The very concept of Army Aviation was a subject of great controversy when the War Department ordered the assignment of “organic aircraft” to Field Artillery battalions through a series of directives issued on June 6, 1942. For its part, Army Air Forces—which in 1947 was split off from the U.S. Army to become the U.S. Air Force—felt all aviation assets should fall under its complete control. Army Ground Forces, on the other hand, argued that the types of missions it envisioned for Aviation assets—serving as air observers to direct artillery and enhance other operations by ground troop—would be best served if the Aviation personnel came directly from ground units and fell directly under their control.

This concept was first put to the test during invasion of North Africa in November 1942. Luckily for the future of Army Aviation, the performance in this initial outing was not used as the sole basis for the expansion and continuation of organic aviation.

Mechanics and pilots who had recently graduated from the nascent Air-Observation-Post program conducted at Fort Sill were assigned to the Western Task Force, one of three that made up the landing forces for Operation Torch. Four pilots and three single-engine L-4s were deployed to the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, but rather than coordinating their missions with ground officers, the pilots spent most of voyage to North Africa repairing the engine and fabric of their “Maytag Messerschmitts,” the pejorative assigned to the military variants of the Piper Cub because of their small (65-horsepower) engines.

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The three planes had been tasked with providing aerial observation as Field Artillery battalions came ashore during the first phases of the invasion. On November 9, the day after Allied units hit the beaches in the face of resistance from French troops loyal to the Vichy government, the three L-4s took off—and troubles began before they even reached land. Passing by the cruiser USS Brooklyn, they were startled to find themselves coming under heavy anti-aircraft fire from the ship. It turned out that the lack of coordination between the pilots and the ship’s crew extended to the gunnery officer, who did not recognize the planes and opened fire after failing to find anything like them listed in a book of Allied aircraft silhouettes.

Taking hits as they dove to an altitude of just twenty feet above the water, the three planes managed to reach the shoreline when they discovered that the ground forces, too, had not been briefed on the use of these new planes. One plane was shot down and the other managed to execute emergency landings—behind Vichy lines. (They were later freed when these forces surrendered to the Allies.)

Thankfully, the Army used the lessons learned during this failure to implement more thorough training and orientation for both the pilots and their compatriots in the Field Artillery. Today, the air-observation function is handled almost entirely by drones.

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