26. From the China Sea to Formosa

"Medals are at present unavailable in the combat area."

Bad Weather and Bogeys--January 17 - 21, 1945

If historians were to rely on the brief impersonal comments contained in the official ships' logs, we would know very little about the war in the Pacific. For example, Torpedo Four ditched three planes in the South China Sea on January 16, and the Essex brought the seven airmen from those planes back aboard the next day, January 17. The ship's log merely states "Fueling at sea and receiving replacement aircraft in Area 200 miles west of Luzon." (1) No mention is made of the personnel transferred back aboard. Charlie Statler's journal is more succinct. (2)

"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."
"January 18, 1945: We went through a typhoon last night. Weather still very bad."
"January 19, 1945: Beautiful weather…. Finished refueling."
"January 20, 1945: Started through the channel at approximately 1130. Jap snooper planes reported several times. GQ sounded at 1715 when 15 Jap planes were spotted--11 were shot down. (They were Nicks, Nells, Lilys, Bettys, and Helens)…. At approximately 0200 Condition One was sounded. There were two snoopers at 30 miles. They faded shortly."

As Task Group 38.3 was moving through Balingtang Channel, Tokyo Rose reported that the American Fleet was "bottled up" in the South China Sea. (3) Of course, these were high risks as Halsey's armada moved within easy reach of shore-based Japanese planes. But TG 38.3 was certainly not bottled up. Also, the carriers were maintaining constant combat air patrols over the fleet.

The USS Essex launched both VF-4 Hellcats and VMF Corsairs to serve as patrols. These CAPs were vectored to a number of Japanese bogeys. Brown and Byrd, from VF-4, each shot down a "Nell." (3)

Our Marine Corsairs "downed eight twin-engine Jap bombers, and one probable, with no losses to ourselves." (4) Most of these planes were identified as "Helens" Credit for 3 kills went to 1st Lt McGill; and one kill each to 2nd Lt Kehoe, 1st Lt Stallings, Capt Bedford, and 1st Lt Knight. Capt Kersey shot down a "Sally."

Takao Harbor, Formosa--January 21, 1945

By dawn on January 21, the Essex was again in position to launch strikes on Formosa and Saki Shima Gunto. We were about 130 miles off the east coast of Formosa when the 0700 flight was launched. The target was shipping reported in Takao Harbor.

Eight VF-4 Hellcats and 10 VT-4 Avengers rendezvoused at 1500 feet and proceeded toward Takao, climbing to 12,000 feet as they approached the target area. The fighters maintained high cover and employed the standard "weave". maneuver.

Antiaircraft fire was "most intense" as the group approached Takao Harbor. Fighters went in first, followed by TBMs in a glide-bombing attack. The Torpedo Squadron Four tactical organization consisted of: (5)

Pilot Crew
Davis, Jr., P. J. Gray, R. F.
Gardner, Keith DeYoung, W. A.
Ward, Jr., Felix E. Warrington, C. J.
Hewett, J. E. Lathrop, C. W.
Newell, E. A. (Ted) Lace, W. J.
Hopkins, W. J., Jr. Coller, Stan W.
Souza, Will S. Sims, T. R.
Cole, L. A. (Cozy) Knox, N. H.
Trexler, B. R. (Trex) Barr, C. W.
Bell, G. M. Tankard, A. J.
Ruth, Robert F. (Bob) Ballard, J. F. (Forrest)
Gray, L. C. (*) Ganley, J. E.

Torpedo Four approached its targets up the lagoon from southeast to northwest and pushed over from 10,000 feet in 40-degree glides. The official report shows an average attack speed of 305 knots, but several pilots reported passing the "red mark." (5)

"Lt Davis, leading the first division, strung his bombs across two ships, one bomb hitting the stern of a Fox Baker… and another hitting a Sugar Baker… on the stern. The other pilots of this division scored some very near misses on the closely bunched ships, but no damage was observed."
"Lt Newell, leading the second division, strung his bombs across three closely grouped Sugar Bakers,… but the damage inflicted was not observed. The remainder of his division proceeded farther up the harbor to drop on the large concentration of ships. Ensign Cole scored a hit with one bomb on the bow of a Sugar Baker…."
"In the third division, Lt Trexler scored with one bomb amidships on a Fox Tare Charlie… and Ensign Bell placed one of his bombs amidships on a Sugar Baker…. Lt (jg) Ruth dropped on warehouses. The bomb explosions were observed, and it is certain that several buildings were destroyed and several damaged."

