Author Archives: scott

Leroy Nayes, Escape and Evasion

Leroy Milton Nayes was born at Fingal North Dakota in 1923.
LeRoy attended rural school and graduated from Fingal High in 1941 and started school that fall at the Agricultural College in Fargo.  In December 1942, he entered the Army Air Force and received his Officers commission as a 2nd Lt. in 1944 and shortly after joined the 15th Air Force in Italy as a Navigator-Bombardier on B-24 heavy bombers.  On December 14th 1944, while on a bombing mission to Linz, Austria, Nayes’ plane was struck by anti-aircraft fire and 2 of the 4 engines were knocked out.  The crew had to bail out over enemy territory in northern Yugoslavia and landed in the Sava river.  Several of the crew unfortunately drowned but Nayes and 3 others were picked up by Yugoslavian civilians on a raft and stayed with them for 6 days.
They were able to contact the anti-German partisan forces led by Josep Broz Tito and evaded the Germans for the next month. On Christmas morning, LeRoy awoke to what he thought was gunfire and thought they were being attacked by German forces.  Unknown to Nayes, the Yugoslavs celebrated Christmas with fireworks, much like we do on the 4th of July.   Nayes and the rest of his crew, protected by the partisans, finally made their way to an emergency air strip in late January 1945.  They were flown back to Italy on a C-47 where LeRoy spent time recuperating in a hospital.  Nayes made it back to his base and flew 12 more missions before the war ended in Europe.  The last several missions they did not carry bombs but dropped food and supplies into German POW camps.  Nayes was finally discharged from the Air Force in December of 1945.
LeRoy came back to North Dakota, went back to school in Fargo and graduated with a batchelor of science degree in agriculture.  He married, started a family and began farming near McClusky until 1954 when they returned to a farm near Fingal.
In 1956 LeRoy was recruited to work for the Farmers Home Administration of the USDA which began a 27 year career administrating loans to farmers in North Dakota.  He was the head of the Farm Loan Division for 10 years until he retired in 1983.
LeRoy Nayes passed away on March 23, 2014

Frances “Cash” Register, North Dakota’s first Ace

Nicknamed Pinky, Francis Register was born in 1917 and raised in Bismarck.  Pinky always had an interest in airplanes and with the coming of World War 2, he joined the Navy Air Forces and eventually became a full-fledged Flying Officer on December 12, 1941, just 5 days after the US entered the war.
As a Flight Officer, Pinky received his second nick name from his fellow flyers.  Francis “Cash” Register.
“Cash” entered the battle against the Japanese at a faraway South Pacific Island called Guadalcanal.  The Allies had a small toe hold on the Island and fought desperately to hang on.
Register flew the Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter against superior Japanese forces that were trying to retake that small portion of the island.  Supplies could not get through and the Guadalcanal force had to make do with what they had.  Keeping the planes flying was very difficult with almost no spare parts coming in.  Damaged planes were quickly cannibalized to keep other planes flying.  Register flew every mission he could and soon was shooting down enemy planes.  When Cash sent down his 5th Japanese plane in flames on September 27th, 1942, he became North Dakota’s first bonafide Ace.
The fighting went on at Guadalcanal and Register was able to down several more enemy planes but his physical condition was rapidly deteriorating.  Cash had trouble eating and he was losing weight.  He was succumbing to the tremendous strain of flying almost every day under such terrible conditions.
On October 1st, Register was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, personally pinned it on his uniform.
On October 11 Cash was grounded by the Navy doctor and flown out on October 14, back to the states.
After several months leave, Register was called back to duty and headed for the north Pacific where Japan had taken over several islands in the Aleutians off Alaska.
Register served on the escort carrier, USS Nassau, supporting the landings on Attu to drive the Japanese from the island.  The weather in the Aleutians was described as some of the worst to fly in the world.
On May 16, 1943, Francis Roland Register, while assisting ground troops, crashed his fighter into a hillside and was killed.
He was buried at the Military Cemetery at Holtz Bay, Attu.  In 1948 his remains were disinterred and reburied in Bismarck.

James Vranna, A Life Well Lived

I had met James Vranna years ago when I was attending an art show in Washburn where I was showing some of my World War 2 aviation paintings.  In visiting with him I gathered he had been a WW2 pilot and that he had been injured in a crash in England.  I could tell by scars on his face that he had gone through a devastating injury but he didn’t want to talk about the crash and I didn’t press him about it.  He did say he spent a long time in hospitals after the crash.  He told me one humorous story about when he was in the hospital after getting back to the states.  It seems that the doctors were worried about Jim and another patient because they had a hard time putting on any weight.  The doctors decided to give them several cans of beer a day in an effort to get them to “fatten up”.  Jim said he and his beer buddy were the envy of the whole ward as beer was not normally available to the patients.
As the years went by I continued to interview other veteran aviators and do paintings to honor their service.  All the while I remembered Jim and thought someday I would like to document his story.
In the summer of 2012, I was looking through the obituaries and with sadness saw that James Allen Vranna had passed away.  He was 91 years old.
It was then that I decided to research his service and life story.
Jim had grown up and graduated from High School in Taylor, ND in 1939 and attended Mayville State collage for 2 years.   Jim volunteered and joined the Army Air Force in 1942, trained as a multi-engine pilot and ended up getting his wings as a 2nd Lieutenant, flying the B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber.   Jim often commented that he got his pilot license before he got a driver’s license!
Lt. Vranna had the thrill of flying a brand new B-17 across the Atlantic to England and was assigned to the 544th Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force, stationed at Grafton Underwood.
Jim was in the process of going through operational training, preparing for flying missions against the Germans over the continent.  The number of missions a bomber crewman was expected to fly this time of the war was 30.  James Vranna never got the chance to fly his first bombing mission.
Jim had volunteered to copilot a B-17 in the late afternoon of  August 4th 1944.  They were to “slow time” a new engine that had been just put on the bomber.  Slow timing an engine was necessary to make sure the engine was running properly before putting it under a full combat load.
James took off with a minimal crew of five with Lt. Howard Jung as pilot, 2nd Lt. Thomas Bates as navigator, Sgt. William Sellars as radioman and Sgt. Harold Perry as tail gunner.  A full crew would have required 5 more for a bombing mission, a bombardier and four additional gunners.
Lt. Jung took off and the plane gained altitude, all the while James was making performance checks on the new engine.
It has been said that the second enemy for the flyers out of the United Kingdom was the Germans.  The first?  The English weather.
It was at this time that the unpredictable English weather reared its ugly head.  Before the crew realized it, the pea soup fog had rolled in and before they had a chance to try to land, the ground was totally obscured.  To make matters worse, it was also getting dark.
Fog lowered the ceiling over their airbase at Grafton Underwood to only 300 feet.  The tower advised Lt. Jung to find another field to land but all the other fields were also fogged in.
Grafton Underwood tower Flying Control tried using flares and mortars to guide the aircraft in.  Jung made two passes over the field but could not land.  On his third pass the aircraft’s wing tip struck a tree and the B-17 spun into the ground and burned.                                                                                                   All on board were killed except for James, who suffered major multiple injuries and third degree burns.  Jim’s injuries were so bad that the first accident report listed him as a fatality as he was not expected to live.
Jim was hospitalized in critical condition for over a week and much to everyone’s amazement his condition improved.  As soon as he was well enough to make the trip, he was sent back to the states.  James spent the next three years recovering in hospitals and went through a series of reconstructive surgeries.  One day when Jim was at Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville PA, and in a dark depression combined with survivor guilt, a kind nurse laid a beautiful rose on the table next to his bed.  Jim concentrated on the beauty of that rose and it encouraged him to look forward to the future and not dwell on the pain of the past.  That rose strengthened his faith and awaken in him his life time interest in gardening.
Upon his discharge from the hospital and the military, he returned home to North Dakota and completed his degree in history at Dickinson State College.  It was during this time that he met Miss Viola Boschee, the love of his life, who was teaching in Taylor.  They married on Dec. 26, 1948.  The couple spent the next decade in Taylor, where they both taught.   Jim also served as principal, coach and athletic director.
Jim, Vi and their first two sons moved to Washburn in 1958, where he continued to teach and serve as principal, and where their third son joined the family.  He also served as superintendent of schools for a period of time, directed many plays and coached student speakers.
After retirement, Jim enjoyed hunting, fishing and golf.  He also kept up with his gardening that was started by that rose so many years before.
I found the records of the crash that Jim was in at the 384th Bomb Group web site.  The records of the crash listed no survivors.  Jim was listed killed in an aircraft accident on August 4th 1944.
I contacted the web site manager to inform him that the James Vranna, listed as killed that fateful day, actually went on to live a long and very productive life until he passed away on July 22nd  2012.
The manager thanked me and corrected the records immediately!
Sources:  Jim’s son, Greg Vranna              384th Bomb Group records and accident report

