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A WWII F6F Navy Fighter Pilotís Experiences
The following is an account of a combat fighter pilotís experiences
during 1944 and 1945 in the Pacific. This includes accounts of various
missions, attacks and dogfights as well as the stress of flying alone for
hours in "pea soup," friends being shot down, and the pilot's own experience
"in the drink" and learning that your true worth is 10 gallons of ice cream.
In the appendix is an eyewitness account by G. Shannon of Norm's water landing
and the efforts to save him. Norm and the man who dropped him life rafts were brought
together, sixty years after the event, by this article on www.battleofsaipan.com!
After graduating from Pensacola Naval Air Training Station 30 May 1944, I was ordered to Melbourne, Florida for operational training in the F6F Hellcat fighter. Near the end of training, the Navy instituted a new policy of sending combat teams as replacements to the fleet rather than single pilots. The teams would have the advantage gained by flying together as a group before being integrated into an air group in the combat zone. My instructor John A. McBrayer, had been on the USS Wasp when it was sunk in 1942. He was being sent back to the Pacific and asked me to be his wingman. He also chose Jack Auerbach, Sig Bajak, and Neil McLean from his class to form his combat team. The idea of 5 pilots to a combat team was to always have a replacement pilot in reserve.
Early in September we qualified for carrier landings aboard the USS Sable in Lake Michigan. From there we were sent to the West Coast for further assignment. In San Diego we bearded a "jeep" carrier for transportation to Hawaii. From there we flew to Guam on a DC-3 where we picked up fighters to transfer to the fleet.
On 1 December 1944 each of us packed our gear, placed it inside the fuselage of the plane we were to fly, and prepared to join the Fleet at Ulithi Lagoon.
Because the weather was marginal for a part of the distance, a multi-engine transport was assigned as a navigational aid in the event we encountered trouble traversing the storm. The Ulithi Group is situated some 460 Nautical Miles southwest of Guam. With the exception of McBrayer, this was our first extended, over water flight.
We were in and out of the clouds for most of the distance. Finally, about 50-75 miles from Ulithi we encountered the Fleet heading for Ulithi Lagoon. As we neared, the blinker on one of the Carriers signaled "PC", which stands for "Prep Charlie" and means "prepare to land." The carrier turned into the wind and we entered the landing pattern and were taken aboard.
We were informed we had landed aboard the USS Hornet, present domicile to Air Group 11 (GAG-11). That night we finally dropped anchor in Ulithi Lagoon. Entering the Lagoon the ships followed, one by one in single file. It took several hours for the whole Fleet to navigate the channel and drop anchor. That was a sight I will never forget. I looked forward and saw at least six ships ahead of the Hornet. As I looked back, I saw ships in a line that disappeared in the distance, hidden by the curvature of the earth. Every time we returned to Ulithi the sight of such a mighty Fleet would transfix me.
The Ulithi Group comprised several islands. They had been inhabited by native islanders before the war. As the United States moved westward in its island-hopping war with Japan, it became apparent that the Ulithi Group presented one of the best anchorages in this part of the World. The islanders had been transplanted to other islands, and these commandeered, as the Fleet Anchorage, where ships could be repaired and provisioned for extended forays into controlled territory, to the west. During the next few days, I became aware that two Navy Hospital Ships were semi-permanently anchored here. These were to take care of battle casualties, and to stabilize the more serious cases before they were flown out to Pearl. I also saw a floating drydock which was enormous. It appeared to be large enough to accommodate everything up to a Cruiser.
Falalop island served as Naval Air Station for the Fleet. It boasted a beautiful long runway, sufficient in length, to handle any plane in existence at that time. All Combat Air Patrol missions, and all transport flights were handled from the Operations building next to the runway. The island also served as a storage area for aircraft brought to the forward area by merchant ships. When needed these planes could be manned by Carrier Pilots and flown aboard as the Fleet departed for upcoming raids.
4 December 1944 our team and two others were transferred to the USS Essex. The Essex had been hit by a Japanese Kamikaze pilot just before returning to Ulithi. The Kamikaze had dived at the deck approximately at the position of the island. As he approached the deck he had been hit by antiaircraft fire from the Essex. The hits caused his flaps to come down. The extended flaps gave his plane just enough lift so that he hit the port side of the carrier, tearing up a portion of the flight deck and the port catwalks. If his flaps had not extended he would have hit the center of the deck, and probably destroyed the Essex.
When repairs had been completed on the various ships, fresh provisions laid aboard, and the magazines filled with bombs, rockets and shells the 3rd Fleet was ready to move. On 7 December 1944, we pulled out of Ulithi and headed for the Philippines. It was difficult to realize that just three years before the Japs had left the United States reeling from the Pearl Harbor attack. Now we were heading out to punish them in their own back yard.
Air Group 4 was assigned to the Essex at this time. It was an old line Air Group, which had served aboard the Saratoga in peacetime. As indoctrination into the group, I flew a Combat Air Patrol, and had my first carrier landing under combat conditions.
The fighters of Air Group 4 were assigned to conduct a Fighter sweep over the Island of Leyte on 12 December 1944. A sweep is designated as a flight over enemy territory looking for targets of opportunity. In contrast, a strike is assigned a specific target. The only specific target for the day was the Ormoc Bay .
We took off shortly after dawn. The weather was overcast, with a ceiling of about 1,000 feet, and impending rain. After the join up we received a signal to form a line abreast in order to test fire our machine guns. As an omen of what was to come, try as I might, I could only get one gun, out of the six, to fire. This should have been sufficient grounds to abort my flight. However I was anxious to get my first combat mission out of the way, and thought, one gun is better than none. So I stayed with the formation as we began to climb through the overcast. We hadn't been climbing long, until I noticed my Cylinder Head Temperature approaching 275 degrees Centigrade. Above 275 C. the engine is overheated and begins to sputter and conk out. I opened the Cowl Flaps and enriched the Mixture, trying to cool the engine. I could only do this for a few seconds at a time, because the man on whom I was flying wing, began to pull away from me in the clouds. I kept up with this routine until we were at about 20,000 feet. The clouds became more dense and in order not to lose the plane I was flying with, I was unable to open the Cowl Flaps or enrich the mixture. I flew on hoping the engine would hold until we were above the instrument weather. A few minutes later, a division came into view, climbing up and into my starboard wing. In order to avoid a mid-air collision, I pulled up sharply. At that instant the engine conked out, and the rest of my division left me behind.
We had been climbing at a steep angle, and were only a few knots above stalling speed. The combination of the sharp pull up and the failure of the engine precipitated a stall. I was like the proverbial one-armed paper hanger trying to cool the engine and get it restarted, as well as recover from the stall. I made a partial recovery, but pulled up too sharply and entered a second, higher speed stall. I realized I was involved in a very dangerous situation known as "progressive stalls." Progressive stalls develop when the recovery from the first stall is incomplete, because the pull up has been too sharp. The wing then stalls out again at a higher speed. If recovery from this stall is also attempted before attaining sufficient airspeed in the recovery dive, a third stall is the result, and so on. Each stall occurs at a higher air speed. If not corrected soon enough, the speed required to recover would be so high that the pilot would either pull the wings off,.or run out of altitude. After my second stall, I finally made a complete recovery. By the time I had recovered from the stalls and got the engine restarted, I was at 8,000 feet. Recovery had been complicated by the fact that I was on instruments in thick clouds.
I began to climb slowly, to prevent overheating the engine again. I needed to gain altitude in order to receive the ZB-YE signals from the Essex and know which way to head home. The ZB-YE is an ultra high frequency signal broadcast from the carrier. The signal is a line of sight transmission. This means, the greater the distance between pilot and carrier, the greater the altitude he must attain to insure that he is not below the curvature of the earth, and unable to receive the line of sight transmission.
The Z.B.-YE sends out a coded signal, a different letter of the alphabet for each 15 degree segment in a 360 degree pattern. Each day the letters are changed, to foil any enemy attempt to locate the Fleet if the code were to be recovered from a downed plane. The pilot listens to the code for each letter in the 360 degree circle, determines which segment has the greatest intensify, and flies the reciprocal bearing indicated on the circle to arrive at the Carrier.
As I passed through 17,000 feet, the clouds thinned out, and I was in a huge open area with clouds all around me. I saw two planes headed toward me. I thought they might be Japs, so I took my one gun off safety and prepared to fight. Shortly before they passed over me, I saw they were two F6F's. I immediately went into a vertical turn, in an effort to join up on them. By the time I had completed my turn they had disappeared into the wall of clouds, and I was alone.
There had been no opportunity to record the headings and times on each leg flown after we left the Essex, so I had been unable to keep a navigation log, and had no idea where I was. We had headed east after takeoff and the gun check, so I had the feeling I was still some place east of the Fleet. I listened to the Z.B.-YE, and the reciprocal of the strongest signal indicated I was west and should fly east to find the fleet. My intuition still told me that I was east of the Fleet and should fly to the west to intercept my carrier. I then had to make one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. Should I believe my instruments or my intuition? If the Z.B.-YE was wrong, or I had read the signal incorrectly, I would be flying east to a watery grave. My training paid off and I selected the course to the east. As I progressed eastward, I made a gradual letdown, hoping to break out below the overcast. The radio signal became stronger, as I flew, so I knew I was headed in the proper direction.
I broke out of the overcast at about 1,200 feet, but could see no ships. My view was partially blocked by low scud. At last, I spied a gray silhouette at a distance of several miles. As I approached the gray form, more ships appeared. I saw a carrier and headed for it. As I passed over, I checked the number on the Flight Deck and identified it as the Hornet. I had a diagram of the relative positions of the ships in the Task Group, so I knew where to look for the Essex. As I entered the traffic pattern and let down for a landing I thanked the Almighty and heaved a sigh of relief.
After I landed, the ship continued into the wind, and every few minutes another plane, or two made a landing. The sweep had been a total disaster. Most of the planes became separated in the dense overcast, and eventually made it back to the fleet. The Flight Leader and his wing-man thought they had made it over Leyte, but found the overcast was so low they were unable to get below, and so returned to base. We were extremely lucky, all of our planes returned. Some pilots from other carriers were lost at sea.
The Army and Navy were preparing for the invasion of Lingayen Gulf north of Manila so the Fleet moved up off the east coast of Luzon in order to deliver softening up attacks on the installations around Lingayen Gulf.
For the next few days we flew strikes and sweeps against installations at Cabanatuan, Tarlac, Angeles, and San Fernando just north of Manila. Attacks were made on military concentrations, railway junction points, trains and tracks. Anti-aircraft fire was intense around the areas of attack. Air opposition was much less than we had expected. Some enemy planes were destroyed in the air, and a few on airfields. Our tight formations made it difficult for enemy planes to get in telling attacks. Only a few of our pilots recorded individual kills. The majority of enemy planes destroyed were recorded as group kills where two or more planes participated in the destruction of a single plane.
A couple of days later, we were scheduled for a pre-dawn launch. This was to be a catapult shot. None of us had experienced a catapult-assisted take off before. A pre-dawn catapult shot was something we all pondered with a little trepidation.
The night before, the Catapult Officer gave us a briefing on the operation of the catapult. This was in the era before steam catapults. Compressed air catapults were in use on all the carriers. A powerful ram pushed a plunger in a cylinder to compress the air. The pressure attained was so great that a 12,000 pound plane plus fuel and armament would reach flying speed at the end of the 100 foot run.
We were instructed to pay close attention to the signals given by the deck handler with his lighted wands, and to meticulously obey each signal. After the plane had been fastened into the launch harness, the deck handler would pass control to the Catapult Officer. The Catapult Officer would signal the pilot to lock the tail wheel, lower wing flaps, and run the engine up to full power, then remove his left hand from the throttle and grasped the lower end of the instrument panel. This was to prevent inadvertent retardation of the throttle as the sudden acceleration of the plane pushed the body and arms back against the seat. The right hand was to remain on the control stick, and the elbow braced against the stomach. This was to prevent the stick from being inadvertently pulled back with the sudden acceleration. When the pilot felt everything was ready, he was to signal the Catapult Officer with the left hand AMD again grasp the lower portion of the instrument panel, as he waited to be launched.
All went well with me until I left the carrier deck. On the deck the wands and some small additional lights carried by the deck handlers, gave off sufficient light to present a reasonable frame of reference. Immediately after shooting off the end of the carrier, I had no reference but my instrument gages glowing in the dark. For a moment, I experienced intense vertigo. That soon passed as I locked my vision on the instruments. The sky was inky black with a low overcast and a light drizzle. It was a very interesting join up of twelve planes in the dark, after a catapult shot, which, for four of us was a totally new experience.
