Piper Cubs of the Luftwaffe

 

By Dave O’Malley

In my mind, there are not many aircraft from the past 114 years that are a perfect distillation of all that is wondrous, beautiful and simple about powered flight. Some are damn fast, many lethal. Some are sexy like an Italian sports car, some boring like a city bus. Some extraordinarily complex and breathtakingly large. Some can do things even birds cannot, but not without the aid of computers. Some don’t even need the pilot. But few represent the joy, the purity, or the avian soul of powered flight like the Piper J-3 Cub. Painted in the cheeriest of yellow hues, emblazoned with the cutest red bear cub symbol imaginable, the typical Cub is the very essence of flight. With a broad straight wing, a perky set of wheels, just enough instruments to keep you from killing yourself, and open to the world on both sides on a warm and fragrant day, the Cub is recognized for its greatness and its goodness by even the most jaded warbird or airline pilot.

The very sight of a canary yellow cub brings a smile to my face and conjures up a feeling of warmth like very few man-made physical objects I can think of—perhaps a balloon-tire Schwinn bicycle, a Vespa scooter, a 6 oz. bottle of Coca-Cola, a Nash Metropolitan, a birch bark canoe. There’s an aura of joy, simplicity and cheerfulness about the Piper Cub, born of its history and its promise of three-dimensional harmony without breaking the bank. 

Recently, I came across a photo of a forlorn-looking Piper Cub that had appeared to have been vandalized by white supremacists. A series of random looking graffiti marred its flanks while a swastika, that symbol of hatred, murder and oppression called out menace from its tail. The swastika, or Hakenkreuz, the monogram of evil, represents two decades or more of obscenity and mayhem, so to see it on a Cub was like seeing one of those bicycles you often come across in a park or pitched in a pond—some child’s treasure that has been ridden for a while by a thug, then stomped on and bent and tossed aside. The website where I found the photo indicated that the Cub was a former Danish civil-registered aircraft that had been taken as war booty by the Luftwaffe and employed somewhere in Germany in the last part of the war. 

There are but a few photographs of the Piper Cubs that had been commandeered by the Nazis. Only two airframes can be identified using images. The top photo was taken at a US Army-occupied airfield in Germany during the Second World War. One of the units housed at the airfield was an L-4 Grasshopper (J-3 Cub) Observation unit. The picture shows a civilian Piper J-2 Cub that had been used by the Luftwaffe, then re-captured by American forces. One of the L-4 pilots, Lieutenant George Morris was tasked with flying the Piper home to their base. There are a series of fairly good resolution photos taken of this aircraft—good enough to read a construction number on its tail (included in the Germans’ markings). This construction number (1319) tells the Piper enthusiast that this aircraft had been constructed from a kit at the Cub Aircraft Co. Ltd. near Copenhagen, Denmark before the war. It had been grounded after the occupation and eventually purloined by the Luftwaffe. There were several other airframes that were also taken from the Danes at this time, but nothing is known of their fate. The bottom photo depicts another Luftwaffe Cub, this one built by Taylor Aircraft before the company name changed to Piper. It once belonged to the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, a quasi-military organization in Lithuania that had acquired it as a gift from Lithuanian–Americans. Its history is part of that feisty little country’s cherished aviation history… as we shall see. Photos: Top: from the collection of Brandon Miller (grandson of George Morris); Bottom: via plienosparnai.lt

I was going to copy the photo for my long running and somewhat comprehensive repository called WTF?—What Fighter is That?, the story of captured military aircraft in the markings of the enemy, but then the title of the post on the Piper Cub Forum hit me—Piper Cubs of the Luftwaffe. I knew I had to steal that title (apologies Piper Cub Forum for the Luftwaffe-like appropriation), try to find as much as possible about the two Cubs depicted in their story, photos in particular.

As with many stories, it seemed like this would be a simple thing. A thousand words, maybe a half dozen images, but things got out of hand as they always do when I start looking. My search has led me down some interesting paths, not all related to Nazi Piper Cubs. I learned about Piper’s relationship with Denmark before the war, about Lithuanian nationalist pride and about Piper Cubs that contributed to the war effort long before America decided to declare war on Germany. First, let’s learn the amazing back stories of the two swastika-marked Piper Cubs pictured above.

 

Morris’ Car

By the latter half of the 1930s, the Great Depression was showing signs of ending and this was a good thing for manufacturers of such luxuries as private aircraft. In Europe, the economic crisis had given fallow ground for the thoughts of Adolph Hitler and the growth of the Nazi party, but by 1937, things had appeared to stabilize and entrepreneurs began to create new business in a milieu of positive growth.
 

With new business came new wealth and the idea of selling aircraft to private owners no longer seemed like a dubious enterprise. In 1937, Taylor Aircraft of Pennsylvania granted a licence to build Cub aircraft in Denmark to a Danish-American by the name of Jack Hedegaard. He brought with him to Denmark Taylor’s contract and a single unassembled Taylor J-2 Cub to use as a model. After putting the Cub together, Hedegaard found a wealthy Danish industrialist backer by the name of Christian Bohnstedt–Petersen, who owned a Chrysler and a Daimler–Benz dealership and assembly plant in Copenhagen.

Bohnstedt–Petersen, a pilot for nearly 20 years, then signed an agreement with the Piper Aircraft Company (Taylor had been bought out by Piper by this time) to be the sole manufacturer of Piper Cub aircraft (from American-built kits) in Scandinavia.

