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The Secret Weapon of the Pacific War
The Secret Weapon of the Pacific War
by Irwin J. Kappes

Well, strictly speaking, it's not quite "a secret weapon". Actually, there were two, not counting the ultra-secret atomic bomb. And both were unlikely candidates for the title. One was a jerry-built, rickety-looking device and the other was its opposite—a massive, utilitarian monster. In fact, neither was a "weapon" either, though their effects were very lethal. Confused? Obviously, this all requires a bit of explanation.

The first was the so-called Brodie device, an inexpensive but ingenious contraption invented by Captain James H. Brodie of the USAAF Transportation Corps during the early days of World War II. It enabled the takeoff of aircraft without benefit of a runway. This was important for the Army because there were many situations such as mountainous areas, swamps and jungles in which construction of an airstrip would have been impossible. Secondly, such take-off ability was often needed instantaneously and the success of an engagement with the enemy could depend on it. For the Navy, aircraft carriers were not always readily available when and where needed—for example during the Battle of the Atlantic when U.S. merchant shipping was suffering huge losses to Nazi submarines.

General A.D. Bruce, commander of the 77th Infantry Division summed it all up neatly: "The secret weapons of the South Pacific War were the [Brodie-equipped] Piper Cub L-4 and the bulldozer." The former could serve not only as reconnaissance planes, but to direct artillery fire from afar and could be launched from an LST (Landing Ship Tank). Moreover, they could do it with relative impunity because the enemy knew that firing on them would reveal the position of their artillery which would result in an immediate rain of incoming fire. It is no exaggeration to say that the enemy feared the Piper Cub more than they did the Mustang. This, despite the fact that the Cub's top speed was only 85 mph.

On the other hand, earthbound, clunky bulldozers were vital for clearing jungle areas and building an airfield in a matter of hours. Using their slave labor it would take the Japanese weeks and months to do the same thing. This often made the difference between success and stalemate. These two "weapons", un-sexy as they admittedly were, separately but sometimes in tandem, made an important contribution to the outcome of the Pacific War.

We know how the bulldozer worked, but the Brodie device requires a bit of explanation.  A complete Brodie rig weighed less than 7,000 pounds and was highly portable. It consisted of two 65 ft. tubular steel masts, each with a 50 ft. arm protruding from each mast and extending out over the LST's port side. Stretched between the arms was a trolley cable that supported the Piper Cub from a hook mounted on its fuselage. The forward arm was in the "10 o'clock" position while the aft arm was at "9 o'clock". This provided additional lift in the take-off. Starting the launch aft, the Cub would rev the engine up to full speed while restrained in place by a friction brake. When the "launch" order was given, the Cub would be released, speed down almost the full length of the cable and the pilot would then yank the lanyard to disengage from the trolley and fly free. Landing was a little trickier. Shackled to the trolley was a landing sling consisting of three loops of nylon rope forming a rectangle 3 feet wide by 4 feet long. The pilot had only to engage one of the loops within the rectangle to be plucked out of the air and make a successful retrieval.

When the Brodie rig was under development in New Orleans, volunteer pilots eagerly lined up to participate, sight unseen. But it only took one look at the awkward rig and slender wire for most of the candidates to politely back out. In one case, the bravest of the brave pilots were practicing flying off the hook on an LST, circling the ship and then re-attaching as if rehearsing a circus trapeze act. They were noticed by the crew of a carrier just off their port beam. From the carrier came the message, "We see it, but we don't believe it."

One of the ace liaison pilots of the Pacific War was John C. Kriegsman who at the time was stationed with the Army's 77th Division on Leyte in the Philippines. After war's end he testified, "Through rumors and the grapevine, we found we were to secure a group of islands. It developed that they were near Okinawa, wherever that was. About that time we were issued two of the craziest-looking hooks we had ever seen on any aircraft. Along with the hooks were instructions how and where they were to be mounted on our Cubs. Mystery was the order of the day. We figured we were to hook something but did not know what.

