27. Premonition at Amami O Shima

"I tried to cheer him up but he really had the blues… and he never made it back."

Kikai Jimi--January 22, 1945

We continued our strikes in the Okinawa area on January 22. At 0650, the Essex launched a flight of 9 F6Fs and 9 TBMs to attack the airfield at Kikai Jima and shipping off the northwest coast of Amami O Shima.

The Hellcats, carrying 500-pound bombs and rockets, made a good accounting of themselves. Lt (jg) Garrison, Lt Smith, Lt (jg) Rhodes, Ens Peters, and Ens Hendricks scored rocket hits on a Sugar Dog-type vessel. Lt Avants also strafed a similar vessel, reporting a major explosion. Returning to the ship at 1105, "Lt (jg) Rhodes's plane crashed into the final barrier and overturned. The pilot suffered minor injuries." (1)

The nine torpedo planes on this flight were assigned to the same targets proceeding to the area at 9000 feet.

The Torpedo Squadron Four tactical organization consisted of: (1)

Pilot Crew
Davis, P. J., Jr. Schmolke, N. J.
Bissell, F. H. Moore, W. H.
Barnett, G. M. (Buck) Christopher, C.
Walker, W. F. (Willie) Zeimer, G. F.
Stephens, Page P. Beard, A.
Landre, Vernon A. DeCenso, A. (Tony)
Thomas, Gerald W. (Jerry) Gress, Don H.
Hopfinger, R. M. Yarman, A. W.
Cannady, W. H., Jr. Gerke, J. C.
"…VT went up the east side of Kikai Jima and made approach from the north. The first division proceeded southward to attack the airstrip, while the second division dropped on the harbor facilities at Onotsu in the northwestern part of the island. Bad visibility hampered selection of targets and observation of damage inflicted."
"The runway at Kikai was cratered at the northern end by a few bombs and numerous unidentified buildings adjoining the airfield were fired. The apparent absence of military activity other than anti-aircraft fire suggests that the field may not have been operational."
"…During the attack, Ensign Bissell made a shallow glide over the airstrip, descending below 1000 feet. As he retired, his plane was burning. The plane continued low across the island and appeared to be gliding for a water landing. The plane, however, crashed into the sea and sank instantly at a point approximately 5 miles southeast of Kikai airstrip or 28-15N; 129-59E. The time was 0856(I). VT circled the spot but saw no survivors. Only a large oil slick was observed." (1)

I was flying with the second division of VT-4, led by Page Stephens. Since the weather was bad and the AA fire increasing, he chose not to take us through the same hole in the clouds that the first division dived through. Rather, we spotted another opening and dropped on shore facilities thought to be a PT boat base. Several buildings were fired.

This was one of the few times that I chose to strafe and went on down to near-ground level. As I flew across the island, I observed many individuals with rifles firing at me. About this time, I also heard the radio call indicating that Bissell had gone down. Neither Bissell nor his crewman, W. H. Moore, ARM3c, survived the crash.

Ensign F. H. Bissell was a new transfer to Torpedo Four. He and Ensign Keith Gardner came aboard as replacement pilots from Torpedo Squadron 13 in early January of 1945. Keith Gardner tells the story this way. (2)

"Bissell and I were ordered off the Ben Franklin at Pearl Harbor because she was heavily damaged by a kamikaze. The Franklin was hit off the Philippines and sent back to Washington for repairs. We were all reassigned to different units, and Bissell and I were given orders to report aboard the Essex. We hitchhiked all over the Pacific trying to find her. They wouldn't tell us where the Essex was or help us find her. We were on Mog Mog Island on Christmas Day. Bissell and I went into the Officers' Club on Mog Mog and had a few drinks. Bissell had the blues and started to cry while others were singing, 'I'll Be Home For Christmas.' I asked what was the matter, and he said he felt he would never make it home. I tried to cheer him up, but he really had the blues that day--and he never made it, either."
"Biss usually went out on the morning flights, and I went out on the afternoon flights. I took the same plane as he did, spotted at the same place on the flight deck. The third flight out… the plane didn't come back. He crashed in the water."
"When I went up with the afternoon flight, the plane I was assigned was spotted in the same place. I vowed then that I wasn't going to go anywhere in that damn plane if it had any trouble. That morning Bissell had trouble with the flaps, unfolding the wings, and other problems. I wasn't going to go up that day if there was one thing wrong with that plane, but everything went click, click, click. It was a milk run for me that day."
"Later, I had to survey all his goods, separate them all out, and send them home."

Tokuno Shima--January 22, 1945

At 1300, 9 VF and 7 VT took off from the USS Essex on a strike against enemy air facilities, shipping, and targets of opportunity in Amami Gunto. (1)

"…Attack was initiated at approximately 1430(I) against Tokuno Shima a/f. Because of 8-9/10 cloud cover at 6000 feet and absence of aerial or AA opposition, runs were made at a low level and pilots believed their bombs, rockets, and m/g fire caused substantial damage to revetments, taxiways, hangars, barracks, and other installations. Particularly hard hit were buildings along the western and southwestern borders of the landing area. Five to seven aircraft were observed on the field and attacked, probably were destroyed. It is the opinion of all pilots, however, that the a/c were dummies or had been wrecked prior to this attack…."

The Torpedo Squadron Four tactical organization consisted of (1)

Pilot Crew
Hamrick, Lee L. (Ham) Hardin, W. M.
Gardner, Keith Wilson, P. J.
Souza, Will S. Huston, D. L.
Hewett, J. E. Shuman, L. P.
Gray, L. C. Ganley, J. E.
Ruth, Robert F. (Bob) McConnell, C. L.
Deimel, H. J. Leach, L. S.

Seven Torpedo planes took off, rendezvoused with their VF escort, and set course for Tokuno Shima in the Amami Gunto sector of the Nansei Shoto. The flight, led by Lt Hamrick, proceeded to target area, "on the deck" at 145 knots true airspeed. VT went up the east side of Tokuno Shima, climbing to 7000 feet, and cut back at the northern end of the island to initiate their attack. (1)

"Attacking from north to south, VT pushed over from 7000 feet and employing glides of 30 to 40 degrees acquired an average speed of 300 knots indicated. Practically all of the bombs dropped hit the runway, cratering it the full length. Pilots were of the opinion that the runway was left temporarily unserviceable."
"After the attack on the runway, the flight circled the island. Four barges were spotted off the east coast of Tokuno Shima. These barges were heavily strafed by VT, but none were observed to burn or sink."

VF also attacked some ships and shore installations near Agpogi and Yamma and burned two Sugar Charlie-type ships near Kaitsu Saki.

During the day Lt Col Millington led 15 VMF Corsairs on an effective bombing and strafing run against Ie Shima airfield, Nansei Shoto. In addition, the Marines flew CAP, while the second major strike group was being assembled.

Photo: VT-4 Crewmen and Support Personnel.

(1) Combat Reports, VF-4, VB-4, and VT-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(2) Taped interview with Keith Gardner, VT-4 Pilot.

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