The company was to be called the Cub Aircraft Co. Ltd., operating from the old military airfield and hangars at Lundtofte near Copenhagen. The company would construct aircraft for export to all of Scandinavia. By the late winter of 1937–1938, Piper began by shipping ten full kits and the equipment (tools and jigs) required to assemble them. They hired Danish pilots to test and deliver the aircraft as well as train customers to fly them. Cub Aircraft set up a club so that local owners could share in their ownership and fly them. Four newly assembled Piper J-2 Cubs were owned by the Cub Flying School and the Avid Cub Flying Club. The cost of a new Piper Cub was approximately $1,250 which included 12 hours of instruction from Cub Aircraft factory pilots. Each aircraft wore a factory paint scheme of silver (aluminium) overall and blue registration and arrowhead flash along the side.
 

A photo of the Cub Aircraft Co. Ltd. assembly facilities at Lundtofte Airfield taken in August of 1938 at a large sailplane demonstration and air show event. Parked immediately in front of the hangar are a pair of Danish-built Piper Cubs (OY-DOM and OY-DUL, two of the first off the new line), while the lineup at right appears to have biplanes and low-wing monoplanes wingtip to wingtip. The horseshoe-shaped outline just below the Cubs in this shot is a stone walk around the fuel pump, which can be clearly seen in the following image. Photo via Cub Aircraft Co. Ltd. in Lundtofte 1937–1940 by Ole Nikolajsen

Two of Cub Aircraft’s Piper Cubs (OY-DOM and OY-DUL) are shown on display outside the company hangar—very likely at the August aviation event and air show held in 1938 at Lundtofte. OY-DOM was an American-built Taylor J-3 Cub initially registered in the USA as NC15674 and then shipped to Cub Aircraft, assembled and sold to the Sportsflyveklubben København (Copenhagen “Pegasus” Flying Club). It was destroyed by a ground fire on 6 June 1943 at the Islands Brygge, the Copenhagen waterfront. OY-DUL, a Taylor J-2, was the first Cub that Jack Hedegaard had brought from America to use as a model in 1937. It was put in storage when the Germans invaded in 1940 and then confiscated by them in 1943. The fate of either aircraft is not known. Photo: oy-reg.dk and Steen Hartov

 
Production of both J-2 and J-3 Cub models began in earnest in May of 1938 and continued apace until the Nazi occupation of Denmark two years later on 9 April 1940. Some 45 kits (J-2, J-3 and J-4 Models) had been imported and many had been built, though not all.
 
When the Second World War started on 1 September 1939, operations at Cub Aircraft were drastically curtailed. Flying training had ceased due to fuel rationing and the club and training aircraft were put in storage. For the time being, aircraft meant for export to other Scandinavian countries could acquire fuel for their test flying and delivery flights. However, when the Germans invaded both Norway and Denmark seven months later, all operations ceased by military order. By this time, 30 Cubs (J-2s, J-3s and a single J-4) had been completed and delivered. Fifteen unassembled kits as well as jigs and tools were stored at Bohnstedt–Petersen’s Daimler–Benz factory in Copenhagen. The completed Cubs that did not get exported to Norway as planned were flown to Bohnstedt–Petersen’s private airstrip and hangar at Grønholt, just a few miles from the Swedish coast in North Zealand, Denmark’s largest island.
 

The interior of one of the assembly buildings at Cub Aircraft Co. Ltd.’s Lundtofte factory showing Piper Cubs in various states of completion and one (OY-DYR) fully completed and ready for delivery to its new owner, Magnus Christiansen of Alborg. Cub Aircraft had a licence to build Cubs from kits supplied by the Piper Aircraft Company of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. Photo via Cub Aircraft Co. Ltd. in Lundtofte 1937–1940 by Ole Nikolajsen 

As the war progressed, Danish resistance increased and the Danish Army was disarmed by the Germans. Pressure was put on Bohnstedt–Petersen to use his factory for the production of goods for the Nazis, but he refused. As a result, his factories were taken from him and were used to manufacture components for U-boats and Luftwaffe aircraft. In December of 1943, after a single Danish de Havilland Moth had been flown by a daring pilot to England over the North Sea, the Germans issued an order demanding that all private Danish aircraft be collected at three airfields and stored for the foreseeable future. 49 aircraft of all types were collected, including 18 Piper Cubs (some privately owned) built by Cub Aircraft at Lundtofte. It was known that two of these 18 Cubs (OY-DUP and OY-DUL) were “given” to the Luftwaffe’s commander in Denmark. These Cubs were used for liaison duties and to check German camouflage efforts. Both Cubs were recorded as being with the Luftwaffe in Denmark in March of 1944. By September of 1944, they were no longer in use by the Luftwaffe, but their fates are not known. OY-DUP did surface in Germany in 1945 before the end of the war, the only impounded Cub known to have survived the war, but how it got there is not known. Some Cub history sites list 19 Cubs that were purloined by the Luftwaffe, but only these two have records and only one (OY-DUP) has photographic proof.

Meanwhile, Cub Aircraft had petitioned the Germans to release completed Cubs for which they had signed delivery contracts in neutral Sweden. Two Cubs were indeed ferried to Malmö in the summer of 1944, but the fate of the 16 remaining Cubs was never satisfactorily determined. It seems that a number of them (18, including some of the unfinished kits) were cleared for export to Sweden, though it is not likely that this happened. In February of 1945, Danish resistance saboteurs set fire to Bohnstedt–Petersen’s factory in Copenhagen, which was by now used only for storage. Destroyed along with his buildings were all the unfinished Piper Cub kits as well as an unspecified number (possibly 6) of Cub Aircraft Co. Ltd. aircraft that had been ordered stored there by the Germans. After the war, there was enough salvaged components from the fire to construct two Piper Cubs, one of which (OY-ABT) remains today in flying condition at the Danmarks Flymuseum in Stauning. The other (OY-FAB), after a brief period with a German registration (D-EHES), was destroyed in 1965 following a collision with a ground tractor at Grønholt. 