A few days later the Carrier Task Group withdrew from the east coast of Luzon to meet with the Fleet Tankers, in order to refuel. Refueling was an interesting process. A large tanker would come alongside the carrier and pass the refueling lines over to the carrier. Gasoline would then be pumped into the carriers tanks. At the same time a destroyer or cruiser would pull along the free side of the carrier, to receive fuel from the carrier. Frequently a destroyer or cruiser would pull along the free side of the tanker and all three would be fueled simultaneously by the tanker. That presented a picture long to be remembered.
After refueling, we returned to our position off the East Coast of Luzon. A few more days of strikes and sweeps, and we received word of an impending hurricane. We retreated to the open sea to ride out the storm. This turned out to be the Great Hurricane of 1944.
As the storm approached McBrayer's group was flying CAP above the Carrier Task Group. The wind was picking up, the sea rising, and the clouds lowering. Finally we received the signal to land. By this time the waves were from 40 to 50 feet in height (from crest to trough). The ceiling had lowered to about 1,500 feet, and the wind was approaching gale force. Our landings were something to remember. As I approached the carrier the deck was pitching 40 to 50 feet at the stern. I was extremely careful to make my best approach. Finally I was at the "cut" position about 20 feet above the deck. The SO gave me the "cut" and I pulled off the throttle. Just at that time the stern of the Carrier dropped down into the trough of a wave. Suddenly the deck was about 70 feet below me. In an attempt to correct and not stall out too high, I dropped the nose of the plane a little more than normal. At that instant I saw the deck rising as the stern came out of the trough. I pulled the stick all the way back and stalled out, hoping not to hit the deck with too much force. Well I hit the deck and it felt like I was going down and out the bottom of the plane. After being released from the arresting gear, I pulled forward and parked the plane. Checking the plane I found I had blown two tires and wrinkled the fuselage. After the four of us had landed, we found each plane had two blown tires, and two had wrinkled fuselages. However, compared to others we were lucky.
As I stood in the island, watching the rest of the planes land, I saw one plane fly by the SO platform to get a "wheels down check." The SO waved him off because his wheels were only partly extended. The pilot was advised by radio that if he couldn't get his wheels fully extended, he would either have to land in the water or bail out. A successful landing in those waves would have been virtually impossible. So the pilot elected to climb to the base of the clouds (1,000 ft.) and bail out. He made a turn and flew parallel to the Carrier, opened his cockpit hatch, stood up and pulled his ripcord. The chute opened, but in dragging him out of the cockpit the chute induced his body to act like a pendulum. He hit the waves as his body was moving forward to the nadir of the arc. The force with which he hit the water must have rendered him unconscious, because he sank beneath the waves, never to be seen again.
The pilot of that plane was Johnny Colza, a Utah boy, whose parents ran a little market near the intersection of 5th East and 17th South in Salt Lake City.
As the storm intensified, everything aboard was lashed or battened down. All usable instruments and other valuable gear were removed from the planes with the damaged fuselages, and they were shoved overboard.
A couple of destroyers, low on fuel, tried to come alongside to take on more fuel to help ride out the storm. After several tries at passing the lines the refueling attempt was aborted. The lines would be passed, but the ships could not hold position and the lines would part almost as soon as passed.
As the day wore on the storm intensity increased. The next two days were wild. No meals were cooked in the mess. Only sandwiches were prepared. All hands were at standby, for use in emergencies. All the hatches were battened down, the watertight doors "dogged" and only by special permission was it possible to open any hatch to get to the area below the Hangar Deck. This was to insure the watertight integrity of the ship.
We received word that one of the other carriers in the Task Group was fighting a fire. The report indicated that some of the planes lashed to the deck had broken loose. As the planes crashed into other planes or ship superstructure, impact produced sparks had ignited gas in the plane's tanks. The crew finally succeeded in getting the fire contained and the damaged planes pushed overboard.
As the ship tried to maintain headway into the storm the rumblings, popping, and cracks heard aboard were awesome. Each time the bow would plow into a wave, the whole structure would vibrate and groan. As the stern rose and the screws came out of the water, another set of vibrations would be set in motion.
At the height of the storm, I went up on the bridge to get a look at how the ship was handling the sea. I had heard tales from old "Salts" about the bad storms they had encountered, in which the waves had been so large that the ship had taken "green" water over the bow. As I watched the ship dive into a trough and then slice up through the crest of a wave, I saw "green" water breaking over the Flight Deck. The Flight Deck normally rides about 70 feet above the water. I was totally impressed, and stood in awe at the power of Mother Nature on a rampage.
During the storm, no one got much sleep; many of the crew were suffering from seasickness, and bemoaning the possibility of sinking. I was lucky. I didn't get seasick, but I did begin to feel a little light headed before the storm subsided.
The end of the storm found the Fleet pretty well scattered around the area. As we reassembled, we became aware that three destroyers had been lost. As near as the "Top Brass" could ascertain, the Destroyers had run out of fuel during the storm, lost headway, broached and began to roll. The rolling had become so intense that the Destroyers probably took water down the stacks, foundered and sank with all hands aboard.
We spent the next few days flying long searches, in an effort to find some debris, boats, rafts, or any evidence of the three destroyers or survivors. Finally the search was called off and the Fleet headed for Alethea. Some of the ships had been severely damaged by the hurricane and had to leave for Hawaii or the States to be repaired. In one instance the bow area of one of the carriers had been "stove in" by the intense pressure exerted by the walls of water through which it had passed. I have forgotten the name of the carrier.
On the trip back to Alethea, we learned that a Marine squadron was to be assigned to the Essex. That meant space would have to be available, and hence, many of the Navy Pilots would have to transfer. We wondered who would be involved, and where we would go. It wasn't long before we learned. McBrayer's, Beyer's, and Lackey's teams were assigned to the USS Wasp to serve with Air Group 81. Others were transferred to various Carriers. The Navy had deployed two Fleets in the Pacific. The Seventh Fleet was made up of most of the older battle ships and the small or "Jeep" Carriers. This Fleet operated with MacArthur's army in areas along the Asian coast and islands in retaking territory in preparation for MacArthur's return to the Philippine Islands. The Third Fleet was made up of the Fast Carriers (Essex Class), Iowa Class Battleships, and the newer and faster destroyers and cruisers. The battle group was designated Task Force 38, and was under the command of Admiral William F. Halsey. Later, when Admiral Marc Mitcher took command of the battle group it was designated Task Force 58, and the Fleet became the Fifth Fleet, under Admiral Raymond Spruance.
It was good to get back to Alethea for a little rest and recreation. During this short interval I was lucky enough to get two trips to Mog Mog Island. The drinks were good and the comradeship wonderful. As I walked along with drinks in both hands, I bumped into a fellow from Evanston, Wyoming. I hadn't seen Jack Pfisterer since his last leave in Evanston in 1942. We had a long talk, and he filled me in on all the news from home. I hadn't had any mail since we left Hawaii, and it was wonderful to hear about home. I guess the reason I hadn't received any was because I was moving faster than the mail. I finally got my first letter in March 1945.
Jack had been aboard the USS Hancock for some time, and his squadron was due to return to the states after our next operation. Little did we realize at the time, that the next operation would be such a bloody one.
The second trip to Mog Mog produced two more friends. Doug Cahoon and Sonny Walker had both been attending the University of Utah in 1939. We had all eaten at Mrs. Jackson's Edgehill Tea Garden. We didn't eat in the Tea Garden, but down the basement where the food was far from Tea Garden quality.
Sonny Walker had joined the Army Air Corps, and was temporarily assigned to the Alethea area as liaison between the two forces. Doug Cahoon was stationed aboard the Essex, but had been on temporary duty.
Doug was trained as a Dive Bomber Pilot. Early in October 1944, the Navy had decided that Fighters could both fight and bomb, so they had taken the dive bombers off many of the carriers. The dive bomber pilots had been put on Falalop to learn to fly the F6F. Doug had completed the short indoctrination, checked out in the F6F and was now ready to return the Essex.
The topic of conversation finally got around to rank. Doug was a Lieutenant Junior Grade and Sonny was a Lieutenant Colonel. Both joined their respective services at the same time. This highlighted the unequal and unfair promotional policies of the two services.
After finishing our drinks and conversation, we espied a tent with a bunch of officers inside. We barged in and damn near fainted when we saw it was filled with Admirals. I guess we looked to embarrassed that they didn't kick us out, but bought us a drink from their stock of premium liquor. Christmas Dinner 1944 was something I shall never forget. I had no idea anything so delicious was even contemplated considering our location and the conditions under which we were operating. I have never had a better meal in any restaurant, no matter how highly rated.
The transfer of the combat teams overloaded the bunk capacity of the Wasp. I was given a cot, placed in the starboard passageway in Officer's Country. It was hard to get any sleep in the passageway, because of the traffic. In the dark, ill-lighted passageway, it was difficult to see, and many times individuals stumbled against the cot and woke me up, hardly ideal conditions. A couple of weeks later, some Officers were transferred and I was assigned a bunk in the starboard bunkroom. This was a pleasant change. At least I started getting a full nights sleep.
All too soon, the time arrived to leave our safe haven and head west toward the enemy. Task Force 38 headed to sea 29 December 1944. We steamed west the rest of the day. That night we learned all the squadrons aboard the various ships were to engage in simulated attacks on targets towed by several types of ships; CIC vectored attacks by one group of planes upon another; and gunnery practice. In addition, the torpedo bombers were to tow targets for the benefit of ship's deck guns. This was to occur 30 and 31 December.
A total of 100 to 200 hundred planes would be in the air at the same time. Communications would be confused, mistakes would be made, and pilots would be killed in mid-air collisions and other accidents. This sort of exercise was practiced each time the Fleet left Alethea, in order to hone the pilot's skills. It was usually such a confused mess that it was more commonly referred to as a "Group Grope."
January arrived, bringing miserable weather and heavily overcast skies. As Task Force 38 headed for Formosa and points west, we were briefed about the operation, and advised to prepare for long, hard days.
Little did we realize how hard the operation would be. During the month we lost, not only a number of good pilots, but also the Air Group Commander John Voorhis, and the Squadron Commander Frank K. Upham.
According to Frank's wingman who followed him down as his plane lost power. Frank made a good "dead stick" water landing and stepped out on the wing, turned to retrieve his rubber raft from the cockpit, when an explosion completely obliterated the plane. It appeared as if Frank had a fire in the wing, which may have ignited his fuel tank, or his bomb and rockets.
In order to clarify the above reference to bombs and rockets it would be best to review the required armament of an F6F Fighter. The F6F was armed with six .50 caliber machine guns, each carrying 400 rounds, for a total of 2400. Ammunition belts were loaded in the following type sequence: 1-armor piercing, l-incendiary, 1-tracer. The tracers helped the pilot maintain the proper lead on the target when firing. In the combat zone, each fighter carried a 500 pound bomb mounted on a pylon beneath one of the wings. It also carried six 5-inch HVAR rockets equipped with armor piercing heads, mounted on pylons beneath the wings.
On this operation pilots would be complying with two new modes of operation. Each would fly two missions per day. If a pilot flew a strike or sweep over enemy territory in the morning, he would fly a CAP (Combat Air Patrol) over the Fleet or over a Picket Destroyer in the afternoon. Conversely, if he flew a CAP in the morning, he would fly a strike or sweep in the afternoon.
Pilots not flying on a particular day would be placed in Condition 1 or Condition 3. Condition 1 required pilots to sit in their planes on the deck, ready to start engines and make an emergency takeoff, in the event of approaching enemy planes. In order to have warm engines, and check any malfunctions that might occur, the pilots would start and run engines every 20 minutes. Condition 3 was a little more relaxed. The pilots would sit in the ready room in full flight gear. They had to be ready to go to the flight deck and man planes, if the pilots in Condition 1 were launched.
The ever growing menace of Kamikaze pilots had increased the amount of protection required by the Fleet, mandating several types of CAP. Usually one CAP would operate at about 20,000 to 25,000 feet above the Fleet. Another would operate at 12,000 to 15,000 feet. At various stations around the Fleet planes, flew a JACK patrols. This was usually conducted at about 2,000 to 5,000 feet. The people flying the JACK patrols would execute a continuous figure eight path in their sector.
The Kamikaze pilots had three methods of approach to the Fleet. Some would fly over at high altitude and drop aluminum foil (Window) in an attempt to distract the high CAP. Others would approach in a shallow dive until over the Fleet, then dive upon a the ships. These usually were destroyed by the ship's guns or the CAP. The third approach would involve a dive from great height to a point just above the water surface, several miles from the Fleet. These planes would have tremendous speed and would stay a few feet above the water until reaching the Fleet. They would then pull up over the screen of Destroyers and head for a carrier or battle ship. This type was the most difficult to destroy, because of the speed of approach, and because they were below the limit of Radar detection.
