Army pilot took out Nazis and their tanks by strapping bazookas to his plane
Sometimes in life, you’re not given the cards you would have hoped for. Be it poor decisions along the way, circumstances beyond your control or just bum luck, people rarely come into any situation with everything going exactly the way they want it.
The mark of a successful man, in many cases, is how people “make lemonade with the lemons life gives you.” In the case of Charles “Bazooka Charlie” Carpenter, it was a matter of how many rocket launchers he could strap onto a grasshopper- and his efforts landed him a well-deserved place in the history books.
Born in Illinois near the Rock Island Arsenal back in 1912, Charlie Carpenter was a soft-spoken and calm individual, who eventually became a high school history teacher after graduating from a Kentucky university.
When World War II broke out, Carpenter -who had the advantage of being college-educated- left his students behind and signed up in 1942, graduating basic training, officer candidate school and flight school.
After flight school, Carpenter’s ambitions of being a fighter ace were dashed after he was slated to fly the most unassuming of aircraft- the lightweight, unarmed L-4 Grasshopper. Essentially a Piper Cub painted green and stripped bare to an empty weight of 765 pounds, the L-4 was anything but glamorous. With a top speed of 85 MPH, the Grasshopper had no weapons, no comfort and was incredibly vulnerable to ground fire. Inside the cockpit, the pilot was armed only with his personal weapon and a radio, which he could use to guide artillery rounds to their intended targets. Interestingly enough, the radio often overloaded the plane’s safe weight limits, and made flying even more difficult.
To add insult to injury for Carpenter, he was kept out of fighting for some time and was assigned to teach other pilots how to become more skilled with their aircraft, a job that kept him in the United States. Despite this, Carpenter took advantage of the opportunity to truly master the Grasshopper, a skill that would serve him well later on.
In 1944, Carpenter finally got orders to head to France, and soon found himself once again being denied the ability to do what he was trained to do. Instead of flying, Carpenter was assigned to be a ground liaison between infantry troops and aircraft, a job that often put him on the front lines and in harm’s way. Despite the less-than-ideal task he was given, Carpenter made the best of it and soon learned to appreciate and empathize with the hardships faced by “grunts.”
In one instance, Carpenter used his newfound skills to reduce casualties after his scouting unit was discovered. Unwilling to watch his fellow Soldiers be slaughtered, Carpenter took control of a tank-mounted .50-caliber machine gun and fired off a burst, urging the men to push on and take the German-held village before the enemy could wipe them out.
Caught off-guard by the Americans and their sudden burst of ferocity, the troops fled the town, and the Americans won the day.
During the incident, Carpenter accidentally hit a bulldozer blade on a Sherman, which landed him an arrest, promise of court-martial and the potential of death by firing squad. Fortunately for him, General George Patton found out, cleared him of any charges and awarded Carpenter a Silver Star, reportedly claiming that he was the kind of fighting man Patton wanted in the field.
Eventually, Carpenter did get to fly- and when he did, he became a celebrated observation pilot- his time on the ground made him incredibly skilled at calling in accurate fire. Unsatisfied with seeing friendly troops being attacked, however, he soon began strapping bazookas to his already-overweight Grasshopper, and perfected a daring -albeit dangerous- dive attack method to utilize the rockets as effectively as possible.
Rigging the bazookas with an electric switch and dubbing his Grasshopper “Rosie the Rocketeer,” Carpenter soon became an absolute terror to the Germans.
Carpenter’s method was hazardous. Forced to dive to around 300 feet above the target before he could fire, Carpenter would let loose at dangerous “last-second” height, subjecting himself to heavy G’s as he pulled up and away.
While Carpenter was initially ignored by German troops, they soon began attacking him after he succeeded in taking several tanks out.
“Word must be getting around to watch out for Cubs with bazookas on them,” he said after his fifth tank kill. “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.”
Carpenter eventually became a hero to many on the ground, who praised him for how much he cared about them- after all, the aviator was going against German mechanized forces with what was essentially a lawnmower with wings. To those around him, he was soon known as “The Mad Major.”
One day, Carpenter got bored with his current tactic and decided to land his plane behind enemy lines after he took out a mechanized column. Once on the ground, Carpenter picked up a rifle and took several Germans as prisoners.
While Carpenter only “officially” knocked out six tanks and countless other kinds of vehicles during the war, it is believed that his kill count was much higher. When asked what his secret was, Carpenter told a reported that his mantra was, “Attack, attack and then attack again.”
While the Germans could not stop Carpenter, his own body ultimately put an end to his participation in the war. Not long after being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Carpenter fell ill from Hodgkin’s disease, and was retired from the Army in 1945.
Despite only being told he would live a few years, Carpenter made good use of his time on Earth, returning to being a teacher and running a summer camp. He would defy all odds and live on another 20 years or so, eventually dying in 1966. His family knew him as a quiet man of peace, despite being known as the “Made Major” during wartime.
Carpenter’s beloved airplane was later discovered to have survived the war, sitting in state for some time at a German war museum. In 2017, the aircraft was acquired by the Collings Foundation, who are currently restoring it to its former glory. Despite being dealt a shoddy hand of cards, it seems, Carpenter left this mortal realm as a winner- and an example of how doing the best with what one has can make a legend out of the most unlikely of people.
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