World War II in the Pacific

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.

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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.

For further reading, please check out:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/untold-story-vengeful-japanese-attack-doolittle-raid-180955001/?no-ist

And Scott’s brand new book can be found here:

http://www.amazon.com/Target-Tokyo-Doolittle-Avenged-Harbor/dp/0393089622/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1429372779&sr=8-1&keywords=target+tokyo

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

Marine Mitchells

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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

The Lost, Last Letter

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A VMSB-231 SBD over Guadalcanal, late 1942.

Frank Christen grew up on a Depression-Era farm just outside of tiny Jerseyville, Illinois, graduating from the high school there in 1938 at age 19. He scraped enough together to continue his education at Washington College in St. Louis, then transferred to the University of Texas at Austin. In June 1941, he enlisted in the USNR and was accepting into the flight training program. He learned to fly at Grand Prairie, Texas and graduated the following year from NAS Corpus Christi on May 20, 1942. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps and assigned to VMSB-142, a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombing squadron.n3n corpus christi color 4x6

While at the University of Texas, Frank had met Ruth Clark of Corning, New York. He and Ruth were married on July 30, 1942 just before he was assigned to NAS Coronado in San Diego.  The couple lived together there in Southern California for a brief few months before Frank shipped out to the South Pacific in early November.

He reached Guadalcanal several weeks later with VMSB-142 while the fighting in the southern and central Solomons still raged fiercely. He twenty-three years old and flung to the farthest reaches of the planet, far from friends and family. Like the others in his squadron, he did his duty to the utmost.

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Guadalcanal.

On December 16, 1942, he was ordered to strike targets around Munda, New Georgia. Four SBD’s took off from Henderson Field, Guadalcanal at 2105 hours. This was Christen’s third combat mission in two days. He’d bombed Munda with his squadron the day before, and attacked a Japanese vessel early that day on the 16th. This was a mixed force of Dauntlesses from both VMSB-132 and VMSB-142.

During the flight through the growing darkness, the formation ran into a rain storm.  Christen and his section leader, Lt. Jackson Simpson, lost the rest of their flight. The other two SBD’s continued on and made a night bombing attack on the Japanese-held airfield at Munda.ijn dd under attack sbd palau 44 300 dpi c

Christen and Simpson discovered a Japanese destroyer in the waters off New Georgia. Christen made the initial run on the destroyer and illuminated it with flares. Fully alerted, the Japanese anti-aircraft crews poured fire up into the night. Simpson rolled in on the ship and scored a direct hit. Christen followed a moment later.

That was the last Simpson saw of the Jerseyville native’s SBD. It vanished in the attack.

Fourteen days later, a War Department telegram arrived at Ruth Clark’s place in Austin and delivered the news that Frank was missing in action. She packed up and headed straight for Frank’s family in Illinois to await further word. Weeks passed. Nothing. At the end of January, she returned to Austin for the next school term.

Months passed without any word. One can only imagine the family’s torment. In August, 1943 Ruth received a letter informing her that Frank had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his attack on the destroyer that night. After that, there was no further word.

sbds iv 300 dpi cin the fall of 1943, Ruth returned to Illinois and spent time with the Christens. Then she went home to Corning to see her own parents. Waiting for her in Texas was a letter from a stranger with an overseas APO address. The day she returned to Austin, she tore it open and read the words every devoted wife longed to read. The letter came from an American serviceman somewhere out in the Pacific who had tuned into a Japanese short wave radio broadcast. The announcer was reading in English the names of Americans captured in the South Pacific. Included in that list was Frank Christen and the Japanese even read out Ruth’s address during the broadcast.  Ruth called Frank’s family in Illinois and related the incredible news.

Three weeks later, the War Department declared him killed in action.

Frank Christen never returned home. His body was never located, and his fate was never learned. There is a plaque honoring him in the MIA section of the American cemetery in Manila, PI.

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An SBD over Guadalcanal late 1942.

 

Today, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Dallas, Oregon and reading through a pile of documents in hopes of finding another story for this website. I tumbled across a translated Japanese report captured in Manchuria in May 1943. It included Frank Christen’s interrogation report. With considerable help from my Marine Corps historian friend, Mark Flowers, we identified Frank (his name was not included in the document, just his date of birth and educational background) and we were able to find out more about his life and last mission.