Leon Frankel, Fight for Israel

As Leon Frankel sat, strapped into a German fighter plane, he thought to himself, what is a nice Jewish boy from Minot, North Dakota, doing here?
Leon had been in the service during World War II and came back a decorated Navy pilot. After spending some time in Minneapolis after the war, Leon jumped at the opportunity to open a car and truck dealership in Minot called Capital Motors.
After the war everyone wanted to buy a car and with the booming post war farm economy, the farmers needed trucks. Frankel would order trucks and put grain boxes on em. Red trucks were the most popular, Leon remembered. Business was good, Leon was making lots of money, had his own place and several girlfriends. Life couldn’t be better.
It was then that Leon got “the phone call”. The man on the phone said he was Steve Schwartz. Would Leon consider coming to the aid of Israel in their time of need? The new country of Israel was in desperate need of trained combat pilots and was reaching out to the recent veterans of the just ended war. Leon told him he’d have to think about it. After several days, thinking about the holocaust and the death camps that had come to light in Germany, Leon thought if he didn’t help, he would never be able to live with himself. Leon asked Schwartz what kind of plane he would be flying. Schwartz said he couldn’t tell him but they would be just as good as what the enemy had. This, as it turned out, was a big lie!
The US government frowned on its citizens going to Israel to fight, in fact it was highly illegal!
A story was concocted that Leon had to get to Italy to stop the marriage of his brother and bring him back home. Once out of the country, Frankel diverted to Czechoslovakia to learn to fly fighters being sold to Israel.
There was an arms embargo against the newly formed state of Israel in an effort to avoid another full-blown war. Israel’s Arab neighbors were well equipped with aircraft. The only country Israel could find to sell them fighter aircraft was cash starved Czechoslovakia. They bought them at highly inflated prices.
During World War II, the Germans built a factory in Czechoslovakia to produce the Me-109 fighter but the war ended before production could be started. The Czechs were left with the factory as a spoil of war and decided to produce the plane as their own and renamed it the Avia S-199. There was a problem however. The warehouse that contained the 109 Daimler-Benz engines was destroyed by fire. Another warehouse contained Junkers Jumo engines plus props destined for the Heinkel HE-111 bomber. The ill suited Jumo engines and large paddle propellers were fitted into the 109s which was like putting a truck engine into a sports car and resulted in extremely poor handling difficulties.
Leon had flown the Avenger Torpedo Bomber in the Navy. Flying the 109 was a whole new ball game! The Czechs nicknamed the 109, Mezik or Mule because it was such a stubborn machine to fly. These planes didn’t even have a fuel gage, just a red light that would go on if you were running low on fuel. If the light came on you may have 5 to 15 minutes left. They didn’t have the right machine guns to go with this plane so they mickey moused another type under the cowling. Every time you fired them, you prayed you didn’t shoot off your own propeller. They also had 2, 20mm cannon in pods under the wings.
The fighters were dismantled, loaded into C-54 transports, flown to Israel and reassembled just in time.
When Israel declared independence, they were immediately attacked by their Arab neighbors. Egyptian leaders had told its army that Israel had no military aircraft. The Egyptian Army was within miles of overrunning the Israeli capital when the newly arrived 109 fighters strafed the column and so demoralized the Egyptians that they were forced to turn back.
The Egyptians were flying Spitfires bought from the British and the rumor was that some were flown by ex-German pilots. The Irony was not lost on the Israeli pilots. Jews flying German planes against Germans flying Spitfires.
Frankel flew against Arab forces, air and ground targets. He also flew very dangerous photo recon missions over enemy fortifications in Egypt and Jordon, all alone, with no escort.
On his last mission, October 16th,1948, over Negev, Frankel saw a 109 after an Egyptian Spitfire. It was Rudy Augarten, former World War II P-47 pilot. They were flying toward Leon and Rudy was shooting big junks off the Spit. Leon saw another Spit below him, heading his way. Frankel flipped over and chased the Spit but it had gotten too far ahead of him.
At this point the red light came on. Leon was lucky to catch sight of a friendly airfield at Ekron. Leon landed and as they were refueling the plane, Leon noticed some oil dripping from the engine. He pointed it out to one of the mechanics who tightened some screws and declared “Fixed” and gave the thumbs up sign. Frankel took off and heading back to base.
After several minutes the engine started to run rough and Leon noticed the oil gage was zero. He tapped the gage in case the needle was stuck but the needle didn’t budge. Soon the cockpit started filling with smoke and Leon looked for a place to put down. Bailing out of these planes was not an option. Frankel hit the ground hard but other than some scrapes and bruises, escaped uninjured.
Leon started walking. He didn’t know if he was in Israel or Jordon. In the distance he saw a truck loaded with soldiers headed his way. Surrender was not an option. Other pilots shot down behind enemy lines had been tortured to death. Frankel had a 38 pistol with 6 shots. He would fire 5 shots and save the last for himself. As the truck got closer, he was much relieved to hear them hollering in Hebrew. Frankel was rescued! When Leon got back to his base, there was a 109 burning on the runway. The pilot, one of Leon’s close friends, was killed in a landing accident.
The next day, at the funeral, Frankel lost feeling in his legs and arms and collapsed. He was hospitalized for several days and recovered but decided to pack it in. New pilots were coming in and the crisis was over. It was time to go home. Frankel had flown 25 missions for Israel, ironically the same number of missions he had flown in the US Navy.
Getting home was not easy. Fighting for Israel could mean losing his citizenship. Leon was stopped at passport control in New York and interrogated all night. Leon claimed he had been going to school in Italy but his suitcase of full of pictures of him standing beside airplanes in Israel. Finally, by morning, the authorities told him to tell the truth or he was going to jail. Leon replied, “Go ahead, at least I can get some sleep”. With that the authorities told him to get the hell out of there and released him.
Leon Frankel ended up living in Minnesota, married and had 2 children. He passed away in 2015
I had the opportunity to talk to Leon several times on the phone and once in person at the Air Museum in Fargo. He had flown with Stew Bass in the Navy and had come to Fargo to see Stew (first time since the war) and to see the painting I did. Leon flew the Avenger torpedo bomber and like Stew, received the Navy Cross for helping sink the cruiser Yahagi. Leon along with Stew signed the painting now hanging in the gallery.
Leon also signed a water color picture I painted showing a Czech 109 in Israeli markings.

