Chapter 11

Standby,     Mark!
by Lynn Forshee

We made an uneventful return back to the Yorktown to learn that LEX had vectored fighters out to identify and intercept unknown aircraft.  The F4F’s noted fires below which turned out to be enemy bombers that had been shot down a bit earlier.  We had landed back aboard and just got in ahead of complete darkness.  Now we had some F4F’s out that I listened to on the radio and two of them were lost and begging for a heading from our Radar.  They were already out of range of Radar though and their radio signals were fading fast.  Then as in Alice in Wonderland, “Things got curiouser and curiouser”.  We had three planes that made a pass close by on the starboard side and crossed the bow of the flight deck to port.  This was not an accepted approach and there was something different about their position lights, “They are Japs” came the announcement.  They fell in with our circle of planes and about every other one was a Nip.  We began shooting about everything we had and somebody with either a 20MM or a 1.1 shot the star on the side of an F4F’s fuselage right out.  Believe it or not it did land safely.

 

Now it became clear that in the patchy cloud cover our task force and the Japanese force had approached within a few miles of each other.  It was a long time before I could forget the pleading voices of those two F4F pilots.  We managed to shoot down two of the Japs that were apparently intending to land on the  “Y” as they made no hostile moves and even went so far as to send blinker messages to us.  The third plane must have suffered the same fate as our two F4F’s.  It was estimated that at 1930 we had come within 30 miles of the Jap carriers.  They were busy with radio traffic trying to land planes and guide them in.  They had lost about 10 it was later determined.

 

Fletcher met with the pilots to see how they felt about another strike in the darkness.  Due to the extremely bad weather conditions and the possibility of losing more planes it was decided to wait for a strike in the morning.  The weather factor at Jaluit was still fresh in our minds.  The possibility of detaching destroyers or cruisers to take it to the Japs in darkness on the surface was also considered but it was felt that the carriers were too important to place in jeopardy without anti submarine protection.

 

Now we knew that tomorrow would be the big day and the ready room was buzzing, we had left Commander R.G. Armstrong at Tonga and Wally Short from VS5 became our CO.  JO JO Powers was briefing the pilots, some of whom would be flying their first combat mission on the art of dive bombing advocating a late release for increased accuracy but of course this had drawbacks, the possibility of getting hit by a blast from your own bomb, more effective enemy anti aircraft or going so low that a pull out was impossible.  It was later rumored that upon leaving the ready room he made the statement that he was going to get a hit if he had to go in and “lay it on the deck”.  I’m quite sure that his rear seat man, Hill would not have found much reassurance in that.

 

Just after midnight on the morning of May 8 Fitch gave orders to Fletcher to carry out a 360 degree search, 200 miles to the north and 150 to the south with strike force readied, condition 1.  Combat air patrol to be sent aloft 15 minutes before sunrise and Destroyer Monaghan sent out to search for survivors of the Neosho and Sims and to send radio messages back to CINCPAC from a location well away from us in case the Japs got a bearing on them.

 

Scouting planes sent aloft soon discovered that the cloud cover and adverse weather that had shielded us previously had now shifted north and was aiding the enemy.

 

At about 0830 2S2 from the Lexington sent the following message, 2CVs, 4 CAs, 3 DDs, this being relayed from another scout, position unknown.  This was the force we had been looking for, 2 carriers, 4 cruisers and 3 destroyers.  The Jap scouts had found us at about the same time so we would no doubt be meeting each others attack groups somewhere in between.  Their position was given as bearing 006 degrees north and 120 miles.  They had apparently gone north while we had gone south after the contact the night before.

 

At 0908 we began launching planes, 2 F4Fs were to give us air cover and 4 were assigned to the TBDs of VT5.  As we rolled down the deck with our heavy load, 250 gallons of aviation gasoline and a 1,000 pound bomb it seemed that we would not clear the bow in the air.  Johnny Kasselman and I and our pilots had traded planes at the last minute and a glance around the cockpit told me that Johnny had left his 45 automatic in the plane.  I now had two and I hoped that Johnny would not have need for his.  We began our struggle to 20,000 ft. and at 10,000 we went to oxygen.  Sometimes at this altitude I would put on the mask without the “O” turned on just to warm the air as it came around the mask.  Fitch, an experienced Naval Aviator had been given charge of the strike force by Fletcher.