He’d been shot down during his bomb run over the Japanese destroyer. His SBD crashed into the water and his tail gunner, PFC Glenn Shattuck from Granby, CT, was killed. Though wounded by anti-aircraft shrapnel, Frank got out of the aircraft and discovered the plane’s life raft floating nearby. He inflated it, got in and began rowing toward the nearest island. It was 2300 hours, December 16, 1942.

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Marine Dauntlesses over the Central Solomons.

He paddled ashore and looked for help. Calling out in the night, he failed to find any locals. Concluding that the island was uninhabited, he decided to keep moving.

He set out to sea again in his raft, intending to make it to another nearby island. For 18 hours he bobbed in the waves, paddling as his waning strength allowed. Finally, he made it on the afternoon of December 18th. He came ashore and found some coconuts to eat. Not long after, two Japanese soldiers walked out of the jungle and spotted him. They ordered him to surrender, but he bolted and ran.

A search ensued. Later that day, the Japanese found Frank high in a large tree next to the island’s jetty.

He surrendered and was taken to Rabaul, New Britain and interrogated. Christen was asked about his family–he had five brothers and two sisters–where he attended school, how he joined the Marine Corps and even what he thought of African-American military personnel.

The interrogation was thorough and probably brutal. He was asked about the number of aircraft at Guadalcanal, the performance and bomb loads of his SBD Dauntless. He was asked about the resentment between Marines and the Army, and about the morale of the forces on Guadalcanal in general. He answered the questions.

At one point, his captors wanted to know what Americans thought of the Japanese. He answered honestly: that he and his comrades had little understand or knowledge of Japan before the war. After Pearl Harbor, they had no doubt the United States would prevail. But then, in the South Pacific, they discovered the true strength of the Japanese. He felt that America had completely underestimated the power and capabilities of the Japanese Navy.

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Rabaul under 5th Air Force B-25 attack, March 1944. Most of the POW’s at Rabaul did not survive the war.

Toward the end of the interrogation, Frank was asked if he’d seen any Japanese prisoners of war himself while on Guadalcanal. He told them that there were a few kept near Lunga Point. One Japanese soldier was captured after he’d been badly wounded. The Marines had taken him to an aid station, where a doctor had been working on him. The soldier had not been properly searched, and while on the table, he pulled out a grenade and detonated it, killing himself and the doctor trying to tend to his wound. The interrogation report added, “In general as soon as a Japanese soldier is captured, he commits suicide. For this reason, it seems that there are only a few PW’s.”

After the pulled all the information they could out of Frank Christen, he asked if he could write a letter home to his wife. His captors agreed and promised him they would deliver it.

It never reached Ruth.

I read the brief letter today seventy-three years after this scared, traumatized young American wrote it and I wondered if there is still anyone out there who loved him and would want to see it. So, in case there is, here it is.  The last letter home of an American doomed to die as a prisoner of war somewhere in the South Pacific.

To My Beloved Wife,

I am writing you a short note to let you know that I am a Prisoner of War. They (The Japanese Army) are hoping that this letter will be able to reach you, and I of course am hoping this reaches you. Please let my mother know as soon as possible. You can send me packages through the International Red Cross.

They (The Japanese Army) are very kind to me. You will undoubtedly hear many things, but don’t ever believe them. I was injured by shrapnel but it was mostly a case of fright.

I must close now. I love you. I will be able to return when this war is over. My love for you will never change.

Frank

 

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Please forward this story far and wide. Share it on as many forums and sites you can think of so, if Ruth is still alive, we can get her Frank’s final words.

 

Thank you,

 

John R Bruning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: The Missing, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The Crusaders

The 42nd Bomb Group served as the only B-25 Mitchell outfit in the Thirteenth Air Force during World War II. Going into combat in the Solomon Islands in the summer of 1943, the Crusaders took part in the drive to Bougainville and the isolation of Rabaul. After that campaign, the Thirteenth Air Force moved to New Guinea and became part of FEAF. The 42nd finished the war operating in the Southern Philippines and supporting not only the ground effort there, but also the invasion of Borneo in the Dutch East Indies.

Check out A. Gray’s page: http://waynes-journal.com/about/ for a look into the the day-to-day life of a 42nd Bomb Group tail gunner. It is a terrific site that gives you remarkable insight into the experiences of our American aviators in the SWPA during the war.

In honor of A. Gray and his remarkable website, I’ve posted some photos of the group that I’ve collected over the years:

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A B-25 crew from the 42nd practices skip bombing at New Caledonia in the summer of 1943.

