23. Saigon Takes Its Toll

"…the Japanese commander ordered them to kneel, shot them in turn, then kicked them backward into a shallow grave."

The USS Essex launched STRIKE BAKER at 1330 on January 12, 1945, to attack enemy air facilities, shipping, and shore installations in Saigon Harbor. The admiral wanted to make every minute of our stay in the South China Sea as effective as possible.

Robert Sherrod, Time magazine correspondent, was on board to record fleet action. He chose to make the flight with Torpedo Four to gather firsthand information for his report. We all thought he was crazy to take this unnecessary chance, when interviews with the returning flyers would have sufficed. But then, Bob Sherrod had been on other dangerous missions during his excellent coverage of the war in the Pacific. We checked him out with a life jacket and parachute harness, and placed him with an experienced pilot, Lt B. R. Trexler.

This strike group consisted of 14 Avengers and 12 Hellcats for escort. Lt L. M. Boykin led the first VF division with Lt N. P. Byrd, Jr., and Lt W. W. Taylor leading the other four-plane fighter divisions. All F6Fs were loaded with 1000-pound bombs.

The VF-4 planes rendezvoused with the VT-4 flight and with TBMs and F6Fs from the USS San Jacinto. Because of a low overcast extending from the task force disposition almost to the coast, the group flew at 1000 feet until about 5 miles from the Asiatic mainland, then climbed to 14,000 feet. (1)

"On the way to the target area, pilots saw many burning ships along the French Indo-China coast from Camranh Bay to Cap St. Jacques."
"When the flight reached the harbor area in the Saigon River east and southeast of Saigon, pilots saw a light cruiser lying on its side in shallow water. This ship (was) sunk by an earlier TF-38 attack." (*)

Five Hellcats from Boykin's Fighting Four group dropped their 1000-pounders on a large AK which was already burning. Taylor scored a direct hit and there were several other damaging near-misses. "One bomb fell close aboard an AO in the same vicinity."

"One division of the 12 Essex's VF also strafed oil storage tanks, causing fire (and) thick black smoke to rise from at least two such installations…." (1)

Marine Corsairs were also called in for this strike against Saigon. They claimed to have scored direct bomb hits on a Fox Tare Charlie and a Sugar Charlie Able. The Fox Tare Charlie sank. VMF 124 "probably destroyed or damaged 20 planes on the ground." (2)

The Corsair flown by 2nd Lt Joseph O. Lynch, VMF 124, was hit with small-arms fire, causing engine failure. (1)

"He made a successful landing three miles west of Trang-Bang, French Indo-China… and was last observed, apparently uninjured, standing on the ground next to his plane…. It was impossible to conduct rescue operations due to the active antiaircraft positions, however, Lt Lynch is reported in friendly hands. (**)

VMF 213 attack groups, led by Lt Col Millington and Major Johnson, strafed Bien Hoa and Long Trank Airfields and several ships. One ship took a direct hit by a Corsair carrying a 500-pound bomb. Millington also reported on January 12 that: (2)

"While on combat air patrol, Capt Hartsock's division shot down a four-motored unidentified bomber which had no markings and refused to respond to recognition or friendly signals, and which fired on them." (***)

The 14 torpedo planes from the Essex were led into the Saigon area by our Executive Officer, Lt L. L. Hamrick.

The Torpedo Squadron Four Tactical Organization consisted of: (1)

Pilot Crew
Hamrick, Lee L. (Ham) Hardin, W. M.
Goodwin, H. L.
Henry, Don A. Shirley, E. A.
Ward, Jr., Felix E. Warrington, C. J.
Hewett, J. E. Lathrop, C. W.
Bissell, F. H. Moore, W. H.
Newell, E. A. (Ted) Lace, W. J.
Hopkins, W. J., Jr. Simendinger, R. E., Jr.
Souza, Will S. Sims, T. R.
Cole, L. A. (Cozy) Knox, N. H.
Trexler, B. R. (Trex) Barr, C. W.
Sherrod, Robert (Time correspondent)
Bell, G. M. Tankard, A. J.
Gardner, Keith DeYoung, W. A.
Gray, L. C. Ganley, J. E.
Landre, Vernon A. DeCenso, A. (Tony)

Since Vernon Landre was cancelled from the morning flight because another plane chewed up his tail during the taxi, he was reassigned to STRIKE BAKER. All TBMs were loaded with four 500-pound bombs. (1)

"…VT went inland and approached the city of Saigon from east northeast and initiated their attack from that direction. VT pushed over from 8500 feet and acquired an average speed in glide of 290 knots indicated while employing glides of 40 - 55 degrees. Though there was damaged shipping at Saigon, all ships attacked by VT were previously undamaged."
"Lt Hamrick, while in a glide on an FTC (not shown on chart) in the river above the city, found himself in an unfavorable position for attack. Observing an oil storage concentration across the river, he pulled out and released his bombs on the storage at 1000 feet in a 10-degree glide. The oil storage blew up, the explosion rising above the altitude of the plane."

