PIPER CUB ARTILLERY SPOTTERS ESCAPE FROM THE GERMANS IN BELGIUM: NIGHT OF RETREAT

By Sgt. Bill Davidson

YANK Staff Correspondent

LIEGE, BELGIUM—This was the night of our first big retreat in Western Europe, when the Germans pushed their counteroffensive wedge between Stavelot and St. Vith. No one in the little café was talking very much because the sense of defeat was heavy on everyone, and we felt the shame of taking refuge here so far behind the lines, and remembered the faces of the civilians we had passed heading westward, and the Luftwaffe strafing, and the woman with the laughing little boy and girl who said quietly, “Please take these children with you. They are Jews.”



106th infantry division

Soldiers of the 106th Infantry Division surrender to the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.

There were hushed civilians in the café, and several cub pilots wearing wings and the crossed cannon of the artillery. All these artillery spotter pilots were congregated here because of one of those inexplicable things that happens in war. They came from different divisions and tomorrow those who still had planes would fly back and try to locate their outfits. But there they were. Eventually they started talking about what they had gone through that day.

“It’s funny,” said the little captain with a southern accent. “We were all in the sack in those two nice little houses we had fixed up near the front line, when Riffle (S/Sgt. Francis Riffle) came running in. And do you know what he said?”

artillery spotter

The versatile Piper L-4 “Grasshopper” served in WWII as an artillery spotter, reconnaissance plane and transport for wounded soldiers. It was offten referred to as a “Cub” after its civilian designation.

Nobody knew what Riffle said, so the captain went on. “He said, ‘There are engineers digging in the front yard.’

“I looked out,” continued the captain, “and sure enough, the engineers were out there making foxholes. Then I got on the phone to the battalion S-2 and he says he has been trying to get me and that there are enemy tanks in a town on our right flank. Then he tells me there are enemy tanks in a town on our left flank. After that, there is a pause on the phone and the battalion S-2 sounds right tired. ‘There are also,’ he says, ‘paratroopers reported in the town where you are.’ ‘Shall I get ready to move, sir?’ I ask the battalion S-2. ‘That,’ says the battalion S-2, ‘is an understatement.’ And he rings off.”

According to the captain, the move was not an easy one. The pilots and the ground crews ran out onto the cowpasture field and piled everything movable into the little spotter planes. Then, one by one, the planes started to take off. As they headed down the strip, a Tiger tank pulled into sight across the road. The German vehicle halted uncertainly like a big awkward animal, as if it didn’t know what to make of the swarm of tiny aircraft. It swung its 88mm gun once. Then it opened fire with its machine guns. At the same time, mortar shells began to fall at the far end of the field. The planes headed right into the fire. There was nothing else they could do. Most of them got off. They went back a few miles, where they were once again driven out by paratroopers. Now they were here, ready to start looking for their artillery battalions in the morning.



Another cub outfit didn’t fare so well. “The first thing we knew,” said a tall, thin-faced lieutenant, “we heard someone yelling in German in the road just outside the house, and the Jerries were there.”

These pilots and GIs didn’t have a chance to even get out of the house. The Germans headed for the front door. “For God’s sake, let’s do something—let’s get down in the cellar,” one of the T-3 crew chiefs yelled. Everyone piled down into the cellar. A German approached the front door and blew it open with a blast from his Schmeisser. The house filled with Germans. They pillaged, ransacked the Americans personal belongings and collected souvenirs. They especially grabbed helmets, .45s, flight jackets. They took cases of C rations out of the kitchen. One Jerry found a U.S. dollar bill in a pilot’s wallet and called excitedly to the others. They examined the dollar bill and talked in German about the picture of George Washington.

battle-of-the-bulgeThen a German decided to go down into the cellar to look for cognac. The door stuck. He kicked it open. He started down the steps. At this point, there was a crash outside, followed by three others in rapid succession. The German captain said something and the other German dashed back up the steps. The American artillery was firing on the fields, destroying the cubs so they wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. The Germans took off. The American cub outfit took off immediately afterward.

Somehow they found their way here.

But there were a few heroes in the unfortunate plight. A Captain Stevenson sat over in a corner of the café, talking soberly to a Belgian girl. One of the pilots pointed him out. That afternoon, Stevenson was flying a general out of the danger zone. Suddenly the captain spotted a column of enemy tanks moving relentlessly down the road to Spa at about 15 miles an hour. No one was firing at the Panzers.



Stevenson opened up the little plane as fast as he could go and flew like mad to a Ninth Air Force Thunderbolt base he knew. At the fighter-bomber field, he gave the group operations officer the exact location of the advancing German column. Five minutes later, a squadron of Thunderbolts took off. They caught the Panzers on the open road and clobbered them with 500-pound bombs.

Now Captain Stevenson sat in a corner drinking beer and trying to reassure the frightened girl that the Germans were not going to come back into Liege.

Over at another table sate two T-3 crew chiefs surrounded by cub pilots. One of the sergeants was T-3 John Watts, a lean, hard-faced, ex-oil field worker from Shreveport, La. Years ago, back home, Watts had a cub he used to fool around with on Sundays. His job in the Army was to keep cub engines in shape.

The afternoon of the German breakthrough Watts’ outfit, too, was in danger of being overrun. The planes were being flown out, but there weren’t enough pilots to go around. Two cubs would have to be left behind. Watts went up to his CO, Capt. Howard Cunningham of St. Petersburg, Fla. “I’ll fly one of the planes out, sir,” he said. The captain looked at Watts for a long time. “I can’t give you permission to do that, Watts,” the captain said. Watts looked at the captain. “Turn your back, sir, and you won’t know anything about it,” he said. The captain started to walk away. “I just remembered,“ he said, “I’ve got to make a telephone call.”

Watts took the plane off and landed it undamaged at the other field. He just missed a tree on take-off and flew stiff and nervous like a fighter pilot. But he got there.

Ten minutes later the other sergeant, T-3 Marvin Pierick of Highland, Wis., pulled the same gag and did exactly the same thing. Pierick was a farmer who had worked on the assembly line at the Boeing plant for a few years before the war. He had flown exactly 35 hours in an old patched-together cub at Paris, Texas, while he was stationed at an Army camp nearby.

Pierick got his cub off the ground all right. But it was almost dark when he hit the other field. He tried to land once and had to take off again. Everyone on the field stared forlornly. Then Pierick came back for another pass at the field and put the ship down perfectly. “I was just trying to get a second landing in,” he said. He didn’t mean that. He was scared.

Now the pilots were drinking beer with the two sergeants. No one was talking much anymore. “I wish I had a cigar,” Pierick said. One of the lieutenants got up and bought a stringy Belgian one from the proprietor of the café for 200 francs. He gave it to Pierick.

“Thank you, sir,” said Pierick.

Then everyone sat there and didn’t say anything for a long time.



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