"Thomas I guess you know you gave me a lousy ride!"
The first combat tour in the Pacific on the USS Bunker Hill gave those of us in Torpedo Four a conception of our ultimate mission. We could now understand why everyone did not choose to be carrier-based torpedo pilots. Why and how we got to this point can be illustrated by my own experience.
My second ride in an airplane took place after I joined the Navy as an aviation cadet. The flight instructor took me up to about 5000 feet in a "Yellow Peril," rolled the plane on its back, and dove straight for the ground. It took some time for my stomach to catch up. "That, Cadet Thomas," my instructor stated, "is what a dive bombing run is like! Do you think you can take it?" I gasped an affirmative through the speaker tube that connected our cockpits, but I wasn't so sure.
Certainly, this was much more exciting than my first ride when my brother, Daniel, and I paid $2.50 each at a Los Angeles airport in 1937 for a short but thrilling flight in a Piper Cub. After that I spent several hard-earned quarters on a tied-down propeller-driven Lynk trainer at a San Diego amusement park. Then too there were those books back home about the "Rover Boys" and their flying machines. The desire to fly was in my blood.
I was working for the US Forest Service on a Timber Stand Improvement project near Yellowstone National Park when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I learned about the declaration of war two days later when I went to Island Park for groceries. I was camped with a small forest crew about 35 miles from Island Park. We were living in tent houses and working in about two feet of snow--mostly girdling "bug" trees with a hand ax or piling brush after a timber cut.
The work was hard, and the crew came into camp every night wet, cold and tired. My notes taken a few days before Pearl Harbor state. (1)
"Another miserable day of ax swinging. The picture of the day shows the four major articles of our household. The alarm clock which wakes us up so regularly (at 5 a.m.). The coffee pot on which our very existence depends and contains more rings than we have miseries. The complicated philosophical remarks found in Shakespeare's works keep our tongues and minds active throughout the miserable day. The remaining article in the picture, as you may have guessed, is a roll of tissue paper. It deserves mention because it is a very important item in our backwoods life. With the end of this roll near, our one remaining luxury passes on. The defense program has brought about this major tragedy--it is with the deepest regret that we again return to catalogues because, my friends, tissue has gone up to six cents a roll."
Under these circumstances it is not hard to understand why I responded to President Roosevelt's declaration of war by attempting to join up. I told the Forest Ranger that I was going to enlist in the Army Air Corps. He said to go ahead since the snow was getting too deep to work anyway. I loaded my gear in the old Model A and drove back to the ranch at Medicine Lodge. I left the Ford and most of my belongings on the ranch, and a few days later I hitchhiked to Pasadena, California.
The attack on Pearl Harbor changed everyone's attitude about the war. I found one of the letters I had written to Mother while I was a student at the University of Idaho. This letter indicates that I, too, was caught in the wave of isolationism that was sweeping the country. The date was November 11, 1939.
"Today is Armistice Day. Just 21 years ago today the World War ended, and a treaty was signed by all the major countries of the world, a treaty which supposedly would end all world conflict for many years to come. Yet we find Europe now engaged in another war. We can only hope that the United States does not foolishly become involved."
"Here, at the University, the major opinion seems to be that we will not be drawn into the conflict. As long as we can keep the propaganda machine in check, I am certain that we can remain a sane country. History has proven that war can accomplish nothing. I sincerely hope that the people will realize this and not be influenced by those who profit by war ."
Most of us did not know about Hitler's solution to the "Jewish problem" or his dedication to conquer the world. We only wanted to continue a peaceful existence and to recover from the Depression. Pearl Harbor and new revelations about the Fuhrer changed us all.
I was now eager to get into the Service to fight the Japanese and the Germans and defend my country. The trip to California added to my excitement about enlistment. When I visited my cousin, Delbert Rice, I found that he had not only decided to enlist in the Army, but he, like many other young men "rushing off to war," wanted to get married before they left the States. On January 1, 1942, I recorded in my journal
"At 1:30 this morning Delbert and Irene were married in the Abbot home (in Las Vegas, Nevada) with Loeva Jean as bridesmaid and me as best man. After the very interesting ceremony we climbed into Delbert's car and drove out on the desert. camped under a bridge Del and Irene spent their wedding night in my sleeping bag (it was larger), I slept in Delbert's and Loeva slept in the car . We were back in Pasadena by 3:30 p.m. for a big wedding feast at Aunt Flora's."
Delbert tried to talk me into joining the Army but I wanted to fly. Before I got to the Air Force recruitment office I learned that the Navy also had an air arm. So I decided to join the Navy and try to get into flight training.
I soon found out that it wasn't that easy to get into the Naval pilot training program. I met the first criterion, a college degree, but I ran into trouble with the Navy doctor. After a rigorous physical and psychological exam I was told that the Navy would not consider me unless I had my tonsils out and a tooth filled at my own expense. The doctor also had reservations about the shape of my nose.
The civilian dentist that I consulted couldn't find any cavities, so I dropped that issue. The more serious problem concerned my tonsils. I did not know I had tonsil trouble, but I had to respond to the Navy request. The doctor that took my tonsils out gave me a local anesthetic. My constant gagging during the operation made it tough on me as well as on the doctor.
I stayed with Chet and Helen Woods in Pasadena during a brief recuperation period. Then, with a great deal of apprehension, I returned to the Navy recruitment center.
