In the early morning hours of February 25, 1942, the city of Los Angeles found itself in the grip of a mass panic. Spurred on by reports of a Japanese air raid, local military units sounded warning sirens, ordered a mass blackout and lit up the sky with machine gun fire and over 1,400 anti-aircraft shells. The so-called “Battle of Los Angeles” would eventually drag on for several terrifying hours, yet when the guns finally fell silent, no evidence of an enemy attack was found. Military brass chalked the false alarm up to “jittery nerves” caused by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but it remains one of the most mysterious chapters of World War II.
In the frantic weeks that followed the Pearl Harbor attack, many Americans believed that enemy raids on the continental United States were imminent. On December 9, 1941, unsubstantiated reports of approaching aircraft had caused a minor invasion panic in New York City and sent stock prices tumbling. On the West Coast, inexperienced pilots, and radar men had mistaken fishing boats, logs and even whales for Japanese warships and submarines. Tensions were high, and they only grew after U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson warned that American cities should be prepared to accept “occasional blows” from enemy forces. Just a few days later on February 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and hurled over a dozen artillery shells at an oil field and refinery. While the attack inflicted no casualties and caused only minor damage, it marked the first time that the mainland United States had been bombed during World War II.
The day after the oil field raid, paranoia and itchy trigger fingers combined to produce one of the most unusual home front incidents of the war. It began on the evening of February 24, 1942, when naval intelligence instructed units on the California coast to steel themselves for a potential Japanese attack. All remained calm for the next few hours, but shortly after 2 a.m. on February 25, military radar picked up what appeared to be an enemy contact some 120 miles west of Los Angeles. Air raid sirens sounded and a citywide blackout was put into effect. Within minutes, troops had manned anti-aircraft guns and begun sweeping the skies with searchlights.
It was just after 3 a.m. when the shooting started. Following reports of an unidentified object in the skies, troops in Santa Monica unleashed a barrage of anti-aircraft and .50 caliber machine gun fire. Before long, many of the city’s other coastal defense weapons had joined in. “Powerful searchlights from countless stations stabbed the sky with brilliant probing fingers,” the Los Angeles Times wrote, “while anti-aircraft batteries dotted the heavens with beautiful if sinister, orange bursts of shrapnel.” Chaos reigned over the next several minutes. It appeared that Los Angeles was under attack, yet many of those who looked skyward saw nothing but smoke and the glare of the ack-ack fire. “Imagination could have easily disclosed many shapes in the sky in the midst of that weird symphony of noise and color,” Coastal Artillery Corps Colonel John G. Murphy later wrote. “But cold detachment disclosed no planes of any type in the sky – friendly or enemy.”
For others, however, the threat appeared to be very real. Reports poured in from across the city describing Japanese aircraft flying in formation, bombs falling and enemy paratroopers. There was even a claim of a Japanese plane crash landing in the streets of Hollywood. “I could barely see the planes, but they were up there all right,” a coastal artilleryman named Charles Patrick later wrote in a letter. “I could see six planes, and shells were bursting all around them. Naturally, all of us fellows were anxious to get our two cents’ worth in and, when the command came, everybody cheered like a son of a gun.” The barrage eventually continued for over an hour. By the time a final “all-clear” order was given later that morning, Los Angeles’ artillery batteries had pumped over 1,400 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition into the sky.
It was only in the light of day that the American military units made a puzzling discovery: there appeared to have been no enemy attack. “Although reports were conflicting and every effort is being made to ascertain the facts, it is clear that no bombs were dropped and no planes were shot down,” read a statement from the Army’s Western Defense Command.
Ironically, the only damage during the “battle” had come from friendly fire. Anti-aircraft shrapnel rained down across the city, shattering windows and ripping through buildings. One dud careened into a Long Beach golf course, and several residents had their homes partially destroyed by 3-inch artillery shells. While there were no serious injuries from the shootout, it was reported that at least five people had died as a result of heart attacks and car accidents that occurred during the extended blackout. In a preview of the hysteria that would soon accompany the Japanese internment, authorities also arrested some 20 Japanese-Americans for allegedly trying to signal the nonexistent aircraft.
