World War II in the Pacific

Marion’s Shoes

   IMG0083 nara 57 marion carl Marion Carl grew up in the tiny village of Hubbard, Oregon, a few dozen miles southwest of Portland.  After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Oregon State University.  While studying engineering, he also joined the Corps of Engineers and  ROTC.  In the fall of 1937, during his senior year, Carl learned to fly on a Piper J-2 Cub at an airport just outside of Corvallis.  In May, 1938, Carl went up to Fort Lewis, Washington tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps .  The Air Corps turned him down, citing unspecified physical reasons.  Later, Carl discovered that the recruiter had filled his quota for the month and had rejected him for that reason.

            He graduated from OSU in June, 1938 and spent the summer up at Fort Lewis as a second lieutenant in the Army.  Despite the Air Corps’ reject, Marion was determined to find a way into the air. He went to see a Navy recruiter and was accepted into the naval aviation cadet program. In August, he reported for duty in the Navy.  In one day, he went from a second lieutenant in the Army to a Seaman Second Class in the Navy to a Private First Class in the Marine Corps!  Years later, Marion Carl would become one of the rarest of officers–one who worked his way up from private to general in the course of a most distinguished military career.

            Carl recalled in a 1992 interview that he chose the Marine Corps for two reasons, “I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about being at sea so much.  The other was, of the eight of us  there, I was the only one who qualified for the Corps.  I was the only one with a college degree.  The Navy was taking men with two years, but the Marines weren’t.  You had to have a college degree.  On top of that, I got to Pensacola a month ahead of the others.”

            Of the eight other young men Carl joined up with that summer, three washed out of flight school. The other five became Navy pilots.

            When the war began, Carl was serving with VMF-221, a fighter squadron equipped with the squat, barrel-shaped Brewster F2A Buffalo.  Just after Pearl Harbor, Carl and the squadron boarded the U.S.S. Saratoga as part of the Wake Island relief expedition.  VMF-221 was supposed to be launched from the Saratoga, fly to Wake and help defend the atoll with the remnants of VMF-211, the Wildcat squadron already there.

            Just before the Saratoga came into range of Wake, the operation was canceled.  The frustration the Marines felt was palpable, and on the bridge of the Sara, officers talked openly of disregarding these orders.  Nevertheless, the task force turned around and aborted their mission.  A short time later, the gallant defenders of Wake Island surrendered to overwhelming Japanese forces.

            Instead of going to Wake, Marion Carl and VMF-221 went to Midway Atoll.  There, amongst the gooney birds, the men wallowed in boredom for nearly six months, flying training missions but never sighting the Japanese.

Another shot of Midway Atoll. This is Sand Island.

Midway Atoll. This is Sand Island.

            At the end of May, 1942, Midway received a sudden influx of reinforcements.  They came in drips and dribbles– a few B-17s, a quartet of Marauders from the 22nd Bomb Group, and six TBF Avengers from Torpedo Eight. Having broken the Japanese naval code, JN-25, the Americans knew the Japanese would soon be attacking Midway.  Every available airplane was rushed to the Atoll.

            That attack came on the morning of June 4, 1942.  VMF-221 took to the air in defense of Wake Atoll.  Carl took off with the squadron flying a Grumman F4F Wildcat, one of six the squadron now possessed.  Together with the Buffalos, the Marines were able to put up twenty-five fighters to meet over a hundred Japanese aircraft, all flown by crack veterans of the China Incident, Pearl Harbor and the Ceylon Raid.   The result was a slaughter.  The Zeroes flying cover for the Nakajima B5N Kates and Aichi D3A Vals had  placed themselves too high and too far behind their chargees to prevent the Marines from making one unhindered pass.  The Americans took advantage of the mistake and managed to claw down a couple of bombers before the Zeroes descended upon them in all their fury.  The Brewsters, unmaneuverable and slow, were chopped to pieces by the expert Japanese pilots.


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.

Marine Carl not only held his own, he damaged a bomber before the Zeroes swarmed all over his division.  Climbing out of the fight, he went looking for trouble at 20,000 feet.  In 1992, he recalled to me, “The next thing I knew, I had a Zero on my tail.  I didn’t know he was there until these tracers started going by.  I racked it into a tightest turn I could.  He followed me and made it look easy!  So, I headed for the nearest cloud.  He hit me eight times.”

            Just inside the cloud, Marion cut his throttle and skidded the Wildcat.  When he popped out the other side, he caught sight of the Zero scuttling along below. Marion shoved the stick forward and opened fire at the same time.  The sudden dive jammed all his guns, allowing the Zero to escape.

