On Christmas Eve 1944, the beleaguered American defenders holding the Belgian town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge were low on everythingexcept courage. An airdrop the night before had brought in some supplies, but the exhausted medics who tended to wounded GIs in dank cellars throughout the down 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. Accoring to the late Somerset County veteran Ernie Cummings, who was in Bastogne with the 101st Airborne, the few medics left had no choice but to amputate the growing number of gangrenous and frostbitten limbs.
LEGENDS & LORE
Em Osborne and the
Warm Mulled Wine
Flew a Piper Cub
By C.G. Wolfe
© The Black River Journal
Back at headquarters, they were frantically trying to get medical supplies through to the besieged town but the foul weather ruined any hopes for another airdrop. Instead, they turned in desperation to some of the smallest members of the American air armada – the single-prop, unarmed Piper Cubs known affectionately as “grasshoppers.’ The Piper Cub was designed in the 1930s and was a popular civilian trainer plane. During the war, it was used for reconnaissance flights and made ideal spotter planes for artillery and armor, but the slow-moving, unarmed grasshoppers were also vulnerable to all types of enemy fire.
At the headquarters of the 28th Division, 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 at night and face heavy enemy fire. They were also warned that there was no airstrip to land on and no lights to guide them in. Every one of the plucky grasshopper pilots stepped forward to volunteer. One who insisted adamantly, was a young lieutenant from far Hills, New Jersey named Kenneth Schley.
As the tiny planes were loaded up with the 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. Shortly after the planes took off, they aborted the risky mission. Schley anticipated the recall; as a precaution, he turned off his radio so that there would be no turning back. Alone, he bounced along through the starless Christmas Eve 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 harrowing minutes under intense fire, he finally reached Bastogne. As promised, he couldn’t see any lights or signs of a landing strip. He buzzed the tow 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 delivered at any cost, he decided to crash land. Just then, a double row of flashlights popped on below, outlining a makeshift landing strip. For the astonished and admiring troopers of the 101st, it was as if old Saint Nick himself had dropped in. For the wounded lying in the cellars of the besieged town, there couldn’t have been a better Christmas present.
Schley spent that night in one of the crowded cellars in Bastogne. He was so impressed with the tenacity of the “Screaming Eagles’ of the 101st that he tried to enlist on the spot. 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 into his grasshopper on Christmas morning and flew back over enemy lines to his unit. For his “gallantry and complete disregard for personal safety” that desperate Christmas Eve, Kenneth Schley was awarded the Silver Star.
The grandson of Far Hills founder, Grant B. Schley, Kenneth Schley bought a farm in Maryland after the war but returned to the Bedminster area in 1965 to manage the family’s vast estate. He remained in the Somerset hills until his death in 2001. A controversial figure at times, he was none the less respected and admired by those that knew him. Ernie Cummings, who was on outpost duty around bastogen when Schley made his heroic flight, met Schley after the war and the two became good friends. “he was just the greatest guy in the world,’ Ernie recalled, “just a nice guy.”
The English Farm, the French Army, and Succotash
By C.G. Wolfe
The English Farm in Liberty Corner, NJ