3. The North Atlantic

"The U-boat attack was our worst evil."

Antisubmarine Patrol

During the spring and summer months of 1943, the USS Ranger served on escort duty for convoys going from the States to various ports in Europe. It was essential to the Allies that these convoys deliver necessary war implements, manpower, medicines, and food supplies to the European Theater. Photo: Pilots, crewmen, and support staff for Torpedo Squadron Four.

Nearly 200 German submarines were operating in the Atlantic in the first months of 1943. Twelve merchantmen fell victim to submarine torpedoes in February, and the total tonnage sunk "was eclipsed by March's 590,000 tons…. In one March battle, 140,000 tons was sunk in six days in history's largest convoy battle." (1)

Winston Churchill admitted in his history of WW II that, "The U-boat attack was our worst evil. It would have been wise for the Germans to stake all on it." (2)

With this much action by German submarines, it was no wonder that the USS Ranger was listed as a successful target supposedly hit in April with Commander Von Bulow receiving the credit. There is no reason to believe that Von Bulow purposely falsified his report of the torpedo destruction of the Ranger. He probably fired at the Carrier, but the explosion and last views of the sinking ship as sighted through the periscope may have been an escort vessel or a troop ship. We lost so many ships in the confusion of a sub attack that exact identification of those hit was difficult.

The convoy run north of Norway and Sweden into the port of Murmansk, Russia, was particularly hazardous, not only because German subs were present, but also because the convoys were within reach of land-based Nazi aircraft most of the time. "And always in the background was the menace of surviving German ships, anchored in the Norwegian fjords, which made it necessary to screen each convoy with Allied war vessels capable of slugging it out with Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, and other Nazi men-of-war." (1)

Orders were issued by the Ranger Task Force Commander during night escort duty for all hands to maintain "complete blackout" as protection against German submarines, surface ships, or aircraft. One night, scuttlebutt spread throughout the ship that a lighted flashlight had been found hanging over the flight deck. That meant that a traitor was aboard who was willing to sacrifice his life to reveal the position of the Carrier. This shook up those of us playing poker in the Officers' Quarters. We had already had one game interrupted when the ship rolled in a tight turn, apparently to "comb a torpedo." The turn was so sharp that the poker chips slid off the table.

We were never able to confirm the rumor about the flashlight. After the war, I checked the Ranger log. No such report--but I wondered if the following entry, dated Saturday, October 2, 1943, precipitated the scuttlebutt about the light: (3)

"…1910 - Promulgation of Deck Court, Staub, Edward Joseph, 250-72-73 S 1/c USN, tried by Deck Court for smoking while "Smoking Lamp" was out. Specifications proved by Plea and sentenced to lose $12 per month of his pay for a period of three months and to be confined for a period of 10 days."
"Signed by C. L. Hodsdone"

After I completed research on this incident, Roy Nelson, a member of the Ranger crew, sent the following information to the USS RANGER Newsletter: (14)

"…one of our tin cans sent us a message saying that we had a light showing on the starboard side of the ship just above the water line and if it was a port hole to get it closed. The word was passed for all repair parties to man their stations and we were sent out immediately to check the area that they gave us and found nothing as far as an open port hole was concerned. About this time we received a second message saying that they would do something about it if we didn't."
"At that time one of the shipfitters on the hanger deck got his curiosity aroused and looked over the side in that area and he saw a flashlight hanging on a piece of white line and the line was attached to a stanchion so he cut it loose and we were all ordered to check the dogs on the hatches in that area. We found all the dogs loose on the big hatches that led down five decks to the aircraft engine storage. That was also the area where the aviation gas was stored."

One major assignment for the Ranger was to escort the Queen Mary, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard. Churchill was headed for the "Quadrant" conference in Quebec, Canada, August 10, 1943, to meet with President Roosevelt regarding several key decisions on the future course of the war. We had a problem escorting the Queen Mary because she was so much faster than the Ranger. We started early to provide antisub coverage as the Queen Mary approached from our rear, then we flew long flights after she passed us until other aircraft could pick up on the escort assignment.

Many hours of antisub patrol were flown by the torpedo planes in the cold North Atlantic during this period with periodic contacts with German submarines. Depth charges were dropped on all targets, including a few unsuspecting whales. Photo: Coordinated practice attack by Avengers.

