Of course, there are those of the opinion that the narrative of our present squadron should begin at the date of de-commission and re-commission at Ayer, Massachusetts, but considering where we dropped the introductory history, it is only fair to start the story about a month earlier. A goodly share of us were together even then.
On March 14, 1944, Lt Cmdr K. G. Hammond became our skipper. Remember, now, we warned one another, It isnt K. G. anymore, its Captain Hammond. And it was really somewhat difficult to get accustomed to the change. The new captain stepped gracefully into the drivers seat, however, and had us in such control that he needed only a snap of the finger for a whip. He brought us luck, too, for shortly afterward we were granted some leave, were detached from the USS Ranger, and exchanged our effete Wildcats for some spanking new Hellcats. VF-4 was finally coming into its own. The fighting war was just over the horizon.
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 good will and propaganda in the surrounding area. And I defy any to say the Group did not make a name for itself here. (Knock of the sotto voice, Misterdid I say what kind of name?)
The married officers scurried around to rent homes and settle down to some real domestic life for a while, and spread such tales about the pleasures of this existence that they soon had the bachelors renting houses, also. (Of course, it was not the first attempt of this sort for some of the officers. These individuals had let the water pipes freeze in a house but a couple of months earlier, and then gave up the place because of its inadequacy. Well, they left it, anyway.)
May and June 1944 were pleasant months, though. No cold wet snows and blustering winter winds. Massachusetts in her glorious spring array welcomed us with open arms. She made those few weeks a pageantry of color and a carnival of good times. Early to bed (AM) and early to rise became our motto, and if someone groaned if a door slammed loudly of a morning, it was only because such a sharp sound desecrated the sacred stillness of the countryside. It was truly a vacation.
We went to work at a decent hour in the morning, wakened by an alarm clock and not a blasted bugler. Seven-thirty or eight oclock would herald the beginning of a days work, and the neat line of planes on the ramp gave one a surge of pride and power as he viewed them from the hangar window. Some mornings that was nearly as far as one could see, too, wasnt it, what with the ever-present haze? In fact, coupled with the haze, the location of that field made it the most difficult-to-find spot in all New England.
Four and five PM would find us scattered to the four winds (or Three Feathers), though an enterprising and imaginative individual could have located the majority of us in an hour or so. He could have looked at home for the married people, and at the cottage of Eslinger, Duncan, Nicolini, Kelley, and the rest for the fishermen. The others might be found at various spotsThe Picadilly, the Crystal Club, the Boots and Saddle, the Top Hat, or well on their way to Boston. (Or just well on their way.)
We were very fortunate that none of our members was killed there, and our nearest casualty was Tommy when his engine failed near Beverly. And what hurt him most was the debt of five dollars to the mess. The short stay at Chelsea Hospital in Boston wasnt so bad, either, for it is said on good authority that he saw all the Boston nightspots with one of the nurses. As for other accidents, I do believe that a few people landed with wheels up. Dub, Gil, and Cliff to be exact. A fine alert trio. And it was here at Ayer, also, that God changed the natural order of things to let Randy run into a truck instead of a truck running into Randy. With the utmost alacrity, we awarded him the Iron Cross with the Pink Frig.
We had a party during our last few weeks there. About 15 miles from the field it was, and a devil of a spot to find, but it proved an ideal site. The state police stopped about four of our cars that evening to learn if we had Massachusetts drivers licenses. Naturally, we all hadnot. I dont remember if many people got acquainted at the party, but we sure did away with a good deal of beer. That was the time Windy had a whole gallon pail of the stuff, and kept dipping his hands in it to prevent others from helping him drink it. Funny thing, but that wasnt much of a deterrent, and some people continued to fill their cups from his pail.
Too soon we were sent West. After going first to Quonset Point to leave our planes, we were given until July 8 to report to San Diego. That was June 29, 1944.
That was our last glimpse of home for a long time. July 8 we gathered at the BOQ (1) office on Coronado Island, and waited for the busses which were to take us to an outlying stationBrown Field. The word spread that Brown Field, on Otay Mesa, wasnt so badit was just across the Mexico-US border from Tiajuana and Agua Caliente. This word was one of the few true rumors ever promulgated in the Navy.
We descended on Tiajuana like the Mongols of Ghengis Khan on the Near East. We looted the placefor a price, of course. There is a story circulating that Mexico allowed Tiajuana to send two more representatives to the Mexican Congress because of the increase in trade in that area. The Mexican beef market went up 18 points merely from the sale of hurachas. Any day now we should receive a card from the Tiajuana Chamber of Commerce requesting us to return en masse.
On 13 July 1944, we departed once again for San Diego, and there boarded a CVE (2), which was to bear us west oer the Pacific swells. The skipper was Captain D. N. Logan, a former executive officer of the Ranger, so we felt very much at home. On the fifteenth we sortied from San Diego and set sail for the Hawaiian Islands.
