Thousands of aircraft have been built over the years to perform certain tasks. Some of the planes have become famous by the men and women who have flown them. Others remain famous only amongst the true diehard aviation crowd. The Stinson L-5 Sentinel is one of those aircraft that served a very important role during WWII but like so many others is often overlooked due to its lack of being either a bomber or a fighter. It’s no surprise that the bomber boys and fighter jockeys got so much more attention. Publicity at the time was crucial in keeping the American spirit alive and willing to participate in the fight. That often came at the expense of fantastic stories of bravery and courage amongst those fighting. This little plane has just such a story and it’s one I never get tired of.
The L-5 Sentinel was a liaison aircraft stationed in multiple theaters. It served not only as a liaison but also as a trainer, a spotter, a transporter, and even as a ground attacker in rare instances. The L-5 came after a long line of other observation-based platforms. The US Army Air Corps sent out a design study to compete with the German Fieseler Storch which was first shown in 1937 at the International Airshow in Zurich. The Fieseler was again shown at the Cleveland Air Races four months after the study was completed at Wright Field in May 1938. Stinson won the contract in January 1939 with an initial order of 100 planes. In June 1940 the Model 74 Prototype was completed and test flown but wasn’t accepted by the military until September of that year. The first production model was accepted in September 1941. While Stinson built the L-1 and L-5, there were noticeable differences in fuselage design, engine capabilities, and cargo capacity. One of the few similarities is that both planes were designed solely during WWII for military purposes and neither had civilian counterparts. At the time of this writing, March of 2015, only five L-1s exist with the only flight-worthy example being at Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, FL
A 75hp and a 80hp, the predecessor of the L-5, were tested at Wright Field as an observation platform in March of 1940. The Stinson HW-75 was marketed as the 105 in 1939 but in 1940 the plane was upgraded from its 75 horsepower engine to an 80 horsepower four-cylinder design and marketed the Model 10 with the 80hp engine being standard. In August of 1940, Stinson became a subsidiary of Vultee. By late 1941 the Model 10A, now with the 90hp Franklin engine was known as “the Voyager.”
Nine days after Stinson became a subsidiary of Vultee in August 1940, six stock 80hp Model 10’s were ordered by the military under the designation YO-54. However, in June of 1940 a tandem seat Model 75B liaison aircraft had been test flown, re-designed and rejected by the military before the YO-54 trials were concluded. The development of the L-5 as a result had nothing to do with the YO-54. A prototype, the Model V-76, was built as a radical redesign of the Model 75B. While similar in appearances the V-76 was strengthened, enlarged, redesigned or reconfigured in some way. The wing area and air foil were the only parts that were the same as the Model 75B. It was this plane that passed the requirements. It was accepted in December 1942, as the O-62, with a pilot and an observer in tandem seating, which was considered ideal for the observation platform. In April 1942 the Liaison category was created and the O-62, whose contract was finalized January 7th 1942, was delivered as the L-5.
The plane’s primary purpose was liaison work; courier, communication, administration, artillery spotting, and short range observation. The later model L-5B introduced in June 1944 acquired another non designed role, medical evacuation. Due to the various roles the V-75B was designed for, management and employees referred to the plane as the “Flying Jeep” and the name stuck! Later models modified in the Burma theatre between 1942-1944 had wing racks installed allowing for external loads to be carried. Between December of 1942 and September 1945, 3,590 were built with the improved six-cylinder 190-horsepower Lycoming O-435-1 engine with the exception of the L-5G introduced in July 1945 now using the O-435-11. It was the second most built observation platform of the war behind the Piper L-4 Cub.
The L-5 became a standard workhorse for the Army Air Forces. The various roles that defined the plane were themselves defined by the theater of operation they were flying in. In the European Theater a more administrative role was assumed with the flying of officers between basses, communications, messengers, couriers, traveling between HQ, Corps or division posts. Generals and other high brass officials liked the plane as a transport between bases. In the Pacific Theater the L-5s would bring medical supplies to forward areas and then return with wounded men. It would observe forward positions and radio them back to artillery positions or to the GIs about to come under enemy fire. L-5’s assigned to Marine units were used solely for artillery observation. The USAAF and US Marines used the L-5 in the European, Pacific, and Far East theaters in WWII. While 306 L-5’s were ordered by the US Navy during WWII, they were handed over to the Marines and never flown by the Navy until after WWII. The L-5 was also used in Korea during the Korean War. The roles of this little plane seemed to be endless and thus also was the courage of the pilots who had to constantly fly them. These planes had no guns, had no advantage in a dogfight, they couldn’t fly at high altitudes or high speeds. They were constantly under enemy ground fire. Needless to say, while the L-5 had an important job it was not an easy job.
In 2011 at EAA Airventure Oshkosh, WI, I had the great fortune of meeting Chris and Jerri Bergen, the owners of Lady Satan Bureau 02766, a beautifully restored L-5 that had an amazing history behind it. At the time I was working for Warbird Digest and was covering a story on the plane without any real knowledge of its history. After initially finding the plane parked outside Warbird Alley behind the reenactors area, I spent much time talking with Chris and Jerry and learned the amazing story of the plane and the pilot. This particular plane was flown by a then 93-year-old veteran named Tom Rozga at Iwo Jima. He flew the real Lady Satan, Bureau 02757 during the invasion of the island of Iwo Jima as a forward observer. The Bergen’s Lady Satan was restored in honor of Tom including bazookas under the wings and his favorite cigarettes in the windshield. Chris and Jerri also have the original logbooks that show Tom’s signature along with the date and type of mission flown in their plane. A third L-5 owned at the time by Duncan Cameron, Bureau 02747 was also a combat veteran from Iwo Jima. All three were designated OY-1 by the Navy. Tom was at Oshkosh that year as an honored veteran on the panel. His whole family was there in attendance which prompted a photo shoot with everyone. There were 42 members of the immediate and extended family present for Tom. It was truly an impressive sight. This one little gem in the aviation world is merely a taste of the history that endures today. While not the fanciest, not the fastest, and certainly not the biggest; the importance of what this plane did and what Tom did is unbelievable.
Images Captured with Nikon D3, 24-70 AF-S f/2.8, 70-200 VRII, SB 900 Flash, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film