 

At 1032 we sighted the Jap task force, it consisted of a battle ship, 2 carriers, 6 heavy cruiser, and 4 light cruisers or destroyers moving at 20 knots.  On the way in Johnny who was my wing man sent me a message, tapping it out on his helmet, “IAS”, I checked with Horenburger and tapped back our indicated air speed, then came “MOPA”.  Johnny wanted to check the setting on the radio with mine.  I gave him the master oscillator and power amplifier settings and we circled for about 7 minutes while the carrier ZUIKAKU headed into a rain squall to hide, the SHOKAKU began launching planes.  This was the time she was most vulnerable but we had to wait for the torpedo planes to come in.  We had to draw attention from them as they were considerably slower, coming straight in much easier prey than the SBDs.

 

Johnny was flying with Chaffee and would have been in a position just aft of us in our dive.  At about the same instant we pushed over for our dive the zeros were on us and my concern was that I would be kept so busy with them on our tail that I would miss giving Horenburger the standby and mark for a pull out and with his eye glued to the bomb sight we could go right on in.  Boy they were like a swarm of hornets, I got the first one and I believe I got the pilot as he pulled right up abruptly, did a sort of a wing over and nosed down in a spiral.  The next one was staying back a bit farther but I got some hits but didn’t see what happened to him other than he broke off the attack.  One thing about facing aft is that you see all the antiaircraft and tracers converging behind your plane, facing forward all you see is the muzzle flashes and you don’t know if they are aimed at you or someone else.  I now turned my attention to the SHOKAKU which after launching her planes was in a tight circle, standard procedure for a ship under dive bomber attack.  I gave the Standby and Mark, we released and pulled out with what appeared to be a hit on the flight deck.  We now headed south at full throttle trying to get into some of that cloud cover.  No other planes joined up on us so I maintained a sharp lookout for any planes, enemy or ours.

 

As we appeared to have cleared the area of enemy fighter operation I relaxed a bit and in looking around something caught my eye.  Shucks, I didn’t own any polkadot dungarees.  Then it hit me, we had been holed and the sunlight was shining through the holes and making those nice little round dots.  Sure would like to see a familiar plane right now.  I wondered where Johnny was.  I wondered about all the others.  We had lost our F4F escorts on the way in but the torpedo planes had their 4 with them cutting down on their losses.  We were grateful for the cloud cover as we ducked in and out on the way back.  Some of our aircraft returning met some of the Japs returning and a few aerial battles ensued.  Our radio contact was almost nonexistent and as we came in, low on fuel as usual.  We joined some others in the landing circle and came aboard.  Many of the faces we would have welcoming us aboard were strangely white and taut.

 

As we were released from the arresting gear cable and taxied up to the forward elevator for the trip to the hangar deck a strange feeling came over me, something was wrong.  As I crawled from the plane on the hangar deck I came upon a pile of bodies stacked like cordwood.  There was a hole in the deck next to our plane with a ring of flesh and dungaree cloth around it.  Someone came up and began counting holes in our plane and examining them to see if they were in very sensitive areas.  One sure was, it had cut all but three strands of the rudder cable between my feet.  There was a 7.7 bullet laying on the floor of the plane in the front cockpit, the antenna was shot away and they were making a decision as to whether or not to push 5B7 over the side.  Some of the returning planes had been given the “deep six” from the flight deck.  Moan who should have been Johnny’s pilot and Hodgens were pretty badly shot up and full of shrapnel and their plane was disemboweled when it hit the island.

 

I went back topside and discovered that the Lex had been hit worse and her aviation gas supply was burning.  I was watching for late returning planes as Johnny must be short on fuel by this time.

 

One of the rear seat men who was on the dive with us knew that Johnny and I were always together and he came up and told me that Johnny got 2 zeros in the dive but he and Chaffee went down burning.  I volunteered for a flight just to get away.  I ended up flying patrol over the burning Lex all afternoon.  It was like watching a person die I think.

 

 

Copyright ©2004-2007 Lynn R. Forshee.  All rights reserved.
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