Danish-built Taylor J-2C Cub OY-DEP flies over Lundtofte in November of 1938. OY-DEP, which was operated by the Avid Cub Flying Club, was one of the Cubs seized by the Germans—its fate is not known. Photo: OY-reg.dk

Constructed at Cub Aircraft’s Lundtofte facility, OY-DUM was also one of the J-3 Cubs seized by the German occupation authorities. Its fate is also not known. It seems possible that this photo was also taken during the August 1938 aviation event held at Lundtofte. Photo: oy-reg.dk and Erik Holm

The fates of many of the Cub Aircraft’s Cubs are unknown. Of the two that were impressed into Luftwaffe service, only that of OY-DUP would later be known, and even then, not the full story. OY-DUP spent some time in the service of the Luftwaffe and then was struck off charge with the Luftwaffe command in Denmark. What happened to it and where she went is anyone’s guess, but in the spring of 1945, as Germany had all but collapsed into Berlin, she was found by soldiers or perhaps pilots of the United States Army at a captured Luftwaffe airfield. She was instantly recognized as a Cub similar to the L-4 Grasshoppers flown by a nearby aviation unit of the US Army. A pilot by the name of Lieutenant George Reed Morris was sent to collect her and bring her back to the American airfield. When he picked her up, she had German Stammkennzeichen markings (GP+QG), Balkenkreuz markings on her fuselage and wings and a swastika on her tail. It’s unknown if Morris arranged to have these painted over where the Cub was found or if he flew with all the markings to his base then proceeded to paint over them. It is known however that en route to his airfield he was spotted by the gunners of an American bomber (some reports say an A-20, others a B-24) and shot at. This would only happen if these markings were highly visible, giving credence to the idea that the markings had not yet been painted over.

At an American-held airfield in Germany, the former Danish-owned Piper J-2 Cub (originally registered as OY-DUP) displays its multiple identities along with other J-3 Cubs of the US Army. First of all, a quick glance tells us that this is a former civilian Cub, not a military one. In the military version, known as the L-4 Grasshopper, Piper added a Plexiglas greenhouse skylight and rear windows for improved visibility. This Cub has neither. Standard aircraft markings in the Luftwaffe came in two types—the “Stammkennzeichen” factory radio code or the “Truppenkennzeichen” unit code. The latter required a letter/number combination before the cross that signified the Geschwader (Wing) with another two-letter pair after the cross. This was known as the “Truppenkennzeichen” code—the first letter of the second pair referred to the aircraft itself, while the second letter signified the Staffel (Squadron). This Cub is marked GP+QG, which was in the former category, a Stammkennzeichen—a double pair of letters (the first pair (GP) can be seen on the port side, while the second pair (QG) is all that remains on the starboard side, partially obliterated overpainting). When a German military aircraft emerged from its production plant, it was given a four-letter Stammkennzeichen code, which was an individual aircraft’s radio code before it entered service and stayed with the aircraft throughout its entire existence. The entire Stammkennzeichen was usually on the fuselage sides, and also often repeated on the undersides of both wings, with the four letters spread out along the entire wing’s undersurface. There is a lot going on the fuselage of this aircraft, but it seems that the lighter painted area represents a repair. The Balkenkreuz has been crudely painted in again over this area (not likely done by Morris or his unit). The Letters V-3, painted on roughly by brush in the same hand as the words on her nose, signify something, but what is anybody’s guess. We can see that the Balkenkreuz markings have also been painted over on top of the wings. A real fixer-upper as they say. Photo from the collection of Brandon Miller (grandson of George Morris), via HyperScale Forums

When he landed (or perhaps before he took off) the markings were overpainted, but not all of them. It seems that the swastika was left, possibly as some sort of evidence or trophy that she had been in the service of the Luftwaffe. Squadron wags took the liberty to scrawl some words on the nose: DON’T SHOOT!—USA on the port engine cowling and MORRIS’ CAR on the starboard one. It is not known if Morris flew it more than once, but there are two group photos—one with officers and one with ground crew—taken at different locations, both by a good camera, possibly belonging to an Army photographer.

Of course, the Americans who captured her would not have known her provenance. Thanks to the Luftwaffe’s penchant for records and details, the Piper Construction number was marked on her tail—1319. After the war, Piper historians looking at the photograph were able to determine exactly which Piper Cub she was. The story of the Danish-registered OY-DUP which became the Luftwaffe’s GP+QG, however, stopped right there on an Army airfield in 1945. Did she get scrapped? Was she re-impressed into service with the Americans? Did they try to return it? Perhaps we’ll never know. Like a young person being rescued from a cult, she would have a hard time being accepted. One thing for sure, her war days were over.