            After clearing three of his guns, he returned to Midway to discover a trio of Zeroes lagging behind the rest of the strike group.  Carl followed the three Japanese fighters, waiting for his opportunity to strike.  Finally, as one of the three Zeroes began falling behind the others, the Oregonian attacked.  He dove down behind the Zero and opened fire from dead astern.  The Mitsubishi crashed into the water  off the reef that surrounded the atoll.

            It was the first of eighteen kills Marion Carl would claim in two years of combat.

            When he returned to Midway, he discovered that fully half his squadron had been killed in the fight.  In fact, besides his own Wildcat, only one other fighter was operational.  It was a grim introduction to combat.

            Two months later, Carl and VMF-223, his new unit, landed at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal.  Throughout August and September, the gritty Marines fought a desperate battle of attrition in their daily encounters with the Japanese. On August 24, 1942, in the middle of the Battle of Eastern Solomons, Carl and his division intercepted an inbound strike from the Japanese carrier Ryujo.  In the dogfight that followed, the young Oregonian gained credit for downing two Zeroes and two B5N Kates, making him the first U.S. Marine Corps ace.

            Only a few weeks later, the hunter became the hunted.


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Henderson Field, Guadalcanal seen August 22, 1942.


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An F4F scrambles at Henderson Field.

September 9, 1942 was a typical day for the beleaguered American Marines on Guadalcanal. Shortly after 11:00, Australian coastwatchers reported a major Japanese raid headed for Henderson Field (code-named Cactus), the airfield the Marines were doggedly trying to defend. Cactus Control ordered a full-scale scramble as soon as it received news of the impending attack. The pilots of VMF-223 and -224 raced to their fighters, which had been warmed up and ready to go since dawn. Captain Marion E. Carl  was one of the sixteen Wildcat pilots in the cockpit that day. He climbed into his F4F-4, strapped in, and taxied out of the dispersal area. With his stubby fighter now on the runway, he opened the throttle. The Wildcat careened down Henderson Field and bounded into the cloudy skies above Guadalcanal. After Carl took off, one pilot from VMF-224 did not quite make it. He stalled just as he got airborne, and his Wildcat smacked into the ground at the end of the runway. Now there were fifteen Grummans to meet the Japanese attack.

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John L. Smith, Bob Galer (Medal of Honor) and Marion Carl at Guadalcanal.

Though Carl had only been on the island since August 20th, he had already carved a niche for himself in aviation history. Six days after arriving at Henderson Field he had shot down his fifth Japanese plane. In doing so, he became the first U.S. Marine to ever reach acehood. He had continued to add to his score, and only his squadron’s commander, John L. Smith, had any chance of catching his tally. Smith and Carl enjoyed a friendly rivalry, each one determined to leave Guadalcanal with the laurels of top ace status. Carl to this point had remained comfortably in the lead, but the September 9th mission would alter the balance between the two aces.

The Wildcats pointed northward and labored for altitude. For once the Marines had received enough warning to climb above the Japanese bombers. Often, word of an impending attack came too late for the F4F’s to get to a proper intercept altitude. The frustrated pilots would watch the Mitsubishi G4M Betties pass serenely overhead while their Wildcats struggled for altitude thousands of feet below. This time, though, the Marines managed to get to about 23,000 feet before the noontime raid arrived. The raid consisted of two formations; one Vee of G4Ms, and another of escorting A6M2 Zekes. The Zekes trailed behind the bombers, keeping watch over their charges as they shepherded them to the target area.

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A formation of G4M Betty bombers seen later in the war at Okinawa. This is a still image from gun camera film taken by an F6F Hellcat belonging to VF-17.

On this day, the Marines had the altitude advantage. Like the intercept over Midway,  the escorting Zekes were again caught slightly out of position.  Carl led his men to a point about a mile ahead and off to one side of the Vee of Betties. In column formation, the Marines executed 180 degree turns and dropped down on the bombers. With his nose pointed almost vertical, Marion’s Wildcat accelerated to over four hundred miles per hour. He had just enough time to give a Betty a long burst  from his six fifty caliber machine guns as his Wildcat howled through the formation. The fifties stitched the bomber from nose to tail, tearing apart the crew positions.  It fell earthward, mortally wounded.

f4f usmc ii031Engine roaring, Carl swept under the stricken plane, ready to make another  attack on the formation. Using the speed he had gained during his first pass, he zoomed back up above the Japanese and turned to make another overhead run on them. Down he went again, his Wildcat whining furiously as he pushed the nose towards the vertical again.  Guns chattered, tracers flew.  Another Betty dropped out of the formation, victimized by the sharpshooting Oregonian, its engines coughing up great spumes of smoke.

