25. In the Drink

"On what was to prove the longest and least profitable combat flight in the history of the squadron…"

January had been a hectic month for Torpedo Four, operating from the USS Essex. We had taken part in strikes every few days with breaks only for refueling or short stops at Ulithi Lagoon. Many of the pilots and crew were suffering from combat fatigue. When we reached the Ready Room about 6:30 a.m. on January 16, 1945, we heard the weather reports and the strike plans, and were less than enthusiastic.

As we went through the briefing, we were conscious of the loss of our Air Group Commander. No one could replace Otto. He had been a steady and reliable leader as far back as our service on the USS Ranger.

The senior officer in the Air Group was a Marine--Lt Col W. A. Millington. He was named Acting Commander of Air Group Four for this strike and later took over as CAG-4.

The scheduled targets on January 16 were shipping and installations on the island of Hainan, China--an outbound flight of more than 400 miles. We were to join other planes from Task Group 38.3 under the overall command of Admiral "Bull" Halsey. All of the torpedo planes from the other two carriers (San Jacinto and Langley) were equipped with wing tanks but, for some unknown reason, the Essex did not have wing tanks aboard for our Avengers. Even rough calculations plainly indicated that the Torpedo Four planes would have difficulty stretching the gas supply to reach the proposed targets. Any deviation from the flight plan, or interruptions by attacks from Japanese fighters, would mean close calls for VT-4.

A heavy overcast delayed the launch until 0805. At that time, eight Hellcats, under the leadership of Lt G. M. Harris Jr., and 10 VTs, under the leadership of P. J. Davis, were launched into the mist. Attempts to rendezvous under the overcast were futile, so we climbed into the clouds more or less as individual planes.

The tactical formation for Torpedo Four on January 16, 1945, for this morning attack as shown in the Archives, was: (1)

Pilot Crew
Davis, P. J. Jr. Schmolke, N. J.
Vogt, C. N. W. (Scott) Kelly, R. E.
Barnett, G. M. (Buck) Christopher, C.
Walker, W. F. (Willie) (*) Ziemer, G. F.
Stephens, Page P. Mocsary, Andy (Marge)
Landre, Vernon A. (**) Statler, Charlie C.
Thomas, Gerald W. (Jerry) (*) Gress, Don H
Montague, R. B.
Hopfinger, R. M. (**) Wilson, F. W.
Binder, Ed S. (*) Biddle, R. D.
Deimel, H. J. Leach, L. S.

Three fighters called in to the ship for permission to return to base due to mechanical difficulties (Kelley, Sikors, and Callen). Ensigns Landre and Hopfinger, from VT-4, also returned to the ship. It appeared that I would have to "down" my plane when it failed to turn up full RPMs at the takeoff spot, but I decided to chance a borderline power setting so I took off and tried to join up with Stephens under the cloud layer.

About this time, the ship directed all VT-4 planes to join the Air Group 44 leader, who was to serve as target coordinator. He reported that he was at 6500 feet above the overcast and would wait for VT-4 planes there. (1)

The 10 TBMs that got off the flight deck began to climb through the overcast, but there was no way we could hold our formation. Therefore, we split off in various directions and climbed through the soup individually--always hoping that we could avoid midair collisions.

After about 15 minutes, eight of the ten planes had rendezvoused, joined the Air Group 44 leader, and proceeded on base course. The other two planes, failing to rendezvous, returned to base, jettisoning their bombs before landing aboard. Our debriefing report continues: (1)

"After about 20 minutes on base course, Lt Davis suggested a new heading, computed from the wind given by the ship for that altitude (6000 feet) just before takeoff. At this point, Lt Davis was given the lead. Approximately 85 miles from the task force, the overcast cleared. From then on ceiling was unlimited, visibility 10 - 15 miles."
"ETA for landfall passed and land was still not in sight. Thus, the pilots knew that the wind and ship's point option data had been incorrect. When landfall was made, the formation was uncertain as to its exact position. This landfall was later identified as Becassines Point on the Liu Chow Peninsula, some 50 miles due north of the HOI HOW area, the intended target. Lt Davis then set a course of due south, but after a few minutes the Air Group 44 leader directed a heading of 240 degrees true and the formation assumed that heading. The flight made landfall on Hainan Island just east of Lin-Kao."