Army Lieutenant George Reed Morris sits in the cockpit of the former Danish-owned, Luftwaffe-operated Piper J-2 Cub that he liberated from a German airfield, surrounded by members of his unit’s ground crew. The ground crewmen have roughly painted American stars on one side the fuselage and under both wings and the name Morris’ Car, perhaps a double-entendre reflecting his name and the British car manufacturer of the same name. The second pair in the aircraft’s Stammkennzeichen code, “QG” can be seen behind the cockpit. Someone has tried to make a joke perhaps from the letters by erasing the foot of the letter “Q” and adding letters to come up with O-GEE! Photo from the collection of Brandon Miller (grandson of George Morris), via warbirdsforum.yuku.com

Lieutenant George Reed Morris, leaning against the propeller hub, poses with his reclaimed war booty and a group of US Army officers, presumably from his unit. Following Morris’ brush with an American bomber while flying it to his base, someone has added the words “Don’t Shoot—U.S.A.” George Morris continued to serve with the United States Air Force after the Second World War, flying the North American F-86D “Dog Sabre” as the last commander of the 469th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, based at McGhee Tyson Air force Base, Tennessee. The unit was stood down on 8 January 1958 (it returned to service four years later as the 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron). Morris retired after a stellar 22-year career in the air force. He died in Tennessee in August of 2009 at the age of 87. If it wasn’t for his proud grandson Brandon Miller, these photos may never have made it to the Internet. Photo from the collection of Brandon Miller (grandson of George Morris), via HyperScale Forums

Another very poor photograph of the Danish–German–American Piper Cub (originally registered as OY-DUP). Note the painted over Balkenkreuz under wing as well as a hastily painted USAAF star and components of its Stammkennzeichen code. Photographs of the Luftwaffe Cubs are very hard to unearth on the Internet, I have to say. If anyone has access to others, please contact the author. Photo via PiperCubForum.com

A starboard side profile of the former Danish civilian J-2 Cub in what is believed to be its Luftwaffe scheme and Stammkennzeichen markings. Image via Wings Palette

 

The ones that got awayDanish-built Cubs that survived the war

Of the 20,000 or so Cubs that were manufactured worldwide, only a few dozen were built in Denmark for export to Scandinavian countries. These were built at a time of violent upheaval in Europe, so for any to have survived the Second World War is extraordinary. Piper J-3 Cub OY-ABT was built from components salvaged from the fire at Bohnstedt–Petersen’s Copenhagen factory fire set by Danish resistance fighters. Still in flying condition, it is on display at the Danmarks Flymuseum near the small town of Stauning on the coast of the Ringkøbing Fjord in northwest Denmark. Photo via Vimeo

One other Danish-built, Swedish-registered J-3 Cub known to be still flying long after the war was SE-AIC, which had been assembled and shipped prior to hostilities. She is seen here at Stauning, Denmark in 1992. Photo by Morgens Wahl via oy-reg.dk

LN-HAD was one of three Norwegian Piper J-4 Cub Coupes completed and delivered to Norwegian clients by Cub Aircraft Co. Ltd. before restrictions placed by the Nazis. Two went to a Norwegian flight school called Den Frie Militærtjenestes Flyveskole, and all three eventually served with the world famous Norwegian airline Wideroe. LN-FAR was written off in a Wideroe accident at Oslo, Norway in September of 1947, LN-HAB in February of 1960 while owned by the SAS Flying Club. LN-HAD was damaged beyond repair in 1967 while owned by the Drammen Flying Club. Photo via historieboka.no, Ragnar Kjos, information via airhistory.org.uk

 

The Fate of the Falcon The other known Cub in Luftwaffe Markings

One of the Piper Cubs known to have been taken by the Luftwaffe and impressed into service in the name of the Reich was from a very unlikely place. The last known photo of it (top image), poor in quality, shows that it had been defaced with the hated haken- and Balkenkreuzes, but once it had been a bright yellow and red Taylor Cub, known by the oddly aggressive name of Falcon. It came from the tiny Baltic state of Lithuania, a country one would not think would be blessed, in 1938, with the joys of the soon-to-be-legendary American Piper Cub. In researching its history, much of what is available online is in Lithuanian. I did my best with Google Translate to understand the history of this airplane, but it was far from perfect. If I understood and thereby wrote anything incorrectly, it’s simply because the translation was so imperfect. Regardless of this problem with translation, the story is simply really worth telling.

Flying was not a passion reserved for the nations that had given us the first legends of aviation—Great Britain, France, and the United States. It had caught the imaginations of young men and women in every country in the world, from New Zealand to Brazil to tiny Lithuania. Every nation, no matter the size, had its flying heroes, especially Lithuania. In 1933, two Lithuanian-born American citizens, Steponas Darašius and Stasys Girėnas (known in America as Stephen Darius and Stan Girenas), two accomplished pilots, war heroes and entrepreneurs attempted to put Lithuania on the aviation map, but died in the attempt. Both men were born in Lithuania and had immigrated to America with their families. Both had served with the United States Army in the First World War and had become pilots afterward (Darius in Lithuania where he joined the nascent Lithuanian Air Force and Girenas in America). 

Inspired by Lindbergh’s accomplishment in 1927, they planned to make the first non-stop flight from New York City to Kaunas, Lithuania, something that had captured the imaginations of the citizenry of the small Baltic country. Darius had met Girenas in Chicago after a return to the United Sates and the two purchased a used Bellanca Pacemaker and named it Lituanica. They took off from Floyd Bennett Field on 15 July 1933 for what would have been the second longest non-stop flight in history and the fourth longest in terms of duration. Their destination was the city of Kaunas in central Lithuania, the temporary capital of the new nation. Lituanica would also carry the first transatlantic airmail. They never got there.

