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
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
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
"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:
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.