On February 5, 1942, my journal shows that I "completed the enlistment procedure for aviation cadets, US Navy, at Los Angeles, California." I was sworn into the Navy by Wayne Morris, a movie star, who was in the Navy Reserves at that time. He was between phone calls to some girl in Hollywood. Morris later became a member of "McCampbell's Heroes" in Air Group 15 with five Japanese planes to his credit.
After the brief swearing-in ceremony, I was told to go back home and await call to active duty. I returned to Pasadena expecting the follow-up call on a day-to-day basis. It finally came two months later. On April 9, I began active training as an aviation cadet at the Naval Reserve Air Base, Long Beach, California
Flight training in the early years of WW II started with assignments to one of the several "Elimination Bases" in the States. The concept of an E-Base was to prescreen prior to official aviation cadet training. "Elimination" was the key word, and the instructors set about this task with a vengeance. No one should get through this stage unless they showed good promise for the eventual attainment of the coveted Wings of Gold.
During approximately three months of E-Base training we were given the rank of Seaman Second Class. This was a classification which gave the Navy several options if we washed out--including return to civilian life. Perhaps these options were the excuse used by the Navy to refuse government insurance coverage. If we completed E-Base training without being washed out, we became regular Aviation Cadets. At that time we were required to purchase a $10,000 life insurance policy--a modest consolation for the families of the trainees killed during the elimination process.
The competition was intense. Everyone feared the "down checks" which would lead to a wash-out. I don't have the statistics on the failure rate at the Elimination Base or in later cadet training, but we were told that less than half of us would get through.
The letters that I wrote home during flight training were saved by my mother. These letters, which I quote in part, recapture some of the excitement and stress of the times. They were written in more detail because of my teenage brother's interest in flying. (2)
"April 18, 1942"
"2039 Appleton St."
"Long Beach, Calif."
"Glad to hear from you but I don't need the money. We are getting a total of $110 per month. When we start flying in about two weeks we get an additional $18 per month flight pay. So, I'm happy about the whole thing."
"At night we can do anything we want providing we get our studies. Consequently, we do nothing at night because we have to study harder than in college. Anyone who flunks a test is restricted to the base until 8 p.m. every night without supper until he passes the test or they kick him out of the service. About half my class is on restriction for radio and physics I have to raise my score in radio (Morse Code) to 15 words per minute."
" So far this training has been the most interesting and exciting of any period in my life ."
April 18, 1942 was even more exciting for Lt Col James Doolittle. On that day, Doolittle and 15 other B-25 Mitchell bombers were launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet 800 miles out, with orders to bomb the Japanese Homeland. Seventy-one of the 80 men involved in the Doolittle raid eventually got back to the States. (3)
The attack by Doolittle was a great morale booster for all Americans. It was also a special topic of conjecture for potential Navy pilots, because we knew that B-25s were not designed for Carrier operations. The next week I wrote home to say that I had:
" started in the 'Lynk trainer.' As you may know, this is a fastened-down job that has the controls and instruments of a real plane. I put it in too steep a climb without enough throttle and stalled it then went into a tail spin. I'm glad I was in the Lynk and not a P-38.
" The ground school doesn't seem nearly as hard now as it did at first. However, four fellows washed out last week gosh, I sure would feel bad if I didn't make the grade ."
"May 2, 1941"
"Long Beach, Calif."
" my rudder and stick coordination can stand some improvement."
" I didn't get the throttle open enough and unconsciously pushed on the right rudder pedal. The fields below start revolving (as I go into another spin). The instructor's voice reaches me thru the ear phones. 'Open the throttle wide, push your stick clear forward, and kick the left rudder!' he shouts 'and keep your eyes open!'"
"That's the first time I've thought to watch for enemy planes and on glancing around I see a German Messerschmitt directly overhead. I point it out to the instructor and it disappears. A squadron of five Stukas is under my right wing and a Focke-Wulf pursuit is on my tail. Gosh, planes are all over."
"You're a dead pilot, I hear thru the phones, then, 'keep your head on a swivel after this. That is the most important thing in wartime flying.'"
Before long I'm doing better, right and left gliding and climbing turns come easier and I'm spotting planes faster ."
"During all this time I've never left the ground over 6 ft. because the plane is fastened down, the scenery is painted, and the enemy airships are flashed on and off with light switches. But it's fun and it is a prelude to what is to follow in my future training."
Corregidor surrendered on May 6, and the Japanese captured 16,000 Philippinos and Americans. (3) Burma had essentially fallen to the Japanese forces. These events in the Pacific and the continuing exploits of the German sub fleet increased the pressure on the Navy to hasten the flight training program.
"May 7, 1942"
"Long Beach, Calif."
"Today I passed the final check in the Lynk Trainer ."
" This weekend marks the completion of a large part of ground school training. Monday we begin flying real planes. I can hardly wait.
"Another fellow washed out today in flying because he couldn't land the plane good enough to suit the Navy."
"We are being tightened down on considerably regarding military regulations. A good many demerits have been passed out recently for unmilitary conduct, talking in class, etc. But it is good for us ."
I finished these final checks in the Lynk Trainer as the battle of the Coral Sea raged in the Pacific. "From May 4 - 8, 1942, the Japanese suffered their first setback of the war." (3) Navy pilots from the Lexington and Yorktown sank the Japanese light carrier Shoho, the destroyer Kikuzaki, and three auxiliaries. US Navy losses were the carrier Lexington, the destroyer Sims, and the oiler Neosho. The Yorktown was damaged but repairable.
