UND Today

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‘To get that ‘L’ on our wings’

As UND’s Horace Johnson, ’39, knew and fellow Tuskegee Airman Welton Taylor confirms, a lot went into winning a liaison pilot’s wings 

The Liaison Pilot badge was a U.S. Army Air Forces qualification badge that was issued during World War II. Like the badge for Glider Pilot (which bore a “G), the Liaison Pilot badge bore an “L to denote the wearer’s specialization. International Military Antiques photo.

Editor’s note: Like Lt. Col. Horace Johnson (UND Class of 1939), Army Maj. Welton Taylor was a Tuskegee Airman who got his start as an Army field artillery officer before becoming a liaison pilot during World War II. Liaison pilots flew unarmed, single-engine, Piper Cub-like  aircraft – many of the planes covered only in fabric – on missions behind enemy lines, often serving as artillery spotters or aerial photographers or in other combat-support roles. 

Taylor and Johnson served together as liaison pilots in the all-Black 93rd Infantry Division during the war; and in 2012, Taylor wrote a book about his World War II experiences, “Two Steps from Glory: A World War II Liaison Pilot Confronts Jim Crow and the Enemy in the South Pacific.”

Then-Second Lt. Johnson is pictured in the book, which is available from Amazon.com and other retailers.

In a fascinating interview with the Library of Congress as part of the Veterans History Project, Taylor describes his World War II experiences in detail. Below is an excerpt from that interview. In it, Taylor talks about the advanced liaison-pilot training he received at Fort Sill, Okla. This training likely was very similar to the type that Horace Johnson also received, and UND Today is featuring Taylor’s remarks (plus an excerpt from his book) because of the insights they offer into the life and training of an Army liaison pilot in World War II.

During the war, liaison pilots wore wings that bore an “L” in the center (see photo above). And as Taylor’s testimony shows, a lot went into the winning of that “L.”

Shown here in a screenshot, U.S. Army Maj. Welton Taylor, a Tuskegee Airman and liaison pilot during World War II, talks with the Library of Congress about his World War II experience. Click on the photo to access the video.

The following passage is taken from Maj. Welton Taylor’s interview with the Library of Congress. (Citation: Welton I. Taylor, and Thomas G. Murray. Welton I. Taylor Collection. 1941. Personal Narrative. https://www.loc.gov/item/afc2001001.53841/.) The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Fort Sill, the day that we got there, they made what I thought at the time was an absolutely ridiculous statement. They said, “You’re here under false pretenses.

“You think you know how to fly, because the Air Force has taught you how to fly off of a paved runway, where somebody tells you when to take off and when to land. …

“You think you know how to fly.

“Here, you will learn how to fly. Because when you leave here, you may have seen the last paved runway you’ll ever see in your life.

“And you may not have anybody who can tell you how to fly or where to fly, except to tell you that they need you to fly, because the artillery needs your expertise.

“You will follow the artillery. You will stay close to them. You will have a radio that speaks only to the artillery; nobody else. Not the Air Force, certainly.

“And you will fly off of farmers’ fields, plowed ground, dirt roads and between overhead high-tension wires. And you will fly off of beaches” — which I did (Taylor adds), on every island that I came to in the South Pacific — “and you will fly off of roads where they have to stop the convoy to let you get on the ground, and you then have to drag your plane off of the road and out of the way.

“And you better make up your mind. Because you are going to be the sole person in that airplane who has the expertise to know where you can fly, how you can fly, when you can fly and off of what.

“Until we are sure that you can do that, you are not going to graduate, no matter what the Air Force said about your knowing how to fly.”

They had a flunk-out rate of 61 percent.

So, to get that “L” on our wings, we had to do it the way they wanted.

And the thing that they wanted us to do, was to fly off of a dirt road toward two tall fishing poles sticking up in the air, with a piece of string between them and tassels — pennants — hanging down.

Now, you’ve got to start at a dead stop from this line marked on the road. And you’ve got to roll down that road, reach flying speed, and get up in the air and clear that obstacle.

And they said, “That obstacle to you is like a forest or a mountaintop. You fail to clear it once, and you go on probation. You fail to clear it the second time, and you go back to the infantry, or whatever outfit you came from. That’s a one-way ticket home.

“OK? We understand each other.”

So, we all line up to take off from that spot. Guys make it and guys don’t make it. Guys that don’t make it, they had to pull the fishing poles down and put a new string on ’em, and put the pennants back up.

So you wait there while that’s happening, and by that time, your stomach is in a knot. And you’re gasping for air because you can’t swallow. And you say, “Am I gonna make it, or not? I don’t lack the skill, but can the airplane do it?”

So: First time: I cleared it by 5 feet.

And at this point … (Taylor huffs on his fingertips and brushes them on his shirt, in the universal expression of confidence), I’ve got it. I’m gonna make it.

But every day when you come out, they have moved the marking spot on the ground, so your runway is getting shorter and shorter! And you learn to get that plane fully revved up, and keep your tail on the ground until you’ve got full throttle and you’ve got all of those 2,200 RPMs, and then you lift your tail up and you shoot forward like a catapult.

And as soon as you get to 30 mph, you lift your front end off the ground in a partial stall. And once your wheels are free from the friction, you manage to hold it there a foot or two above the ground until you get full flying speed.

So that’s what they mean when they say, “You will take off the airplane before it’s ready to fly. And you’ll learn how to do that down here, or you will not pass.”

And they were absolutely right. Those guys knew what they were talking about.

And so the net result was, everything that they taught me there, I had to use in combat. Everything.

Editor’s note: Later in the interview, Taylor says that at times during the war when he’d make an especially difficult takeoff or landing, he’d call out, “Thank you, Fort Sill!”

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Click on the cover for purchase information.

The following is an excerpt from Taylor’s book, “Two Steps from Glory: A World War II Liaison Pilot Confronts Jim Crow and the Enemy in the South Pacific.”

I visited Henderson Airfield (on the Pacific island battlefield of Guadalcanal) while flying around the island and ran into both Army and Navy fighter pilots while there. I suspected that few of them had ever seen a Piper Cub, and that probably contributed to the fact that they sometimes invited me to swap planes with them. I rarely took them up on their offers. Their planes were much more powerful and more complicated than mine, and it was just easier to invite them to fly with me: I had two seats and dual controls.

The fighter pilots were delighted to accept my offer, but they were surprisingly nervous co-pilots. They couldn’t believe that a mere 65-horsepower engine really was an engine, and they doubted that my little plane was a legitimate fighting machine. I had to remind them that when I gave the word, twelve 155mm howitzers spoke with one voice. Not even a squadron of bombers could wreak the kind of havoc those guns could inflict.

Playing tour guide, I flew my guest co-pilots around the island, flying them along beaches where many Japanese ships had made their ultimate stop. … I did my best to keep my guest co-pilots entertained during my tours, but one Navy fighter pilot just couldn’t stop focusing on the features missing from my L-4H. He expressed concern for my safety in such a plane, but I suspect that what really concerned him was his own safety while in it. He noticed, for example, that the seat back and bottom of my L-4H were not armor-plated; that the gas tank was not self-sealing if hit by a bullet; and that, minus a pressurized fuel line, I couldn’t fly upside down. Those were standard features on the planes he flew, and without them, he was positively unnerved.

“So what happens if a Japanese Zero spots you?” he wondered out loud.

Rather than respond, I decided it was time for a private demonstration of “Air Safety for Liaison Pilots 101.” In other words, I flew him over the coastal mountain range, plunged into a mountain ravine, clipped treetops with my wheels as I descended to the ocean, and flattened out just 5 feet above the water.

The Navy fighter pilot threw up.

Class over.