Warrior Memories

David Bellavia’s Medal of Honor Moment

DSC04824-2In the spring of 2006, literary agent, author and historian Jim Hornfischer introduced me to David Bellavia.  David had recently left the Army and was settling into civilian life–sort of.  Two months after we started talking every day on the phone, he returned to Iraq as an embedded reporter, traveling all over Anbar Province before coming home to work on a book together with me.

When we first spoke, he made it clear he wanted to write a “Themoir”–the story of his beloved platoon mates from Task Force 2-2 during their year in Iraq, which included heavy fighting against Shia militias in Diyala Province as well as during Second Fallujah. From the outset, he displayed a selflessness and determination to ensure his brother Ramrods would get the recognition they deserved for their service during an incredibly difficult deployment.

This is my kind of guy.  David and I quickly became very close. We sat talking late at night, each of us drinking whiskey, swapping stories and getting to know each other as we wrote the proposal. Eventually, House to House found its way to Free Press, and we delivered the manuscript in early 2007.

This week, David received the Medal of Honor from President Trump at a White House ceremony. Eight other MOH warriors attended the event, as did Representative Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL wounded in Afghanistan in 2012. DSC04773

David, being David, turned the spotlight away from himself. After the President gave him the Medal of Honor, David asked if his fellow Ramrods and the Gold Star families of TF-2-2 could come up on stage.

“How many people are we talking about?” President Trump whispered.

“All of them, Mr. President.”

President Trump considered this pretty radical breach in tradition and protocol before saying, “Yeah, okay!”


The Ramrods clustered forward, filling the stage and packing in so tightly that Michael “Shrek” Carlson’s mom lost her footing and started to fall off.  Trump quickly grabbed her arm and pulled her back from the edge. A moment later, he leaned into her ear and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

The Ramrods of TF-2-2 smiled for the cameras and celebrated this moment in the White House exactly as they had fought in Fallujah:  together as a team of men whose bonds transcend mere blood.  David made that happen. Since coming home, enduring many hard lessons in politics and in the public eye, David Bellavia has been one of the most gracious and selfless human beings I’ve ever known.

Seeing such a man receive our highest award for valor was one of the most significant moments of my life.  It is a reminder that with patience, sometimes the right thing will happen, and the good guys get a win. DSC04808



Categories: American Warriors, Home Front, Iraq War 2003-2010, Uncategorized, Warrior Memories | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Forgotten Casualties

DSC07750On April 22, 1934, a 39-year old man died of pneumonia outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To his neighbors who watched as the family house fell into disrepair, was finally boarded up and abandoned in the depths of the Depression, the owner was an oddball sort of man who never fit into their community. He was seen drinking alone on his porch, and in his final years alcoholism wrecked both his health and most of this relationships.

Wrote historian Dennis Gordon, “…spiritually ravaged by his war experience, he had increasingly sought release through drink. He appeared dispirited, much older than his thirty-nine years….”

Lieutenant_Colonel_William_Thaw_IIThis was the tragic last act in the life of Lieutenant Colonel William Thaw, the first American to fly in air combat. He became a national hero during World War I, first while as a Soldier in the French Foreign Legion, later as a member of the all-volunteer American squadron called the Lafayette Escadrille, which fought for the French long before President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the Central Powers. Later, as the United States Army Air Service reached the Western Front in 1918, he commanded the 102nd Aero Squadron. He served with great distinction and was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses, the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre while being credited with five German planes downed.

Somewhere in his experience on the Western Front, the vibrant, brilliant young man suffered what has been called, “the soul loss moment.” He returned home, but returned home in form only. Ultimately, the war claimed him as surely as it claimed his comrades who died fighting on the Western Front.

Over the twenty-seven years I’ve been writing about and interviewing combat veterans and their families, I have heard the same refrain countless times. “He came home, but he was never the same.” Families have shared with me stories of their veteran’s return. The first months, a honeymoon, but after the luster wore off, the war reclaimed them. My knowledge is anecdotal, but the alcoholism and suicide rate among those who returned from World War II’s front lines seems to have been a vastly underreported cost of our victory.

A dear friend who served in combat during the Gulf War once retold the story of his own father’s struggles. His dad had joined the infantry at the start of World War II and was sent to fight in Italy. He stayed in after the war and rose through the enlisted ranks to be an established and highly regarded non-commissioned officer. He served in Korea, and during the Cold War. But his experiences in Italy were never far from him, or his family. Ultimately, he took his own life, years after the shooting had ended. When I asked his son, a well-respected NCO and combat veteran in his own right, if he considered his dad a combat casualty, he didn’t even hesitate, “He absolutely was.”

In 2011-12, I wrote a book with Captain Sean Parnell detailing the experiences of his infantry platoon in combat during a particularly difficult deployment to Afghanistan in 2006. Since Outlaw Platoon was published, at least four members of Captain Parnell’s company have taken their own lives.

From 2001-2014, the suicide rate among veterans jumped thirty-two percent. As of 2016, twenty veterans commit suicide every day. Not every one of those tragic ends is a result of combat experience, but some no doubt are.DSC07786

After World War II, thousands of veterans returned home with severe medical conditions. Many were survivors of Japanese prison camps and the Bataan Death March where starvation, jungle diseases and brutalizing treatment by their captors destroyed their physical health. Some survived only a few months after being rescued at war’s end, others survived longer. But all too often, their physical debilitations dramatically cut short their lives.

The Second World War was not unique in this regard. World War One saw thousands of post-Armistice deaths directly attributable to the wounds (such as those inflicted by gas) and the physical cost of serving in the trenches.

The Americans taken prisoner in Korea came back after the war in as poor condition as the captives of the Japanese. In Vietnam, it was the same story with our returning POW’s, but now chemicals such as Agent Orange inadvertently destroyed the post-deployment lives of tens of thousands of veterans. By the early 1990s, almost 40,000 veterans had filed disability claims with the VA as a result of the health impact of this defoliant. How many have died as a result of exposure is unclear, but it is not a trivial number.

During a deployment in Iraq during the early years of the invasion and occupation, Indiana and Oregon National Guard troops assigned to guard a water treatment facility were exposed to hexavalent chromium, which has caused several deaths to rare forms of cancer.

These men and women are never honored on Memorial Day. Counting them is impossible because of the nature of their deaths and how the war claimed them. They did not fall in battle, but they deserve to have their service and its consequences recognized and honored, even if one considers suicide a dishonorable end. Men like William Thaw helped secure freedom for Europe and the United States, and their devotion in battle should not be tainted by the way they chose to die. Judging them, stripping them of what they did accomplish in their lives by ignoring them, is to deny the emotional anguish and trauma they lived with every day after returning home.  For those who know its nature, it is a form of living death.

