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Santa Claus Flew a Piper Cub

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Black River Santa

Santa Claus Flew a Piper Cub

By Black River Santa

On Christmas Eve 1944, the beleaguered American defenders holding the little Belgian town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, were low on everything except courage. An airdrop the day before had brought in some supplies but the few, exhausted medics, who tended to wounded GIs in dank cellars throughout the town, had no penicillin and damn little of anything else. When the Germans surrounded the town on December 19, they captured nearly all of the medical personnel and supplies. According to one trooper named Ernie Cummings, who was there with the 101st Airborne, the handful of medics had no choice but to amputate the growing number of gangrenous and frostbitten limbs.

Back at headquarters, they were frantically trying to get medical supplies through to Bastogne but the foul weather ruined any hopes for another airdrop. Instead, they turned in desperation to some of the smallest members of the massive American air armada – the single-prop, unarmed Piper Cub L-4s, known affectionately as “grasshoppers.” The Piper Cub was designed in the 1930s and was a popular civilian sport plane. During the war, it was used for reconnaissance flights and made an ideal spotter plane for artillery and armor, but the slow-moving, low-flying, grasshoppers were also vulnerable to all types of ground fire.

At the 28th Division HQ, volunteers were requested from the ranks of the Piper Cub pilots that spotted for the division artillery. The men were told that they would fly in at night and face heavy enemy fire. They were also warned that there was no airstrip near Bastogne to land on, and no lights to guide them in. Every one of the plucky grasshopper pilots stepped forward to volunteer. One, who insisted the loudest and most adamantly, was a young lieutenant from Far Hills, New Jersey named Kenneth B. Schley, Jr.
As the tiny planes were loaded with vital penicillin, the weather worsened and an icy fog began to envelop the airfield. Back at HQ, the brass was beginning to have second thoughts, and shortly aftr the planes took off, they aborted the mission. Kenneth Schley had anticipated the recall, so as a precaution, he turned off his radio so that there would be no turning back. Alone, he bounced along through the frigid, starless night relying on his compass to guide him to Bastogne. Along the way he dodged bursts of flak, machine gun tracers, small arms fire, and anything else the enemy could throw at him.

After 30 minutes under intense fire, Schley finally reached Bastogne. As warned, he couldn’t see any lights or signs of a landing strip. He buzzed the town several times, swooping down to rooftop level and gunning his engines hoping to be heard but there was still no sign. Determined to get the supplies through at any cost, he decided to crash land. Just then, a double row of flashlights flickered on below, outlining a makeshift landing strip. For the astonished troopers of the 101st Airborne, it was as if old St. Nick had dropped in himself. For the wounded lying in the cellars of the surrounded and besieged town, there couldn’t have been a better Christmas present.

Schley spent the night in one of crowded cellars. He was so impressed with the tenacity of the men of the 101st, he tried to enlist the next morning. When he was told that it was appreciated but not possible, he decided to get back to work. Against the advice of his new comrades and superior officers, Schley hopped back into his Piper Cub on Christmas morning and flew back over enemy lines to his unit. For his “gallantry and complete disregard for personal safety” that foggy Christmas Eve, Kenneth B. Schley, Jr. was awarded the Silver Star.

Schley.png.1bb17230d79c2b9c405b9bd1ed1538d6.png  L_4.jpg.268de69ce0aecef6e0c44cd6b7a339a3.jpg

Lt. Kenneth B. Schley, Jr. (left). A Piper Cub L-4 Grasshopper (right)

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