L-5 Sentinel on runway

The L-5 Sentinel “flying Jeep” regularly supplied the Boykin Springs military camp.

Editor’s note: The following series explores the Boykin Springs military range and cantonment near the Neches River. During World War II, more than 40 Army Air Corps service members operated the isolated “high altitude precision strategic bombing” proving ground used by hundreds of B-17 “Flying Fortress” aircrews stationed at Alexandria Army Airfield.

“On 20 August 1944, the commanding officer received the report that a bomb had been dropped on Texas Highway 69 a few feet from a service station near Woodville, Texas.”

— Capt. Henry Tinnan, Boykin Springs

By July 1944, the Boykin Springs bombing ranges and landing strip became a separate command within the Alexandria air base hierarchy.

Due in part to its continued importance as the airfield’s only precision bombing range and its remote location, Capt. Henry Tinnan assumed command of the military camp intermittently known as the Zavalla, Boykin Springs or Alexandria Ranges.

Initially 19 enlisted personnel were assigned, but other service members continued to rotate in on temporary duty from the Louisiana airbase to fight fires, install and repair targets and maintain the barracks and vehicles.

The addition of the new landing strip in Texas allowed for a quicker resupply using one of the most versatile aircraft developed during World War II — the L-5 Sentinel.

Sometimes referred to as the “Grasshopper,” it was the only light plane built specifically for military use (meaning not a converted civilian design). Armed with oversized tires, a tubular frame with a short take off and lift capability, it was practically custom-made for the Piney Woods.

As aviation expert Bud Davisson states, “The L-5 is the airplane to be flying when you find you have to go through the trees and not over them.” The four-cylinder, 90-horsepower plane could reach 105 mph and because of its versatility, it became known as the “flyingJeep.”

During the war, they delivered supplies and personnel to the front lines, conducted photographic missions, laid communication wire and served as artillery spotters.

The Sentinel was the first Allied plane to touch down in France after the D-Day invasion (landed on Utah Beach) and later transported captured Field Marshall Hermann Goring, the head of the German Air Force.

Although it is an airplane that will not win any beauty contests (most aviation aficionados agree the plane is downright ugly) but its faithfulness, dependability and ruggedness endeared it to those who flew it.

Throughout the summer of 1944, the fleet of Alexandria Army Airfield-based L-5s made regular runs to the Boykin Springs camp. They carried PX supplies and mail, towed targets for the B-17 gunners and if needed, quickly transported military leadership.

On Aug. 24, two days after a “near bombing” of the gas station near Woodville, an L-5 piloted by Sgt. Stamper carried an investigative officer from Alexandria Field —Capt. William Quigley.

He and Boykin Springs commander Tinnan inspected the errant B-17 bombing between Woodville and Rockland. A year and a half earlier, a Gulf Oil pumping station in nearby Chester was accidently pummeled with a 100-pound practice bomb. For more on the 1943 event, please read the article “Thirty Seconds over Chester.’’

The Chester incident did not warrant a visit by military officers, but when bombs fall near one’s county courthouse, it apparently entails a more formal and visible response. We do not know the exact location of the gas station on Texas Highway 69 that was “almost” hit, but procedural changes were soon made at the Boykin Springs ranges.

Earlier in 1944, “strings of lights had been placed around the 500 foot circle to better illuminate the targets,” but due to the proximately to the nearby East Texas businesses and the confusion of flying at night — additional measures were taken.

The Alexandria Airfield signal officer documented the later modifications and in his after-action report, he not-so-subtlety implies who was at fault.

“The lighting system at the Zavalla Bombing Range has been changed to more plainly differentiate bombing targets from neighboring towns. It is hoped the new layout will cause no confusion and the ‘bombardiers’ (emphasis added) will be able to tell the difference between bomb targets and lights in the vicinity.”

In December, the Boykin Springs airstrip and ranges were rated as being in “excellent condition” as L-5 Sentinels ferried supplies and men from the main base in Alexandria.

During the war, more than 4,000 Sentinels were produced and after hostilities ended, the flying Jeeps saw service in the civil air patrol, search and rescue missions and as trainers for new pilots.

Today only 80 of the “flying Jeeps” are registered to fly in the United States. Of the five planes originally assigned to Alexandria Field and Boykin Springs, we know two were later involved in accidents. In January 1948, L-5 tail number 42-98736 piloted by John G. Conklin crashed at Rogers Airport. The L-5 42-98760 crashed 10 miles southeast of Zavalla on April 18, 1945.

Although hundreds of Alexandria-based four engine B-17 bombers would fly thousands of sorties over Boykin Springs, the utilitarian L-5 Sentinel (albeit smaller in size and numbers) played a pivotal role in Piney Woods wartime aviation.

Col. Eddie Boxx, USAF (ret) is writer for the Heritage Village Museum in Woodville, and is currently working on a book: ‘‘Bayou Bombers: The Untold Story of B-17 Aircrews in East Texas.’’