The consequences of loss, be it on the battlefield or after, has a generational impact on the families who endure these deaths. That point was driven home to me early in my career when I wrote about a fighter ace who died at the end of World War II.  His wife was destroyed by his loss and the family was forever scarred by his death. It led to dysfunction and fifty years of pain, alcoholism and mental illness. His brother, who also served, blamed himself for his brother’s death in 1945 and took his own life in 1975. I remember writing the end of that story, sobbing as I recounted how everything in his family broke after the fighter ace’s death. It was never whole again.

When I moved to my little town in Oregon in 1994, I discovered one of our neighbors had lost her husband during WWII. She raised a daughter alone, never remarried and lived a silent, desperately lonely life as a recluse. The death of her loved one caused her to disengage from almost everyone around her.

More recently, I’ve been researching another ace whose loss had a similarly catastrophic effect on his family. Once highly regarded and politically connected, his family slipped into financial insolvency, abuse and chaos as his widow married and remarried five times. Who can ever fill the void of the loss of one’s true love?

DSC07787These are all human costs of war; ones that rarely makes the history books as they are difficult to face and discuss. But we need to have a conversation about them, because it is an after-effect of every war this country has fought. Before we send our men and women into battle, our nation’s leaders must recognize the long-term effect it will have on some of the families and communities that send their loved ones off to war. It must be a factor when deciding whether or not the crisis at hand merits the use of force. Once the decision is made to send in the troops, we must have in place a better and more robust structure to support those who return home. In the last sixteen years of war, we have a spotty record at best of doing that, and the toll has been a heavy one as a result.

So this weekend, while we honor those who have fallen in battle, I will take a moment and give thought and prayer to those families who have lived the nightmare of loss and know the shattering moment when the contact team arrives on their doorstep. Their loved one gone, their lives destroyed—rebuilding and finding a new sense of normalcy among such grief is a monumentally difficult task.

This weekend, I’ll remember what I’ve learned these past twenty-seven years of the post-war deaths that wrought such pain to the families I have met. Just don’t tell me their loved ones were not combat casualties. The only difference I see is that it took longer for the war to claim their lives.  I hope you will join me in remembering these forgotten combat veterans as well.


Categories: Uncategorized, Warrior Memories, Writing Notes | Tags: | 2 Comments

Escape to Midway

Harry Ferrier grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut.  At age sixteen, he lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Navy.  Harry became an aviation radioman and joined his first squadron, Torpedo Eight, in September of 1941. At age seventeen, he flew his first combat mission. He later served with VT-3 and VT-8 again during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons and the defense of Guadalcanal.  Harry married just as the war ended, raised two children, and made the Navy his career.  He rose from Seaman 3rd Class to  full Commander before he retired after the Vietnam War. I was fortunate to interview him in 2000, first over the phone, then in person in Washington State. Harry was one of those Americans who had overcome every imaginable adversity through the course of his life from the Depression and a broken home to crewing a torpedo bomber in the darkest days of the Pacific War when almost all his friends were lost in combat. Getting to know Harry was one of the most inspirational moments of my life.

Harry Ferrier at Midway, all of 17 years old in June 1942.

Harry Ferrier at Midway, all of 17 years old in June 1942.

At age thirteen, Harry Ferrier’s childhood came to an abrupt end the day his father died of a heart attack.  From then on, tragedy and hardship dogged Harry’s young life, setting in motion a chain of events that led him into the midst of one of history’s greatest naval battles.

His dad had been the rock of his family.  A big, burly welder whose own father had immigrated from Scotland at the end of the 19th Century,  Harry’s dad had held his family together in the midst of the Depression with his unflagging work ethic.  On the strength of  his fourteen hour work days, he kept food on the table and the mortgage current for their tiny house in East Springfield, Massachusetts, despite the fact that he’d lost his right leg below the knee while jumping freight trains as a kid.

When he died, the family lost its primary source of income.  Harry’s mother, as devoted as she was to her four kids, simply couldn’t pay the bills with the meager wages of her waitressing job. What little savings they had soon ran out. Eventually, they lost the house.

It was the spring of 1938, and Harry’s family had become homeless in the depths of the Great Depression.

In desperation, Harry’s mother farmed the kids out to stay with friends and relatives. Scattering the family at least kept them all off the street, but the pain of separation inflicted lasting damage on them. While his sisters were sent to live with an aunt and his brother stayed with another family, Harry moved in with his close friend, Dean Mosher. The Moshers kept Harry for the better part of the year in West Springfield while his mother sought to get back on her feet.

Tragedy struck the family again.  This time, within a few months of his father’s fatal heart attack, both of Harry’s grandmothers died suddenly.  Their deaths sent him reeling.  He was just thirteen years old,  unsure how to process such grief without his remaining family together to offer support.

VT-8 received the first operational Grumman TBF-1 Avengers to reach the Fleet. Here is Harry's aircraft, 8-T-1 at NAS Norfolk at the end of March 1942, just before the squadron was deployed to the Pacific.

VT-8 received the first operational Grumman TBF-1 Avengers to reach the Fleet. Here is Harry’s aircraft, 8-T-1 at NAS Norfolk at the end of March 1942, just before the squadron was deployed to the Pacific.

Once affable and outgoing, Harry he withdrew into himself. He became solemn and serious and kept the rest of the world at arm’s length.

That fall of 1938, his mother returned to get him.  Harry was shocked by the change in his mother.  At five foot one,  she had always been a heavy woman, but in the space of about eight months, she’d lost 50 pounds. She looked gaunt and haunted.

Unable to make a good enough living for her children on her own, Harry’s mom  married a bartender named Tracy.  When the family reunited, it was at his home in East Hartford, Connecticut.  There, he discovered his new step-father had a son of his own, an older boy nicknamed “Stub.”  Stub was a bully who made Harry’s life even more difficult.  Fortunately, Stub stayed with them for only a short time before joining the Navy .  Later,  Stub would be dishonorably discharged after going AWOL during World War II.

Life never got better for Harry’s family while in East Hartford.  Tracy, a broad-shouldered, rough Irishman, had never amounted to much. He drank heavily and lashed out at his family.  Verbal abuse was common. Later, he started getting violent.

Another shot of 8-T-1 at Norfolk. March 26, 1942.

Another shot of 8-T-1 at Norfolk. March 26, 1942.

Even when Harry’s mom became pregnant with the first of four more children, the drinking and abuse didn’t stop.  Daily life, hard enough in those days when the country was still trapped in the  Depression, became  a struggle for survival.

Harry began looking for a way out; somehow he had to escape from his step-father and the sense of hopelessness at home.   For two years, he endured and waited until he could finally make his escape.