Over the next few days, government and media outlets issued contradictory reports on what later became known as the “Battle of Los Angeles.” Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox dismissed the firefight as a false alarm brought on by “jittery nerves,” but Secretary of War Henry Stimson echoed Army brass in saying that at least 15 planes had buzzed the city. He even advanced the provocative theory that the phantom fighters might have been commercial aircraft “operated by enemy agents” hoping to strike fear into the public. Stimson later backpedaled his claims, but there was still the matter of the thousands of military personnel and civilians who claimed to have seen aircraft in the skies over L.A. According to an editorial in the New York Times, some eyewitnesses had spied “a big floating object resembling a balloon,” while others had spotted anywhere from one plane to several dozen. “The more the whole incident of the early morning of Feb. 25 in the Los Angeles district is examined,” the article read, “the more incredible it becomes.”
What caused the shootout over Los Angeles? The Japanese military later claimed it had never flown aircraft over the city during World War II, providing fuel for a host of bizarre theories involving government conspiracies and visits by flying saucers and extraterrestrials.Still, the most logical explanation for the firefight is that trigger-happy servicemen and rudimentary radar systems combined to produce a false alarm. In 1983, the Office of Air Force History outlined the events of the L.A. air raid and noted that meteorological balloons had been released prior to the barrage to help determine wind conditions. Their lights and silver color could have been what first triggered the alerts. Once the shooting began, the disorienting combination of searchlights, smoke and anti-aircraft flak might have led gunners to believe they were firing on enemy planes even though none were actually present.
While it’s likely that the Battle of Los Angeles was only a mirage, it was still a chilling reminder of the vulnerability that many Americans felt at the beginning of World War II. The Japanese would later hatch several schemes to attack the American mainland – including launching over 9,000 explosives-laden “fire balloons” – yet none of them ever produced the level of mass hysteria that accompanied the phantom shootout over Los Angeles. Even at the time, many journalists noted that it was fitting that the incident had taken place in the home of the film industry. In an article from March 1942, the New York Times wrote that as the “world’s preeminent fabricator of make-believe,” Hollywood appeared to have played host to a battle that was “just another illusion.”
Newsreel of the incident: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5m7736RMBEg
By Vincent L. Anderson
On this date I had the 2000 to 2400 hours duty as orderly for the Executive Officer, Cdr. W. M. Dillon. The Corporal of the Guard posted me on duty at 2000 hours at the Executive Officers quarters and I reported in to Cdr. Dillon and took my position in the hallway outside his quarters that had a small table and telephone.
About 2030 hours I received a call from the Officer of the Deck, Ensign E. M. Price, that there was a communication man from Ford Island with a secret dispatch for the senior officer afloat and as the Captain was ashore would I come down to the Quarter Deck and bring the communication man to the Executive Officer to accept the dispatch. I first notified Cdr. Dillon who was in his quarters reading and then went and brought the communication man to the Executive Officer, who signed for the dispatch. I then took the communication man back to the Quarter Deck.
When I returned to the Executive Officer’s quarters, Cdr. Dillon handed me a sheet of paper with the names of each of the Division Officers and asked me to find them and have them report to his quarters immediately. I found the Division Officers and informed them that the Executive Officer wanted to see them immediately and they were with Cdr. Dillon when I was relieved at 2400 hours. I never learned what the secret dispatch said. However, the following morning, Friday, December 5, 1941, at 0445 hours preparations were started to get us underway and at 0728 the Lexington got underway and left Pearl Harbor. And at 0940 hours the Lexington landed eighteen VSB planes of Marine Scouting Squadron 321, and at 1103 hours started landing her own air group. Then we found out we were to deliver this Marine Scouting Squadron to Midway Island.