In his book, ”Avenger at War," Barrett Tillman states. (4)

"…But with its many missions and locales, the Avenger's greatest contribution was undoubtedly in the Atlantic, where its role in defeating the U-boat wolf-packs helped to win the war in Europe. While other aircraft played prominent parts in the antisubmarine campaigns, none of them flew with such a variety of purposes--detecting, stalking, and killing U-boats day and night--as did the Avenger."

Several action reports from Naval Archives indicate attacks by VT-4 planes on German submarines. Charlie Barr and Labyak were flying with G. W. Bolt when, "We caught a sub building batteries and criss-crossed same beautifully as it was going under…. However, I was in the ball turret and so full of excitement, I forgot to turn on the gun camera." (5) A part of the action report dated February 26, 1943 follows: (6)

"(Undated)…G. W. Bolt, pilot, sighted a U-boat and pushed over for the attack. U/B had disappeared completely about 31 seconds before release. Charges detonated about 325 - 350 feet ahead of swirl. Immediately turned to observe results and circled for about eight minutes when returned to carrier to reload and refuel. No further sighting of U/B observed…."

Interspersed between actual German sub sightings were runs on whales. Page Stephens describes one such experience. (7)

"The only submarine contact I made really was not a submarine. I was in the landing pattern ahead of the Ranger when I saw something start to break water about a mile ahead of the ship. I had Andy arm depth charges, pulled up my wheels and opened the bomb bay doors. As I started to push over for a run the sub came farther out of the water and I saw it was a whale. I had Andy disarm the bombs, closed the bomb bay doors and continued in the landing pattern. The only person I know who saw my maneuver was Woot Taylor. He asked me about it and after hearing my story said, 'I'm glad you didn't drop your charges. If you had you would have been making out reports for a month!'"

Antisub escort duty in the North Atlantic was shared with a number of "baby flat-tops" or CVEs. The combined efforts of these search planes and surface screening destroyers or destroyer-escorts created enough problems for the German submarine fleet that May 1943 was labeled "Black May" by the German Navy Command. During that month, "…41 German submarines--one third of the submarines at sea--failed to return" to their home ports. Admiral Donitz stated in his "Memoirs," "We had lost the Battle of the Atlantic." (1)

The USS Ranger launched antisub patrols during all daylight hours in all kinds of weather conditions. In an undated report, R. W. Labyak, flying a TBF-1 reported: (6)

"…sighted a large submarine with decks awash… signaled accompanying TBF on my starboard wing at 1.5 miles distance to follow and pushed over into a power glide on a reciprocal course with that of U/B… U/B which had been running on surface at 6 - 8 knots with decks awash, began crash dive, completing submergence about 30 seconds prior to bomb release point. Two 325-lb. depth bombs were released…. For 1 1/2 minutes was blinded by unusual effects from bomb drop, a number of holes being made in underside of plane. On recovery, circled for about 5 minutes at 1000 feet. It then became necessary to return to the carrier to reload."

Antisub patrol for the most part was unexciting. The torpedo planes were loaded with four depth charges. We normally flew a forward search consisting of a 150 - 200-mile outbound leg, a 50-mile cross leg, and a return vector calculated by "dead reckoning" to offset the wind direction and task force speed. It was always a relief to find the Carrier at the end of the search and even more pleasant to get back aboard. The North Atlantic was usually rough, and the weather stormy with the possibility of survival in the water ranging from 15 minutes to 1 hour.

During one of the long waits in the Pilot's Ready Room between antisub flights, we discussed the various ways to simplify the search process by navigation shortcuts. Woot Taylor pointed out one alternative to calculating the constantly changing return vector. "If that's too complicated, go ahead and fly the 150 mile forward search, the 50 mile cross leg and return "as if" there were no wind or ship's progress. Then when you complete the triangle and you find there is no carrier, calculate the elapsed time and correct for the wind vector and the ship's progress and close with a last leg."

Will Souza thought that made a lot of sense, so he tried it. When the triangle was completed, sure enough there was no Ranger in sight. Because we had orders for "radio silence" he could not call for help. He plotted in the correction vector but turned the wrong direction--180 degrees from the correct heading. Still no carrier, so he started flying the "expanding square."

The "expanding square" concept was straightforward. Fly due north the distance of the visibility, turn 90 degrees to the east the same distance, then south twice the distance, then west twice visibility, etc. Works great on paper. But if you cut corners, you lose your position fast.