At age sixteen,   Harry finally settled on his getaway method—the United States Navy.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t join up until he turned seventeen, but Harry didn’t think he could last another year at home.  Things were getting so bad, he had to get out–or give in.

The TBF was to replace the TBD Devastator, which still equipped most of the USN's torpedo squadrons that spring. As a result, VT-8's performance at Midway was to be closely watched to see how the new Grumman would perform in combat.

The TBF was to replace the TBD Devastator, which still equipped most of the USN’s torpedo squadrons that spring. As a result, VT-8’s performance at Midway was to be closely watched to see how the new Grumman would perform in combat.

So he doctored his birth certificate, changing his date of birth from 1925 to 1924 with careful work at a friend’s typewriter.  Officially, anyway, he was now seventeen.  He presented himself to the Navy recruiter, who gave him a small mountain of paperwork for he and his mother to fill out.  Since he was not yet a legal adult,  his mother needed to give her consent for him to join up.  She signed the papers, perhaps knowing that this was indeed Harry’s one chance to escape from their harsh existence.  Also, with more babies on the way, his departure meant one fewer mouth to feed.

When Tracy found out what Harry wanted to do, he offered to help him gain some weight so he could pass his physical.  At the time, Harry weighed less than 110 pounds, which barely qualified him for the Navy.  To “fatten” him up , Tracy bought Harry a case of beer and ordered him to drink it.

A short time later, in February of 1941, he passed his physical and became a Seaman 3rd Class destined for aviation radio school in Jacksonville, Florida.  He’d made good his escape—but what he had escaped to?

Midway Atoll, 1942.

Midway Atoll, 1942.

June 4, 1942

Midway Atoll

As dawn broke over Midway Atoll,  Radioman 2nd Class Harry Ferrier sat in his assigned TBF Avenger torpedo bomber, 8-T-1,  waiting for battle.

Midway after the Japanese air attack on the morning of June 4, 1942.

Midway after the Japanese air attack on the morning of June 4, 1942.

Harry watched the sunrise in contemplative silence.  Two days before, Lieutenant Langdon Fieberling had called all the crews from Torpedo Eight together to tell them the gravity of the situation.  The Japanese fleet—not some of it, all of it, was bearing down on Midway from the northwest.  The Japanese planned to knock out Midway’s defenses with air attacks, then storm the beaches with the Emperor’s best troops—a brigade of Imperial Marines.

They had to be stopped.  And to do it, the Americans had scraped together 52 combat planes and sent them to Midway’s airfield.  Off the atoll’s northern beaches, three of the Navy’s precious aircraft carriers now lay in ambush, counting on the element of surprise to make up for their lack of numbers.

The Japanese were coming with the fury and might that had laid waste to Pearl Harbor only six months before this calm spring morning.  Admiral Chuchi Nagumo’s four fleet carriers composed the heart of Japan’s naval strength, for their 300 aircrews were the best trained, most experienced combat pilots in the world.  And, in the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero, those pilots had the best fighter aircraft in the Pacific.

Harry’s squadron, Torpedo Eight (VT-8) possessed six new Grumman TBF Avengers.  These aircraft had never been in battle before.  In fact, back in February of ’42, Torpedo Eight had been split into two groups.  The main part of the squadron left Norfolk, Virginia aboard the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier now somewhere to the north of Midway.  The rest of the squadron—Harry included—remained behind at Norfolk to work up with the factory-fresh Avengers then just starting to arrive from Grumman’s plant on Long Island.  It was a sign of desperation that their six untested planes had been urgently ordered to Pearl Harbor in May, and then from there on to Midway. Harry’s det reached the island on June 1st, just ahead of the coming onslaught.

While the VT-8 det at Midway attacked the Japanese carrier fleet, the rest of Torpedo 8 flew off the USS Hornet and was wiped out. Ensign George Gay, seen here in Hawaii after the battle, was the lone survivor from the squadron's 14 TBD crews that launched from the Hornet that morning.

While the VT-8 det at Midway attacked the Japanese carrier fleet, the rest of Torpedo 8 flew off the USS Hornet and was wiped out by Zero fighters and anti-aircraft fire. Ensign George Gay, seen here in Hawaii after the battle, was the lone survivor from the squadron’s 14 TBD crews that launched from the Hornet that morning.

Harry Ferrier was seventeen. He couldn’t drink liquor, nor could he vote in his hometown elections. But here he was, ready to defend his country no matter how daunting the odds.

Next to him in the cramped confines of the cockpit, Jay Manning fidgeted restlessly.  The wait was starting to get to him.  Jay was only a little older than Harry.  A twenty year old native of Washington, he had been trained to operate the Avenger’s dorsal turret.  It would be Jay’s job to keep enemy fighters at bay while their pilot, Ensign Bert Earnest, made a wave top-level torpedo run on a Japanese warship. Harry would operate the plane’s radio as well as man the single .30 caliber machine gun jutting out of the Avenger’s belly just under the tail.

None of the men sitting in 8-T-1 had ever seen combat.  Only a few weeks before, they made their first live torpedo drop off Rhode Island.  From those practice runs, they had learned that delivering a torpedo took extraordinary skill.  Bert Earnest would have to keep the plane under 200 mph and lower than 150 feet flying absolutely straight when he released the weapon from the Avenger’s bomb bay.  If those conditions weren’t exactly met, the torpedo would porpoise or careen out of control.  It was difficult enough to make a successful drop during their training runs, doing it while the Japanese shot at them was sure to be even more of a challenge.

Just after 0600 hours, a Marine dashed up to 8-T-1.  Cupping his hands to his mouth, he shouted, “Enemy forces at 320 degrees, 150 miles out.  Get going!”

Bert started the Avenger’s enormous Wright-Cyclone R-2600 engine.  All around them, engines turned over and sputtered to life as Midway’s tiny air force scrambled to get aloft.  Somewhere nearby, another Massachusetts native named Sumner Whitten was just starting his own VMSB-241 SB2U Vindicator dive-bomber.  Whitten’s Vindicator would be the last plane to take off from Midway before the Japanese attacked.  Harry’s would be among the first.  The strike would be bookended by New Englanders.

The aircraft from Midway were supposed to attack in concert.  Lieutenant Fieberling’s six Avengers would coordinate their torpedo runs with four Army twin-engined B-26 Marauders.  As they made their low-level attacks, the planes from VMSB-241 were to whistle down on the Japanese and deliver their bombs from a 70 degree dive.  And, as the grand finale, a group of high-flying B-17 Flying Fortresses would pepper the Japanese ships with strings of bombs dropped from 20,000 feet.

