Avenger Pilot

IMG_0022Stewart Bass was born on May 25th, 1921 at Stevensville, Montana, in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley.Stew Bass went to   school in Stevensville and after high school, learned to fly Piper Cubs by way of the Navy V-5 program.    In 1941, Stew’s draft number   was coming up so he applied for both the Army and Navy aviation   programs.  One day he was accepted into the Navy and the next day the Army confirmation came.  Stew thought about it and decided he better go with the Navy.  If he failed Army flight training, he may end up as a ground pounder.  If he failed Navy training, on the other hand, he at least would end up serving on a ship.Stew went to pre-flight school at St. Mary’s College in California for three months of intense classroom studies.  Then he went to intermediate and advanced flight training in Pasco Washington, Naval Air Station, where he flew the N2S Steerman and SNJ Texan training planes.After that, Stew went to Corpus Christi, Texas, for advanced training and graduated as an Ensign and received his wings as a Naval Aviator in Oct. of 1943.  It was here that he was assigned to the Grumman TBF-1 Avenger and started training for combat.  The Avenger had an internal torpedo bay that   could carry a 13 ft. 2200lb torpedo or 1000lb to 100lb bombs as well as   rockets under the wings.  It had a 50 cal. Machine gun in each wing and a 50 cal. in a rear turret.  It also had a 30 cal. protruding under the rear of the plane in the radio compartment.    Stew loved flying the Avenger.    It was slow compared to the fighters and was called the “Turkey” by the other pilots.  The Avenger did its   job well and was a very tough airplane.    The Avenger carried a crew of three; pilot (who sighted and released the torpedoes, bombs and handled the two wing guns), gunner and radio/spotter man.Stew flew and got used to handling the Avenger at several bases on the west coast.Stew then went down to Okinaka, near Jacksonville, Florida.    It was here that he started practicing carrier operations.  They had built an airstrip out in the swamps that had a moat around it filled with water that served as a stationary flight deck.  12 pilots would fly out with 6 planes.  First one pilot would do   several landings and takeoffs by direction of a landing signal officer using   signal flags, then they would change off and the other pilot would do his.  Stew had finished a series of takeoffs and landings, and switched with the other pilot so he could do his.  Stew was down in the “tunnel” of the Avenger when it took off.  The plane had just cleared the ground at full power when the prop shaft failed.  The Avenger come down hard and hit the bank of the moat and bounced across the water and crashed into the sugar pines on the other side, tearing the wings off.    The 30 cal. machine gun in the rear of the tunnel flew off its mounting and smashed into the radio over Stew’s head, just missing him.  Stew smelled gas and struggled out of the plane along with the other pilot, fearing the wrecked plane may explode.  It was at this time that Stew realized he had a badly injured foot and ankle.    The other pilot escaped with scrapes and bruises.Stew ended up recovering for two and a half months in a Navy hospital, his foot and ankle had been severely broken.  All the other pilots Stew had been training with went on and were assigned to units headed for combat in the Pacific.

After his recovery, Stew trained some more in Florida.  Finally he was assigned to a training unit based in Glenville, Illinois and practiced carrier operations on a small training carrier in Lake Michigan.

After the invaluable training he received in Illinois, Stew was finally assigned to Air Group 9, a veteran unit just back from operations in the Pacific.  Stew ended up with Air Group 9 at Pasco, Washington, where he previously had done his air training.  Air Group Nine (consisting of TBM Avengers, SB2C Helldivers and F6F Hellcat fighters) was reorganizing with new crews being assigned.  More training was in store for Stew with this unit at several other bases on the west coast.  Stew had his permanent crew assigned to him, Howard Wrede was his gunner and Elmer Fenzau, his radio operator.  Finally personal of Air Group 9 was sent to Hawaii on a carrier full of men and cargo.    More training was in store for them in Hawaii, practicing night operations.  From here they were loaded on a jeep carrier and taken to the Admiralty Islands in the South Pacific.  They were unloaded at a small island called   Ponam for several more weeks of training.

Air Group 9 started its tour aboard the Lexington and participated in missions attacking small Japanese held islands in the area, then the Lexington, along with numerous other carriers and support ships, steamed toward Japan.

 

On February 16th 1945, Stew flew a major combat mission over none other than Japan proper and Tokyo.  This mission was part of the first naval strike against Tokyo from a carrier force.  Air Group Nine hit an aircraft factory just   inland from Tokyo.  This combined strike was done to minimize opposition to the Iwo Jima landings on Feb 19th.  The Avenger was designed as a torpedo bomber to be used against ships but they mostly carried bombs.  Almost all the missions Stew flew was carrying conventional bombs against ground targets (as they did in Tokyo) and for bombing enemy supply ships.  After the Tokyo strikes, the Lexington sailed for Iwo Jima and Air Group 9 participated in strikes supporting the landings, Feb. 19 to 22.  Air Group 9 then flew further strikes against the Japanese home islands, particularly on Okinawa.

 

The Lexington was badly in need of an overhaul and returned to the States.

Air Group Nine transferred to the Yorktown.

 

During the middle of March, Air Group 9 flew strikes against Okinawa and surrounding islands from the Yorktown.  It was during this period that the Japanese started launching hundreds of Kamikaze attacks against the Okinawa task force.  The Yorktown had many close calls during this time.  On March 18th it was struck by a bomb that tore a large hole in the flight deck and exploded on the hanger deck, killing five men and wounding 26.  The brave and efficient deck crews had the ship ready for landings and take offs in just a few hours.