A Picket Destroyer would be deployed about 50 to 60 miles from the Fleet. As the planes returned from a strike or sweep, they would circle the Picket Destroyer before heading toward the Fleet. A CAP was always on station above the Picket Destroyer. This was necessary because Jap Kamikaze pilots would follow our planes as they returned from enemy territory. These pilots would be low enough and far enough behind our returning planes, that they were hard to detect. The CAP over the Picket Destroyer would usually catch these intruders and destroy them before they could locate the Fleet.
The Fleet usually remained far enough offshore to be out of range of enemy land based planes. Whenever implementing an operation to attack enemy installations, the Fleet would commence a high speed run in (30 Knots) the afternoon before the attack. This would put the carriers within striking range of the targets by launch time the next morning.
Late in the afternoon of the 2nd of January the Task Group began its high speed run in. The skies were overcast, the wind picking up, and a storm was approaching. We were preparing to launch our night fighters, when an incident occurred that was so horrible and sad that it is still etched in my memory. I was standing on the deck beside the island and aft of the launching catapult. The pilot, in the gear, applied full throttle and gave the signal to activate the catapult. At this point all the catapult crew would normally be out of the plane's slipstream and safe. Somehow one of the crew was still behind the plane as it reached full power. The force of the plane's slipstream when combined with the 30 knot wind blowing across the deck unbalanced the crew member and he disappeared over the edge of the carrier into the sea. The waves at that point were so high that it was nearly impossible to distinguish the crewman. The carrier was unable to respond, so a destroyer was designated to attempt a rescue. The destroyer was unsuccessful. All that night, and for many days after, all I could think about was that poor man and what he must have felt as he saw the Fleet pull away, and realized he was to die in the sea alone.
The morning of 3 January dawned with a low overcast, a ceiling of 200 to 300 feet, drizzle and low scudding clouds. This type of weather was typical around Formosa in the winter. Since most of the flying we did in this area was on instruments, I like to refer to this period as my training in the Formosa Instrument Flight School-the best instrument training in the world.
Our assignment was a CAP over the Fleet. After takeoff we circled to join up. McBrayer's engine was malfunctioning so he had to land back aboard. Bajack's plane wouldn't start. This left Auerbach and myself to fly the CAP. After a few circles I contacted CIC and asked for instructions. I was told to climb through the overcast and execute the high CAP. I signaled Jack Auerbach to join up and we headed up through the overcast, which was about 9,000 feet thick. While on station we kept a sharp lookout for enemy planes, but none appeared. At the end of the period we let down through the overcast and landed.
After refueling, Mac, Sig, Jack, and I took off to fly a JACK patrol near the perimeter of the Fleet. As planes returned from strikes on Formosa, no Kamikazes were found tailing them. From the reports given by returning planes, Formosa was a bad place. The antiaircraft fire was heavy and accurate.
The weather on the morning of 4 January was every bit as bad as the day before. This time McBrayer's Division was among the group assigned to fly a strike on Formosa.
After a wet take off, and a sloppy join up, 5 divisions of fighters (20 planes) headed west toward Formosa at an altitude of about 150-250 feet. We continued on course until, out of the drizzle, the high, black, vertical cliffs of the eastern side of Formosa suddenly appeared presenting a barrier to our westward course. At this point the leader made a blunder that might well have killed us all.
In the Navy, flight patterns are predominantly to the port (left) Carrier break up and landing is accomplished by port turns. Formations customarily make turns to port. Pilots become accustomed to this type of operation and handle it with automatic reaction. The clown leading the flight that day made a starboard (right) turn into the flight who were all positioned to execute a port turn. At that moment all became confusion. Formations broke up and planes were heading in all directions. Fortunately no mid-air collisions occurred.
I remained glued to McBrayer's wing, and after a nightmare of swishing wings, fuselages and some near collisions, we got away from the mess. Mac decided to climb through the overcast. He gave me the signal and I moved in until my wing was only 5 to 10 feet from his horizontal stabilizer. As we climbed, I could scarcely see his tail even at that short distance. I had been running low on fuel, and was just about to change tanks when the melee began. Now, I did not dare switch tanks for fear that any interruption in my power would cause me to lose Mac. As I sat with my eyes riveted on Mac's tail, suffering intense vertigo, and waiting for my engine to conk out, we broke out above the cloud deck at about 12,000 feet. Maintaining a rate of climb of 1000 feet per minute, it had taken a little over 12 minutes to climb through the overcast. It certainly felt good to be out of the pea soup. As we circled waiting for more of the flight to come out on top, a couple of Zero Fighters broke out and we headed for them. Immediately they dove back into the cloud cover. Still none of our flight showed up. Once again two fighters appeared. Mac and I were waiting, and pounced on them. We each got off a decent burst. As they dove back into the clouds, we saw smoke trailing them. Finally several more of our flight appeared. We looked around for a hole that would permit us to get down and attack our assigned targets. Finally one appeared. Looking down we could see we were over an airfield. We immediately dove through the hole and began strafing and rocketing the buildings, and planes on the field. The anti-aircraft flak was heavy but none of us was hit. I managed some good rocket hits on a hangar. After the dive we soared back up through the hole in the overcast.
As our fuel was getting low, we joined up and headed for the carrier. We flew above the clouds monitoring the Z.B.-YE until the strength of the signal indicated we were nearing our Carrier. At that point we tightened up the formation and began our letdown. As we broke out of the clouds, the ceiling was about 350 feet. At that altitude, it was a good thing our letdown had brought us near the Carrier. Otherwise the Z.B.-YE might not have guided us in. As we circled the Carrier awaiting our turn in the landing pattern, new perils appeared. Other planes letting down through the overcast came whistling out of the clouds on all sides. After more close calls we finally landed.
Later we learned some of the pilots who did not climb through the overcast encountered shipping targets that they were able to strafe. Although our division didn't hit any shipping, we did chalk up some successes. The field we attacked turned out to be Shinchiku Airfield. From this point, conservation of fuel became a matter of primary concern. Greater distance to targets, and flights of long duration in search for the reported Japanese Task Force, required the utmost in fuel management, to assure a return to the carrier.
The F6F was equipped with three internal tanks: a left and right tank each carrying 87.5 gallons, and a reserve tank with a capacity of 75 gallons. In addition a droppable belly tank of 150 gallon capacity was added to all F6F's. This provided a total of 400 gallons, or roughly 2400 pounds of fuel. Depending upon the power setting, the engine consumed a minimum of 60 gallons, to a maximum of 270 gallons per hour. Therefore, the plane could remain airborne from a minimum of approximately 1.5 hours to a maximum of 6.8 hours.
Original Fighter Doctrine had been to jettison the belly tank upon entering combat, or when the tank was empty. Later it became evident that the difference in performance of the plane, with or without the empty belly tank, was negligible. So belly tanks were to be retained. This certainly helped logistics aboard the carriers, because obtaining and storing a sufficient number of tanks for replacement after each flight was a nightmare.
Start, warm up, take off, and the first few minutes of flight was accomplished utilizing the right internal tank. As air pressure changed with altitude, equalization of tank pressure would cause some fuel to be pumped overboard from all tanks. The F6F fuel system was fitted with a bleed system that directed this excess fuel into the right internal tank. Operating on the right internal tank for the first few minutes provided space for storage and conservation of this fuel.
After 30-40 minutes of flight, the fuel selector would be switched to the belly tank. The belly tank had no quantity indicator, so the pilot had to note the time use began, and mentally calculate when the tank would run dry. As the time approached for the tank to run dry, the pilot had to keep an eye on the fuel pressure gage. As pressure began to drop, the pilot would switch tanks. Timing was very critical. If the pilot failed to note the pressure drop, the engine would quit when the pressure reached zero. Without power, the propeller would windmill until the engine received new gas and began to fire. Not only did this cause a pilot to drop out of formation, but also sometimes an air lock formed resulting in a delayed or difficult engine restart.
5 January, the Task Group steamed south for strikes on Luzon, in the area around Manila and to the north. Reports of a Japanese Task Force, somewhere in the area, had been received by the High Command. The journey south provided both an opportunity to search for the Japs, and another chance to hit what installations still remained relatively undamaged on Luzon.
6 January, McBrayer's Division participated in a strike on Luzon. We encountered no airborne planes. Targets were trains, trucks, coastwise shipping, military depots, and enemy troop concentrations. The weather was clear, which made it easier for the anti-aircraft batteries to do their job. Constant heavy anti-aircraft fire was taking its toll in mental anxiety, as well as in physical casualties. We all came back from that raid, but after landing many of us found shrapnel holes in our planes. The outstanding memory of the day was the display a locomotive creates as it explodes after a burst of .50 caliber machine gun fire.
The next day, as I was flying CAP over the Fleet, other divisions were pounding Luzon again. It was during these strikes that Frank Upham was hit by anti-aircraft fire and lost. No enemy planes approached the Fleet, and the CAP concluded without incident.
Back to Formosa. 9 January, I participated in another strike on Formosa. This was the beginning of a period during which I was not very satisfied or happy. A number of the pilots had lost their wingmen in combat. For some unknown reason, I was reassigned from McBrayer to another pilot. Most of the squadron was made up of former "E" Base instructors. I had been observing their reactions both aboard the carrier and in flight. I concluded that many of them were cocky, egocentric, and stupid. I didn't like most of them. But under these conditions, there was no alternative but to accept my assignment.
Over the East Coast of Formosa, we ran into heavy anti-aircraft fire. As we strafed and rocketed some shipping, a Jap Zero suddenly appeared. As the plane fired and sailed on past, both the man I was flying wing on, and I got a quick shot, but the Jap disappeared into the clouds before we could tell if we had made a kill. By then it was time to head for home. The overcast was heavy, and we had about a 500 foot ceiling. We had not had an opportunity to drop our bombs, so on the way home, this jerk decided to drop his into the sea, rather than take it aboard. At the time of the drop we were about 150 above the water surface. The bomb was armed, and exploded on contact with the water. At the time, I was flying about 800 feet behind this jerk, and the bomb's concussion was so strong I thought I had been hit. He was killed on a mission a few days later, and although I had known him only a short time his loss was very depressing.
Once again the Japanese Fleet became the object of search. It had been reported in the South China Sea, between the Philippines and the mainland. On the night of 9-10 January 1945 Task Force 38 slipped through the Bashii Channel between Formosa and the Philippines into the South China Sea, an area never before invaded by the Fast Carriers of the Third Fleet. It was an eerie night. Communications monitored the Jap radio stations in the area, to determine if our movements had been detected. Once again our luck held, and we entered the area undetected. All went well until an SBD pilot from the "Jeep" Carrier Fleet off Luzon spotted our Task Force. Evidently he meant to speak only to his rear seat man, but instead of using intercom, he broadcast on a radio frequency. When he said: "Man, look at all those carriers! That must be the whole Third Fleet", he caused much consternation among the Commanders of the Task Group. What had been a closely guarded secret, was now broadcast to the world.
For the next two days, long searches, up to the extreme range of 300 Nautical miles were conducted without success. Where was the Jap Fleet? No more reports were received, so on 12 January, Strikes were launched against Saigon, French Indo China, Cape St. Jacques, and any enemy shipping in the area.
McBrayer had raised sufficient Hell to get me back as his wingman for the next few days. So on 12 January, a group of 5 Divisions (20 planes), with me on Mac's wing, set out for Saigon and the coast of French Indo-China. As we approached Saigon, huge columns of smoke were rising from the dock area and from the town, in general. A group from another carrier had been there and taken care of most of the land targets. I was amazed at the lush green area around Saigon. It was beautiful even with the destruction in the center.
We headed back to sea, and north up the coast toward Cam Ranh Bay. As we came abreast of Cape Padaran, we observed a Jap convoy headed north, about 10 miles off shore. The convoy consisted of three destroyer escorts, four troop transports, an oil tanker, and miscellaneous small ships. Our group pounced on this convoy like a charging tiger. On my first run I strafed, and got a rocket hit on one of the Destroyer Escorts. The rocket did not do major damage. It almost missed, but did tear away the railing and part of the deck on the far side. On our next run, Mac and I both got rocket hits on the tanker. By the time we made our third run, all of the ships were either on fire, and sinking, or had been sunk. About the only thing left was the bobbing heads of hundreds of Jap soldiers floating in the water. As we flew away a column of smoke from the sinking tanker rose 8,000 in the air.
The anti-aircraft fire from the Destroyer Escorts was heavy, but not as bad as we had encountered over land targets on Luzon and Formosa. The only scare I had was after our second run, when Mac started to trail smoke as we pulled up for altitude. He was losing power, but after a little effort in the cockpit, he gave the OK signal and we continued. We never did figure out what had happened.