At this point, I deviate from the official report to give my own impressions. It should be noted that our skipper, P. J. Davis, had to sign the official report, and, therefore, his own bias is evident in this, as well as other combat reports. Fortunately, Lt Lou Gardemal, our ACI officer, was also present during the pilot briefings, and he moderated the final version.

When VT-4 planes made landfall, P. J. Davis misread the map and took a wrong turn. The correction ordered by Air Group 44 leader from the USS Langley was also in error. Consequently, we lost valuable time and expended part of our gas supply trying to locate the designated target. Also, we experienced light antiaircraft fire at certain locations on Hainan, just enough to keep us uncomfortable.

Japanese Zeros were reported attacking some of the task force planes, although neither Don Gress, my turret gunner, nor I saw any enemy planes.

As we were crossing Hainan Island, P. J. Davis called the Air Group 44 target coordinator and told him that we were getting low on gas and needed an immediate target assignment. (1)

"The formation then wandered around at 10,000 feet in a generally west and west-southwest direction waiting for the assignment of a suitable target. At this point Ensign Walker reported a low gas supply. After about 20 minutes of such wandering, the Air Group 44 leader ordered an attack on what he supposed to be a seaplane base."

As the report indicates, we dropped our bombs in a glide-bombing mode on this so-called "Sea Plane Base." By the time I made my run, the place was reduced to rubble. I dropped anyway, since I could not return to the ship with armed bombs aboard. Each of the VT-4 planes was loaded with four 500-pound, general-purpose bombs.

After the attack, the return flight carried us over a Japanese airfield (identified later as Ting On). When Ed Binder (with R. D. Biddle as gunner) dropped his "hung-up" bomb on the field, I thought, "I have just enough gas to make a decent approach to that airstrip, and maybe I should. I will never make it back to the Carrier!" But, I decided I could reach the US Submarine dispatched near land to pick up survivors, or perhaps the Picket Destroyer, which, although a long way from us, was at least 50 miles closer than the Essex.

As we started our over-water return leg, I heard Willie Walker call the skipper again. "I'm out of gas. I'm going down!" P. J. Davis did not acknowledge.

The VHF Channel we were using was cluttered with calls from desperate pilots from other squadrons--some had been hit with AA fire, some by Japanese planes, and others were low on gas. I broke in with a call to our Skipper, "Willie is going down--send in a position report!" No answer. I called our fighter cover leader with the same message. Still no answer.

I thought, "Surely someone will drop back and circle Willie." I then called the code name of the picket destroyer with Walker's latitude and longitude. No answer--only cluttered airways.

Disgusted with our Skipper, our fighters, and everyone in general, I dropped out of formation to circle Willie's plane as he started a dead-stick water landing. I thought, "This mission is all fouled up. It will serve them right if they lose the whole damned squadron!"

So I decided, since I was also about out of fuel anyway, to land beside Willie. There was a big splash as Willie's plane hit the water--but it appeared that he and his crewman, G. F. Zeimer, had survived the crash. The combat report states: (1)

"At a point approximately 45 miles from STRIKE PICKET No. 1, Ensign Walker was forced to make a water landing at 1413 (Item) because fuel was exhausted. Though the accompanying TBMs from the other carriers had wing tanks (and those of VT-4 had not), none remained to circle overhead. Lt (jg) Thomas, not having enough gas to complete the flight to base, elected to circle the spot to report the position of his downed squadron mate and to assist in bringing the DD to the scene."