Walter Sharbo, P-47 Wolfpack Pilot

Walter Johnson was born on Oct 26, 1923 in Williston ND. When Walter was a teenager, he and his older brother changed their last name to the Americanized version of the real last name their father had in Norway. Walter’s father’s name had been changed to Johnson when he immigrated to America. There were too many Johnsons around and the brothers wanted to be different and at the same time giving a nod to their Norwegian heritage. Walter’s last name was changed to Sharbo.
Walter as a youth was a Boy Scout and earned the Eagle rank. He played sousaphone in the school band. He was an avid model airplane builder and developed a life long love of aviation. He sent numerous hours as a teenager cleaning the local airport hangars in exchange for flying lessons. After graduation from Williston High School, Walter went to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he was intending to major in business. The day after the Japanese attacked Pear Harbor, Walter enlisted the Army Air Corp. Due to the number of enlistments he was not accepted until the following year. Once accepted, he trained as a fighter pilot, earning his wings early in 1944.
Walter Sharbo went on to train in the P-47 Thunderbolt, nicknamed the Jug, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Walter had a problem. There were no signs of him being sent overseas to get in the fighting. D-day took place in June and the way the Allies were taking territory, there was talk of the war being over by Christmas. Another bad sign, the fighter groups were getting rid of their P-47s, replacing them with the longer-range P-51 Mustangs. It looked like the war would be over before Walter could get into combat. Walter rebelled and got into trouble. The last straw was during a training flight, buzzing sailboats in Delaware Bay and blowing em over with propwash. An Army Officer on the beach took note of the plane’s number and turned it in. Walter was almost court marshalled but his senior officers realized he was too good a flyer to be put in the stockade so got rid of him by sending him across the Atlantic as a replacement pilot.
In Oct. of 44, Walter ended up in England with the 56th Fighter Group, also known as Zemke’s Wolf Pack after commander Hubert Zemke. The 56th FG was one of the last Fighter Groups in the Eighth Air Force that was still flying the P-47. Sharbo started flying missions, escorting bombers into Germany and hitting the deck, strafing aerodromes and locomotives. Walter came back numerous times with severe battle damage and crash landed twice. Once, he brought his shot-up plane back across the channel but couldn’t make his air field, crashing well short of it and clipping a house with a wing, fortunately not injuring the occupants.  Walter became friends with the family of the house and exchanged Christmas cards with them for many years after the war.  The second time he had to belly it in, was in France.  Walter crawled out of the cockpit and noticed a lot of firing going on.  He looked up to see a tank pulling into the clearing.  He couldn’t tell if the tank was German or Allied and was much relieved when a Britt popped out of the hatch, urging him to get in the tank with them.  Walter spent the rest of the day with the British tankers and didn’t relish hearing rounds pinging against the machine.  He would have felt much better being back in the air.  Sharbo credited his survival to the ruggedness of the Jug, he would never have survived that much damage if he had been flying the P-51. Fighter groups that changed from the Thunderbolt to the Mustang had a marked increase in pilot casualties. Walter also started shooting down German aircraft including two ME-109s destroyed on Christmas day, 1944.
The Germans developed the first operational Jet aircraft in the world and it was first flown in 1942. The ME-262 would have been the perfect weapon to use against Allied bombers because it was faster than any fighters the Allies had. Hitler insisted the 262 be developed as a bomber and delayed the fighter development for many months. By the time it was finally deployed as an attack fighter in the summer of 1944. It was too little, too late. The 262 did rack up an impressive number of victories against Allied aircraft. Some sources say as many as 700 fighters and bombers fell to the jet!
Near the end of the war on April 10, 1945, Walter was escorting bombers in the Berlin area and doing lazy S curves to the rear of the bomber stream. He caught sight of several Me-262s coming through the other side of the formation. As they came through to his side, he banked and fired. One jet flew through his rain of 50 calibers, and to his surprise, exploded in a great fire ball.
Walter Sharbo is credited with shooting down the last ME-262 of the war and the last air to air victory for the 56th Fighter Group. Walter ended the war as one of North Dakota’s Aces with 5 and a half-confirmed victories.
After the war, Sharbo married and started working at the JCPenney store in Williston. He later worked for about 5 years as an assistant manager at the Penney’s store in Minot. Sharbo ended up managing the Penney’s store in Belle Fourche SD for many years and retired in 1983. He passed away in 2006

Dick Baron and the German pilot

Dick Baron had a very interesting time during the June 6, 1944, Normandy landings.  That day and the days following, Dick flew many missions supporting the invasion.  (Dick had a very detailed log book that he kept over this time.  Years afterward, Dick would loan out his log book so people could read it.  One day he loaned it out and it never came back.  Dick didn’t remember who the last person he loaned it to so the log book was lost.)