A few officers made the phrase for richer or poorer a reality, but, aside from this, the cruise was uneventful, and on July 21 we rounded Diamond Head and docked at Pearl Harbor. We were met by some Sea Bees (who precede even the Marines, nowadays) in the form of a band, and they welcomed us with Aloha Oe and other Hawaiian melodies. It appeared that our true worth had been discovered. Our new home awaited us with the Welcome mat out and the door (or hatch) open. (Please, however, remember to salute the Officer of the Deck as you enter the door.)
Three full months we spent in the islandsthree months in the land of Kamehameha and oni-oni. The mountains of Oahu were like beautiful props for a Hollywood production, the hanging valleys of Hawaii another Babylon, and the red dirt of Maui an anathema on all aviators who visited Puunene. Though we went to Hilo on the 22nd of July 1944, to be based there during our entire period in the area, we visited nearly every other field in the island chain. And we always decided that Hilo was the best.
The hangars and ramps were a long walk for even non-aviators from the BOQ area, so no sooner had we descended from the transports than the supply officer delivered to us two 14-man carryalls, and we immediately interpreted the word literally and all climbed onto one truck. Throughout our stay there, it remained a wonderful game to see how many people we could manage to get on a truck, even to sitting on the radiator so the driver couldnt see, and we were the despair of the poor supply officer. He even gave us a third truck. So, wed send one into town with two people, one to Ships Service with two people, and then nearly fifty jovial officers would clamber on the third like a group of monkeys for a garrulous trip to the mess hall.
In the air we were the king of the island (we being the only flyers present), and we used our privileges quite discriminatory, I believe. Of course, the fact that nobody complained when flat-hatted took some of the zest from that sport, and the opportunity that the volcanic craters offered also removed us from the populated area. It sure was fun to climb up to the craters, over the hump, buzz the Army which was working on the cross-island road, and then coast back down the mountainside toward home, cutting swathes in the cane fields and trimming the smaller branches from the trees. At the field, of course, it was usually necessary to obey the tower and circle while the Army transport, still ten minutes distant, got squared away for an approach.
And night flying soon lost the major feature of its terrorthe novelty of the unfamiliar, for we became intimately familiar with the secrets of the darkness. Selene, goddess of the moon, remained something of a stranger to us, though, for we preferred to fly on moonless nights and in rain squalls. We used to come down to the hangar in the rain, sit and watch a movie until the squall passed, and then try to get into the air for a half-hour before the next squall hit. Sometimes, it was touch and go. Sometimes, we both arrived together. A few people were fortunate enough to get downed planes. One man, who, after he discovered there was still enough time to get into another plane and catch the group before it took off, revealed six duds on the line that night. What an engineering department!
Some of us will not forget the night we brought a certain pilot of the bomber squadron, in an inebriated condition, to the hangar with us. Being anxious to prove his metal, he was dressed only in his skivvies and slippers, and cloaked in an aura of whiskey and confidence. His face was adorned with a black crayon mustache and sideburns, and he protested loudly that he was the senior senator from Kentucky. Just give me a plane, he boasted, and show me how to start it. Thats all. I dont need a checkout. So we borrowed a life jacket and harness, gave him a large helmet, buried him a pair of Nicks shoes, size 12, and sent him out to plane number 13. The fact that 13 was in the repair shop with no engine made it a darned long search for him, and his temper was quite ragged when he returned. Fortunately, the Captain vetoed another try.
The athletic program went into full swing here, and nearly everyone acquired a true Pacific tan. We even went so far as to challenge the bombers to a softball game, but that was a mistake. In the last two years, we had played them in Newfoundland and in Ayer, and had been beaten two out of three timesplus this time. After that, we organized some teams within the squadron, and nursed our grievances as best we could.
The Officers Club was the most popular off-duty gathering place, though on free days we made trips to the Volcano House, the Country Club golf course, the movies in town, or the Hilo Yacht Club. Also, a couple of the officers used to go over to the hospital almost daily to see Dr. Leslies music box collection. Two of these machines were called Irene and Louise, it is said. After Club hours, the parties often continued in the BOQ, and many is the night when the sober people cursed Ol Demon Rum, as one of our members so aptly terms it.
Finally, W. P. Blackwell enticed the squadron into spending a mere $400 for a Luau. That was a great afternoon. After a few interpretive dances accompanied by the motley orchestra of women and boys and girls dressed in bright colored shirts and dresses made in San Francisco, we all sat down bare-footed and cross-legged to a delicious Hawaiian meal of pork, poi, cake, and other unpronounceable dishes. And still later, we danced. We all had a pretty good time as nouveau Luauans, but I dont think wed spend that much money for another.