 

Stephen Darius (left, top photo) and Stanley Girenas pose for a publicity shot before their flight in front of their bright orange Bellanca Pacemaker nicknamed Lituanica. The flight ended with the crash and deaths of the pilots on 17 July 1933 in northeastern Germany just 380 miles short of their goal. In honour of their heroism, The Darius–Girenas Aero Club raised money to purchase Lithuania’s first Taylor (later Piper) Cub as a gift for the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union. The second photo is a colour shot of a Lituanica replica flying over Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania in 1993 on the 60th anniversary of their famous attempt. The aircraft is now on display at the Lithuanian Aviation Museum in Kaunas. These two men remain legendary Lithuanian heroes to this day, featured in stamps and the Lithuanian 10 Litas banknote (along with an image of Lituanica). Photos: Top: crash-aerien.news; Bottom: Wikipedia

The wreckage of the beautiful orange Bellanca Pacemaker known as Lituanica litters the forest floor in northern Germany. Darius and Girenas were both killed instantly. The cause of the crash has never been fully explained. Some even theorized that is was shot down by the Germans. Photo: Wikipedia

The two Lithuanian aviators came very close to accomplishing their goal however. After more than 37 hours in the air and with over 6,400 kilometres behind them, they crashed into a wooded area in Northern Germany near the village of Kuhdamm (now Pszczelnik, Poland). The board of inquiry never did determine the exact cause of the crash, except that the pilots were possibly attempting a forced landing at the time. The small country of Lithuania was devastated by the news and more than 60,000 attended their funeral. Such was their fame in Lithuania; their bodies were not buried, but embalmed and placed in a specially-built mausoleum, soon to be a national shrine. In an attempt to crush any nationalist thoughts, the mausoleum was destroyed in the Soviet re-occupation after the Second World War. The bodies were removed and remain buried in a cemetery near Kaunas. Two years later, a second attempt was funded by Lithuanian Americans (at the height of the Great Depression) and another Lithuanian–American by the name of Felix Waitkus (Feliksas Vaitkus) flew a Lockheed Vega, nicknamed Lituanica II, from New York, en route to Kaunas. He too never made it, landing in Ireland—the fifth human to fly solo over the Atlantic. Despite the unfinished nature of his flight, Waitkus was an instant hero in Lithuania. For an interesting and short video on Waitkus’ crash, click here.

Inspiration is a pay-it-forward activity. Lindbergh inspired Darius and Girenas, who in turn inspired Waitkus. Shortly after Waitkus’ flight, another young Lithuanian–American by the name of Paulius Šaltenis (Paul Salten on the American side of the Atlantic) joined a group of Lithuanian–Americans to start the Darius–Girenas Aero Club in Brooklyn, New York, named in honour of their national heroes. The club was formed in 1935 from the aero division of the Lithuanian Legion of America (Darius–Girenas Post) for the purpose of promoting interest in aviation among Lithuanians in America. Šaltenis was one of 16 founding members. They raised money from Lithuanians across the U.S.A., purchased a club aircraft and, under Chief Flying Instructor A. Kiela, began instruction at Floyd Bennett Field. This is where young Paulius Šaltenis learned to fly. 

Following the success in fundraising for their club aircraft, Šaltenis and members of the club raised another sum of money to purchase a Taylor J-2 Cub from their Bradford, Pennsylvania plant and, in 1938, ship it to Lithuania where it would be gifted to the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, a quasi-military association in Lithuania that, in addition to providing military training to members, also conducted social and cultural programs and events across the country. It was the largest social club in the small nation. The goal of this project was to inspire homegrown Lithuanians and train them to become future military and commercial fliers.

 

The beautiful little Taylor J-2 Cub, painted bright yellow with red stripe was transported by steamship to the port city of Klaipėda on the Lithuanian Baltic coast. A short time later, Paulius Šaltenis arrived from America and picked up the aircraft at Klaipėda. After initial problems getting the aircraft ready, he was joined by a Captain Krasnicki, the commander of the LRU’s aviation division and on 12 August 1938 they flew to the Kaunas airport to present the gift of the Cub, which had been nicknamed Sakala, the Lithuanian word for Falcon.

 

A bright yellow and red Taylor Cub arrives at Kaunas airfield on 12 August 1938, flown in by Lithuanian–American pilot Paulius Šaltenis (who went by Paul Salten in America). Šaltenis was delivering the Cub which was purchased through donations collected by the Darius–Girenas Aero Club of Brooklyn, New York. The aircraft was a gift from Lithuanian–Americans to the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union (Lietuvos Šaulių Sąjunga), a militarized, non-profit organization supported by the state. It was the first aircraft of the LRU, which conducted activities in military training, sport and culture. It was disbanded by the Russians after their invasion in 1940, but was reconstituted in 1989 following the departure of Soviet influence. The tiny Cub was nicknamed “Sakala” which means “Falcon” in Lithuanian. Šaltenis was accompanied on the flight from Klaipėda on the Lithuanian coast to the city of Kaunas by LRU aviation platoon commander Captain Krasnicki. Photo via plienosparnai.lt

After his flight from Klaipėda. Lithuania, Paulius Šaltenis dismounts from the little yellow Taylor Cub as press photographers rush in to get photos. Photo via plienosparnai.lt

Paulius Šaltenis, the pilot of the Falcon, was an American born in 1912 in Treveskyn, Pennsylvania, a small town southwest of Pittsburgh. Like many Lithuanian–Americans of his day, he was immensely proud of his cultural roots (a seemingly dangerous quality to have these days). When he was two years old, he moved back to Lithuania with his parents but in 1929, at the age of 17, he returned to America to study, work, and learn to fly. He joined the Darius–Girenas Aero Club as a founding member. The Darius–Girenas Aero Club was started in 1934 in the names of Lithuanian–American aviation legends Stephen Darius and Stanley Girenas following their fatal attempt at a transatlantic non-stop flight from New York to Lithuania. Photo via plienosparnai.lt