When Bob Ruth and Will Souza got back to the Essex Ready Room, they were all excited, "Antiaircraft fire was far worse than Manila, and, by darn, the puffs were multicolored! What the heck is this? Fourth of July fireworks?"

We decided later that the Jap gunners were using a new AA technique. The colored bursts were markers. Instead of firing at individual planes, the gunners were trying to blanket areas in our flight path. This technique was very effective when our planes were forced into a single approach due to limited openings in the clouds or some other feature restricting a varied, coordinated attack.

The TBM damage report after the Takao strike shows major repairs needed for three VT-4 Avengers: (a) wing damage due to TBM crashing into a Hellcat spotted forward, (b) antiaircraft fire, probably a 40-mm, tore off half of port elevator, and (c) the third TBM was hit with a 12.7-mm projectile, which entered starboard ring cowl and exited exhaust stack.

Back on the Essex, Statler reported that: (2)

"At 1200 the ship went to GQ. Two planes closed in on our formation. One bomb and one BANZI BOY hit the Ticonderoga. Both of these planes were shot down. About an hour later two more planes tried to get in. One was shot down. The other one crashed on the flight deck of the Ticonderoga. Several men were killed and injured. The TI was pretty badly damaged. The Langley was hit with a dud."

Several fighter sweeps were launched from the Essex throughout the day. A six-plane Marine target patrol, under the leadership of Lt Col Millington, bombed Kobi Airfield, a railroad roundhouse, and factories near Shimie. (4)

"One plane flown by 2nd Lt John T. Molan made a forced landing near the base, and (the pilot) was picked up by the USS Caperton."

Two other VMF patrols were sent over Formosa, one led by Capt Thomas and one by Major Crowe. They attacked Tsuina airfield without encountering air opposition. But Capt Thomas's six Corsairs ran into trouble with gas shortages as they approached the Essex for landing. (5)

"Returning to base, four planes landed at 1115, and while the other two were in the circle, bandits appeared over the task group. Observing one enemy dive bomber diving on the Essex, Capt Thomas, who had about 20 gallons left in his tank, poured full throttle and got in one burst at the bandit which was splashed by F6F pilots at the same time. Thomas and Goetz who had been airborne for 6 hours, twenty-five minutes, landed aboard the USS Enterprise completely out of gas and without aid of any signal officers. Later that afternoon they returned to the Essex."

The Fighting Four "Red Rippers" were also busy on January 21 with CAP assignments and fighter sweeps. One division damaged nine ships and strafed airfield facilities in the vicinity of Miyako Jima. Another group was dispatched to Okinawa, where they attacked airfield facilities. (3)

"At Miyako Jima, Lt (jg) R. W. Ginther was caught in an explosion of his own bomb as he attacked a ship, and was killed."

This report on Ginther provided additional evidence of the determination of the VF-4 pilots to press home their attacks to low and effective levels. But, these mast-head runs increased the danger of flying into your own or your section leader's bomb explosions. Also, the most effective AA fire was from the 20- and 40-mm guns at the low point in the run. Blackwell's Hellcat was also hit by antiaircraft fire. (3)

"…which tore off part of his wing and necessitated a crash landing on board the Essex. It was a spectacular crash from which he emerged with superficial injuries."

Toshien Naval Base--January 21, 1945

STRIKE BAKER for Torpedo Four was launched at 1400 hours. The target again was Takao Harbor and Toshien Naval Base, Formosa. Five Hellcats were assigned for cover and strafing support.

