In 1944, U.S. Army pilot and artillery spotter Charles Carpenter was in France, fighting in the 4th Armored Division of Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army, when he had a crazy idea.
Carpenter strapped three bazookas under each wing of his 1944 Piper L-4H, a frail reconnaissance plane not typically used for combat, flew over the German army and blasted multiple Panzer tanks and armored cars north of the town of Nancy. It earned him the nickname “Bazooka Charlie.”
Carpenter survived the war unscathed and returned home to raise a family and teach high school. But the plane all but vanished. In the U.S., even plane enthusiasts had no clue where it was. Turns out, it never left Europe. For decades, it was flown by various owners in Austria before landing about three years ago in an Austrian museum. As it underwent slight restoration, many thought its flying days were over.
But 75 years later, the Piper L-4H — nicknamed “Rosie the Rocketer” — has found its way to a rural garage near La Pine, where it’s being restored by a retired engineer.
Carpenter’s daughter, Carol Apacki, knows her father’s story as well as anyone, but said she was surprised her father’s plane resurfaced.
“It never occurred to me that the plane would still be in existence,” she said.
The 76-year-old Apacki, who lives in Granville, Ohio, said she knew very little about her father’s war history growing up. She described him as a peaceful man who didn’t want to discuss the war often.
“He had moved on, emotionally,” she said. “I think he came back from the war shattered, and it was a hard time for my mother, too, trying to start her life over again, waiting for four years for him to come home, thinking he never would.”
Apacki said her father even got in hot water for challenging his military superiors about tactical decisions, as he was concerned about unnecessary losses of life. That’s why his media reputation seemed out of character.
“I always adored my dad; he was a great man of peace,” she said. “So to be called ‘Bazooka Charlie’ and all these war monikers is not who I knew as my father.”
Her father was a man who defied the odds.
In 1945, Carpenter was discharged from the Army after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, and wasn’t given more than a couple years to live, Apacki said. But he lived until 1966, spending most of his remaining years teaching high school history in Urbana, Illinois, and running a summer camp in the Ozarks until he died at 52, Apacki said.
Many years later, Apacki came across online discussion of her dad’s exploits with many believing the story of “Bazooka Charlie” was nothing more than a tall tale. Apacki knew otherwise and wanted to prove it to the world.
Using old newspaper clippings and letters Carpenter sent home, Apacki eventually wrote an article for Warbirds Magazine in October 2017. After it was published, Apacki received a call from a researcher working with the Collings Foundation, a Massachusetts nonprofit that preserves historical American aviation and transportation artifacts. The foundation had tracked down “Rosie the Rocketer” in the Österreichisches Luftfahrtmuseum — that’s German for the Austrian Aviation Museum — near the Austrian city of Graz.
Collings bought the plane and shipped it to a man who’s had plenty of experience with restoring classic planes: La Pine resident Colin Powers.
“A lot of people don’t believe what (Carpenter) did; they don’t believe the story,” Powers said. “That’s why I’m so thrilled to be able to do this project, because of its history. So I’ve got to do it right.”
The 83-year-old Powers, who said he’s always had a fascination with airplanes since growing up near Yosemite National Park during World War II, has had a longtime hobby of restoring airplanes. After retiring from 35 years as a mechanical engineer for Hewlett-Packard in Monmouth in 1997, he became the restoration director at the Evergreen Space & Aviation Museum in McMinnville, working on famous planes like the Spruce Goose, until he moved to a rural residence south of La Pine in 2009.
Powers has restored two Piper L-4H planes, the first in 2001. He took that plane to the Dayton Air Show, where he met Apacki. That’s also when Apacki saw the kind of plane her father flew many years before.
“She became very emotional, because she didn’t realize that he had no armor, no protection at all,” Powers said. “She never realized how vulnerable her father was, and what he did.”
The pair have stayed in touch, working together on a display at the Evergreen Museum in 2009 displaying a Piper L-4H and Carpenter’s old military uniforms and newspaper clippings. During the restoration of “Rosie the Rocketer,” Powers has kept Apacki updated on his progress. One day, Powers found a bullet hole in the plane’s wing, and Apacki remembered her father writing in a letter, “My luck is still going, because I got shot at today, and it hit a steeple.”
She said the project has created an emotional bond between the two.
“Colin is such a lovely man,” Apacki said. “He cries when he talks to me. He’s so moved that we’re doing this together.”
Powers’ plans for restoring the plane include structural fixes, like replacing wingtips and a carburetor airbox, placing new polyester fabric on the plane’s body and wings, and having Apacki’s daughter and a graphic designer, Erin Pata, who lives near Santa Barbara, repaint the original “Rosie the Rocketer” logo on the fabric.
“She doesn’t want any other painters on her grandfather’s plane, so she’ll do it,” Apacki said. “Plus, the sentimental part of it is a good feeling.”
Powers said the goal is to have “Rosie the Rocketer” in the air by summer 2020 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and he hopes to fly it. Apacki said she’ll be there, too, with grandchildren in tow.
“We’ll make it a family affair.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7854, firstname.lastname@example.org