The Lexington crew had no prior warning that we were going to leave Pearl Harbor on Friday, December 5, 1941. However, the only other aircraft carrier in the Hawaiian area at this time was the U.S.S. Enterprise which had left Pearl Harbor on Friday, November 28, 1941, to deliver the Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-211 to Wake Island, and was returning to Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941, shortly following the Japanese attack.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, I had the 0800 to 1200 hours duty as Orderly for the Executive Officer, Cdr. W. M. Dillon, and was posted on duty on the open bridge. At that time the Lexington operating with Task Force 12, was set in condition of readiness III in the anti-aircraft batteries and damage control. Cdr. W. M. Dillon and the ship’s captain, Frederick Carl Sherman were together awaiting our morning flight patrol to take off. At approximately 0815 a ships communications man approached and gave me a dispatch from, “CINCPAC to All U.S. Navy Ships Present Hawaiian Area,” that read, “AIRRAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NO DRILL”. I immediately took the dispatch to Capt. Sherman, who read and showed it to Cdr. Dillon. Capt. Sherman immediately went into the closed bridge and over the ship’s loudspeakers informed the entire crew we were now at war with Japan. General Quarters was sounded immediately and I was relied and immediately reported to my General Quarters station as a loader on Gun 6 (a 5″ 25 cal. AA Gun).
Now For the Rest of the Story:
In 2001 I came in contact, through the U.S.S. Lexington CV-2 Minutemen Club, with Capt. James B. Johnson, USN (Ret.), a U.S.S. Lexington CV-2 Coral Sea Battle Survivor. He served aboard the Lexington as an Ensign in 1941 and 1942 in the Communication & Intelligence Division. We corresponded both by telephone and email, initially about the search for Amelia Earhart of which we both had some interest and both had done some research. When we discussed our respective duties aboard the Lexington I told him of my December 4, 1941, duty as orderly for Cdr. Dillon and the secret dispatch and as he was a Communication & Intelligence officer on the ship I asked if he had seen the dispatch. He told me he had not seen it but, on the early morning of Friday, December 5, 1941 the Communication & Intelligence Division Officer, Lieut. Comdr. W. Terry, met with all his officers, including Ensign James B. Johnson, and told them that before they would return to Pearl Harbor they would be at War with Japan, but he did not elaborate he just made this comment as a statement of fact.
Another side light of my conversations with Capt. James B. Johnson was what he told me about the day, February 20, 1942, when Lt. Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare, shot down five of nine Japanese bombers that were attacking the Lexington near Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands Area. I had told him I saw O’Hare shoot down all five as our antiaircraft Gun Battery four was on the port side and the attack was on the starboard aft and we could not fire. He told me that at that time he was an observer on the flight bridge and when O’Hare landed after shooting down the five Japanese bombers, O’Hare told his plane captain James Shinn AMM3c, to refuel and rearm his plane immediately as he wanted to get back in the air. The Air Officer on the flight bridge then told his talker to notify O’Hare he had done enough for one day and when O’Hare was told he shook his fist at the Air Officer.
And Yet another Story:
In June 1951, then Lt. Cdr. James B. Johnston was the Civil Administrator of the Northern Mariana Islands and on June 30, 1951 he accepted the Last Japanese Surrender of World War II on Anatahan Island.
Lieut. Cdr. Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare became the Navy’s first flying ace when he single-handedly attacked a formation of nine heavy bombers approaching his aircraft carrier on Feb. 20, 1942. Even though he had a limited amount of ammunition, he managed to shoot down or damage several enemy bombers. On April 21, 1942, he became the first naval recipient of the Medal of Honor in World War II.
O’Hare’s final action took place on the night of Nov. 26, 1943, while he was leading the U.S. Navy’s first-ever nighttime fighter attack launched from an aircraft carrier. During this encounter with a group of Japanese torpedo bombers, O’Hare’s Grumman F6F Hellcat was shot down; his aircraft was never found. In 1945, the U.S. Navy destroyer USS O’Hare (DD-889) was named in his honor.
A few years later, Col. Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, suggested that the name of Chicago’s Orchard Depot Airport be changed as a tribute to Butch O’Hare. On September 19, 1949, the Chicago, Illinois airport was renamed O’Hare International Airport to honor O’Hare’s bravery.