The Japanese fleet carrier Akagi under attack by Midway-based B-17 Flying Fortress bombers during the morning of June 4, 1942.

The Japanese fleet carrier Akagi under attack by Midway-based B-17 Flying Fortress bombers during the morning of June 4, 1942.

The plan to fell to pieces almost the minute the mission began.  In the mad scramble to get aloft,  none of the squadrons joined up.  Instead, each unit went out towards the Japanese fleet on its own.  The attack would be made in drips and dribbles, instead of the single hammer-blow envisioned.

As 8-T-1 climbed away from Midway, a lone Japanese plane suddenly dropped down on them and went right through their formation.  As it zipped away towards the atoll,  a knot formed in Harry’s stomach.    Over the horizon, the Japanese were waiting for them.

From his dorsal turret, Jay Manning looked out behind them and saw Midway getting attacked by scores of Japanese planes.  They had arrived over the islands just as Sumner Whitten began his take-off roll down the runway.  The American strike group had missed being caught on the ground by only a few minutes.


Survivors of VMF-221 and the other Marine air units, seen at Midway at the end of June. At far left is Marion Carl, who later became the first Marine Corps Ace while flying from Guadalcanal.

Survivors of VMF-221 and the other Marine air units, seen at Midway at the end of June. At far left is Marion Carl, who later became the first Marine Corps Ace while flying from Guadalcanal.

They wouldn’t have fighter cover.  The lone fighter squadron on Midway, VMF-221, had flung its 25 obsolete Buffaloes and early-model Wildcats at the incoming Japanese air raid.  Twenty-five Americans waded into just over 100 Japanese planes. It was a slaughter.  In minutes, 19 of those 25 were falling in flames.  Only Marion Carl’s fighter was fit to fly after the attack ended.

Midway’s bombers sped towards the heart of Japan’s naval air power. It would be up to the young and inexperienced gunners to protect their planes from the most skilled fighter pilots in the world.

Since Torpedo Eight had taken off from Midway first,  Harry’s small group of friends now composed the tip of Midway’s aerial spear.  A few miles behind them cruised the Army’s B-26’s.  Further back, the dive bomber squadron lumbered along, climbing above 10,000 feet.  The dive-bombers would further fragment, dividing into two groups.  Midway’s planes were soon spread all over the sky.  There would be no chance to coordinate attacks.

For an hour, the six TBFs flew along at 4,000 feet as the rising sun cast a reddish glow on the scattered clouds that now dotted the sky that morning. Through the trip, Harry sat deep in 8-T-1’s belly, monitoring the radio.  It was an isolated, lonely position.  Above him, he could look up and  see Jay nestled in his turret.  To either side, a small porthole in the fuselage offered his only view of the outside world. With little idea of what was going on around him, Harry would have to rely on Bert and Jay.  The feeling of helplessness would have overwhelmed a lesser individual.

One of the surviving F4F-3 Wildcats at Midway, seen after the battle.

One of the surviving F4F-3 Wildcats at Midway, seen after the battle.

Just after 0700, Harry’s earphones crackled to life.  Bert had keyed the intercom switch to announce, “I can see ships ahead.”

They had reached the Japanese carriers.  Ahead and below were stretched two battleships, three cruisers, and a dozen destroyers.  They protectively huddled around the four vital aircraft carriers, of which Bert could only see two.

Torpedo Eight was about to make the first American attack on the Japanese Combined Striking Force.  To date, only one other attack had ever been made against these ships.  Back in April, while operating in the Indian Ocean, a squadron of British Blenheim bombers had found these same carriers.  Desperately, the Blenheims attacked through clouds of flak and swarms of angry Zeroes.  Not a single British aircraft survived.  The Japanese ships weren’t hit.

The intercom crackled again, this time it was Jay’s excited voice shouting, “We’re being attacked by enemy fighters!”

Bert slammed the stick forward and dove for a cloud some distance ahead of them.  The other TBFs entered steep dives, hoping to evade the incoming Japanese Zeroes.  It didn’t work. Torpedo Eight had stumbled right into the fleet’s combat air patrol.  Twenty-nine Zeroes descended on the six Avengers.

Following Jay’s warning, Harry swung around and crouched at his .30 caliber machine gun in the ventral window.  As he moved to his battle position, he glanced out one of the portholes just in time to see a flaming aircraft plunge towards the sea.

Harry grasped his machine gun and searched for targets even as 8-T-1 sloughed and yawed wildly.  It was all Harry could do to stay in position through all the crazy gyrations.  Above him,  Jay’s single machine gun barked. Cordite fumes filled the compartment and Harry could hear the rattle of spent brass bouncing off the turret’s floor.

Peering out from under the tail, Harry caught only fleeting glimpses of the raging air fight. Every few seconds, a Zero would slash through their formation, then wing past Harry’s little window as it pulled off target, red rising suns burned hot on its white wings.  With his .30 caliber gun, he couldn’t do much damage, but he blazed away at every plane that crossed through his narrow view of the outside world.

Then they were hit.  It was a terrifying sound, like huge hail stones striking a tin roof.  The din was nearly deafening, and the TBF rocked from the impact as cannon shells struck home. They were taking hits everywhere.  Bullets and shells tore great gouges out of the fuselage and wings, sending slivers of metal through the cockpit.

A cannon shell blasted the right side of Jay’s turret into a spray of broken Plexiglas and shrapnel.  The thunderclap noise the impact produced caused Harry to jerk away from the gun and stare up into the turret.  Above him, he could see Jay hanging limp in his straps, the turret a mess of twisted metal and glass fragments. Blood and gore were spattered everywhere.  Blood streaked down either side of the turret walls.

8-T-1 back at Midway following the mission.

8-T-1 back at Midway following the mission.

Bert had the Avenger right on the water now, and as Harry shakily returned to his gun, he could see the individual ocean swells, each punctuated by a crest of whitecaps.  They were under a hundred feet now, charging desperately towards the Japanese fleet.

The Zeroes came again, relentless and brutally effective.  As Harry searched for targets, another fusillade of bullets and shells ripped into the TBF.  This time, the enemy fire shredded the hydraulic system.  That caused the tail wheel to extend down right in front of the ventral gun.  Alone in his tiny metal box under his crippled TBF, Harry lost his only means of fighting back.  He was  captive now in his own airplane.

A flurry of bullets scythed into the radio compartment and Harry’s head was rocked by a hard blow. He spun away from his machine gun, feeling blood pour down his forehead. A moment later, he lost consciousness.

In the cockpit, Bert Earnest fought to keep 8-T-1 in the air.  The other Avengers were going into the water all around him.  One burning TBF pulled briefly alongside his shattered bomber, its pilot gesturing frantically at him.  A second later, it was gone, a burning smear of wreckage on the waves below.

