March 30, 1945
An L-5 Detective Story.
Yesterday, on Gerry Asher’s Liaision Aircraft History and Preservation website there appeared a series of pictures of a wrecked L-5 ambulance airplane copied from that well-known internet auction site. No visible tail numbers, unit markings or other identifying features — just the vague information that the location might be somewhere in Italy.
Well, I love the challenge of figuring these things out, and as many of you know, nobody else in the world has the resources that I do right at their fingertips when it comes to L-5 history. One benefit of having digitized all of the L-5 military record cards, with much of that data decoded and transcribed into an Excel file , is that I can zero in on the prospects fairly quickly, especially since I have also incorporated the USAAF and Navy accident summaries into my 20 column, 3,660 line database, along with additional notes, all patiently entered in my 2-finger typist style. Care to guess how many thousands of hours have been invested in that project instead of watching TV or circulating the local pubs? More than enough to restore an L-5 from the ground up, I’m sure.
Anyhow, one of the photos that Gerry Asher cleaned up and posted yesterday is shown below, followed by a play-by-play account of my detective work as I solved the puzzle.
The plane shown above is not an L-5E model because none were delivered to Italy, plus there’s no camera port visible on the belly. Likewise it’s not an L-5C because that also had the camera aperture, but to double check this my database revealed that only fifteen L-5C’s were delivered to Italy and only one was wrecked. That accident occurred at the Naples airport, and this photo was obviously not taken there.
Within a matter of minutes I was able to determine that there were twenty-nine L-5B’s that served in Italy and nine of those were involved in accidents. There was also one shot down by flak behind the German lines that we can rule out. Of the nine accident victims, we can eliminate anything from late spring through early autumn since there are no leaves on the trees in the pictures. That eliminated three more candidates from our list. Of the remainder, one was in a minor accident that was quickly repaired, so it’s out. Another occurred at the airfield in Pisa which was located in a flat valley bottom, so this could not have been taken there either.
We’re now down to four. One occurred at Brindisi, a seaside airport on the Adriatic, down in the “heel” of Italy, so we can scratch that off the list. Another was a weather-related accident in the mountains of northern Italy, but it wasn’t close to any military encampments and the weather here looks sunny and clear. The two remaining candidates are 42-99575 and 42-99583.
Aircraft 42-99575 crashed near Firenzuola in the Apennine mountains of Tuscany on March 30, 1945. The other candidate, 42-99583, crashed on takeoff at Wels, Austria on December 19, 1945 and the pilot was killed. The airstrip there was just a mile west of town which is located on the flat plain of the Danube River. Since the photo of the crash site above shows it to be at a fair elevation above the river in the distant background, I ruled that one out too after looking at the terrain around Wels on Google Earth. So, it looks like our crashed bird is 42-99575.
Now, there is an important clue in the photo above, and that is the windsock visible in the middle background above some pyramidal tents (it’s easier to see in a blown-up copy). A windsock indicates that this accident was probably at an airfield, and possibly a small liaison strip. I knew from all the research I’ve done over the years that one of the liaison strips in northern Italy near Firenzuola was a dangerous one, located in Passo Della Futa (Futa Pass) where the famed “ski-jump” runway was constructed near General Lucian Truscott’s 5th Army headquarters. I published a photo of it in one of the old L-5 Newsletters and remembered copying it from a 1957 book titled “History of Army Aviation” published by the Center for Miitary History, so it didn’t take me long to locate it.
BINGO!!! Same place. Same mountains and river in the background. Same bare trees and hillside descending at the right with a windsock just off the runway to the left over some pyramidal tents. So, pat on the old back old man — you’ve solved it, and in under an hour at that. Pretty cool piece of detective work, right? 42-99575 is definitely our bird, no question about it. That doesn’t happen with unidentified 75 year old photographs every day.
But the story gets even better. The USAAF accident summary shows the pilot to be Capt. Michael C. McCarthy of the 64th Fighter Squadron, 57th Fighter Wing. That’s not so unusual. Fighter squadrons often had an L-5 as a squadron “hack”, and fighter pilots occasionally flew L-5’s on “Horsefly” forward air control missions for P-47’s, particularly in Italy.
“This is getting interesting“, I said to myself as I performed a quick internet keyword search for the name. The first ‘hit’ turned up the U.S. Air Force biography page for Brigadier General Michael C. McCarthy and a quick scan of the text confirmed that he had to be our boy – a P-47 pilot assigned to the 64th FS in Italy. Interesting! A young officer wrecks an airplane and still makes it to Brigadier General. No ordinary guy was he. Indeed not from my perspective anyway, because another hit on the search list showed that McCarthy wrote a book titled “Air To Ground Battle for Italy” in retirement. I’ve recently been researching just that for an article on the horsefly missions and this was a potentially a good source of information.
Hold on a minute, maybe I already have that one in my digital collection! Sure enough, a couple of keystrokes later I found the digital copy amongst the hundreds of other books, reports and papers in my collection. This particular one was found on the Air Force, Air University website a few years ago and I had forgotten all about it. Sure enough, near the end of the book, on page 195, I struck pay dirt. The story of the accident was right there and vividly recounted.
