Thursday, May 14, 2015

MAY 14, 1945

I've never posted twice in one month but this May recalls two events 20 years apart.

One of the most satisfying books I’ve written was Enterprise: America’s Fightingest Ship and the Men Who Helped Win  WW II (Simon & Schuster, 2010)  I knew so many Big E men that I came to share their love for their ship, and on the 70th anniversary of her last day in combat, I want to share events of May 14, 1945, well west of the International Date Line.  

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When the sun appeared over the Philippine Sea at 5:30 a.m., the ship had been at general quarters for ninety-three minutes.  Hatches were dogged; guns were manned; and battle rations available.  The dawn revealed good flying weather: a fifteen-knot southerly wind driving scattered cumulus clouds with bases at 3,000 feet.

Radar had tracked twenty-six raiders inbound from Kyushu, and when the hostiles met the task group’s Hellcat umbrella, some twenty-two Japanese succumbed to interceptors or shipboard antiaircraft gunners. 

One intended to die gloriously.

Hellcats hunted a particularly cagey Zeke playing three-dimensional cat and mouse.  He ducked in and out of clouds, tracked by radar and occasionally by optical gun directors, but the fighters could not corner him.  He was unusually persistent, biding his time while making good use of the low clouds.

The intruder was Lieutenant (jg) Shunsuke Tomiyasu of the 721st Naval Air Group.  The 721st was deadly good at its job.  Ensign Kioyoshi Ogawa had expended his life against the Bunker Hill three days before, forcing Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher to shift his flag to The Big E.

Like his squadronmate Ogawa, Tomiyasu was twenty-two years old.  His relatives remembered him as a cheerful young man, fond of sports and music, who dabbled in painting.  He urged his family to “live with great enthusiasm,” but Tomiyasu was equally capable of dying with great enthusiasm.

Now, seeing an opportunity, at 6:53 Tomiyasu pointed his Mitsubishi’s nose at the American carrier group and initiated a run, broad on the starboard beam.

The sailors were alert.  Almost immediately brown-black splotches erupted beneath the puffy white clouds, radar-directed shells with fuses containing miniature radio transmitters that detonated when they sensed an aircraft nearby.

As the Zeke sprinted from the clouds at 1,500 feet, Captain Hall ordered a hard port turn.  By swinging the stern to starboard as the bow came left, Hall unmasked more antiaircraft guns and forced the pilot to make a correction to avoid an overshoot.

Enterprise now got a good look at Shunsuke Tomiyasu--his Zeke carried a large bomb.  At 6:57 he came straight on, in a thirty-degree dive, not jinking to avoid the flak and tracers that flashed and flared around him.  “Everybody unloaded on him,” said Marine gunner Jack Maroney. 

It seemed incredible that an airplane could survive such gunfire.  By one reckoning, the Zeke was subjected to fifty-five barrels: 20 and 40 millimeter to five-inch. 

Near the bottom of his dive, Tomiyasu recognized that he would overshoot to starboard.  Two hundred yards out, in the final seconds of life, he snap-rolled left to inverted and tugged the stick back, performing the first quarter of a split-ess.

It was a beautiful piece of flying.

On escorting ships, men watched incredulously as the suicide pilot performed an inverted forty-five degree dive into Big E’s fir flight deck, splintering it just aft of the number one elevator.  The hull trembled with the violence of the ensuring explosion; men felt it throughout the ship.  

The explosion lofted a large section of the fifteen-ton elevator some 400 feet into the air; the rest fell into the elevator well.   

The bulkhead between the pilots’ staterooms was obliterated, leaving a ballroom-sized pile of rubble.  The flight deck was bulged upward nearly five feet, and twenty-five aircraft destroyed.

Lieutenant Commander John Munro already was one of the most experienced damage control officers in the U.S. Navy.  His ship had been hit on March 18, March 20, and April 11—four times in seven weeks.  But the latest was the worst—moreso than Eastern Solomons or Santa Cruz in 1942.

