Historic Aircraft - The Grasshoppers, Part 2: The Ships (2024)

Army and Marine “grasshoppers” (light-observation/liaison aircraft) flew in almost every combat theater during World War II—sometimes from ships. The grasshoppers were needed to spot artillery fire as soon as possible after troops came ashore.

When U.S. and British forces invaded Vichy French–held North Africa in November 1942, the U.S. carrier Ranger (CV-4) had three Army L-4 grasshopper observation planes in addition to her air group.1 The L-4s fairly leaped into the air as the Ranger was making 25 knots into a ten-knot wind. The small aircraft headed toward shore at an altitude of 2,000 feet. About three miles out a U.S. light cruiser opened fire on them. The planes scattered, with two safely coming down near a French fort, where their crews were briefly held prisoner. The third L-4 skimmed the waves as it evaded gunfire from the cruiser. Cross­ing the beach, it was fired on by U.S. troops. The plane was hit and the pilot wounded. He made a “controlled crash,” crawled from the plane, and watched it explode.

In the July 1943 invasion of Sicily—in addition to large British aircraft carriers—one very small U.S. carrier participated in the assault: a heavily modified tank landing ship (LST). An Army pilot who had flown an L-4 grasshopper from the carrier Ranger in the earlier North African landings, Captain Bren­ton A. Devol Jr., recommended that an LST be fitted with a flight deck to fly off light aircraft.

Accordingly, a flight deck was fitted to the LST-386 in 36 hours. The 216-by-12-foot runway was constructed of timber topped with metal landing mesh. After aircraft takeoff trials on Tunisia’s Lake Bizerte, the Coast Guard–­manned LST took part in the Sicily assault. Steam­ing into a ten-knot wind at a speed of nine knots, the LST flew off four grasshoppers that landed safely ashore. In her garage-like tank deck, the ship car­ried a normal load of military cargo and troops.

Similarly, for the invasion of the Italian mainland at Salerno in September 1944, the LST-356 was fitted with a temporary flight deck to launch Army observation planes. On the afternoon of 9 Sep­tember the LST successfully flew off five grasshoppers. A sixth plane hit a guardrail on takeoff and crashed into the sea. A small boat from another ship rescued the pilot. Two other grasshoppers on board the LST were not launched after the accident.

For the invasion of southern France in August 1944, as in previous Mediterranean operations, the shortage of Allied aircraft carriers led to LSTs being used to fly off Army observation planes. Three ships—the LST-526, LST-­906, and one other—each flew off nine or ten grasshoppers, with the LST-526 making a fast turnaround to load six more observa­tion planes that she flew off on 18 August. Army and Marine grasshoppers also flew from an LST in the Pacific.

Concerned with the lack of air­craft available to escort ships off the U.S. coast, Army First Lieutenant James H. Brodie developed a scheme for launching and recovering light planes from ships. Tests of the so-called Brodie system were conducted on the merchant ship City of Dalhart in the Gulf of Mexico.

On an LST the Brodie system consisted of two booms suspended clear of the ship’s side and 40 feet above the water. A reinforced cable was stretched be­tween the booms. Then a plane was hoisted out and hooked onto a trolley attached to the wire. For launching, the plane ran the entire length of the cable, tripped a release on the trolley, and (hopefully) kept flying. For recovery the plane would fly parallel to the ship, hook onto a trapeze loop on the trolley, and be braked to a stop as it slid along the cable. During training, three Marine planes were lost in the LST-Brodie experiments, but fortunately there were no pilot casualties. Five pilots did qualify.

(During operations off San Diego the LST-776 was fitted with a light catapult amidships for flying off grasshoppers, but it was removed before the ship entered combat.)

At Iwo Jima in early 1945, from D-day+1 to D+8, Marine artillery on Iwo Jima used carrier-based aircraft to spot and correct their fire. On the last day, 27 February, the Marines began using a cap­tured airfield on Iwo Jima for observa­tion aircraft. Six of the escort carriers offshore each had two OY-1 grasshoppers hidden belowdecks; six more were in the LST-776 fitted with the Brodie system. One plane was successfully launched from the LST-776 on the 27th, but a second plane was lost overboard before it engaged the launching cable. On the 29th, improved safety precautions allowed launches to continue, and three more OY-1s headed for Iwo Jima. The other OY-1s were flown off the escort carriers without difficulty.

The LST-776 again served as a Brodie carrier at Okinawa in April 1945, this time carrying Army grasshoppers. Army records indicate that 25 takeoffs and landings were carried out before runways were available ashore; the only casualties in the Army’s Brodie operations were two broken propellers.

The next major American amphibious operation was to have been the invasion of the Japanese home island of Kyushu in November 1945. No LST “carrier operations” were planned for those landings as sufficient carriers were available. Thus ended another unusual but highly useful employment of the versatile LST. Several other LSTs were modified with temporary flight decks at various times: the LST-16, LST-158, LST-337, and LST-525. In addition, the LST-393 was fitted with the Brodie system, but it does not appear that she operated as an “aircraft carrier” in combat.

After World War II, Navy and Marine OY/L-5 grasshoppers flew from several escort carriers and amphibious assault ships during exercises. And two Navy OY-1s flew on board the carrier Philippine Sea (CV-47) in late 1946 while the ship was at Norfolk, but they never took off from the carrier.

These planes were for Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s expedition to Antarctica. While the “Phil Sea” flew off six twin-engine R4D Skytrain aircraft when the ship operated off the frozen continent, the two OY-1s were disassembled, crated, and transferred to a cargo ship to be unloaded and reassembled in Antarctica. Apparently the light planes did not have the range to fly directly from the carrier to the Navy’s base on the ice cap.

Thus, while not a “carrier aircraft,” many, many Army, Navy, and Marine grasshoppers often flew onto and off of ships.

1. The U.S. escort carrier Chenango (CVE-28) in one of the Allied task forces carried 78 U.S. Army P-40F Warhawk fighters to be catapulted off when an airfield became available ashore.

Mr. Polmar, a columnist for Proceedings and Naval History, is author of the two-volume Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events (Potomac Books, 2004, 2008).

‘Warbler’ and ‘Glimpy’

A Navy NE-1 grasshopper also flew from a blimp: In March and April 1944 the light aircraft was attached to the Navy airship XM-1, carried aloft, and released. The project—given the codename “Warbler”—was intended to determine the value of launching such light aircraft from blimps on patrol. The possible roles included scouting and returning personnel and material to a shore base. The grasshopper—dubbed “Glimpy”—and blimp were operating out of Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. Unlike the Navy’s “flying aircraft carriers,” the airships Akron, Macon, and Los Angeles, there was no attempt at having the grasshopper hook back onto the blimp while in flight.

Historic Aircraft - The Grasshoppers, Part 2: The Ships (2024)

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