Then, Marion got reckless.

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Another gun camera still from VF-17’s Okinawa dogfight. This Betty was carrying a rocket-powered suicide stand-off bomb called a Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka. It is just visible under the Betty’s centerline.

Carl had limited himself to only one or two passes at the bombers on his previous  intercept missions. After two runs, the Japanese fighter escort usually had enough time to intervene. After his second pass, he would roll inverted and dive for the deck. No Zero could keep up with a Wildcat in a steep dive above 10,000 feet, so the maneuver ensured he would make it back to Henderson to fight another day.

On September 9th, Carl saw no Zeroes, heard no warning calls. He decided to attack the bombers one more time. He climbed back over the Betties, selected one and rolled in on his target.

As he started his run, his F4F suddenly shuddered. Cannon and machine gun strikes rocked the Wildcat, and Carl had no chance to react. A Zero had somehow slipped behind him. In seconds, Carl’s engine exploded in flames. Smoke poured into the cockpit, stinging his eyes and disorienting him. The smoke forced him to open the canopy, which added such drag to the Wildcat that Carl knew he was now a “dead pigeon” for the Japanese pilot behind him.

With the smoke came an intense wave of heat. Later he would recall, “The one way I didn’t want to go was to get burnt, to get fried. I don’t take long to make up my mind on something like that. So I just rolled the [Wildcat] over and out I went.”

Carl had bailed out at about 20,000 feet. By the time his parachute opened, the air battle had passed him by. Not a single aircraft remained in sight. He spiraled downwards in his chute, enjoying a birds-eye view of Guadalcanal and its environs. He landed in the water about a mile off shore.

For several hours, he floated in his Mae West, treading water and trying to prevent the current from dragging him away from shore. He kept his flying shoes on, and held onto his Colt .45, figuring he’d need them when he got ashore. Still, the weight of these burdens tired him out, and he began to lose headway against the current. Before he had bailed out, his face had been slightly burned by the heat in the cockpit, and the wound began to ache.

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A Marine patrol on Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942. After Carl ended up in the water, he faced a challenging trip to get back through Japanese lines to reach the Marine perimeter around Henderson Field.

Fours hours later, a native canoe cut through the choppy waves towards him. Exalted that help had arrived, Carl began to shout out, “American! American! American!” The native wasn’t completely convinced, however, and circled the downed aviator for several minutes before concluding he indeed was an American. He helped Marion climb into the canoe, introduced himself as Stephen, then began to paddle towards shore. He brought Carl to a small native encampment, where he was introduced to a native from Fiji who had been serving as a doctor for the local inhabitants. Corporal Eroni spoke good English, and proved more than willing to help the American get back to Henderson Field.

After trying unsuccessfully to get  back to the perimeter overland, Carl and Eroni decided to go by sea in an  eighteen foot skiff. The small boat was powered by an ancient single cylinder engine which at the moment did not work. Fortunately the resourceful Marine had plenty of experience with small engines, as he had purchased a scooter some months before that had demanded constant mechanical attention. He managed to get the skiff’s engine working after tinkering with it for most of an evening.

That morning, around 4:00 A.M., Carl, Eroni and two other natives set out for Henderson Field. The boat weaved its way along the coast, the two men keeping a sharp watch for any Japanese troops. By 0700, they had reached Lunga Point, where the Oregon Marine splashed ashore to report back for duty.

When Brigadier General Roy Geiger, the commander of the air striking force on Guadalcanal, heard of Marion’s return, he sent for the intrepid Marine immediately. Moments later, Carl stood before him, saluting happily. The two men chatted amiably for a while, then Geiger mentioned that Smith had just shot down his sixteenth plane. With the two Betties he got on the ninth, Carl had only twelve. “What are we going to do about that?” demanded Geiger playfully.

Gdl209 Carl-Smith-Mangrum_

John L. Smith, Dick Mangrum and Marion Carl.

“Goddamnit General, ground Smitty for five days!” Carl replied.

Smith finished the war with 19 kills and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Carl ended his WWII combat career with 18.5 victories.