Souza had a bearing on Bear Island, but since he had missed the ship, his chances of finding Bear Island were remote. Besides there were no people on the Island and no place to land.

"I didn't know where I was or where in Hell the ship was. And, the North Atlantic was frigid--So, I just headed south for warmer weather. The last bearing I had on Bear Island indicated that it was 200 - 300 miles away. Damn, I was lost." (8)

At this time we had no radar or racon in the planes. However, the Ranger, noting that Souza's plane was overdue, picked him up on ship's radar and vectored a fighter toward the TBM. The fighter had to push the throttle to the fire wall for quite a while to catch Souza, who was "heading South" at high speed. The fighter zoomed Souza's plane and led the lost Avenger back to the Carrier.

"That was a real learning experience for me," Souza stated, "I never got lost again."

Operations with the British Home Fleet

In September 1943, the Ranger task force was assigned to joint operations with the British Home Fleet. Our home port now became Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland. The Orkneys were described as: (9)

"…Nearly as far north as Greenland, but with the mild winters of Bournemouth; beyond the Scotland Highlands; …its history, largely apart from that of England or of Scotland, and its population more nearly akin to that of Norway and of Normandy than to any British blend; a land which preserves an unspoilt individuality of its own and a charm which is unique…."

Unfortunately, the Americans had neither the time nor the inclination to appreciate the unique historical setting, although many of us visited some of the old castles and ruins at Kirkwall which date back to 800 A.D. The harbor, called Scapa Flow, became famous during WW I and increased in importance during the second war as the home port for a contingency of the British Home Fleet.

Each time the Ranger moved toward anchor in Scapa Flow, all planes from the air group were flown ashore to Hatston Air Base. We scheduled as many practice flights as possible from the narrow air strips at Hatston. At first we tried for three flights a day, but we ran into difficulty on the third flight due to the British tradition of "Tay" time.

I was on one of those late flights the first day at Hatston. We returned to the airstrip about 4:30 p.m., called the tower for landing instructions, and finally received acknowledgement from a WREN. She gave us the landing runway, we landed, taxied up to the hangers, but couldn't find any ground personnel. Pilots of the Avengers dispatched their crews to chock up our own planes and assist the fighters. When we asked about the British ground crews, we were told that it was "tea time."

After a few more attempts to get a third daily flight out, we gave up and joined in on the "tea and crumpets." We also discovered that the "Limeys" shifted to warm beer early in the evening and ended up the daily routine with gin and orange. Very few of the American pilots could hold up to this British drinking challenge. However, we did enjoy the singing that inevitably resulted as the gin flowed and the evening progressed. The songs the Limeys taught us had catchy tunes with shocking lyrics. One of the milder songs contained the following stanza:

I don't want to be a soldier
I don't want to go to war
I'd rather hang around
Picadilly's underground
And live off the earnings
of a high born lady….

I have a great deal of respect for the British Navy pilots. They flew hard, they drank hard, and they took wild chances. But they seldom took a bath. We couldn't understand why many of them flew in their dress blues. At least we changed into flight gear. At tea time and in the evenings, we frequently met to exchange war stories. The Americans tolerated without comment the BO that went with our interesting discussions.

When we first flew ashore to Hatston, one of our first priorities was to get a good shower after the last afternoon flight. We rushed to the locker room and to the showers because we knew the hot water supply was limited due to wartime pressure on fuel. We wanted to beat the Limeys to the hot water. We need not have worried.

But, it wasn't only the men. The women had the same tradition--maybe a bath once a week or every other week. That was about the same pattern we followed back on the farm on Medicine Lodge Creek in Idaho. Deodorants might have been used by some of the French in the '40s, but these new antiperspirants had not reached the general public during WW II.

Our flights out of Hatston were frequently in bad weather. Buck and I were flying wing on Ham one day trying to climb through the dense cloud layer for a simulated strike on a ship outside the Flow. We had to stay in a tight formation to keep track of each other. We depended upon Ham to watch his instruments and get us through the clouds. As we were flying in the clouds, I noticed that I began to fight my controls in order to keep on Ham's wing. Then I saw Buck pull away. I glanced inside the cockpit and noticed that the gyro horizon was almost vertical. We were also approaching the red mark in speed. About that time, I heard Buck call on the radio, "Ham, you are in a down spiral! Pull out!" I pulled away from Ham, fought my plane back to straight and level, and started a let-down through the clouds.

