World War II
Lawrence James Kennedy, Jr.
On July 23, 1944, I was transferred aboard the U.S.S. Hornet from the U.S.S. Breton for duty with VB-2 as a combat aircrewman. It was my first assignment to an active squadron, and promised to be very interesting. It was!
July 25, 1944
July 25, 1944
My first hop came two days later – a four anti-sub patrol. These are usually disliked, being so monotonous, but it was quite interesting to me, since it included my first carrier takeoff and landing. The only trouble was that there was a mix up on the time schedule and I did not land soon enough to take part in the last strike for the day. That was too bad – after a year of trying to get into action against the enemy, every delay is a source of annoyance. But I knew I had not long to wait. Combat squadrons never do.
July 26, 1944
The next day I got in my first mission. We struck Yap bombing a radio station there. The flight was routine, and not bad at all. Anti-aircraft fire was light and limited to small stuff. I learned one lesson that I’ll never forget in a hurry though. As I started to strafe on the pullout, both guns jammed – with a ruptured cartridge in each chamber. There was no way to correct it, except to strip down the guns and reset the head space. It was a tale with a happy ending, but it would have been just too bad if I had been jumped. Morale: Strip down your guns every time you leave the deck and reassemble them yourself. Then you know they will fire!!
The entire flight seemed so simple, so unopposed and so much like training that I was quite anxious to get in another flight if possible during the afternoon. Imagine, then my surprise to learn that one bomber from another squadron accompanying us was shot down as he pulled out and made a water landing offshore. Fortunately he was soon rescued by an OS2U which landed under fire in the water next to it. But that afternoon I was even more sobered by one of our own planes which dove into the ground where it exploded. This hit home rather hard, for he, the gunner, was one of the few men aboard whom I know. He was one of three men transferred into this squadron on July 23.
At this time we were flying SB2C-1C’s – a very unpopular plane aboard, as I soon found out. These planes were big and fast, but required a lot of flying and were disliked for this reason. But their main fault was that to become airborne under a heavy load, they required a longer runway that the carrier deck provided. Consequently every takeoff was an agony of suspense as each plane would roar down to the end of the flight deck and dip dangerously low over the water. Most of the time they came up again. Sometimes there were "operational losses." But on top of that we seemed to have encountered an epidemic of defective planes. Quite a few had developed the nasty habit of snapping their ailerons on the pullout. There is no feeling quite as bad as flying in a plane you cannot trust! That is what many had thought was the matter with Billings and his pilot. His case will always be in doubt, but enough others had that happened to them at a high enough altitude to bail out, to leave an ugly doubt in our mind.
August 4, 1944
Our next operation was on August 4, directed against a concentration of Japanese shipping far to the north, around the Bonin Islands, only five or six hundred miles from Japan proper.
I was on the second strike that day, arriving over the target early in the afternoon, at about 12,000 feet. The convoy (consisting of about fourteen ships – transports and their escorts) was steaming frantically for home only a few miles from the port - Chichi-Jima harbor. The first strike caught them shortly after they left, and scattered them to the four winds. They escaped with comparatively light damage – or so they thought! But although they didn’t know it yet, their major loss was the time lost before they could reform and gain steam westward. That time translated into distance might have saved them. As it was ---
My wing arrived overhead entirely undetected. However, there was a little confusion over target assignments and before we were ready to go they realized that we were there, and up to no good for them. When this happened they started to throw the heavy AA up at us – the 5" stuff. I always have an eerie feeling watching that. You see the flashes below, then seconds later the wicked black puffs appear around you. This is done in complete silence until some of it comes close and you can hear the shells burst. I always feel like a target until we push over in our dive. Then most of the time, there are other things to keep you occupied.
After sitting there shivering in the cold air two miles up the most welcome feeling in the world is to have that nose go down. Then you hang there for a few timeless moments as the warm air rushes into the cockpit and wait for the pullout. As we cam out this time we were directly over and AK (cargo ship) which was blazing away wildly at us. After observing our bomb hit, which was a near miss and probably only buckled a few plates, I got my own twin thirties into action and had the satisfaction of seeing burst after burst splatter on the decks where the firing was coming from. I got about 400 rounds in before the range began to get too long so someone must have been hurt.
All in all our bombing this trip impressed me as being exceptionally lucky – for the Japs. Bomb after bomb crashed just too far off to do more than cripple the majority of the ships. But again they lost time – and more they were headed toward all points of the compass. And the reason that was bad was that only a couple of hundred miles to the rear our cruisers and destroyers were coming up fast. Anything we missed, they would get. I could almost feel sorry for those toy-like ships and their feeble attempts at escape. A lot of Japs were going to die soon.
Our third hop did the same as we and completed the delay. When they were through the Jap ships had spent the entire day running around in circles and were a scant few miles from their starting point. Strike three completed, the job of damaging the shipping, and also put three under. One simply burned itself out, another sank level, remaining upright even as the mast tops sank beneath the waves. The third make its exit in keeping with the best traditions of sinking ships. It upended, hung there like a model in a "B" picture and then started its long voyage down.
By now the entire convoy was staggering – a sorry mess. Almost every ship had been hit, and was listing or burning, milling around purposelessly as though aware of the approaching one way tickets awaiting them even then in the breaches of thew swiftly closing cruisers’ guns. One or two destroyers slipped away. That was all. By midnight the convoy was only a memory.