Word spread quickly throughout VMF-223 that Carl had returned. His comrades were overjoyed to see him, though some were also a little embarrassed. After he went missing, the pilots figured he was gone for good and divided up his possessions. Marion had to spend the day rounding up his personal belongings. Finally, he managed to recover his scooter, his short wave radio and all his other nick-knacks except for a pair of shower shoes. He had kept them carefully under his cot, his name carefully marked on their soles in black, indelible ink. Carl searched high and low, but found no trace of them.

In the late 1950’s Carl was stationed in Headquarters, Marine Corps in Washington D.C. as part of the Commandant’s staff. He’d become a colonel by then and was on track to get his brigadier’s star.

One day, the Marine Corps Commandant, General David M. Shoup, took him aside after a meeting and said to him, “By the way, Marion, I’ve gotta pair of shoes of yours.”

MAS057 Foxhole Henderson Mar43

A Marine dug out at Henderson Field.

Puzzled, the Oregonian asked, “What do you mean you’ve got a pair of my shoes?”

Shoup explained that he’d been serving with a Marine line unit defending Henderson Field that fall. After Marion had gone missing in action, Japanese warships shelled the Marine perimeter. The onslaught had flatted Shoup’s quarters, along with many other tents and structures around the airfield. After the Japanese ships steamed back up the slot, Shoup crawled out of his foxhole and went looking for a place to sleep. He came across Carl’s tent, learned that the Oregonian had been posted missing, and decided to curl up on his cot. In the morning, as he headed back to his regiment, he caught sight of the shower shoes under the cot. He scooped them up, figuring a dead man didn’t need them, and disappeared.

Shoup finished his tale by telling Carl he wasn’t going to give them back. “They’re the luckiest pair of shoes I’ve ever had,” he told Carl. “I credit them for keeping me alive during the war.”

at the waters edge 300 dpi bw

Betio Island, Tarawa, November 1943.

They must have been truly lucky shoes. Shoup carried them in his pack when he hit Beach Red at Betio with the first Marine waves in November, 1943. In the first desperate hours of the invasion, he took command of the Marines clinging to the waterline and led the push inland. His actions that day earned him a Medal of Honor. Later, though assigned as a divisional staff officer, he found his way to the front lines during the Battle of Saipan, where he was trapped in a forward observer’s position for several hours. He later received a Legion of Merit for his role in the Marianas campaign.




David Shoup receives the Medal of Honor at the Navy Department in Washington D.C. on January 22, 1945.

David Shoup, with his family looking on, receives the Medal of Honor at the Navy Department in Washington D.C. on January 22, 1945.


            Marion Carl stayed in the Corps after the Japanese surrender.  As a Marine test pilot, he earned numerous “firsts” in his illustrious career.  Besides being the first Marine ace, he was the first pilot in the Corps to land a jet fighter on an aircraft carrier, and he set a world’s speed record in 1947, going 650.6 mph in a Douglas Skystreak.  Later, he commanded the first jet aerobatics team, was the first military pilot to wear a full pressure suit and in 1986, he became the first living Marine to be enshrined in the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor.  Brigadier General Marion Carl retired on June 1, 1973, with over 14,000 hours in some 250 different plane types, ranging from experimental rocket propelled aircraft to canvas-covered puddle jumpers.  In the course of his thirty-four year career, he earned two Navy Crosses, five DFCs, four Legions of Merit, and fourteen Air Medals.  Not bad for a  small town farm kid.

            In June of 1998, a 19 year old drug addict broke into Marion’s ranch house east of Roseburg, Oregon.  Wielding a shotgun, the intruder wounded Marion’s wife, Edna, with a blast of gunfire.  Hearing the racket, Carl burst out of his bedroom and flung himself in front of his wife, just as the addict pulled the trigger again.  Carl was killed instantly.  He died as he had lived—a true hero whose measure lay not in his many accomplishments, but rather in the size of his enormous heart.f4f usmc airborne034

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The Curious Case of the Ohio National Guard’s 147th Infantry

147th inf Regt Japanese MMG with M1917 30 cal MMG on range at New Caledonia 112444 (1 of 1)

Men of the 147th on a heavy weapons range learning how to fire a captured Japanese Nambu machine gun. The photo was taken on New Caledonia Island in November 1944.

During the Second World War, the Ohio National Guard’s division, the 37th, served in the 1943 Solomons campaign before playing a key role in the liberation of Manila during the 1945 battle for Luzon. The division was one of the only National Guard units to be commanded by the same general through the entire war.

The 37th Infantry Division’s service was exemplary, and its courageous Soldiers earned seven Medal of Honors and a hundred and sixteen Distinguished Service Crosses during its two years in island combat.