As I flew into a partially clear area, I noticed I was in the midst of barrage balloons. I was over Scapa Flow. Those numerous balloons and their hard-to-spot tie-down lines were designed to stop any low-flying aircraft from attacking ships in the Flow. I immediately climbed back up into the clouds, went out to sea, reoriented myself, and returned to base by the designated route. Buck and Ham also narrowly missed the barrage balloons as they got control of their planes. All VT-4 aircraft eventually returned to Hatston that day and in many practice flights that followed.

While the Ranger was anchored in the Flow, our Squadron was dispatched to Edinburgh, Scotland, for a weekend of R&R. We flew through cloudy weather into a well camouflaged British air base just outside the city. I had not spotted the hidden airstrip when we broke formation to land. However, the skipper must have had some inside information, because he led us into the runway without incident. After we chocked our planes, they were immediately covered with a camouflage net.

As soon as we were relieved from duty at the hangers, I joined Makibbin for a train trip to town. While we were sitting in the station waiting for the next train, we noticed a young boy selling the Edinburgh Times. We decided to buy a paper, but the boy ignored us because we were foreigners. Finally, we convinced him to sell us a paper. The boy watched carefully as we started to go through the news, then he stated, "You can't read that paper. It's in Scottish!"

Even if we couldn't read Scottish, we had a great time with the friendly people in Edinburgh. Later on we went to London for a couple of days. Each night we were in London, the city experienced air raids from the Luftwaffe. At first, we anxiously asked the locals how to find the air raid shelters, but we soon learned that most people ignored the bombing and the AA fire and went about their business as usual. Blackout restrictions, however, were strictly enforced; so we had problems finding our way around town to the night clubs and back to the base. "The next day we visited the bombed out regions of London and were amazed at the damage done during the first part of the war." (10)

The Ranger raised anchor and left Scapa Flow with the British Home Fleet several times during October and November of 1943. A British aircraft carrier accompanied us part of the time. We had a good many laughs watching the launch and recovery process used by the British. The landing signal officer (LSO) was positioned about midway on the flight deck. We could land our entire air group and proceed into the next launch, while the British were trying to get their planes back aboard.

The British still used the old Swordfish as a torpedo plane. The Swordfish was a biplane without a variable-pitch prop. These biplanes flew so slow that they had to maintain a high throttle setting to catch up to the carrier. When there was a hard wind over the flight deck, they could land aboard without taking the slack out of the cables. They were so vulnerable to AA fire that torpedo strikes were virtually synonymous with suicide missions. Their only hope for survival was simultaneous attacks by dive bombers or strafing by fighters to divert the attention of enemy gunners. Of course our own torpedo planes had to use the same tactics to reduce our vulnerability to AA, but at least the Avenger could get in and out much faster than the Swordfish.

The task force made a run north of the Arctic Circle to send a contingent of ships to recapture the weather station on Spitsbergen from the Germans. This weather station changed hands several times during the war. It was an important source of information to the many convoys that moved supplies in and out of Murmansk, Russia.

Air Group Four flew antisub patrols and provided fighter coverage for Admiral Fraser's joint fleet during all operations in the North Atlantic. We fought rain, snow, or sleet much of the time--and the sea was almost always rough.

One day, the snow storm was so bad that the pilots of VT-4 felt safe relaxing in the Ready Room. Then the teletype started clicking. Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser has issued orders to launch a two-plane A/S patrol. Fly a forward search and maintain sight contact with the fleet. Radio silence is essential. Hutch selected Trex and me to take the flight. We looked at the teletype for Point Option data. There was no latitude or longitude on the teletype for the ship. Hutch checked with the bridge and we were told, "You don't need Point Option data--maintain sight contact." Trex and I felt naked without knowing the position of the ship, but we had no choice but to follow orders.

The flight deck was covered with snow and sleet. My plane was spotted in the takeoff position. I climbed into the cockpit and received orders to start engines as the Ranger turned toward the prevailing wind. While the ship was heeled over in the turn, plane handlers removed the chocks. I held the brakes but my Avenger started sliding across the flight deck. My tail slid into the catwalk, and I held the plane on the deck only by applying full throttle. Eventually, the deck crew got a crane on the plane, and I received the cut signal.