However, that was not all of the shipping in the area. Much of it had not left the harbor yet – perhaps seeking shelter under the curtain of the AA from the harbor defense guns. Our cruisers could have gone in and sunk them by shellfire but not without exposing themselves to possible shore batteries. The loss of a cruiser was not in our plans however, so our planes were rightfully given the job – even though they were certain to run through a veritable hell of Ack Ack. The very mention of Chichi Jima harbor to men who have bombed it brings back a certain dread. A memory of a concentrated hail, that it seemed impossible to dive through and live – and a memory of those who did not live. A plan hit by a 5" shell is not a pretty sight.
The dive bombers didn’t have it too bad; after their dive they had a plane which was fast and powerful enough to lift them over the hills which surround the harbor, and let them maintain enough speed for a getaway. The torpedo planes had it tough. After their run they had to lumber up over those hills with barely enough power to maintain flying speed. For those few deadly minutes they are easy marks for the ground gunners. Your sympathies would have to ride with the "pickle luggers" this trip. Picture, then, their delight in finding some of the ships outside the harbor, frantically trying to slip away. They got away all right perpendicularly. Meanwhile – the bombers cleared the harbor, also demolishing the town of Onura. It was quite a day for our side. Strangely enough, no air opposition was encountered – so we shot up about twenty-five planes on the ground. Maybe it was cheaper for the Japs that way. The last time our forces came here they lost not only their planes, but the pilots as well.
The only loss we suffered was the loss of one TBF. It was shot down during a torpedo run in which it sank a Jap AK. Though wounded, the pilot managed to make a water landing and his crew and he escaped. They were separated, and the pilot drowned in the hands of his radioman after hours of struggle. The two crewmen were picked up late that night my one of our destroyers.
I didn’t get in on any of these strikes, but had an interesting flight nonetheless. My assignment turned out to be a search mission looking for any shipping, or, more important, units of the Japanese fleet which might be on the way to intercept us. As it happened the flight was uneventful, and distinguishable from any routing patrol only by the fact that we approached within 175 miles of Tokyo. To date that is the closest that any carrier based plane has flown to Japan proper.
One of our search parties had a really interesting morning though. Shortly after they had reached the end of their radius and started back they encountered an Emily – Japan’s largest plan, a seaplane, most likely on coastal patrol work. That was one plane that never returned to its home base. The two "Beasts" (SB2C’s) made runs on it at once, setting one of its two starboard engines afire. The gunners had a rare opportunity to pour the ammo home, but they said it seemed like shooting "BBs" at an elephant. It seemed hard to find a spot small enough to be vital. The fighter escort, two FGF’s finally cam in and finished off the job with their 50s. The plane went down in flames exploding as it hit and leaving only a flaming sheet of gasoline.
As I came back to my ship the first thing I saw was the flashes from the destroyer’s guns as they cut loose salvo after salvo. For a few seconds I thought they were firing at us, but the total absence of those ominous black puffs reassured me at once. Then I saw their targets – a bunch of sampans, most of which were already smoking; a couple, bright red flames were slowly extending their grasp over the entire deck. As I watched, a destroyer planted a shell directly on the bow of one. It looked rather deadly.
Some of the barges held troops. I saw a destroyer pull alongside one of these to take the soldiers prisoners. But they came within range the Japs opened fire with a puny 7.7 mm machine gun. Sweeping quickly out of range they blasted it with 20mm and 40 mm, destroying it completely. I don’t know whether that was bravery or fear – taking what seemed to them the lesser of two evils. Those men had guts, but they put them to poor use. What use fighting with not any chance at all?
By nightfall our mopping up was complete, we wheeled around and steamed eastward for Einewetok.
August 9, 1944 – August 29, 1944
From August 9, to August 29 we stayed in port, except for a two day gunnery run, refueling, revictualing, rebombing and in general making ready once more to go on an extended cruise.
In the Air Group, the bombing squadron had a major reorganization. To begin with, we dumped our old planes on the beach and got twenty-four brand new ones – SB2C-3’s. These planes had an extra two hundred horses under its hood, and this was just the boost it needed to make it top notch. With the acquisition of this plane the morale of the squadron increased 100%. The only drawback was that now we had less of these than before. About a dozen of our pilots were assigned to fighter bombers. Undoubtedly we gained many tactical advantages. By such an arrangement but it left that many aircrewmen to ground duties since they lost their pilots. Somehow I escaped that "ape". Thank heavens! At the moment I could think of no worse fate than to be grounded.
As our bow again turned to the west we knew we were launched on a long and hazardous schedule. For the squadron this was to be its last cruise. Everyone was ready to go back to the states.
September 6, 1944
September 6 – our fighters hit Palau, in a sweep calculated to eliminate all opposition. There was none. They shot up planes on the ground and straffed installations. That cleared the ground for us, and on the following day we swept in to begin a pounding that was to be the start of a softening up process for some of the marines who were to attack a week later. For some reason Air Group Two seemed to have the easy targets on this operation. We bombed Anquar Island, entirely unopposed. Except for some light AA. Fires were started everywhere – as I cam in on the second strike I could smell the smoke resulting from the early strike at 12000 ft. My pilot pulled out high, and as I could find no decent target I was unable to strafe. I don’t know why, but I have an especial delight for strafing. I guess that’s because for a few minutes that I am throwing out lead the show is mine. I can make the stage where I please. But no member, strafing from a plane is much different than you see in the movies. It is strictly impersonal and long range work 1000 ft is fairly close range. The only emotion experienced is one of satisfaction in seeing your tracers strike home. You can’t see blood that far off.