 

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Colonel Harry Wilson in the cockpit of his 42nd Bomb Group B-25 at Guadalcanal, 1943.

 

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A dramatic shot of the 42nd during a bombing raid on Bougainville in the fall of 1943.

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The Crusaders operating from Munda FIeld, New Georgia during the climactic battles for the Northern Solomons in the fall of 1943.

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The Crusader’s flight line at Cape Sansapor, New Guinea.

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A 42nd Bomb Group Mitchell roars off target during a low-altitude strike against Sandakan, Borneo in the summer of ’45.

 

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A 42nd Bomg Group B-25 crew gets into their life raft after ditching off Zamboanga, Mindanao in 1945.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: World War II in the Pacific | 18 Comments

The Toy Salesman

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Chinese troops in action against the Japanese Army. The fighting had raged in China for almost five years when Prisoner 529 joined his cavalry brigade there.

On July 7, 1944, an emaciated, fever-wracked twenty-three year old Japanese aviator crept into an Allied camp near Maffin, New Guinea in search of food.  He’d been part of about three thousand survivors of the 6th Flying Division, based at Hollandia who had tried to escape the Allied cordon through a torturous overland retreat to Sarmi. For most who set out on this desperate bid for survival, the trek became a death march. Disease, starvation and hostile New Guineans thinned the ranks, and the weak were left behind.

Though his name has been lost to history–we’ll call him Prisoner #529, the five foot four native of Okayama-Ken was one of the lucky few who fell into American hands and survived that crucible in the jungle.

Grateful for food and decent treatment, he spoke freely to the Japanese-Americans who interrogated him after his capture. 529 had been fortunate to have finished twelve years of education, the last three at a commercial school that proved to be a stepping-stone to his first career. He became a wholesale toy salesman until he was conscripted into the Japanese Army at age 20. AS he was leaving to report for duty, his mother wished him farewell with one final order: at all costs, do not allow yourself to be captured.

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Chinese troops man a .30 caliber machine gun.

He was called up at Osaka, where with several hundred other conscripts, he was put on a ship and sent to Korea. From there, they were put on trains to northern China and assigned to the Sakuma Cavalry school for basic training. The cavalry was considered one of the elite arms of the Japanese Army, and Prisoner #529’s intelligence and education probably earned him that coveted slot.

It was hard transition going from the toy business to the cavalry, to say the least. The training was brutal and very intense. He was beaten almost every day, and once his jaw was so badly injured he could barely move it for a week. Another time, three of his squad mates were caught violating rules and the entire squad was assembled and forced to beat each other. Prisoner #529 was slapped by officers, hammered across the back with a wooden cane, whipped with belts and beaten with shoes. Most of the time, 529 felt the punishments were wanton, cruel and unjust. He and his fellow recruits were beaten whether they had did anything wrong or not. Sometimes, infractions were fabricated to justify otherwise inexcusable beatings.

After he told his interrogators about the physical abuse, he added that at times it did work. After all, it “knocked the sloppiness” of the men.

Later that spring, he was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Brigade’s Koike Regiment. One day, #529 and twenty-four other fresh-faced replacements reported for bayonet training near Kitoku, China. When they assembled, five Chinese prisoners were led out to the training ground. Hands bound and blindfolded, their Japanese guards gave them each a drink of water and a cigarette.

Then Colonel Koike ordered the new recruits to bayonet the prisoners.

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Bayonet training with live Chinese POW’s was not uncommon during the war. Some twelve million Chinese were killed between 1937-45.

529 had never killed before. He watched as his fellow replacements took turns bayoneting the Chinese prisoners and was deeply moved by the stoic calm of their victims. They didn’t scream, and remained steady and courageous until the end. And the end was not always very fast. Those who survived the initial bayonetings were stabbed repeatedly as each replacement took his turn. The Toy Salesman took his turn with the bayonet, too. Later, he told his interrogators that no Japanese Soldier could have match the quiet resolve of the five Chinese prisoners killed that day.

That moment in Kitoku was a turning point for 529. His quiet life back home spent trying to bring a little happiness into the lives of children was forever behind him. In the months ahead, he watched as his unit and others beheaded and bayoneted Chinese prisoners and those suspected of anti-Japanese activities. Such episodes were common.