A Mitsubishi Zero, the most deadly fighter of the Pacific War's opening months.

A Mitsubishi Zero, the most deadly fighter of the Pacific War’s opening months.

The Zeroes scored again, blowing away chunks of 8-T-1’s aluminum skin.  The stick shuddered in his hand as his control cables took hits.  He pulled back on the stick slightly, but felt it go slack just as a cannon shell exploded through the canopy behind him.  Shrapnel tore through the cockpit, and he felt searing pain in his right cheek as a sliver of metal clipped him just above the jaw line.  Blood splattered the cockpit and his flight suit even as more bullets demolished his instrument panel.

Though dazed from the blood loss, Bert realized the carriers were still a long way off.  And no a single TBF remained in sight.  A glance behind had told him all he needed to know about Jay.  His gunner was dead.  Harry had probably been killed, too. He was attacking the most heavily defended fleet in the world and he was alone.  The spear point of Midway’s attack had been whittled away to just 8-T-1.

He couldn’t make the carriers.  No way; they were too far off.  Settling on a what he thought was a cruiser, he lined up on its frothy bow and released the torpedo.  Free of its cargo, the TBF leapt upwards for an instant, before sagging into a shallow descent.  Bert played with the stick to correct his angle of attack, but got no response.  The elevator cables had been  shot away.

Unable to control the Avenger, he resigned himself to death.  He waited for the end as the waves below surged towards him. Then, with about 30 feet left before impact, Bert unconsciously reached down to adjust the elevator trim.  In a flash, he realized he could fly the plane with the trim tabs.  Sure enough, as he played with the trim controls the Avengers nose rose sluggishly.  Limping away northward, two Zeroes clung to his Avenger’s tail even as he cleared the last of the Japanese ships.  The two fighters flayed the Avenger with well-aimed fire, but somehow failed to bring it down.  A few minutes later, they pulled off target and returned to the fleet.

Another shot of a Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero, taken with Mt. Fuji in the background.

Another shot of a Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero, taken with Mt. Fuji in the background.

In the radio compartment, Harry awoke slowly, his head throbbing with pain.  At first, he became aware of sounds.  The TBF’s rumbling Wright-Cyclone brought him much comfort.  At least they were still in the air.  He opened his eyes and tried to focus.  Through his blurred vision he could see his radio compartment was splintered with shadows, broken by shafts of sunlight shining through ragged bullet holes in the fuselage.  As he looked around, he saw his radio had been smashed to junk by machine gun rounds.

Blood still streamed down his face, and when Harry became aware of that again, he reached up to find the wound.  Gingerly, his fingers found a hole in his forehead.  Stunned, he wondered how he could still be alive after getting shot in the head. Then he remembered he’d been wearing a cap.  He took it off and examined it.  The cap’s bill and front were soaked in blood, while an entry hole had pierced it on the left front side.  He let out a sigh of relief when he saw a similar hole in the back of the hat.  That had to have been the exit hole.  He’d only been grazed.

Feeling a little better, Harry crawled forward from the radio compartment into the cockpit seat behind Bert.  When he got there, he saw the cockpit was a gory mess.  The canopy glass had been punctured by many bullet holes, and now cool morning wind whistled through the cockpit, making an eerie sound that added to the nightmare.

With no instruments left, Bert flew back to Midway with luck and dead reckoning.  En route back, they spotted a huge plume of black smoke on the horizon and turned towards it.  Sure enough, that was Midway, black smoke boiling out of ruptured fuel storage tanks the Japanese bombers had hit earlier in the morning.

They came in to land, but men near the strip waved them off.  Frustrated, Bert aborted the landing and staggered back into the pattern.  They swung around again, only to be waved off a second time.  Neither Bert or Harry had the patience for this game.  When they wheeled around for a third attempt, Bert ignored the warnings from below and painted the TBF down on the runway.

Only one wheel had come down.  The other remained locked securely in the wing.  Neither Harry nor Bert realized this until 8-T-1 began slowing down.  Suddenly, the wing dipped and struck the runway, causing the Avenger to tilt wildly and ground loop.  The dying plane skidded to a halt, and as it did, Bert cut all the electrical switches.

For a moment the silence seemed overwhelming.  Harry and Bert stared out around them as rescue crews rushed to their aid.  A sense of utter desolation struck them.  They were the sole survivors of their detachment.

Manning's turret after Bert got 8-T-1 back to Midway.

Manning’s turret after Bert got 8-T-1 back to Midway.


Later, Bert and Harry learned just how bad things were.  The rest of Torpedo Eight, flying outdated Douglas TBD Devastators had attacked the Japanese fleet from the Hornet about two hours after their fateful run.  They went in without fighter cover as well, and the Japanese just shot them out of the sky.  All 14 TBDs went down.  Twenty-seven men died and only Ensign George Gay survived to be rescued from the sea by a flying boat after the battle.

Of 46 men Torpedo Eight had sent aloft that morning, only Bert, Harry and George Gay were left.  Harry was the only surviving enlisted man.

And this was their first mission.  Harry  wondered how anyone was going to live through the war if this is what they would face every time they flew.

On the strip, the sights of disaster were evident everywhere.  Sumner Whitten, the other New Englander among Midway’s airmen, limped back to Midway in his SB2U Vindicator, but over half his squadron had been shot down.  The fighter squadron had been wiped out—only a single F4F-3 Wildcat remained flyable.  The B-26s that had trailed the TBFs into battle had been massacred.  Two had gone down, and the other two came back so full of holes that they sat for days at the end of the runway, bleeding oil, hydraulic fluid and gas from dozens of gashes.  One group tried to count the holes in one of the B-26s, but gave up after reaching 200 on one wing and part of the fuselage.

Harry’s own TBF was pulled down towards the beach, where its gear was lowered.  There it would sit for the next month like a forlorn sentinel waiting vainly for its comrades to return.  A thorough engineering analysis was later done on it.  At least 64 bullets had struck 8-T-1, along with nine 20mm cannon shells.  The cannon shells probably obscured some other bullet holes, so the real count could never be firmly established.

Altogether, over half of Midway’s aircraft went down in that one desperate rush at the Japanese carriers.

Harry spent the rest of the day and night of June 4th in the hospital at Midway, where his head wound was treated.  Dizzy, his vision still blurred, he lay in his cot thinking of all the friends he’d lost.  The stab of pain as he recalled each man forced him deeper and deeper within himself.  He would never completely come out of his shell again.

The next day, he returned to Torpedo Eight’s living quarters, which were tents clustered near the airfield.  Carefully, he went through all the enlisted men’s possessions, cataloging them and packing them up to be sent home to their families.  It was the toughest task he ever had to do.