The information poured into DC Central: a serious fire in the forward hangar bay, threatening ammunition lockers; the aviation fuel system was ruined, lines severed and tanks leaking high-test gasoline.  Seawater was streaming in unchecked through breaches in the hull, and three- and six-inch water mains were broken, aggravating the flooding.  Any one of those was serious; together they posed a catastrophic threat.

Yet Enterprise responded as she had off Guadalcanal.  The men, the crew—the ship—fought back.  Up forward where the situation was worst, damage repair teams rushed to work.  Hull technicians, carpenters, and bosun’s mates gathered their gangs, shouted orders over roaring flames, and began fighting the fight.  Some sailors picked up five-inch shells and powder bags, passing them hand to hand until the last man in line pitched the explosives overboard.  Others sought the maimed, dead or dying and pulled, carried, or tugged them out of the way.

Enterprise won her fight in seventeen minutes.  The worst of the flames were suppressed and the rest finally extinguished in two hours.

Meanwhile, power to forward guns was interrupted or destroyed but other batteries remained in the fight.  While the smoke still smoldered, Big E gunners splashed two more “bloodsuckers” in the next hour.

That was the end of The Big E's long war.

Then it was time to count the cost.  Fourteen men were dead.  About sixty were wounded, half of them seriously.  The toll was small compared to the sixty-six crewmen Enterprise had lost at Eastern Solomons and forty-four at Santa Cruz—let alone Franklin and Bunker Hill’s hundreds.  But shipmates are special in the sea services, and three of the Big E’s dead sailors had been aboard since 1942.

One other casualty was tended to.  Tomiyasu’s body was recovered largely intact, and intelligence officers retrieved his papers. 

Much has been made of the racial aspects of the Pacific War—perhaps too much.  But generally the U.S. Navy accorded proper if not Christian burial to dead Japanese: two instances involved the battleship Missouri and escort carrier Sargent Bay.  So it was in Enterprise.  The medical department sutured the enemy pilot’s wounds; his body was enshrouded in a mattress cover, then committed to the ocean. 

The kamikaze’s name was improperly translated as “Tomi Zai,” and remained so for decades.  But assiduous research on both sides of the Pacific finally solved the riddle, and some of Tomiyasu’s personal effects with pieces of his airplane were delivered to his family in 2003.

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In 2010 I received a letter from a Big E radar specialist.  It contained a hand-written note appended to an envelope: “Thought you’d like to have this.”

Inside was a fairly crisp Japanese 50-sen note with the comment, “This was in the pocket of Tomi Zai, 14 May 1945.”

I’m keeping that irreplaceable bit of history in a safe, dark place, until I determine what to do with it.

Monday, May 11, 2015


Fifty years ago today I took an aircraft off the ground by myself, and I returned it to its owner—intact.

I was a 16 year-old high-school sophomore.

May 11, 1965 was a Tuesday.  All through classes I had felt that I would solo that afternoon.  What I did not realize was that I was well past the typical eight hours to solo.  In retrospect, I realized that my father was hedging to the max.  My mother had lost two friends in airplanes—never mind that one was in a B-25 in WW II—and she was, to understate things immensely, concerned.

But she also knew how much I wanted to fly.

At the time I had a learner’s permit to drive but was far more interested in flying.  Dad always took me to Martin Field at College Place near Walla Walla, where he’d chosen Herman Martin’s Piper dealership to instruct me.  It was a 20-minute drive from my home town at Athena, just across the border.  I’d begun flying that February and got my student’s license in March.

Martin Field was 1940s ambience with two hangars and knotted wood paneling in the lounge.  Elevation was 746 feet msl, which meant we flew the pattern at 1,550.  Or so.  The single paved runway was 5/23, set amid neatly-mowed grass most of the year.

My main instructor was Al Bixby, a 50-year-old crew-cut professional who, like most IPs, was equal parts mentor and taskmaster. 