"May 13, 1942"
"Long Beach, Calif."
" I received my first actual instruction in the air yesterday. I was up for one hour. Flew the plane myself most of the time. It's a cinch except for landing and taking off. Landing is the hardest because you can't judge just where the ground is. Everything looks so soft from above that it seems you could land anywhere."
" We get our dress blues tomorrow.
"June 3, 1942
"Long Beach, Calif.
"I'm writing this letter to let you know one thing that is that I soloed today ."
"Here is the procedure: I went up with my instructor and gave him a fair ride so he gave me an up-check. Next I go up with a different instructor and he puts me thru the paces, including tail spins and emergency landings. I gave him what I considered a poor showing but he says it's OK so I get an up-check from him also. Then he crawls out of the front cockpit and tells me she is all mine."
"I taxi out for the takeoff very conscious of the fact that the front cockpit is empty. No one is there to advise me when I make a mistake but I'm not worried. Rather, I'm relieved because the check flight had me worried and because a pal got washed out yesterday and two other fellows had minor crack-ups. But I made the grade so I'm happy as I open up the throttle and shoot down the field and into the air."
"The plane is all mine and it responds as I want it to respond. A little air work and a couple of landings then my first solo flight is over. The first step to becoming a US Navy flier is completed. Thanks for the help you and Daddy gave me so I could complete this step."
The day I soloed Japanese carrier-based aircraft bombed Dutch Harbor and Fort Mears in Alaska part of Tokyo's diversion plan to draw the US fleet from Midway. Fortunately, we had already broken the Japanese code and learned of some of their plans.
Midway turned out to be one of the most important Naval engagements of World War II. Four Japanese carriers were sunk--Kaga, Soryu, Akagi, and Hiryu in addition to the heavy cruiser Mikuma. The US lost the Yorktown and the destroyer Hammann.
Those of us in Naval Flight Training were alerted to the significance of carrier-based aircraft during the Midway encounter. We lost 147 planes, and the Japanese lost 332. Only 6 of our 41 torpedo planes survived the battle.
"June 10, 1942"
"Long Beach, Calif."
" I've been flying fairly regular since I first soloed. We have had good flying weather most of the time. I'm learning a lot every day but I still have a great deal to consume before I get a set of wings so far my instructor has been satisfied with my flying. I hope I don't disappoint him."
"Naval Reserve Aviation Base"
"Los Alamitos, Calif."
"June 21, 1942"
" All the cadets are moving into Barracks at the new base east of Long Beach today ."
"From now on we will be confined to the base except on Saturday nite to Sunday, which is what I expected when I first enlisted ."
"We have been very busy the last two weeks with flying and ground school work. Some of the navigation problems are rather difficult. For example, we have to figure out how to leave an aircraft carrier and fly many miles away and be able to find the carrier when we return. Of course in the meantime the carrier changes course several times, etc. Also a change in wind, temperature or altitude of flying causes errors which we must compensate for . So you can see I have a great deal to learn in ground school as ell as flying."
" Each week we do more complicated maneuvers involving skill that baffles me no end. Another fellow washed out of my class yesterday. It is so easy to do things wrong. I can think of nothing that would hurt me worse than not making the grade as a flyer. It has come to mean so much to me that other things, even my forestry work, seem minor. When you see Navy wings on the breast of a man .
"I will try and send all my civilian clothes, etc., home next week and Walter might just as well wear the clothes as I will not need them for several years yet."
"About 30 other fellows and myself in Class 4-A will be leaving for advanced training at Corpus Christi, Texas in two weeks. I'm looking forward to the trip and the more complicated training down there with enthusiasm ."
"Naval Reserve Aviation Base"
"Los Alamitos, Calif."
"July 2, 1942"
"I would have answered your letter last night except for one thing. That was the fact that my B-check was scheduled for today. The B-check is the most important flight in this preliminary training as it determines whether you continue training at an advanced base or return to civilian life. So I wanted to wait until I knew for sure whether I would get washed out or not before I wrote to you. As you may have guessed by this time, I passed it okay."
"But to begin at the first, I'll tell you the whole thing. I've had approximately 26 solo hours in the air. The B-check was given by a strange instructor and covered everything I learned or was supposed to have learned in the air. I checked out a parachute, crawled in the ship, adjusted the rudders, fastened my safety belt and waited for the instructor to give the word to taxi out for the takeoff. As I may have told you, the student occupies the rear cockpit of an open biplane. We call these planes Yellow Perils because they are painted yellow, but they are technically known as N3Ns. Anyway, I got the word and tested the magnetos and taxied out to the runway for the takeoff."
"After looking around to see that the way was clear, I opened the throttle, raised my tail, and gradually pulled the plane off the ground into the air. I headed for Fullerton, where the Navy has a practice landing field for shooting 'circle shots.' These so-called circle shots consist of landing in a circle 100 ft. in diameter with the motor shut off at 850 ft. It's no cinch by any means to hit that small circle. I tried five times and finally hit one on the nose. Considering the cross-wind, air currents, etc., this was passable, but not good."