TBF Midway 1

Midway, of course, turned into the most remarkable American naval victory of WWII.  At 10:30 in the morning on June 4, several squadrons of Navy dive-bombers caught the Japanese carriers by surprise with their decks loaded with aircraft.  With just a few bomb hits, three of the four were turned into raging infernos.  The fourth would be destroyed later in the afternoon.  In return, the US Navy lost the aircraft carrier Yorktown and 144 aircraft. Of the 48 torpedo bombers launched by the American carriers and from Midway that day, only six returned.  The price was high, but in that single day, the Japanese lost their best ships and best aircrew.  Never again would they be able to take the offensive in the Pacific.

Harry Ferrier left Midway shortly after the battle ended.  He returned to Pearl Harbor, where the Navy put him up in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel for night before reassigning him to Torpedo Three.  A month later, he set sail for Guadalcanal aboard the USS Enterprise.

Harry served with VT-3 through most of August, fighting in the third carrier clash of the war at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons.  Just as he and his pilot were returning to the Enterprise after a mission, a Japanese bomb struck the ship.  Harry’s plane got caught up in the middle of the Japanese attack, and his pilot went barreling after several dive-bombers in hopes of shooting them down.

Following Eastern Solomons, he was sent up to Henderson Field at Guadalcanal while the Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor to have its damage repaired.  At Henderson, Harry ended up flying with a reconstituted Torpedo Eight.  Miraculously, he drew Bert Earnest as his pilot.  Together, these two comrades-in-arms endured the terrible living conditions, dreadful food, dysentery and Japanese shellings that came with the territory on Guadalcanal.  Finally, later that fall, Harry and Bert were evacuated.

Fifty-five years after the nightmare at Midway, Harry Ferrier returned to the island as part of a team of underwater explorers who were looking for the USS Yorktown.  Robert Ballard, the famous oceanographer who had located the Titanic and the Bismark back in the 1980s, led the team that would find the Yorktown.  Two American Midway veterans and two Japanese aviators who fought in the battle accompanied the search team aboard the research vessel, Laney Chouest.

For Harry, the experience was a painful revisit with memories he had long ago thought he’d overcome. After Midway, he’d moved on with his life.  He had stayed in the Navy after the war, working as an electronics expert on various atomic bomb test programs before serving three combat tours in Vietnam as an officer aboard a helicopter assault ship.  He retired from the Navy as a Commander after rising from the enlisted ranks not once, but twice. Justly proud of his military career, Harry had overcome so much to succeed in his career and life.

On Memorial Day,  the Laney Chouest’s crew held a solemn ceremony on the water north of Midway where the two American and two Japanese veterans of the battle came together in a moment of friendship and reconciliation.

The ceremony aroused some long-suppressed demons.  Harry had lost 43 friends and squadron mates on that terrible day in June, and as they rode the seas not far from Torpedo Eight’s gallant charge, the faces of the men  who’d died that day welled up  to haunt him once again.  How had he survived when so many had not?

Emotions long since held in check came flooding out.  Allowing those feelings to flow free proved to be a catharsis, but at the same time, it left Harry exhausted and homesick.  He had escaped to Midway for a second time.  As difficult as it had been, this time, it had helped to heal him.

Categories: Warrior Memories, World War II in the Pacific | 3 Comments

In Their Own Words: Phil Shriver, Defender of Port Moresby, New Guinea 1942

The Day They Became Veterans

Born in 1920, Phil Shriver became interested in flying while attending Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, where he received his pilot’s license through the college’s CPT (Civilian Pilot Training) program.  The lure of good pay drew him to the Army Air Force.  He graduated with class ’41H at Luke Field October 31, 1941.  While part of his class, including Besby Holmes, received orders sending them immediately to Hawaii, Phil went first to the 54th Pursuit Group in Washington, then later detached for service in the Southwest Pacific. In the summer and fall of 1942, Phil participated in the desperate defense of Port Moresby as a member of the 35th Fighter Group.  Hopelessly out-class in their quirky P-39 and P-400 Airacobras, the 35th and 8th groups formed the only defense the USAAF could offer in New Guinea at the time.


Phil Shriver took part in some of the most desperate attritional warfare seen the the Southwest Pacific.  He arrived at a time when the Japanese still held air superiority.  The AAF deployed the 8th and 35th to challenge Japan’s control of the air, a challenge ultimately paid for with the lives of Phil’s squadron mates.

I interviewed Phil back in the late 1990’s, the following is an excerpt from those interviews.


Phil Shriver stands in front of his 40th Fighter Squadron Airacobra.

Phil Shriver stands in front of his 40th Fighter Squadron Airacobra.

When the war started, most of the squadrons on the West Coast were asked to supply men for immediate service in the South Pacific.  I was with the 54th up at Paine Field at the time, fresh from flight school.  I think I had six hours in P-40s.  I think what the squadrons did was detach their most inexperienced pilots as naturally they wanted to hang on to their best men.



The 54th Fighter Group later deployed to the Aleutians and flew missions against Japanese-held Kiska in the fall of 1942.

The 54th Fighter Group later deployed to the Aleutians and flew missions against Japanese-held Kiska in the fall of 1942.

We went down to Hamilton as part of a large, thrown together group of pilots.  There must have been about 125 of us-and I don’t think any of us had much fighter training. None of us were assigned to any group.  They just put us on a ship and sent us out to war.


We landed at Melbourne, Australia.  For awhile, we were at loose ends while the Air Corps waited for a shipment of P-40s to arrive for us.  We waited and waited, but every time a batch of planes arrived, somebody else got them.  We moved around a lot.  It was a pretty confused mess at the time.  In March of 1942, I was finally assigned to the 40th Fighter Squadron, 35th Group.


We had P-400’s–the export version of the P-39 that the RAF didn’t want.  The only differences were that the P-400’s had an electrical propeller system instead of the P-39’s hydraulic one and they carried a 20mm cannon in the nose instead of the P-39’s usual 37mm.  That 37 was a complete failure.  If you got three rounds out of it before it jammed, you were lucky.  The P-400 was one of the first planes to get into combat up in New Guinea.  Another group, the 8th, was formed about the time we were.  They used a mix of P-39’s and P-400’s.  Initially, our group had nothing but P-400’s.

raf p39249

The P-400 was the Airacobra variant built specially for the Royal Air Force. The Brits found it totally unsuitable for combat and rejected them. Desperate for planes, the USAAF took them over and sent them to the Pacific.

Our P-400 carried British markings since the RAF had turned them down and given them back to the Air Corps. We used our Allies’ cast-aways, planes not fit for the Royal Air Force.


