One of the more fortunate aspects of the New Britain campaign was the creation of a light air force within the 1st Marine Division two-and-one-half months before D-Day. No one could foresee the type of terrain that would be found, the extensive patrolling required, or that the division would have to spread itself over an area 110 miles long. The proposal for an air liaison unit seemed a good one at the time, but the pilots and their tiny Piper Cub planes proved it substantially more than just a good idea.
The composition of the Cape Gloucester Air Force (the unit's unofficial designation)2 was typical of the Old Breed. Its pilots wore no wings, carried no flight orders, received no flight pay and were not designated Naval Aviators. The one officer and 11 enlisted men who comprised the pilots and observers of the aerial unit were merely infantrymen and artillerymen on leave from their organizations. But they flew eight to ten hours daily in New Britain, weather permitting, and logged well over 1,000 hours in the air. The all-essential ground crews were men who might or might not have worked with planes previously, only one having had any extensive experience with Piper Cubs.
Initially the idea of a light air force within the division was for artillery spotting and Captain T. A. Petras, aide and pilot to Major General A. A. Vandegrift, together with Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth H. Weir, Division Air Officer, suggested such a unit to his superior in the early summer of 1943. The division commander was favorably impressed, while Brigadier General W. H. Rupertus, then ADC, was of the same mind, having recently witnessed Army air-ground maneuvers.
On his next visit to SWPA headquarters in Brisbane, General Vandegrift brought the matter to the attention of General MacArthur, who agreed to furnish the division 12 planes when it reached Goodenough Island.
Once in the New Guinea area, General Rupertus, having succeeded General Vandegrift in command, placed Captain Petras and
THE METHOD USED AT CAPE GLOUCESTER to effect a message pickup by air. This photograph was made later in the year at Pavuvu.
his co-pilot, Lieutenant R. F. Murphy, in charge of organizing and training the unit. A division order called for all personnel with flying experience to identify themselves, and 60 applicants appeared. From these, 12 were selected as pilots and observers. Administratively the Air Liaison Unit was a part of Headquarters Battalion, later transferring to the 11th Marines and still later reverting back to Headquarters.
Of the 12 L-4 65 horsepower Piper Cubs provided by the Army, six were considered in good condition and six were in varying states of disrepair. By utilizing parts from the latter group, however, nine planes were kept in flyable condition.
For more than two months the personnel of the newly created air force trained over the jungles, practicing artillery spotting, radio sending and receiving, signalling, and message pickups. In embarking for Cape Gloucester the planes were partially dismantled and stowed on LST"s, unloading on YELLOW Beaches 1 and 2 at H-plus 6 hours.
Upon hitting the beach the air unit experimented with floats on one plane, but the surf proved too heavy for satisfactory service. However, once the airdrome was acquired, air operations began in earnest. It was quickly learned that the original mission--artillery spotting--could not be handled satisfactorily due to faulty air-ground communications, but the planes were used extensively for other projects.
The big airlift of the campaign was the three-week Puller patrol to Gilnit. By prearrangement with the patrol commander the light planes supplied the large group with the necessities of life and also dropped and picked up messages. The aircraft, carrying two cases of K rations per load, could fly in at 50 to 200 feet and pinpoint the air drop target.
THE CAPE GLOUCESTER AIR FORCE utilized the Talasea airstrip.
Additional assignments included flying senior officers to forward areas, photography, spotting Japanese troops, giving scouts a preliminary view of the ground they were to cover, general reconnaissance, and "bombing" the Japanese with hand grenades.
As the division extended itself eastward to Talasea, from Cape Gloucester, scheduled runs between the two points were inaugurated. "Local" hops were done with the L-4's, stopping at intermediate points such as Iboki. With two new L-5 185 horsepower Stinsons piloted by Army personnel, non-stop "express" trips were made in one and a half hours as compared with the 20 hours required via LCM.
The planes were not armed. Fortunately, they were never caught aloft by Japanese aircraft. Captured enemy documents indicated that the tiny craft were feared because their presence usually fore-shadowed artillery or infantry action, and as a result they were seldom fired at from the ground. No planes or pilots were lost in combat, but operational accidents accounted for two of the craft. One L-4 cracked up at Iboki when it attempted take off overloaded. An L-5 came to grief when it had to land on the Number 1 strip at Gloucester and hit a bomb crater.
The Cape Gloucester Air Force performed its functions remarkably well with few experienced personnel to start and a constant shortage of parts and maintenance equipment. The New Britain campaign could have been won without it, but its presence eased to some extent a difficult operation.
The irregular air force accompanied the division to the Russel Islands where it continued to operate, making runs between Pavuvu, Banika and Guadalcanal. Before
the Peleliu operation, however, a Quantico-trained squadron of Naval Aviators replaced the "amateurs" of Cape Gloucester. Upon General Rupertus' recommendation the original pilots were awarded the Air Medal, and they, together with the observers and maintenance men, returned to their original organizations.
Thus the Cape Gloucester Air Force became a memory, and a pleasant one.
1. This account draws principally upon an interview with Maj T. A. Petras 11Apr50 and two articles in the Marine Corps Gazette: "Gen Rupertus' Improvised Air Force" by Capt Richard M. Hunt, Jun 49, and "Aerial Spotters" by Lts T. A. Watson and F. W. McCalpin, Oct44.
2. Because the German Air Force and its deadly Messerschmidts were much in the news at the time, the division affectionately dubbed the unit its "Luftwaffe," the little planes "Messercubs" and "Piperschmidts."
Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation