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Torpedo Squadron Four - A Cockpit View of World War II - Revised, Updated Edition, 2011

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Air Group 4 - Casablanca to Tokyo

Dedicated to those who
served in VT-4, VB-4, VF-4,
VMF-124 and VMF-213

The Lost Pilot/Artist

By Esther L. Cahoon and Douglas W. Cahoon

On the unusually spring-like day of March 1, 1945, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Rhoda Cutler Cahoon was working on a window display at Auerbach's Department Store and chatting with co-workers. The mood had been light and cheerful when, out of nowhere, a "dark feeling" came over her and she felt that something was wrong. After a few moments, the feeling left her, and she went about her work.

On that same day, half way around the world, the USS Essex log noted: "Operating in TG 58.3 about 75 miles SE of Okinawa Jima, launching strikes against enemy installations on Okinawa Jima." During WWII, the American pre-invasion of Okinawa began with a total of 670 American

Pen and Ink by Herbert Femal, 1946

planes making several bombing sweeps over the island throughout March 1. The sweeps knocked out airfields and destroyed all Japanese ships in the area and acquired much-needed photographs for those planning the main invasion. Some reports noted that antiaircraft fire in some parts of the island was so light that the planes' first pass was "strictly on the house."

The Tactical Organization of one specific strike included Lt (jg) Douglas Raymond Cahoon. The strike group was led to the target area where they approached Okinawa from the South with final approach made towards Naha Airfield from the East at 8:36 am. Following the bombing and rocket attacks, 16 fighters made three strafing attacks on aircraft, buildings, openly parked planes and antiaircraft emplacements. The attacks ignited two aircraft in revetments, which resulted in their destruction. Two groups of aircraft were parked near the East-central part of the airfield and were strafed heavily and hit and the pilots thought that at least six of the planes were damaged severely.

A fellow pilot described the conditions surrounding this attack:

    "The sky over Naha seemed to have equal proportions of air and lead. It was far worse than Tokyo itself, which we had repeatedly hit only a few days before. My plane was hit several times, and a very few of our aircraft escaped without receiving additional ventilation."

It was the last strafing run of the day for the VF-4 squadron, and ironically, the final combat mission before returning home to the United States. When the group rendezvoused West of the airfield over the sea, Cahoon did not show. The strike group returned to the Essex at 10:30, where a special search was organized and expedited. One pilot noted a single engine oil slick across Naha Bay, but no plane; no Doug. VF-4 had lost another seasoned veteran; the world had lost a talented artist.

On his 13th birthday, in the midst of the Great Depression, Doug Cahoon received an inexpensive set of oil paints that changed his life. He began painting immediately and with his first painting he showed great promise. Later, he took art classes while in junior and senior high school. In the fall of 1939, he entered the University of Utah, where he attended three terms. In 1941, despite the realities and implications of the Selective Training and Service Act, Doug enrolled in the renowned Los Angeles Art Center School in California. Bolstered by support from his parents who cashed in their insurance policy to help clear the financial hurdle, he took night classes and worked during the day as a movie theater usher. Upon his return home, Doug put his recently acquired knowledge to work as a commercial artist for Theatre Display Company.

The surprise Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor reduced the draft law minimum age quickly to 20 years old. Doug decided it was time to make a decision. In May 1942, at age 20, he enlisted for four years in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He met all V-5 qualifications to enter the Naval Aviation Flight Training and in less than a month, on June 25, 1942, he began naval aviation pre-flight school at St. Mary's College, California.

Upon completion of pre-flight, Doug was transferred to Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Oakland, California, for primary flight training. Within two weeks, he was flying solo. He also put his artistic skills to work as art director for a Navy journal. By December 19, he completed primary flight training three weeks ahead of schedule and noted that his commander "seemed to be rather proud." As a result, he was notified of his transfer to the Intermediate Training Center, at Corpus Christi, Texas. By April 13, 1943, Doug had become an Ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

He then went on to Jacksonville, Florida, where he trained in dive-bombing and later became an instructor of dive bomb pilots. In June, 1943, he left Jacksonville and traveled to Glenview, Illinois Carrier Qualification Training where he practiced carrier landings aboard the USS Wolverine (IX-31), a converted paddle steamer located on Lake Michigan. Following a busy week of training, he rushed home to be with family and friends.

There, Doug began dating Rhoda Cutler, and a long-distance relationship was born. They had attended the same high school, but had only dated once before. Doug had a nickname for everyone and Rhoda was no exception. He gave her such names as: Twig or Twiggy, Curly, Albino, Blondie, Slinker, Angel, Miss 'C' and later, Mrs. 'C.'

They dated the entire time that Doug was home on leave. Rhoda simply recorded one evening in her diary, "I'm nuts about him." On other occasions she wrote, "so sweet," "felt wonderful," "had a warm, good feeling thinking of him," "so sweet, walking on clouds all day." This was the beginning of a wonderful courtship, despite the fact that Rhoda had seriously been dating another fellow for five years.

When Doug returned to Jacksonville, much of his thoughts were consumed with Rhoda. As much as he loved to fly, he now had a girl whom he loved more, and was determined to win. In a letter to Rhoda, he wrote, "When I walked past the planes today they had the saddest look on their motors. I guess they heard that you were taking their place in my heart. I don't think they will mind too much when I tell them how wonderful you are." Included in his letter was an illustration of an airplane with a very "sad" countenance, just to emphasize his point. Often, his letters to Rhoda, were filled with sketches that he had done to embellish his feelings or to illustrate things that might have been difficult to describe with words.

Throughout the long-distance courtship, Doug continued training and flew every chance he could. During his leisure time he read, played tennis and badminton, golfed, swam, listened to his music favorites, went to movies, and last, but not least, painted.

In a letter to Rhoda, Doug mentioned that he did his best thinking while painting and that, "he sure gets wrapped-up in thoughts." Two paintings that he completed while at Corpus Christi were "Zeros Hit!" (1943) and "Pull-up" (1943).

There were times, even in training, that flying mishaps occurred, but Doug continually assured Rhoda that "you don't have to worry about me Curly, I'm too cautious and they don't crash very often ."

Doug spent the next few months trying to convince Rhoda Cutler that she should marry him. In his first letter to her, following his return to Jacksonville, he wrote,

    "I'm so lonely for you that I don't know what to do. In Chicago last night I stayed awake for hours just thinking about you and wishing you were close so I could talk to you. Honest Rhoda, never in my life have I felt this way before. I didn't realize what saying goodbye Thursday was going to mean. At the time it was fairly simple. But as the plane traveled further away from you, the more I realized what you were doing to my life. And the more I understand how much I need you. I'm already counting the days when I'll see you again. If I do see you again I'll never leave you. Because you are a part of my life. In fact, from now on my life is going to be built around you. Please understand what I'm saying Rhoda, and believe it with all your heart. I'm so tired I can hardly keep my eyes open. I don't mind because when I go to sleep, guess who will occupy my dreams? Good night Darling, I love You!"

While Doug did dream of Rhoda, the fear of war and death occupied his thoughts and dreams also. Perhaps that is why painting was a release for such a young artist. He was able to express, not only his artistic abilities, but also the many scenes that must have filled his mind. While in Jacksonville, he completed two paintings of PT Boats. One hung for many years in the Centre Theatre in downtown Salt Lake City, while the other hung in the "ready room" of the flying field at Jacksonville. Additional paintings, also finished in early 1944 included, "Submarine in Trouble," and shortly after his first and only fight in a F4U, Corsair he painted his experience; "Corsair" (F4U).

Late in August, 1943, Doug placed a telephone call to Rhoda and proposed marriage over the telephone. It was agreed that Rhoda would consider his proposal and let him know as soon as she had made up her mind. The next day, she recorded in her diary, "so excited, hardly slept all night." That night Doug wrote to Rhoda,

    "I believe we could be so very happy together. They say, the first year is the hardest. But, we'd make the first wonderful, and every year after better, and maybe someday we could start a football team…. Now I'll slowly go crazy waiting for you to call, my fingernails are going to take a beating the next few days."

A few days later, after no word from Rhoda, Doug wrote, "I have just finished my fingernails off and am starting on my hair now. If I don't hear from you soon I'll be bald." Included, with the letter, was a self- portrait of Doug as a "bald" man. Finally, Rhoda wrote Doug telling him that she hadn't "decided definitely, but almost tho!" which amused him.