26-year-old American Paulius Šaltenis, wearing the dashing airline-style club uniform of the Darius–Girenas Aero Club (of which he was then the General Manager) delivers a speech in front of the thousands of Lithuanian citizens and members of the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union who turned out for the arrival of the little Taylor Cub. His white airline cap is embroidered with the name of the club, a set of gold wings and the word “Pilot”. Later he was awarded the Order of the Star of the Riflemen. In the background sits the immaculate Cub called “Falcon”. The cost of the Cub, raised by Šaltenis and Lithuanian–Americans, was $1,650. It cost an additional $285 to ship the Cub from America to the Lithuanian port city of Klaipėda. Ten years later, a DC-3 piloted by Šaltenis crashed near Washington, DC in bad weather, killing the Lithuanian–American pilot and 36 of the 40 on boardPhoto via plienosparnai.lt

Surrounded by Lithuanian pulchritude and overwhelmed with flowers, Šaltenis was the toast of Kaunas and indeed all of Lithuania. After ceremonies and much joy at the airport, he was driven by automobile amidst a hail of flowers and garlands to a series of official events and dinners. It is likely that the next day he was out at the Kaunas airport instructing the excited pilots of the LRU on the joys of Cub flying. Photo via plienosparnai.lt

The gift of the Taylor Cub Falcon set in motion considerable interest in aviation at the LRU. Over the next couple of years there was considerable LRU flying activity at the Kaunas and Nida airports. The Falcon played a large part in training future Lithuanian military pilots. In September of 1938, just two months after its arrival from the USA, the Falcon (seen here sporting Lithuanian national markings—the Saint Vytis Cross), was involved in a mid-air collision with a Lithuanian-designed ANBO-51 parasol trainer over Aleksotas Airfield, south of Kaunas. The Falcon was repaired in a couple of months, and went back to work. In 1940 the Falcon was taken over by the Lithuanian Aero Club as a glider tug, training air force pilots in a period of time when they were occupied by the hated Russians. When the Germans invaded and took over the country in 1941, they commandeered all Lithuanian aircraft including the little gift Cub from the Americans. Photo via plienosparnai.lt

The little Cub created a big commotion at the Kaunas airfield. Thousands turned out to see it and hear from Šaltenis. After getting out of the cockpit, Šaltenis was met by political and military dignitaries as well as officials from the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union. Looking like an airline captain in his club uniform, he was presented with a bouquet of flowers and pinned with a carnation on his lapel. He then read a letter from the Darius–Girenas Aero Club of Brooklyn. There were likely many more ceremonies in town that night!

The Cub known as the Falcon began its career with the LRU training pilots and likely towing gliders from the airport at Kaunas and, it seems, at the gliding club at Nida, a small coastal community on the Curonian Spit, a narrow strip of land along Lithuania’s Baltic Coast. When the Russians occupied Lithuania in 1940 as part of the cynical Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of June 1940, the country was forced to become a constituent republic of the USSR—anathema to every red-blooded Lithuanian. The LRU, seen as a nationalist organization, was disarmed and disbanded. The Falcon was then operated by the Lithuanian Aero Club at Kaunas, doing much the same as she did before the Soviet occupation—training future Lithuanian pilots. 

When the Nazis double-crossed their Russian allies in 1941, with the start of Operation BARBAROSSA, the Soviets did not have the manpower to hold on to their Baltic territories. Within a few weeks, the Germans had taken them, incorporating them into what they called the Reichskommissariat Ostland. At first, the Lithuanians welcomed (and even aided) the Germans as some sort of liberators from the repressive and socialist Russians who had arrested, executed or deported to gulags tens of thousands of Lithuanians, even though the Luftwaffe had killed more than 4,000 civilians in their bombing campaign. Always proudly independent, they thought they could win some sort of autonomy from the Nazi regime. It was soon clear that only Nazi sympathizers and puppets would be allowed by the Germans. Then the Lithuanian Holocaust began—the systematic murdering of 95–97% of the 250,000 Lithuanian Jews. 

Shorty after the Germans annexed Lithuania, they shut down any civilian flying and made use of any suitable Lithuanian aircraft including the little Sakala, the Falcon. They painted it white overall and added the swastika on it tail—the ultimate defacing of an aircraft that had been a symbol of support for Lithuania and a gift from its diaspora. She was utilized by the local Reichskommissariat Ostland military command to check the effectiveness of German camouflage from the air. It is likely it also did liaison and courier service with the Luftwaffe.

What happened to this much-loved little bird is not known, but like so much damage that the Nazis did, its story simply would never be heard over the hurricane of suffering that roared around that part of the world. Only one photo of the Falcon as a Nazi aircraft can be found. It’s a bright sunny day, likely not in winter. She is sitting on the ramp in front of a hangar at Kaunas. There are some folks off in the distance near the hangar door, but otherwise she is alone with her misery. She represents all that is good and proud about Lithuanian nationalism, but she is forced to wear the symbols of iniquity and malice. I doubt she is happy.

