4. Change in Command

"Bad wave-off; caught a wire and over the side, throttle full on. Radioman picked up but not Jack."

Upon reaching the States, Torpedo Four was ordered to regroup and continue intensive training at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. Limited leave was authorized for some of the married men. I had a one-day break from flying to help turn in the old planes for the new TBF-1c. While in this process, I recorded: "Bad plane crash today. A PV Ventura hit Hanger No. 2 in full flight, exploded and burned. Eight people killed."

On December 5, I took one of our new ensigns, G. D. Makibbin, for an orientation hop around Providence, Point Judith, and Martha's Vineyard. We secured early and took a train for New York where we checked into the Commodore Hotel for the night. We had a two-day pass to attend Will Souza's wedding. Will had been so excited about this upcoming event that we worried about his flying. My notes on the wedding were: (1)

"The Raider, Radford Burley, and I rode to Staten Island for the big event, met all Lyn's relatives, and practiced the wedding procedure at the local Catholic church."
"Lyn and Souz were married at 7:30 p.m. Bunny was maid of honor, and I was best man. Burley Grimes and Red Raider Radford were ushers. Everything turned out beautifully. A reception was held at Bunny's house afterward, and the rum flowed freely. Had a swell time. Escorted the newlyweds back to the Commodore Hotel."

Two days later the squadron was dropping torpedoes at Hyannis to test for altitudes and speeds of release. The Navy had developed a new torpedo warhead that was not supposed to break up or run wild when released from the air.

Torpedo Four officially changed command on December 15, 1943. Lt Cdr D. W. "Woot" Taylor turned over the skipper responsibilities to Lt H. H. "Hutch" Hutcheson. I recorded: "Torpedo Four regrets the loss of the Skipper that led us in flights all over the Atlantic and in an engagement with the enemy on the Norwegian coast." I had reference to the change in command. I did not anticipate that Woot Taylor would be transferred to a fighter squadron and get killed while checking out in an F6F.

Photo: "Hutch" and "Woot" - two great skippers.

Photo: Change in command.

Lt Hutcheson was soon promoted to Lieutenant Commander and he took his new assignment as Skipper seriously. He was an excellent pilot, and he expected discipline and high performance from all hands. Even on Christmas day I recorded. (1)

"Was supposed to have the day off but Bob woke me up at 0600 saying something about a national emergency so I rushed thru breakfast and down to the hangers. An official dispatch stated that two German aircraft carriers lay 250 miles off the coast. An attack by rocket ships was expected on New York, Washington, Boston, and Phily."
"We made preparations for an attack on these ships. Tested turrets, ammunition, and loaded torpedoes."
"Ate a delicious turkey dinner in shifts at noon."
"Secured at 1600 with no more information on enemy mission. A drill is suspected. If the attack had come off, a good many aviators would have 'died with their blues on.'"

As the 1944 new year turned, the squadron was still attached to the Ranger but operating out of the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. I took the standby shift at the hangars on New Year's day to replace Lt (jg) "Buck" Barnett who "just got married." While Buck and Betty were enjoying this two-day honeymoon, I "dropped a torpedo on the range near Newport." Times were tough for those of us who were still single.

Air Group Four remained assigned to the USS Ranger until mid-April 1944. During that time we operated from the ship and from several air bases along the East Coast. The torpedo squadron practiced long-range air searches, glide bombing, and torpedo attacks. We dropped live warhead torpedoes on an island in Bar Harbor, Maine. We scheduled night flying tactics and coordinated attacks on ships in conjunction with our fighters and dive bombers.

Fighting Four now had F6F "Hellcats" to replace the old F4Fs, but VB-4 still retained the old reliable SBDs. Our Air Group was rapidly becoming one of the most efficient operational units in the Navy. Many of us had now been together for more than a year. We not only flew as a team, but many of us commiserated and socialized together. We took advantage of the fact that the US propaganda machine was well oiled. All Naval aviators were treated as heroes. Our reception downtown--even in Norfolk, which was the worst possible home-base assignment--was great.

We tried to keep up with the news about the war, but many of the details were censored. The last two months of 1943 and the spring of 1944 brought many changes in both theaters of war. China was now a major factor in the formula--not because of its contribution to Naval warfare but, more importantly, because this huge nation could shape the direction of the peace and the geopolitical future of Asia. On November 22 - 26 Chiang Kai-Shek "participated directly in Allied war planning for the first time with Churchill in the Cairo conference." (2) Chinese troops were to become increasingly involved against the Japanese, and China agreed to support B-29 bases at key locations in their country for attacks on Japanese held territory.