As I circled Walker's downed plane, I heard P. J. Davis call the Essex and report that he was over the picket destroyer. He requested permission for the group to make a direct approach to the carrier due to fuel shortage (normally a circle around the picket was required for the Task Force to make certain the planes were ours and not kamikazes). I thought, "If our other planes are already over the destroyer, perhaps I have enough fuel to reach it, even if I can't make the carrier!" (2) Consequently, I took a heading toward the picket. I switched several times to empty tanks in the hope of getting a few more miles from the engine. The gauges were accurate. That TBM would not run on fumes!

In a few minutes, it became obvious that the fuel remaining in my Avenger would not carry me to the rescue destroyer. I called my crew on the intercom, "Prepare for a water landing. Jettison hatches. Montague, you climb out of the belly and sit backwards in the second cockpit. Pick up any extra survival kits you see and get ready to abandon ship!"

Hurriedly, I pulled out my plotting board and made a quick calculation of our location. I called the code name of the rescue destroyer. This time the airwaves were clear and I received a Mayday acknowledgment.

D. H. Gress was in the turret, facing backwards. He was a regular member of my crew and I had confidence in his ability. R. B. Montague, on the other hand, was a ship's photographer and this was only his second hop with me. He had requested permission to go along to take pictures of the strike, but he had not bargained for a splashdown.

My fuel gauge indicated that I had enough gas for a power-on landing. I looked down at the wind streaks and wave action to get the wind direction and velocity, extended the tail hook to get a feel for the water, and made a full-stall landing.

This ended a 6.5-hour flight in my TBM-3. The splashdown was not much harder than a normal carrier landing, although the plane was completely submerged for a few seconds.

Montague and I jumped out on the right wing as the plane came to the surface. We pushed the large raft that was stored in the fuselage over to Gress, but he was washed off the wing before he could get it inflated. Montague and I inflated a small raft, then we, too, were washed off the wing. As we floated under the tail of the plane, I thought it would drag us down as it sank. While I was fighting to get clear of the plane, Montague was taking pictures with a small camera that he had managed to salvage (see photo).

In a few seconds the plane sank, and we were all alone in the South China Sea in the one-man raft. We had lost one paddle, but we had extra survival kits. The surface of the sea was smooth, but the swells were more than 30 feet high. At the tip of the swells, we could see for miles--at the bottom of the swells, the sea seemed to close in on us.

The rescue destroyer was nowhere in sight. It was lonely, and I was disgusted--too disgusted to worry about sharks or long-term survival.

Montague and I kept searching the rough seas for Don Gress. He was nowhere in sight. I thought we had lost another damned good crewman. Don described the problem when he talked to me later. (3)

"Jerry, I can recall your question over the intercom before we went down, 'What would you rather do, land on the island or go out to sea?' I said, 'Go out to sea.' I was scared to death of getting into Japanese hands."
"I never did see you fellows. I was on one side of the plane, and you were on the other. I didn't think we were ever going to get that life raft out. It was hung up. When it finally came out, the line was wrapped around my leg, and I nearly drowned. When I finally got the raft inflated, I did not have the strength to get in. I hung on a while, then finally was able to crawl over the edge. I laid on the bottom of the raft until I was rescued. My God, I was so sick!"

Later that afternoon Montague and I spotted a destroyer coming toward us. It turned out to be a new ship, the USS Sullivans. This destroyer was named after the five Sullivan brothers who were lost when the US Cruiser Juneau was sunk by the Japanese on November 15, 1942. The ship was new to the Pacific theater.

The destroyer came up to our rubber raft, the crew tossed over some rescue nets, and a few seamen jumped into the ocean to assist us aboard. I was so grateful to be picked up that I gave away all my extra survival gear to the crew--even the kit containing Chinese and Japanese money. I kept my .38 and shoulder holster, however.

Montague and I immediately asked about Don Gress. The ship had already spotted him and, in a few minutes, we brought him aboard.

I then asked one of the officers if they had picked up Willie Walker. The answer was, "We have picked up several other survivors, but we do not have a position report on Walker." They asked me to come up to the bridge and look at some maps with the captain. Since my plotting board was in the plane at the bottom of the ocean, I had to calculate from memory the approximate location of Willie's splash site.