 

One evening, about a week after D-Day, after the missions for the day had been flown, Dick and several of his squadron mates were preparing to visit the Officers Club.  It was already quite dark when a late returning fighter caught their attention.  The control tower also noticed and turned on the runway lights but something was strange about this plane.  It was not a P-47.  Was it a Mustang or a Spitfire?  Something was odd about the note of the engine.  Could it be a damaged fighter from another base making an emergency landing?  The guys in the tower saw it first and quickly doused the landing lights but it was too late.  The plane was a Messerschmitt 109 German Fighter, possibly on a sneak late evening raid to attack an English base.  But this German fighter was coming in slow with its flaps and landing gear down.  Before anyone could bring guns to bear the plane had landed and pulled off the runway and came to a stop in the grass.  One ground crewman, still thinking this was an American or British plane, jumped up on the wing to see if the pilot needed any assistance and came face to face with a German Officer.  For several tense seconds they eyed each other, then the German pilot turned over his side arm and surrendered.  Dick and his friends were there when the ground crewman and the German came walking off the field.  The German could speak perfect English.  As it turned out, he had attended University in London before the war.  The suggestion was made, “We are on our way to the Officers Club, mind going with?

There was some confusion on base.  The rumor was that a German plane had landed but where was the pilot?  The German walked with Baron and his Squadron mates out the gate.  The unassuming guard at the gate even gave the German pilot a smart salute!

They were able to have several drinks and talked “shop” about this business of being a fighter pilot and the differences between the German and American Air Forces.  Before long the MPs finally tracked down the German pilot and hustled him off for interrogation.

By the next morning the 109 was gone, hurriedly trucked off, no one would say where.  The whole deal was hushed up and there is no mention of it in the Group or Squadron records.

 

 

 

 

More Stories on Noble Peterson

  Noble Peterson served with the 358th Squadron of the 355th Fighter Group based at Steeple Morden in Cambridgeshire, England.  Noble flew two tours, the first in a P-51B, (Dakota Kid) and the second in a D model, (Dakota Kid II).  Known as the Morden Strafers, the 355th became renowned for their low-level attacks on German targets after being released from escort duties. 

 On one such mission while beating up a German aerodrome, Noble caught sight of a multi cannon antiaircraft emplacement nestled in among some hay stacks.  They were four barreled 20mm Flakveirling with an eight man crew.  What gave them away was the tell-tail puff, puff, puff smoke signatures of the cannons as they fired.  He noted the location of the gun emplacement as the group withdrew to the west.  He led his flight in the withdrawal at several thousand feet, all the time noting landmarks over which they were passing.  When they were some five miles from the aerodrome, he signaled he was taking another run, alone, reversed direction and got down on the deck following the landmarks back to the aerodrome, hugging the ground, rising to go over trees and buildings.  When he was less than a half mile from the hay stacks, he pulled up until he could clearly see the site, and then roared toward it in a power glide, unleashing his six .50 calibers into the target.  Dust and debris erupted from the haystacks and gun emplacement where the rounds hit.  As he passed over the site he took a quick glance down over his shoulder and caught a fleeting snapshot of what his hundreds of half inch bullets had done to the gun crew.  That single terrible image was seared into his memory the rest of his life.

      Some of Noble’s most precious memories was using his war plane to save lives.  He always flew his machine very carefully, never slamming the throttle open and closed.  Other pilots were constantly opening and closing their throttles to keep in formation.  Noble made throttle changes slowly, by degrees, and leaned his mixture on cruise.  He always got back to base with much more fuel than the others in his flight, even though they had flown virtually the same distance.  It was because of this that many times he could remain airborne much longer if the need arose.  

  One such time was the late fall of 1944.  Noble was returning with his flight over the English Channel when they heard a mayday call of two planes running out of fuel somewhere north of them.  Noble looked down at the cold, cold Channel and thought how miserable it would be to be in that water.  He checked his fuel supply and, like usual, he had enough to stay airborne for awhile longer.  Flying north he reached where the planes had been and caught sight of two parachutes descending about a half mile apart.  He followed them down and anxiously watched as they were able to get in their small rafts in the rough seas.  While keeping an eye on both rafts, which was hard to do in the heavy swells, he called Air Sea Rescue and was informed a launch was on its way.  Noble checked his fuel supply.  His two wing tanks had fuel left as he began flying a figure eight course between the two and called Air Sea Rescue again.  The launch was still 20 miles out.  He leaned the mixture as much as possible and stayed on station.  At the altitude he was flying, if he ran out of fuel in one tank and the engine quit, he would be in the drink before he could recover, so every 15 minutes he would gain some altitude and switch tanks to keep from running one tank dry.  He continue his vigil.  Another call to ASR; still ten miles out.  Grab some altitude, switch tanks again.  Finally, in the distance, he saw the launch bucking the waves but was on a course that would miss the pilots.  “ASR, are you in contact with the Launch?”

  “Yes!”

  “Have them correct their course!”  The launch turned toward the rafts.  Noble stayed until the pilots were safely in the boat.  One last pass resulted in exuberant waves from all on board.

  He got back to Steeple Morden several hours after the others and missed out on the debriefing.  Hungry and tired, he caught a bite and hit the sack.  Just another day in the Eighth Air Force.

 Many years later Noble started reminiscing about his time in the service and the men with whom he served.   His memory also drifted back to those two pilots he had last seen after they were pulled from the Channel.  He wondered, “Did they survive the war?  Where are they now?  If it could be possible, it would be great if he could visit with one or both of them.”  He had forgotten the date the incident happened, and he hadn’t written it in his log.  Having gotten back after debriefing it wouldn’t be recorded in Squadron records, either.

  Noble made some phone calls and inquiries and finally was directed to a lady in Hawaii who had the records of all the Air Sea Rescues conducted from the English Isles. (This was before the internet) Calling the lady, Noble related the incident but couldn’t nail down a specific date.  The lady explained that thousands of flyers had been rescued during the war and to find one particular event without a date or names of the individuals involved would be very difficult.  Noble offered to pay the lady for her time to search the records.  The lady declined, it would be just too hard to accomplish.  Disappointed, Noble realized it was not to be.  

Noble and his crew chief……

When Noble first met his crew chief, he didn’t know what to expect of this young 19 year old, Robert Coleman.  Would this kid be able to keep his P-51 flying?  Robert Coleman proved himself admirably.  His P51 was always excellently serviced and ready to go when called.

