Tip of The Spear: A Private Pilot
He faced all the risks of World War II aerial warfare that commissioned officer pilots encountered – enemy fire, crash landings and perilous flights over enemy territory – and this USAAF private made it home safely, with an Air Medal and Oak Leaf cluster to boot!
“Private” Sabo with two mementos of his time as a pilot during World War II: an A-2 leather flight jacket and a wooden propeller from a liaison aircraft. The engine of the Stinson L-5 Sentinel he piloted during the war developed 185 horsepower and could attain a maximum speed of 130 mph.
September 1942. Sabo with his Piper L-4B Cub (VX-V of the 109th Observation Squadron, 67th Observation Group) at Membury, England. This aircraft would soon be replaced by the Stinson L-5 Sentinel.
June 29, 1945. Loaded with returning veterans, the RMS Queen Elizabeth arrives in New York Harbor. The liner provided invaluable service to the Allies as a troop transport during the war and emerged unscathed by enemy action.
Albert S. Sabo of Dover, Arkansas, was a private pilot – but not in the usual sense of the term. He was a pilot during World War II, and private was his rank during most of his time in the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF). In a service where officer pilots were the norm, Sabo’s story is of interest because it reveals a little known aspect of Eighth Air Force activity in Britain.
Sabo was already an experienced civilian pilot when he enlisted as a private in the USAAF in May of 1942. Upon arrival for basic training at Keesler Field, Mississippi, he was told his previous flying experience qualified him for immediate classification as a Rated Pilot. On August 20, Sabo received an order approving this classification, but the order made no mention of either a promotion or a transfer to Officer Candidate School. Ten days later – and with still no news of promotion – Sabo was in New York aboard the troopship RMS Queen Elizabeth headed for an undisclosed destination that turned out to be Gourock, Scotland. From there, he and several other pilots assigned to the Eighth Air Force continued on to Membury, the Berkshire Airfield home of the 67th Observation Group.
Flying a variety of aircraft on loan from the Royal Air Force, the 67th was required to undertake various nonoperational duties, including liaison flights between Eighth Air Force bases. These liaison flights increased significantly in September following the arrival of 28 crated Piper L-4B Cubs that were to be assembled, flown and maintained by a select group of pilots that included Private Sabo.
In the fall of 1943, Sabo learned that liaison pilots were being trained by Army Ground Forces (AGF) to fly air observation post aircraft for the field artillery. Similarly, the USAAF was training liaison pilots to fly light aircraft on the kind of duty in which Sabo was engaged at the time. But unlike AGF liaison pilots – most of whom were also forward artillery observers, and therefore commissioned officers – USAAF liaison pilots graduated as staff sergeants. Nevertheless, Sabo was still only a private when some of the new-style noncommissioned officer “Lpilots” arrived at Membury. Their arrival was connected with the decision to restructure existing observation squadrons, most of which became tactical reconnaissance squadrons. Others, including the 153d, to which Sabo was now reassigned, became liaison squadrons. While remaining under Air Force control for administrative purposes, liaison squadrons were to be attached to AGF Headquarters at army and corps levels for communications and other liaison duties.
In October 1943, Sabo was placed on detached duty with the 56th Signals Company, a unit attached to Headquarters V Corps, First U.S. Army. From a meadow adjacent to V Corps Headquarters (then at Norton Manor, near Taunton, Somerset), Private Sabo flew his “personal” L-4 all over the U.K., carrying priority mail, staff officers, couriers and anyone or anything else requiring transportation between command posts.
Shortly before D-Day, Albert Sabo’s L-4 was replaced by a Stinson L-5 Sentinel – a more powerful, faster and better equipped light aircraft that was becoming standard equipment for USAAF liaison squadrons. On June 13 (D-Day + 7), Albert Sabo joined forces with six more L-5s for a low-level formation flight across the English Channel to Normandy.
Throughout the Normandy campaign, Sabo led a nomadic existence. Looking back to that period he recalled: “Spares for the aircraft were hard to come by, and bullet holes were patched with whatever we had on hand. We often ate, slept and wrote letters home in our planes, and when it rained or got foggy we slept under a wing. The Germans were always shooting at us, and we had to keep a good lookout in all directions.”
The unit history of the 153d Liaison Squadron reveals that Staff Sergeant Albert S. Sabo of “A” Flight was awarded the Air Medal on July 31, 1944. It appears that for some reason – most likely due to his detachment to V Corps – details of his promotion did not catch up with him, and the accompanying pay raise was hidden by increased deductions and a compulsory savings scheme.
Despite his true grade, it was still as a private airman that Sabo continued to fly hazardous missions. He suffered his first serious crash during the battle for Luxembourg City, but luckily he escaped unhurt. Sabo flew missions during the Battle of the Bulge, followed by missions along the Rhine River, during which his L-5 was once more badly damaged by ground fire. Again luck was on his side and he escaped serious injury.
When promotion finally caught up with Sabo, it was only to the rank of corporal. Yet on February 5, 1945, when Sabo was awarded the Oak Leaf Cluster to his Air Medal, his unit records again showed him as a staff sergeant. Shortly thereafter Sabo was withdrawn from operations. At the same time he received the welcome news that he was now a technical sergeant and that he was to return to the United States for a rest period prior to reassignment.
In March of 1945, Sabo was reassigned to the Third Air Force in the China-Burma- India Theater of Operations, but his orders were cancelled when the war ended. On August 11, 1945, Sabo was discharged from military service, bringing to an end the unique career of a pilot who flew in the uniform of a private for most of his four years with the USAAF.
Ken Wakefield, author of “The Fighting Grasshoppers” and “Lightplanes at War,” is a leading authority on U.S. Army liaison aircraft operations. He served with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, and then later became an airline pilot. Wakefield is now retired but still flies his restored Ninth U.S. Army Piper L-4H cub.