I was then ordered to get into the Air Group Commander's plane, which was spotted nearby. I had never been in the cockpit of CAG-4's plane before. It had extra radio gear and additional items that were confusing to me. Before I could go through an adequate cockpit check-out, I was directed to taxi into takeoff position and immediately launched. Trex was sent off a few minutes later.

As soon as I became airborne, the snow storm closed in on the task force. I dropped down close to the water to maintain orientation and started dodging ships. Trex had the same problem, but he couldn't see me, and I didn't even know if he had been launched.

What a hell of a mess! In the North Atlantic in a snowstorm and we didn't even know our latitude and longitude or the ship's speed and direction. We didn't even know where or if there was any land within range, and with radio silence, we couldn't ask for help. Our only chance was to maintain sight contact, but the storm was so bad, we couldn't see the ships. Both Trex and I started circling at near water level. I almost hit several escort vessels as I tried to find the Ranger. Finally, I spotted the Carrier as I flew over the ship at about a 90 degree angle.

After about a half hour of this wild search for the Ranger, the weather improved momentarily, and we were brought back aboard. After we landed, we were ordered up to the bridge. Cdr Rowe said, "Admiral Fraser sends his apologies. We should not have launched planes under these circumstances."

In a letter of commendation to VT-4 personnel, Cdr Taylor summarized part of our activities: (15)

"…During the week of 15 - 22 October, this squadron flew a total of 22 patrols, providing exclusive antisubmarine coverage for units of the British Home Fleet, operating in the Greenland and Norwegian seas. Two-thirds of these flights were made between the Arctic Circle and the 76th parallel, in conditions of poor visibility and sea-level icing. In spite of the unfavorable weather, the freezing seas, the wet and icy flight deck, and the full load of depth bombs carried, these operations were completed… with such precision and dispatch as to earn a 'Well Done' from both V. A. 2 and C.T.F. 121."

On November 12, the Ranger launched the air group for a practice coordinated attack on the task force despite terrible weather. My records show that, "Ensign Hawkins went in the drink while coming back aboard, He was picked up by a can... drowned according to reports from the destroyer--tough luck." (11)

During our joint operations with the British, we went through several scuttlebutt stages and a few preliminary planning sessions concerning attacks on German shipping along the Norwegian coast. One proposed strike reached the briefing stage. An approximation of this briefing, probably somewhat influenced by scuttlebutt, follows:

"We are operating under the command of the British Home Fleet. Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser has developed this grand scheme to send the Ranger air group into a secluded harbor in Norway to bomb and torpedo the German battleship Tirpitz. The Admiral has been told that the distance from the task force to the target is too great for most of our planes. However, since the ships cannot get close to shore for fear of discovery by the Germans, the 'big plan' is to send Air Group Four bombers and torpedo planes into the harbor to sink the battleship. Our fighters will go part way to provide cover against German planes. However, they must return to the ship early. The American dive-bombers will go in first, make their drops, and return posthaste to the Ranger. The slow, lumbering Avengers will go in last. We can anticipate no fighter cover at the strike destination. After the torpedo runs, we will rendezvous and, instead of going back to the Ranger, our torpedo planes will head for the Shetland Islands. Our planes are slow. The ships in the task force will not wait for our return, but will proceed at full speed out toward the open sea zig-zagging off course to avoid subs but, more importantly, to gain distance from shore and prevent a counterattack by land-based German planes."

Woot Taylor, the Torpedo Four Skipper, assured us that we, the torpedo pilots, "could make it to the Shetlands" by stretching our gas supply. "Don't pump the throttle--keep the mixture lean." Hutch, the Exec, who was also in on the briefing with CRAG (Commander, Ranger Air Group), felt that with luck we could make it. In spite of this, Trex, Page P., and a few others did some quick calculations. "No way!" was about all Page could say; "No way!" It looked like a sacrifice mission for the "Torpeckers!" Not enough gas to reach the Shetlands. Fortunately, that mission was cancelled. This aborted mission made us skeptical of the British decisions about men and machines.

OPERATION LEADER emerged as the most viable joint operation with the British because, reportedly, many potential shipping and land targets were present at the Port of Bodø, Norway. This major attack, completed on October 4, 1943, was very successful in spite of the many mistakes made by inexperienced pilots and crew.