By April, 1944, Doug was again at home in Salt Lake City, Utah, for a few days and he saw Rhoda almost daily. She confided in her diary, "he looks wonderful, he's neat, really had fun, he is going to make me a charter member of his family… he's wonderful… mad about him today." Rhoda Cutler finally had eyes for Doug while the local newspaper gossip column had eyes on them both.

Following his short leave, he flew back to Jacksonville and was given a new assignment to join "Bombing Squadron Four" (VB-4), also known as the "Tophatters." He traveled to Rhode Island, just long enough to pick up a plane and head to Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Officials in Washington, D.C. had learned that Fort Devens airfield was too small for an Army pilot to land on and sent the Navy's Air Group Four to keep the field in use. Doug flew such planes as a Curtiss SB2C-3 Helldiver, also known as "The Beast", and the Douglas Dauntless (SBD), and wrote home to Rhoda, "We're flying the newest dive-bombers and they are really nice."

By May 9, 1944, Rhoda had received, yet, another letter from Doug, which included the usual prodding for marriage. That night Rhoda talked with her parents and made the decision to marry. After a sleepless night, she tried, unsuccessfully, to call Doug, but did manage to reach him two days later. After some discussion between the two, it was decided that they would indeed marry. Doug was elated, after spending well over a year begging for her hand in marriage.

On June 5, 1944, Douglas and Rhoda were married at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Following their honeymoon to New York City, Doug and Air Group Four received orders to report to Naval Air Station, San Diego, California. On July 8, Doug left Salt Lake City - for the last time. There, in his hometown, he left behind his parents, sister, brother, friends and his new bride.

After learning that he would be in San Diego for a few days, Doug called Rhoda and asked her to join him. She flew out early the next morning and spent every moment possible with her husband. Later, Doug reflected in a letter to Rhoda his perspective of their separation:

    "I sure wasn't feeling so very happy. I never hated to leave anybody so bad in my life. I'll always remember you there in the room, and me waiting until the very last minute to say goodbye…. Leaving you was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do! It's a good thing I left when I did or your big Navy pilot would have been shedding a few tears!"

Upon leaving California, Doug boarded the USS Barnes (CVE-20) enroute to Hawaii. In Hilo, Hawaii, he flew almost every day and many times twice a day. On his days off, he enjoyed the beautiful beaches, "wrapping his face around a thick steak," skeet shooting, golf, tennis, basketball, softball and painting. William Weldon, a VF-4 pilot, remembered Doug because he was "not only a nice guy," but instead of going over to the bar and getting drunk, he stayed in his room to sketch.

Doug wrote to Rhoda, "I have lots of time to do a few paintings. So when we get that house of ours we can line the walls with 'Blood & Thunder' scenes." One day after purchasing some art supplies in town, Doug told Rhoda, "I've been knocking out some pictures in watercolor. Honestly Darling, they 'smell', I wonder if your dull husband will ever be able to do anything." In a similar letter he added, "I wonder if I'll ever be worth a darn at this art-I'll probably end up sweeping streets or something similar after this war is over."

Doug set a goal of completing 50 "sketches" before his tour of duty was over and was determined to "knock out" as many as possible. Toward the end of July, 1944, he received a disheartening letter informing him that Dave Bishop was missing in action. Dave had been one of Doug's closest friend from training days. Less than a month later, Doug also learned that his best friend in high school, Lieutenant Elwin "Moose" Vogeler, had been added to the ever growing list of MIAs. He expressed to Rhoda that the news, "sure was a kick in the wrong place… He was gone for such a short while… I can't understand why it is happening to all my friends." Doug assured his new bride,

    "If I turn up missing, Darling, don't you for a minute worry about me! I'll be back soon! …Darling, if it should ever happen that I turn up missing sometime I want you to remember that if I'm missing, I'm alive and thinking of you. And I'll turn-up eventually and we can work out our plans for the future as usual! …if there are times when you don't hear from me for awhile. Don't get worried at all, cause I'm still in good shape and missing you all the more."

