Charles Carpenter (lieutenant colonel)
Lt. Col. Charles Carpenter, aka Bazooka Charlie, aka The Mad Major (1913 – 1966) was a U.S. Army officer and army observation pilot who served in World War II. He is best remembered for destroying several enemy tanks and armored vehicles in his bazooka-equipped L-4 Grasshopper light observation aircraft — an anti-armor role not resumed by any low-speed aircraft until the advent of the attack helicopter, some two decades later.
Early life and career
Carpenter was born and raised in the town of Edgington, Illinois in southern Rock Island County. After graduation from Rock Island High School and Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, Carpenter took a job teaching history at Moline High School in Moline, Illinois. Settling in Moline, Carpenter soon married; he and his wife Elda had one child, Carol.
World War II service
Carpenter joined the Army in 1942 and was commissioned a second lieutenant. After completing flight training and receiving his artillery liaison wings, Carpenter flew light observation aircraft such as the L-4 Grasshopper (Piper Cub) and the Stinson L-5 Sentinel. He accumulated considerable flight time while flying training missions in artillery spotting and enemy reconnaissance and observation.
Promoted to the rank of major in 1944, Carpenter was assigned to combat duty in France with the 1st Bombardment Division. Upon arrival he was assigned an L-4H and assigned to fly artillery support and reconnaissance missions in support of the U.S. 4th Armored Division, part of General George S. Patton's U.S. Third Army. The Piper L-4H was a military version of the Piper J-3 Cub, a small fabric-covered, unarmored two-seat aircraft with a fixed-pitch propeller and a 65 hp (48 kW) Continental O-170-3 engine. One of the few distinguishing differences to the Piper L-4 re-design was the addition of additional plexiglass windows above the wing center section, and behind the wing's trailing edge to increase visibility for the pilot and observer. With a 150-pound pilot and no radio aboard, the L-4H had a combined cargo and passenger weight capacity of approximately 232 pounds.
By the time of the Allied siege of Lorient and the encirclement of German forces around that city, Carpenter had grown increasingly frustrated at his inability to attack German armor on those occasions when Allied artillery or tactical aircraft were either out of range or were engaged in other combat missions. Inspired by other L-4 pilots who had installed bazookas as anti-tank armament on their planes, and with the assistance of an Ordnance technician as well as support from the Ninth Air Force Service Command, Carpenter first attached two M1 rocket launchers (bazookas) to the underwing struts of his L-4H, which he named Rosie the Rocketer. After some experimenting, Carpenter would later add two more rocket launchers, then two more for a total of six bazookas, three mounted just above each set of lift struts per side, just outboard of the L-4's jury struts. The M1 bazooka or rocket launcher itself was a solid, one-piece metal tube 54 inches (137 cm) long, and with an unloaded weight of slightly more than 13 pounds (5.9 kilograms) apiece. Carpenter's original armament of six M1 bazookas each fired a single M6 anti-tank rocket by means of a battery igniter and a toggle-lanyard control operated from the cockpit. The M6 rocket's HEAT warhead could penetrate approximately three inches (76 mm) of armor at a 30° impact angle. While the M1/M1A1 rocket launcher was initially less than successful when employed by infantry against the frontal armor of German tanks, Carpenter found that using the weapon as an airborne armament scheme (in the manner of plunging fire from any elevated position) was fairly effective at immobilizing a German tank with any solid hit against the thinner armor protecting the top of the turret or the hull superstructure, even against such heavy tanks as the Tiger I. Although the M6 rocket had a theoretical range of 500 yards (457 m), Carpenter preferred to fire his rockets at a range of 100 yards (91 m) or less, adjusting the angle and bore-sighting of the launcher tubes so that when his L-4H was aligned with an enemy vehicle in a shallow dive, the rockets would strike the target. Thus armed, Carpenter began attacking German armored forces.
Major Carpenter flew most of his ground attack missions alone, as the additional weight of an extra passenger greatly limited his L-4 Cub's speed and maneuverability when fitted with bazookas. On those occasions when he took along an extra passenger, Carpenter found that he was forced to fire his rockets from a considerably higher altitude to avoid enemy counterfire, which resulted in fewer hits owing to the effects of wind and range estimation. When attacking, Carpenter's usual routine was to spot his target at altitude, then spiral down before diving suddenly towards the enemy tank or other objective. Complete destruction of the enemy tank was not necessary; if the tank was set ablaze, or simply immobilized due to engine, track, or turret damage, the panzer crew generally abandoned the vehicle. Within a few weeks, Carpenter was credited with knocking out a German armored car and four tanks, including two Tiger Is. Known as "Bazooka Charlie" or "The Mad Major" by those in his unit, Carpenter's exploits were soon featured in numerous press accounts, including Stars and Stripes, the Associated Press, Popular Science, the New York Sun, and Liberty Magazine.
In addition to flying ground attack and observation missions, Major Carpenter served as the personal pilot for U.S. Army General John S. Wood, the commanding general of the U.S. 4th Armored Division. His duties as personal pilot, along with his comparatively elevated service rank (for an artillery liaison pilot) of major, allowed Carpenter to evade most artillery-spotting missions, thus giving him more time to devote to his own private war with German armored units.