Only a single photograph of the much-loved Sakala or Falcon in Luftwaffe markings seems to exist and is shown here. The aircraft, according to the profile drawing that follows, was painted in arctic white with a single yellow band around the aft fuselage (perhaps a remnant of her previous paint) and no Stammkennzeichen markings or identification whatsoever. This certainly matches with this photo. The only thing that appears different is that in the photograph, the nose appears to be painted a darker colour, but that could be because the engine cowling may be off. It’s hard to tell. The overall white scheme makes sense given that it may have done observation and liaison missions on the German–Russian front. According to one FlightSim site I have visited, the Cub was flown by Lithuanian pilots for liaison, counter-insurgency, and rescue operations against the Soviets, whose earlier occupation had enraged the small but fiercely independent Baltic state. In 1944, the retreating Germans destroyed the hangars at Kaunas’ airfield, which they had built to house Heinkel He 111s and Junkers Ju 88s. Photo via plienosparnai.lt

We know that the previous photograph was taken in Kaunas, Lithuania by looking at this image of a hangar at the Kaunas Airport during the war. It is identical to the one in the previous image. Photo via plienosparnai.lt

A port side profile of the former Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union Cub, which had been taken by the Luftwaffe. The aircraft, according to Lithuanian records, had belonged to the Lithuanian Aero Club (Lietuvos Aero Klubas) at the Kaunas Airport in central Lithuania at the time it was commandeered. Illustration by Arvo L. Vercamer via Wings Palette

Like many of the Danish-built Piper Cubs, and in fact many millions of European citizens, the Falcon was swept up by the war caused by Nazi aggression, never to be seen again. A story long forgotten by most of the world, but certainly not by Lithuanian history enthusiasts. I suspect that there are other photos of her in her Luftwaffe markings out there somewhere, and perhaps this article will bring them to light. Perhaps someone knows what happened in the end to this little airplane that stood for so much.

Flitfires over America 

In researching the story of the two Luftwaffe Piper Cubs, I came across the story of the Piper Flitfire. At first I read the Wikipedia entry about the aircraft, found it interesting and then put it out of mind. But it kept popping up every time I did a photo search. I got to thinking that the Flitfire was, along with the purloined Danish and Lithuanian Cubs, perhaps the first of many Piper Cubs that contributed to the war effort—certainly the first of very, very many American Piper L-4 (Grasshopper) Cubs. The Flitfire story is worth telling for that alone.

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In April of 1941, America was still a long way from joining the Second World War on the side of the Allies. Even though many Americans wanted to stay out of the conflict and even some were pro-German, most Americans felt empathy and respect for the people of Great Britain, who for some time now, seemed to be the only Western, non-neutral nation still standing. Even the Russians were just a couple of months away from being dealt a kick to the nuts by their so-called German allies.

There were a number of initiatives across America to raise awareness of Nazi oppression and atrocities and to gather up support for the war effort, even if the country was not at war. Right here in Ottawa, Warner Bros. was in the midst of filming their biggest budget film to date—a sweeping, if more than a little predictable, feature film starring James Cagney called Captains of the Clouds about the massive Canada-wide aviation training program known as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. American aviator and illustrator Clayton Knight had joined with Canadian fighter pilot legend Billy Bishop, VC, and was holding court as the barely-legal Clayton Knight Committee in hotel rooms from Spokane to San Antonio to New York, signing up thousands of young idealistic and adventurous Americans to train as aircrew with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Exactly one year previously, the Nazis had invaded Denmark and inside of 6 hours had brought the small nation to its knees. The Danish Cub Aircraft Co. Ltd. at Lundtofte Airfield in Denmark, an independent Danish distributor and assembly company, affiliated with Piper Aircraft (formerly Taylor Aircraft Company), had been forced to shut down operations. The illegality and injustice of this action was not lost on the management and personnel of Piper Aircraft in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania.

A few months after the invasion of Denmark, the world watched in dread and awe as the plucky fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force not only put up a defence against the mighty Luftwaffe, but managed to defeat them in the Battle of Britain—the first clear defeat of the Nazi war machine. This not only inspired the people of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, but many in the United States who saw the Nazi menace for what it was. One of those people was Piper Aircraft’s president William T. Piper who came up with an idea to raise money in support of the Royal Air Force’s Benevolent Fund—something that was not a military answer, but rather a humanitarian one, and legal in the United States at that time. The RAF Benevolent Fund (RAFBF) was (and is still today) an independent charity created in the First World War to raise money for the families of RAF casualties—at this point in this war, these were largely the widows and families of men killed and injured during the Battle of Britain. 

Piper’s idea was to donate a single Piper J-3 Cub from his assembly line as a prize for a national fundraising program. The Cub was painted silver all over with RAF type-A roundels and fin flash as well as the words Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund on the port side fuselage. This first Piper Cub was registered NC1776 in honour of America’s founding year. He then encouraged Piper dealerships in each of the then 48 states of the union to purchase similarly-painted Cubs from the assembly line to be part of a wider fundraising campaign and then delivered to each of the individual state dealerships to be sold, raffled off or sent out on fundraising tours of their own. All 48 states participated.

NC1776, the first of 49 Flitfire aircraft, was donated by Piper Aircraft and differed from the others in that it was powered by a 65 horsepower Franklin engine (donated by Air Cooled Motors Corporation) and its fuselage carried the words Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund on its port side, whereas the others simply had R.A.F. Benevolent Fund. Its registration number (NC1776) paid tribute to the year America became independent of Great Britain. It is seen here photographed in 1941 at the Piper factory in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. Photo: eaavintage.org

Such was the production speed of the new Piper plant in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania (the previous Bradford, PA factory had burned down in 1937) that all 49 aircraft were completed in just 12 days from 10–12 April 1941. The factory workers took to calling the nimble and doughty little Cubs “Flitfires” for their markings which resembled those used on the RAF’s premier fighter, the Supermarine Spitfire, and the name stuck. All 49 were silver with identical markings. Each was named after the state that had purchased it (Flitfire Georgia, Flitfire Wisconsin, Flitfire Montana, etc.) and together the finished grouping was called the Flitfire Brigade. All funds collected by the sale of the 48 Flitfires to the dealers went to the RAFBF.