  One day he went to Noble and asked if it would it be OK to paint Long Island Kid below the exhausts on Dakota Kid II.  Robert Coleman was from New York.  “What could he say?”  Noble flew the plane but Robert kept it flying.  It was just as much his plane as Noble’s.  And so, Long Island Kid was also added to the cowling.  This is the only time known that a crew chief was acknowledged on the plane’s name or artwork.

  One thing Noble didn’t find out until many years after the war was at a Group Reunion. Robert Coleman told him that every morning he would check the board to see if Noble would be flying that day.  If not, he would go out and pull the cowling to make it look like it was being serviced.  Sometimes when readying for a mission a plane might have a sudden mechanical problem.  In such cases the pilot could grab any other plane that was ready but not going on that mission.  Coleman didn’t want anyone flying his plane but Peterson!  He knew that many pilots were rough with their airplanes and Robert didn’t want them near his Dakota Kid.    

 

Babies…….

  One of the innovations that enabled fighter range deep into Germany was the wing drop tanks, or “Babies” as they were popularly known.  Metal tanks were first used but in a war economy where metal was in limited supply and the tanks were commonly jettisoned after use, pressed paper tanks were developed to be used instead.  Filling of the tanks took place immediately before the mission, because if they were filled beforehand, the pressed paper would absorb the fuel and would begin to get soggy and the tanks would droop over an extended period of time.

 Noble related that take off was always done using fuel from the fuselage tank right behind the pilot’s seat and continued until that tank was about half empty, then fuel would be taken from the drop tanks.  The reason for this was the Mustang handled much better if the fuselage tank was not full. Thus, it was advantageous to run fuel out of that tank first. 

  One day a new young pilot was assigned to Noble’s flight. This was his first official mission, a deep penetration escort into Germany.  Take off, as usual, was from the fuselage tank, and when they got over the Channel Noble reminded his flight to switch to drop tanks.  When the tanks were empty or nearly empty far into the Reichland, Noble ordered his flight to drop their “babies.”  They did and the new guy’s plane jumped!  He had released 2 full drop tanks!  In all the excitement of his first mission he had forgotten to switch to the drop tanks.  Now what!  Here he was, that far into Germany, with very little fuel left.  There was a very good possibility of having to bail out and becoming a POW.  OK, Noble radioed,  “Turn around and reduce power, start gliding back toward England.  When you get down to a thousand feet, just apply enough power to stay airborne.  I’ll escort you and try to take on any German planes we may encounter.”

 They took care to avoid populated areas or known flak sites.  Noble advised the new pilot to keep his speed just above a stall.  It was slow going!  Amazingly the trip was uneventful, and they were not even shot at as far as they knew.  They did get shocked stares from some German soldiers that were marching down a road, but no one even bothered to shoulder their weapon.  They even received friendly waves from German farmers working in the fields.  It was sure a good way to get a beautiful tour of the German countryside. 

  Finally, they reached the Netherlands and breathed a little easier.  By no means yet were they out of the woods as Holland was still occupied. Still, there was an active resistance that would help you if you dropped in providing the Germans didn’t get to you first.  The fuel situation was holding, and Noble started to think they might even be able to reach the Channel.  “How’s your fuel?”

  “I’m still showing a few gallons.”

 “We’ve crossed the Dutch coast,” Noble radioed his Newbie.  “Shoot for England?”

  “Yes. Not much left, but….” 

 When they crossed the English coast, Noble and his charge breathed a relieved sigh.  “Hell, we’ve gone this far, let’s try for home base.”  They made it.  The ground crew said there was nothing more than a few gallons left in his tanks.  This showed how fuel efficient the Mustang was if you knew how to manage it.  If the same thing had happened to a P-47, they probably would not have gotten out of Germany.     

       After the war, Noble went home, started ranching, and raised a wonderful family.

 

 

 

 

Armand Haugstad, Elmo Hanson, self sealing tanks

2nd Lieutenant Armand Haugstad of Columbus, North Dakota was a navigator with the 389th Bomb Group based at Darwin, Australia during World War Two.

On August 17, 1943, B-24 bombers from the 389th Bomb Group flew the marathon mission to the Balikpapan oil refinery in Borneo. This refinery provided the Japanese with half their lubricating oil and 60 percent of their aviation fuel. This mission would take the bombers round trip of over 2600 miles and last more than 16 hours.

Haugstad was on the B-24 named PUG when they bombed the refinery and tankers anchored in harbor through a curtain of anti-aircraft fire thrown up by the Japanese. PUG was hit and a raging fire in the right-wing root was the result. The situation did not look good with 1300 miles back to base. The burning bomber could blow at any minute and preparations were made to bail out over open water, far from any possibility of rescue. Just before the pilot ordered the crew out of the plane, a miracle happened. The fire decreased and finally went out. Inspection upon landing showed the plane was saved by its self-sealing gas tank.

Little did Armand know that he owed his life to his one-time neighbor, Elmo Hanson, of Wildrose, North Dakota.

Elmo, born in 1900, ended up getting a doctorate in physics and chemistry, had become lead scientist with Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. Hanson was the inventor of the type of fuel bladder that would seal itself if punctured. On January 21st, 1941, Elmo filed on the patent for self-sealing tanks. These fuel tanks could self-seal even if punctured by large caliber rounds and saved countless airmen over the course of the war.

Japanese planes did not have the luxury of self-sealing tanks and were called flaming coffins by their crews.

Armand Haugstad survived the war, married and raised a family. He went on to be a math teacher and taught at Minot High School for many years. Haugstad passed away in 1997.

Elmo Hanson continued his work at Firestone, unfortunately passing away at the young age of 56 while developing the Firestone 500 tires. So noted was his work and patents for the company including the self-sealing tanks that the Harvey Firestone family financed all the further education for his two children.

Ray Wicklander Navy Helldiver Pilot

Raymond  G. Wicklander was born in 1921, in a log home seven miles east of  Washburn, ND, on his grandpa’s homestead.

Ray graduated from the Washburn High School in 1938 and went to college that fall in Minot for basic courses in engineering .

The next fall, Ray went to the Agricultural College in Fargo for mechanical engineering. While in Fargo, Ray got the opportunity to learn to fly through the civilian pilot program.

