Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Pearl Harbor Survivor

We went to a memorial Saturday for a World War 2 Veteran who recently died at 92 years old. He was with the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks on Oahu on 7 December 1941.  He had always said it was not the worst place to be on Hawaii that day - as the 24th and 25th Divisions combined suffered just three killed and 26 wounded compared to the 2000 plus sailors killed and 1000 plus wounded.  The attack on Schofield happened just after 25 Val dive bombers from the Zuikaku and 14 Zeros from the Soryu and Hiryu attacked the adjacent Wheeler Field.  There they completely destroyed forty P-40 and six P-36 arrayed in a row like a carnival shooting gallery and not behind the revetments that were built for them.  Plus they damaged approximately 50 additional aircraft and inflicted 36 killed and 74 wounded on Army Air Corps soldiers.

After Wheeler the Japanese aircraft flew over Schofield Barracks at low altitude strafing the engineer, infantry, and artillery quadrangles, officer quarters, and the post hospital.  The redlegs at the artillery quad suffered the majority of the casualties.  A bomb hit a corner of the engineer quad and one hit the parade ground (or were they wayward Navy anti-aircraft shells?).  But neither caused casualties which were all due to strafing.  I have to wonder whether our vet had ever met James Jones, author of 'From Here to Eternity'.  I saw the movie version a few years after it came out in the 1950s.  But as a savvy teenager
even I knew that the scene with Burt Lancaster as 1st Sergeant Milt Warden on the roof cradling an M1919 Browning in his arms was complete BS.  His left palm would have cooked off like a well done steak – blackened Cajun style.  But apparently a Technical Sergeant William O. Gower, 27th Infantry Regiment was decorated by the Division Commander for a similar act.  Gower "took a machine gun and ammunition to the roof of the 27th Infantry quad and engaged strafing aircraft, at first cradling it in his left arm, then mounting it on a tripod. He remained on the roof throughout the
attack."   The 27th was also James Jones’ regiment, so he at the least probably attended the award ceremony for Gower if he did not know him personally.  During the attack two Japanese aircraft crashed into the nearby hills of Wahiawa.  It is believed that at least one and possibly both were brought down by small arms fire from Schofield.  Is that true?  Who knows, but those strafing runs were low, slow, and straight with no maneuvering, so perhaps?

The vet we memorialized Saturday was born in 1925 so was only 16 at the time.  A Washington State boy, he was brought up in Yakima and Wapato before enlisting.  When he finally returned stateside in 1944 on rotation furlough he was suffering from his sixth bout of malaria.  And he was wearing four battle stars aka campaign stars - one for Pearl Harbor, another for Guadalcanal, a third for Munda, and the fourth for Vella Lavella.  The 25th earned its nickname 'Tropic Lightning' and the lightning bolt in their unit patch at Guadalcanal.  It is also where their commander
'Lightning Joe' Collins earned his nickname.  Some claim it was Collins who first innovated with the TOT or 'Time-on-Target' technique at Galloping Horse hill on Guadalcanal with the initial rounds of six field artillery battalions landing simultaneously.  Maybe so for the US Army, but the Brits did it earlier in North Africa with all batteries syncing their time to BBC signals.  And I can't believe that concept or something like it was not experimented with 25 years earlier in France by Brits or Germans or French.  Besides, Collins was infantry branch so if he used the idea there it was probably from listening to a smart Division Artillery Officer (who probably got it from one of his even smarter junior officers or perhaps from an Aussie who had served earlier in the 8th Army).


His recollection of Munda was hunger,  He and the men in his squad lived on a single can of C-rations a day for 19 days.


I do not recall him ever saying much about Vella Lavella other than 'spider holes'.  After capture, the SeaBees turned Vella Lavella into a key airfield for degradation of the important IJN base at Rabaul and allowed Rabaul to be bypassed.  But Vella Lavella itself was the first leap in the island hopping leapfrogging strategy.  By going to Vella Lavella they jumped over the 10,000 man Japanese garrison on Kolombangara Island and rendered them useless.  That strategy was developed 32 years earlier in 1911 by Admiral Raymond Perry Rogers at the Naval War College - that despite MacArthur's Trump-like claim that he had invented the theory.  The Japanese themselves had also used it in their earlier drive to Southeast Asia.  Probably the Athenians used it 2500 years ago in their Aegean domination?




  1. IIRC the GI nickname for the 25th ID patch was the "electric strawberry" for the lightning bolt and the berry-like shape of the taro leaf. Dunno if that went back to the WW2 era, tho.

    My thought on the Solomons Campaign was that it was critical in validating the value of the USN's Fast Carrier Force that led to the destruction of the IJN air arm and the island-hopping strategy.