I preferred the P-39 because of its prop system.  The electrical system on the P-400 failed all the time and the prop would flatten out.  You’d lose control of the RPM’s and you’d have a heck of a time getting back home in that condition. It happened to me, but never in combat.  When it happened, you’d lose altitude fast.  I learned to flip the circuit breakers as that sometimes got things working again.


All the same, it was a sturdy little airplane, and I liked it. Even after we found out about all the things that were wrong with it, well, I had fallen in love with it.  It got me home every time.
The squadron stayed in Australian for a couple of months until a group of us went to Port Moresby.  I arrived at Port Moresby on the 1st of June, 1942.   We had planned to arrive on the 30th of May, but as we neared our assigned field-Seven Mile Drome–we saw that it was under a bombing attack. We turned around and flew back to Australia.  We got in two days later.


The field was always in bad shape. It was bombed practically every day. An engineering division cleared the field every day so we always managed to take off and land only a few hours after these raids.  They never really put us out of commission.  Seven Mile Drome was Port Moresby’s main strip, but we were the only fighter unit up there at that time.  Bombers would fly in and use it, but we were the only air defense unit.  We had relieved one of the squadrons of the 8th Group, and our two outfits rotated back and forth every few months or so.

p39 under repain 29th air service group very early 1942 pre-may stars195

Mechanics worked in primitive conditions trying to keep the Airacobras flying.

There were no facilities there like in the States-or Australia for that matter.  We had no hangers.  We hired native workers to build our alert and operations shacks.  Both were basically grass huts.  For our living quarters, we secured some five-man pyramid tents which we set up a few miles from the field. At morning and in the evening, we traveled between our tents and the airfield in two ton trucks. This way, if the Japanese bombed the field at night, our camp area was far enough away to avoid some of the action.


The day after we arrived, my squadron flew its first mission.  My own first combat flight took place the following day on June 3rd.  Through most of our first tour, we used our P-400’s as interceptors, though we sometimes escorted transports to Wau, a base north of us.


As interceptors, the P-400’s were just about useless.  We could never climb fast enough or high enough to catch the Japanese bombers. The P-400 operated effectively to 15,000 feet.  After that, its performance died.  If you could get to 25,000 feet, the plane’s max speed would be somewhere around 125 mph. The wings would be flopping around-you couldn’t do anything but wallow.


Did I mention that the Japanese were always at 25,000 feet?


The quality of the Japanese pilots we faced went downhill fast from sheer attrition, a fact we noticed over the six months we flew in New Guinea.  In December of ’42, our squadron finally scored its first big victory.  We had been escorting transports to Wau, when some Zeroes from Lae intercepted us.  Our guys shot down 12 planes that day-more than any other during our two tours up to Moresby.  Those Japanese who intercepted our squadron just weren’t very good.  We could tell they weren’t very good by the fact that we were beginning to get victories.


At the start of our tour, though, we didn’t do well. The Japanese fighters were always above us, giving them the advantage in nearly every engagement. Worse, we soon learned that we could never dogfight with the Zeroes in our P-400’s–the Airacobra was just too inferior.  To survive, we could only one pass, then dive away.  The Zeroes couldn’t keep up with us that way. It was our only escape.  The P-400 was a rugged little airplane and would dive like mad.

tainan air group a6m2 zero shot down over port moresby 1942752 4x6

A Tainan Air Group Mitsubishi A6M Zero shot down over Port Moresby in 1942. It is seen here after it was recovered by the Allies. –John R. Bruning collection.

We learned the hard way how to fight the Japanese, though Buzz Wagner helped us out quite a bit when we first arrived. Buzz, who was one of America’s first aces, taught us how to fight the Zero. He had flown in the Philippines then taken glass shrapnel in his eyes. The Air Corps took him out of combat flying and sent him to Australia. He went from squadron to squadron sharing his experiences and knowledge. To us, he became our guardian angel and we looked up to him and listened to him. He told us to never dogfight with the Japanese. Later, we heard that from other pilots, too.  But Buzz Wagner was the one we all respected. He could do things in a P-39 that were just unbelievable.


Boyd "Buzz" Wagner, seen in a pre-war portrait.

Boyd “Buzz” Wagner, seen in a pre-war portrait.

He even came up to talk to us while we were at Seven Mile Drome. He stayed in the operation hut and filled us with information.  He never flew combat with us, though he did with the squadron we had relieved.


The first contact with the Japanese that I occurred on the 16th of June. We had the full squadron up and our c/o was leading us that day.  I’m sure we looked real good–we were all in formation at 12,000 feet.  That was until the Japanese showed up. I glanced up and at about 20,000 feet I could see probably 20 Zeroes.  I remember thinking how colorful they were.  They had big red dots on their wings, and their cowlings were painted black. They went into a Lufberry circle, just like they were playing a game. They started chasing each other around, going through all sorts of little antics. They were quite good no question about it.  And they were a cocky bunch, doing all those aerobatics above us like that. They knew they were going to kill us even before they attacked.


A Mitsubishi A6M Zero over Mt. Fuji. The Zero proved a deadly adversary to the Americans piloting the P-39's and P-400's in defense of Port Moresby.

A Mitsubishi A6M Zero over Mt. Fuji. The Zero proved a deadly adversary to the Americans piloting the P-39’s and P-400’s in defense of Port Moresby. –John R. Bruning collection.

On the other hand, we didn’t know what was going on-half the time we never did. Neither did our squadron commander.


All of a sudden, they peeled off out of that circle one at a time.  They came down right through us.  There wasn’t a whole lot we could do. We were too low to dive, so we scattered.  I saw one P-39 flying straight and level with a Zero behind it.  Pieces were just falling off his airplane-good God, it was a terrible experience, one we were not too proud of. We should have done a lot better.  I went into a handy cloud and got away. We lost three pilots in that one attack.  It wasn’t a good show for the Americans.


We should have pulled up into them.  At least that way we could have gotten a few shots off, but we didn’t. They just decimated us. We became veterans that day.


The Japanese never gave us a break.  We were bombed constantly, day and night. In between, we’d go up and try to intercept them.  Sleep was hard to come by, that’s for sure.


The first bombing raid I experienced took place the second day we were there.  It was kind of funny in the way it happened.  I’d never seen Japanese bombers or Zeroes before.  They were very high as usual.  I stood out on the field watching them since  I knew they hadn’t released their bombs yet. The engineers on our field that did all the work keeping it operational were black.  So there I was watching all the Zeroes and bombers when one of the engineers runs by and shouts, “Come on boss! Them bombs ain’t marked black or white!” I wised up fast.


