D-Day plus one during the invasion of Morotai - 16 September 1944, was a long, hard day for the men of Composite Squadron 66, and arguably their most memorable. Flight operations began at 0515. The TBM torpedo bombers again flew air support sorties over the Morotai landing area. The FM fighters flew combat air patrol sorties protecting the TBMs and the ships. At 0653, while flying combat air patrol in an FM-2, LTJG Reynold “Rod” Rodriquez from Forest Hills, New York, made an overhead pass at a Japanese “Zero” fighter from approximately 1000 feet above the water. Rodriquez was unable to pull out in time and was killed when his plane hit the water and exploded.
At 0655, Rodriquez’s VC-66 shipmate and fellow FM pilot, LTJG George W. “Brownie” Brown from Stockton, California, caught up with the Zero and shot it down ten miles south of Cape Gila, Morotai. The Zero burst into flames when it hit the water. AM1c Don Banks recalls the next day’s news cast reporting: “General MacArthur’s forces shot down a Zero on the 16th.” Evidently, they didn’t bother to mention Brown or the squadron’s involvement in the matter.
At 0900 on the 16th, four of the squadron’s TBMs were flying air support over the southern Morotai beaches when they were fired on by American LSDs (Landing Ship Dock) and destroyers. Fortunately - even though it was one of the heaviest anti-aircraft barrages that any of them had ever seen, the TBM crews suffered no casualties or damage to their planes from the friendly fire. But AMM2c James Gander, who observed the whole incident from his turret, remembers it as probably the most frightening moment of the war for him. He recalls, “Our ships opened up and that was tense.” He remembers thinking it “curious because the Japanese did not have any planes that looked like TBMs.”
The VC-66 men did not make a big deal out of the matter when they got back to the carrier. The possibility of being shot down by your fellow Americans as well as the Japanese was just another on the list of dangers that the men of the squadron had to live with – including taking off and landing on a short, rolling, pitching deck; possible in flight mechanical failure; formation flying; high speed maneuvering; finding the carrier in poor visibility; and the threat of your ship being torpedoed while you slept. Each man dealt with the stress the best he could and got on with the job.
Later in the morning of 16 September, a VC-66 fighter group made strikes on Lolobata Airfield on Halmahera Island - a larger and more heavily defended island near Morotai. They destroyed a Japanese “Sally” bomber and two Zeroes on the ground. But before returning to the FANSHAW BAY they got word that a pilot from another squadron had been shot down and was in serious trouble.
ENS Harold A. Thompson of FIGHTER SQUADRON TWENTY-SIX (VF-26) flying from the USS SANTEE (CVE-29) had been shot down within a few hundred feet of Japanese held Wasile Bay, Halmahera. Halmahera was twelve miles south of Morotai. Thompson was in a tough spot. Halmahera was crawling with Japanese – 30,000 of them (by comparison, the soon to become famous island of Iwo Jima had a Japanese garrison of about 22,000).
Planes from Thompson’s own squadron had been providing air cover for him, but they began running low on fuel and asked the VC-66 fighters for help. VC-66 FM pilot DeLoach Cope gives a nice first hand account of VC-66’s role in the Thompson rescue in an issue of VC-66 (T-2) pilot Joe Mussatto’s VC-66 (T-2) Newsletter. Cope recalls:
We had fuel and ammunition enough to help out until others could come in and relieve us. While covering we strafed the beaches and made sure the enemy could not get to the downed pilot located behind a barge that had been sunk just off shore. Looking from the Bay the barge was to the right of a pier extending out into the Bay.
The VC-66 planes kept a “constant watch” and repeatedly strafed the pier “to make sure no one could make it out there to do harm to the downed pilot.” The VC-66 fighters were eventually relieved and went back to their carrier - USS FANSHAW BAY (CVE-70). By now, arrangements were being made for a rescue effort by two PT boats – each with an all volunteer crew. VC-66 would help provide air support. In the meantime, Thompson - wounded in the hand and still being shot at by the Japanese, stayed in a life raft that had been dropped to him by a PBY. He hid as best he could - first near the pier and then by the sunken Japanese barge. It was sunk by the covering planes as it tried to attack Thompson.
At 1447, after refueling and rearming the fighters, VC-66 launched a special rescue covering strike group that involved virtually the whole squadron - seven TBMs and eight FMs. The skipper of one of the PT boats radioed to say that the Japanese fire from the beach was so intense that he had to turn back. LT. J.P. Fox was the VC-66 flight leader. Fox told the PT boat skipper to hold on as they were on their way and would be there in just a few minutes. Fox recalls, “Then I gave him an invitation he couldn’t refuse. Make another attempt and we will try to suppress the ground fire. He did a 180 degree and started his run in at full throttle while zig-zagging.”