Despite the concerns and negativity of war, Doug would try to look for the positive and even "dream" about the future. Doug mentioned to Rhoda, "…Then you and I would take a walk up a path and I would do a sketch of those beautiful Utah hills. (How I love those hills, not as much as I love my wife tho)." Speaking of the day that they would be reunited once more, he wrote to his sweetheart, "…When that day comes, I'm not letting you out of my sight for the rest of eternity."

At Hilo, Doug was moved from VB-4 to the VF-4 squadron, better known as the Red Rippers, which is one of the oldest fighter squadrons in the Navy. He recorded in his log book, "Transferred to Fighting Squadron Four-Happy Day!!!" Doug had always dreamed of being a fighter pilot and felt it an honor. He also believed that the transfer gave him a better chance of returning home alive.

Hawaii's unpredictable weather, coupled with night flights, provided Doug with excellent training. Early in October of 1944, he sketched layouts of Christmas cards for the Air Group Four's Bomber, Fighter, and Torpedo squadrons. Doug had mailed cards to pilots he knew at Jacksonville and in other squadrons, and sent the rest home for Rhoda to mail. He explained to her, "This card isn't too appropriate to send to people other than those who are in the Navy-so to relatives, you'd better buy something a little more orthodox."

Like many others, the closer Doug got to combat action, the more interested in his faith he became. His religious beliefs made an impression on many of his fellow pilots. One observed, "…with Doug, I feel religion may have been the dominating factor… Doug was unassuming; thereby, didn't leave a train of escapades, etc. This is to his credit." Another fellow pilot remembered,

    "Doug never joined in any of the wild parties some of the pilots threw when ashore, nor did he participate in the gambling sessions that went on in the wardroom. He just quietly painted. He and I were quite close probably due to a seldom-discussed religious understanding. I've often thought that his 'inner strength' I spoke of came from his Mormon background…. Aboard Bunker Hill and Essex, I think it was probably this close encounter of religious beliefs that was responsible for the closeness of the friendship Doug and I enjoyed. He and I often discussed human values when the other pilots were carousing or gaming… but never once did he try to 'recruit' me-nor I him. I think we touched hands over two sides of the same fence."

Doug eventually left for Saipan, where he boarded the USS Bunker Hill for Ulithi. On Sunday, November 5, 1944, the carrier log states that it was "underway for the Philippines." Doug was not assigned to fly on the first strike, but soon he participated in his share of combat missions. He had written to his parents expressing his abhorrence at the thought of killing another human being, and expressed that if he had to shoot, which he knew was unavoidable, he would aim for the fuel tank.

Ulithi is located 360 miles Southwest of Guam, 850 miles East of the Philippines, and 1,300 miles South of Tokyo. When the US Navy arrived on the largest Ulithi island, they found approximately 400 natives and three Japanese soldiers. This island was immediately setup as a headquarters, while Sorlen, a smaller island, was used as a shop to maintain and repair ships. Mogmog Island, at Ulithi, was designated for recreation and Falalop, the big island, was just wide enough to be used as an airstrip. R&R transformed Mogmog from a quiet pacific island to a crowded spot where stress relief was expressed to its fullest. The sailors' activities of relief included, bathing, baseball, boxing and above all beer drinking. Doug probably made it to Mogmog at least once, but it is doubtful that he had any interest in returning. However, he took time to express a rare, peaceful moment on the island in his painting, "Mogmog Island at Ulithi in the Marianas."

From the USS Bunker Hill, Doug transferred to the USS Essex. Overall, Doug complained that the food was terrible and that when he returned home, he never wanted to see tongue or Spam at his dinner table. He was happy, though, to be assigned to continue rooming with his good friend, Dusty Rhodes.

As Doug became better known for his artwork, the Navy used Doug's talent whenever needed. He spent one day "doing a lot of lettering with yellow paint for the Ready Room Boards."

In November 1944 attacks were supporting Army General MacArthur's recapture of the Philippines. More specifically, they were to prevent the Japanese from building any additional fortifications on the island. As a result of Doug's participation in these attacks, he created "Attack on Luzon, Philippines."