In January 1943, he transferred out of the cavalry brigade and joined the 41st Division at Soken (still in Northern China). He remained there for only a short time before being ordered to New Guinea.  On May 1, 1943, he reached Wewak in the Zuisho Maru (which would be torpedoed and sunk a few months later off the Borneo coast by the American submarine Ray).

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A Kawasaki Ki-48 “Lilly” found at Clark Field, Philippines, spring 1945.

From the cavalry to the infantry and now in New Guinea, Prisoner 529 became an aerial gunner. He went through a crash, ten week course at Hollandia before joined the 208th Sentai, a Kawasaki Ki-48 “Lilly” medium bomber regiment.

It was at Hollandia he came to realize the hopelessness of Japan’s situation in New Guinea. He’d gone to China, an eager and willing recruit. who viewed the war as a titanic clash between races. He was anxious to prove himself and serve his country in this epochal moment in history. Even the atrocities to which he bore witness and participated in during his time in China did not diminish that sentiment. When he received orders to the Southwest Pacific Area, he looked forward to carrying his nation’s flag to new, exciting and distant places.

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The nose gun mount in a Ki-48. Prisoner 529 told his interrogator that the mount was so restrictive that it only had a 45 degree field of fire.

In New Guinea, the constant air attacks, the lack of supplies and rare mail deliveries drove that eagerness out of him. The war devolved into a bitter struggle for survival on an alien island while increasingly surrounded by Allied forces. Disease became an ever present enemy. The men cleared brush from around their quarters in hopes of deterring insects and slept under mosquito nets at night. During Allied air raids, they would take to their bomb shelters wearing nets over their heads and gloves. To stave off malaria, the men took daily doses of both quinine and atebrin. Despite their best efforts, the men were plagued by tropical infections and fungus. By early 1944, almost everyone in 529’s squadron suffered from ringworm and other skin diseases.

529’s squadron included fifteen Ki-48 Lilly’s, fifteen pilots and radio operators, sixty gunners and about a hundred and twenty ground crewmen. The regiment had forty planes total, half of which were destroyed in a series of Allied raids in the spring of 1944 at both Wewak and Hollandia.

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The dorsal gunner’s position in a Ki-48.

While other Ki-48 units had new models with heavier armament, the 208th’s planes were equipped with only five machine guns–one 7.9mm in the nose, another in the ventral position, a pair of 7.7mm waist guns and a single 13mm for the dorsal gunner. That latter position was a tricky one, and the gunners had gone through extra training for it since it was very easy to accidentally shoot the tail off. Prisoner 529 had been told cautionary tales of dorsal gunners who sawed their vertical fins and rudders off in their eagerness to hit an incoming enemy fighter. The result was usually fatal.

During daylight missions, the 208th flew with five men in each aircraft: a pilot (who also doubled as navigator), a radio operator, waist gunner, nose and dorsal gunners. The radioman also manned the ventral gun. At night, they left the waist gunner on the airfield and flew with four. They had no trained bombardiers ala the USAAF. Usually, either the pilot or the nose gunner would toggle the aircraft’s six 50 kg bombs that composed its normal load out. Exactly who did that was left to the individual crews to decide, but usually the senior or more experienced man got the job.

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A 5th Air Force P-39’s gun camera film records the final moments of a KI-48. The radio operator’s ventral gun position can be seen under the fuselage.

To increase the Lilly’s range, the 208th Sentai’s bombers had an additional fuel tank mounted inside the fuselage in front of the radio operator’s seat. Three feet long, three feet high and about twenty inches wide, it was not armored and not self-sealing. This meant a single bullet strike could have ignited the tank, bathing the radio operator in flaming gasoline.

On missions, the 208th carried out most of its attacks at between ten and twelve thousand feet. On a few knuckle-biting ones, however, the crews used their Ki-48’s like dive bombers, nosing over and making steep angle descents to three thousand feet before pickling their loads.

Mission briefings were far more informal than in the USAAF. Usually, the squadron commander would select the aircraft and crews the night before the attack. In the morning, just before take-off, the aviators would be given the target, the approach to it and any special instructions specific to the mission. When they returned, each plane captain would give an oral report to the squadron commander.

Intelligence on the Allies was minimal and very restricted. Prisoner #529 rarely even saw a map while he was in New Guinea, as those were reserved for the officers. Most of the time, they did not even know what their targets looked like.