Although McCarthy mis-remembered a minor detail about settling into the “closely packed treetops” (the trees were not thick at the Futa airstrip), under the circumstances I’d say a little embellishment or memory loss was quite a forgivable error because he probably hit some treetops close to the crash site and they probably helped reduce the impact, possibly saving his life. In any case, his book is very well worth reading and you can also find much more about this interesting officer on the internet. I located a great photo of him on the American Air Museum in Britain website (an organization of which my dad was a charter member). Ain’t the internet a marvelous thing sometimes? See here –
Anyway, here’s McCarthy’s exciting L-5 tale…
“Our second mission to [Brenner] pass was rolling in on their attack as we reached cruising altitude on the way back to Grosseto. The German flak batteries were fully awake. One of our guys was hit badly. His airplane was still flying but, listening to the radio chatter, there was doubt about making it back to friendly territory before crash landing or bailing out. We got back to Grosseto, landed without incident, debriefed, and waited for the next mission to return. Leroy Hall nursed his damaged P-47 to a point between Bologna and Florence in the Appenines in friendly territory. He bailed out with a good chute but broke a leg landing in the rough terrain.
“An Army field hospital in the immediate area, alerted to the emergency
bail out, picked up Leroy within minutes. We had a message through channels a short time later confirming that Leroy was in that field hospital and his leg would heal normally without surgery. Doc Wall, worried about one of his guys, asked me if he could borrow a jeep with a driver to visit the hospital, a difficult tripby road. We learned that the hospital, located at the 7,000-foot level, had a functional ski-jump-type airstrip used to airlift patients, other personnel, or supplies. We had a small single engine L-5 in which I was current. There was plenty of daylightleft for the two-hour trip.
“With Doc Wall in the back seat, we flew to Florence and landed at a racetrack to refuel at an Army artillery observation unit. The commander graciously pinpointed the hospital airstrip on a detailed map and reminded me to land into the mountain and depart down the ski jump. The weather was clear with excellent visibility. I found the airstrip easily, circled carefully, and set up my approach to land. As I rolled out on final, a strong crosswind blowing from right to left made it obvious that I could not land on that approach.
“With full throttle at that high altitude, the L-5 was working hard to hold flying speed just above the treetops. We were holding our own, gaining speed as we turned right to the downwind for a second approach. At that critical moment, the struggling engine quit. I brought the stick back to give us a nose-high landing attitude and we settled into closely packed tree tops, perhaps the best landing I could have made under those conditions. There was no fire, the engine came back almost to my lap. Doc hit the X-shaped cross bar between the seats. No broken bones, but collision with the glare shield forced the rim of my sunglasses to split my left eyelids above and below the eye with no damage to the eye itself.
“Fortunately, at this remote location, one of the few surgeons capable of delicately reconnecting the myriad of tiny muscles necessary for a functioning eyelid system was available and operated on me successfully. When I awakened after surgery, Doc, Leroy, and I were side by side. My last memory of the accident was the silence after the engine quit as we settled into the trees. Because of the delicate nature of the surgery, I remained in the field hospital until my surgeon was satisfied that no further surgery would be necessary. “
Doc and Leroy were released in a few days to return by ambulance to Grosseto.
“That little L-5 is the only airplane I did not bring back to a runway in a flying career that has lasted 60 years and continues to this day with more than 14,000 hours. I suspect the engine was the victim of carburetor icing due to my mismanagement of the carburetor heat control and complicated by operating at the unusual 7,000-foot altitude of that mountain airstrip. It proves the accuracy of a familiar adage, “Aviation is terribly unforgiving of any mistake especially those of the stupid variety.” I was
under medical observation until the end of April 1945.”
Well, there you have it, folks. Another photo puzzle successfully solved, and in spades to boot. As a postscript, there are two other details worth mentioning. Serial number 42-99575 was completed at the factory on June 1, 1944. and it was the very first ambulance model off the assembly line. Technically, it was actually the 2nd L-5B built because 42-99574 was the “mock-up” airplane used to finalize the design, revise the blueprints and get the assembly line set up. So, 42-99575 was the first to be built once the production line got going. It was also in the first group of ambulance models sent overseas, arriving in Italy on August 14, 1944 with nine other planes that followed it off the assembly line between June 6th and June 16th, 1944.
The other detail worth mentioning is that the 64th Fighter Squadron painted the nose bowls of their P-47’s RED. I found a picture of one, again with another internet search. Therefore KUDOS TO GERRY for recognizing that the nose bowl of the wrecked L-5 was not olive drab but “probably red would be my guess“. So, when you do the artwork for this one, Mr. Asher, you’ll have it nailed. Better grab those pictures from the seller, too (I did).
So that wraps up another L-5 blog, and one a bit different than the others I’ve published so far. I hope you’ve all enjoyed my little detective story.