Men of the 147th capture a Japanese hold out on Iwo Jima during their three month long ordeal on the volcanic island.

Men of the 147th capture two Japanese hold outs on Iwo Jima during their three month long ordeal on the volcanic island.


37th Inf Div M-4 Sherman and GI's Drive on Manila Luzon Philippines Campaign 01--45 no cap-1

While the 147th Infantry battled against the Japanese on Iwo Jima, the rest of the Ohio National Guard was fighting to liberate Luzon during the 1945 Philippines campaign.

This post is about the division’s lost regiment, the 147th Infantry.  The 37th had been organized as a square division during World War I which meant it had four infantry regiments. The 147th became the odd unit out when the Army reorganized to the triangular division.  In 1942, the 147th was pulled from the 37th. It spent the entire Pacific War as an independent regiment, bouncing from campaign to campaign and doing heavy fighting that has been all but forgotten to history.

To clear the caves and tunnels, the 147th's infantry platoons went into action with an exceptional level of firepower, including extra BAR's, bazookas and flame throwers.

To clear Iwo Jima’s caves and tunnels, the 147th’s infantry platoons went into action with an exceptional level of firepower, including extra BAR’s, bazookas and flame throwers.

The 147th first saw combat on Guadalcanal in 1942-43, taking part in the U.S. Army’s bloody counter-offensive that ultimately forced the Japanese to abandon the island in February 1943. The regiment then pulled garrison duty on Emiru, later serving on Saipan and Tinian in the wake of the Marine Corps’ landings.

147th Inf Regt Flame Thrower Attack on Japanese Cave Iwo Jima Bonin Islands 040845 (1 of 1)

An infantry platoon from the 147th attacking a Japanese-held cave with a flame thrower during a firefight on April 8, 1945–months after Iwo had been declared secure.

In the spring of 1945, the 147th landed on Iwo Jima, ostensibly to perform more garrison duty. Instead, they found themselves locked in a bitter and thankless battle with thousands of Japanese hold-outs waging a desperate guerrilla campaign against the Americans on the island from well-supplied caves and tunnels.

For three months, the regiment slogged across the island, digging out these Japanese with explosives, flame throwers and satchel charges. Some sources credit the regiment with killing at least six thousand Japanese soldiers in those anonymous and merciless small unit actions.

Always serving in the wake of the Marines, the regiment’s service in the Pacific has been virtually lost to history, yet this National Guard unit was the only one in the Army to fighting in the Solomons, the Marianas and Iwo Jima.

I first came across the 147th while scanning photos at the National Archives a few years back. I came across these combat scenes from Iwo Jima and was absolutely stunned to learn the Ohio National Guard had taken part in what is remembered as the quintessential Marine Corps battle.

If anyone has further information about this regiment, please feel free to post. These men need some recognition for what they did during WWII.

147th Inf regt Soldiers Exhausted on March in Burma CBI 120444 (1 of 1)

If being overlooked by history is not painful enough, the Signal Corps also misidentified this group of GI’s in Burma as being part of the regiment. The combat cameraman’s caption says these men belonged to 2nd Battalion, 147th Infantry, and the shot was taken 30 miles behind Japanese lines in Burma following a night patrol on December 4, 1944.


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marine guarding the flag at surabachi773 For 200+ years, our Soldiers from the Sea have guarded the ramparts in the farthest and most remote parts of the planet. Happy Birthday, Marine Corps.


John R Bruning


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New Britain

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USMC Series WWII 1st Marine Div LVT Buffalo Load of Marines HEading for peleliu beach 09--44 (1 of 1)

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August 7, 1942

August 7, 1942: Elements of the 1st Marine Division go ashore at Guadalcanal, sparking a six month campaign that changed the course of the Pacific War.

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The Allied amphibious fleet off Guadalcanal, dawn August 7, 1942.






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Henderson Field, the vital airstrip that became the focal point of the Guadalcanal Campaign, seen on August 22, 1942.


Men of the 7th Marines pushing into the jungle on August 7, 1942.


Categories: World War II in the Pacific | 3 Comments

Seventy Year Homecoming


moh bonnyman718Welcome home, Marines. Seventy-two years late, but better late than never.