When Ray came home that summer, a neighbor had purchased a Curtis pusher airplane but was afraid to fly it.  Ray was told he could fly it as much as he wanted and he spent many enjoyable hours flying that pusher plane around the Washburn area.  One time he was giving a friend a ride when the three cylinder engine blew out a spark plug.  The plane lost power and lost altitude.  Ray quickly found a place to land and set the plane down.  They put in a new spark plug and started the engine again.  Problem was there was not a lot of room for a takeoff run.  They were in a small pasture but Ray figured they could get airborne before they reached the fence.  Ray told his apprehensive friend to get in the plane and Ray revved it up.  They got off the ground before they reached the fence but caught the tail on the top wire.  They were slammed down on the other side but then bounced back in the air again.  The rest of the flight was uneventful, but for some reason Ray’s friend never wanted to fly with him again.  (This plane still exists, it is owned by a collector in Oregon.)

In July of 1941 Ray decided to join the Navy to be an aviator.  Ray was told he would be able to finish his last years of college before he would be called up.  Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941.  Ray was home for Christmas vacation when the call came to report to duty.  He would not be finishing college but found himself excited about the change of events.

In January, Ray took the train down to Minneapolis to start his training but with all the new recruits coming in they were full.  Ray then got on the train with some other recruits and went all the way to New Orleans on Lake Pontchartrain to begin Navy basic training.  The weather was beautiful and Ray felt pretty lucky not to be training in Minnesota during the winter.

After several months of basic, Ray began flight training.  The first trainer Ray flew was the “Yellow Peril”, a yellow biplane Navy trainer. The base on Lake Pontchartrain was very muddy and the taxi ways were covered with planks.  If you got a wheel off the planks you were instantly stuck.

Next, Ray went to Pensacola, Florida.  At Pensacola, on one end of the runway, off base, someone owned an elephant.  It was said that for the instructor to pass you, the elephant had to have its tail up as you took off, if his tail was down, you failed.

Then he was sent to Miami where he received his wings as a Navy ensign.   Here Ray flew the Brewster Buffalo, the small, underpowered, portly, Navy fighter that was found no match for the Japanese Zero.  The landing gear had to be cranked up and down by hand.  It had been relegated to training only. Ray practiced take-offs and landings on a circular air field with instructions from a landing signal officer to prepare for carrier operations.

From here, Ray went to Chicago. A coal-burning paddle wheel passenger ship had been converted into a training carrier called the Wolverine.  Passenger cabins were stripped off and a 500 foot flight deck built on top of the hull that sailed on Lake Michigan.  Ray practiced carrier operations with the SNJ North American Texan equipped with a tail hook.  The training of carrier pilots on Lake Michigan early in the war was necessary as both coasts were susceptible to submarine attacks from the Japanese and the Germans.

Ray was able to go home on leave for two weeks, married his sweetheart and had a short honeymoon.

Ray then reported for duty at San Diego where he started flying the Douglas SBD Dauntless Dive-bomber.  The Dauntless carried a crew of 2, pilot and radio gunner.  It carried an external bomb load and two forward firing 50 cal. machine guns, the radio gunner had a twin 30 cal. in the rear cockpit.   After a short period of training he was assigned to VB-26 (dive bombing squadron) of Air Group 26, which consisted of 3 squadrons, F4F Wildcats, TBF Avengers, SBD Dauntless’.

AG 26 personnel and planes were loaded on a jeep carrier to head for Hawaii. As luck would have it, the jeep carrier was so full, that some got to go to Hawaii on the cruise ship Matsonia with a bunch of college girls that had been stranded in the states since the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Ray was one of the few who was able to make the trip on the cruise ship.   Ray lived like a king, food was great and he had the finest of accommodations.  Ray figured this Navy life couldn’t be beat!  And all those nice college gals!!  Ray met Mrs. Dagmar Cooke on the ship.  She was from the famous Cooke family in Hawaii. When Ray got to Maui,Hawaii, he and the other officers that had been on the Matsonia were invited to the Cooke mansion for a party.  After a good time at the party, Ray and another fellow who was also married decided to go back to base and let the single guys do all the dancing.  They didn’t have any transportation but thought they could catch a ride with someone. While they were waiting outside the mansion, a limousine drove up with Dagmar’s widowed mother-in-law and none other than Admiral Nimitz, Commander and Chief of the Pacific Fleet.  Admiral Nimitz had escorted Mrs. Cooke out for dinner and was bringing her back.  Nimitz asked, “You boys need a ride back to base”.  “Yes sir, we sure would”, said Ray.  Ray and the other fellow rode back with Nimitz and had a nice visit on the way although the conversation was thoroughly laced with “yes sirs” and “no sirs”.

Based at Wailuku, Maui, Ray trained with the Dauntless until finally they were loaded on the jeep carrier, Long Island, and headed with orders for Guadalcanal.  The Marines had a bunch of watch dogs contained in kennels for the trip.  These kennels were on the deck.  By the time they had reached their destination the dogs were all out of the kennels roaming the deck and the kennels were stashed with booze!  They first went to Efate and unloaded the Marines, dogs and the booze still in the kennels.  The Long Island then went up to Guadalcanal where Ray and VB-26 were based off Henderson field.

There were still some Japanese on Guadalcanal but there was not much trouble with them other than a sniper now and then.  Japanese bombers would occasionally fly in from Bougainville at night on harassment raids to drop a bomb or two.  Ray started flying raids against the Japanese and attacked Munda air field several times, even though there wasn’t much left there to bomb except for some entrenched soldiers and antiaircraft guns.  One memorable mission was a 600 mile flight up to Bougainville with drop tanks.  Ray’s skipper, Smiling Bob Beebe, couldn’t drop his wing tanks when they were empty and had to turn back.  When they got to Bougainville, Ray dived on a merchant ship anchored in the bay when a Zero got on his tail.  Luckily a VF26 F4F Wildcat shot him down before he could shoot up Ray’s Dauntless.

Ray spent most of 1943 at Guadalcanal flying missions against islands in the area.  Finally, Ray was sent back to the states on a transport and didn’t get much to eat during the trip. Ray, as an officer, got 2 meals a day that consisted of a small helping of reconstituted scrambled eggs and two slices of bread.  The poor Marine soldiers on the ship only got one meal a day.  The Merchant Marine crew of the ship ate like kings.  Garbage was placed on the fan tail every evening to be dumped after dark.  The poor Marines would go through the garbage to try to find something to eat every evening. Finally, the transport got to San Francisco.

Ray received several weeks of leave and caught the train home.  Early in 1944, Ray reported to a Navy base in San Diego and was assigned to VB-19 in Air Group 19 as a Junior Grade Lt.