Returning from the Norway air raid, the Ranger reentered Scapa Flow on October 8. As we moved toward the anchor position, all other ships in the Flow brought their crews to attention and Admiral Fraser "asked for a special cheer for the Norway Raiders." He stated, "…the attack represents an important blow by the United States Navy Task Force now attached to the Home Fleet." (12)

Photo: Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser thanks Ranger's pilots and crew.

Photo: Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser.

Photo: Commodore Gordon Rowe presents medal to Lt Lee L. "Ham" Hamrick.

After the strike on Norway, planes from the Ranger continued missions with the British. Several notations in my journal indicate plans for strikes on additional German targets: (11)

"Nov. 9, 1943: After a two-bit poker game with the fellows… a discussion of London, commando girls, and finally the much-anticipated air raid on Norway. We are to carry torpedoes this time instead of bombs. Fighter opposition is expected and AA fire will be more severe than on October 4. Should get underway tomorrow."
"Nov. 10, 1943: Disappointment was apparent among many pilots today… because the Norway operation has been cancelled."
"Nov. 16, 1943: Flew a TBF aboard this morning while the ship remained in the Flow. No wave-offs. Lew gave me the hot dope about the big raid on Norway. Looks like I'll get to pack a torpedo against the Germans yet. Crap game tonight…."

This last mentioned strike was scheduled for Bergen, Norway, to sink the battleship Tirpitz. There is no doubt that we would have lost most of the torpedo planes if the admiral had not made a last minute change. Instead of Air Group Four, the British sent six midget subs into Bergen harbor. Three were lost in passage, and the other three were sunk after they inflicted heavy damage to the Tirpitz.

On November 21, 1943, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Fleet came aboard the USS Ranger to thank the Carrier personnel for work in the European theater. This was a sure sign that the Ranger would soon leave for the States. The Carrier raised anchor in Scapa Flow the next day.

The pilots and flight crews still at the Hatston Air Base did not get the word to fly the remaining planes aboard in time to stop the continuous celebration that had been going on since departure scuttlebutt had intensified. While most pilots hit the sack after a few drinks, a few held out for a much longer celebration. We had difficulty locating some personnel, when the order came to return all planes to the Ranger.

Climbing into my cockpit, I looked down the line and got a good indication of those pilots that had been out late the night before. Those pilots that had donned oxygen masks were the ones with the hangovers. Oxygen was supposed to sober you up in a hurry. The torpedo pilots were always more cautious and more sober than the fighters. After all, we had more responsibility--we carried a crew. The fighters were on their own, and they tried to live up to the "Red Baron" image.

I sat on the taxi strip at Hatston, while the fighters and dive bombers took off for the Carrier. I could see we were in for some problems with those fighters who had spent most of the night on the town. One ground-looped and dragged a wing. He left his plane and came over to my TBF to hitch a ride. I took him aboard in the belly. A couple of other pilots had plane trouble and rushed to other Avengers for the ride to the ship. No one wanted to get left ashore when the Ranger MARU headed home.

We had to leave about three planes, but succeeded in getting all extra personnel aboard the Avengers. I was the last plane in the air group to taxi out for the takeoff. Before I reached the end of the runway, a heavy-set seaman came running toward my plane. He was a member of the ship's crew--a pharmacist's mate. He had not "got the word" that the ship had raised anchor. When he found out he rushed to the air base to catch a ride. I held the brakes while he climbed on the wing to explain his plight. My plane was already too full, but I told him to get in the belly. We did not have an extra parachute for him--but he wasn't as heavy as a torpedo, so I gave him a lift.

When I reached the Ranger, most of the planes were aboard. I made a normal approach, took the cut from the signal officer and caught the third or fourth wire. I'm sure the extra passengers, and particularly the pharmacist's mate, were pleased to get aboard.

As I stepped into the Ready Room, everyone told me about the excitement topside. It seemed that one of the fighters, who had been out on the town the night before, was having trouble getting aboard. I rushed up to the bridge and chose an observation post on the aft five-inch gun mount. This pilot had taken off from Hatston long before I did but was still making passes at the carrier. He would come up the groove much too fast, usually in a skid, a wave-off from the LSO, and thumb his nose at the bridge as he flew by. He made five passes while I watched. All other planes were aboard and parked. Finally, the Ranger skipper passed the word to the LSO to "get that so-and-so aboard or we will shoot him down!"--or words to that effect.