The 49 Piper Cub aircraft of the Flitfire Brigade lined up at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania in April, 1941. The 49 identical aircraft were completed at the Lock Haven factory in just twelve days and were flown en masse to New York City for promotional and fundraising events. Photo: eaavintage.org

Piper also conceived of a powerfully visual marketing photo-op and fundraiser—flying the entire Flitfire Brigade from Lock Haven to New York City in a mass military-style Balbo-type formation. On 27 April 1941, NC1776, flown by T.H. Miller of Lehigh Aircraft Co. of Allentown, the Pennsylvanian Piper Cub distributor, took off from Lock Haven and behind him formed 7 flights of seven Cubs, with William Piper flying himself as a line pilot. They flew 110 miles southeast towards Allentown where they landed and refuelled with military precision in front of thousands of spectators, then formed up again for New York City, 80 miles to the east. 

 

“Pilots must maintain same altitude as commander and must not wander” states the formation card handed to the pilots of the mass formation of Flitfires (known as the Flitfire Brigade) flying to New York City. There were 49 in the formation but only 42 are shown here—seven flights of six aircraft. It would seem logical that a balanced formation would have an additional aircraft on the right wing of each flight. The aircraft were flown by Piper factory pilots, who called themselves the Cub Fliers. Photo: Wikipedia

 

All 49 of the Flitfire Brigade Piper Cubs landed at Allentown airport in just 12 minutes. More than 5,000 people came out to see them arrive, refuel and leave. Although the whole entourage was there to raise money and awareness for the RAFBF, William Piper knew a great marketing opportunity when he saw one… or rather created one. Photo: Hans Groenhoff Collection, Smithsonian, National Air and Space Museum

When the mass formation arrived over New York from the west, they first paid a visit to the Statue of Liberty. They made a large looping track up the centre of Manhattan to the George Washington Bridge where they made a sweeping 180 degree turn to the left bringing them back down as far as the Empire State Building in Midtown Manhattan where they turned east to land at Flushing Meadows. Two days later, the aircraft were ferried to LaGuardia in smaller formations. That night the pilots attended a large gala at the airport in their honour and for the benefit of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. Along with festivities, various fundraising activities and a show, the winner of the Flitfire NC1776 raffle was announced and the 1,000-strong crowd that evening raised an additional $12,000 for the RAFBF.

Flitfire NC1776 overflies the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island in April of 1941 for a publicity shot after the mass balbo. Following promotional events in New York, NC1776 and the 48 other Flitfires left the Big Apple and flew to their respective states to be sold by the local dealers. In 1943, NC1776 was utilized by none other than Orville Wright as part of a nationwide war bond tour. Photo: airandspace.si.edu

The following day, the 48 Flitfires left in groups and singly, bound for their namesake states to participate in individual fundraising activities. Some offered flights to raise more funds, others were raffled off and a few were sold to flight schools which continued support for the cause by training future pilots for the war effort. NC1776 toured the entire country, flown in turn by several pilots, the most notable of which was Orville Wright.

Like veterans returning home to join normal society after the war, the Flitfires, disappeared into the general aviation community after 1945, losing their distinctive paint schemes and turning to a more private life in aviation obscurity. Only a small number of the original Flitfires are known to exist today, but as the story emerges, some have been repainted in their silver Flitfire livery, including the original Flitfire NC1776, Flitfire Wisconsin, Flitfire New Jersey and Flitfire Indiana. They represent a unique period in American aviation history and are the first of many Piper Cubs to “fight” in the Second World War. 

Flitfires lined up at LaGuardia Airport on 29 April 1941 as a DC-3 takes off. Photo: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Flitfire California at Burdett Airfield, Los Angeles in 1941. Photo San Diego Air and Space Museum, Albert Hobart Collection

Very few Piper Cubs actually did fly for the Royal Air Force during the Second World War—a lot fewer than the 49 RAF-marked Flitfires. A small group of nine Cub L-4Bs were taken in Lend-Lease by the RAF for evaluation, but they had a perfectly good light liaison aircraft in the Taylorcraft Auster, a much modified Taylorcraft developed for the RAF. The RAF operated the bulk of the 1,630 Austers built. They did, however, impress into service a few mixed aircraft at the beginning of the war such as this Piper J-4 Coupe, the side-by-side seating variant of the J-3 Cub. Here we see ground crew tying down Piper Cub DG667 of 651 Squadron, an Auster Air Observation Post Squadron at RAF Larkhill… while the pilot gazes upon their work. We can see one of their Austers in the distance. The Cub was formerly registered as G-AFXS. Photo: Wikipedia

Only a dozen of the original 49 Flitfires are known to exist today, some of them in their original RAF livery and Benevolent Fund markings, such as Flitfire Wisconsin seen at the Rickenbaker Airport in Columbus, Ohio in 1991. Photo: Wikipedia

The first Flitfire, NC1776, has been fully and meticulously restored and is now on display at the North Carolina Aviation Museum in Asheboro. Photo: Wikipedia

 

Epilogue

After the Second World War, the Allies knew that a strong Luftwaffe was in their best interest, and so the historic air force was allowed to reconstitute itself along modern lines—an important NATO partner. They re-equipped with modern Western aircraft as their aviation industry had been destroyed and much of its advanced technology taken by the Allies—some going east, some going west. Piper Cubs would in the 1950s and 60s play a legitimate role in the new Luftwaffe in the form of the Piper Pa-18 Super Cub.  Photo: Wikipedia

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