(reading time 5 ½ minutes)
Army Sgt. Charlie Devlin lay on the ground beside the beat up and damaged makeshift airplane hanger. It was actually a large barn on a small farm, on the border of Southern France. It was during World War II. While repairing the roof of the barn, now used as a hanger, Charlie slid off the roof and fell to the ground, breaking an ankle. Yelling for help, the only person in earshot was Tec. Sgt. Sally Beamer, a W.A.C. radio operator. She was the sole person on duty in a makeshift flight office, in the tack room of the barn. Her job was to monitor coded army radio communications. However, using a radio transmitter from that secreted observation base was forbidden.
The two aircraft in the barn were older light crop duster planes. One was a French version of the American Piper J3 Cub. These were made to look like old crop duster planes, but were actually used for observation flights. Only one was operational and outfitted with wing spray tanks. The tanks actually carried a supply of spray, in the event they had to spray something to look authentic. The runway was a narrow strip between the tilled farm soil. It was at the edge of a forest and sloped down towards a cliff for a take off. Take offs were in one direction only, regardless of wind direction. The Germans also did reconnaissance for observation. Anything that looked like a landing strip from the air would, of course, be destroyed if discovered. Tec. Sgt. Sally Beamer knew she had to help Charlie Devlin with the broken ankle. He was the only pilot left to carry on the observation operations from the secret base. He was now an invalid and couldn’t walk or pilot the planes. What to do?
Charlie needed medical attention. The nearest help was a small mountain village airstrip, over the border into Spain. There was a doctor at an infirmary there. As a young girl, Sally learned to fly in a Piper J3 Cub crop-duster, used by her father to spray the Kansas wheat fields. She actually flew the very same type plane that was in the hanger. The damaged roof of the barn had fallen in front of the aircraft, blocking its exit. Sally fired-up the tractor beside the barn, and tied a chain to the fallen rafters. She dragged them out of the way so she could remove the plane. The French farmer and his wife, who owned the house, were old and ailing and of little or no help. They could only watch.
Now for a plan! In former briefings, the evacuation instructions were to fly to a mountain village in Spain, about 100 miles south of this farm. Now, to get the plane running! It needed two people to start the Piper. Someone had to spin the prop, and another person had to control the throttle and brakes in the cockpit so the plane would not run away. Charlie was hurting badly from the broken ankle and had to be lifted into the plane. The farmer and his wife suggested putting Charlie in a wheelbarrow, and moving him to the plane. With everyone pushing from underneath and both sides, Charlie finally got seated, anguishing with pain.
Sally got the charts, all of the other vital papers, stuffed them into the plane and burned any others. She chocked the wheels and spun the prop, with Charlie at the controls. At least he was still conscious and knew the way to Spain, but now he was bleeding and the foot was dangling uncontrollably. “Let’s get out of here”, yelled Charlie. “Ok”, said Sally! “Are you flying or am I?” “It’s up to you lady. I can’t work the rudder pedals with this ankle.” “I have it. I hope I remember how to do this”, she said. And off they went, zooming off the cliff edge at the end of the runway. It was a clear shot now, heading south bearing 180 degrees to the remote airfield in the mountains of Spain. The weather was good and visibility OK. Charlie lost consciousness at the higher altitude, having lost so much blood. Fortunately, Sally still remembered her skills from flying her father’s old Piper J-3’s and the Kansas crop-dusting. She had chartered her course, easily found the airstrip, and made a perfect three point landing at the infirmary. Charlie was all patched up by a doctor. With aid from the Spanish underground, they eventually both found their way back to the American command center in France. Sally and Charlie went on to separate and more exciting adventures in the service, and the little known Army reconnaissance observation teams.
This farmer girl from Kansas, Sally Beamer, who learned to fly a Piper J3 Cub, ultimately was a heroine. Unfortunately, Sally was an unknown heroine. Her dad, who taught her to fly by crop dusting in the Kansas wheat fields, contributed to saving two lives with the skills she learned as a private pilot back home on the farm.
Three cheers for the Piper Aircraft J3 Cub, and her daddy Pop Beamer, Sally’s instructor. Sally never did have a pilot’s license. They just did those things on the farms those days.