We learned not to be too afraid of the bombing raids.  They usually hit the strip, and our alert shack was a ways away.  We had slit trenches we could get into, but we didn’t worry too much about the bombs.  The Zeroes were another matter.

p39 swpa 1942 possibly nov 42273

On that first tour, one other mission stands out.  The Japanese Betty bombers had just hit Port Moresby. They were escorted by Zeroes, but there were some B-17s in the area flying en route to bombing Rabaul. The Zeroes pulled off away from the Betties and went after the B-17s.  Saburo Sakai, in his book Samauri! talks about the mission that day, so I know the Tainan Air Group–the best Japanese outfit of the war–was involved.


The Betties were only at 15,000 that day, and only a few Zeroes stayed with them. That gave us the best tactical set-up we’d ever seen. Three miles out of Moresby, 12 of us attacked them. We shot down three bombers and a Zero and lost one pilot.  For a change, we were slightly above the Japanese, and off to one side.  That day, I was in a P-39.  I dove on their formation and made an almost 45 degree run on one Betty.  When I opened fire, I could see the tail gunner get hit by my bullets. I got two rounds out of my 37mm cannon before it jammed.  I pulled up without seeing what happened to my target.  I rolled back in and made another pass.  Later, three Betties were found on the ground and I was given credit for one.

A late-war G4M Betty bomber about to be short down by a VF-17 Hellcat during a raid on the U.S. fast carrier fleet. This one is carrying an Ohka piloted rocket bomb under its fuselage. The Betty was used throughout the war by the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force.

A late-war G4M Betty bomber about to be short down by a VF-17 Hellcat during a raid on the U.S. fast carrier fleet. This one is carrying an Ohka piloted rocket bomb under its fuselage. The Betty was used throughout the war by the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force.

In our first month, we lost ten pilots. As a result of all the losses, morale in our squadron was very low. To tell you the truth, we were a pretty scared bunch of guys. We were getting beat up good.  To keep morale up, while we were on alert we played volleyball down near the flight line.  We also had chess tournaments going, but that was about it.  We just waited around for the word to scramble.  We had a field telephone wired up in the alert shack. Whenever it rang, our hearts would stop.  We knew what it meant. Somebody would hollar, “Take off!”  We’d all jump into a truck or jeep and race down to our aircraft.  There was an alert board in the shack which listed who were the flight leaders, who were the element leaders and who flew in which flight for the day.  It also listed what planes we were assigned to.  As our trucks and jeeps passed our planes, each pilot would jump off and run to it.  Our airplanes were about 300 yards apart, parked back in the jungle.  Originally, we had them on the field itself, but the Japanese hit them by bombs so we quit doing that.


A rough way to make it home.

A rough way to make it home.

When we started out, we each had our own plane.  I got two I called my own.  I named them Ruby I and Ruby II.  Eventually, as planes were getting shot down or knocked out of commission, we were assigned to whatever planes were available that day. Ruby I and Ruby II were both shot down–but not on days I was flying them.



We did have an officer’s club–another grass shack that we built-stocked with liquor brought up from Australia.  I wasn’t a drinker, so they put me in charge of our supply because I could be trusted with it. The Japanese used to send nuisance bombers against us at night.  One evening, he hit our officer’s club and it caught fire.  I remember everyone leaping from the slit trenches nearby to try and save our liquor!


Our first tour ended in the first part of August. We went back for a rest in Sydney and stayed at place called King’s Cross.  I was engaged at the time so I didn’t run around much, and I didn’t drink, but I’ll tell you, some pretty wild things went on around there.  The guys just had to blow off the tension we’d been under for so long back up at Moresby. I ended up meeting a wealthy family with three daughters.  Three of us stayed with them, and took their daughters out to the swanky clubs.

shriver with sqn logo 1200 dpi

Phil Shriver at Port Moresby, 1942.


We had a two week leave before going back to Townsville.  We stayed there until mid-November and then returned to New Guinea. By November, it wasn’t nearly as stressful as our first two months.  Things were slacking off a bit and the Japanese weren’t raiding us nearly as often. When we did run into them, they weren’t as good as the ones we faced during the summer. We did a lot more escort and patrol work than the first two months we were there.  We also strafed ground troops at Buna from time to time, something the P-39 was good at. But communications with our own troops weren’t that stable, so we never knew where to strafe and if we’d hit friend or foe.


An Airacobra at Townsville, Australia, fall 1942.

An Airacobra at Townsville, Australia, fall 1942.

In May of 1943, I left New Guinea for good and caught a B-24 for home down in Brisbane. I came back to Hamilton Field, the same place I left out of.  This all happened pretty fast, so nobody was there to greet me when I got back.  It didn’t matter, it was wonderful to be home, to have survived the ordeal we all went through. Our squadron lost 12 of the 25 pilots who originally went to Moresby.  We all figured we had about a 50/50 chance to get home. Somehow, I was one of the lucky ones.

*          *          *


Outclassed, under trained and over matched by their well-equipped Japanese opponents, the 8th and 35th nevertheless held the line over Moresby until new squadrons flying better aircraft could arrive to continue the fight.  In August, just as Phil’s group rotated home for a break, the American landing at Guadalcanal largely diverted the Japanese Naval air units away from New Guinea.  The Tainan Air Group moved to Rabaul just prior to the August 7th landings, leaving Lae behind and all the terror they instilled in the AAF aircrews forced to fly there. 


The Japanese Army Air Force stepped into the void created by the Imperial Navy’s new focus on Guadalcanal. From the fall of 1942 through the summer of 1944, Japanese air operations over New Guinea largely became a JAAF show.  Occasionally, the JNAF would mount a strike from New Britain–April 7, 1943 and October 15, 1943 are two examples–but for the most part, the Army sentais carried the burden.  The drop off in pilot quality Phil Shriver noted in his recollections could very well stem in part from this change over.  The JAAF aircrews were noticeably inferior to their JNAF peers, even at the start of the war.


Throughout the fall of 1942 and into 1943, American air strength grew in New Guinea.  The first P-38s arrived, and their superior high speed performance gave the Americans the edge in air-to-air combat they sorely needed.  Nevertheless, the issue remained in doubt until the great air battles of the spring and summer forced the JAAF onto the defensive once and for all.


Phil Shriver spent the rest of the war as an AAF test pilot.  He flew every aircraft in the Army Air Force’s inventory except the P-38. After VJ-Day, he returned to civilian life after giving serious thought to staying in the service. 


 While he fought in New Guinea, his older sister suffered through the horror of captivity in the Philippines. She had been one of the nurses who stayed behind to treat the wounded on Bataan. Liberated in 1945 at San Thomas prison, she rarely spoke of her experiences to anyone, even to her brother. 

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