The squadron’s planes arrived over the area and went to work bombing and strafing the Japanese positions. As Cope recalls, “All the Bay gun positions were bombed by the T-Bombers and the fighters strafed.”
The VC-66 planes dropped nearly four tons of bombs. Three TBMs from another CVE also laid down an effective covering smoke screen. Anti-aircraft fire was heavy. TBM pilot Franklin "Steve" Stephens recalls a plane from another carrier being hit and going down. It was an FM from the USS SUWANNEE (CVE-27) that was hit while making a strafing run. It crashed only one hundred yards from where Thompson was trying to hide. The pilot, ENS William P. Bannister, died in the crash. Another SUWANNEE fighter was shot down and crashed farther out in the bay. Its pilot survived and was rescued by a PBY. The flak was so heavy that another PBY could not get close enough to Thompson to rescue him.
Fox recalls, “In the meantime, Thompson had drifted under a “T” pier extending into Wasile Bay. We strafed the Japs who were trying to come out to get him.” Petty Officer Banks remembers circling the area and shooting at the Japanese end of the pier to keep them away from Thompson. VC-66 FM pilot Dean Birdsong recalls that some of the VC-66 planes ran out of ammunition. “But we continued to ‘buzz’ the Japanese to keep them down and from being able to fire at Thompson and the PT boats.” The VC-66 guys were going to do whatever they could to keep Thompson from being killed or captured.
Thompson was saved late in the afternoon when one of the PT boats approaching within fifty feet of shore, dashed in and rescued him under heavy fire from the beach. The fire was especially intense near the bay entrance. As the PT boat got close to the pier, J.P. Fox told the boat crew exactly where Thompson was hiding.
The planes continued to bomb, strafe, and lay down smoke while two swimmers from the PT boat went to get Thompson. Cope recalls, “It looked like the beach was on fire from the tracer bullets….bombers, that were loaded with smoke, made their run along the shore line – the breeze came to a stand still and the smoke settled along the shore line making it impossible to see the PT boat from shore.”
After Thompson was in the PT boat and it was backing out into the bay, a second smoke run was made. Cope describes it as being “almost like a movie, everything was done with such perfection.” Once back out in the bay, however, the PT boat still had to get back through the bay mouth to the open sea and safety. In Cope’s words:
The Japs had reloaded and were waiting for the little boat. The fighters and bombers and the smokers were also ready to put this daring crew and their little boat and the rescued pilot through that outlet. As the PT boat approached the outlet the fire began. The fighters and bombers had spotted the gun positions going through and were right on target. The smokers again were perfect with their part and the little boat made it back out to sea to join the other PT boat that was waiting to see if it was needed.
In his report of the mission, Fox indicated that while the PT boats were making their run out of the bay, the FMs split up with the VC-66 fighters covering the east shore and the other fighters covering the west shore. Fox continues:
At this point our 7 VT (TBMs) and 3 Smokys (TBMs from another squadron) split up and bombed, strafed, and fired rockets with excellent results on both sides of the channel. In spite of all of this the shore batteries put up heavier fire than had previously been encountered by the PTs. The fire was inaccurate and was almost impossible to tell where it was coming from.
The PT boats had been under fire for over two hours, but suffered no casualties. Fox advises, “When he (the PT boat skipper) was safely out I gave him a ‘Well Done’ and we returned to the FANSHAW BAY. I wrote up the whole incident and said he should be given a high medal for risking his boat and crew to pick up one of our pilots.” The Lieutenant who led the rescue mission was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Several members of his crew were awarded Navy Crosses, and others – including the crew of the second boat, received Silver Stars.
VC-66's ARM1c Bob Kennon recalls how he felt during the rescue mission as he looked down from his TBM radioman’s position and saw what the PT boat crews were going through and what they were doing (Kennon’s pilot was fellow Mississippian LTJG James O. “J.O.” Mayo from Quitman, Mississippi, and his turret gunner was Aviation Machinist’s Mate Second Class John Hart from Los Angeles, California). Kennon thought “how brave those shipmates were that were manning the PT boats.” Today, Kennon relates, “I’m so glad to hear they received the awards and recognition they so much deserved.”
As for the rescued ENS Thompson, his Wasile Bay experience lasted about eleven hours. According to William T. Y’Blood in his fine book about CVEs - The Little Giants, Thompson’s comment when it was over was, “Sure was a wonderful show to watch.”