At the Tehran conference on November 28 - December 1, 1943, Stalin agreed to enter the fight against Japan. American and British troops had landed at Anzio Beach on January 22, 1945, and the European War was shifting in favor of the Allies.

Several quotations from my journal indicate the nature of Torpedo Four operations during our last few months on the Ranger: (1)

"Feb. 1, 1944: Bad weather. The flat-top went into Narragansett Bay and anchored. We were launched at anchor due to high winds."
"Feb. 5, 1944: VNF-77 qualified aboard in F6Fs today. No trouble. The Hellcat is a wonderful plane."
"Feb. 8, 1944: Spotted Felix, Buck, Bob, and their wives in the Garden restaurant celebrating Felix's wedding. Joined the party."
"Feb. 21, 1944: Lt (jg) Edwards was killed last night during carrier landing… just married. Memorial service today."
"Feb. 24, 1944: Night qualifications… Mak got a prop taxiing."
"Feb. 28, 1944: Two dive bombers collided due to poor visibility. Hovey chewed Phillips' tail off and he and his radioman bailed out. They were picked up okay."
"March 5, 1944: Don (Henry) landed an Avenger on a Dauntless in the gear--tore both planes up. No one hurt seriously."
"March 15, 1944: Weather foul. Night black as hell--ceiling 700 feet… Henry crashed into the island. Plane burned but no casualties… Planes remaining in the air were vectored to nearest land."
"March 25, 1944: Got a 'butch' haircut today. The squadron comment on it was, 'Now, they won't even let you in the snake pit.'"
"March 28, 1944: Ens Allander got vertigo in a cloud and was last seen spiraling down in his plane. The Avengers and Dauntlesses spent the remainder of the day searching for survivors or wreckage. No luck."
"April 3, 1944: Night takeoff… It was Jack Fulnecky's turn tonight. He has been on this tub 14 months now and never had any trouble. I was in the air when it happened. Bad wave-off; caught a wire and over the side, throttle full on. Radioman picked up but not Jack. I can name 19 pilots (with crews) lost since I got on the Ranger. No wonder the air group is p.o.'d."
"April 4, 1944: Standing by in the Ready Room, Condition Eleven, with Candyman (*), as strike group in case of sub contact. They are firing the 5-inchers top-side at a towed sleeve as the only interruption in the monotony of waiting…. Later, VF-7 practiced carrier landings. Leo Norman was almost added to the list when he caught an F6F slipstream and almost went in on his back. Crap game in the bunk room tonight."
"April 16, 1944: Spent the day packing and moving off the Ranger. Air Group Four has been detached from the USS Ranger to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, to be enlarged to a 90-plane outfit. Lunch aboard today was probably my last meal on that flat-top. I'm leaving with some vivid memories, centering around hazardous day and night carrier landings, rough seas, foul weather, crap games, bull sessions, good friends, Argentia, Scapa Flow, Iceland, London, Edinburgh, and the Norwegian coast. The ability of personnel to start and spread scuttlebutt will not be forgotten, either. Rumors never ceased concerning yard periods, next operations, transfers, and so on. She's a great old ship, the Ranger, cussed and loved by many people, honored and spat on, but always the same when she's the only landing spot in an enormous ocean--a welcome sight to the naval aviator coming up the groove."
"April 18, 1944: Received the Air Medal aboard the USS Ranger officially today. Captain Rowe made the presentation and read the citation. Bob Ruth, Cy Weeks, and Lt Cdr Klinsmann also received Air Medals. Cdr Ruddy received the DFC."

Several other Air Group Four pilots received decorations as a result of the Atlantic operations. As was the Navy custom, the pilots received the recognition, while the crewmen were seldom cited for their sacrifices. This was an unfortunate military inequality. To carry out the awesome responsibilities in the turret and the belly of the TBM--not knowing if the pilot was functioning--required a depth of skill and confidence beyond imagination. Captain W. B. Chace in "Avenger at War" called these assignments "The Cheap Seats." He stated: (3)

"The tunnel did not provide much comfort. It was a noisy enclosed capsule with very limited visibility. After days of intensive combat, it became encrusted with and smelled of engine oil and transmission fluids. There was no physical access to the cockpit, therefore it could produce a discouraging claustrophobia for the uninitiated."