Back with the Task Group, we relaxed with an afternoon CAP. Still no word of the Jap Fleet. The next three days were spent searching for the elusive, or perhaps I should say phantom, Fleet. Those flights were long and tiring. The people who designed the life rafts we carried in the planes must have had sadistic natures. They positioned the CO2 inflater bottles so that they occupied a position just below the bone in the human rear end. After about four or five hours in the cockpit, the pilot developed a real "pain in the ass." A search team usually consisted of one FF Fighter, and one TBM torpedo bomber. To conserve fuel low power settings were used. This resulted in low airspeed (100 to 120) knots. At that speed the controls were mushy, and it was tiring to fly with the slower TBM's. The flight pattern was a continual weave from side to side, over the torpedo bomber.
15 January, we awoke to find ourselves in the middle of a nasty storm. The ceiling was about 200 feet and waves were cresting at about 15 to 20 feet. Strikes were canceled, but JACK patrols around the Task Force were to be flown. In addition, a CAP was needed over the Picket Destroyer. The Destroyer CAP was assigned to one of the charter members of VF-81. Because his wingman was ill, I was chosen to fill in. Up on deck we were taxied into the catapult gear, to be shot off into the murky soup. I waited for my leader to be catapulted, but all of a sudden I received the signal to power up for launch. I was launched and circled around the carrier at about 100 feet waiting for my lead to be catapulted. Finally a call on the radio indicated that his plane had developed engine trouble, and would have to be replaced. I was to circle until my lead could join me.
A short time later, I received a call indicating that he would not be joining me, and that I should fly to the Picket myself, and another pilot would join me later at the Picket. Well I wasn't too happy over the prospects, but in obedience to orders I set out. The overcast seemed to be lowering, and as I proceeded at about 80 feet above the waves, I had to fly on instruments because the downpour was so intense and the visibility so poor that I couldn't tell where the sea ended and the overcast began. It was an eerie feeling, and I felt certain that if I returned from this mission, I would be mighty lucky. A few minutes out, I received a call from the carrier informing me that weather conditions were worsening, and I should return to base. I made a 180 degree turn, and since I was too low to receive the Z.B.-YE, I asked the carrier for a bearing to fly. After several grueling minutes, the carrier loomed dead ahead, almost invisible in the storm.
They had turned into the wind to land the local JACK patrols. I was asked to circle the carrier until they were landed. Another few minutes and I was cleared to land. As I made my way from the plane to the interior of the island superstructure, the Air Officer, a Commander C. J. Lennahan grabbed me and in a very gruff voice asked me what the Hell I was doing back instead of being at the Picket. I tried to tell him that I had been ordered to return by the Air Group Commander (CAG), but he wouldn't listen. All he could do was rave on, and threaten me with a Court Martial. He said I had failed to do my duty, and the Picket had been attacked. Finally I prevailed upon him to go with me to CAG. Once there, the problem was cleared up. The Picket hadn't been attacked, but was in the thick of the storm, as we were. The Captain of the ship had directed CAG to order all planes back aboard, to prevent operational losses.
Commander Lennahan was a good example of the few irrational officers one encounters in the service. Years later I had an opportunity to settle the score.
16 January became a day forever etched in my memory. A mass attack on Hong Kong was planned by Task Group 38. The attack was to be carried out in a series of waves of attacking planes.
According to Admiral Halsey's custom, the Task Group was sitting in the middle of a storm. I guess he felt his Task Group was safer in that environment. The enemy couldn't find it so easily. That may have been a good strategy, but it sure made it Hell for returning pilots, low on gas, and sometimes shot up, trying to find their carrier in the midst of bad weather. Admiral Marc Mitcher was totally different. He was always sitting out in clear weather, nearly 100 miles closer to the target area, when his boys came home.
About halfway to Hong Kong we came out of the storm into beautiful weather. I was back with McBrayer for the day, so all seemed to bode well. The first wave from the Wasp was made up of five divisions of fighters (20 planes). As we approached Hong Kong we climbed to altitude. By the time we reached Hong Kong we were at 20,000 feet. Straight ahead we noticed a swarm of planes. At first it looked like a bunch of Japs waiting for us. As we approached, the swarm turned out to be planes from other carriers in the Task Group. We joined the group and circled at 20,000 feet waiting for the Target Coordinator to initiate the attack. There must have been at least 100 planes milling around waiting.
I never did hear the Target Coordinator give the attack signal, but suddenly groups of planes started to dive on Hong Kong. Our group joined in and we were all headed down. The first thing I noticed was the anti-aircraft fire. As the shells exploded they all created colorful smoke. Some smoke was red, some green, some yellow, etc. I guess with such a concentration of anti-aircraft batteries around the Hong Kong - Kowloon area, the color was necessary to keep the gun crews aware of where their shots were going. The firing created what appeared to be a solid wall of flak.
As we dived, I noticed planes ahead, on both sides and above me. There were probably some below me, which I couldn't see. As I went down, I was strafing targets below. Twice I had to stop firing because friendly planes came between the target and me. Little hairs were rising on the back of my neck because I wondered if someone behind me had caught me in his sights, and if so, had he stopped firing? Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two planes come together in a mid-air collision. I also saw a couple explode from flak hits. I fired my rockets, dropped my bomb and pulled out within a hundred or so feet of the water. By that time, everything around me seemed ablaze or smoking. It was difficult to assess personally inflicted damage, because so many were shooting at the same targets. As I was flying down the channel trying to join up, a quick look back revealed total disaster to the shipping in the area. In our join-up turn, a downed pilot in his life raft became visible to us. A Chinese Junk was approaching, and he pointed toward it. He must have felt all was well, because he then waved a smiling good bye to us.
As we headed back to the Fleet, we encountered other planes headed in toward Hong Kong. Today, as I think back over that operation, I realize it was the worst rat race in which I had ever participated.
The CAP in the afternoon provided the necessary cool down period for pilots of the morning strike. Task Force 38 suffered fairly heavy casualties, but the success of the operation far outweighed the losses, according to the Navy.
As we circled above Hong Kong and I looked into a distant, mysterious China, I mused as to what might be the outcome, if one flew inland as far as possible and landed. Well the answer came much later. A couple of our guys, with shot up planes, did just that. They were picked up by Chinese resistance groups and transferred to Kunming where they were received by Americans and flown out. According to the reports, later received, it was neither romantic nor pleasant.
20 January saw another trip over Formosa. This time as we approached Formosa we were above cloud cover. As we approached the East Coast, we noticed anti-aircraft fire coming through the clouds and bursting at our altitude. At first this seemed fortuitous, but as we continued, so did the bursts. Not only were the bursts at our altitude, but black puffs denoting explosions were occurring close ahead, and close behind. They were tracking us through the cloud cover. Suddenly it dawned; they now had radar controlled anti-aircraft batteries. That was a bit unnerving. We found a hole in the clouds, went down and attacked some military installations and scooted home, without any losses.
21 January I was to participate, as a fill-in wing man with another Division, in a CAP over the Fleet's Picket Destroyer. As was typical with these clowns, three of the Division had engine trouble and aborted take off. I flew around the carrier waiting for the others. Finally the Operations Officer said they were sending up a wing man for me. As soon as he showed up we headed for the Picket and took up our position at about 15,000 feet.
All went well until shortly before we were to be relieved. I saw something on the surface of the water, about 5 or 6 miles away. I radioed to the Destroyer that I had sighted something, and would leave my wing man orbiting while I determined what I had seen. As I approached the sighting, I could see it was made up of two planes on the water. My first thought was that it might be a Jap ambush designed to lure one of us away from the Picket while they attacked, first the ship and then our two planes which were separated and vulnerable. As I drew closer, I was able to identify the two planes as OS2U Observation-Scout planes, which were carried aboard cruisers and battleships. One was on its back and the other showed damage, which looked like it had been made by gunfire. Four men were in a life raft. They waved to me, and I could see all were alive. I then radioed the Picket destroyer and requested them to leave their station and rescue the men. By the time the destroyer arrived at the site, our relief reported in, and we left the downed men in good hands.
Later I learned the two planes had been on a rescue mission to pick up a couple of downed fighter pilots. They had been returning to the Task Group when they encountered fire from some source and had been shot down. Was the fire enemy or friendly? Who knows? I have my own ideas.
This turned out to be my last flight as a standby wingman, and I couldn't have been happier. Maybe the high command considered me a jinx. Two of the men for whom I had been standby wing-man had been killed shortly after I had flown with them. Even I was beginning to feel a bit of a jinx.
The next step closer to Japan was to be an attack on the Island of Okinawa. Planes from Task Group 38 were to strike the airfield at Naha, as well as other military targets and shipping in the area. The strike was set for 22 January 1945.
The night before, each squadron met in its Ready Room to be briefed on the operation. A Senior Grade Lieutenant with an identity crisis briefed our squadron. He couldn't make up his mind whether he was Robert Taylor or Tyrone Power. With his fancy boots, his heavy ID bracelet dangling around his wrist, his tie with the perfect knot, and the way he held his cigarette and exhaled the smoke, he was enough to tun anyone's stomach. Ugh!
He briefed us by reading from a paper. He discussed the air power in the area, the heavy anti-aircraft installations around Naha, Okinawa and the anti-American feeling of the natives. Anyone shot down on the island would certainly be caught, and possibly tortured before being killed. As a final bit of joy, he announced there were 14 different kinds of poisonous snakes on the island. That made my night.
As he began to read the last bit of information from the sheet, I bent down to tie my shoelace. At that moment General Quarters sounded, indicating imminent attack should follow. I straightened up, and where Robert Taylor had been standing was only the sheet of paper floating to the floor like a dried leaf. Robert had made it out the door in one big jump. The rest of us followed, sanely, to the Wardroom, which is below the armor deck, and is the designated area for flight personnel during night attack. As I walked into the Wardroom, the Flight Surgeon was bandaging Robert's head. He had been in such a hurry to reach safety that he had collided with the rim around a water-tight door and opened a gash in his forehead.
The Night Fighters encountered no bogies, so no attack materialized.
Being in combat for a while, like many others, I began to develop a false sense of confidence in myself, and in the ability of my plane to bring me home, even when pretty badly shot up. Even after a rough, miserable day in combat, the next morning always brought back the feeling of well-being.
After the comedy of the night before, and a good night's sleep, I woke up feeling great. I was back with McBrayer and happy. As I got into the plane, one of Stan Kenton's recordings kept running through my mind. All the way to Okinawa, I kept whistling and humming "Eager Beaver."
The strike team was made up of 16 planes (four Divisions). As we approached Okinawa, we encountered a deck of clouds at 10,000 feet and climbed above. Flying just above the cloud deck was a mistake. It provided the Jap anti-aircraft crews a perfect altitude reference.
Our target was Naha Airfield. After a partial turn to get properly oriented, we started our dive. I was on McBrayer's right wing, and our other 2-plane element was on his left wing. As we headed down I fired six rockets into the hangar and gas installations. While diving and strafing, a movement caught my eye. The Division on our starboard was edging into me. They were driving me out of position, and our other element was on Mac's left wing, leaving me no place to go. I had to move or become involved in a midair collision. I exercised the only option left. I pulled in beneath Mac. That was a dangerous position, because Jap gunners seldom lead their targets by the proper interval, and the shots generally converged beneath the target. So I found myself in that questionable spot hoping none of the badly aimed rounds would greet me. I had just released my bomb, when I heard an explosion and felt a tremendous concussion that lifted my plane up like a great hand. I realized immediately that I had been hit by a burst of anti-aircraft fire. I looked at the engine gages. The oil, and gasoline pressures both dropped to zero. The engine quit, and although I tried, I couldn't get the engine started. I must have been hit in the accessory section, causing all engine and hydraulic functions to cease.
In the dive I had attained approximately 425 Knots. I had plenty of speed, but I did not have many options. I had to make a quick decision.
We had been briefed that a rescue submarine operating off the East Coast of Okinawa would not attempt to get around the reef into the East China Sea to effect a rescue. Therefore, I could not expect help from that area. I could either bail out, land on the island or land at sea. My mind was quickly made up. We had made the dive on a westerly heading, so I would use my speed to fly west, as far as possible, into the East China Sea. I pulled out of the dive at about 2000 feet and did not try to gain altitude. My speed was sufficient to take me a half-mile off the West Coast of Okinawa. I dropped the belly tank, opened the canopy, unfastened my parachute harness, tightened my seat belt, and lowered the tail hook. The sea was relatively calm, which makes it difficult to estimate height above the surface. Therefore, the lowered tail hook would touch the water first and give me a feeling for when to stall the plane and complete my landing.
