The American Soldier Who Turned A Plane Into A Flying Tank
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As the German column advanced towards overwhelmed American troops, they made their way into broken Allied lines. The GIs were about to surrender when they saw an unlikely aircraft approaching – an old L-4 Grasshopper reconnaissance monoplane racing to its comrade’s lines.
Then, the unthinkable happened. As the smoke cleared, it was soon clear that German lines were decimated by six bazookas mounted on a silly little plane.
History Teacher Goes to War
Charles Carpenter was a History teacher when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. He enlisted in the Army, completing flight training as a reconnaissance pilot. He then took a job as an artillery spotter, and later on, desperate to make a change in the war, modified his civilian aircraft and filled it with bazookas to take the fight against the might of German panzers.
The L-4 Grasshopper
The L-4’s Grasshopper aircraft was the Lieutenant’s war horse. It was a slightly modified version of the civilian Piper J-3 Cub. It was a simple strut-brace plane costing just around $2,500. It had a cruising speed of over 80 miles per hour, able to fly at 1,500 feet to spot the enemy.
It’s highly versatile for reconnaissance missions, leading to a production of more than 5,400 units. It didn’t have any armor or weapons and the only difference between its civilian counterpart was its olive drab, plexiglass skylight and rear windows for enhanced visibility.
Carpenter heard stories of pilots hanging weapons from their liaison planes in supporting ground troops to fight German infantry and armor. He gained permission from his superiors to install two M1A1 bazookas to the side of his plane and installed four more.
His bazooka fired one rocket-propelled anti-tank grenade with a batter-ignited toggle switch. It also had a panel where pilots could decide to fire a single bazooka or all of them at once. The M1A1 bazooka can penetrate up to three inches of enemy armor, enough to put a Tiger tank out of commission if it was fired from a 30-degree angle.
German Panthers and Tigers were invincible from the front but not from above where armor was thin, and Carpenter used this to his advantage. No one would think an unarmed L-4 could fight head-on against armored formations of panzers. He quickly earned the name, “Bazooka Charlie” when he managed to knock down several armored cars and immobilize one Tiger and one Panther tank.
The Mad Major
Carpenters’ exploits soon attracted the press’ attention, where he was known as a history teacher turned soldier. He was soon promoted to Major because of his accomplishments.
During a desperate mission to save his countrymen, Bazooka Charlie managed to fire 16 rockets at the enemy while being fired upon, immobilizing several armored vehicles as well as two Panthers. The German troops retreated from battle, allowing the support unit to survive. The tenacity of Carpenter earned him another nickname, “the Mad Major.”
When the war finally ended, the Mad Major was credited with destroying six tanks, two of which were Tiger tanks, and had immobilized more than a dozen.