The ship's captain then directed the Sullivans to the area that I designated. We made several circles and finally located Walker and Zeimer just before dark. They had two rubber rafts lashed together and appeared to be in good shape. We found them only minutes before the task force was directed out of the China Sea.

Ensign Walker's version of the water landing follows: (4)

"It was more of a dip-bombing operation than a glide-bombing attack. We turned back east to go home. Of course, I knew I wouldn't make it. I had to discuss a crash landing with my gunner somewhere near the East Coast. He didn't particularly like the idea, and I wasn't overly fond of it myself. We had been briefed that there would be a rescue submarine off the coast. We were taking the chance that we would be picked up by them. We did know that the fleet would be leaving the South China Sea late that afternoon or that night. We thought there might be a chance to get back aboard."
"We proceeded on and on and on until I had burned all but a little gasoline in one of my tanks. I couldn't go any further, so I made a water landing. My water landing wasn't very good, although it was planned well. I had my tail hook down but there were big, huge swells. I just tipped one of them; that kind of messed me up, and I just collapsed right into the other swell. The plane didn't have any gasoline, so it just bounced up like a cork but water came up over the hatches."
"We got a little hasty in abandoning that airplane. We both had on our seat packs. We stood on the wing and inflated the large raft. Somehow Zeimer slipped off the wing and got separated. He pulled his chute pack and got in the small raft. He would be inside of one swell, and I would be inside of another, but he rowed toward me, and I rowed toward him, and finally we got together. He transferred over to the big raft with me. The small raft was pulled in tow, and we proceeded on."
"It started getting late, and we started getting cold; we were both just shivering. Four F6Fs flew over. I took my .38, loaded one with tracer-and-ball and fired it; I guess they didn't see it, because they just kept on going. I thought that might be our last chance. Just before dark, I happened to look over my left shoulder and there was this huge destroyer right up above me. I didn't know it if was Jap or American--friend or foe. They came alongside and threw a cargo net over the side, and we climbed aboard very happily. They gave us dry clothes and a place to sleep."
"One thing that was said before we landed, 'When the first one goes down, we will all make a mass water landing.' I thought, 'Here I go. Everyone is going to come join me.' Jerry circled, but I didn't blame anybody because I thought if you had the fuel, go as far as you can."
"My head was throbbing a little when they finally picked me up. I did not heave. Zeimer was sick, sick, sick. He blamed the dye marker for making him nauseated."

Shortly after my rescue, I was offered a shot of "medicinal whisky" and a bowl of canned peaches. That night I got seasick. A bad storm was brewing and the destroyer rolled so radically that I could not stay in my bunk. That night and the next day I spent about as much time on the deck of the sick bay as in my bunk, with constant dry heaves and the worst headache I can remember.

Don Gress said, "They gave me clean clothes. I was rather hungry so I went through the chow line. By the time I got through the line, I just looked at that food and dumped it in the bucket. Never did sit down with it. I thought we were on that destroyer for several days."

I, too, thought we were on the Sullivans for several days, but Air Sea Rescue records show a transfer to the Essex in the evening of the second day. (5) The Sullivans had picked up a number of other pilots and crew during that South China Sea operation; several were wounded. The captain finally received permission in spite of the rough seas, to transfer us to the Essex for better medical care. Statler recorded in his journal. (6)

"January 17, 1945: Very rough seas. Decision made to transfer several pilots and crew members picked up by Destroyer Sullivans to the Essex but experienced difficulty shooting a line across and sending them over in a breeches buoy. Dunked Thomas in water but all transfers successful. Spent the day trying to refuel, but had little success due to bad weather."