5th af raid on lilly bombers hollandia 44 4x6

Ki-48’s under parafrag attack by 5th Air Force B-25’s. Hollandia, spring 1944.

To #529, defeat looked inevitable. Yet, he also believed that no matter what followed, the Japanese people would fight to the last man, and woman.

During the spring of 1944, Allied air attacks repeatedly struck the 208th airfields at both Hollandia and Wewak. At Hollandia, the raids seemed particularly accurate, as if the Allies knew the exact location of every building, revetment and aircraft. (Thanks to the 5th Air Force’s reconnaissance efforts, they did). By April, every facility on the strip at Hollandia had been bombed to splinters, though the 208th did not lose many men in these attacks thanks to the many shelters and slit trenches constructed for them.

The B-25 Mitchell was particularly feared.  Racing in at low altitude with their nose guns blazing, dropping parafrags in their wake, these American bombers destroyed fuel dumps, blew up grounded aircraft, wiped out anti-aircraft positions and terrified all those exposed to their strafing. With eight to twelve .50 caliber machine guns in the nose of each B-25, the gunships were devastating weapons.

sallies at hollandia

Another Ki-48, along with the wrecks of Ki-21 “Sally” bombers at Hollandia.

The 5th Air Force’s B-24’s were also greatly feared. Though they made their attacks from higher altitudes, their accuracy astonished the Japanese. The 208th concluded that the Liberators had to have had bomb sights far superior to what Japan had produced.

In April 1944, the Allies launched a surprise amphibious invasion at Hollandia. The  Oregon and Washington National Guard division, the 41st, quickly stormed ashore and secured the airfields there. There were few Japanese combat troops in the area, and Prisoner 529 fled into the jungle with the rest of his unit when the landings began.

Chased by American patrols, without food or good weapons or supplies of any kind, the three thousand survivors from 529’s air division attempted to make it to Sarmi, a small Japanese outpost on the coast, some one hundred fifty miles west of Hollandia. For months, the survivors plodded through the jungle, only to discover the Americans had outflanked them again at Wakde and Maffin Bay. The altogether, there were probably about twenty thousand Japanese on this trek for survival, including the remains of the 224th Infantry Regiment.

In mid-June, a battle raged for almost two weeks around a six thousand foot tall mountain overlooking Maffin Bay. Known as the Battle of Lone Tree Hill, the Japanese lost over a thousand men in direct combat with the Americans—and at least another eleven thousand to starvation. Afterwards, the Japanese retreating from Hollandia had little hope left. With Americans behind them, the ocean to their right flank, the inhospitable mountains on their left, they’d come through the jungle only to find the path ahead firmly in American hands.

5th af raid on hollandia april 44 4x6

The 5th Air Force raids on Wewak and Hollandia between August 1943 and the spring of 1944 broke the back of the Japanese Army Air Force. Most of its units in the SWPA were completely wiped out, with few of the air or ground crews escaping to fight another day.

The survivors scattered, breaking into small groups to forage for food and try to find some friendly garrison to join. Most died of disease or starvation. Some resorted to cannibalism, preying on other Japanese or on local New Guinea natives.

Prisoner #529 remained in the Maffin Bay area after Lone Tree Hill ended, hoping to steal food from an American encampment. Instead, he was caught and captured, a source of utter humiliation to him. He felt he’d let his mother down, and that if he were to ever return to Japan, he would be court-martialed for allowing himself to become a prisoner. To his surprise, he found Americans to be jovial and mostly friendly toward him. In training, he had been told the Americans would kill him if he ever surrendered. Instead, he found them “outgoing, liberal and happy.”

After reconciling himself with his situation, his sense of humiliation at his capture gradually drained away. He began to dream of life post-war, and he hoped that he could settle in Australia and become a farmer.

Of the 250,000 Japanese troops, aviators and sailors sent to New Guinea during the war, less than 15,000 survived the war and returned to Japan. In 1949, eight Japanese hold-outs were discovered living in a village a hundred miles from Madang, New Guinea. They surrendered and returned to Japan in February 1950, possibly the last survivors from the New Guinea campaign to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: America's Opponents; The View from the Other Side, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Writer Private Legg

Bataan Death MarchPrivate First Class John Legg grew up in Tioga, West Virginia, another of Depression Era kid who sought escape and opportunity through service to his country. He joined the Army Air Force, where he was trained to be a teletype operator and clerk.