Of the 12 Avengers assigned to this strike, only 10 were able to rendezvous and proceed to the target. The Torpedo Squadron Four tactical organization consisted of: (5)

Pilot Crew
Hamrick, Lee L. (Ham) Trembley, R. A.
Bissell, F. H. (**) Moore, W. H.
Thomas, Gerald W. (Jerry) Holloman, J. E.
Hopfinger, R. M. Yarman, A. W.
Barnett, G. M. (Buck) Cohen, Joseph C.
Walker, W. F. (Willie) Hastings, S. A.
Vogt, C. N. W. (Scott) Halvorson, Leo E.
Landre, Vernon A. Statler, Charlie C.
Binder, Ed S. Jenkins, W. D.
Deimel, H. J. Ely, C. L., Jr.
Makibbin, G. D. (Mak) Campbell, R.
Cannady, W. H., Jr. (***) Gerke, J. C.

During the launch, Ensign Cannady hit a VF plane that was spotted forward on takeoff. The pilot circled, jettisoned his bombs, and made an emergency landing aboard. Also, Bissell taxied into another plane on the flight deck and bent his propeller.

After our launch and rendezvous, we joined up with a strike group of 6 VF and 8 VT from the USS San Jacinto (President Bush's Air Group). Our Hellcats and the San Jacinto strike force attacked shipping in Takao while our torpedo planes were assigned the Toshien Naval Base. We approached the base from the northeast. (5)

"Anti-aircraft fire at Toshien was comparable to that at Takao. Not only did a large amount of defensive fire come from the ships under attack and from the naval base itself, but also from heavily defended Ape Hill to the south as VT retired. The puffs from anti-aircraft fire were multi-colored…."
"Lt Hamrick dropped his bombs on a large destroyer (possible Terutsuki Class,…). One hit directly amidships by Lt (jg) Thomas, plus several very near misses were scored."
"Three VT attacked a FOX TARE BAKER… which was docked. Though bombs fell very near and all around the ship, no damage was observed. It is believed however, that adjoining installations suffered heavily."
"Lt (jg) Barnett and Ensign Deimel dropped on 3 large oil storage tanks in the southeastern section of the naval base. At least one of the tanks was seen to explode, and the others may have been burned out also."
"Ensign Hopfinger dropped on a barracks construction in the northeastern section of the naval base. His bombs were seen to explode amid the buildings, and large fires were started."

This official report is fairly straightforward. It certainly does not indicate the high level of excitement we all experienced as we pressed home the attacks. And, as usual, when we returned to the Ready Room, the flight leaders had to sort out the results of the strike. In this case, Hamrick our Exec, and Lou Gardemal our ACI officer, had to confirm the "hits" and make follow-up recommendations. The final citation that I received for the effective run on the Terutsuki class destroyer, after some enhancement by Lou Gardemal, had a more glamorous tilt than the official debriefing report.

"The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the GOLD STAR in lieu of a Third Distinguished Flying Cross to
for service as set forth in the following:
For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Torpedo Bomber in Bombing Squadron FOUR, attached to the USS Essex, during operations against enemy Japanese forces in the Formosa Area, on January 21, 1945. A skilled and intrepid airman, Lieutenant (then Lieutenant, Junior Grade,) Thomas braved withering antiaircraft fire to launch a vigorous glide bombing attack on a Japanese destroyer, scoring a direct hit and inflicting extensive damage on the hostile craft. His superb airmanship, courage, and devotion to duty throughout reflect the highest credit upon Lieutenant Thomas and the United States Naval Service.
For the President,
[James Forrestal]
Secretary of the Navy"

On the few occasions when the ship took time to recognize those individuals who were to receive decorations, a high-ranking officer assumed the responsibility. He read the citation, pinned a medal on our uniform, and promptly requested that the medal be returned. He reused the same medal several times. We were each given a note which read:

"Medals are at present unavailable in the combat area. The Secretary of the Navy has been requested to forward medals, when available, to recipients of awards."

Photo: Avengers Returning from Targets.

Photo: VT-4 Avenger Over Formosa Mountains.

(1) USS Essex Ship's Log. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(2) Statler, C. C., VT-4 Crewman. Personal Journal.
(3) VF-4, The Red Rippers. A History of Fighting Four assembled by members of the Squadron in 1945. U.S. Navy.
(4) War Diary, VMF 124 and VMF 213. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(5) Combat Reports, VF-4, and VT-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(*) Downed: radio trouble.
(**) Downed: damaged propeller.
(***) Returned to base.

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