We have a saying in the squadron that if there are ever any new ideas and changes to be incorporated in the Navy Air Corps, VF-4 will be one of the first squadrons to be affected. Starting in March 1944, when we were detached from the Ranger, our months were packed with something newsometimes startlingly so. After a short lull, August brought an enlargement of our squadron, increasing our 36 to 54 planes, and adding approximately 20 new pilots. The bomber squadron was diminished, and their loss was our gain, for we took in 14 of their boys. Then, we settled down to train some more. However, in October, just before we left, the Lord (the Lord must be behind it all, because the Navy Department couldnt get away with some things without Him) decided to detach us from the Air Group, give us 10 more planes with a cut in pilot personnel, and send us on ahead for something really big.
So we left Hawaii in a state of excitement, and, as a result, probably shed fewer tears than was expected of us. We did enjoy our stay in the islandswe had a darned nice time, but it wasnt like home, and time spent away from that beloved spot is time wasted. So, On Navy.
There were no fanfares and music as we left Pearl and moved out into the stream on a CVE (at an 80-degree angle) (3). It was a quiet departure, and shortly after leaving it was announced we were bound for Saipan.
A few officers still wonder whether they lost or gained or broke even on time when we crossed the International Date Line. Its amazing how ignorant we are of this man-made demarcation line. Disregarding our lack of knowledge, however, we were now proclaimed members of the Order of the Golden Dragon, and given membership cards to prove it. The only way it really mattered, though, was in the direction of counting longitude on the plotting board, and, as we seldom looked at this object, it would make little or no difference. (So we thought. But now we wouldnt fly without that same plotting board.)
When we reached Saipan, we received our baptismal enemy fire in the Pacific. The day was spent in looking at the shell-torn beach and buildings and at the leafless and broken trees. Of course, a few people went to the O Club, but they were the exception. Then, in the evening, we went to bed comparatively late, some of us very appreciative to be riding at anchor once more. But we didnt sleep, for at 1230 the Japanese raided the islands, and struck rather close to the ship as well during the fray. It was a novel experience to be on the ground at such a time.
Here at Saipan we enjoyed another change. The Navy said, Well, boys, we dont believe well do as we planned after all. Guess well give your sparkling new planes to someone else, put you back in the Air Group, and move you aboard a carrier to use its old planes. Which was great. We had spent hours waxing those beautiful new Hellcats, Hargis and Danny had painted our insignia on each and every one, and we had a flashy white lightning streak (our own idea) on the tails. It seemed a crime to leave thembut we did.
This Essex class carrier (4) was a splendid ship. The two weeks spent aboard her were the most pleasant of our entire period in the Far Eastern waters. From her decks we launched our first strike, and around her we first learned how to operate in a large Task Group. While aboard her, we received our first congratulatory message for work performed. But hardly were we settled when we were ordered to transfer to another carrier (5). We bid a sad goodbye to our first home.
Replacing Air Group 15 on the carrier was more of a job than it appeared at a casual glance, for Air Group Fifteen had set an all-time record for planes destroyed in the air--310. The 7 planes to our credit by this time did not look very impressive, consequently. There was an air of scorn about the people of our new ship, which lingered long. And the Japanese didnt help us any, for wherever we went, the air opposition was scant. For instance, by 1 February 1945 we had only 32 planes shot down. But notice thisthat of all enemy planes even as much as sighted, we shot down 57%, damaged another 15%, and without losing any of our own planes to date. Why we couldnt find more planes to shoot at, we couldnt understand.
A day or so after our transfer the Japanese sank a vessel nearby (6), thus stimulating a good deal of excitement. So, we sailed forth with determination, to return the excitement to the $&%**& with compliments. Our squadron, enlarged to 95 pilots, went through that month with no losses of personnel, but the Japanese lost a few, so we considered our pledge partially fulfilled. It was during this month that we also battered through a typhoon, which caused considerable damage to other ships in our disposition, but left us unscathed. Therefore, it was with thanks that we returned to port at the end of the monthto find another change awaiting us.
Not only did we lose 25 pilots, but the bombers, baggage in hand, left for the Marianas, and two squadrons of Marines with F4Us joined us on the Fighting Lady. They wandered about for the first few days, going up and down the stairs from one floor to another, often looking around on the roof, or in the dinning room, or in the bathroom, but gradually becoming accustomed to shipboard duty. They surprised us by given a swell performance in landing, and turned out to be darned nice fellows, after allreal sailors, underneath.
January 1945 was eventful for us. That was the month the fleet sneaked into the South China Sea, wreaked expensive damage along the coasts of French Indo-China, Hainan, China, and Formosa, and, then, while Tokyo Radio boasted we were bottled up in there, slipped quietly out again, and gave Japan a little punch in the chest along the Nansei Shoto chain, and going as far North as the Amami O Gunto group. We flew in foul weather all the time that month. Every pilot should be awarded a distinguished flying cross for the really superb flying and courage demanded of him.