    Initially the US thought that the Japanese garrisons would have to be reduced individually, and the early island fights showed how bloodily awful that would be. But the actual value of those island garrisons depended on their ability to project power, and without air or naval assets they were reduced to the old metric of the coastal forts, the range of their biggest shore batteries.

    The FCF was key, in that it provided floating airfields that could hammer the island airstrips and destroy the land-based aviation AND sink anything that floated under the hinomaru. Once that proved effective then it was game over for the Japanese garrisons; they could be bypassed and left to starve, and were.

    Some islands still had to be fought over, to provide bomber bases, but those became fewer because of the airpower that Nimitz's fleet carriers provided.

    And I've been to the old nfantry barracks at Schofield. Some of them still have the 7.7mm holes from 12/7/41 in the walls...

  2. FDC -

    Yes, the Fast Carrier Task Force was key. And yet Admiral Halsey was quoted as saying that "bulldozers won the war in the Pacific". In other words, they were the highly-stable, non-maneuverable aircraft carriers made of coral and sand. They allowed Halsey's actual carriers, the ones with hulls and keels, to focus on better things than the leapfrogged strong points. Things like the Philippines, Marianas, Carolines, Formosa, Okinawa, the Home Islands, and as you mentioned everything afloat flying an IJN ensign.

    But that was later in the war. In the Solomons the FCTF was just a dream with limited resources. Halsey's choice for his FCTF (TF38) Commander was John McCain's Grandpappy. Earlier in the war McCain had been Commander of all landbased aircraft in the Solomons. That included direct control of Army Air Corps B17s and P38s until the Thirteenth Air Force was formed. It was McCain's airfields on Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal that kept open the supply lifeline to MacArthur in Australia. Without that lifeline there would have been no New Guinea Campaign, and no "I have returned". And McCain's staff did the planning for the later landbased airfields on Vella Lavella, Bougainville et al that were critical in enabling the Fast Carrier Groups.

    Not bad for a former battleship sailor. Too bad the guy worked himself to death and dropped dead of a heart attack four days after VJ Day.

  3. It was in the Solomons, tho, that the USN began to realize that the old pre-war paradigm - that carriers would always be too vulnerable to land-based airpower - had been stood on it's head. The island bases WERE important. But the real shocking thing was that you didn't HAVE to have an island base to defeat an enemy's island base. You could do that with seaborne airpower. That changed the rules in a way that utterly screwed Imperial Japan.

    Mind you...had the IJN not already had some structural flaws that helped make that carrier air war so successful the fight would likely have been longer, and bloodier. And the IAAF has always impressed me as an organization that always seemed to manage to make the least of it's strengths.

    But that was the "story" I got writing up the Philippine Sea; the lessons of island/naval war were there for the learning in 1942 and 1943. The USN and USMC and USA learned and changed. The IJN and IJA (and IJAAF) either didn't, or too slowly, or too sketchily to help. By 1944 the Americans were fighting the war of 1944; the Japanese were still, in too many critical ways, still fighting the war of 1941...

  4. "USN began to realize that the old pre-war paradigm - that carriers would always be too vulnerable to land-based airpower - had been stood on it's head."

    Seems the Japanese knew that back in 1941. They knew they were going against the several hundred land-based aircraft at Hickam, Wheeler, Haleiwa, Ewa, and K-Bay airfields. Plus they were nervously looking over their shoulder for the three USN carriers normally based at Pearl. So they brought the Kido Butai with eight carriers and over 400 aircraft of their own. Hmmm, maybe they should have brought eight to Midway also?

    The USN adopted that with the FCTFs in 1944 and 1945, when they had umpteen fleet carriers in the Pacific Theater. And that does not count the many scores of baby flat-tops or escort carriers like the USS Gambier Bay.

    During the Solomon Island campaign the USN had no such availability of riches. Many times during that campaign there were no carriers at all within COMSOPAC. Before and during that campaign began we lost the Langley, the Lexington, the Wasp and the Hornet in those seas, plus damaged the Yorktown which we lost later at Midway.

    Plus I think many Naval Aviators knew that land-based airpower was overrated back in the 1920s when Billy Mitchell sank the Ostfriesland while she was in a fixed position, not underway with boilers not fired up, no steerage, sea anchors out, no damage control parties onboard, and no escorts with supporting AAA fire.

    But you are right that the Navy Brass at the time did not understand the implications.

  5. And Islands were still important, even with the FCTFs. The Pacific Fleet in 44 and 45 was huge, or 'A Fleet At Flood Tide" as author and naval historian James Hornfischer calls it. As good as the USN was at UNREP (Underway Replenishment), there were never enough tankers and tenders to cover that huge fleet in the last two years of the war.