"Then my instructor told me to leave the field and head toward the ocean, climbing all the time. We had just reached 1,500 ft. when he cut the motor. (When the instructor cuts the motor it means you are to assume all power is gone and consequently make an emergency landing.) So just as soon as I heard the motor cut, I shoved the nose over and looked for a field to land in. Well, this was just one of about 20 emergency landings that I had to make during the check . The low altitude emergencies are the most dangerous because you haven't much choice as to where to land . I made only one serious mistake in emergencies, and that was once when I headed for some high tension wires. I never saw them quite quick enough to suit the instructor but he admitted the mistake was easy to make as the wires were hard to see against the background of trees."
"Between these cut guns, however, I climbed to 4,500 ft. and demonstrated some wing-overs and steep turns."
" I was also required to do some precision spins. I was told to recover in 1 1/2 turns. The first time I didn't get out of the spin for about 2 turns, but the next one was better. The instructor took over for a few minutes and put the plane into the tightest and fastest spin I was ever in. We went around about 4 or 5 times (I lost count). Anyway, we were fairly close to the ground when I was ordered to bring the plane out of it. I kicked opposite rudder and snapped the stick forward. The spin stopped and I eased back on the stick pulling out of the dive around 500 ft."
"On top of all this we had what is known as small field procedure, steep spirals, slips, and enough other stuff to baffle me thoroughly. I was plenty glad when the ride was over and I taxied back to the line. I had made plenty of mistakes and I figured I deserved a down-check, which meant no more flying with the Navy."
"However, the instructor was a swell guy and after telling me how to remedy my errors, he gave me an up-check. He said he liked my attitude. Every time I made a mistake, he looked around and saw me laughing. He knew by that I recognized the error. After I climbed out of the ship, I was grinning from ear to ear. I was sure of a down-check but I figured I might as well laugh it off. He saw me grinning and said, "Thomas, you're a funny guy." I guess you know you gave me a lousy ride."
"I grinned and said that I made a good many mistakes. He asked me if I liked to fly and I told him I would rather fly than anything else in the world. So, after 15 minutes of discussion, he gave me the thumbs up sign and wished me good luck at Corpus Christi ."
"Tomorrow is my birthday, as you know. I'll be 23 years old. It seems like only yesterday that I was 15 or 16. At this rate I should be a fairly wide experienced man at 30."
"I get kind of homesick about once a week, but they keep me so busy that I get over it. Tell everyone hello for me ."
This was my last letter from the E-Base at Los Alamitos, California. I felt lucky to have passed the various check points, and I felt sorry for those who got washed out. The excitement of the move to Corpus Christi was somewhat dampened by the news from both war fronts. Japan's empire had reached its maximum, ranging from the Aleutians to the Dutch East Indies--from Manchuria to New Guinea and the Solomons. Hitler's forces had taken over parts of North Africa and his Luftwaffe planes were regularly bombing the British Isles. We felt the urgency to speed up the flight training programs.
"Naval Air Station"
"Corpus Christi, Texas"
"July 8, 1942"
"The big trip from Long Beach to Corpus Christi is over. It sure was a swell vacation from the military routine of the past three months. I've always wanted to see this Southwest country but I certainly never expected to do so at Uncle Sam's expense. Of course the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas made riding somewhat hot and dry. We had a Pullman all to ourselves and were allowed $1.00 meals in the diner so we couldn't very well kick about traveling conditions."
"The train was held over five hours in San Antonio. We were somewhat in doubt as to what to do with this time. However, fortunately, a rich woman working for the USO met us at the train and escorted us in her private cars out to a very ritzy country club. We went swimming and had the run of the place pretty much to ourselves. About supper time, we were hauled downtown to a high-classed hotel where we each enjoyed a $1.25 meal. The entire class was sorry when we left the town."
"The Naval Air Station here at Corpus Christi is really a big place. Practically a town in itself, characterized by airplanes taking off and landing wherever you look. I've seen nearly every type of aircraft in the Navy in the short time I've been here, including the mammoth PBY boats which appear entirely too large to fly."
"It has been such an exciting day that I hardly noticed the heat. But, looking back on it now, I realize that I perspired more today than I ever did on top of a hay stack in Idaho However, I reckon I'll get used to the heat if they will just let me get my hands on one of these beautiful airplanes that fly around here ."
"July 13, 1942"
" I have been moved to one of the outlying fields connected with Corpus Christi for about a month of basic training."
"Today was my first day in the air here in Texas. Let me tell you it's really different from Long Beach flying. Here we have from 150 to 200 planes taking off and landing at the same time. They swarm around this field like bees . Planes land so close together that you could lasso the pilot in planes on both sides of you."
"On just this one outlying field we have nine practice fields and each field has a different flight pattern to be learned. Which way to turn, how high to fly, etc. are just a few of the things you have to know for each field. I'll be so busy learning these things that I won't have much time for navigation, aircraft identification, radio, etc. Each of these courses takes several hours each night and we have to be in bed by 10 o'clock. So you can see I'll be so busy that you needn't expect many letters. (Plenty of fellows wash out here too, so don't brag too much on your little boy in the Navy as he may be coming home any day with discharge papers.)"
"July 19, 1942"
" This letter is apt to be somewhat short since it is just about time for taps. Today is Sunday and supposedly a day off but the ground school instructors pile so much work on us that we never see any relaxation. I've been working all day on navigation problems and I just finished. I sure thought I had plenty to do at Long Beach, but it's been doubled up since I got to Texas . We go to school from 7:30 'til noon and fly all afternoon. And let me tell you, 4½ hours of flying about wears a person out."