Pictures of these oil storage tank explosions were widely circulated in later press releases. Ham stated: (4)

"When I dropped my wing to go into the dive, I was past my target. I spotted a dozen oil storage tanks up to the north of us--so I circled and dropped my four 500-pounders on them. What an explosion! The marine correspondent, Goodwin, who was in the belly, was firing that little .30 caliber machine gun between picture taking. He started shouting, "I blew up the tanks! I blew up the tanks with my 30!" Of course, he was disappointed when he found out it was our four bombs that did the job, and not his peashooter."

The rest of Ham's group also gave a good accounting of themselves. Ensign Hewett and Ensign Bissell selected a Fox Tare Baker, which was tied up 200 yards up Arroyo L'Avalanche from the Saigon River. One of Hewett's "500-pound GP bombs hit directly amidships. Ensign Bissell, attacking the same ship, also scored one hit amidships." Other sections of the debriefing report follows:

"Lt (jg) Ward and Ensign Landre attacked a FOX BAKER at Saigon immediately below the confluence of Arroyo L'Avalanche and the Saigon river. Lt (jg) Ward placed one bomb directly amidships and Ensign Landre put one on the stern. The remainder of their bombs fell in the adjoining Saigon Navy Yard and Arsenal and fired several unidentified buildings."
"Ensign Bell dropped on a SUGAR ABLE, underway and heading downstream, straddling the ship. One of the bombs was a damaging near-miss, and though debris was seen to fly from the ship with the bomb explosion, no smoke or fire was seen."
"Ensign Hopkins attacked a FOX TARE BAKER, underway and heading downstream, scoring two hits, one on the bow and one on the #2 cargo hatch. Lt (jg) Souza hit the next ship down the river, a FOX TARE CHARLIE, with one 500-pound GP bomb directly amidships."
"Three VT attacked the FOX BAKER, underway and heading upstream, which was the ship next in line down the river. The first of Lt Trexler's widely spaced bombs struck the ship aft of the superstructure while one other fell in the water and the remaining two fired two or more warehouses across the river. Ensign Cole and Ensign Gray missed."
"Lt Newell dropped on a FOX ABLE, stationary and heading downstream, scoring a hit with one of his bombs on #4 cargo hatch. Ensign Gardner, attacking the same ship, missed."

Time correspondent Robert Sherrod summed up the results of our strikes, "By any accounting 12 January, 1945, must be regarded as one of the great days of the US Navy." (3)

The next part of the official report is subject to controversy. This concerns the fate of Lt (jg) Don Henry. The report states:

"As aircraft retired, Lt (jg) Henry called the flight leader stating that he had not released his bombs and requested permission to make another run. The flight leader suggested a target, but his message was not acknowledged. No more was heard from the plane. (Note: On return to base a TBM from another carrier joined up making correct count. Hence, plane was not noted missing until well after departure from target.) It is not known what target Lt (jg) Henry attacked."

Since Ham was leading this TBM flight, I asked him to describe what happened. He stated, "D. A. called and said his bombs did not release, and he was going back. I told him not to go back--to wait for fighter cover! But, he broke off anyway and went back toward Saigon. We never heard any more but, I assumed he dropped and rejoined the group." (4).

Allowing ample time for Don Henry to return to the carrier, the Essex made contact with the other carriers in TF-38 to see if Don had landed on another ship. No reports were received and no one saw Don after he left the VT-4 formation, nor was fighter cover provided for his return to Saigon.

There were some strange circumstances surrounding this incident. Both Don and his crewman, E. A. Shirley, had taken extra survival kits and extra guns aboard the TBM. Was this a premonition, or had they made other plans?

VT-4 pilots and crew made comments after the Saigon strike about the unusual precautions taken by Don Henry and Shirley. Hamrick stated: (5)

"You know, D. A. had gathered up his coins and his bridge cards. He was going to teach the French how to play bridge when he went down. He was prepared with extra survival gear. But, I was afraid if D. A. was caught by the Japs he would try to fight his way out."

T. R. Sims, one of Souza's crewmen, also noted: (5)

"There were five or six of us playing poker in the back of the Ready Room. Shirley came up the night before that strike and asked how much silver we had. He said, 'They don't take paper money over there in case you get shot down. I want all of the silver you can give me.' So we must have given him 40 or 50 dollars worth of silver. He said, 'Because I'm not coming back.' Those were his exact words. 'I'm not coming back from this trip."

When we reached the States in April of 1945, I went home on leave. Jean Ellis, my fiancee, and I went to see Don Henry's Father, Claude. He was a farmer near Drummond, Idaho, and was Don's closest living relative. My intent was to assure him that Don was in the hands of the Free French in Indo-China and had a good chance of getting back to the States.

Jean stayed in the car while I went to the door of the farmhouse. When Don's Father opened the door, I told him that I was from Torpedo Four, and I wanted to talk to him about Don. Before I could say more, he started cursing.