However, we dropped bombs, shot rockets, and fired 50-calibers for Japanese consumption almost without interruption during this period, despite the weather. We even talked on the radio. Comes to mind the admonition on the air by some Group Commander during a piece of action: OK, now boys, never mind the water. Lets concentrate on the ships.
Or the time when some exasperated pilot exclaimed, This $&%**& bomb wont release. What did you say? asked a stern voice. I said, the pilot shouted, this $&%**& bomb wont release. The other voice, probably a Group Commander, gave up.
But the air could bring one glimpse of tragedy, and of heroism as well. I cite the time an anonymous pilot had been hit in the head, but was still conscious and able to fly. His wingman stuck beside him as they started back to their ship. Finally, the injured pilot announced to his pal, Im going blindcant see very well. And the wingman replied, If you cant see, bail out. Then Ill land in the water beside you and help. We heard no more on the radio from these two gallant flyers, but learned later that they both succeeded in getting aboard safely, and the injured pilot recovered from his wound.
But dont forget that there was something else happening in the combat zone besides flying and shipboard duty. The islands we visited in port offered refreshing change (or change of refreshment) from the monotonous life on the iron decks. Mog Mog (Grog Grog) was one big sunlit barroom, and the boat trips were a great worry to the coxswains. One time a plum individual was pushed overboard, and as another character pounded him with a boathook in an attempt to be of assistance, the craft coasted alongside and bumped into the anchored flagship. As interested spectators on the deck above watched the noisy crew of officers yelling thick-tongued encouragement to their stricken comrade, someone of them called What destroyer is this? The answer was a sharp What ship are you from? But ignoring the question they pulled their friend aboard and putt-putted happily away. Then, the little boat came directly to our ship, which was anchored nearby and unloaded its unsteady crew.
Some pilots are still demanding green ink (7) in their log books for trips to the recreation island, and are deserving of it in various instances. A blow-by-blow account is not available, but, by reading the regulations, an observer could deduce that the brawl during which someone shoved an Admiral off the dock helped to lay a dampening influence on some sort of pugilistic play. Certainly, though, none of our group ever got involved in action of this nature.
The other island, from which we flew, should have been more conductive to frayed tempers, however, for during our early days there, pilots would get soaking wet in rainstorms at night, sand and small bugs in their clothes in the daytime, and wait for hours to ride back to the ship in a spray-swept LCVP (8). Conditions improved there as time passed and eventually an airy dining hall and bar was set up. We found mattresses on the canvas cots, and better tents for sleeping quarters.
But the last cruise we made swept all those little items from our minds, for we were in an historic operation. We participated in the invasion of Iwo Jima, and in the first carrier plane strike on Tokyo, heart of the Japanese Empire. Impeded by foul weather, we fought side-by-side with other Air Groups over Honshu, and were informed that one of the best attacks in the whole period at this target was one of ours on a particular engine plant. We bagged some more planes, too, thereby raising our total to sixty. Diz Laird became our first ace, and Dub Taylor the second, the latter shooting down three in one flight.
At Iwo Jima, we carried out important support missions, and we prayed for the gallant Marines who fought so courageously and tenaciously on the death-ridden battlefield below. We had faith in them, even as did the Marine Colonel who spoke to us some time before. Well take the island, he said simply and with finality. And, we suddenly knew that they wouldno matter what the opposition. So, we did our part wholeheartedly.
On return from this trip to port, speculation on going home became rife, and reckless bets were laid on possible dates of departure. When the affirmative word actually arrived, everybody was so jubilant, that a mere $10 or $25 was as nothing. All at once, we knew that we were tired, and we talked of little else than our plans for the coming weeks. Everything was hurried, and within a few days we left the carrier and boarded another ship (9) bound for the good old USA, miles and miles to the East.
After months of being together, of living together and fighting together, we came to the time when the squadron was split up. Some of us remained in VF-4, while the rest joined other squadrons or took shore jobs. But we wont forget one another. Thats the purpose of this book. And to those men who were lost on the cruise, we give our prayers and our thanks, and were intensely proud of themand proud of the country for which they gave their lives. May God be with us all in the years to come, and grant that we not forget our friendships made in the Pacific.
(1) BOQ - Bachelors Officers Quarters.
(2) USS Barnes. For security reasons, none of these ships are named.
(3) USS Long Island.
(4) USS Bunker Hill.
(5) USS Essex.
(6) The USS Mississinewa, which was torpedoed by a Japanese mini-sub (Kaiten) on November 20, 1944 in Ulithi Lagoon.
(7) Green ink means combat credit.
(8) LCVP - Landing Craft, Vehicles and Personnel.
(9) Air Group 4 was ferried from Ulithi to Pearl Harbor on the USS Long Island and from Pearl Harbor to San Diago on the USS Altamaha.
Fighting Squadron Four: The Red