One time Stew was in his plane waiting to take off when the five inchers started to fire, then the 40mms, then the 20mms.  This was the worst place to be during a Kamikaze attack, stuck in the cockpit of a plane on deck with a bunch of other planes loaded full of bombs and fuel.    Stew hoped he could launch before the ship was hit but time was running out.    Every gun on the Yorktown was now firing at a lone Japanese plane that was headed right for the carrier.  The tracers could be seen making direct hits but the plane still came on.  The plane passed over the flight deck about 50 feet in front of where Stew sat in his Avenger.  Stew could see the Japanese pilot was dead, slumped over in the cockpit as it flew by.  The plane missed the deck but its tail section caught on the deck catwalk and railing, violently throwing it down into the water right next to the ship, the explosion throwing water and debris up on the deck.

 

Stew flew many strikes in preparation of the landings on Okinawa.    Air Group Nine’s fighters, F6F Hellcats, flew cover for the Avengers.    During one strike, Stew witnessed a terrible midair collision that killed Stew’s Commander, Byron Cooke.  A Hellcat that may have been hit by ground fire, slid in too close to the Avengers and sheared a wing off of Lt. Commander Cooke’s plane, sending it crashing to the ground.  The Hellcat also hit the ground and exploded.

Cooke along with his crewmen, Norm Brown and Matty Matthews were killed and the Hellcat pilot, Lt. Fred Fox, was also believed to have perished.

Several days later Lt. Fox was picked up off a reef near the island by a float plane from the USS San Francisco!  Fox had been thrown, uninjured, free of the aircraft when it crashed.  He made his way to the western beaches of   Okinawa and hid in a cave for 3 days until he found a small boat and rowed   out to the reef where he was rescued.

In early April the huge battleship Yamato, (one of the two largest battleships ever built) cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers made their way out of Japanese home waters in a desperate move to attack the forces at Okinawa.

The Yamato had just enough fuel for a one way trip.  She was to run herself aground near the landing beaches and unleash her large 18 inch guns on the landing forces.  Spotter planes sighted the ships heading south on the morning of April 7, 1945.  Around noon the American fleet started launching their air groups from the carriers in sequence.  Air Group Nine was the last group   launched.  AG9 Avengers launched with torpedoes.  This is the first and last   time Stew would go into combat with a torpedo in all the missions he had   flown.  Dive bombers and torpedo planes from other groups had hit the Yamato, Yahagi and some of the destroyers.  The Yamato was listing some 15 degrees and the Yahagi was steaming oil.  The decks were badly damaged but their antiaircraft guns were still very active.  Other torpedo planes had made hits on the Yamato but the explosions had been repelled by the very heavy armor belt at the water line of the ship.  On the way to the target, Air Group 9 Avengers were instructed by radio to set their torpedoes to run deep to get under the armor.    This could be done in the air by the radioman.  Elmer Fenzau reached through an access hatch to the bomb bay and set the depth on the torpedo.  Air Group Commander Herbert N. Hauck, who was guiding the attack from above in his F6F then decided that of the 13 Avengers, 6 would hit the Yamato and 7 would go after the cruiser Yahagi.

Stew was one of the ones to hit the Yahagi.  Because the Yahagi didn’t run as deep as the Yamato, the torpedo had to be reset again!    Fenzau again calibrated it to run shallow.  Stew made a run through heavy antiaircraft fire from the Yahagi and accompanying destroyers and was able to send his torpedo into the side of the Yahagi.  This along with several other torpedo hits destroyed the Yahagi and it quickly sank.  One of Stew’s squadron mates figured it was too crowded around the Yahagi, veered off and made a run on one of the destroyers, made a direct hit and sank it.

Soon, after many bomb   and torpedo strikes, the Yamato exploded, broke in two, and also sank.  Four destroyers were sunk and 4, although damaged, were able to escape back to Japan.    (this was the last time aerial torpedoes were ever used in combat)

Stew’s Air Group 9 pilots and crews were believed to be the only ones to actually see both big ships sink.

This turned out to be the longest mission Stew and the other Avenger pilots flew, over 6 hours.  They were running very short on fuel by the time they   returned.  There were a number of planes from other carriers that ran out of fuel before reaching their ships and had to ditch in the ocean.

For this mission Stew was decorated with the Navy Cross.

Attention was turned back toward strikes against Okinawa, supporting the troops fighting on the island.  After the island was secured and airfields taken, Stew landed on the island with a message from the ship to the Marine   headquarters.  One of the officers on the Yorktown was an anthropologist in civilian life and asked Stew to try and procure a Japanese skull for him.  When he landed on Okinawa he passed on the request to one of the Marines.  In short order, the Marine handed over a bag that contained a fresh Japanese skull and some lye.    Stew flew the grisly artifact back with him and gave it to the Yorktown officer.

After completing over 70 missions, Stew and his squadron was shipped back to the States in late June, 1945.  Stew was home on leave when Japan surrendered.  The day the war ended, Stew was half a world away, fishing for trout in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley of Montana.

 

After the war, Stew returned to civilian life, graduated from the University of Montana, married and raised a daughter and son.  He spent 34 years with American crystal Sugar Co in Missoula MT, Denver CO and Fargo ND, retiring as Vice President of the Company and remaining in the Fargo Moorhead area.