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United States Army Aviation
Organic Army Aviation in World War II

This article, written by Dr. John W. Kitchens, Aviation Branch Command Historian, U.S. Army Aviation Center, Fort Rucker, Alabama, was originally published in Army Aviation Digest in two parts, May/June and June/July 1992.

On 6 June 1942, the secretary of war ordered the establishment of organic air observation for Field Artillery. Through companion memoranda sent to the commanding generals of the Army Air Forces (AAF) and the Army Ground Forces (AGF), the War Department issued specific instructions for organizing organic air observation. It also provided guidelines for relations between the AAF and this new air arm of the AGF.

For example, the air forces were to supply the ground forces with small one-engine planes, called "liaison-type airplanes," and spare parts. The air forces also were responsible for all third echelon aviation maintenance in the Army, basic flight training, and rating the student pilots " according to standards established for liaison pilots."

Organic air observation in Field Artillery was intended not to replace, but rather "to supplement the AAF’s responsibility for aerial adjustment of artillery fire" from high-performance aircraft. The order of 6 June authorized two organic aircraft for each artillery battalion and two for each brigade, division, and group artillery headquarters, without affecting existing obligations of the AAF.

The establishment of organic Army Aviation in June 1942 complied with a recommendation from the office of the commanding general of the AGF. This recommendation followed a series of tests and experiments that had demonstrated the efficacy of organic aircraft for Field Artillery units.

The AAF of the World War II (WWII) period had evolved from the 19th century Balloon Corps, the Army Air Services of the WWI era, and the Army Air Corps of the 1920s and 1930s. The history of the U.S. Army’s air arm from the Civil War era until 6 June 1942 is the common heritage of both the Aviation Branch of the Army and the U.S. Air Force (USAF).

After the birth of organic Army Aviation in 1942, the evolutionary path of the future Aviation Branch of the Army diverged from that of the future USAF.

During WWII, and until the establishment of the USAF in 1947, however, the large and powerful AAF and the minuscule new air arm of the AGF were both parts of the Army. Even during these early years, they often competed for resources and mission assignments.

The Louisiana Maneuvers

The movement in the AGF that was to result in establishing a new Army air arm began around 1940. Joseph McCord Watson, Jr., a young artillery officer, had been experimenting with the concept of artillery fire adjustment from small aircraft.

In 1940, he requested that the Piper Aircraft Corporation furnish two Piper Cubs to experiment with fire adjustment during Army maneuvers. These experiments, conducted at Camp Beauregard, LA, in August 1940, proved successful notwithstanding the absence of radios in the aircraft.

In the fall of 1940, Major General (MG) Robert M. Danford, the chief of Field Artillery, and other artillery officers became interested in further testing the organic spotter-plane concept.

They were motivated by two major factors. First, Air Corps planes were not always available to provide artillery spotter support when needed. Secondly, some artillerymen were coming to believe that lightweight aircraft, piloted by artillery officers and dependent on ground commanders, could do a better job. Interest in the concept of using small organic aircraft for fire adjustment became more widespread as a result of an article by Major (MAJ) William W. Ford, "Wings for Santa Barbara." The article was published in the Field Artillery Journal in April 1941.

Army General Headquarters conducted maneuvers in Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, and the Carolinas in 1941. Three light aircraft manufacturers, Piper, Taylorcraft, and Aeronca, placed 11 planes at the disposal of the Army during the maneuvers.

These cub-type planes, mostly Piper J-3s, flown by civilian pilots were tested for artillery spotting as well as for courier service and other liaison roles.

During the maneuvers, these 11 "Grasshoppers," as they were named by MG Innis P. Swift, commanding general, 1st Cavalry Division, flew about 400,000 miles in some 3,000 missions.

In comparison to the larger air forces planes, the Grasshoppers cost much less, could take off and land on almost any level surface, and could maintain much more effective contact with the ground units that they supported.

Furthermore, according to General Danford, the "only uniformly satisfactory report of air observation during the maneuvers… [came] from those artillery units where… light commercial planes operated by civilian pilots were used."

After the 1941 maneuvers, General Danford renewed his efforts to obtain War Department permission to conduct formal tests of light aircraft organic to Field Artillery units. On 8 December 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a War Department memorandum authorized Field Artillery to proceed with the proposed tests and directed the AAF to make 28 YO-59 (Piper J-3 or Piper Cub) aircraft available to Field Artillery as soon as practicable.

With the new liaison "L" classification introduced on 2 April 1942, the YO-59 became the L-4, the aircraft most widely used by organic Army Aviation during WWII. The AGF also used a few L-2 Taylorcraft and L-3 Aeroncas, but they were far less satisfactory.

World War II



Baptism by Fire

Cubs in Combat



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