The landing, about 40 degrees out of the wind, was a smooth one. As the plane slowed, I unfastened my seat belt and jumped out on the wing. I reached back into the cockpit and separated the one-man raft from the parachute. I turned around, intending to run to the end of the wing and jump into the water, away from any entanglements, or any suction created as the plane sank. As I turned around from the cockpit, with the uninflated raft in my hand, the plane sank. It didn't stay afloat more than 15 or 20 seconds after coming to a stop. There must have been a terrific hole in the accessory section, on the bottom of my plane, to permit such rapid foundering. As the plane went under, I was caught on the horizontal stabilizer, and had a few frightening moments disentangling myself. As I came to the surface, I inflated my "May West" flotation device. With the weight of the raft, the pistol, first aid kits, 12 inch Marine Combat Knife, and my weight, the May West didn't quite keep my mouth above water. I had to tread water madly to keep my mouth free of water. Next I opened a package of dye marker so I could be seen from the air. McBrayer later told me that it really works. He said he was unable to see me in the water, but as soon as I broke out the dye marker, I became immediately visible.
As I treaded water, I opened the covering on the raft. The CO2 bottle was broken off, and I was unable to inflate the raft by that means. I searched frantically for the tube which permits inflation by mouth, but couldn't locate it. By this time, a couple of torpedo bombers from the flight we had escorted, had seen me go in, and were circling above me. One flew low and threw a raft out. I let go of my one-man raft, and swam over to the one just thrown by the TBM. As soon as I let go of my one-man raft it sank. I opened the cover of the new raft, which would hold three men, and looked for the CO2 inflation device. The CO2 bottle was broken off the raft, so I looked for the pump and hose utilized for hand inflation. The pump was made of plastic material that had been totally destroyed. I attached the hose to the inflation valve and started mouth inflation. I felt that trying to tread water and inflate the raft simultaneously would exhaust me long before the raft received enough air to support me. The planes circling above could see I was having trouble, so another one-man raft was thrown. Unfortunately, the raft landed so far away that I could not see it. I was reluctant to the leave the one I had, to swim away in search of a raft I might not find. Finally one of the TBMs threw another three-man raft, which landed about 100 yards away from me. I swam to it and was overjoyed to find the inflation device in good working order. I inflated the raft, climbed aboard and rowed toward the one I had just left. I took it in tow and rowed toward the raft I had been unable to see. It was about a quarter of a mile away. Upon arrival I found its inflation mechanism was intact. After inflating this one, a one man raft, I huffed and puffed and inflated the first one thrown to me. When this was completed, I tied the rafts together, and checked and secured the rations in each raft. I then applied sulfanilamide and a bandage to a gash over my right eye, received when my head hit the gun sight as I landed.
By this time, the strike group I had flown with, headed for home, leaving two fighters to orbit above me to prevent loss of my position. As I sat with my three-boat Navy trying to decide what my next move should be, shore batteries lobbed a few shots at me. Soon their attention was occupied by another strike of fighters and torpedo bombers. The fighters above me must have passed the word, because two new fighters assumed the orbit above me. This was repeated with each succeeding strike.
The submarine would not enter the East China Sea to rescue me, so my only alternative, other than landing on Okinawa, was to attempt to sail across the East China Sea to the mainland, a distance of some 500 miles. That wasn't exactly an ideal choice, either. The other bothersome bit of information was knowing that the Task Group was heading for Alethea the next morning. If I wasn't rescued, the long boat ride seemed inevitable.
After about two or three hours in the water, my orbiting "friendlies" seemed to have disappeared. I looked up toward the south and saw four planes approaching. Two looked like fighters, and two were float planes. My first thought was - the Japs have me now. As they drew closer I could see the fighters were F6F's and the float planes were OS2U Observation-Scout planes. At the same time another strike hit Naha, so the rescue planes had no trouble from shore.
One of the OS2U's landed and taxied up to within about 20 feet of me. He shut his engine down, exited the cockpit and walked out on the wing with a donut life ring, which he threw to me. I grabbed the ring and he pulled me to the plane. We both climbed into the cockpits, and he began his attempts to start the engine. The OS2U had the old cartridge starter, just like the ones in the F6Fs at Melbourne. However, the breech into which the cartridge was inserted was in the cockpit. He fired the cartridge, and the engine turned over a couple of times and died. I looked forward into the front cockpit and saw he had three cartridges left. The pilot fired another cartridge, with the same results. At this point I was beginning to worry. Two more misfires and we could both head for the China coast. As he fired the third cartridge, I crossed my fingers. This firing resulted in a successful start.
The next event was even more interesting. We turned into the wind and began a take off run. The surface of the sea was smooth at this time. A smooth surface creates additional friction on the hull and requires more power than a take off on a slightly disturbed surface. In addition, the OSU was pitifully underpowered. As we built up speed, the pilot got the plane up on the step and continued his run. The friction was so great that as he pulled the plane off the surface, he lost flying speed and settled back on the water. We continued the run, and the second attempt resulted in the plane settling back on the water. I looked at the back of the pilotís head and neck, and I could see he was tensing up. He was not alone. Finally after what seemed like miles, on the third try, we remained airborne.
Over the intercom the pilot informed me that he and his companion would like to sink the rafts with gunfire, so the Japs couldn't get them and glean any information from the navigational packets stored in the pockets. After a couple of runs each, they had managed to sink one of the rafts. In response to the warning from our fighters about the danger of hanging around we headed for the Fleet. The fighters took one run and blew the other rafts to tiny shreds.
On the way back to the Fleet, the pilot told me he was from the Battle Ship South Dakota. This pleased me because I had always wanted to visit a BB and see how it operated. As we approached the Fleet and prepared for recovery by the South Dakota, I was in for another thrilling surprise.
The battle ship made a tight turn to port, to create a slick or area of smooth water upon which the plane could land. As we approached the ship the pilot retarded his throttle and began a let down. While in his final turn, I glanced at the airspeed indicator and noted we were at 58 Knots. This gave me a turn, until I realized the OSU had a lower stalling speed than a fighter did. A fighter at 58 Knots, in a turn, would stall out and spin in. The next thrill came when he headed directly into the flank of the ship. Before the expected crash, we landed, and he gave the engine full throttle, still heading for the ship. At that point I became aware of what he was trying to do. Hanging from the port side of the ship, near the aft end, was a huge cargo net that extended some distance on the water's surface. After taxiing at full throttle he grounded us on the cargo net, and cut the engine. As we waited, a crane lowered a cable with a hook. The pilot attached the hook to a ring on the upper wing. We were then lifted out of the water and positioned on the catapult.
I exited the plane and climbed down the ladder to the deck. My feet had no more than touched the deck, when I was grabbed by a Commander who took me to the wardroom and handed me a welcome cup of coffee. I was a little disturbed, because I hadn't had a chance to thank the pilot or learn his name. The Commander offered to bring the pilot into the wardroom. As I sat drinking my coffee, another officer appeared, and announced that a destroyer alongside was just about to cast off. If I would follow, I could be transferred to the destroyer, and would arrive back at my Carrier much earlier.
I followed to the edge of the deck, where they were fastening a large canvas bag to the line between the ships. The destroyer had just finished refueling and was disconnecting the fuel lines. I was stuffed into the canvas bag, together with some dispatches. The bag was drawn up over my head and closed with a draw string. The sea was a little choppy, and as I began the journey, the two ships drew towards each other and I was dumped into the sea for the second time that day, arriving aboard the destroyer, damp, but in one piece. I had anticipated transfer in a Breeches Buoy, but wound up like a sack of potatoes.
After disembarking from the canvas bag, I was greeted like a long lost brother. What I didn't realize at the time, was that they weren't seeing me, but what I was worth to them--l0 gallons of ice cream. Destroyer crews loved to rescue pilots. A pilot returned to his carrier was exchanged for 10 gallons of ice cream.
I learned I was aboard the USS Yarnall, one of the new Fletcher Class destroyers. They were graceful and sleek, and could muster the 30 Knot speed the Fast Carriers demanded from the members of their Task Group. The crew hadn't been out of the States very long, and were "ganged ho." They were eager to get in some sort of action and test their spurs.
By the time I was assigned a bunk in the Navigator's room, I had developed a nasty headache, and my ankle was so swollen that I couldn't lace my shoe. The Medical Officer took me to Sick Bay, where he sewed up and rebandaged the gash on my forehead. An X-ray of the ankle revealed nothing broken. I just had a nasty sprain. The sprained ankle resulted from my foot being jammed against the rudder pedal with great force. Aspirin didn't help much, and the night was long and miserable.
After Sick Bay, I returned to my bunk hoping to get some rest. As I opened the door, I found I had company. Several of the crew wanted to hear all about my adventure of the day. As I was recounting the day's events, one young Ensign became enthralled with my back pack, so I gave it to him. The back pack, which we always wore in flight, contained the following articles: A waterproof poncho designed to fit over the pilot and down over the one-man raft; two pints of canned water; a first aid kit; some fishing hooks and line; a flash light; waterproofed matches; a machete; sewing needles and thread; a signal mirror; and a container with malted milk tablets and Charm candies, which were supposed to keep a pilot from starving for two weeks. As I talked to the group, the young Ensign managed to eat all of the two week supply of nutrition. Shortly after he finished eating, the mess call sounded and we retired to the wardroom for dinner, where the young Ensign managed to eat a full meal, including dessert. That really boosted my faith in the nutritional value of the malted milk tablets and Charm candies in our back packs. The next day, underway, The Yarnall came alongside the Wasp, shot a line which was made fast, and I was transferred back to my Carrier. This was a dry trip. The 10 gallons of ice cream was passed to the Yarnall, and as they pulled away, I saw grins, from ear to ear. At least I had finally ascertained my true value--l0 gallons of ice cream.
That night as I sat in the Wardroom, the pilots of the two torpedo bombers which had orbited over me while I was trying to get a raft inflated, came over and sat with me. They proceeded to tell me that, as they orbited above me they saw the fin of a huge shark swimming around 1,500-2,000 feet from me. They were undecided, whether to kill the shark with their machine guns, or leave it alone as long as it did not approach me. They were afraid, if they killed it, that the blood would attract other sharks that might be in the area. Luckily they had chosen the latter course, and I managed to get aboard my raft before the shark noticed me. It was a good thing I hadn't seen the shark. I had enough things to worry about without sharks.
The operation aboard the USS wasp with Air Group 81 had been less than a happy experience. Not only had members of the group been less than friendly, but the Captain of the Wasp became a thorn in the side of both the replacement pilots and the original members of Air Group 81.
During morning launches, the Captain would come up on the bridge and watch the planes take off. He would note the things that did not meet with his approval. Later he would send a memorandum to the Squadron Commander with the list of pilots and their "unacceptable actions" enumerated, and with recommendations for remedial action. A list would be posted on the Ready Room bulletin board so all could see and read the Memo.
After being approached by members of the Fighter Squadron, Air Group Commander Voorhis got us together for a meeting. The gist of Commander Voorhis words was roughly: "Don't pay any attention to the old fart". "He probably got passed over for Admiral, and now hates everything". It was a little more than disconcerting, after hard days with the Japs, to have to put up with this kind of crap from our own side.
One more incident of Captain Weller's asinine conduct, occurred on a later pre-dawn launch. I had warmed up my plane and started to check the mags. If, during a magneto check, the engine drops off over 100 RPM, something is wrong with the ignition system, and the plane should not be flown until the fault is determined and corrected.
I found the engine dropped 700 RPM on the left mag and 900 RPM on the right mag. In addition the engine was popping and flame was torching back past the cockpit. The Captain's voice came over the bull horn: "Stop doing that! Do you want the whole Jap Fleet to see us?" I tried to burn out the engine using high RPM and lean mixture, but could not correct the problem. I guess the Captain figured he could correct the problem by sending one of his men down. The guy climbed up on the wing and said: "What in Hell is the matter with you?" "I'11 show you how to fix it". He grabbed the throttle and did the same thing I had been doing. Then he advanced the throttle and checked the mags. The engine torched again and burned his leg. Again the Captain shouted to shut the damn thing down. I guess when the Captain's errand boy reported with a burned leg, the Captain realized I wasn't totally at fault. I shut the plane down, got out and went back to the Ready Room. That was the only time I aborted a flight during my combat tour.
On the way back to Alethea, I sat around and rested my sprained ankle. The "scuttlebutt" on board was that a Marine Fighter Squadron was to come aboard the Wasp in Alethea. Once again, some of us would be transferred to another carrier. After anchoring at Alethea, the liberty parties to Mog Mog resumed. I located Jack Pfisterer, who with his squadron buddies had a party going. Jack was all smiles. His squadron was being relieved, and they were heading home to the States. We had a good long talk. His squadron, like ours, had suffered heavy casualties during the last operation. He was glad to be leaving, and I was happy for him. We said good bye, and I never saw him again until 1950 in Salt Lake City.
My further acquaintance with Falalop Atoll came during this visit to the Alethea anchorage. While at the anchorage, each carrier had to provide fighter pilots to fly Combat Air Patrol over the area for one day. With many carriers in the Fast Carrier Task Force, this was not much of a problem. Our carrier's turn finally arrived, and MacBrayer's team was selected as one of the flights to participate on 7 February 1945. To ensure adequate protection to the anchored Fleet, three to four Divisions of fighters were kept in the air around the clock. At night, Night Fighters from the various carriers flew CAP.