On November 25, 1944, the Essex was about 100 miles East of Luzon. Doug and Lieutenant "Windy" Shields left the Essex at 0630, assigned to fly RCAP over the Subic Bay area of Luzon. The morning was sunny with clear skies and visibility at forty miles. After an uneventful morning of patrol over Clark Field, Doug and Windy were finally relieved. At 9:00 a.m., they headed back to the Essex. They were at about 10,000 feet when Doug sighted a bogey at 8,000 feet heading in the opposite direction. Windy had not yet sighted the plane and told Doug to investigate and he would follow. Doug tallyhoed the bogey. While descending to 8,000 feet, Windy sighted six Japanese Tonys above them on an opposite course at 13,000 feet. Windy immediately told Doug of the Tonys located above them, but he did not receive the transmission and had just engaged the bogey, and had taken pursuit. As the Tony moved into position at 7 o'clock above him, Doug fired his machine guns hitting the Tony just behind the cockpit on the undercarriage.

In the meantime, three Tonys, from above, dived down toward Doug and Windy. One flew right past Windy and was firing on Doug's tail. The other two enemy fighters stayed astern of Windy and fired on him. Windy pursued the Tony on Doug's tail and fired, causing it to break off. As it attempted to get away, Windy destroyed it with bursts of gunfire. Doug and Windy began the fighter weave as they climbed to 13,000 feet and headed toward their ship. They were "harassed" by the two Tonys until they reached the East Coast of Luzon, at which point the enemy planes broke off and disappeared. Doug and Windy safely landed back aboard the Essex at 1045, 1,635 rounds of ammunition lighter. Sometime later in November, Doug took time to compose himself and created a painting of what would become his only air kill, "The Tony."

After Doug landed aboard the ship and finished his reports, he went to the conditioning room for a "fine rub down." He wrote that, "it took a lot of the soreness out, but left me with a tired body." Doug's letter to his wife on November 25, was understandably short. Censors would not allow him to tell of the flight he had just experienced and how he felt after his encounter with the enemy. His spirits were definitely low and he told Rhoda, "One month from today will be X-mas. It doesn't mean a heck of a lot to me this year—while it should mean everything. Days are just parts of time that someday will lead to you." Shortly after Doug's rub down, more excitement and fear struck everyone aboard the Essex.

About two hours after Doug landed aboard the Essex from his dog fight with the Tonys, two Kamikazes dived on the Essex. Gunners shot one down, but the ship was hit by another. Of this disaster, the official Essex log recorded, "1256 - Essex hit on port edge of the flight deck at frames 69 - 70 by a Japanese suicide torpedo aircraft [Judy]. 1326 - Flight operations were resumed." Eight men were killed, forty-four injured, and six others listed as missing. (1) The fire caused by the Judy burned Admiral Sherman's cabin and destroyed a Grumman Avenger (TBF). The Essex's five-inch guns damaged several Curtiss Helldivers (SB2Cs). Even with all this disruption, the crew was still able to continue flight operations within thirty minutes.

After a couple of weeks at Ulithi, the Essex joined two other Task Groups which, when combined, formed Admiral "Bull" Halsey's powerful Third Fleet. The Essex log for Sunday, December 17, 1944, revealed, "set course to Westward to escape an approaching typhoon." By mid-afternoon most of the crew were convinced that they were within the path of a developing tropical storm. The Essex log recorded, on the morning of December 18, "riding out a second typhoon, which appeared 250 miles to the SE in area about 250 miles E of the Central Philippines."

The entire task force felt the brunt of this typhoon. Its 70-foot waves smashed the large ships from all sides; the damage was devastating. Three destroyers were lost, and three light carriers, two escort carriers, three other destroyers, and one cruiser received major structural damage. Either damaged or lost were 146 airplanes.

Following the typhoon, a search was launched for straggling ships and survivors of ships that had foundered during the typhoon. Doug spent many hours in flight looking for any signs of human life in the sea. Out of nearly 900 men lost in the storm, only ninety-eight were recovered. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, summed up the great loss by stating it was "a more crippling blow to the Third Fleet than might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action."

