The carrier aircraft swept in from the Tonkin Gulf, seeking targets of opportunity along the Indochina coast. There was no aerial opposition but the defenders had plenty of antiaircraft guns on ships, shore, and especially on airfields.
The date was January 12, 1945. Seventy years ago this month.
Admiral William F. Halsey’s Third Fleet was built around Task Force 38 with 12 fast carriers and 75 accompanying battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. “The Bull” sought big game—two Japanese battleships partly converted to carriers, but his intelligence proved wrong. Ise and Hyuga were laid up at Singapore, 800 miles away.
Launching 60 miles off Cam Ranh Bay—well known to a later generation of aviators—the Hellcats, Corsairs, Helldivers and Avengers scourged the area. The 1,500 sorties sank about 45 Japanese or Vichy French-controlled vessels and bombed or strafed 30 others while burning about 100 aircraft on the ground or at their moorings.
It was a triumph: probably no Allied warships had steamed in the South China Sea since 1942. But as always there was a price: 23 carrier planes were lost including an F6F-5 Hellcat off the second carrier Hornet (CV-12).
Lieutenant (jg) Blake Moranville was a 21-year-old Nebraskan flying with Fighter Squadron 11, led by Lt. Cdr. Gene Fairfax. Blake was called “Rabbit” in the Sundowners because of his name’s similarity to Baseball Hall of Famer Walter “Rabbit” Maranville. With six victories, Blake was one of the Navy’s youngest aces but his luck ran out that afternoon while strafing Tan Son Nhut Airport. A 20mm shell hole drained his Pratt & Whitney engine of oil, forcing him into a controlled landing. He splashed down in a rice paddy 75 miles southwest of Saigon.
Blake climbed out of his airplane, standing in the muck, uncertain where to go. His friends made a last pass overhead, assuring he was alright, then set course for Hornet. Blake was keeper of the Sundowners’ mascot, a Boston bull terrier named Gunner, who sulked in the VF-11 ready room, keenly missing his master.
Eventually Blake linked up with some Vietnamese who took him to a village overnight. The next morning a Vichy civilian official—a count--took the American to the French army in Saigon. Because Vichy France was allied with Japan, Blake Moranville was a prisoner of war.
At the Maison Centrale Blake joined a Hancock Hellcat pilot, a Marine Corsair pilot off the Essex, and a TBM Avenger bomber crew from the light carrier San Jacinto. The six fliers were well treated by the French, who knew how the war was going and had no wish to incur their wrath.
Members of the anti-Vichy community were allowed to visit the Americans in prison, delivering extra food, reading material, tobacco, liquor, and even a radio. Based on date of rank, Blake was senior officer and said there would be no escape attempt—the war clearly was in the Allies’ favor.
However, the prison warden did not want to be caught harboring Americans from the Japanese, who had begun searching Saigon. Therefore, he arranged for Blake and company to be trucked 700 miles north to a Foreign Legion camp near Hanoi. Once there, presumably the naval fliers would be in much safer hands. But their living condition deteriorated with poor food and accommodations. Many became ill. Then things got worse.
In early March the Japanese turned on the Vichy forces, justly fearing that the French might change sides. A nearby French garrison was wiped out as the Japanese began eliminating potential resistance. With no other option, the Legionnaires released the Americans, provided rifles and ammunition, and invited them to join a 280-mile slog across the mountains to the Laotian border. Blake’s group accepted, joining 200 Legionnaires as new allies.
For 13 days the group trekked toward a remote outpost called Dien Bien Phu. One night they were ambushed en route, and the Yanks only survived thanks to a quick-thinking German veteran of La Legion. On March 22 perhaps 50 survivors straggled into the outpost, tired, sick, and hungry.
The six naval airmen settled down to wait. The Army Air Force in Kunming, China, knew of their presence but weather clamped down, preventing an evacuation. All the while the relentless Japanese came closer. As Blake recalled, “It was really frustrating. We could hear the C-47 overhead some days but it couldn’t get in for a landing.”
Finally, on the sixth day, March 28, the ceiling lifted enough for the Douglas transport to land on the rough airstrip. The 250-mile flight due north proved a godsend to the trapped Americans. About two days later the Japanese took Dien Bien Phu.
Back in Guide Rock, Nebraska, Gunner the mascot was gleefully reunited with Blake. But Blake’s father, a veterinarian, had taken excellent care of the terrier, and as Blake later laughed, “By then he was my dad’s dog.”
Summarizing his Indochina adventure, Blake said, “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience but you couldn’t pay me that much to do it again!”
In a remarkable coincidence, one of Blake’s sons, Mark, was born on 12 January 1950 and followed in his dad's wake, spending 29 years in the Navy.
Blake retired as a lieutenant commander in 1964 and earned two post-graduate degrees. He became dean of students at Oregon College of Education in Monmouth near Salem, where I met him in the 1970s.
It was a privilege to know Blake and Mary, as we kept touch until Blake died of cancer in 2000, age 77. I’ve received honorary memberships in three Navy squadrons, but there’s a special place in my heart and memory for Blake Moranville, Gene Fairfax, Charlie Stimpson, Jim Swope and the other WW II members of the historic Sundowners.