Carpenter took part in ground combat as well. On one occasion near Avranches, Carpenter was scouting advance landing fields in a jeep when German forces attacked his position. Climbing aboard a Sherman tank, Carpenter took charge of a .50-caliber machine gun, while calling for troops around him to attack. Led by tank fire from Carpenter's Sherman, the American forces drove attacking German forces back. Carpenter's Sherman eventually ran into friendly forces, and accidentally fired on a Sherman bulldozer tank, blowing off the dozer blade. As a result of this friendly fire incident, Carpenter was placed under arrest and threatened with a firing squad until his commanding general came to his assistance. Told to expect a court-martial for his actions at Avranches, the decision to discipline Carpenter was reversed by General Patton himself, who not only stopped the court-martial proceedings but awarded the major the Silver Star for bravery. Carpenter, Patton said, was the "kind of fighting man he wanted in his army."
During the 1944 Allied offensive in France, Major Carpenter continually improved the armament on Rosie the Rocketer, eventually installing six improved type M9 bazookas using the new M6A3 HEAT rocket, which could penetrate 3.9 inches (99 mm) of armor plate at a 30° impact angle. Each trio of M9 launch tubes was mounted side-by-side atop a plate in the same general locations as the earlier M1 bazookas' launch tubes had been mounted. Even the heaviest German tanks such as the Pzkpf Tiger Ausf. B or King Tiger, the Nazis' most dangerous tank, used thinner 40 mm or 45 mm armor on the tops of their turrets and hull superstructure, which the M6A3 bazooka rocket warhead could easily penetrate. As before, a battery of three M9 launchers was installed side-by-side on each pair of underwing lift struts of his L-4, with an overall weight (when loaded with rockets) of some 106 pounds, not counting the weight of the mounting brackets and firing controls. By using an electrical firing mechanism connected to pushbutton controls on a cockpit-mounted panel, Carpenter could fire his six rockets either individually or salvo all six at one time. He once told a reporter that his idea of fighting a war was to "attack, attack and then attack again."
Initially, Carpenter faced little return ground fire on his missions. German forces were normally reluctant to fire on the L-4 and similar light planes without offensive armament, as doing so would give away their position and cause the plane's occupants to call in artillery fire or fighter-bomber support. Moreover, as long as the pilot, gas tank or engine was not hit, most small arms fire would not bring down an L-4, since the plane had such a light wing loading (an excess of wing and control surface area for its weight) of 7.5 pounds per square foot. However, as Carpenter's bazooka attacks became more well known, German ground fire increased in intensity. Even German infantry would join in, attempting to down Carpenter's L-4 with rifles and machine pistols. On one mission, as Carpenter banked steeply around a tall tree in order to get a bazooka shot at a German tank, German infantrymen opened up on him with machine pistols, forcing him to turn for cover behind another tree before escaping with several 9mm bullet holes in one wing. Carpenter told a Stars and Stripes correspondent that the "word must be getting around to watch out for Cubs with bazookas on them. Every time I show up now they shoot with everything they have. They never used to bother Cubs. Bazookas must be bothering them a bit."
One of Carpenter's longest missions occurred on September 20, 1944 during the Battle of Arracourt near Nancy, France, when German armored forces launched a sudden tank attack on the headquarters component of the 4th Armored Division's Combat Command A, in the process trapping or pinning down several 4th AD support units. Major Carpenter took to the air with his armed L-4, but owing to a heavy fog which obscured the ground below him, was unable to locate the enemy. Around noon, the fog began to lift, and Carpenter spotted a company of German Panther tanks and armored cars advancing towards Arracourt. Diving through a barrage of German ground fire in a continuing series of attacks against the German formation, Carpenter fired all of his bazooka rockets. Returning to base to reload, Carpenter flew two more sorties that afternoon, firing no fewer than sixteen bazooka rockets at the advancing enemy. Rosie the Rocketer was later credited with immobilizing two German tanks and several armored cars, while killing or wounding a dozen or more enemy soldiers. Carpenter's attacks also forced the remaining Panther tanks in the formation to retreat, in the process enabling a trapped 4th Armored water point support crew, who had witnessed Carpenter's actions that day, to escape capture and destruction. "Some people around here think I'm nuts," Major Carpenter was quoted as saying, "but I just believe that if we're going to fight a war we have to get on with it sixty minutes an hour and twenty-four hours a day."
The Associated Press reporter Wes Gallagher, in a 1945 article in Liberty Magazine, concluded that the major was "a legend in an outfit where reckless bravery is commonplace." By war's end, Major Carpenter had destroyed several German armored cars and knocked out 14 German tanks (he would be officially credited with six tanks destroyed, including two Tiger I tanks), and had also participated in several ground combat actions. Never having received as much as a scratch from enemy fire, he acquired still another nickname, "The Lucky Major". In recognition of his achievements, Carpenter was promoted to lieutenant colonel and awarded the Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Bronze Star, and the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster.
In 1945, Carpenter became seriously ill, and he was eventually diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease. Informed by army doctors that he had two years at most to live, Carpenter was honorably discharged from U.S. Army service in 1946. He returned to work as a history teacher at Urbana High School in Urbana, Illinois, where he worked until his death in 1966 at the age of 53. Lt. Col Carpenter's remains are buried at Edgington Cemetery, in Illinois.
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