The afternoon before we were scheduled to fly, we took a boat to Falalop. After looking around at the island's facilities we adjourned to the Officer's Club and had a fine dinner. As afternoon turned into evening, the liquor continued to flow. We all got a little tipsy. Having been without spirits for a time none of us had a tolerance for alcohol. We retired to our tent in the midst of a heavy rain. Needless to say we all had hangovers and were in mighty poor condition when the 0500 call came to rise, eat, and become airborne.
We ate a little breakfast and reported to the Operations shack for instructions. After being briefed, we packed our headaches and queasy stomachs into our planes and took off. Our assignment was to be on station at Angels 20 (20,000 feet) directly over the Fleet. At 20,000 we were on oxygen, and that helped reduce the pain in the throbbing heads.
About an hour after take off, the Fighter Director vectored us to a spot approximately 15 miles west of the Fleet where the Radar had picked up some Bogies (enemy planes). We set off at full speed to get the beggars. When we arrived at the point of contact, no planes were to be seen. Circling, we could see something flashing in the sunlight as it fell toward earth. After reporting our find to the Fighter Director, we were informed we had seen "Window" floating to earth. Window consisted of metallic chaff (metallic material cut into slim elongate strips) which when dropped out of a plane produced blips on the Radar screen resembling blips caused by planes. Window is dropped to lure Fighters from the area where they are providing a safety umbrella. The enemy plane, or planes, drop the Window and then leave the area at full speed. Shortly after we had been sent on the Wild Goose Chase, more Window was dropped in several places around the area, but the Fighter Director failed to respond to the same trick. All flights continued to orbit above the Fleet, but saw no enemy planes.
At Noon we landed to refuel and eat. That enabled us to walk around and stretch our legs. While we were waiting for the planes to be refueled, one of the mess boys brought our lunch in a jeep. He spread the delicious repast out on the hood of the jeep. One look at the meal was enough to sicken anyone. The sandwiches consisted of thick slabs of white bread with thick slices of SPAM between. No mayonnaise, no mustard, no anything - just dry bread and meat. The drink provided was a large pan full of a green liquid that tasted very much like citric acid. After a few bites were crammed down, we all crawled back into our planes for the afternoon patrol.
During the afternoon, we had one alert. The Fighter Director indicated that a bogie had registered on the Radar screen at 30,000 feet some 10 miles to the west. We were to climb to 30,000 feet and intercept the bogie. By the time we got to 30,000 the bogie had passed over the fleet and turned and headed back west. The Fighter Director was constantly exhorting us to add speed and close on the bogie. We had all advanced our throttles past the normal stop into the range where we were using water injection, but the bogie continued to widen the distance. An object was seen, at a distance, moving away at great speed, but it could not be identified. In the years since, I have wondered if this could have been one of the early Japanese jets being used for reconnaissance.
At last the day came to a close. We landed and crawled from the planes, a mass of tired, sore muscles, after spending the day cramped in the cockpit on oxygen. A good meal at the Officer's Club and a pleasant boat ride back to the Carrier prepared us for a good night's sleep.
It might be well to clarify the above reference to "Water Injection." Each F6F carried a 5 gallon tank containing a mixture of alcohol and water. When the throttle was advanced beyond the normal "Full Throttle" stop, the mixture of alcohol and water was injected into the carburetor along with the air-gas mixture. This mixture permitted a 15% increase in power available without doing any damage to the engine. A cooling effect was created by evaporation of the alcohol-water mixture.
We had entered Alethea Lagoon as part of the Third Fleet under Admiral William F. Halley. We would leave Alethea Lagoon as part of the Fifth Fleet under Admirals Raymond Spruance and Marc A. Mitcher. Admiral Mitcher was a pilot's Admiral. He had been a Naval Aviator since the beginning of his career. He understood a pilot's mind and needs. Admiral Halley had been a surface Officer until late in his career, when he went through Flight Training. He was a good Officer, but not the pilot's Admiral that Mitcher was.
McBrayer and Bayers, together with their combat teams were transferred to the USS Yorktown (The Fighting Lady). 1 February 1945 the Commanding Officer of the USS Yorktown, in accordance with a secret dispatch, commissioned Bombing Fighting Squadron VBF-3. This split the personnel of VF-3 into two groups. For the upcoming tour, the missions of both Squadrons would be the same. This division, however, marked the introduction of the concept of Navy Fighter Bomber Squadrons.
During the January operation, the Commanding Officer of VF-3, LCDR W. L. Lamberson had been killed in action. A replacement for Lamberson and a Commanding Officer for Bombing Fighting Three had to be named. LCDR "Fritz" Wolfe had been transferred from VF-11 aboard the Hornet.
LCDR Bayers was named CO of the VF-3, and LCDR Wolfe was named CO of VBF-3. LCDR McBrayer was named Wolfe's Executive Officer.
Everyone seemed reasonably happy with the reorganization of the group, and with the new Commanding Officers. In addition, the Squadron members were a bunch of great fellows. We were welcomed aboard, and it wasn't long before we felt like true members of the organization, in marked contrast to the time spent with VF-81 aboard the Wasp. At last we had found a home.
We had good leaders. Bayers and McBrayer had the experience of this tour added to that of their previous tour in 1942-43. Fritz Wolfe was a Navy Trained pilot who had served a tour with Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers in China. The younger members of the squadrons had considerable combat under their belts, and felt that under Admiral Mitcher, they would fight the kind of war for which they had been trained.
The only "fly" in the ointment was the initial "B" in VBF-3. We all felt we were still primarily Fighters and wanted the initials changed to read VFB-3 (Fighting Bombing Three). But, as usual, the decision of the top brass was final and the designation VBF-3 stuck.
The Navy Information Office had filmed a movie on board the Yorktown, during previous operations. It told the story of operations at sea and in battle, of the Yorktown, and earlier Air Groups. The movie was entitled "The Fighting Lady." When the film was previewed aboard the Yorktown, it was interesting to see and hear some of the ships personnel who were still aboard, like Dick Trip the SO.
While in Alethea, we had learned about the targets of the next operation. These included strikes over Japan, and support of the Invasion of Iwo Jima. This information caused some soul searching. If the last operation had been such a rough one, what might this one be like? Well we were soon to find out.
On 10 February, we raised anchor and headed for "Indian Country." No time was left for worry. The morning of 11 February we participated in a massive "Group Grope", which wound up causing more casualties than the one in January. We then settled down and continued toward Japan.
As we steamed toward Japan, we had many sessions in the Ready Room discussing tactics and operations. Fritz Wolfe announced that he guaranteed each of us, who returned, would have a neck one size larger. His theme was: "If you don't keep swiveling your head looking for planes, you won't be alive on the way back." He also left the Ready Room many times for the "head", remarking that he had to take a nervous "pee."
16 February LCDR Fritz Wolfe led the first Strike on Japan. A description of the first day's operations is extracted from the Squadron's History:
"LCDR Wolfe took his fighters in low, flying in the base of the clouds, and from there attacked Konoike Airfield. Thus the flight was to the best of our knowledge, the first to get in that day. If so, the VBF-3 pilots were the first carrier-based Navy pilots, and the first fighter pilots, ever to attack the sacred soil of the Empire of Japan."
As we continued down, we could see planes parked in revetments. Some of the planes were taxiing out for take off, and others had ground crews hovering around while the pilot was starting the plane. There appeared to be many revetments. I fired into one revetment and exploded a plane. Then I shifted to a another revetment and got a second. By this time I was so low that the pull out caused me to gray-out. Gray-out is the stage just before black-out. By the time we had joined up, succeeding planes were in their dives, so we left to look for other targets. By this time the strike had broken up into individual divisions. Jap planes were keeping us apart by their attacks. It seemed like the numbers of enemy planes were increasing. By the time we had climbed to altitude and fought off the Jap's attempts to attack us, we were getting low on gas. We headed for the coast, still weaving and fighting off the enemy. As soon as we were over the sea, all attempts by the Japs ceased .We felt relieved. All we had to show for our encounters were a few holes in the planes.
After the first sweep had returned, a strike to assess the damage done to the Tachikawa Aircraft Engine factory southwest of Tokyo, was diverted, to the Kasumigaura Airfield area because of insufficient time after a delayed take off.
To provide an idea of what we knew about the area, as we engaged in our first strikes, the Squadron History will again be cited:
At Iwo Jima there was no air opposition, and the Japanese were dug into underground fortifications, so other than close strafing support against the Japanese troops, there was little for the fighters to do. Napalm (jellied gasoline) bombs were dropped on enemy emplacements. This was a new experience for Air Group 3. McBrayer's group flew a CAP above the fleet, but after the past action, it was almost boring.
23 February, McBrayer's Division was part of Sweep 3A over Japan. The weather was clear and cold. Looking down, the ground was covered with snow. The last storm had dropped a beautiful blanket. As we flew toward Tokyo, I kept looking for Mt. Fujiyama, but could not locate it. Then it occurred to me that we were flying at 20,000 feet and Fujiyama is about 12,000 feet. Then I was able to locate it. The mountain was not as spectacular as I recalled from pictures. In the pictures, the ground was always green, while Fujiyama had snow on its crest. As I looked down everything was covered with snow and there was no contrast.
We finally came to Tsukuba Airfield, a few miles north of Tokyo. In contrast to my last trip over Japan, we encountered no airborne fighters. This seemed a little peculiar, until we headed down in a dive on Tsukuba. We had caught the Japs with their pants down. All the revetments around the field were filled with planes. As we continued down, we could see ground crews and pilots running for planes. Those already in planes were having trouble starting engines in the cold weather. What a piece of luck! In my dive I placed four rockets into the hangar complex, which erupted in flame. I moved over and got one fighter in a revetment. At that time my eye caught sight of what appeared to be a huge 4-engine bomber. I was out of position, but thought maybe in my next dive I could demolish it.
I stayed in my dive a little longer than I intended, and when I pulled out I was about 40-50 feet above the ground. As I pulled out, I looked over at the big 4-engine bomber. The plane was a decoy built of wood and canvas, painted to look like the real thing! At my altitude I could see the wooden framework holding the decoy up. I was glad I didn't have it in my sights during the dive and waste a good run.
There were so many of our planes attacking the area that we didn't get to execute a second attack. After join up, we looked for some more targets, and strafed the ones we found. Fuel was getting low, so we joined up on some other Yorktown planes and headed for home.
About 10 miles off the coast of Japan we encountered a convoy of 20 or more small coastwise shipping vessels. The signal was given and we formed a line abreast and headed for the ships. In one pass the whole convoy was destroyed. I blew up two of them with a nice long burst for each. They created a spectacular sight as their boilers exploded.
We landed back aboard without loss, feeling it had been a good day's work. However, there was one little incident that could have ended tragically. Jack Auerbach developed engine trouble just as we left the coast heading home. Neil McLean called up and said he would escort Jack back to the Carrier. McLean, in trying to join up on Jack, saw a low flying plane closing on Jack's tail. McLean slipped in behind him and let him have the benefit of all six guns, resulting in a beautiful kill. Jack and McLean got back without further incident.
The Yorktown, upon orders, departed for Alethea the next morning. On the way, a mission was launched against an airfield on Hachijo Jima. Low overcast and dense anti-aircraft fire complicated the attack on this rocky, hilly island. Three of our planes were hit by Ack-Ack and one forced to make a water landing. The pilot who landed in the water was rescued by a destroyer and returned to the Task Group.
While Hachijo Jima was under attack McBrayer's and a couple of other Divisions flew CAP over the Task Force. No planes tried to attack our ships, so the CAP was without incident.
All the way to Alethea, the rumors were flying that Air Group 3 was to be relieved. All the old members of the Air Group were elated. The replacement pilots, which included Mac's boys, were once again wondering what their fate might be-what Carrier and what Air Group next?
As soon as we dropped anchor, there was a rush to get to Mog Mog to find out what others knew of the rumor we had been hearing. No one seemed to know any more than we did.
The next day it was announced formally that Air Group 3 would be relieved and replaced by a group still en route. Relative to the replacement pilots, no decision had been reached. The most likely disposition would be to transfer us to another Air Group for one more operation. We had been in combat for only three months, and Air Group 3, as well as other Air Groups had been required to complete four months in combat before being relieved.
While awaiting a decision, Jack Auerbach and I went to the Fleet Mail Sorting and Disposition unit to see if Mac's boys had any mail. We had small package of mail, and believe it or not, I had a letter from home. That made a total of two letters I had received in the past four months.