That afternoon I had another strike – the schedule was changed after the gunners had checked the list so one of them did not know he had the flight. I was only too glad to take his place, and make a fight that was almost an exact repetition of the earlier hop. However, our days work was so successful that our strikes for the following day were called off, due to "the absence of any profitable targets."
From these strikes all hands returned safely – but this was merely the start. Our real strikes lay ahead. That night we headed north – for the Phillipines.
This was to be the first strike ever made on the Phillipines by carrier based aircraft. As you see it was to be a big day for the Air Group. I don’t know what everyone else was thinking as we sat in our planes waiting for it to get light enough for the takeoff, but I imagine that everyone was on pretty much the same channel. For the past week we had been receiving reports from the Army B-24s that had been bombing from around 14000 feet. The AA, they said, was heavy and accurate. Every time they went they lost a couple of planes. There was one bright spot in the picture – one with a question mark however. Very light fighter opposition was encountered when any. Still, we wondered - where were their planes? It grew light with a crack of dawn which became a bridgehead, then an invasion of the sky.
Our takeoff was uneventful, and after circling the task force to join up, we headed due West for Davao Gulf. The sight of Mindano Mountains looming ahead of us was one not to be easily nor quickly forgotten. We viewed it with mixed emotions – The Phillipines – we were carrying the war back to where it began! I don’t believe fear was one of my emotions. I do all my shaking on the ground. Once airborne I have for some reason a great confidence that everything is alright. The ones who deserve the credit are those who sit up there momentarily expecting the worst – but who go up anyhow.
We streak close to shore, then over land then out over Davao Gulf. The overland run was the worst. We expected momentarily to be fired upon by heavy concentrations of AA. Instead it is as quiet as we could ask for. Shipping is what we had hoped for, but to our disappointment as we glance over the 40 mile wide gulf nothing but water and on island meets our gaze. On we go across the Gulf to our secondary target, the airfield at Digos. In we go at 14,000 feet peel off and are screaming down almost before the Japs know we are there. Not until we are diving do those guns start to wink. One battery of 5" stuff just started to get busy when its efforts were rather violently stopped by the arrival of 1000 lb. G.P. bomb.
My pilot pulled out at about 4,000 ft. giving me no opportunity to strafe, but we were away before the first of the Ack Ack puffs began to appear in the sky. One fighter plane was nailed as he swept in low to strafe, and crashed in flames but the rest of us swept away untouched.
Again, the great question was where were the Jap planes? As we started back smoke fires suddenly sprouted up all over the island. Although a few fighters wen down to investigate, no sign of life was to be seen nearby, nor for that matter, any reason for the fire. It was the general opinion that this was their way of saying "hello". Perhaps so, or maybe it was all a little fond imagination on our part.
On the way back one of our fighter planes, ranging wide, discovered a Japanese convoy outside of Davao Gulf about ten miles offshore. The second strike already in the air, was diverted to attack this – which they did with relish. The convoy consisted of roughly ten AK’s and about thirty sampans. With the aid of our surface forces of cruisers and destroyers these were speedily dispatched.
Early in the afternoon strike three went out to look for shipping in Larangani Bay, southwest of Davao. Their search there proved fruitless, so they continued on crossing the island of Mindanao, hoping to find some of the Tojos floating assets, which they intended to convert into liabilities. Two ships were found inland a way a few miles up the river. The strike leader called to the bomber leader: "Dispatch six hawks to take care of those ships." Six hell divers peeled off and five minutes later reported, "Mission completed."
One ship was sunk, the other broken in two and blazing furiously. But that was about the extent of their findings. They dumped the remainder of their bombs on shore installations, and the TBFs unloaded their torpedoes into the docks (to conserve fuel) and returned to bas with barely enough fuel to taxi up the deck.
By now the fourth, and last, strike of the day was well on its way. I was along on this one myself, and since no air opposition of not had been encountered all day, we expected to just slip in, mess up the place and head for home. However, things were not to go so smoothly this trip, as we lost no time in finding out. As we reached the shore we were greeted not by the scattered clouds of the morning but by high impenetrable mountains of clouds. They were so bad that instead of taking a chance on plowing through and maintaining our formation, the leader headed south to go around the bank. So far everything was all right, but there must have been some confusion because when we once more headed North along the eastern side of Davao Gulf, instead of turning when we passed Digos and cutting straight over the forty odd miles to our target. We took a much more circuitous route up and around the head of the Gulf, past Davao and once more southward to Digos. All of this while the Japs must have been watching us and waiting, for no sooner did we come within range than they opened up at us with everything they had.
It was a definite improvement over their morning performance; for them, not for us! They had our altitude down pat and came too close for comfort. Beneath our Port wing, in one square of brown earth I could see about six big guns winking up at us. They looked particularly malicious to me at the moment so I shouted out at them, "Okay you bums, I’ll get you when I get down there." They must have heard me somehow – as we kicked over into our dive and started down one particular vicious burst exploded just under our tail with a sharp crack and threw the plane around as if it were a leaf. When you hear the shells burst, brother they’re close! I thought they had our number for a few moments but someone must have miscalculated for they kept falling behind until we had passed in too close to be within their effective range. Then as we released our bomb and pulled out I had my crack at them. By now I had a very personal dislike for that square and everything in it so I really poured the 30 cal into it. It seems that I was not the only gunner with that thought in mind, and as we passed each plane had a short duel with those guns.