Ray started flying the new Navy dive bomber, the Curtis SB2C Helldiver.  The Dauntless was too slow and the wings didn’t fold for storage on the carrier.  The Helldiver was a bigger and heavier plane than the Dauntless and took some getting used to.  The first Helldiver (SB2C-1) was underpowered and the pilots didn’t like them but later versions (SB2C-3) had a bigger engine and performed much better.  The Helldiver also carried a crew of two, pilot and radio-gunner.  It had an internal bomb bay and two forward firing 20mm cannon in the wings.  It also had the twin 30 cal. in the rear seat.  Air Group 19 consisted of three squadrons, F6F Hellcats, TBM Avengers, and the Helldivers.

Late in February of 1944 AG 19 boarded the Lexington and departed for Hawaii.  After arriving in Maui, Ray and the rest of AG 19 conducted training missions for the next several months.  Training for Ray consisted of dive bombing, glide bombing, navigation and gunnery practice.  They also trained in night operations.

Ray got his first full time gunner-radioman, Jerry Warnke. Up to this point, and while Ray was with AG-26, the radio gunners would fly with different pilots for every mission.

In June of 1944, AG-19 conducted refresher carrier operations from the USS Franklin.  Later that month AG-19 boarded the USS Intrepid for transportation to Eniwetok.  The Intrepid arrived at Eniwetok the last of June and the first of July AG-19 transferred to the USS Bunker Hill to practice carrier operations.

By July 10, 1944, AG-19 was permanently stationed on the Lexington and conducted its first combat missions against Guam.  The last of July, strikes were conducted against Palau.

Aboard the Lexington was Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, commander of the Fast Carrier Task Force, the Lexington served as his flagship.  When they first got on the Lexington one of Ray’s squadron mates, Lt. Wallace Griffin, was walking around the ship just taking things in.  He found himself on the carrier island near the bridge on one of the observation decks high above the landing deck. There was an older fellow sitting up there wearing a baseball cap and a khaki uniform with no rank.  Wallace took him for a reporter and started causally visiting with him about the wonderful view they had up there. Wallace was mortified to later learn that he in fact had been visiting with Admiral Mitscher himself!!  The rest of the squadron forever after gave Wallace a bad time about being buddies with the Admiral.

During the first part of August, strikes were conducted against Bonins, Kazans and Iwa Jima.

The last of August was spent rearming and re-supplying at Eniwetok.

September was spent flying strikes against Peleliu and the Philippines.  During this time Ray and his gunner, Jerry, flew many strikes against Japanese ships and ground targets. Most missions, Lt. Ray Wicklander flew right wing in a 3 plane formation led by VB-19 Skipper, Lt. D. Banker.  Left wing was flown by Lt.  Bill Emerson.

In late August, Emerson was hit during a mission and had to ditch in the ocean.  Emerson and his gunner were rescued by the submarine, USS Shark and were with them for about a month until early October.  The USS Shark was reported lost with all hands on Oct. 24, 1944.  The Shark was never found and bodies of the crew never recovered.  Japanese records, after the war, suggest the Shark may have been depth charged by a destroyer east of the Philippines.

On one mission, Ray dived on a Japanese transport ship and his bomb did not release.  The other planes in the formation dropped their bombs, hit the ship and sank it.  On the way back, Ray asked for permission to use his bomb against a Japanese radio station on the south east side of the island of Formosa.  Ray obtained what was described as a beautiful direct hit, which went through the roof of the building and destroyed it.

On Sept. 13, 1944, early morning just before sunrise, Ray was in his plane with the engine running awaiting take off when they were ordered to cut engines and things were deathly quiet.  A plane was heard approaching the carrier in the dark, flying low over the water.  Every one held their breaths as the engine noise of the plane got louder and closer.  At the last moment the plane pulled up and over the Lexington, at the same moment releasing its bomb which passed over the carrier and exploded in the water on the other side.  Ray saw the red “meat ball” on the underside of the wing as the plane went over.  If that bomb had landed amongst all the planes sitting on the deck full of bombs and fuel, it would have been a disaster with much loss of life and perhaps the loss of the Lexington itself. After several minutes, engine startup was again ordered and after takeoff, Ray flew a strike against a Japanese airfield on Negros Island.  Ray dived on a concentration of 7 Japanese planes and destroyed or damaged all of them.

One mission, in October, after Bill Emerson and his gunner returned to the Lexington, Ray, Banker and Emerson dived on the main power plant at Lake Jitsugetsutan, Formosa.  Hits were obtained on the main power building and covered the plant with smoke and debris.  Another mission destroyed the main dock facilities at Iloilo city harbor in the western Philippines.

One incident where Ray was to bomb some oil tanks at Cebu City in the Philippines, he was flying a Helldiver that just had a wing replaced.  The left wing was heavy and couldn’t be corrected with the trim tab.  Ray had to hold the stick over to the right to keep the plane level.  After pushing over in his dive on the target he went into a spin, pulled out and tried it again.  Spun out again!  Ray dropped his bomb in a glide and went back to the Lexington.  They found out the trim tab cables had been crossed when the wing was changed.

Early October the Lexington went to Ulithi to rearm and resupply.  Ray visited the famous Mog Mog island, was given two cans of warm beer and was told to have “a good time”.

In October of 1944, the largest sea-air battle ever, occurred in and around the Philippines.  The Japanese Navy planned an all-out assault against the American fleet.  The northern Japanese force had the last four surviving aircraft carriers.  The central force consisted of battleships (including the largest battleships that ever sailed, the Yamato and Musashi), cruisers and destroyers.  The southern force had the rest of the Japanese naval forces, battle ships, cruisers, destroyers.

On October 24, 1944, Ray along with Lt. Banker and Lt. Emerson were sent on a search mission near Luzon with a cover of Hellcat fighters.  They found the Japanese cruiser, Nachi, in Manila Bay.  Banker decided to try a glide attack on the Nachi but it sent up such a curtain of antiaircraft fire that they left it alone and continued their search for the main fleet.   The only thing they found in the rest of their search were two small Japanese freighters anchored near Mariveles at Bataan.  They glide-bombed the freighters and succeeded in sinking one of them while receiving some antiaircraft fire from Corregidor.  When they returned to the Lexington, Ray saw the USS Princeton fiercely burning and putting up a column of black smoke. Japanese planes had attacked the American carriers.  The carrier USS Princeton was hit with a bomb and ended up being lost.

Strikes from the Lexington and other carriers hit the central Japanese force.  The battle ship Musashi was sunk and the Yamato was damaged and many air battles ensued.   Air Group 19 shot down 60 enemy planes, most being credited to the Hellcat fighters .  The bomber squadron alone brought down nine planes which was pretty good for a big heavy dive bomber that had the maneuverability of a dump truck!