"Yesterday I passed my final check in N3N planes. From now on I'll be flying more maneuverable ships. The next training stage is aerobatics. Boy, will it be fun doing loops, snap rolls, split S's, etc. About half of my class from Long Beach got at least one down check since they arrived here. I didn't miss it far myself . None of my class has washed out completely since we got here even though they have received down checks. Several of them went before the Big Board though and only their records saved them ."
"P.S. Texas is the hottest state in the Union I believe."
On July 23 I recorded in my journal that I almost wound up in an inverted spin as I fell out of an "Immelmann." Also one cadet couldn't get one wheel down so he was "forced to fly out to the Bay where he made a crash landing by the rescue boat Mary Ann."
"August 2, 1942"
" You asked a number of questions in your letter concerning my activities. Hope this letter answers most of them."
"I'm in Squadron Baker here at Cabaniss Field, supposedly the toughest squadron to get thru of them all. I fly every day from 3 - 4 1/2 hours either in the morning or afternoon. Last week I passed the two toughest checks in this stage of flying, the 'C' and 'D' checks. They had me worried for a while, but I slipped thru. There are only three of us remaining from the entire Long Beach class that haven't received any 'downs' in our flight training, so I'm somewhat proud of my 'luck' so far."
"I'm ahead of most of the class and if my luck continues, I'll get my wings in about four months more. I know I shouldn't be bragging this way, but I have to tell someone about this record. One of the fellows just informed me that he had a perfect record until he wrote and told his folks, then the next day he got his first down check. Hope this doesn't happen to me."
"The 'C' check was the toughest ride. It consisted of aerobatics (Immelmanns, split S's, loops, snap rolls, inverted spins, and wing-overs), slips to circles, small field procedure, and flying Pylons."
"On the 'D' check smooth flying was the main thing. I wasn't sure I had passed it when the instructor took over and landed at one of our numerous outlying fields. He climbed out of the front cockpit and told me to change places with him. I knew then that I had received one of those 'up in the front cockpit' okays which generally follow the 'D' check. Boy, was I happy. From now on I will do all my flying from the front. It sure seems different. Much smoother and more fun."
"Saturday I began my 'E' stage--formation flying, which is an art in itself. We sure fly close together. 'Peeling off' is really thrilling. My formation had a little tough luck Saturday. There were three of us with instructors. We all peeled off and landed at one of the practice fields. A rain had just passed over and the field was muddy. The other two planes got stuck but we kept moving and managed to get off the ground again. There were three planes stuck when we took off."
"This week I will also begin night flying. They say it is lots of excitement so I'm looking forward to it. I only get 4 1/2 hours of night flying at this field. About Thursday I'll take an 'E' check and if I pass it I'll be moved to Cuddihy Field for training in Vultee monoplanes. This primary training is supposed to last five weeks so I may get a little ahead of the regular schedule. I'll have to return here in the afternoons for ground school so you can continue to address my mail to Cabaniss Field."
"August 13, 1942"
"As I had predicted in my last letter my flying course in N3N planes and N2Ss was completed last Friday at Cabaniss Field. As a result of this I have been transferred to my present position at Cuddihy Field, which lies about five miles northwest of Cabaniss."
"On Monday I began training in Vultee SNV planes. Wow, are they swell planes! They carry a 635-horsepower motor which is double the power we had in N2Ss. As a result of this additional power they are heavier, more stable ships requiring more skill and care in maneuvering than the lighter primary trainers."
"After four and one-half hours dual instruction which I completed yesterday I received my A-2 check. My luck is still holding out so I was given the honor of soloing these babies this afternoon. It seemed to me like an awful big jump to fly these with only 4 1/2 hours' instruction but they declared me 'safe for solo' so I took one up, and as you may have guessed by now, I got back safe and sound. I might add that it's a real thrill to observe the Texas countryside from the cockpit of an SNV at an altitude of 6000 ft."
"The chief difference in flying these jobs is that we now have to worry about controllable pitch propellers, flaps, and additional instruments characteristic of service-type craft. Flying is one occupation where a person has to be alert and on his toes every second, and I'm seeing this more and more emphasized as I get into heavier planes. I am only entitled to 4 1/2 hours solo in SNVs so I'll finish up tomorrow."
"From these planes I go to OS2U2s, commonly called 'Kingfishers.' These planes are used in actual combat with the fleet. They are the ships that are on cruisers with pontoons and are catapulted into the air. Their primary purpose is observation and scouting as they are not equipped with many guns. The ones I'll fly for now have a landing gear instead of pontoons but the flying is the same ."
"August 24, 1942"
" Another week has slipped by and another stage in my flying career has been completed since I wrote to you. It seems like only yesterday that I climbed into the cockpit of a 'Yellow Peril' at Long Beach for my first ride and now I'm packed up and waiting for a bus to take me to the main station for three or four weeks of instrument training and 'blind' flying. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since that thrilling first hop at Long Beach. In that period of time I have accumulated 121 hours flying time. At this stage I'm supposed to be a fair pilot and according to Hoyle, qualified to fly any type of civilian aircraft or to instruct primary training for army cadets."
"I don't know whether I told you or not, but I now have the privilege of choosing between an Ensign's commission in the Navy or a Second Lieutenant's commission in the Marine Corps. I don't know which is the better. The main difference would be that if I went into the Marines I would probably be land-based instead of on a carrier."