They set off their guns with the muzzles to make "good" Japs out of any who were too foolish to keep down. To keep our argument from becoming a draw by any chance, a fighter bomber slipped in from the other side and lifted tow of the 5" guns into the air with a 500 lb. bomb. That kind of stuff must be hard on the Jap morale.
Once more we were able to return to base with all hands and were very well satisfied with our days work, although it was a mystery to us where the supposed heavy opposition had gone to.
September 7, 1944
My flight was not until the following afternoon. Then we fitted up with an auxiliary tank on our starboard wing. We were to cross the island of Mindanao in search of shipping on the far side, with airfields as the secondary targets. Though the flight was long, the changing scenery made it much more enjoyable than one of half the duration over water. Strangely enough this flight over the Phillipines was my longest flight overland to date!
Once more the waters were devoid of shipping so we turned back to Cotabata field and gave it a working over. Just as we turned back on AK was sighted and summarily sunk. A couple of fighters strafed it and then two SB2C’s finished it off with their 1000 pounders. It blew up with the most curious orange smoke.
Circling over the field as we started our high speed run I had an excellent opportunity to observe the operation. Three planes were held in reserve while a couple of fighters went to investigate a report hat there was one shipping further northward along the coast. I was lucky enough to be one of the three and so had a grandstand seat. First our fighters went in, strafing planes on the field and anything else that looked worthwhile or offensive. Next our TBF’s started in on their run. The dive bombers started last, but by virtue of the fact that they went almost straight down they arrived before the TBFs did. But this time the torpedo planes were carrying 2000 pound bombs, and since they made a much bigger explosion they were the focal point of the attack. Those bombs burst with read flash of immense size, followed by a towering column of thick black smoke, diluted only by flying debris and the smoke of whatever the explosion had fired. The entire attack was carried on without the interfering presence of any hostile aircraft, and with no Ack Ack that we could see.
Unfortunately, that unknown element crept in again nevertheless and sent one TBF from some other ship diving vertically into the ground, bomb, crew and all. Cause unknown. The shipping report proved to be false, so we last three finally dove on the field also. The bomb in my plane did not release as we pulled out at 4000 ft, so we made a lazy circle and came in again in a glide below 2000 ft. Then as we kept our nose down heading for open water I was able to strafe the field until it dropped out of range behind.
On my last burst I had a defective round of ammunition which jammed my port gun. In the few seconds I had my head down working on it we had dropped to within a few hundred feet of the ground. As I looked up a native village met my eyes. I thought it was a Jap camp and swung my guns on it, but quickly threw them up without firing as I noticed that it was native. I could see the men, women and children in the struts looking up at us their frail looking thatched roof houses, and the dozens of small sail boats pulled up on the shore. Many more of these outriggers were darting to and fro as we flew out over the water, and for a while I almost wished they were Japs instead of friendly natives. They would have made wonderful targets.
All in all the resistance was so unexpected light and there were so few profitable targets in the area that I believe it rather threw our schedule out of kilter. It seemed that the only thing to do was to go farther north. This we did, and after a days lapse we were set to hit the Visayans – namely Negros and Cebu. These flights were exceptionally long, over the islands of the central Phillipines, but we expected an interesting time. This was all virgin territory, untouched since the ware passed it by two and a half years ago. Once more I had the second flight, the target being Bacelod field, on the eastern side of Negros. As we neared the target area the air was unusually full of reports on boogies (unidentified aircraft). Then all of a sudden the cry went out "Boogies nothing, brother they’re Bandits!"
The Japs seemed unwilling to come up and get us, they preferred to wait until we dove and were separated from our fighters before they came in. That didn’t keep us from hitting our target – which is supposed to be the primary purpose of interception, but perhaps they had their reasons. Looking at our fighter screen, I could see their point. This time I expected to have some excitement on the dive, but somehow it fizzled out. As we pulled out I did have the satisfaction of seeing our bomb burst among the parked planes spread so nicely out on the mat. We pulled out too high to strafe, but I was spending most of my time scanning the clouds anyhow so it didn’t bother me at the time. Now the Japs had a few planes in the air they must have had boundless confidence in them. I didn’t see a single round of AA fired at anyone. Far in the distance I could see our fighters making it hot for a pair of Japs which dove out of sight smoking as I watched.
Another crossed over in front of us about a thousand feet below, but was well out of my arc of fire and almost out of range anyway. Just before we joined up (the while join up took less than a minute this trip) I saw a power boat chugging along below looking for a foxhole. But just as I swung my guns on him a fighter cam in low just over the water and gave him a working over with it’s six fifties. He started burning nicely so I didn’t mind losing my crack at him.
The Japs were still around so we cleared out of there fast. Stragglers always invite special attention so everyone had rushed together under our fighter cover. We had planes from just about every flat-top in the operation. This made it difficult to count noses, but as no planes had been reported down we weren’t too uneasy over the matter.
We returned to the ship to find the ready room a pandemonium. Everyone was trying to talk at once – this was the first airborne opposition encountered by our strikes and was quite a novelty. When the dust settled the results were something like this – Strike A had bagged seven planes, losing in turn one fighter which was seen to make a water landing and the pilot was seen to board his life raft. Two Nikes had jumped one bomber, making poor runs with very inaccurate shooting and then pulling out almost in a stall. The gunner didn’t let this opportunity pass and punched one full of holes sending it off with pieces falling off the starboard wing (he failed to get a kill since no one actually saw it hit) and then drove the other away.
