by Richard Haynes
The History of Piper Aircraft 44-759595
On the morning of May 8th, 1944, a young lady working at the Piper Aircraft factory, Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, commenced construction on a Piper L-4H, military serial number 44-79595. A sunny afternoon four days later the completed Cub rolled off the production line. The country was at war and 44-79595 was one of 5424 Piper L-4's built especially for the U.S. Army.
Within a month it was loaded on a Navy ship in Oakland, California bound for a place called Finschhafen, on the northern coast of New Guinea. A far cry from the green rolling hills in Pennsylvania. Assigned to the 33rd U.S. Army Infantry Division it flew artillery spotting missions. The original Bird Dog, it shaped the doctrine for Army aviation up until Vietnam. Moving and living with the front line troops 44-75959 battled along the northern coast of New Guinea, took part in the Invasion of the island of Morotai. Then onwards with General Douglas MacArthur in his invasion of the Philippines.
By 1946, with the war over and a distinguished front line military record behind her 44-79595, along with hundreds of other Cubs became surplus to requirements. It wasn't worth the cost to take these small combat veterans home and it was purchased by an American Coffee plantation owner in Tacloban. And so she worked in the Philippines for the next 40 yrs. Eventually being abandoned, along with three others. A good friend heard of these aircraft rapidly deteriorating in the harsh tropical climate and decided to save them. Arriving in the mid 1980's I purchased her a few years later.
William T Piper built the J-3 variant, all 10,000 of them, as a plane for the everyday person. Seventy years on and the same qualities still hold true. The Piper Cub salesman of the 1930's would fly a Cub to a local field and get the flying school owner to pick out any person standing at the fence. To demonstrate how easy the Cub was to fly, he would have them solo by the end of the day. That was their sale pitch.
The U.S. Army found it easier to teach an Artillery Officer to fly the Cub than to teach a Cub pilot to be an aerial artillery observer. Maybe the Army knew something we have all known for a while, that Pilots aren't necessarily as smart as they think they are.
The L-4 is based on the William T Pipers J-3 design of 1937. The military Cub varies only in its plexiglass birdcage, rear desk and military style instrument panel. Used in many varying ways. Primarily as an Aerial Observation Post, but also to drop supplies and paratroops, medevacs, and rescues, just to name a few, on top of its general Liaison duties. The appeal to those that flew her was in the simplicity of the aircraft, that basic stick and rudder flying. As with most vintage aircraft of that era, you have to fly the L-4, and any mistakes you make she lets you know.....in a nice way.
The U.S. military selected the Cub for the same reasons I would some 60 years later. It fly’s low and slow. A perfect platform for aerial observation. It could take-off and land pretty much anywhere, under 250 feet if need be. It can run with skis or floats. Uses Avgas at a rate of 4 gallons per hour. No electrical system. Easy to maintain (the fuel gauge is a cork on a piece of wire! ) and cheap to operate. It was such a versatile and indispensable asset that they even used them off aircraft carriers. The USS Ranger (CV-4) launched them during “Operation Torch” in the Mediterranean. And again, in the Pacific, using LST’s with a purpose built deck. This was further explored with the use of the “Brodie” device. Which was a trolley the aircraft attached to, that ran along an elevated cable, hanging over the water on one side of the ship between two overhanging masts. For landing, all you had to do was fly past and snag the same cable with your overhead hook. LST-776, launched three Piper L-4’s during the invasion of Iwo Jima and it was used again as forces prepared to invade Okinawa.
I am in the process of returning my L-4 to how it was when serving with the US 33rd division in the Pacific. A tribute not only to the aircraft, but to those that served with her. In the meantime, it is painted to represent one of six Piper L-4B’s operated by 4 Squadron Royal Australian Airforce in New Guinea in 1943/44.
The L-4 was never officially taken on 4 Squadron strength, simply "borrowed" from the “Yanks”. They were willingly handed over at the request of an Aussie Army Liaison Officer, at Finschhafen, New Guinea in December 1943. They may have been "a Christmas present". Though I do remember a pilot saying something about a “.....truck full of beer and some scotch....” changing hands. The Cubs supported the 7th and 9th Divisions AIF. The duties mainly consisted of flying Officers over the forward troop positions when wireless communication was near impossible between division headquarters and forward patrols due to the mountainous terrain. They would be used as a relay from the troops back to HQ. Pilot log book entries also record a few landings behind enemy lines, on sandbars etc to pick up downed American airmen.
F/Sgt Norm Pagett seems to be the pilot credited with claiming the "Tony" fighter in the Ramu Valley in early 1944. He saw the aircraft coming and turned into the “Tony” fighter at tree top level, before the Jap got into firing range. The very frustrated Japanese pilot finally attempted a very tight steep turn, which resulted in a high-speed stall and crash into the jungle.
I have a copy of a RAAF 4 squadron pilots log book in which he flies 43-1199 for most of January 1944. He has made some great entries against his hours, things like;
" .....twice shot at by Jap sniper...promptly liquidated by a patrol"
"....sniffing out Jap store dumps under coconut trees along river, caught in low level B25 raid not briefed about, A/C holed by shrapnel from bombs".
My favourite is “......tracking coastal and was passed by American PT boat!”
The tropics is a very harsh environment, on men and machines. The perspex windows of the 1940's would buckle under the intense heat and humidity. They would be replaced by wood or metal sheets. Furthermore, the fabric did not fair very well. Pilots have told me that on many occasions, while airborne there would be a splitting sound as the fabric, usually on the top of the wing would tear off and trail behind. On one occasion a US 6th Division pilot stated that while picking up the aircraft by the handles near the tail, the entire assembly came apart.
Not having the official service backup for the Cub's, the RAAF had to improvise, and these aircraft gradually turned into "homebuilt" aircraft. They had makeshift fabric, locally designed windows and an all-over grey finish using the paint used to paint the boxes in the Quartermaster's store.
Ending up with nose art and names like “ Bullshit Bomber” and “Crap Crate”. By 1945 many of the RAAF cubs had fallen into disrepair and forgotten at Nadzab, New Guinea. The local natives started a fire in the long Kunai grass at Nadzab airfield in New Guinea. They tell me that the choice was save the Cub's or the Ammunition dump...... so the Cubs went to their grave in one huge bonfire.
RAAF 4 Squadron Poem
"Who'd ever think these little chaps
Would someday swat marauding Japs,
Then scuttle off 'midst palms and ferns
And laugh like hell as Tony Burns"