On December 8, 1941, Legg was stationed at Nielson Field on Luzon, Philippines, and might have been one of the clerks who sent the teletype warning to Clark Field that it was about to be hit by a Japanese air attack. Legg was an aspiring writer who wanted to pen a novel about the Philippines. His experiences there had given him much inspiration, and he’d been keeping notes for what he hoped would be his first book. In his off-duty hours, he wrote poetry as well.

He was not a rifleman; he was not a special operations sniper. Legg was one of those anonymous young Americans who carried out one of the mundane daily duties that keeps a military organization functioning. The jobs have zero glamour, and historians rarely even make mention of their jobs, let alone those who filled them. Legg was captured when the Philippines fell in the spring of 1942. He survived the Death March and made it to Cabantuan prison camp, but the ordeal had wrecked his health. He steadily declined, suffering from dysentery and malaria until he died on August 16, 1942.

His mother was notified via telegram the following year of his death. A short letter followed the telegram a week later. It ended with this sentence:

“May the thought that he gave his life for his country as unselfishly and heroically as if he had died on the field of battle, be a source of sustaining comfort to you.”

Small comfort to a West Virginia mother who would not even learn of the exact date of her son’s death until 1946.

John Legg had a writer’s eye and heart. In On Writing, Stephen King wrote that most people either are born with the talent and it can be honed, or they just don’t have it. No amount of effort or work can replace that innate gene that makes a truly gifted writer. Legg was one of those who had the innate talent.

The world lost a beautiful mind when he died in captivity. Had he lived and realized his potential, one wonders how his words could have affected and changed those who read them. His death was but a tiny piece of a mosiac that stretched the globe. So much lost potential. So many discoveries, inventions, changes and art lost to all of us with the deaths of so many souls. One wonders how much further we could have advanced and evolved as a species had we not lost so many millions like young John Legg.

Only a few examples of his talent survive. Here is one of his poems that he wrote sometime in 1941 while feeling far from home out on the edge of America’s Pacific ramparts.

 

Dreamer’s Haven

Beyond the fields of clover bloom

Beyond wheat fields so green

Far past the dust of traveled roads

Where travelers all convene.

Where we hear not the rattling wagon

The hum and grind of the mill

There is a place, known just to me

Where everything is still

A path lies winding through the woods

And leads to a sheltered grove

Of maple, beech, dogwood and pine

That form a shaded cove.

Within, a space is almost bare

Of briars and vines that creep

And here a carpet of flowers and moss,

Lies green, and soft, and deep.

A sparkling spring from an unknown depth

Flows upward;  in it one finds

A thirst consoling, icy draft

Sweeter than goblets of wine.

The silence is unbroken here

Hour after hour the same

Unless a bird calls to its mate

Or a tree frog croaks for rain.

In this shaded cover, one soon may be

In the peace of contentment, the best

And knowing there is naught to harm

One may think, or in sleep, on may rest.

In the stillness one’s thoughts often wonder

To things gone behind, far away.

One remembers some happenings of life,

With gladness, and others….dismay.

Your dreams are made real by surroundings,

You picture a castle so fair

And awake to find sad disappointments,

In that your dreams vanished in air.

And then one may just sit and gaze

Into the sky, so far away, so blue.

And think how happy you would be

If only your dreams could come true.

If you are sometimes tired of life,

When friends forget, and there seems

To be no joy, break away and come

To the woodland cove, and dream.

 

–PFC John M. Legg

Categories: World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mysterious Major Stevenot

Stevenot (at right) in 1917 with the son of the first Philippine President.

On Sunday December 7, 1941, a dapper, fiftysomething American businessman climbed into Philippine Air Lines’ only Beech Staggerwing for an unusual charter flight from Manila’s Nieslon Field to a remote jungle airstrip in southeastern Luzon.  Joseph Stevenot was a legend in the Philippines by this time. Born in 1888, he played a pioneering role in the development of aviation in the Philippines just after the Great War. He’d served in the National Guard and ran the Army’s aviation section on Luzon. Later, he became Curtiss’ tech rep in the Far East and established a flying school under the company’s auspices. He and one other American trained the first Filipino military aviators, flew the first aircraft into Cebu (it was a mail run) and pioneered many other aspects of aviation in the Philippines.

