5. Tragedy Strikes Night Operations

"Three VT-4 planes collided during night operations and the squadron lost nine men, including one of the most capable skippers in the Navy."

Headquarters for squadron operations for the next several weeks was the airbase at Hilo, Hawaii. Here the squadron carried on intensive operational training with a new note of seriousness, for now the real test was just around the corner. All personnel worked hard and played hard to take advantage of their much-needed break from carrier duty.

Lt Cdr H. H. "Hutch" Hutcheson was a good pilot and a hard-driving Skipper. He wanted to make every minute of our land-based stay at Hilo productive. We usually made two training flights a day and numerous night flights, often in bad weather. Sometimes we flew a tight formation at night with all lights out, relying only on exhaust flames to stay in touch with wingmen.

Hutch drove us so hard that there was a building resentment from the pilots. We all thought we took too many chances with the weather. We had a few vertigo incidents, which were shocking to both pilots and crew. The "needle-ball-airspeed" seat-of-the-pants trained pilots of VT-4 probably were more subject to the hazards of vertigo than the modern instrument-trained flyers of today.

On one occasion, a night flight was scheduled from the Hilo airstrip in very bad weather. It was so dark that there was no visible horizon for orientation. I took off with the proper spacing behind another plane. We were flying with a minimum of external lights. As I became airborne, I glanced briefly at my cockpit instruments to check on critical readings, then looked ahead to try to join up with the other plane. I thought I spotted his taillight as he was making a join-up turn. But this plane in front kept going slower and slower. I glanced into the cockpit frequently to check my airspeed and couldn't understand why the lead plane was so slow. I was about to join up on this light when my radio altimeter turned red. I immediately advanced the throttle, just barely missing a house on the side of the volcano. The light I had been trying to join up on was not one of our planes in the air but a light from a house on the ground. I hope I didn't break any windows as I flew full-throttle over the rooftop. This kind of vertigo experience was not unusual for pilots caught between instruments and formation responsibility. We had to split our attention, but the major charge was to hold our position in the flight division.

Lt (jg) W. H. Bill Canty joined Torpedo Four at the same time as Lt (jg) Scott Vogt, as we moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific theater of war. Both pilots were transferred to us from Torpedo Eight--recently reformed after the disastrous loss of all planes (with Ensign Gay as the sole survivor) during the Battle of Midway. Even though Scott and Canty had trained only briefly with squadron Torpedo Eight, that association with the now famous squadron, where all members made the supreme sacrifice, carried an aura of glamour. We respected these transfer pilots and did not know at the time that both would suffer the same fate as that of their original squadron buddies.

I felt very close to Ensign Bill Canty. I don't know who first tacked on the label "Candyman," but it was a natural. He was a redhead from the Midwest with a pleasant smile and a good sense of humor. Unmarried, he was a logical teammate for several of the junior pilots. Consequently, we went on liberty together, usually restricted to short trips to downtown Hilo, Hawaii. A couple of times we had an afternoon off to play golf at the Hilo Country Club on the slope of Mauna Loa.

Some of us were in downtown Honolulu on a night after the Fifth Marines returned from combat in the Pacific. We were shocked to observe the animosity of the Marines toward anyone who resembled the Japanese. After a few drinks, some innocent Hawaiians also felt the wrath of these Marines on R&R. Shore patrols were kept busy breaking up the fights. Curfew and blackouts were blessings for both natives and military personnel.

The skipper of Torpedo Four had designated me as "Material Officer" for the squadron, so one day I was ordered to fly from Hilo to Barber's Point, Honolulu, for some squadron supplies. Candyman was to accompany me in another Avenger. We made the flight to Barber's Point without incident but had some trouble with our contacts on the base where we were to pick up the supplies (mostly flight gear and spare parts). Consequently, we were later than expected for our departure back to the Hilo airstrip.

The weather had closed in on the Big Island when we reached it. We could see the top of the volcano, but there was a solid cloud layer covering the field. Our planes were not equipped with sophisticated radar, and there were no ground control techniques to guide the planes onto the runway.

We circled Mauna Loa a couple of times. Candyman was flying on my left wing. I called the tower and received word that the visibility was limited but we should be able to get in. I radioed Canty that we would go out to sea a short distance, then come in from the north at near-ground level. The main problem was to stay clear of the volcano which covered much of the island. Our orders were to return that day, so neither of us considered a possible flight back to Pearl Harbor.

We finally made it back to the airstrip after an anxious letdown through the soup. That was only one event in a long series that made our training hazardous while we were awaiting assignment to go aboard the Bunker Hill.