We nearly always flew N6053W, a standard 140-hp Cherokee delivered the year before.  I was always short and slight—in fact, I started flying by sitting on a red cushion for a full view over the instrument panel.  Normally I flew twice a week but I’d missed one day previously, having logged 1.00 in takeoffs and landings on the 6th.

On Der Tag Al had me start up and take off, as usual to the south-southwest.  After a semi-grease job, I was about to shove in the throttle for another go when Al said, “Let it roll out.” 

I knew what was coming. 

As I braked at the fuel island, Al said, “Take it around three times and stop back here.”  I don’t think he said anything as dramatic as “Good luck,” though he may have advised me to abort a landing that didn’t feel right.  (I’m not even sure if the radio was turned on.)  I glimpsed Dad leaning on the cyclone fence; he seemed cool.

Takeoff was procedurally routine but the emotion was not.  I was beyond elated—exultant, actually.  I pounded the dash with my right hand: “You and me, baby!”

It was wonderful. 

Honestly, I don’t recall much after that, not after 50 years.  But I do remember the routine in the pattern: turn crosswind southbound, left 90 for downwind, and turn base leg over the school east of the field, pulling on the flap handle—three clicks, all the way down for 40 degrees—then reaching up to give the trim a turn, relieving pressure on the yoke.

Two good landings and an excellent one, and I was done.  I’d realized my lifetime dream and wondered if I would ever be that happy again.

On the way home, Dad said, “I think it’s time you got your driver’s license.”

Al Bixby died19 years later, and I regret that I didn’t get to say goodbye.

N6053W still exists.  Checking the FAA register, I see it’s registered to a gent in Kerrville, Texas.  I hope he gives 53 Whiskey an extra quart of oil for the high school kid who lovingly caressed her.

Whatever else happened in America and the world, that May was memorable all-round.  My younger brother and I received our Eagle Scout badges (he was precocious in all things, graduating from Stanford en route to a Rhodes scholarship.)  We were active kids in school, church, and community.  We won district, state, and regional titles for debate and oratory, and in ‘66 John won Oregon’s humorous interpretation title with a raucous rendition of Julius Caesar.  Certainly The Bard never expected anybody would render his classic as a hard-boiled gumshoe who-done-it.

I had won my first state percussion championship the year before, playing tenor for the Falcons Jr. Drum and Bugle Corps, would take a third in ’65, and scored another win in ’66 on rudimental bass.  Meanwhile, I broke into print in 1965 with a column in a drum corps magazine, learning the joys and perils of publishing.  (IIRC the publisher used his press for, um, innovative purposes that drew dolorous inquiries from The Authorities.)

I was probably aware of national and world events more than most of my contemporaries.  Being head over heels about aviation, I followed Vietnam avidly.  Operation Rolling Thunder began that April with initial attacks on the notorious Thanh Hoa Bridge, about which I may have to say downstream.  The 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived in-country, as did Australia’s first contingent.  But things didn’t go especially well: the vile-putrid Lyndon Johnson called off the bombing later than month in the first of many carrot-and-stick efforts to get the hard-eyed pragmatists in Hanoi to play Texas back-scratchin’ politicks.  Y’all.  To this day, my Lone Star friends change the subject when LBJ comes up.

An early example of the grief that was Vietnam occurred at Bien Hoa Airbase on the 16th.  Twenty-seven Americans, four Vietnamese, and at least two dozen airplanes were destroyed in an “own ordnance” explosion on the flight line.

Cyclones killed tens of thousands in India; at least 15,000 Bangladeshis died in a horrible wind storm; China exploded its second A-bomb; a Pakistani airliner crash took 121 lives in Egypt; India and Pakistan resumed feuding over their border; and in a month filled with sports news, Scottish Grand Prix champ Jim Clark became the first foreigner to take the checkered flag at Indianapolis since 1916.

We all remember 1965 for our own reasons.  And like the rest of us, I’ll forever remember it as bittersweet vintage.