"Who in the hell is this guy Hamrick? Let me show you a letter he wrote about Don. I'll be damned if I can understand how anyone could write this kind of a letter. He says, 'We all envy Don because he went down in an area where there was a good chance for survival. How could anyone say he "envied" a man shot down in enemy territory, a thousand miles from our nearest land base in China?'"

Claude Henry kept on ranting about Ham's letter. I was so taken aback that I didn't know how to respond. What Ham was trying to say was that if Don had to go down, French Indo-China was better than most other places where we were headed--Tokyo, for example. Ham was trying to be encouraging; instead, his intent was misunderstood.

It became obvious that my trip to Drummond to reassure the family was not going to succeed. I returned to the car, reported to Jean the unexpected response to my visit, and we drove back home disappointed.

When Ham heard about my meeting with D. A.'s Father, he said, "That was a poor choice of words on my part. I did not realize they would not understand. I'm sorry."

No further word was received about D. A. Henry until the war ended. In December, 1945, I picked up a copy of the Idaho Falls Post and saw Henry's picture. (6) The article stated that when Don found that his bombs had not released he:

"…radioed for permission to fly back over the target to see if the bombardier could get the bombs to release. Permission was granted and when they returned all enemy fire was concentrated upon them resulting in their being shot down. Lt Henry made a perfect landing in a small clearing in the jungle, but discovered that their bombardier had been killed by enemy fire."

The Idaho Falls paper further stated that the family had been notified that Don had been killed by the Japanese, when he and an Army sergeant were "betrayed in their hiding place by the French Indochinese." We heard that Don had pulled a gun, and the Japanese patrol shot him on the spot. "Sgt Quinn was taken prisoner and just recently returned to the US, where he told his story to Navy personnel, who informed the family about how their son met his death." This article stated that "Lt Henry was killed on April 26, 1945." He was awarded the Air Medal posthumously. Don had received the DFC for earlier strikes.

Since Time correspondent Robert Sherrod was on this flight (in Trexler's plane) he took a special interest in trying to trace the events that led to Henry's capture and death. He concluded that Henry, after several weeks, joined up with six crew members of a PBM, which had made a crash landing 26 January, 1945, at Quong Ngai: (4)

"…somehow they found their way to the primitive Moi village of Pletonang, in the mountains north of Saigon. There on the morning of 12 March 1945, two months to the day after Lt Henry was shot down, they met their fate at the hands of a cruel and remorseless enemy…. After accepting their surrender the Japanese commander ordered them to kneel, tied their wrists together, shot them in turn, then kicked each backward into a shallow grave."

More recently, I have learned that an American, Martin L. Mickelsen and a Frenchman, Jean-Claude Surleau (who was in Saigon at the time of the Air Group Four strike) are conducting research on the Saigon strikes of 12 January, 1945, with particular attention to the fate of those airmen who were shot down. Task Force 38, as a whole, lost 16 planes--two from the USS Essex.

The French report concerning the fate of Lt (jg) D. A. Henry, as translated by Mickelsen, states: (7)

"…The seventh (Lt Henry) injured with grave burns was assigned for six weeks at Mytho then to a plantation at Loc Ninh. He found a glorious death in the month of April, 1945, fighting at the side of the French resistance. Finally the body of E. A. Shirley, found among the debris of his machine, was previously interred at the French cemetery of Saigon.

Photo: Stike on Saigon River, Indo-China.

Photo: Strike on Saigon River, Second View.

Photo: Heading for Saigon, Indo-China.

Photo: Strike on Saigon.

Photo: Robert Sherrod Dons Parachute.

Photo: Robert Sherrod Gets Bail-Out Instructions.

(1) Combat Reports, VF-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(2) War Diary, VMF 213 and VMF 214. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(3) Sherrod, Robert Lee. 1952. History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. Combat Forces Press.
(4) Taped Interview with L. L. Hamrick, VT-4 Pilot.
(5) Taped Interview with T. R. Sims, VT-4 Crewman.
(6) News Release, Idaho Falls Post-Register. December, 1945.
(7) Correspondence from Martin L. Mickelsen, 1989.
(*) Martin Mickelsen and Jean-Claude Surleau, who are doing research on these Saigon strikes, state that this ship was the French light cruiser, Lamotte Picquet. (2) They raise the question, "Why was it attacked by US Navy planes?" I don't know the official answer but, to my knowledge, none of our pilots knew there were any "friendlies" in the area. We assumed all ships were Japanese or Japanese controlled.
(**) Sherrod reported that Lynch was picked up by a native policeman who smuggled him to a French colonial outpost. He met up with 3 Navy pilots who were shot down during the day and all 4 eventually returned to the States through Kunming, China.(3)
(***) This plane was later identified as an Army B-24. See the detailed report in Chapter 18 of this book. Also, more details are contained in the "Supplement to Torpedo Squadron Four" by Gerald W. Thomas.

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Torpedo Squadron Four: A Cockpit View of World War II
Copyright © 1990-2000 by Gerald W. Thomas