In 1942, a smartly attired 29-year-old man by the name of Charles Carpenter signed up to join the United States Army as a commissioned officer. A high school teacher by trade, Carpenter was educated and well-liked by his peers and the folks of Edgington, Illinois, the small town in Rock Island County where he hailed from. After passing through basic training and earning his commission as 2nd Lieutenant, he was selected to go to flight school where he would learn to fly small artillery liaison aircraft including the Army’s version of the Piper Cub- the L-4 Grasshoper, and the Stinson L-5 Sentinel. Generally unarmed, they lacked any form of protection for the pilot, whose job was to relay enemy positions back to friendly artillery units, so that the latter would have good effects on target during fire missions. Though Charles was stuck in the United States for a while, waiting for his chance at combat, he made the most of his time by racking up flight hours in both airframes. Rising up through the ranks, he pinned on gold oak leaves and was officially a Major in the Army when he was notified of his imminent deployment to France in 1944.
Upon reaching France, he was assigned to the 1st Bombardment Division under the command of Major General R.B. Williams. Carpenter, though he exuded the image of a history teacher, was very much the live wire when it came to combat. When attached temporarily to an ground unit for the purpose of scouting out possible landing strips, he came across a mechanized infantry section held down by blistering German fire emanating from nearby an enemy-held town. Running up to the lead tank in the column, he depressed the butterfly trigger on an M2 .50 caliber machine gun and spat out lead in the general direction of the Nazi soldiers who were attempting to slow down the section’s advance. Shouting “LET’S GO”, he rallied the soldiers and tanks ahead, though he didn’t really have any command authority over the men around him, considering that he wasn’t even in their chain of command. The soldiers ripped through the town and in minutes, the Nazi units that had previously held the area fled. Though Carpenter was actually arrested by military police and charged, he was quickly rescued by General Patton in person, who proudly exclaimed that Carpenter was the very kind of man with fight and determination that he wanted in the Third Army. Receiving a Silver Star for his courage and valor, Carpenter was sent back to 1st Bombardment.
Carpenter flew a number of artillery spotting and reconnaissance missions immediately afterward, but quickly became frustrated with his lack of offensive armament, which would have otherwise given him the ability to attack German units on the ground, especially when other friendly aerial and ground units weren’t able to engage. After hearing stories through the grapevine on other pilots who had attached all sorts of weapons to their aircraft for defensive and offensive use, Carpenter requested and secured permission from his command to do the same. Enlisting an ordnance technician and a few crew chiefs to assist him with his incredibly unconventional idea, they tacked on a pair of M1 bazookas to the struts of the Grasshopper. Christening his aircraft “Rosie the Rocketer”, he scored his first kill against a German armored car. Evidently not satisfied with just knocking out small troop transport vehicles, he promptly blew four tanks to kingdom come. By this time, Carpenter had added four more bazookas to Rosie, bringing the total armed complement up to six; all rigged up to switches in the cockpit that would allow him to fire the weapons. For the most part, he would unleash the M6 rockets ensconced within the bazooka tubes at a range of around 100 yards, flying through a maelstrom of small arms fire but staying on course until he was either forced to pull up by virtue of the steadily-increasing ground fire coming his way, or if he was able to score a kill.
Inspired by the man they now called “the Mad Major”, other Grasshopper pilots attempted to add bazookas to their aircraft as well, but quickly abandoned the idea during trial runs. It simply was too crazy, and nothing about the entire prospect of having to fly through withering enemy fire at ranges so close that you could see the bootlaces on the Germans shooting at you, or releasing a deadly cargo of rockets while having your aircraft shudder violently, appealed to them at all. Carpenter was now a fast-growing legend. Adding to the “madness” aura surrounding him, he once alighted his Grasshopper on a field near a column of German tanks he just lit up from above, grabbed a few discarded German rifles and took six enemy soldiers prisoner while hosing down anything that moved. The guy was madness personified, sure, but you can’t deny that his courageousness and tenacity knew no bounds.
In late September of 1944, Carpenter got wind of armor attack on one of the 4th Armored Division’s battlefield headquarters. Flying through a dense fog with little to no forward visibility, he remained in the air until the air cleared. Scanning the ground for targets of opportunity, he quickly located a group of Panzer tanks and armored personnel carriers moving towards the beleaguered Combat Command A HQ. By now, the Germans on the ground knew that Carpenter was in town and they needed to stop him before he launched yet another debilitating attack on their armor, which were well protected on the front and sides, but were marginally shielded on top. Training all of their guns on him, they were unable to deter Carpenter, who flew like a man possessed. Launching his rockets, he took out a set of armored cars, inflicting casualty upon casualty before returning to base to refuel and re-arm. He repeated this twice more until all friendly soldiers pinned down were able to egress and escape to safety.
By the end of the war, Carpenter had been awarded the Silver Star and Air Medal twice apiece, and the Bronze star, all for his unmatched bravery, creativity and determination. He would be officially credited with only six tanks disabled or destroyed, but he along with the soldiers and airmen who served with him or were covered by him from above knew that the count was far higher. After falling seriously ill in 1945, it was discovered that Carpenter was afflicted with Hodgkin’s Disease. Discharged from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel and now known as “Bazooka Charlie”, he returned to Illinois, told that he had less than two years to live. Ever the fighter, he went back to teaching high school history and survived till 1966, when cancer finally caught up with him. Sometimes, I wonder if any of his students were aware of the fact that one of the most colorful pilots to have ever served in Army green was standing up at the front of the classroom, lecturing them on history that he, in a small part, was able to co-write…
For more information, check out : Lawrence Journal-World (Oct 3, 1944 edition, print)