"I've always had a certain fascination for the Marines. Maybe it's because they are such a self-centered stuck-up lot. They know they are the best men in the world and they take pride in military precision which you don't find in the Army or Navy. However they are no better as flyers because the training is the same. I'm afraid the only way I'll decide is by flipping a coin unless you have some suggestions ."
The pros and cons of each branch of service were discussed vigorously in the barracks. None of my close friends seemed to have any inclination for the Marines. This influence plus the fascination for carrier duty ultimately shaped my decision to stay with the Navy. Also reports coming from the Pacific and European theaters indicated more excitement with a Navy career. (3)
"Naval Air Station"
"Corpus Christi, Texas"
"September 4, 1942"
" This last week has been very interesting for me. I am now up to my neck in instrument flying. To my surprise progress has been better than I had expected. Despite the fact that most of my classmates are thoroughly disgusted with this phase of the training I find it very entertaining. As you might well expect, many students meet their downfall when they crawl under the hood and cease to fly by the seat of their pants. Some blow up while others can't seem to think clearly when they are shut off from the external world."
"It is surprising what unusual feelings you get when you cannot see anything but a panel of instruments. For example, you cannot feel a turn. Then when you stop turning you think you are turning the opposite direction. Quite frequently you are tempted to disbelieve the instrument panel because of these unusual sensations. However, in every case the instruments are right and you are wrong. I intend to get as much out of this course as possible because statistics show that almost 1/3 of the time military pilots fly by instruments entirely."
"Another obstacle in this stage of flying is radio. I am now learning to 'fly the beam.' This is not very simple either because radio beams are not always constant . transport pilots fly almost entirely by radio beams as you may know, so you can see that a knowledge of this is very essential ."
"Tell Walter that he is not the only one that is getting gun practice. We don't shoot coyotes here but we do get some practice on 'traps.' Movie stars pay plenty to shoot the skeet that we get free. This afternoon we start on the machine gun and pistol."
"I received some discouraging news yesterday in the form of a memorandum from the Navy Department. It stated in effect that the customary 15-days leave granted graduating cadets upon the completion of their flying training would be withheld until these newly commissioned officers completed an advanced course at an operational base. This course consists of 2 to 3 months of very rigorous training in actual dive-bombing, scouting, and fighting. Operational bases are located at San Diego, San Pedro, Seattle, and other coast towns. Liberty will be at a minimum and all officers are advised not to get married until this training has been completed because of the inconvenience of living on a Naval Air Base. All of which means that I will not get home as soon as I had anticipated. I hope I'm lucky enough to get sent to one of the West Coast bases .
The pressure to rush cadets through the training process was still building. The September 9 air attack with incendiary bombs on continental US by a submarine-based Japanese plane stirred up public concern, even though the only damage was a small fire in a forest near Brookings, Oregon. (3) The carrier Wasp was torpedoed and sunk, and the battleship North Carolina damaged on September 15.
"September 11, 1942"
"Naval Air Station"
"Corpus Christi, Texas"
"Since you are wondering about my insurance, here is the dope on it. Immediately upon my arrival here at Corpus, the government took out for me a $10,000 policy. (*) I signed all the necessary papers. They make the payments until I get my commission then I have to make them. You and Dad are beneficiaries. You needn't worry about the validity of the policy. The chaplain handles all the insurance so it is on the square."
"My paycheck is now $75 a month since I came to Corpus so I don't make nearly as much as I did at Long Beach. Since the government boards and rooms us we do not get subsistence money. We are required to put 10 percent of our pay in defense stamps. Besides that we pay for our laundry and a recreation bill. I'm saving the rest for the uniforms we have to buy when we graduate."
"Social life here in Corpus is far from ideal. The town is overcrowded with workers and servicemen. Restaurants are few and space is limited when we do get into town, which is about every two weeks, about all there is to do is eat and stand in line for a show. However, the set-up here in the main station is better so there isn't much incentive to going to town. There is a theater on the base, tennis courts, pool tables, bowling alleys, swimming pool and gymnasium. The trouble is we never get any time to enjoy these facilities."
"Naval Air Station"
"Corpus Christi, Texas"
"September 24, 1942"
" Don't trade my sorrel mare off to Bill Rahr. I want to keep her. I should have a pretty good start in the horse business by the time I get out of the Navy."
"I bought my uniforms downtown last weekend. Here is the price list. Gosh, they are expensive."
1 cap set complete $ 18.50 Green cap cover 2.50 Overseas cap 3.00 1 set Blues 62.50 2 sets Khakis 39.00 1 set buttons 1.00 Gold Wings for Blues 4.85 Line Officer star & stripe 7.50 1 set greens 65.00 Extra green pants 19.50 Wings for green suit 4.85 Conversion of cadet blues 11.85 Total $240.05
"The government gives us a uniform allowance of $150 upon graduation so I will have to pay about $90 - $100 out of my own pocket ."
"Instrument flying is still about the same as ever. Some days I fly good and others not so hot. Patience is the main thing necessary to flying under the hood. I will check out about Monday or Tuesday of next week. Then I will be ready for advanced. I hope I get dive bombers ."