Our eight TBF’s had a worse time of it, being jumped by six Japs who gave them a short but violent workout. One torpecker was shot up the radioman receiving four 7.7 slugs in his stomach (he later recovered). Although the 50 cal turret guns were busy and scored many hits on the attacking planes every time they broke away or exposed themselves they turned this belly up.
On my flight everyone had not had an easy time as I did either. Our fighters had sent six planes down without losses, but one of our bombers was jumped by two twin-engined fighters that almost spelled church. The rear seat man fired one short burst and had both guns jam. The pilot did some quick thinking and threw the plane into a stall, allowing the Japs to pas beneath him. Then as his nosed dropped down he opened up with his own 20 mm – only to have both of them Jam! It looked bad for a moment, but just then the next bomber to dive appeared on the scene with guns blazing and drove them away. That was the last beginning for the Japs. For the remainder of the day the few that were in the air kept out of range and let our strike pass without opposition.
September 8, 1944
My target for the following day was the same except that this time I had the first hop. I thought that I would have a better look at the Japs now – they seemed to come out strongest in the morning. Just before we manned our planes I was given a camera to bring back pictures of whatever looked interesting. From the take of to the pullout this flight was almost a repetition of the previous attack. Then as we recovered from our dive and I was leaning half out of the plane to see around the tail (for we had pulled out in a straight line) I suddenly caught a flash of motion out of the corner of my eye. I jerked my head up to see a Zeke come barreling along at right angles to our line of flight. This was the first one I’d seen within range and as he was only a thousand feet away I crammed my camera under the seat and swung my guns on him. Just at that moment two FGF’s came tearing in right behind him – with no doubt accounts for his lack of interest in me as a target. He must have seen me though, for as he passed he rolled his belly up at me.
It made quite a sight. The sleek dark brown fuselage and wings with the big read "meatballs". But with the fighters right on his tail I thought this was too good a chance to miss, so I dropped my guns and retrieved my camera thinking to get an actin shot of one Zero amounting to just that. To my disappointment, although burst after burst was fired at him he seemed to be untouched. But the fighters were in close, and seemed to be forcing him into the water. I waited, for although the planes were by now unrecognizable, the explosion when he hit would make a good shot. This pilot seemed to have ideas of his own, and as it turned out had no intentions of putting on a free show for anyone. Just as he seemed about to hit he suddenly threw his nose up and climbed like a rocket - into the clear. There I sat, literally holing the bag.
This was a very fast joint up – the pilots were all familiar with what usually happens to stragglers, so we dove almost in formation. As we leveled off we closed up, made one 180 degree turn to port and headed home. The fun wasn’t yet over for the day – on the way home one "Tony" put on a show for us. Though all alone, he took one pass at our twelve bombers, by diving from about 5,000 ft. above. But on the way he passed through a cloud, beneath which, hidden from his sight were five FGF’s of our high cover. Diving through their formation must have startled him, as he apparently became confused and abandoned his original plans. He would have done better if he had continued on – or perhaps I should say he wouldn’t have been any worse off.
As it was he pulled up and tried to climb to safety with the fighters, that had suddenly developed a burning interest in him, hot on his tail. The tracers streaked home, he started to smoke and then bursting into flay he headed straight down. Flaming like a comet, leaving a long trail behind him, he never wavered in his course until he crashed into the mountainside below. That was a brave pilot, but with an inferior plane he had bitten off more than he could chew.
Another hundred miles on we passed over two AKs. One was medium sized, the other slightly smaller. I watched them as they passed beneath us, and saw our fighters make strafing runs on them. The smaller one was soon hidden by my tail, but as the larger one was well over on our port side I could watch it quite clearly. One after another our planes would dive in with their six 50s blazing. I could see, after each burst, the tracers and incendiaries flashing as they hit, twinkling for all the world as if the ship had guns from stern to stern, and was using them. All of a sudden a blast threw my plane into the air with a jolt that shook every tooth in my head. I thought a 5" shell had burst right under us. I know the larger ship had fired no heavy guns while I watched it so I craned my neck to look under our tail at the other ship. What met my eyes was a piece of the bow sliding under water. In place of the ship was a column of smoke and debris reaching up to a level with my eyes. What I had felt was the concussion as the ship exploded! It must have been carrying ammunition which was set off by the fighter guns. I don’t believe they ever did find the fighter.
That afternoon we had the last hop. Also another fairly long one but short by comparison as it was only to Cebu – quite a bit farther to the east. On both of the trips to Negros we had passed some thirty-odd miles to the north, and judging by the smoke columns there were some worth while targets there. We were going after oil dumps this time, as well as any shipping which might be left. For a change our group was the last to dive which was by no means by way of making us feel better especially as a bomber from the other squadron dove into the ground before it could pull out. As we made our approach from the South the Japs suddenly began to throw up Ack Ack. It wasn’t too heavy – and looked to be about three inch stuff – but it was coming pretty close and I was glad to push over. This was the first AA that had come up since Digos, but the Japs seemed to be trying hard to make up for the previous omissions. I was glad it was no heavier for they stayed with us almost all the way down in the dive. If they were popping away at a plane either in front of or behind me, the shooting was fairly poor. However, at the moment this was of little consolation to me. Whoever they were aiming at, I was the one that particular bit was bothering.