    The Forward Naval Base at Ulithi Atoll in the Palaus was bigger than Pearl Harbor and had as many or more services. It could hold 700 ships and was critical as an anchorage and for resupply and repair. The Navy could not leave Japanese airfields on islands anywhere near it, and they needed their own airfields on those other islands to protect it - more than the little strip available on Falalop at Ulithi itself.

    Plus in the Gilberts, Marshalls, Carolines and elsewhere they needed seaplane bases, weather stations, radio relays, direction finding sites, etc.

    In the Marianas and Aleutians they were recapturing American territory.

    The Ryukus? I would guess Marshall and MacArthur wanted that for staging the thirty divisions (plus) of the First, Sixth and Eighth Armies for the invasion of the home islands. I understand 42 aircraft carriers were scheduled to support that during Operation Downfall.

    Iwo Jima turned out to be useless as a staging base for 'Downfall'. But the Army Air Force apparently wanted it taken. Not just as an emergency landing field for returning B-29s. But also to prevent Japanese fighter planes based on Iwo to intercept those B-29s and to attack US airfields in the Marianas. And to base P-51 fighters there so they could escort and protect the B-29s all the way into and back from Tokyo. Although I understood all that was marginal. Except perhaps for using it as an emergency landing site, but the Navy carrier fliers did not have a Bingo airfield like that, they had to ditch in the ocean. IMHO they should have just neutralized Iwo like they did to Rabaul and Truk.

  6. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for this post. I lost my Dad this year and he was also 92 and a WWII vet who saw a lot of combat which left him a changed man. It affected him for many decades but he seems to find some peace about 60 years old.

    He joined in late 42 after his mother finally gave him permission, knowing he'd be drafted anyway in a couple of months. He became a radioman and bombardier in dive and torpedo bombers flying off escort carriers in the Pacific and he earned a DFC along the way.

    1. Andy -

      Sorry about your Dad. Good thing he was not in one of those torpedo bombers at Midway. Or I assume you would not be here today?

      Where did he earn the DFC, do you know which campaign that was?

    2. Hi Mike,

      Thank you. He did live a good long life - I hope I make it to 92. He was active to the end.

      I don't recall which campaign he got the DFC, but I believe it was either Saipan or the Philippines as those were the last campaigns he was involved in. The citation itself (his 2nd wife has the original) is rather short and lacks detail, as awards were back then. She also has the originals of 5 air medals that preceded the DFC.

      I've ordered a copy of his complete military records as there is a bunch of stuff missing stuff and there were things he never talked about, like how he ended up in a veterans hospital in Florida for several months before before being discharged in October 1945.

      He flew in TBM's mainly doing pre-invasion ground strikes and then ground support for the landings. I don't think his unit ever did a torpedo attack.

    3. Andy -

      Your Dad was in good company with that DFC:
      - a president
      - three CNOs and one of them (Moorer) went on to become CJCS
      - JFK's older brother Joe
      - Wade McClusky
      - Doolittle, Chennault, Zamperini, McGovern, Yeager
      - Dick Rutan

      And they were rarely awarded to back-seaters. His pilot and squadron CO must have pushed hard to get him that award.

    4. He left the Navy as a Second Class Petty Officer, so yeah, I thought it was a pretty big deal too. Hopefully I can learn more of the details. Like a lot of vets, he didn't want to talk about the war very much.

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    6. My understanding, Andy, is that the escort carrier air wings were typically a mix of fighters (F4Fs then F6Fs) and torpedo bombers (mostly TBF "Avengers", as the TBDs were pretty much out of the fleet by the time the CVEs were commissioned) but that the munitions load was almost entirely bombs for general use and depth charges for ASW. I don't know if the CVEs even shipped torpedoes, particularly by the '44 and '45 campaigns like the PI. So not surprisingly that your pop's torpecker never carried one.

      And my old man, who passed two years ago May, was in the V-12 program preparing to go to flight school when the bombs fell in August '45. My guess is that he'd have ended up in the front seat of a TBF or SB2C; just never seemed like the fighter jock type guy.

    7. Chief,

      Yeah, that's right. One of his squadrons was Composite Squadron 88 (VC-88)
      which flew Wildcats and Avengers.

      The CO of that squadron and one of my Dad's friends was killed when his Avenger came back to the carrier with a live, hung bomb - it exploded when the aircraft touched down.

      In an earlier squadron (but I don't know which one yet), he was in Dauntless dive-bombers, but I'm not sure if he saw combat in those or not.

      BTW, I got the campaigns a bit wrong, I just looked them up - Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. I was fortunate to obtain a copy the declassified unit history which had a lot of good information, but nothing specific about my Dad.

  7. My own Dad would be 97 now if he were still with us. I was born just a week or so before he landed in North Africa. He got through that fine. But then caught a load of shrapnel in Italy and spent months in an Army hospital before coming home.