On September 21, 1944, during night operations out of Hilo Air Station, three VT-4 planes ran together in a severe rain squall, and the squadron lost one of the most capable skippers in the Navy, Lt Cdr Hutcheson. Lt (jg) Canty, Ens M. S. Stocker, and all crew members were also lost and never found in the sea search that followed.

Lt (jg) Page Stephens stated the circumstances as follows: (1)

"I was with Hutch the night they ran together. I was not scheduled but Trex and Makibbin had dates with some girls in Hilo so I was persuaded to take it. We were doing one of those exercises where a flare plane split from the group and dropped flares on one side of the target while the rest of the flight stretched out in a line and made a torpedo attack from the opposite side. I drew the task of the flare plane so when we were airborne I joined up on Hutch's section. Canty was his wingman on the starboard; the other two were Binder on his port, and Stocker directly below 'in the well.'"
"There were some clouds that night and as 'Hutch' approached one, he gave his usual directive, 'Close up.' We did, and once in the cloud I could see Binder's wing lights and beyond that, Hutch's. The cloud became thicker and Hutch's lights faded out."
"There I was, in the middle of the cloud flying wing on Jolly Ed Binder who was without doubt the worst instrument pilot in the squadron. Instinct told me to check my artificial horizon and when I did, I realized we were banking into an ever-increasing steeper turn. My reaction with instant. I pushed over, dropped about 200 feet, and pulled out heading away from the formation. By that time I was under the cloud and could see no other planes. A few seconds later I saw quite an explosion down on the water. Later I realized this must have been the three planes hitting the water."
"All I could do then was to try to contact other planes and tell them to go back to the field. I am not sure who else was on that flight but I believe Bob Ruth was. The next morning when it was light we searched the area but found nothing more than an oil slick."

That night when word reached the barracks of the crash, many of the pilots and crew got drunk--very drunk! Scott Vogt took on a "crying jag." The loss of Bill Canty, his Torpedo Eight buddy, was too much for him.

Before the crash I had drawn a cartoon of Hutch and had it tacked to the barracks wall. The cartoon depicted our skipper, sitting on top of a pile of Navy regulations, issuing one of his frequent memos to officer personnel. The cartoon was drawn in jest. Nevertheless, after the 3-plane collision, some of the surviving pilots became very critical of Hutch's rigorous training schedule and the numerous flights in bad weather. After a few drinks they spotted my cartoon on the wall and started cursing and throwing their knives at it. I rescued it after it received two direct hits.

We lost some good pilots and crew members in this accident. It was impossible to place the blame on any one individual. The real culprit was the weather. However, some resentment and responsibility continued to be placed on Hutch. Later, when we got back into combat, most of us were thankful that Hutch had put us through some important and rigorous training--perhaps saving some lives later. Who knows?

There is no doubt that we lost one of the best Torpedo skippers in the Navy in Lt Cdr Homer Hamby Hutcheson. While he demanded high performance, he had a special concern for each of his pilots. His wife June stated (2) "Before the Squadron left the States… he had invited all his new Ensigns to his home for Sunday dinner. That's why I remember so many of you."

We continued the search for possible survivors for three days after the crash--without success. Memorial services were held the next Sunday in St. Joseph's Church, Hilo, Hawaii, for Torpedo Four pilots and crew. A portion of the service in Our Lady of Victory Chapel follows:

"In your charity we ask you to pray for the happy repose of the souls of nine of our Shipmates, who during this past week gave their lives for God and Country."
"Homer Hamby Hutcheson, Lt Cmdr., USN
William H. Canty, Lt (jg), USNR
Merrill Silver Stocker, Ensign, USNR
Henry (N) Karsemeyer, ACRM(AA), USNR
Edward James Dooner, ACOM(AA), USN
Thomas Charles Bradley, AOM2c(T), USN
William Laverne Finkenbinder, ARM3c, USNR
Harry Lester Johnston, AOM3c, USNR
Raymond (N) Glew, ARM3c, USNR"
"We say: God reward you and Well done!"

Photo: Pilots lost in midair collision.

Photo: Lt Paul J. Davis..

Photo: Lt Lee L. "Ham" Hamrick.

Photo: Lt Page P. Stephens.

Photo: Lt Burton R. "Trex" Trexler.

(1) Correspondence with P. P. Stephens, VT-4 Pilot.
(2) Taped Interview with Mrs. June (Hutcheson) DeDakis.

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