Alexander Bonnyman’s Medal of Honor citation:


For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of the 2d Battalion Shore Party, 8th Marines, 2d Marine Division, during the assault against enemy Japanese-held Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, 20–22 November 1943. Acting on his own initiative when assault troops were pinned down at the far end of Betio Pier by the overwhelming fire of Japanese shore batteries, 1st Lt. Bonnyman repeatedly defied the blasting fury of the enemy bombardment to organize and lead the besieged men over the long, open pier to the beach and then, voluntarily obtaining flame throwers and demolitions, organized his pioneer shore party into assault demolitionists and directed the blowing of several hostile installations before the close of D-day.


bonnymans assault at tarawa

Determined to effect an opening in the enemy’s strongly organized defense line the following day, he voluntarily crawled approximately 40 yards forward of our lines and placed demolitions in the entrance of a large Japanese emplacement as the initial move in his planned attack against the heavily garrisoned, bombproof installation which was stubbornly resisting despite the destruction early in the action of a large number of Japanese who had been inflicting heavy casualties on our forces and holding up our advance. Withdrawing only to replenish his ammunition, he led his men in a renewed assault, fearlessly exposing himself to the merciless slash of hostile fire as he stormed the formidable bastion, directed the placement of demolition charges in both entrances and seized the top of the bombproof position, flushing more than 100 of the enemy who were instantly cut down, and effecting the annihilation of approximately 150 troops inside the emplacement. Assailed by additional Japanese after he had gained his objective, he made a heroic stand on the edge of the structure, defending his strategic position with indomitable determination in the face of the desperate charge and killing 3 of the enemy before he fell, mortally wounded. By his dauntless fighting spirit, unrelenting aggressiveness and forceful leadership throughout 3 days of unremitting, violent battle, 1st Lt. Bonnyman had inspired his men to heroic effort, enabling them to beat off the counterattack and break the back of hostile resistance in that sector for an immediate gain of 400 yards with no further casualties to our forces in this zone. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

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Categories: World War II in the Pacific | 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

A Warm Winter Moment on Attu

Men of the 54th Fighter Squadron greet a group of Army nurses on Attu Island during the winter of 1943-44.

Men of the 54th Fighter Squadron greet a group of Army nurses on Attu Island during the winter of 1943-44.


Categories: World War II in the Pacific | 6 Comments

Beer Bombing in B-17’s

b17 buzzing base late 1942 swpa099 5x7Over the years, I’ve come across interesting things American air crews have thrown out of their planes during bombing missions. One of the more famous was a donkey that was a B-17 group’s mascot. They’d picked the donkey up in North Africa and brought it back to England, where the local kids were given rides on it. The donkey kicked the bucket one day, so the guys in the bomb group somehow put it in an NCO’s uniform, gave it a set of dogtags and dropped it over Germany during their next mission. You know that somewhere, in some archive, is a report of finding a flattened, uniformed donkey in some poor German farmer’s field.

In 2010, while I was with TF Brawler at FOB Shank, Afghanistan, I was on a Chinook that was near-missed by an RPG as we were coming into land at COP Tangi. The village by the COP was pretty hostile, and aircraft often took fire getting into that outpost. I wanted to take pee-filled Gatorade bottles and drop them on that village the next time we had to get out to Tangi Valley. Unfortunately, the prudent Chinook company’s commander nixed that idea. Apparently, raining pee down on the populace doesn’t really lend itself to the whole hearts-and-minds thing. Still, it would have been good for morale.IMG_7484

Anyway, I was reminded of that suggestion today while reading through a Boeing tech rep’s report from the SWPA.  He’d been hanging out with the 43rd Bomb Group “Ken’s Men” in Australia and New Guinea, and had written a report home on how the B-17’s were holding up in the tropics. The author of the report, R.L. Stith took detailed notes on what was one of the largest heavy bomber raids launched in the Pacific to date.

On February 13, 1943, the 43rd Bomb Group put aloft thirty-five B-17’s so heavily laden that Stith remarked, “How can one talk balance when they get away with this and worse?” The main force of thirty-three Forts carried sixteen three hundred pound demolition bombs that had been wrapped with wire to create more shrapnel when they detonated. Alongside those three hundred pounders, the ground crews stuffed the bays with sixty incendiary clusters each weighing twelve pounds. In the radio compartments of each plane, four twenty-two pound flares were stashed. And just forward of the waist guns, the Forts carried more than a dozen twenty pound fragmentation bombs. Somehow, another three hundred pounds of emergency gear was stashed throughout the fuselage of each aircraft as well.

5th af series swpa rabaul oct 28 43 411

Rabaul and Simpson Harbor.