A few minutes after I was transferred to the Essex, squadron buddies offered me a piece of dry toast. My seasickness moderated in a few hours. I was accustomed to the roll of the carrier but not the roll of the destroyer. I was glad to be back on a more stable platform--particularly since Task Force 38.3 was leaving the South China Sea and heading into a "Monsoon with high seas." (7)

Upon my return to the Essex, I learned that all Torpedo Four personnel had been accounted for. The report on the third plane that went "in the drink" states: (1)

"From the picket to the task force, a distance of 50 miles, approximately, the formation strung out considerably. Somewhere in this area Lt (jg) Binder ran so low on gas that a water landing was made at 1443 (Item). Lt (jg) Binder and his crewmen were picked up by the USS Callahan."

"Jolly Ed" Binder had R. D. Biddle with him as turret gunner. His other crewman, Don Jenkins, was scheduled to go but, "I had laryngitis and couldn't utter a sound so Biddle had to take the assignment. He took the rifle we always carried and it went down with the plane. The highlight of my tour in the Pacific was the Tokyo strikes--but, routine flying with Mr. Binder provided all the excitement I ever needed." (8)

Pilot debriefings state that "many small buildings were set afire and were burning furiously as aircraft departed [from the target]. Film which would have identified target better were [sic] lost aboard a TBM which was forced to make a water landing." The film referred to was in my plane. When we made the water landing, Montague abandoned all photo equipment, except his hand-held camera. Only one photo from this camera, showing the tail of our plane as we drifted away from it, was clear.

The confidential report to our higher levels of command on the January 16 strike started with the statement, "On what was to be the longest and least profitable combat flight in the history of the squadron…." The seven of us that tasted the salt water of the South China Sea on that day would tend to agree with this conclusion.

One of the more appropriate comments as I was brought back aboard was made by our Executive Officer, Lee Hamrick. (9)

"Jerry finally got to go swimming in the South China Sea. You know, we had to send a keg of ice cream over to the destroyer for every crew member they picked up and returned to the Carrier. Our major concern was, "Do we have enough ice cream to reclaim all of these guys?"

A Touch of Hong Kong--January 16, 1945

While the rescue of the Torpedo Four crew members from the South China Sea was taking place, the Essex launched twelve F6F Hellcats, loaded with 1000-pound bombs, for a high-speed strike on Hong Kong Harbor. This was the first carrier-based strike on Hong Kong, and no one knew what to expect from fighter opposition or AA fire. No specific targets were assigned, but the group was advised that Japanese shipping was in the area.

This fighter sweep was under the command of Lt W. W. (Dub) Taylor. The three divisions rendezvoused and departed for Hong Kong at 1610 hours, broke through the overcast at about 3000 feet, and flew toward the target at 16 - 20,000 feet.

The group sighted several ships in the Hong Kong Harbor. Dub Taylor's division pushed over from 15,000 feet in a 60-degree glide bombing run. (10)

"Barrage-type heavy AA was thick and concentrated at this level and at two lower levels. Lt Taylor released his half-tonner at 5000 feet, aiming for a large AK, possibly a Fox-Tare-Baker, between Hong Kong Island and the southern extremity of Kowloon peninsula. Lt (jg) Lepp aimed at the same vessel, while Ens Fewell sought to hit another large AK in the same vicinity. Lt (jg) Rhodes's bomb hit and exploded within the Royal Navy Yard."
"The undiminishing and accurate AA fire and the high hills on Hong Kong Island necessitated a pull-out at 4000 feet and speedy retirement to the south, and results were not observed. It was believed, however, that Lt (jg) Rhodes's bomb landed well within destructive radius of important Navy Yard installations and caused serious damage there."

The Second Division, led by Lt (jg) T. J. Graham made a high-speed, high-angle run on ships in the same area of Hong Kong Harbor, "…through clouds of AA fire." Graham overshot the ships lying in the harbor and saved his bomb for another target--a lighthouse, radio-radar installation and possible AA or CD emplacement on a small island in the Potoi group south of Hong Kong.

Ens Gustafson dropped his bomb at a third AK in the harbor, while Lt (jg) Guyles scored a bomb hit on the Royal Navy Yard. Ensign Sarris's bomb was aimed at one of the AK. The speed of retirement prevented observation of results.