Finally, and for what reason I don't know, the Top Brass decided the replacement pilots should be transferred along with the charter members of Air Group 3. That was exceedingly good news. The night before the transfer, the Ships Company of the Yorktown, held a party for the Air Group. It was a wonderful occasion with many stories, songs and finally a showing of the film "The Fighting Lady." It was a nostalgic setting, but did not diminish the desire of the group to head for the States.
The next day, we were transferred to the carrier USS Lexington, more commonly known as the "The Blue Ghost." Our convoy consisted of a cruiser, a destroyer and the Lexington. Most of the oil and aviation gas had been transferred to other ships, and we were left with about a dozen war weary F6F's, in which the VF and V.F. squadrons were to provide a CAP for the convoy until we reached Hawaii.
The second day out, I drew a turn at flying CAP. No enemy was encountered and the flight went off in a nice, quiet, dull manner. The next day, however, we did have a little excitement. Neil McLean was in the group providing CAP. As McLean neared the fantail during his landing approach, his engine cut out, and he was in the "drink" about as fast as you could blink an eye. He managed to get out of the cockpit before the plane sank. The destroyer pulled alongside and lifted Neil aboard. A few minutes later McLean was transferred aboard the Lexington, uninjured, except for a long gash on his forehead resulting from an encounter with the gunsight.
The next bit of excitement came a couple of days later. We were sitting in the Wardroom when "General Quarters" sounded. I guess most of us thought we were under attack. An announcement was made over the speaker system, that the cruiser had suffered a steering casualty. I didn't know what that meant, so I headed for the flight deck. As I went up the ladders, I could feel the carrier executing a mighty sharp turn. When I stepped out on the deck, one of the Officers standing there told me that the rudder control on the cruiser had malfunctioned and it had headed for the carrier. Fast maneuvering had prevented a collision of the two ships. We steamed around in circles for about an hour, while the cruiser's crew worked on the steering system. Finally, temporary repairs were completed, which it was thought would last until we arrived at Pearl Harbor.
We arrived in Pearl Harbor somewhere around the middle of March, and tied up at the dock while the planes, and any other material, which might better be left in a forward area, was unloaded. The stay in Pearl provided another opportunity to go into Honolulu. Things hadn't changed. There were still long lines outside of every business from restaurant to bordello. We had dinner at a famous Chinese Restaurant named P. Y. Chong's, after the owner. Chong had pledged to feed, free, all armed service personnel in the area on the day the Japs surrendered. His food was delicious, and I imagine there were many happy soldiers, sailors and marines on VJ day.
The thing I remember most vividly, was the fresh milk we were able to get at the mess and in town. I don't think I had ever missed anything as much as a fresh cold glass of milk.
Honolulu didn't rate very high in comparison to the idea of going home. When the Lexington raised anchor and headed out the channel for the United States, all faces were smiling.
Sunshine and smooth seas characterized the first few hours out of Honolulu. We then entered an area dominated by the northwest storm track. Several fronts were reported, extending from Alaska to the southeast. Clouds began to lower, and the seas to rise. For the rest of the journey we would see nothing but stormy weather and rough seas.
As we progressed, I had time to review and evaluate the past few months. During the process I recalled many incidents, both sad and funny, which cannot be tied to a specific date or place. Some will be recounted in the next few paragraphs.
When not flying, or on reserve, many pilots (including myself) used to stand on the Air Officer's Bridge and watch the returning pilots land. It was during these times that I witnessed several rather gruesome incidents.
As we were returning to Alethea aboard the Essex, a CAP was launched. Shortly after join up, one of the pilots radioed that he couldn't get suction on three of his tanks, and requested permission to land. As he touched down and caught a wire, his belly tank hit one of the metal cleats on the deck. This caused a spark that ignited the overflow from the tank. The plane was instantaneously engulfed in flame. The pilot seemed to be stunned, and made no attempt to get out of the cockpit. By the time the deck crews had reduced the flames sufficiently to rescue the pilot from the cockpit, he was burned over much of his body. He was removed to sick bay, but by the time we arrived at Alethea he was dead.
During one of the Strikes on Japan, Air Group Three launched its fighters. Shortly after take off, Bill McElroy experienced trouble getting suction in his tanks. Bill radioed for an emergency landing and came in. He was loaded with a 500 pound bomb, six 5-inch HVAC rockets, and 400 hundred gallons of gas. Bill knew he might have trouble with such a heavily loaded plane. When he landed, the belly tank hit a cleat and the plane burst into flames. Almost before the fire was noticed, Bill had jumped out of the cockpit and ran for the tip of the wing, jumped off, and if a deck hand hadn't stopped him, would probably have ended up going off the deck into the sea. We all had a good laugh over this one.
Another time while standing on the Bridge, the guns of a landing plane shorted out and sprayed the Island Structure with .50 caliber bullets. The place I occupied was sufficiently elevated so that none of the bullets struck in my vicinity, but two of the deck crew just outside the Island were wounded. After that, I was extremely careful where I stood.
Original policy had been for returning flights to jettison, into the sea, any unexpended ordnance. After deciding this was a great waste of ammunition, rockets, and bombs, we were directed to land aboard with all unused ordnance.
One day, after returning from a sweep, I landed aboard, rolled out of the gear, and taxied to the forward area of the deck to park. After parking, I crawled out on the wing, reached back into the cockpit for my plotting board and stepped down toward the deck. Just before my foot touched the deck, I heard a whooshing noise. As I looked down, a five-inch rocket whipped by exactly where I had aimed my foot. I clutched the side of the plane, pulled myself up and looked around. The plane that had just landed was still in the arresting gear, and the deck hands were running around in consternation. It seems the landing plane had four rockets left, and as the arresting gear stopped it, three of the rockets flew free and zipped down the deck. After that I always looked around and made sure the spot, where I intended to step, was clear.
For both take off and landing the cockpit canopy was always left open to facilitate escape in case of an accident. For landing, I always elevated my seat so that my head was very slightly above the height of the canopy cover. This made it easier to see the Landing Signal Officer. The canopy was opened and closed by a rotating crank. When the canopy was fully open, a nipple on the crank fitted into a hole. This was supposed to prevent the canopy from slamming closed when the arresting gear stopped the plane.
On this particular day, I made what I thought was a beautiful carrier landing. Suddenly something hit me in the head and everything took on a soft rosy glow. I could see the deck hand giving me the signal to gun the engine and exit the arresting gear. I couldn't seem to obey his signal. Finally, my head began to clear, and I realized the canopy had snapped closed and whacked me a good blow to the head. After parking, I investigated and found the nipple had sheared off. Later all planes had a metal bar installed which could be moved in front of the canopy when in the open position. This bar was sufficiently strong that a sudden stop would not result in a failure.
On another day an incident occurred, which could have been fatal. The "Pilots man your planes" had sounded over the loudspeaker, and we all rushed to the flight deck in preparation for a strike on Formosa. After starting my engine, I began to check controls, instruments and gas supply. The gauge for my right tank indicated half-full. This bothered me so I called the plane captain up to the cockpit and showed him the gauge. I asked him to remove the tank cap and check visually. After looking in the tank he signaled that it was full. I was happy because I didn't want to abort the flight. After being airborne for a while on the right tank, I noticed the gas gauge began to drop from the half-full position. I realized the tank had been only half full when I took off. I switched tanks to allow the overflow to bleed into the right tank. During the flight I burned the gas from my other three tanks. Finally I had to switch back to the right tank, many miles from the carrier. As we were returning to the Task Group, I watched the tank approach zero, with no ships in sight. When I finally entered the traffic pattern, the gauge was registering zero. My fear was that the engine would quit while I was in my landing approach behind the carrier. Finally I was in position for a cut, but because the plane landing before me was still in the gear, I received a wave off. A wave off is mandatory, but I knew I couldn't make it around for another landing, so I defied the wave off and landed. As I was given the signal to taxi out of the arresting gear, I gunned the engine and it quit. The fact that I had run out of gas in the arresting gear was the only thing that saved me from some sort of disciplinary action for not obeying the wave off.
The plane captain and I had a long talk after that incident. He swore he had topped off all the tanks, but under normal conditions I should have had at least forty gallons left when I came aboard.
As part of our flight gear, we were issued beautiful, white scarves, about two feet wide and 8 or 9 feet long. They were great neck protectors during high altitude flights in winter weather. They were long enough to wrap around the neck two or three times. During one combat mission, I had been rather busy in the cockpit, and I guess I had allowed the scarf to become partially unwrapped. As I flew my downwind leg preparing to land, I rolled back the canopy. Immediately the wind whipped the loose end of the scarf outside the plane and along the fuselage. That action automatically pulled my head to the rear and outer edge of the cockpit. The scarf drew tight and I was gasping for breath, while I tried to untangle myself. I finally freed the scarf, which floated away, and I finished the landing. So much for long scarves in the cockpit.
Of all the things encountered by carrier based planes in the Pacific, the most daunting was anti-aircraft fire. The Japs, like all combatants, had surrounded their land based targets with a full complement of anti-aircraft batteries. These batteries of weapons included large guns, up to 5-inch, which could reach to more than 20,000 feet and hurl explosive charges which fragmented into shrapnel; medium sized guns similar to our 40 mm's; smaller guns similar to our 20 mm's; and machine guns similar to our .30 caliber weapons. In addition the soldiers stationed around the installations fired rifles.
As a plane diving on a Jap installation neared the ground, the smaller, faster firing guns were brought into play. During the dive, it was possible to watch the approaching fire, highlighted by the use of tracers. The pilot knew that each little flash of light represented a bullet heading his way. Once committed to a dive, there was no way to outmaneuver the oncoming fire. All the pilot could do was dive steeply, in order to present the smallest possible target, and hope the enemy gunners were not properly leading the target.
To dive into this curtain of fire, day after day, was probably the most nerve wracking experience carrier based pilots had to face.
In contrast, aerial combat presented better odds. Aerial combat pitted man against man, and plane against plane. Combatants were free to maneuver to the best of their ability, with the hope of scoring hits on the opponent. The outcome, to a large extent, depended upon the skill and ability of the pilot. In diving on a military installation, survival was totally a matter of chance.
One morning the swells began to subside, and the day dawned bright and sunny. We knew then, we were approaching land, and my ruminations came to an end. Late in the afternoon of 26 March 1945, we entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The wooded, green swathed coast of Washington presented the most beautiful sight anyone could have desired. We all stood up on deck watching the shoreline as we sailed down the Strait. We remained glued to the scene until darkness forced us to go below. Sometime around midnight we stopped in Puget Sound, midway between Bremerton and Seattle. A ferry pulled alongside, and we disembarked from the USS Lexington. The ferry deposited us on the receiving dock at Seattle. Navy buses picked up and transported the group to NAS Sand Point. By the time we had been assigned rooms and wrestled our gear into the them, most of us were so tired, we just fell into bed. What a night's sleep that was! We were back in the good old USA without a worry in the world.
When I woke up the next morning, I couldn't believe my eyes. The BOQ was luxurious. The rooms had comfortable beds, carpet on the floor, and showers with glass doors. Breakfast in the BOQ mess was an experience. The food was terrific, and the choices seemed to be limitless. It took most of the first day to adjust and realize this was not all a dream.
In the afternoon a meeting was held to determine what sort of an assignment each pilot wanted, in the event that BUPERS (Bureau of Personnel) had such billets available. All the younger pilots wanted to be included in Air Group 3 when it was reformed. The older pilots like MacBrayer requested other types of assignments. The information was to be sent to BUPERS and would require several days before new orders could be issued.
Auerbach and I went down to the carpenter shop and dug up enough lumber for each of us to build a sea chest for his gear. After loading the sea chests with everything we wouldn't need for a while, we entrusted the shipment to old unreliable Railway Express. I expected never to see the chest again.
The next night, girls from the University of Washington gave us a party in the Sand Point Officer's Club. That was a most delightful evening. We ate, danced, drank and had a great time.
Finally orders were received from BUPERS. Wolf was reassigned to a new squadron. McBrayer was to train to become an Air Officer aboard a carrier (same position as my friend Shannahan who had wanted me Court Martialed). Some of the boys got reassigned to Air Group Three, and the rest to other Air Groups. Two billets, which required volunteers, were left to be filled. These billets were for training as an SO (Landing Signal Officer). Finally, after a great deal of persuasion by Fritz Wolf, Auerbach and I agreed to volunteer. Our orders were then cut for the SO Training School at NAS Jacksonville, Florida.
The day before we left Sand Point, Mac invited Auerbach, McLean, Bajack, and me to have dinner with him at the Olympic Hotel. When we arrived he had obtained a private dining room for the five of us. Over a champagne toast, Mac told us he had been planning this for a long time. He indicated that he had made himself a promise that he would do his best to bring us all back alive, and if successful, we would celebrate the end of the cruise together. That was a dinner to remember. The best of food, wine and company.
Although, I kept in contact with Mac for a number of years, that was the last time I ever saw him. He was a true gentleman, and he imparted much wisdom to me and the others in his Division.