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The box the PAL Staggerwing came in. It had been Andres Sorianos’ private aircraft through the 1930’s, and Paul Gunn had come out to Manila to be his personal pilot in 1939. Later, Sorianos and his business partners established Philippine Air Lines, and Paul Gunn was hired to be its operations manager.

In the 1920’s, he helped consolidate the many different telephone companies in the Philippines into one corporation, and he became the vice president of operations for Philippine Long Distance Telephone and Telegraph (PLTD). He made many friends in high places, and his family’s connections back in California also played a role in his many successful business ventures, including a mine operation company he started in the 1930’s. He hailed from one of the wealthiest families of the Sunshine State, where one of his brothers was perhaps the most successful hotel owner of his era and another was a senior executive with Bank of America.

He was known as a bon vivant, charming and charismatic. He moved easily through Manila’s high society, where his comings and goings were reported by the local press. In 1936, he was one of seven men who officially established the Boy Scouts of the Philippines, and he took an interest in scouting through the next five years.

PAL

The PAL hangar at Nielson Field, the Staggerwing at right.

In July 1941, Stevenot was back in Washington D.C., and he met with Secretary of War Henry Stimson to urge him to build a closer relationship with the commanders in the Philippines. He advocated for a higher defense budget for the islands as well on other occasions.

Through all his entrepreneurial efforts, he remained an Army reservist. He’d been a major for almost twenty years as he built out his life in Manila.

In the fall of 1941, Stevenot and PLTD played a key role in the development of the USAAF’s air defenses in the Philippines. Radar sets had just started arriving in the the islands, but it would be months before radar coverage would be anywhere near adequate. To spot incoming Japanese aircraft, a broad network of aerial observers was established, similar to what the British had during the Battle of Britain in 1940. These posts were scattered all over Luzon and manned mainly by Filipinos. Stevenot oversaw the construction of the phone lines that tied all this vital network into the air plotting center that had just been built at Nielson Field that fall.

On December 7th, Stevenot flew in the PAL Beech to a tiny jungle airstrip right on the water at Paracale, a tiny mining community a hundred and twenty miles southeast of Manila. Paul “P.I.” Gunn piloted the Staggerwing that day right into a raging storm that had turned the Paracale area into a sea of mud. When they touched down there, the Beech was damaged beyond local repair. Parts were later brought out to it, the plane repaired and flown back to Manila.

The next morning, Monday December 8, 1941, Paul Gunn learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor and made an epic trek back to Manila by boat, train and bus in order to be with his family. But Stevenot stayed behind at Paracale for almost a week.

What was the sixtysomething businessman doing out there on the coast that was so important Paul Gunn had to fly him through a near-monsoon to get him there?macarthur in the philippines just before pearl harbor867 8x10

As I’ve been writing the initial chapters of Indestructible, my biography of Paul “Pappy” Gunn, Stevenot’s trip has both fascinated and  frustrated me. His letters archived at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA., make no reference to that trip. He just wrote his family that he was doing interesting stuff that he couldn’t talk about.

There were a series of gold mines at Paracale that I thought may have been the reason for the trip out there. The PAL Beech made weekly runs to the strip there to carry out about 125 lbs of gold per flight, but making that trip on a Sunday in terrible weather seemed unlikely . Perhaps Stevenot had a crisis he needed to handle at one of the mines his company operated? Nope. I tracked down the ownership and operating companies of those mines and discovered that none of them were run or owned by Stevenot’s corporation. His mining operations were all further south.

Bataan 1942783Then I made a startling discovery. The USAAF had sent a detachment from an early warning company out to Paracale, by ship to establish two radar sites in the area. One was supposed to be a permanent facility using an SCR-271 radar that had arrived in the Philippines that October. The other was a mobile set similar to the one seen in the movie Tora Tora Tora.

The men in that detachment were unhappy campers. When they reached Paracale, there were no facilities of any kind for them. They’d basically been thrown out on the edge of nowhere without any logistical support, or even a place to stay. The NCO’s were able to find a partially empty warehouse, and the men ended up calling that home for the next several weeks. Meanwhile, the det commander, a brilliant electronics specialist named Lt. Jack Rogers, bunked down in one of the mining company’s club houses. That was relative luxury compared to what the men were dealing with, and that caused a lot of internal rancor that lingered for decades.

Stevenot was not only a telephone and telegraph expert, but he’d overseen the construction of teletype networks and radio telephone facilities all over the Philippines. He’d set up the first trans-Pacific phone line to the the United States, and in the early 30’s he’d made headlines when he and eleven of his  family members carried on a party line phone conversation from all over California and Manila.