We released our bomb over a small island just outside of Cebu harbor, blowing up what seemed to be an oil dump. On the pull out we had all sorts of power boats to strafe and for exchange I got one in my sight without an FGF barging in to spoil the fun. We were still not to shoot up any natives of course but as I pressed the trigger this time I remember thinking, "Well if any native has a boat like that he must be a Quisling" Then I cut loose. Both guns were pumping lead out smoothly. I could see the bullets strike the water just behind the boat then slide over, then suddenly a puff of smoke and flame shot out. I guess I must have hit the gas thank about then. Looking up, I found another target but before I could fire the fighter sweep about a thousand feet below were pulling out of their dive – right in my line of fire so I gave it up as a bad job. We had encountered no fighter opposition at all this trip, so after scanning the skies I had a good chance to look back at Cebu and survey the damage. To begin with, our planes had bankrupted a couple of oil refineries along the water front and these were making tremendous fires. Besides this a huge section of warehouses and docks were putting on their version of the Chicago fire. Dozens of blocks were nothing but flames. I don’t see how any fire department could hope to put out the fire – and there were two of them in two different sections. In the harbor itself, besides the destroyed shipping was one cargo ship which someone had overlooked. On of the last TBF’s in righted the situation with four five hundred pounders. The ship ( if you could still call it that) was a sad sack when we left.
I’ve seen better bombing, bigger explosions and more damage done, but Cebu will always be remembered by me for those fires. They were the worst I’ve seen anywhere.
For the time being that was the extent of our Phillipine strikes. We had got off amazingly light, and would just as soon have hung around another day or so to finish off the job, but our time schedule called for us to be down South to cover the Moratai invasion so we pushed off that night.
September 9, 1944
As we passed Mindanao the following day we sent in a couple of strikes with unexpected and gratifying results. The first strike found, as it approached Davao Gulf, a large Fubuki class destroyer. There it sat, all alone, and steaming full speed ahead for elsewhere. We didn’t stop it – we merely changed it direction – from horizontal to vertical. The whole attack was beautifully set up, and beautifully executed. They never even got a chance to fire the big guns on the DD. The fighters went in first sweeping the decks with their murderous .50 cal. Hail. This thinned out the AA considerably and gave the dive bombers a much less pugnacious target upon which to dive. There were about ten planes that pounced on the destroyer, but the way it was turning made it a hard mark. One after another the planes scored near misses but succeeded only in crippling it. For a moment it seemed that it might even limp away to safety. Then the second to last plane landed one square on. The other bomb that followed it was sheer waste. The destroyers depth charges (and perhaps torpedoes) seemed to have been set off. There was a terrific explosion and what wreckage was left sank almost immediately, leaving nothing but the inevitable oil slick, and a good number of survivors who had been hurled overboard. Perhaps I do wrong to call them survivors – they merely lasted a little longer. When the second strike swept by later in the day there was no one – and as they were some twenty miles from shore with not a boat out in the Gulf it is certain that none of them was picked up.
There is one humorous incident that in all this. When our strike leader discovered the DD he reported it, then went about the business of eliminating it. The other squadron, from the carrier operating with us, anxious to get in on the kill started calling over the air asking for position, speed, course, bearing and other information that would enable them to reach the scene. (They were in the air at the time flying nearby.) Bothered by these distractions from the business at hand the leader finally grabbed up his mike and called out to them, "If you will keep quiet for five minutes I will tell you all about where it was!" He did.
We considered this to be a pretty good day’s haul, for not only was this the first DD we had definitely sunk, but it was thought to be an evacuation vessel, taking high officials and important papers to safety after our raids a few days before.
We continued south on our assignment to cover the Morotai landings, but as this turned out to be a "pushover" our operation developed into nothing more than a standby. It might even have been a good rest period except that word was out about where we were going next. The lower Phillipines and even the Visayans had not been quite the hot bead we had anticipated. So we had to look farther. Luyon was to be our target - or Manilla, to be specific. I wanted to take a look at a few of those places myself. Bataan and Corregidor where we had taken such a kicking around the beginning of the war.
I had something of the feeling that one gets visiting an old battlefield, like Gettysburg. It seemed to be a definite objective, as Tokyo is no – for this was our original front line. The squadron was just about ready to be relieved and I hated to come this far and not see the whole show. I shouldn’t have bothered to worry about that!
September 21, 1944
September 21 saw us up north again, to the east, and slightly north of the lower tip of Luyon. Our first strike was to take off at dawn, the second (mine again) to follow close behind. For safety’s sake I wished I were first this time. I figured that if the first ones were lucky enough to sneak in and catch them by surprise they would just be riled up nicely by the time the second group arrived. No doubt had I been in the first group I could have found equally good reasons for being in the second strike. There didn’t seem to be much to choose from between the two.
At this time it appeared that the weather was about to foul everything up on us. When it was time to man the planes it started to rain and kept raining hard enough to prohibit take off for two hours. While this changed our planes slightly it later developed to be all to our good. The rain squall hung around our task group all day and provided excellent cover, but the weather over the target cleared and became ideal, with enough clouds to provide cover, yet not enough to interfere with our bombing.
My strike took off closely after the first, with only the interval necessary to spot and arm the planes. Until we got close, the flight to Manilla was uneventful except for the usual cries of "boogie" all around. These all turned out to be friendly so we had no disturbance from that quarter.
