Piper L-4 vs MesserschmittME-109

In September, 1943 the Allies invaded Southern Italy at Salerno . The 36th Division landed and fought a bitter campaign against the German forces. In December the 36th was locked in a deadly fight in the Liri Valley and in the mountains surrounding the valley. Staff Sgt. James Stegall was flying a Piper L-4 directing artillery fire on German positions on Mt. Maggiore when he had an unexpected encounter with a ME-109.

The L4 / ME-l09 Incident

Notes of Major James R. Stegall - Retired United States Army

Italy - Early Morning - December l943

The 36th Division was making the initial assault on Mt.Maggiore. I was flying an observation plane, an L4, along with an observer and directing artillery fire on German positions. There were plenty of targets to fire upon as the assault by the 36th caused a lot of activity on the German side. Their artillery was firing at our troops which allowed us to fire on their positions. We were so engrossed in our adjusting and firing that we were lax on watching for enemy aircraft. Suddenly, something slammed into the side of the plane. I looked to the left and saw white tracers flying by close to the plane and red tracers out toward the end of the wing. I immediately put the plane into a steep dive, diving as hard as I could toward the top of the mountain range to get close to the ground where I could use evasive maneuvers to keep from being hit again. The ME-l09 circled east and out into the valley, I circled inside of his turn. I saw him turn back toward me and I thought I was a dead duck! He circled back but did not fire at me. Instead, he slowed his aircraft and flew up right beside me. Here was this ME-l09 with the Iron Cross on the side and Swastika on the tail almost flying formation with me. We looked at each other. I didn't signal or wave and neither did he. Frankly, I was too scared to wave. He then flew on off to the north. I flew south skimming the top of Mt. Lungo and back to our landing strip. The engine and aircraft were shaking, not from fright, but because some of the fragments had hit the propeller. After we landed, we found that a 20 millimeter projectile had blown away three quarters or more of the left wing strut yet it held together as we dived hard and were able to continue flying. Fifty caliber bullets had hit toward the end of the wing. The propeller was riddled as was the left wing and had to be replaced. The main lift strut had to be replaced so we cut out the part hit by the twenty millimeter shell. I still have it in my possession.

Notes of Fred Houston: Mr. Houston was in the 36th Infantry and witnessed this incident from the ground. This letter was written to James R. Stegall.

Tuesday, August 1, 2000
Dear James,
This is a story that happened about 57 years ago in Italy. Never dreamed that I would meet the principal actor in this situation.
Last year Lyndon Stuckey invited me to meet with other Vet's at HEB Grocery on Thursdays. Last week we were talking about piper cubs and I told them about an incident in 1943 where a German Messerschmitt got after an artillery spotter plane.
James Stegall came in and I was introduced to him. Later he showed us a piece of his plane he flew in Italy, with a 20 MM hole in it plus a picture of himself beside the plane. After listening to him I decided this was very much like my previous story. After a few questions I determined it was the same event.
This Messerschmitt got after him and flew over our position in a small village west of HY6. The Piper Cub headed for Mt. Trochio, a small mountain shaped like an inverted ice cream cone. The Cub flew clockwise around it with the Messserschmitt right behind him. The Messerschmitt was throttled down so that you could nearly see the blades of the propeller. The Cub started another circle around the mountain with the German in hot pursuit. When the Cub got to the south side of the mountain he dropped down low to the ground with wheels barely off HY6 headed south and safety. The Messerschmitt flew back West toward German lines.
Fredrick W. Houston

After Sgt. Stegall landed his aircraft he immediately jumped into another L-4 and flew off to continue his mission. He relocated the German gun positions and they were knocked out. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions and given a field commission promoting him to Second Lieutenant. He was also a participent in the actions on January 20 - 21 1944 at the Rapido River. He returned to the States in February 1944 and although the Silver Star was awarded to him upon his return the field commission did not follow him out of the European Theater. He did not know about the promotion until after he had completed Officer Training School and was a commissioned a Second Lieutenant, Field Artillery.

Lt. James Stegall - Stateside 1944 with L-4

James Stegall with blown out strut July 2000

Exit wound on L-4 strut.

Entry point of 20mm shell through L-4 strut.

L-4 at Texas Military Forces Museum - Camp Mabry - Austin, Texas

ME-109 G-6 captured in Sicily 1943

Mt. Lungo and the Liri Valley. It was here that Sgt. James Stegall and his tiny unarmed Piper L-4 observation aircraft met up with the fearful Messerschmitt ME-109 fighter plane. The Piper L-4 had a top speed of 85 mph. The 109 could fly at 387 mph and was armed with two 7.92 mm machine guns on the nose as well as a 20 mm cannon in each wing.

Mt. Maggiore taking artillery barrage from the 36th Division - December 3, 1944

Sgt. Stegall was directing artillery fire from his L-4 observation aircraft at this time.

Smoke shells on Mt. Lungo

The German Winter Line

Gignano Gap - Southern Italy

December 1943

Newspaper Article in "Austin Statesman" 1944 describes incident


More of James Stegall's Memoirs

S-Sgt. Stegall's memories of Salerno

Laision Pilot for the 7th Infantry Division, Korea 1950-1951

From the Yalu to Hungnam: Korea, 1950

James Stegall went to Korea with the 7th Infantry Div. in September, 1950 where he participated in the Inchon Invasion, the push to the Yalu River, the retreat south when he crash landed near the Chosin and walked out with the 92nd FBn and the 1st Marine Division for the evacuation at Hangnam Harbor. He then fought with the 7th from Pusan to the 38th Parallel until September, 1951 earning another Silver Star, the Distingushed Flying Cross, as well as various other decorations.

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Other Links

L-4 Link ("Janey" at Anzio)

Texas Military Forces Museum - The History of the 36th Division in World War 2

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