The next day 1 April 1945, we picked up our orders and plane tickets, and headed home for a thirty-day leave.
It was wonderful to be home again and with Mom and Dad. It was truly a gift from God. Many times, in the months just passed, it seemed that I would never see home again.
The next few days, we had to do a lot of catching up. The first thing the folks wanted to know was why I had not told them I was in combat. I had made a habit of writing the folks once a week, after I left the States. Each time I was transferred, I would write and tell them I had been transferred to a new area for training. I didn't know how long they would believe that fiction, but I hoped it might postpone their worries for a while. They told me they had been suspicious for some time, and when they learned Jack Pfisterer was home, they went to Evanston and talked with him. When they asked Jack if I had been in combat, he replied yes, and that I had been for several months.
A few days after arriving home, I ordered dinner at Lamb's Cafe in Salt Lake. Everything went well until the order was placed before me. When I began to eat, I became very nauseated. I had to leave the meal uneaten. For the next few days I was unable to eat anything. The smell of food produced nausea. I went to my old Doctor friend in Salt Lake. A complete examination produced nothing. He had been in World War I, and drawing upon his past experience, he told me that, most probably, the stress of combat had finally caught up with me. He recommended mostly juice and soup. He also said I should drink Ginger Ale each time I felt nausea. His wisdom worked. It took about a month before I was back to eating normally.
I logged in with the Officer of the Deck, at NAS Jacksonville, Florida, 7 May 1945. I then began check-in procedure with the SO Training Division. Suddenly through the door came Jack Auerbach. We exchanged greetings and preceded with the check-in. Jack then left to find suitable quarters for himself and his wife.
NAS Jacksonville was situated about 10 miles south of the center of the city of Jacksonville, on the banks of the St. Johns River. The base was large and sprawling. The grounds were well laid out and well kept. The two Junior Officers BOQ's were situated about a mile from the flight line, in a grove of pine trees. From the window of my room on the second deck, I could observe tree squirrels as they played in the tree about three feet from the window. As the summer progressed, the squirrels became so friendly they would sit in the tree and watch me as I studied. The room contained two beds, but when I first checked in, I had the room to myself.
When I checked into the Base Post Office, I found a large box of mail. All the letters that had failed to catch up to me while at sea had finally reached their destination. Most had so many Navy unit address stamps on the envelopes, that it was difficult to make out my name. It was fun to read all the letters, but they would have been much more appreciated had I received them while I was in the combat zone.
A few days later I received a notice from Railway Express that they had found my foot locker which had been in San Pedro since the previous September when they admitted it had been lost. So much for the Railway Express.
While our class was in training, the Navy sent a reporter to observe the training activity and prepare a story for publication. Excerpts from that extremely flowery story explaining SO training are set down below:
"Chiefly responsible for getting these planes aboard is the flat-top's landing signal officer. This fellow, who executes frantic maneuvers with ping pong-like paddles on the SO box in the fantail, is considered the most important man on a carrier during landings and take-offs. On his judgement and lightning decisions often rest the safety of the ship and its planes"
"To qualify naval aviators for this highly important task requires intensive training and plenty of practice. Here at NAS Jacksonville is the Navy's only basic Landing Signal Officer's School. Students are mostly fleet-returned carrier pilots ranging in rank from Ensign to l Lieutenant, and usually volunteers"
"The course given here averages about eight weeks. First comes a series of lectures. Then, cockpit checkouts. All this ground work takes about a week. Next in the syllabus is familiarization. There's slow air work and regular flying so that the pilots can regain the feel of the plane.
There are touch-and-go landings, tactics, and observation. Two to three more weeks have passed."
"Now the students are almost ready for their work with the paddles' or 'flags.' The class is broken down into flight groups of ten. For the following three or four weeks they spend their time making 'bounce' hops at a nearby auxiliary field while an advanced class handles the 'paddles,' waving them in"
"After this, their turn with the 'flags' comes. Another class flies the 'bounce' hops for them, and in eight or ten days each student practices bringing in about 400 planes."
"This goes on hour after hour, one plane after another. The instructor demonstrates a few, then each student, in turn, tries his hand at it. In ten days most of them have mastered the art."
"The basic course completed, Lt. Ralph M. Bagwell, officer in charge, goes into a huddle with the instructors. Each student is passed upon. Full Lieutenants and senior jaygees must qualify as number one SO's. Ensigns and other jaygees must meet the standards of assistant SO's. Otherwise they are dropped."
"Many of the fleet-returned pilots taking training here as SO's are the cream of the crop, so to speak, of the combat pilots. Nearly all of them have won decorations for achievement as pilots."
"The school is considered so highly in Naval Aviation circles that all fleet-returned landing signal officers back in the States for reassignment in the Naval Air Operational Training Command go through a week of observation at the SO school here."
"SO's have no easy job. Their responsibility is heavy. They have to be able to judge a plane's altitude, speed and attitude with complete accuracy. They must see everything, notice everything, and act fast."
While awaiting orders, we had been wondering how the Atomic Bombs dropped on Japan might affect the progress of the war. We didn't have long to wait for the answer. The next thing we knew it was 15 August 1945 and World War II was over.
For the past couple of months Marine Pilots had been arriving from the various Primary Training Command bases such as Hutchinson, Kansas and Norman, Oklahoma, and from the Air Training Centers at Pensacola, and Corpus Christi, Texas. These fellows had completed their two year assignments as instructors, and were now being sent to Florida for Operational Training. One group was integrated into a Marine squadron at NAS Jacksonville. As part of their training they would become qualified aboard a carrier.
Rogers, Kiley, Egbert, and I were temporarily assigned to this squadron to provide Field Carrier Landing training, as well as help the assigned SO of any available carrier in the area, to carrier qualify these pilots.
October passed and November was nearly half gone, and I still hadn't decided whether I should apply for transfer to the Regular Navy.
About this time the Jeep Carrier Badgering Strait had completed it's shakedown, and was to be assigned to duty in the Pacific. While awaiting orders, the Carrier wanted to get some practice in flight operations (landing planes aboard). The brass decided this was an excellent opportunity to get the Marine squadron, we had been training, carrier qualified. So Marines and SO's went for a week's cruise in the Atlantic. By the time we returned all pilots had qualified aboard.
Upon returning to Jacksonville, a nasty surprise awaited me. On 26 November 1945 orders had been issued for my release from active duty. All that was necessary was approval by NO, to transfer me to the Separation Center at Jacksonville. I had procrastinated a little too long in applying for transfer to the Regular Navy. The decision had been made for me.
3 December 1945 I was sent to the Separation Center, given a physical, promoted to LTJG (Lieutenant Junior Grade), and released. I was scheduled to be paid off and depart 6 December. I made my final flight on 5 December.
In some ways, the past three years seemed to have occupied only a moment, in others, an eternity. Just a little over three years had passed since I helped the Recruiting Officer unload his equipment and set up in the Boston Building. In that interval, I had learned to fly, traveled halfway around the world to fight the Japs, returned to the States and became an SO. What had I accomplished in that time? Maybe the awards I received indicate, in some small measure, my accomplishments. I earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC); four Air Medals; authorization to wear the Presidential Unit Citation with star, awarded to the USS Yorktown while I was aboard; authorization to wear the Navy Unit Commendation awarded to the USS Wasp while I was aboard; Pacific Defense Medal with four battle stars; Philippine Liberation Medal with one battle star; American Defense Medal; Victory Medal; and authorization to wear the CBI (China, Burma India) patch.
This sudden change of events demanded some serious thought. I guess the reason I had not made the decision to apply for transfer to the Regular Navy, was that deep in the back of my mind I had nurtured the idea of a returning to the University and obtaining my degree. I had realized all along that a degree would be necessary for any future in the post war world. My resolve was strong to get home and enter the University of Utah.
The above account utilized N.P. Stark's Official U.S. Navy Orders, personal Flight Log books, Pilot's Handbooks for the SNJ, F6F, F4U, FM2, and T.M., still in my possession. Additional sources of information were newspaper and magazine accounts, personal contacts, publications, maps, aerial photos, and other data brought from the combat zone. Finally, although more than 50 years have elapsed since World War II, memories of the incidents recounted are etched so deeply in my mind, that they seem to have occurred only yesterday.
LCDR Norman P. Stark USNR(R)
U.S. Naval Reserve 1942-1945
U.S. Navy 1947-1950
1952 A.B. Geology & Mineralogy
1953 M.S. Geology & Mineralogy
1953-55 Graduate study toward PH.D.
CERTIFICATES AND LICENSES
American Institute of Professional Geologists
State Registration for Professional Geologists
Commercial Pilots License (fixed wing)
PROFESSIONAL AND HONOR SOCIETIES
American Institute of Professional Geologists (AIPG)
American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
SME, Member Society of American Institute of Mining Engineers
Sigma Gamma Epsilon
Phi Beta Kappa
Consultant - Uranium exploration
Standard Oil of California (presently Chevron)
Kennecott Copper Exploration Division
Lockheed Electronics Co.
Union Pacific Natural Resources Division
U.S. Bureau of Land Management
U.S. Forest Service
Feb 22, 2005
To Norman Stark, VT-81:
Let me start by saying what a wonderful experience it was to speak with you recently. Somehow it has brought closure to an event that happened long ago. Who was that guy? Did he survive the war? Did he have any idea of other events going on around him that day? Surprisingly the events of that day are still very vivid in my mind.
As you requested, I will try to recreate what happened as seen through the eyes of one individual eyewitness. As I recall the day was bright, visibility excellent, VFR all the way. We had our usual long uneventful haul into the target area. My pilot was VT 81 Exc and usually led the group. We had been advised that flack and fighters should be expected and could be heavy as we would later see.
As we approached the target area, we were about 10,000 feet. John advised we were approaching our bomb run. We had just opened the Bombay doors and positioned ourselves for our attack. I had taken my position as the rear gunner and was looking out to the rear when an F6F took a direct hit in the lower forward section of the engine compartment. The aircraft pitched up, rolled to the left, and went through part of our formation. As we had rolled left to commence our bomb run, we ended up in an unusual attitude and John jettisoned the 4-500s. He immediately advised us to keep the F6 in sight, that we would follow it down.
As your F6 headed back toward the ocean we were off your port side, somewhat behind and above. There were some tense moments speculating whether you'd make the shore and how far out you might get. From our vantage point, you were easy to follow, trailing smoke all the way. As you approached the water landing, we closed in to observe the ditching. All things being considered, your ditching was quite remarkable. We observed the tail pitch up as you were on the port wing as we passed directly over you. There were also several of your F6 buddies giving us some cover. As we circled around we could see the plane go down and minutes later were able to spot you in the water.
We quickly realized that you had not been able to deploy a raft. As flight leaders, we had always carried an extra 3-man raft and the decision was made to try to get the raft to you. TBMs were not made for this type of activity. This involved my forcing the rear door of the TBM open using one foot to force it against the slipstream, then holding it open and dropping the raft between my legs.
On our first attempt, although the raft landed close by, it ricocheted and landed some distance from you. It appeared that you were struggling and probably would not be able to reach it. At or about this time we had observed a large group (20 or so) of sharks in somewhat of a semicircle off to one side. We briefly discussed strafing them to run them off, but quickly ruled that out.
A brief discussion quickly determined our only other option was a one-man raft attached to my chest pack. To remove the life raft proved more of a task than expected. With the excitement of the moment I managed to get the raft cut free but not without severing one of the chute harness straps. Our second attempt seemed more successful but again not as close as we had hoped, although you were observed attempting to reach it.
About this time we were alerted by the fighters that they were getting low on fuel and were heading back. Our fuel condition was much better and we opted to stay as long as possible. Radio chatter told us that an OS2U was being launched with escorts to attempt a rescue. It was a lonely vigil, no fighter cover, and enemy fire coming from the shore. If we were hit, it meant I would bailout with a damaged chute and no life raft, not a pleasant thought. We continued to fly a circular pattern until fuel dictated our departure. It was with a heavy heart that we left. Headed back at about 100 feet we observed the flight of F6F's and the OS2U en route. Our landing was uneventful and the events of the day were over for us. My logbook shows that the flight lasted 3.9 hours ([see Jan 22 entry] in logbook below).
Strangely, I had no idea the F6 was from the Wasp or who was flying that F6. It was a mystery that over the many years I asked myself: Who was that guy? Did he survive the war?
Amazingly, a few months ago, some sixty years after the fact, the mystery was answered on the web.
I spent almost four years with the Navy, flying with VT 15 and VT 81, logging just under 900 hours. I left the Navy in November 45, married in 1951, had two children, and four grandchildren. I have been blessed with good health and I am still going strong.
Gene's logbook for the month of January 1945, showing an entry for the strike on Okinawa on Jan 22.