Following this destructive storm, Doug painted a fragment of what had been carved into his memory at the onslaught of this pacific disaster. Ironically, Doug's mother, not knowing of the typhoon that her son had just experienced, offered advice in a Christmas letter, "Pray constantly Douglas. As that is all the help you can really receive while flying over that wicked Pacific Ocean." He later painted the initial stage of the storm from the plane handler's deck, "Typhoon." (2)

In January 1945, Doug had begun another sketch but told Rhoda that he was not pleased with it: "it wasn't so good! Guess I'd better stick to just flying-and loving you." Not everyone agreed with Doug's assessment of his paintings. One fellow pilot recalled "his paintings expressed vividly many of the encounters we experienced."

At the beginning of 1945, Admiral Halsey finally received permission to move the Task Force into the South China Sea. After dark, on January 9, TF 38 moved through Bashi channel into the South China Sea, an extremely high risk move. He was searching for a major part of the Japanese fleet that had survived the Battle for Leyte Gulf, especially the ships Ise and Hyuga.

On January 12, the Task Force launched the first carrier-based naval air strike against French Indo-China. American pilots were successful and the combined effect of the VT and VF attacks were devastating. When the Essex planes retired, all ships had been sunk or beached. But with all the success, they still did not locate the Japanese battleships that Halsey had hoped to find and destroy.

On January 16, Doug flew over four hours RCAP (Rescue Combat Air Patrol) with Bradford Hovey at his wing. Later, Doug created a painting of the two of them flying over the South China Sea as a reflection of what he remembered from their patrol. The painting is "Along the Coast of the South China Sea."

By mid-January 1945, Doug was feeling a bit homesick and tired of the war. While thinking of the future, he wrote to his sweetheart,

    "Gosh Darling, I miss you so very much. I wish this Damn war would end. I want to be with you every minute forever. We sure are going to have lots of fun together. We'll probably have lots of kids too. Hope we have a couple of boys and one cute little blonde girl."

In another letter he vocalized his love of flying but wrote, "I'm getting pretty tired of this war!" On night, Doug was on the flight deck looking at the moon and wrote:

    "I'm so thankful that we did get married cause I could never love anyone else as much as I love you. Every thought is for you. I only hope I'll be the husband you deserve, forever. These last six and a half months have been a lot easier than I thought they would be. Your letters and pictures have kept you close to me. I was just wondering if I had changed any. A person has an awful tendency to get hard towards things that don't directly pertain to the war. Now and then I find my thoughts being selfish and sometimes rebellious towards that that I should know is right. Being married to you has helped me a lot. Life is a lot more stable with something so tangible as our future. Darling, the time can't pass fast enough. I pray every night that we will be together soon."

In his logbook for February 16, Doug penned one word, "Tokyo." The previous night he wrote Rhoda, "Any prayers that you might have said are going to come in plenty handy tomorrow. Honey, I'm gonna say an extra one tonight. The next two days are going to be pretty rough. But I don't think you need to worry."

The following morning, Doug left the Essex at 1030 and returned by 1430. Later in the day, Doug's closest friend, "Dusty" Rhodes, was listed as missing in action.

Following the surprise attack strike on Tokyo, orders were given to head South to offer support for Iwo Jima. Doug mentioned that the "Japs" had harassed them a little at night and many times he went out on the forecastle to watch the "fireworks." He also simply and sadly wrote home, "Sure is hard to take sometimes… if they don't relieve us pretty soon I'm liable to be losing some marbles along with the rest of them!"

His 1945 New Year's Resolution, which Doug recorded for his wife was, "I promise to be a good, faithful, and not too boring husband. I've also resolved to come back to you in one healthy piece—Hope the Japs will oblige." Tragically, circumstances did not oblige. In his last letter to his wife, he wrote:

    "Well Honey, can't think of any more news to tell you. I miss you so much, but I know that isn't going to get me home any sooner, so I'm just waiting and loving you more each day. Good night Angel-Forever yours, Doug."

Footnotes:

(1) The final official death toll was 16 killed. For more details, see Suicide Tactics: The Kamikaze During WWII.
(2) See Typhoon: The Other Enemy.

Bibliography

This article is based on a complete biography of Douglas Raymond Cahoon completed by the authors in 1996. You can contact Douglas W. Cahoon and Esther Cahoon at http://www.fortunecity.com/millenium/aylesbury/196/. This article copyright © 1999 by Esther L. Cahoon and Douglas W. Cahoon.


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