The VC-66 rescue support strike group landed on FANSHAW BAY at 1831. Commander Task Unit 77.1.2, RADM C.A.F. Sprague, gave squadron personnel “high praise” for their part in the operation. The men of the squadron were justifiably proud of their role in Thompson’s rescue. It has become known as one of the more dramatic if not the most dramatic rescue of the war in the Pacific. The magnitude, intensity, and precision of the effort to save a fellow airman was truly impressive. Cope’s flight log shows that he was in the air eight hours that day. And that was some tough flying. For it, he was awarded an Air Medal (Cope believes, “All on that flight received Air Medals”). The citation was signed by Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, and read:
For meritorious achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Fighter Plane during operations against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of Halmahera Island, September 16, 1944. Participating in strafing attacks against enemy shore batteries and installations as wingman to the flight leader, Lieutenant (then Lieutenant, Junior Grade,) Cope pressed home his attacks to help destroy three enemy aircraft on the ground, and aided in the successful rescue of a fellow pilot from capture by the enemy. His airmanship, courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Cope agrees that supporting the rescue of Thompson was the squadron’s finest hour. He states, “It is hard to conceive of the effort that went into it – and all of those planes flying around with no one running into each other.”
The extent of the Thompson rescue effort – involving the risking of hundreds of lives, as well as many aircraft and boats, to save one man provides a sharp contrast to the way the Japanese regarded their soldiers and airmen. In his book, Flags of Our Fathers, James Bradley refers to an incident described in Saburo Ienaga’s The Pacific War: A Critical Perspective on Japan’s Role in World War II (1978). A captured Japanese officer saw American medical personnel treating badly wounded Japanese soldiers. “He expressed surprise at the resources being expended upon these men, who were too badly injured to fight again. ‘What would you do with these men?’ a Marine officer asked. ‘We’d give each a grenade,’ was his answer. ‘And if they didn’t use it, we’d cut their jugular vein.’”
As for the Japanese airmen, their planes – particularly their famed Zero fighter - unlike American planes, had little to no armor plating, no self sealing fuel tanks, and often no parachutes for the pilots. The Japanese were prepared to sacrifice much to gain a little speed and maneuverability advantage - which they had early in the war. As the war progressed, however, the Americans developed tactics and aircraft that could beat the Zeros, but the Japanese never really improved them even while building over 20,000. As a result of failing to provide basic protection for their planes and pilots, the Japanese lost a lot of good, experienced airmen that they could not easily replace. The American kill ratio against Zeros went from 1:1 early in the war to eventually 10:1.
Moreover, the Americans involved in the Thompson rescue may have been thinking about how the Japanese treated the American airmen that they pulled from the water during the Battle of Midway. Two of them, an Ensign and an Aviation Machinist’s Mate Second Class were interrogated and then blindfolded, weighed down with five gallon cans of water, and thrown overboard. Another young pilot was also killed after being picked up by a Japanese ship and interrogated. His body was then either thrown overboard or fell into the sea.
No American on or over Wasile Bay on 16 September wanted to risk Thompson being captured. In Flags of Our Fathers, Bradley states well the difference between the Japanese and American fighting men: “The Japanese enemy would fight to the death for the Emperor. That motive made them formidable. But these boys (Americans) would fight to the death for one another. And that motive made them invincible.”
DeLoach Cope recalls that years later, after the war was long over, VC-66 pilot Austin "Kip" Kiplinger – who had been one of the VC-66 TBM pilots involved in the Thompson rescue - told of once having lunch in Washington, D.C. with a fellow by the name of A. Murray Preston. Kiplinger at the time was Editor in Chief of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. Preston was a banker. But during the war, as Commander of PT Squadron 33, he led the mission that rescued ENS Thompson and received the Medal of Honor for it. At the time of their lunch meeting, neither Kiplinger nor Preston knew the other had been involved in Thompson’s rescue. Kiplinger did not find out about Preston’s involvement in the Thompson rescue until after Preston had died and Kiplinger read his obituary.
VC-66 pilot Bud Clark recalls a somewhat similar experience:
About 50 years after the war, at a family get-together, I was listening to my son’s father-in-law telling a war story about participating in the rescue of a downed pilot. The story was familiar. It turned out that he had been a radioman in a TBM from the USS Sangamon (CVE-26) which was laying down a smokescreen for the rescue of Ensign Thompson while we were making bombing runs. It was the first time that either of us knew that we had both been involved in that rescue.