"Naval Air Station"
"Corpus Christi, Texas"
"October 2, 1942"
" Well, I've just completed training in instruments. My orders now direct me to Kingsville, Texas Texas for advanced training in dive bombers. Kingsville is about 40 miles from Corpus Christi but is still part of the Naval Air Station. Before you write again you might as well wait until I send you my address from there. I guess that I will move over about tomorrow. The training in dive bombing is the best in the world I chose this field because of several things. First, it is excellent all around flying training. We get work outs in aerial gunnery, navigation hops, bombing runs and aerobatics. Secondly, the duty after we are commissioned is good. We will probably be carrier-based which means we will always have good quarters and frequent vacations. Lastly, I chose this field because it is a tough field to get thru and because it is at all times exciting "
"October 6, 1942"
" The dive-bombing syllabus will be very interesting, I believe. Today we went to several lectures and finished the cockpit check-out in SNC planes. We should start flying tomorrow. These planes are a Curtis make. They are faster than the Vultees we flew for instruments and have retractable landing gear. We get one hour instruction then about 25 hours solo in 3-, 9-, and 18-plane formations in these planes. After that we get a different plane for gunnery and bombing runs."
"October 12, 1942"
" I have been very busy flying since I moved out here to Kingsville. Flew 14 hours last week and 5 hours today alone. Finished up with Curtis SNCs Saturday. Got a check and soloed SNJs today. This is the plane I've been looking forward to flying for a long time. Sure is a honey. Cruises about 160 miles per hour and has a top diving speed of 250 mph. Fixed machine gun forward and a flexible machine gun in rear cockpit. The Army calls these planes AT6s so you may have seen pictures of them."
"Last week I flew formation mostly. We went out in squadrons of 18 planes. It is really a sight to see 18 planes flying around you. Each has a definite position to keep. Sure is fun. Every once in a while the leader swishes his tail and all planes fall into a column, one behind the other, with an interval of 100 ft. between planes. Then is when the fun begins. The leader sights a farm house and peals off into a dive. Each of the other planes peal off in order behind the leader. We dive about 4000 ft. and zoom the farms all over this country. Sure fun to watch chickens and dogs and cows scatter. I don't imagine the farmers like being dived on very much but they always wave at us as we zoom by. The other day all 18 planes dove on a car running along the highway. The driver run into the ditch, got out and ran across the pasture. He figured the Japs had attacked for sure."
"By the way, just because I am going thru the dive-bombing squadron, that's no sign what duty I will get after I'm commissioned ."
While I was having a great time zooming farms and chasing coyotes on the King Ranch, Navy pilots in the Pacific were in the middle of another critical engagement. Admiral Halsey took command of the US Naval Forces in the Pacific on October 23. Three days later, in the Battle of Santa Cruz, the Carrier Hornet and the destroyer Porter were sunk by the Japanese at a cost of 100 of their planes. Intense fighting continued on Guadalcanal. (3)
"October 30, 1942"
" My flight is ready for gunnery now. We'll probably get our first run tomorrow. This should be the most fun of all the training so far. We get both fixed and flexible gunnery. Flexible gunnery is firing from the rear cockpit with a swivel machine gun "
"November 4, 1942"
" We go out over the ocean for all gunnery hops so that no one will be shot by mistake. We use .30-caliber machine guns for practice."
"You would have enjoyed night flying with me last week. We flew in nine-plane formations. It was very dark and there was a solid layer of clouds about 5000 ft. high. We had to fly very close together in order to have the wing lights of one plane light up the fuselage of the next one. If you slid out of formation in the least you couldn't see anything but a small red light on the other planes. Well, we flew up thru the clouds anyway. To our surprise, there was almost a full moon out. We skimmed over the top of this cloud layer about 140 miles an hour. Sure was pretty up there."
"Landing at night is no cinch because they never have the field lit up very much, but it is lots of fun ."
"November 8, 1942"
" Just finished flying 4 1/2 hours. The first two hours was an altitude hop. Took an SNJ up as high as it would go. I got up to 23,050 ft., which is almost 5 miles high. Had to use an oxygen mask because the rarefied air at that altitude won't permit life very long. Also had a heavy pair of sheepskin pants and wool-lined boots because of the cold. My thermometer registered a little below 20 degrees centigrade below zero. I boosted my plane higher than any of the other fellows by using good judgment. The record for SNJs is around 25,500, I believe, so I didn't miss it far. It took about 30 minutes to climb the last few hundred feet, because the motor wouldn't run good at that altitude. Most of the fellows stalled out at about 20,000 and one or two of them went into tail spins from there. It was really lots of fun ."
"November 12, 1942"
" Now, regarding my graduation, here is the dope as I see it now. I have nine more hops left."
"Graduation exercises here are simple--a matter of about thirty minutes. Upon completion of flight training I receive a $100 check for clothing allowance. Also flight gear, heavy coat, helmet, suitcase, and other minor articles. With my wings comes a pay advance amounting to between $200 and $250 per month. This is a lot of money each month but it is reduced by the donations, insurance rates, etc. which I will have to pay upon being commissioned."
"I will then be an Ensign in this Navy which means that I must assume new and greater responsibilities. In many ways I regret losing the carefree life of an Aviation Cadet. I've had a great deal of fun since joining the Navy and I owe a great debt to someone for the marvelous flight training I have received here. It is estimated that this education would have cost $27,000 in civilian life."