One of the pilots in Ray’s squadron, Lt. Stu Crapser and his gunner Jim Barns were on a search mission several hundred miles north of the American carrier fleet.  Late on the 24th they caught sight of the Japanese carriers.   Barns radioed the position of the carriers back to the fleet, then Crasper, knowing it was too late to launch a strike from the fleet, decided to take on one of the carriers all by himself.  Crapser dived on a carrier and in turn was attacked by Zeros.  Barns did his best keeping the fighters off their tail and shot one down.  Crapser and Barns were able to get back, but just barely.  Their plane was heavily battle damaged.

Early on the morning of Oct. 25th, 06:30 hours, Air Group 19 launched against the Japanese carrier force that was found about 100 miles north of the fleet.  Ray along with Banker and Emerson dived on the carrier Zuikaku and got hits on the flight deck.  These hits were followed by 14 more dive bombers with at least 8 more hits.  Immediately after the strike, the Zuikaku was rocked by two large internal explosions  and sank within several hours.  The Zuikaku was the last surviving carrier that had launched planes against Pearl Harbor almost 3 years before.  The other carriers were also hit and sunk that morning.

Another strike on the northern force was launched in the afternoon of the 25th.  Ray dived on a Japanese Fuso class battleship through a terrible amount of antiaircraft fire.  Ray’s armor-piercing-thousand-pound bomb hit the battleship just ahead of the forward gun turret.  The combined air and sea actions of Oct 24th and 25th decimated what was left of the Japanese naval forces and they were never again able to seriously threaten the Allied forces.

For his action against the Japanese aircraft carrier, Zuikaku, Lt. Raymond G. Wicklander was awarded the Navy Cross.

On Oct. 26th the Lexington spent the day refueling and rearming.  One of the fighters shot down a Japanese snooper plane.

Oct. 27th on standby off Leyte to support MacArthur’s forces if needed.

On Oct. 28 Ray went on a patrol to look for a PBY crew that had landed to pick up a stranded aircrew but the PBY had sunk because of rough seas. During the search, Ray spotted a Japanese plane, chased it for 40 miles but it got away.

On Nov. 5, 1944 Ray’s skipper, Lt. Banker led a mission that returned to Manila bay to attack the same cruiser they had tried to get on Oct. 24th, the Nachi. (Ray and Emerson didn’t fly this strike)  The formation dived and again the Nachi put up a lethal amount of antiaircraft fire.  Banker’s plane took a hit and crashed in the water near the cruiser.  The other planes completed their dives, hitting the ship with numerous bombs.  The Nachi exploded, broke in three pieces and sank within minutes.  The bodies of Banker and his gunner were never recovered.

Before the strike returned to the Lexington, the task group came under attack by a number of Japanese planes.  Ray and Bill Emerson along with a number of other pilots from VB-19 were on one of the catwalks on the carrier island.  They watched the planes coming in on the fleet with most of them being shot down before reaching the ships.  Several planes singled out the Lexington.  One was shot down then a second came hurtling down through the broken cloud cover.  A shower of antiaircraft fire was directed at the plane and it was hit repeatedly.  The plane came on and in an instant it struck the forward island structure of the Lexington.  The bomb the plane was carrying broke away and exploded, showering the side of the ship with fire and debris.   Ray was wounded with flash burns and shrapnel.  Bill Emerson and another pilot, Joe Williams, were also wounded.  Bomber 19 lost five pilots to the attack, Bob Parker, Chuck Fisher, Bob Smith, Bob Doyle, John Gilchrist and Francis Jackson were killed.  Altogether, 47 personnel were killed and 127 injured.  This was considered to be one of the first organized Kamikaze attacks of the war. The fires were quickly extinguished and wreckage was cleared off the deck in time for the returning Manila strike planes to safely land.

Ray, along with the other wounded, were taken below decks to be treated. Ray was given a shot to knock him out for pain while he was being treated.  Some hours later, Ray awoke and was in a dark room below decks.  After sorting things and trying to remember what happened, Ray swung his legs out over the bunk to try and get up.  His feet came down on a canvas bag. Looking around the room in the dim light he noticed the room was full of bags, FULL BODY BAGS.  Ray was able to get himself up to find other quarters.  Ray eventually was sent to the hospital ship USS Solace along with many of the other wounded. Ray was in a room with Emerson, Williams and a number of others that had been wounded on the Lexington.  They received a visit from none other than fleet commander, Admiral William F. Halsey.

Bill Emerson wrote about this incident……

The day after our arrival on SOLACE, 10 to 15 of us were ensconced in a cozy little officers’ sick bay, basically doing nothing more than comparing notes on where we were on LEX when it hit the fan. All of a sudden much hustle and bustle in the passageway, and through the hatch to our little convention pops the Bull himself. Halsey, that is! The next few minutes were a blur of him whipping around the room speaking to each of us occupants about our general health and welfare. As he was about to depart, he turned in the hatch and declared to all us has-been warriors, “OK men, thirty days leave and back at ‘em, Right?” With that he was gone! One of his aides had not quite left the room when a response to the Bull’s declaration was forthcoming from a very seriously wounded Commander. The Commander may have been hurt, but I assure you his vocal cords were not impaired. The Admiral’s aide froze on the spot, but thought better of saying anything when he saw the fire on the eyes of the wounded Commander. The three striper verbalized his thoughts with the following immortal words. “That crazy son-of-a-bitch must be out of his Goddamned mind!” We never did find out if the Admiral heard the rebuttal to his broad plan for our immediate future. I don’t think the Commander really cared if he did. The Admiral’s aide, without comment, jammed on his hat and departed the area with the irreverent howls and roaring laughter beating on his ears.

The war was over for Ray Wicklander and he made his way home to continue his recovery and to see for the first time his little girl that was born while he was away at war. Ray’s gunner, Jerry Warnke, who was not wounded in the attack, stayed on the Lexington.  Here are some of his memories.

WARNKE: My memories of our tour of combat operations on the Lexington are probably unremarkable from most everyone else. I don’t believe I was ever really terrified of anything that happened (stupidity? naivete? ignorance? probably some of all three.) but am also sure that my blood pressure and pulse rates rose a bit when somebody told me what all those “black puffs” were! However, I was also informed not to worry about those “explosions” you can see, so I sat back and enjoyed the fireworks — knowing my fearless pilot would dodge all that crap they were throwing up to greet us! The old BP & pulse rate did elevate to record heights at Iwo Jima and over the Japanese fleet! Multicolored bursts all around us, and I swear I saw a kitchen sink go by close abeam! But the Mighty Wicklander never let them “lay a glove on us”! As a matter of fact, we came thru it all “untouched” except for a small dent in the middle of a prop blade. (Probably hit by musket fire from a rice farmer)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stew Bass, 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.