On a final pass at the carrier, the pilot came up the groove much too hot; the LSO was frantically giving him the "too fast, too high" signal. Then, in desperation, the LSO gave him the "cut gun" signal much earlier than normal. The pilot was slow to respond and flying in a serious skid. I could see he was not going to catch the wire with his tail hook. The plane was coming right toward me. I ducked under the armor plate as he struck the bridge below me. He wrapped the F4F around the gun mount. The cockpit remained intact, and he jumped out with the comment, "I got aboard." Naturally, a reprimand followed, but the Navy needed pilots so he was not grounded.

After the Wildcat crash, the Ranger turned out of the wind, and the task force headed for Iceland in a typical North Atlantic storm. On November 23, I recorded that we spent most of the day in the Ready Room in "Condition Eleven." Furthermore, I noted that, "This is the roughest sea I have ever seen. This old ship bashes into the waves and shudders… even split a seam… water over the forecastle and flight deck… sure wish I was back on the farm."

Our tour of duty in the Atlantic was rapidly coming to an end. But it was hard to gauge the contribution of Air Group Four to the total war effort at this time. We had sunk some German ships, damaged others, and shot down a few planes. Our major task, however, had been to supplement the antisub activities of the Baby Flat Tops (CVEs) and land-based patrols. During 1943, massive amounts of food and war materials with large numbers of troops had been moved in vulnerable convoys to the European theater. Our antisub patrols were not glamorous, but they were effective. The serious loss of German submarines prompted Admiral Donitz to record in his diary that "The enemy holds every trump card." (13)

The Allies were also slowly making progress toward the recapture of sections of Europe and North Africa. Landings were made in Sicily in July and Salerno in September of 1943. Mussolini was overthrown, and there were large-scale defections of Italians to the Allies. The scuttlebutt about D-Day and an English Channel crossing did not materialize while we were in the Atlantic.

The attention of Air Group Four was always turned toward the Pacific. We were missing out on some important Naval engagements with the Japanese. And we added to our vocabulary some new names as progress was made to secure an Allied foothold in places such as Bougainville, Tarawa, Makin, Rabaul, New Britain, and the Solomon, Gilbert, and Marshall Islands.

We spent Thanksgiving Day in a fjord just north of Reykjavik, Iceland. High winds blew one plane overboard with a plane captain (16) in the cockpit as we pulled out of Reykjavik harbor. No rescue was possible due to heavy seas.

On the trip from Iceland to the States, the torpedo pilots took turns flying antisub patrol in the daylight and mostly played poker at night. The Atlantic crossing took 11 days.

On Friday, December 3, 1943, at 11:14 a.m., on the USS Ranger I recorded in my journal that "…we tied up at the dock in Boston amid cheers and confusion. I rode a Navy bus to Quonset. Stopped along the way for some fruit and candy. Checked into the B.O.Q. and dropped into the 'O' club for a delicious dinner and a couple of beers." Today you can charter or buy a boat or yacht to cross the Atlantic. There are Princess Yachts for sale that can easily cross the Atlantic ocean.

(1) Von der Porten, Edward P. 1969. The German Navy in World War II. Galahad Books, New York.
(2) Churchill, Winston S. 1975. The Second World War. (Vol. IV). Library of Imperial History, London.
(3) USS Ranger Ship's Log. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(4) Tillman, Barrett. 1980. Avenger at War. Charles Scribner & Sons, New York.
(5) Correspondence with Charlie Barr, VT-4 Crewman.
(6) Combat Reports, AG-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(7) Correspondence with P. P. Stephens, VT-4 Pilot.
(8) Taped interview with W. S. Souza, VT-4 Pilot.
(9) Gunn, J. 1932. Orkney: The Magnetic North. Nelson & Sons, London.
(10) Thomas, Gerald W. Letter home, January 28, 1944.
(11) Thomas, Gerald W., VT-4 Pilot. Personal Journal.
(12) USS Ranger Newsletter, 1988.
(13) Goralski, Robert. 1981. World War II Almanac, 1931 - 1945. Perigee Books.
(14) Nelson, Roy. USS Ranger Newsletter, April 1990.
(15) VT-4 Squadron Records, U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(16) Lost in this terrible accident was AMM3c James D. Westmoreland, Jr.

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