In short, Stevenot was an expert in modern communication systems.

Rogers’ air warning det had taken the mobile radar set, an SCR-270, and dragged it up the side of steep mountain overlooking the water outside of Paracale. They’d set it up and got it running on December 6th, but only Rogers knew anything about how to use it. The men were so untrained that later they missed the signature of a B-17 coming over them en route to Legaspi. Only when it buzzed right over their heads did they learn of its presence in their airspace. They’d also had no time to calibrate the fussy electronics, which made it virtually useless even with operators who knew how to make it work.SCR-270-NavalPostGrad-

There was no phone lines tying the mobile site to the plotting center at Nielson. All communication from Paracale to their chain of command back around Manila was conducted by radio, which problematical thanks to the rugged mountains in the area.

The SCR-271 set was supposed to be the basis of a permanent air warning site, but it had not been uncrated by December 8th when the Japanese attacks began. But, all the sites were supposed to be tied into Nielson via the same sort of phone adn teletype network the observer stations and other bases used.

Paracale did have phone service, so Stevenot was probably out there on December 7th to check out the new det and figure out ways to get better commo to their mountainous post.

Of course, it was too little, too late. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that Monday Philippines time, and by lunch, Clark Field lay under a towering cloud of smoke and flames. Stevenot stayed at Paracale and even reported (by phone) sighting a Japanese invasion force off shore on December 13th.

Lt. Rogers’ det was ordered back to Manila after the Japanese landed in Southern Luzon. Much of the equipment was lost–abandoned or blown up as the Japanese approached, and several members of the det were either killed in action or were separated from their brothers and ended up fighting on as guerrillas. The rest made it back to Manila in time to retreat into Bataan. Those who survived the next four months endured the Death March, captivity and the Hell Ships. bataan death march326

Stevenot returned to MacArthur’s headquarters and retreated to Corregidor with the general’s staff at the end of December. He arrived on the Rock with a big box labeled “Signal Corps Tubes.” Actually, the box was full of good hooch, which General Charles Willoughby never forgot. In his post-war memoirs, Willoughby wrote about Stevenot busting out shots of his good stuff whenever morale was down or the FilAmerican Army had suffered another bad day.

Meanwhile, Stevenot kept a direct line open from the Manila switchboard to the yacht basin on the Rock. He would go down there and talk to his fearless employee, a female operator, who used the line as a way to eavesdrop on Japanese military conversations. After taking Manila, the senior Japanese officers used the phone system like anyone else, and those conversations yielded a gold mine of intelligence until February 1942. By then, word of how the Japanese were treating the local Filipino population had reached MacArthur’s staff, and Stevenot decided he couldn’t keep endangering his employee. He’d learned that a niece of his in Manila had been seized and tortured by the Japanese in an effort to get her to reveal Stevenot’s location, and that might have contributed to his caution in this case.

Bataan us troops surrendered 4x6Stevenot remained on the Rock until almost the very end. But after MacArthur made it to Australia, he personally ordered Stevenot out on one of the last submarines to reach Manila Bay. He was evacuated just before the Japanese landed on Corregidor in May.

He served through 1942 and the spring of 1943 throughout the SWPA, never revealing to his family what role he was playing on behalf of MacArthur’s GHQ. He was promoted to LTC then full bird colonel. In June 1943, he died in a plane crash in the New Hebrides Islands. MacArthur wrote a personal letter of condolence to his widow.

Despite searching through the GHQ records at the MacArthur Memorial, I’ve been unable to determine exactly what Colonel Joseph Stevenot was doing for the U.S. Army in 1941-43. Lists of officers and their official positions do not include him. Yet, the Japanese knew who he was and were anxious to find him. Whether it was for his role as a civilian senior executive, or for his military role remains a mystery, as does so much of his last two years of life. Whatever the case, MacArthur deemed him an essential officer who could not be allowed to fall into Japanese hands. And the Japanese considered him so important they tortured at least one woman to try and locate him.

So, I thought I’d do this: If anyone has any further information on Joseph Stevenot, I would love to hear from you. While he is just a passing character in the book I’m writing, his fascinating life and accomplishments have become of great interest to me. In the meantime, he’ll remain the mysterious major of Indestructible‘s early chapters.

John R. Bruning

Categories: World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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