"Somehow, word came that we were to operate off an LST ship, of all things. A Navy Commander was to arrive on a transport ship to explain how the hooks were to be used. Several days passed and the transport finally arrived. The Commander was extremely vague. He was unable to supply a picture or even a sketch to explain how the LST was fitted to hook a Cub, or why it was necessary in the first place. He did say the LST was used for this purpose at Iwo Jima by the Marines. [On D-Day plus 10 at Iwo Jima, LST-776 launched 4 Piper Cub L-4 spotter planes but lost one over the side].

"LST-776, with a Brodie device mounted on its deck, did arrive late in the day before the convoy was to leave. The crew told us how the device worked, and what we were expected to do to get our two Cubs back on board without damaging them. Next day the convoy assembled early to move out for the Kerama Retto Islands. They were a small group of rocky mountainous islands with no beaches. With the convoy under way, we were the show of the day. All eyes and field glasses were on us as we gingerly flew around the LST valiantly trying to hook the 3' by 4' loop. From the curve of the hook to the top of the propeller we had about 20 inches to 'play' with. I managed in five passes.

"When a plane was to land, the LST would be turned into the wind, and at full speed. The LST had little or no keel. As a result, the ship would roll gently. This means that those 50-foot arms over the side would make an arc maybe 30-feet high. The pilot would approach this loop in sort of a porpoise fashion. It was necessary for the pilot to get the rhythm of the ship as he made his approach, so that when he hooked—or God forbid, missed—the loop, the arm would not come crashing down on him.

"Cubs were tail-draggers. When a pilot made a 3-point landing, he pulled the joy stick into his belly. It was as natural as pulling on one's trousers. Not so when you hooked the loop. You had to remember to jam the stick ahead at the slightest tug indicating that you were hooked to the loop. That kept the nose down so the prop would not go up into the cable and get all chewed to pieces.

Probably the worst thing that could happen was to think you were hooked when you were not, and you jammed the stick forward. Diving 30 feet straight down could make for a big problem. The [tolerances] were so close that extreme concentration was required.

"After Okinawa, the 77th Division returned to Cebu Island in the central Philippines for an R & R and preparation for the next operation, which was to be the BIG ONE! A meeting was held in Manila for an evaluation of LST-776 with the Brodie device [known to its sailors as the 'U.S.S. BRODIE]'" for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. It was determined that it would be the perfect solution for air reconnaissance of the Kyushu defenses. The device proved its significance at Iwo Jima, Saipan and Okinawa but only eight of 25 contracted LSTs were Brodie-equipped when the war ended. In 1945, Brodie was awarded the Legion of Merit medal. But the story doesn't end there. Brodie envisioned even more significant peacetime uses for his invention: He foresaw light cargo routes and mail delivery/pickup in desolate areas such as the Arctic region, using his rigs to reduce the amount of fuel spent between landings. By decreasing the gas load, planes would increase the payload proportionately. And private individuals in the bush would set up their own airports in wooded or rolling back country. While practical and proven in wartime, the Brodie device has never found an important peacetime application—at least, not yet.

Through the years, the fabled but ungainly LST amphibious landing craft found several applications beyond its original purpose of landing equipment and personnel. A few were given a landing deck and made into "pocket aircraft carriers", others were converted into barracks ships, and one, the U.S.S. GARRETT COUNTY, (LST-786) was made into a helicopter "mother ship" during the Vietnam War. Her unobstructed flat deck made her an ideal landing platform for several medium helicopters. A testimony to the LST's versatility is the fact that the basic design, with modifications, was followed from World War II through August of 1972—an unprecedented lifespan for a type of naval vessel. A total of 1,052 were built for the war and 146 in the postwar period. Many were transferred to foreign countries and some continue to serve various commercial purposes even today.

* * *

Copyright © 2007 Irwin J. Kappes

Written by Irwin Kappes. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Irwin Kappes at:
ijkapp@yahoo.com.

About the author:
Mr. Kappes served in U.S. Navy on destroyers in the Atlantic and Pacific during WWII. He holds an MBA from Boston University and retired after a 32 year advertising career with the Du Pont Company. He was also a retired Vice President with United States Hosiery. He is married and his hobbies include painting, writing, and travel. His hometown is New Castle, PA. and presently living in Tinton Falls, NJ.

Published online: 01/26/2006.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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