The reports from the initial strike began to come in then. The fighters announced the shipping disposition – of which there was plenty, then the bombers called, "AA heave and accurate." A couple of planes were reported down, but whether or not they were ours I couldn’t tell. The Hornet and our running mate, the Wasp, were to take the shipping , four other carriers the fields and shore installations. Little side comments like "Boy, did you see that! I’d sure hate to be the last plane to dive." And so on added no little to our uneasiness. The first thing I saw of Manilla as it came sliding into view under my port wing, was the flashes of the heavy AA guns as they opened up to pull out. We barely came within range than the Ack Ack was after us.
Blam! Blam! One burst on either side of us so close that I thought for a minute we were hit. I crouched a little lower behind my thin armor plate and snapped the safety off my gun trigger. A shell burst just ahead of one plane flying to port and enveloped it with thick black smoke. I thought he was a goner, but the Beast plowed through still going strong. To starboard another plane was momentarily blotted out by the black clouds that sprouted between us. More smoke drifted over our nose past my cockpit. The plane was really doing a dance now as my pilot threw the plane around. How much he did and how much the AA did I’ll never know. We were now over the harbor I saw, looking down, and just then we started to drop. We fell away from that AA as though it had been a solid wall that we had dropped from. I pulled out.
Under our tail I saw our bomb hit a huge floating dry dock. From then on I was too busy to see much. There were targets everywhere. I picked up a large freighter that was sliding underneath us lengthwise, shooting all it had at us, and opened fire on its stern, drawing twin lines down the entire length of its deck. My last few shots were just hitting the bow when someone dropped his 1000 lb. Bomb directly amidships. That settled that. I looked up hurriedly, scanned the skies for Jap planes, and finding none once more began to strafe. There was one boat to the left I fired on – it was just out of range then another under my tail, then a PT boat off to starboard. My guns were working so smoothly that I had fired about 1500 rounds before pulled up and started to climb. Everyone was so busy strafing that we had a slow join up but it didn’t matter much. This part of the sky was all ours. One or two planes swung in a little too close to Corregidor and got a hot reception, but they cleared out in a hurry and were all right.
There was a Jap below who was the most persistent fellow I ever saw. It was a fast destroyer, a little to the eastward side of Manilla Bay. He kept churning up the water darting back and forth trying to chase the planes, firing madly all the while. It looked just like a fox terrier snapping at our heels. Whichever way we turned he kept after us, hopelessly out of range, but shooting as fast as he could load his guns. We gave him credit for a nice try. A couple of planes on the next hop finally accommodated him however, putting the second DD on our island. It was almost a shame to sink it; that ship had character all its own.
We returned to our ship to find it steaming into the wind waiting for us and upon landing found, much to our surprise and delight that all hands had returned safely with some nine ships definitely sunk and others damaged. About a dozen planes had been knocked out by our fighters. Most of the planes, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200, had been bagged by the other carriers that attacked the air fields. Our last two strikes met with equal success, and our losses for the day totaled zero. Planes from each of the other carriers had gone down but wee had come out of it untouched.
September 22, 1944
There was still work to be done on the next day, so we flew just about the same schedule. This time I had the first hop. We manned our planes on a pitch dark deck, and for a while it looked as if the schedule of the previous day was to be followed to the letter, for once it started to pour. It soon stopped however, and the skies began to lighten with the coming dawn. Then as we had our engines started and turning over the sky to the starboard began to suddenly fill with AA bursts from one of the cruisers guns. I didn’t know just what was up but I turned around and started to load my guns anyhow. One nervous marine cut loose with a 20 mm just as I slammed my second cover shut. I couldn’t see what his finger of tracers was pointing at, but since no one else was firing I didn’t pay much attention to him.
Nevertheless, I stayed with my guns until we started to roll forward into take off position before I swung around and fastened my shoulder straps. Once off the deck I twisted around and snapped my chute on. Though I could see no planes I saw a few bombs hit, one of them right by our cruiser. It only sprang a few plates as I later learned but it looked bad at the time. As we joined up and started for the target the plane on my starboard wing developed engine trouble and started back. If that pilot had known what he was in for he would have stayed with us even if he had to get out and push. He had the worst time of all that flight. When he returned to the ship everyone cut loose at him.. The cruisers, destroyers, everyone. He escaped only by hugging the water and pouring on the coal, and even so he was only half jump ahead of a curtain of AA. In the bargain his radio was out and he couldn’t tell anyone of his sad case. The ships should have recognized him easily, but were so used to being protected by fighters that having been jumped once that morning all they could see was Jap planes. He wound up circling the screen until we returned from the strike and even so was so shaken up that he could hardly grab the deck until his fourth time around.
We followed approximately the same course as we had the day before, and once again the Japs had their "welcome mat" out. We left the harbor to the Wasp planes, just behind us, this time and continued across the harbor and bay to some shipping that was hugging the opposite shore. On the way over the Wasp planes put on a very good show for me. I was facing the harbor, just under my tail and was in an excellent position to see the entire attack. They became visible as soon as they started down and I could see the endless string start down as if the nose of one was tied to the others tail. As their pull outs started the bombs began to hit, and this was really their day. I watched them destroy three ships as fast as you could count 1,2,3. Two bombs hit one, and it simply broke in tow and went down. Another burned with a cloud of bright yellow smoke and also soon went down. The third must have had a near miss, for it did not sink until I passed it later coming back. A few more ships were pouring out black smoke and were finished off later in the day.