"By the way, I was complimented today by several officers. It seems that my gunnery record is abnormally good for a student pilot. We fire with a fixed machine gun forward at a canvas sock towed by another plane. We make runs from various angles and the hits are counted up at the end of each hop. Well, anyway, I have 114 hits in 5 runs. The next closest student has about 25 hits and several only have 4 or 5. Each time I have had a much better score than the instructors who lead the 9-plane formations. I was called into the gunnery office today and questioned about this record. They asked me how I aimed, how much I lead the target, what was my experience, etc. They asked why I didn't go into fighter planes instead of dive bombers. To make a long story short, I am to be given special tracer ammunition from now on as an experiment for something or other. This gunnery is more fun than hunting jack rabbits, especially since Uncle Sam is furnishing the ammunition ."
The experiment with special tracer ammunition did not go well. My guns jammed on every pass. But I was again approached by the Command to consider a transfer to fighters. I continued to state that I would stay with dive bombers.
Another major engagement took place in the Pacific off Guadalcanal at this time. Americans claimed a victory in this battle which raged from November 12 - 15, 1942. The Japanese sank the US cruisers Atlanta and Juneau, plus seven destroyers. Japanese losses were the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, three destroyers, and eleven transports. (3)
On November 15, 1942, the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, were lost when the Juneau sank. This widely publicized loss of five members of the same family prompted the Navy to formulate a new policy that would prevent similar tragedies in the future. Under this new directive no two members of the same family would be assigned to the same ship or unit in the Navy. In April, 1943, a new destroyer was named in honor of the Sullivan boys. Seven of us from Torpedo Four owe our lives to the crew of the USS Sullivans for rescuing us from rubber boats as Task Force 38 was leaving the South China Sea on January 16, 1945.
"Naval Air Station"
"Corpus Christi, Texas"
"November 23, 1942"
"I completed my flying in Squadron 15 last Thursday, checked out, and moved back here to the main station at Corpus Christi. Due to the fact that my orders haven't arrived I am on the list of cadets awaiting graduation. Some fellows have been here two weeks for the same thing so I don't know when I will get my wings ."
"P.S. I haven't flown any for about 5 days and already I miss the roar of airplane motors. Flying sure gets in a person's blood."
"US Naval Air Station"
"December 5, 1942"
" Graduation exercises at Corpus Christi were comparatively simple. We received our diplomas from Admiral Montgomery, saluted, and were dismissed as officers. Two other fellows and myself packed our clothes and got tickets to Miami via Independence, Kansas. The government gave us each $150 plus back cadet pay amounting to about $30 more. We paid $80 down on our uniforms and used the remainder for expenses on our trip, which, I must say, was very enjoyable. This journey consumed the entire 6 days which we were allowed as travel time. Since my arrival in Miami I have been thoroughly occupied with the necessary routine steps of checking in and getting acquainted with my new life as a Naval Aviator and officer ."
"Should be ready to start flying within the next few days. Operational training lasts from 4 to 8 weeks. We fly long hours and are treated nearly the same as aviation cadets, liberty being limited to one day out of 8."
"I'm still with about the same bunch of fellows that were at Corpus. Of course they all have wings and officer's stripes now, which makes them somehow look older. Otherwise we are still the same carefree lot. A few of the boys took advantage of the new ruling which allows marriage after being commissioned. As for myself, I have no such intentions at the present ."
"Lots of love,"
With the issuance of the orders to Opa Locka, Florida, several options were closed out. First, my application for "Lighter-than-air"--an assignment to blimps--was rejected by the Navy. This turned out to be an unexciting deadend for a few pilots. Second, I chose a Navy commission instead of the Marines--primarily because I wanted to be carrier-based. Third, I lucked out and escaped an assignment to Corpus Christi, Texas (NAS) as a flight instructor. Last, I turned down the opportunity to be a "fighter" pilot.
My selection of dive bombers over fighters probably was influenced more by the fact that I didn't want to leave my buddies than any other factor. Bob Ruth, Will Souza, Felix Ward, and I wanted to stay together. None of us knew at the time that after we finished dive bomber training the Navy would arbitrarily assign us to a Torpedo squadron. Worst of all, an assignment to VT-4 meant duty in the cold North Atlantic while all the exciting action was taking place in the Pacific.
Carrying a torpedo or going in for a glide-bombing attack did not have the glamour of a dog fight. The fighters had the opportunity to engage in plane-to-plane combat--a challenge of skills; we had to fly low and slow into the face of AA fire. Furthermore, a fighter could get credit for "kills"--could perhaps become an "ace;" no "torpeckers" were ever classified as aces.
The only famous torpedo pilots that I know of were Ensign Gay and Lt (jg) George Bush. Gay received notoriety since he was the sole survivor of Torpedo Eight. George Bush became President of the United States--not because of his assignment to torpedo planes but for other reasons.
Photo: "Yellow Peril" (N3N and N2S).
Photo: Stearman N2S..
Photo: Curtiss SNC-1..
Photo: SNJ-3 (AT-6).
Photo: Vultee SNV.
Photo: Vought-Sikorsky OS2U ("Kingfisher").
(1) Thomas, Gerald W., VT-4 Pilot. Personal Journal.
(2) Thomas, Gerald W., VT-4 Pilot. Correspondence.
(3) Goralski, Robert. 1981. World War II Almanac, 1931 - 1945. Perigee Books.
(*) The US Government carried no insurance on us while we were in "Elimination Base" training.
Torpedo Squadron Four: A Cockpit View of
World War II
Copyright © 1990-2000 by Gerald W. Thomas