Our experience over Norway clearly demonstrated the challenge facing our crew members in combat situations. When my crewman, C. P. Jackson, accidentally pulled his parachute rip cord in the plane, I became much more aware of the crew's problems. From that time on, I spent more time with my own crew in the pre-combat briefings and escape procedures. Captain Chace, a former belly gunner, described the responsibilities in the belly of the Avenger very well. (3)

"The crew compartment, manned by two, consisted of the tunnel and an armored turret with a .50-cal above. The tunnel, encompassing about half the total airframe, was equipped with a bench seat (room for two), radio, radar, navigating board, and armament gear on a convenient forward bulkhead. Aft there was a .30-cal 'stinger' gun. Within this area, an experienced crewman could create a crude but effective airborne CIC (Combat Information Centre) to support his pilot and advance the mission. Whatever this mission might be, antisub patrol, glide bombing, night low-level attack, or interdiction of enemy airfields, the ability and response of this great aircraft was a challenge and a joy."

After Air Group Four was detached from the USS Ranger, we were assigned to Fort Devens Airfield. A statement in the "Red Rippers," a history of VF-4, presents a "logical" reason for this assignment: (4)

"Washington, learning that Fort Devens Airfield was too small for an Army pilot to land on, dispatched Air Group Four to the spot to keep the field in use and to dispense a bit of Navy goodwill and propaganda in the surrounding area."

While the squadron was assigned to Fort Devens at Ayer, Massachusetts, the Skipper authorized my first nine-day leave since returning from the Atlantic. I flew commercial airlines to Missoula, Montana, and drove back to the ranch in Idaho with my parents. The leave was welcome, but I sensed an increased concern on the part of my parents as they anticipated my eventual move to the Pacific Theater. I tried to reassure them that our assignments were rather safe and routine.

From May 7 to June 3, 1944, I was dispatched with Ted Newell, Mak Makibbin, and several other pilots from Air Group Four to VD-2, a special photography unit at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This additional training meant new responsibilities for us during future strikes. We were to carry extra camera equipment and stick around to take pictures of the action.

On May 20, I recorded in my journal, "Red letter day." My brother, Byron, who was attached to the USS Kasaan Bay came down from Washington to Harrisburg for a brief visit. I showed him around the base and the next day took him up for a hop in my TBM. I had a great time showing him the mountains and valleys of Pennsylvania at tree-top level. However, Byron did not fully appreciate the ride from the belly of my Avenger. He could now sympathize with my trusty flight crew.

During my brother's visit, I introduced him to Mary--a good-looking girl I had met in Harrisburg. That was the end of my relationship with Mary. Byron fell in love with her, kept in contact during the war, and married her on August 3, 1945.

Back to the Squadron on June 4, I recorded that we flew over Hyannis Field in parade formation; the tower called up and said "Victor 39--a beautiful formation!" Photo: An echelon of Grumman Avengers.

We flew our planes back to Quonset Point on June 29, 1944, where we checked them into the base command. Then most of the personnel of Torpedo Four were loaded on a train for an unforgettable coast-to-coast ride to San Diego. The trip terminated at Brown Field. After a short but pleasant stay there with brief interludes at Dago and Tijuana, the Squadron boarded the USS Barnes for transportation over the passive Pacific to Hawaii. The Barnes departed San Diego on July 13 and docked at Pearl Harbor on July 21, 1944.

While we were en route to Hawaii, Saipan in the Marianas was invaded by the Marines. The battle of the Philippine Sea was raging. Our submarines had already sunk the Jap Carriers Shokaku and Taiho. US planes added the Carrier Hiyo to the list. Two US battleships, two carriers, and a heavy cruiser were damaged. We lost 130 aircraft, while the Japanese lost 476. This damaging blow caused the Japanese to pull back to Okinawa.

(1) Thomas, Gerald W., VT-4 Pilot. Personal Journal.
(2) Goralski, Robert. 1981. World War II Almanac, 1931 - 1945. Perigee Books.
(3) Chace, Capt William B. 1980. "The Cheap Seats" In Avenger At War by Barrett Tillman. Charles Scribner & Sons, New York.
(4) VF-4, The Red Rippers. A History of Fighting Four assembled by members of the Squadron in 1945. U.S. Navy.
(*) Lt (jg) William H. Canty.

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