This day however, we did not ourselves escape quite so easily. First of all when we returned to the carrier it was still buzzing with excitement. While we were away a lone Jap fighter slipped through the screen and make a single-handed attack on the ship. He came in slowly with guns blazing and strafed the after end of the deck wrecking about six planes and wounding five men, to of whom later died. All the while he was himself an ideal target and every gun on the ship opened fire on him. That was the first plane the gunners had ever seen without a white star and they promptly forgot every principle of gunnery why had ever learned. They pointed their guns blindly, blazed away and never even came close. The Jap managed to get clean away. Some think an FGF later shot him down, but no one knows for sure. Personally, I hope he got away. It takes plenty of nerve and skill to attack a task force like that single- handed and get away to tell about it.
One of your TBF’s also met the end of the line over Manilla. The pilot, Eno Reisert had had one flight already and volunteered for a second. Then just as he started his run he was hit by AA at the base of his port wing. The plane kept going a short way, then was hit again and burst into flame. One chute billowed out; the plane twisted and turned, plunging earthward. Before it hit another chute sprouted out, trailed, but before it opened it was hidden by the smoke from the plane as it crashed. Whoever got out is probably a prisoner of war, but who it was is impossible to say. We figure it was either the pilot or the radioman.
Statistically we came through the entire operation with extreme light losses. But a loss of even one mane to an air group hits as hard as the loss of a carrier would hit back. Home. There is really no such thing as "light" losses.
We thought this day ended our strikes and as the ship headed south we thought that we were going to be relieved. But as we once more passed Visayans we received orders to spend one more day attacking them, starting off with an early morning long range strike at Coron, clear over the westward side of the Phillipines. Two strikes were fitted up with auxiliary wing tanks and went off to look for some shipping. My wing was scheduled for the third hop, if one was decided on.
These long range strikes turned out fairly well, and a small convoy of ships that thought they were safely out of range suddenly found themselves the center of attraction. The clouds were pretty bad and the total score never was added up, but hits were made on AK’s, tankers and one light cruiser. We think that we got the cruiser, but as we have no proof we cannot claim it. All we know is that it was bombed, and that when a fighter pilot went back to see how badly it was damaged all he could see was a few bubbles. That was only circumstantial evidence and so the matter rests. Again we suffered a loss. This time one of our fighter-bomber pilots. No one knows what happened to him. He went in on the attack and was never seen again. If he was lucky enough to make a water landing he was more than likely picked up by the natives and will have to sit tight until we once more take over the Phillipines. If he crashed we will probably never know about it.
A third strike was decided upon, but as it was getting late our target was changed to Cebu, which was much closer. We were to search all the channels and inlets on the way, looking for shipping targets and drop our bombs on the fields and docks at Cebu only if we could find nothing else worthy of our attention. In all, it turned out to be a very dull flight except for the fighters. They had numerous targets in the way of sampans and small craft and they blazed a trail for us in and out of all the waterways among the islands. We had a number of false leads, but they all turned out to be gutted wrecks, abandoned after our last visit to this area. It was the same story, all the way in to Cebu, and even at Cebu itself. From the air the town itself seemed dead. The shipping was all gone, huge sections, where bright fires had been when I last saw it, were now only black splotches and even the AA guns were silent. Finally after much hemming and hawing we pushed over into our dive and dropped our bomb square on a field outside of the city. I couldn’t find a thing worth strafing. I had one round of tracer in my .38 that I had been wanted to fire so I pointed my pistol in the general direction of the field and pulled the trigger. That was the last round I fired at the Japs. Everyone got back all right from this flight which was the last operation mission of Air Group Two. My plane was the last one in and since I sit about six feet behind the pilot I guess that makes me the last man to land. That night we headed for our relief.
We were through now, we were safe. All the danger was past and nothing remained for us but a few ant-subpatrols. Or so we thought. For one duo in the bombing squadron the most dangerous day lay ahead and with it one of the most narrow escapes in the squadron record.
The first patrol was going off – four bombers with their flight escort. For such a few planes the flight deck was not cleared. Instead, as was customary, the catapult was used. The fighters shot off, next the bombers started – then into position rolled the plane which was to be in the spotlight of the days events. Ensign Unsworth and rear gunner Art Xemp – two minutes away from what was to be one of their most unforgettable experiences.
At the signal officers gestered the engine roared as full power was applied, and screamed as it tugged at its leash. A nod, then a signal from the pilot and the catapult hurled its load forward. Hurled it, that is for the first ten feet – then quit. That left a six ton bomber some fifty feet or so to become airborne, And no matter how you add it up, that sort of thing isn’t done. The plane trickled down the deck, dribbled over the bow and each second seemed an hour to both pilot and gunner who knew instantly what had happened, and what was about to happen. The plane dove into the water nose first, fell onto its back and sank instantly.
Then things began to happen. The helman turned the ship to port, barely grazing the plan instead of running it down. Men on the starboard side of the ship began to bomb the spot where the plane went down with life rafts. Smoke bombs and dye markers went over the side. A tin can bore down on the scene. Inside the plane itself, tow safety belts snapped loose; Unsworth bobbed to the surface almost at once. Xemp began to have his troubles. As he released his belt his momentum shot him out of his seat but down. Then when he started up he ran into the plane. It took three tries to get clear. On top, pilot and gunner set a new record for reaching and boarding a life raft. As they climbed in they heard a shot, like a 20mm going off. The whole ship shook but on the raft they never felt a thing. It took a while for them to realize that the noise was both of their dept charges going off.
That afternoon the DD brought them both back to us, not the worse for wear. That day ended our flying, and we really headed for our relief.
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