Lt Smith's division, using the same tactics as the other eight VF in the flight, bombed the Cosmopolitan Dockyard on the west side of Kowloon Peninsula. All bombs were soon to land within destructive radius of shore installations, and a column of black smoke was rising from the area as the VF retired.

Fortunately, all 12 Hellcats got in and out of the area without loss to AA fire. Some comments from pilots on the Hong Kong flight are significant. (10)

"Lt Smith: 'If we had been told our exact objective, we would have been able to instigate a much better attack, much safer for the pilots and therefore probably much more accurate.'"
"Lt (jg) Rhodes: 'Because of the short notice pilots received before executing this attack, maximum effectiveness could not be attained. Ticonderoga planes attacked just prior to us and were receiving heavy AA up to 15000 feet, well concentrated and accurate. Several ships were noted in the harbor. Two had been set afire. Altogether, four huge fires were noted.'"
"Lt (jg) Guyles: 'Hong Kong is well guarded by AA. Guns are in a circle around the harbor. Fire comes from all sides. Even the smallest islands appeared to hold AA guns.'"

Marines Sweep Hainan--January 16, 1945

On the afternoon of January 16, the Essex launched STRIKE BAKER, consisting of seven Corsairs flown by pilots of VMF 124 and VMF 213. These F4Us, under the leadership of Capt W. J. Bedford were instructed to make a sweep over Hainan.

The Essex Marines were each carrying two 250-pound bombs. The group made bombing and strafing runs on ships found near Point Sifa and in Yu Lin Kan Bay. Several enemy ships were damaged by the F4Us.

As the flight proceeded toward Gaalong Point, it was attacked by Japanese Zekes. Lt Strimbeck was heard saying, "They're shooting at me! There are nine Zekes!" (2)

Unfortunately, Lt Strimbeck, at the time of the attack, did not jettison his belly tank. He was also still carrying two 250-pound bombs. The War Diary states: (2)

"Lt Wastvedt slid out to starboard so they could start a section weave, but Lt Strimbeck (apparently excited) turned away from him in a tight 180-degree turn, leaving the enemy with a perfect no-deflection shot. The Zeke hit his belly tank, and Strimbeck's plane immediately burst into flames. The pilot bailed out and was seen parachuting downward."

A rescue sub was vectored to the location of the downed pilot. There were no reports on a later rescue.

The remainder of Capt Bedford's flight engaged the Zekes. Reynolds "got on the tail of one Zeke, saw hits travel up the back of the fuselage, and believes he may have damaged the tail controls or killed the pilot…. He last saw the Zeke descending on one wing, but not necessarily out of control… cannot be listed as a probable." (2)

The Marines characterized the flak as heavy along the entire coastline from Samah Bay to Cape Bastion, and the ships were putting up "moderate and accurate automatic AA."

Photo: Lt Edward S. Binder.

Photo: Ens William F. Walker.

Photo: Tail of TBM Just Before Plane Sank.

Photo: Don H. Gress, Gerald W. Thomas, and John E. Holloman.

Photo: Lt (jg) Thomas Transferred to USS Essex.

Photo: VT-4 Over French Indo-China.

Photo: Homeward Bound - South China Sea.

(1) Combat Reports, VT-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(2) War Diary, VMF 213 and VMF 124. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(3) Taped interview with Don Gress, VT-4 Crewman.
(4) Taped interview with Willie Walker, VT-4 Pilot.
(5) USS Sullivans Ship's Log. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(6) Statler, C. C., VT-4 Crewman. Personal Journal.
(7) The USS Essex: CV-9, U.S. Navy Publication.
(8) Taped Interview with Dan Jenkins, VT-4 Crewman.
(9) Taped Interview with L. L. Hamrick, VT-4 Pilot.
(10) Combat Reports, VF-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(*) Water Landing.
(**) Returned to base.

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