The plan called for a night attack on Rabaul with the intent of setting parts of the town afire with the incendiary bombs. The main force would hit the target area sometime after 0300 on February 14th. Two other B-17’s had been assigned to go in ahead of the main force, and it was their load-out that got my attention.

The two B-17s were supposed to keep the Japanese awake and in their slit trenches for hours so that by the time the main effort reached Rabaul, they would be worn out and demoralized. To do this, Stith noted they had been loaded with a mix of incendiary clusters, fragmentation bombs–and beer bottles.5th af b17 at port morebsy 1943 4x6

Americans. Piss us off, and we’ll rain our empties down upon you without remorse. Go us.

5th af series swpa b17 rabaul raid january 43 374I did a double take when I saw that in an official report. Beer bottles? They seriously dropped Coors Light on the Japanese at Rabual?  Then it dawned on me: an empty bottle dropped from 6,000 feet has got to make the mother of all whistling sounds. That kept with the mission profile for those those B-17’s–keep the Japanese awake and in their trenches. The beer bottles were a cheap, field expedient noise maker that didn’t take up much space or weight and could be hurled out of the waist positions at the crew’s leisure. In a theater known for its innovation, this small one was nothing short of brilliant.

That night, the first two Flying Forts reached Rabaul and began trolling back and forth over the target area. Searchlights speared the sky around them, anti-aircraft fire peppered the night’s sky, and the the American pilots changed the pitch on their propellers to maximize their noise signature. They gradually released their bombs. Between them, the beer bottles came shrieking down on the Japanese.

At 0340,  main effort arrived in four waves, flying at altitudes ranging from four to nine thousand feet. Over the next several hours, the 43rd Bomb Group dropped sixty-nine tons of bombs on Rabaul, sparking a massive conflagration among known supply dumps around Rabaul, destroying searchlights, food stockpiles, oil tanks and grounded aircraft. The 3,700 incendiaries dropped on the target created a sea of fire a half mile long and a quarter mile wide. The flames were estimated to be two hundred feet tall, and the plume of smoke from the attack towered ten thousand feet over the target area. The conflagration could be seen from the air for a hundred miles.5th af series swpa rabaul367

Surviving Japanese documents describe the attack as a costly one and very damaging. Some fifteen aircraft were destroyed, as were ammunition dumps and other installations. Total casualties have been lost to history, but the Japanese sources mention a heavy loss of life.

There is no record of their response to the beer bottle barrage, but the attack (and another one the following night) clearly had an impact on the garrison’s morale. Bruce Gamble, in his outstanding work, Fortress Rabual,  notes that one illness-plagued petty officer assigned to Air Group 705 later wrote, “I felt beaten physically and emotionally. I tossed and turned to ease the suffering, but the nightmares kept possessing me with no break.”

One has to wonder if he heard those beer bottles shrieking earthward in his nightmares.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve heard about dropped during a bombing raid?











Categories: Afghanistan, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Cost of a Propaganda Coup

Today is one of those days in American history where a lot of interesting things happened. It is the start of Paul Revere’s ride, the commencement of the bombardment of New Orleans in 1862.  The SF Earthquake of 1906 happened today, as did the Doolittle Raid, the Yamamoto Assassination, the 1986 naval skirmish between the U.S. and the Libyans. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

The Doolittle Raid will probably be the most remembered of today’s many anniversaries. On April 18, 1942, sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet and attacked targets in and around Tokyo. The planes flew on to China (one crew made it to Soviet territory), but were all lost in crash landings or the crews bailed out. To the United States populace, starved for any glimmer of good news, the daring raid was a huge lift to national morale. To the Japanese, it was a tremendous shock to discover they were vulnerable to air attack. Their response was to push forward with the Midway plan–and exact revenge on the Chinese.

Most books and articles written about the Raid don’t talk about that latter reaction. Passing mention is made to the fact of the Japanese retribution in China and how most of the airfields the planes were to use were overrun by Imperial Army troops. The truth is that the Chinese paid dearly for America’s propaganda victory.

In the wake of the attacks, Japanese troops destroyed entire cities–one of more than 50,000 people. They killed, raped and tortured hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians before unleashing bacteriological agents created by Unit 731 upon the surviving population.As a result, cholera and other diseases claimed countless others in the wake of the retribution attacks.

