cubs were perfect for the role.
This duty was not for the faint hearted. The planes had no armor. For those who have never seen one, the fuselage is covered in fabric. To make working on the plane easier the fuel tank was between the engine and instrument panel. It was not self sealing.
Since the purpose of the L-4 was not to fight, the only guns they carried were in the pilots shoulder holsters. That's not to say they didn't carry something else from time to time. But the weapons the carried by L-4 were hardly the point. As mentioned earlier, they had radios.
A P-38 or B-17 carries one hell of a wallop, but the L-4 was spotting for a Navy Taskforce or Artillery Division. One well placed rifle shot will bring it down you say? I've read the thoughts of men on both sides regarding this. Both conclude if the Liaison Plane stops transmitting, that tells whoever they were talking to something.
So what came of Captains Allcorn and Devall? It seems not the entire taskforce got word of Army Liaison Planes flying off the USS Ranger. They took antiaircraft fire from US ships on their way to the coast.
The French shore batteries faired a bit better, sadly. Allcorn was wounded and his plane set on fire as he crossed the coast. He was able to sideslip his plane to the ground and drag himself away from it before it exploded. He was taken prisoner and his wounds treated.
During his first morning to combat he flew the first plane launched in the invasion of French North Africa. He also became the first Army aviator wounded in the campaign, as well as the first shot down. Busy morning.
But the news wasn't all bad, he lived to tell the story.

3 comments:

  1. We have come such a long way... in a relatively short time.

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  2. Thanks Zack,
    The officers that supported using planes like this had to fight the brass to be able to give them a field test. They were worth their weight in gold.

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  3. I marked the Program "L-Birds, the Little Planes That Did" 8:00 PM Central Time on the Military Channel. Enjoy!

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