So, today, I want to honor those victims and use my little spot on the web to remind all of us that, while China may be an American economic rival now, our histories are interconnected. The loss of the FilAmerican Army on Bataan was keenly felt in America that April. The Doolittle Raid gave us hope that we could strike back and fight what seemed to many an unstoppable Imperial power. And yet, far more died in China as a result than were captured in the Philippines. Those who so courageously helped our aviators once they were on the ground paid a terrible price. One Chinese civilian was tied up, doused with kerosene and his wife was forced to light him on fire.

For freedom and peace to flourish, those who seek to institutionalize cruelty, who seek to justify barbarism with ideology, must be stopped. World War II taught us that only nations who stand together, put aside their differences and their own faults, can stem that terrible tide. It is a lesson that I wish all our world leaders would remember and take to heart.

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Categories: Allies, World War II in the Pacific | 7 Comments

Marine Mitchells


A Flying Nightmares PBJ airborne over the Solomons in 1944.

Though the exploits of the USAAF’s medium bomb groups in the Pacific are well-documented, much less has been written about the U.S. Marine aviators who flew the Mitchell in combat out there alongside the 5th and 13th Air Force B-25 units.  The Marines deployed seven PBJ Mitchell squadrons to the Pacific during the war, where they arrived first in the Solomon Islands in early 1944. The Flying Nightmares, VMB-413 earned distinction as the first PBJ outfit to enineter combat. Operating against Rabaul and Kavieng against heavy anti-aircraft opposition, the squadron lost twenty-seven men in its first sixty days in combat. Despite the losses, they had pioneered a new attack technique: While the 5th and 13th Air Force B-25’s pounded New Britain and New Ireland during daylight, the Marines of the ‘413 went in at night.

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A daylight raid over Rabaul. 1944

In May 1943, the Nightmares were pulled out of combat and sent back to refit and reform. VMB-423 replaced 413 that month, and they began combat flights almost immediately. One of the PBJ’s that 423 took into battle had been paid for by a war bond subscription campaign started by some school kids in Oklahoma. By the time it was finished, some 35,000 kids had taken part in the effort. The children had all signed their names on a sixty-five foot long scroll that the unit brought with them to the Solomons. On one of the squadron’s first missions, they dropped the scroll on the Japanese during a bombing raid over Rabaul.

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The Oklahoma scroll. Hard to imagine American public schools helping to raise money for combat aircraft today.

More PBJ squadrons arrived in theater during the course of 1944, including VMB-611 which flew its first night raid over Kavieng in November 1944. The following year, most of the PBJ units moved into the Central Pacific and flew from the Marianas, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. VMB-611 went to MAGSZAM–the Marine air formation that supported the Army in the Southern Philippines. VMB-611 under LTC George A. Sarles began flying from Zamboanga, Mindanao in March of 1945. In the two months that followed, they became experts at close air support, blasting targets in front of the 41st Infantry Division and other Army & Filipino guerrilla units fighting to liberate the island from the Japanese.

VMB-611 at Moret Field, Mindanao.

It was an assignment that received little recognition or publicity. The men of 611 flew constantly, wearing themselves and their aircraft out as their attacks helped minimize Allied ground casualties. They flew 173 sorties in two months. At the end of May, Sarles’ and his crew went down during a bombing run over Japanese defensive positions on Mindanao. Though some of his crew escaped the wreckage and made it back to friendly lines, Sarles was killed. During that spring, VMB-611 suffered nine missing or killed in action, nine wounded and lost four aircraft to the intense Japanese ground fire they encountered on nearly every mission.

‘611 at Moret Field, Mindanao.

VMB-611 was not relieved or rotated out of the line to give the crews a break, as had been standard practice in the South Pacific. Instead, they flew continuously in combat until August 1945 when the war ended.

One PBJ pilot noted that in 50 combat missions, he never saw a Japanese plane in the air. That lack of aerial opposition did not mean their task was an easy one. In seventeen months of fighting in the Pacific, the seven PBJ squadrons lost 45 aircraft and 173 men as they carried out some of the most difficult and unheralded aerial attacks of the war against Japan. The constant strain of night attacks and the seemingly never-ending days of flak-filled skies took a psychological toll on all the crews. At night, friends would sortie on heckling missions, only to never return. Their fates remained unknown and are largely lost to history.



Dedicated to reader David Fish, whose father was one of those PBJ crewmembers who went MIA on a mission with VMB-611 in May 1945.

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Forty-two of the fifty members of the Philadelphia South Pacific Club. All hailed from the city of Brotherly Love, and they were by far the largest contingent of men from one spot back home in the Marine Air Groups serving in the 1944 campaign against Rabaul.


Categories: World War II in the Pacific | 7 Comments

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