By LtCol Mike Christy-TWS Dispatches
Within hours of their December 7, 1941, attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the Japanese military began its assault on the Philippines, bombing airfields and bases, harbors and shipyards. Manila, the capital of the Philippines, sits on Manila Bay, one of the best deep-water ports in the Pacific Ocean, and it was, for the Japanese, a perfect resupply point for their planned conquest of the southern Pacific. After the initial air attacks, 43,000 men of the Imperial Japanese 14th Army went ashore on December 22 at two points on the main Philippine island of Luzon. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of all Allied forces in the Pacific, cabled Washington, D.C., that he was ready to repel this main invasion force with 130,000 troops of his own.
For whatever reason, MacArthur’s claim of that many troops was in error. In fact, his force consisted of tens of thousands of ill-trained and ill-equipped Filipino reservists and some 22,000 American troops who were, in effect, a mixture of “spit-and-polish” garrison soldiers with no combat experience, artillerymen, a small group of plane-less pilots and ground crews, and sailors whose ships happened to be in port when Japanese forces bombed Manila and its naval yards. At the landing beaches, the Japanese soldiers quickly overcame these defenders and pushed them back and back again until MacArthur was forced to execute a planned withdrawal to the jungle redoubt of the Bataan Peninsula. This thumb-like piece of land on the west-central coast of Luzon, across the bay from Manila, measured some 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, with a range of mountains down the middle.
MacArthur had planned badly for the withdrawal and had left tons of rice, ammunition, and other stores behind him. The Battle of Bataan began on January 1, 1942, and almost immediately the defenders were on half rations. Sick with malaria, dengue fever, and other diseases, living on monkey meat and a few grains of rice, and without air cover or naval support, the Allied force of Filipinos and Americans resisted the Japanese attackers for more than three months even though crippled by starvation rations and epidemics of malaria, dysentery, and various diseases. With no other options, U.S. Gen. Edward King Jr., commander of all U.S. troops in the Philippines, surrendered his approximately 75,000 troops at Bataan as tens of thousands of Filipinos and Americans, the largest American army ever to surrender, on April 9, 1942. This was then the beginning of a shameful chapter in the history of war, the Bataan Death March.
Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma, Japanese commander, issued orders to remove any Allied POWs captured on Bataan to the town of Balanga, where they would assemble and receive food. Then the U.S. and Filipino prisoners would move thirty-one miles to San Fernando, where they would board trains and ride to a rail station twenty-five miles away. The prisoners were to finish with a nine-mile walk to Camp O’Donnell. The plan included several stops for food and medical treatment. Most prisoners would go to San Fernando on foot because the Japanese had few vehicles left after the fighting.
The Japanese evacuation plan generally conformed to the terms of the 1929 Geneva Convention for treatment of POWs. In fact, Homma’s evacuation order specified that Japanese troops were to treat all POWs “in a friendly way.” But the plan was doomed to failure for several reasons:
About 40,000 relatively healthy and well-fed captives were expected. The surrendering army, however, was twice as large, reduced to starvation rations, and so wracked with disease that, according to an Army doctor, they were “patients rather than prisoners.”
The fall of Bataan was expected at the end of April, with the food, medical services, and transportation scheduled accordingly. The surrender happened more than three weeks earlier when little had been prepared.
To make matters worse, the Japanese forces, which had been reinforced and now numbered 81,000 men, were chronically short of food and medical supplies for their own needs, let alone for those of their prisoners.
Treatment of the Allied prisoners was inconsistent. Although some prisoners traveled in trucks or cars and suffered little, most were forced to march up to 65 miles on foot and received little food, water, or medical aid. Some groups received more food or time to rest; others received less. Some guards treated their captives reasonably well, while others tortured the POWs or murdered them outright as punishment for surrender, considered dishonorable by the Japanese military code of conduct.
For those who marched to camp, the only constant presence was death. Reports from survivors tell of brutal guards who shot or bayonetted anyone who fell behind. The pace was inhuman under hot sun, without food or water, difficult even for soldiers in good condition, deadly for malnourished and sick POWs.
One survivor said “They were expected to keep up like everyone else, regardless of their condition. But, some wounded prisoners just couldn’t go on. They were either bayoneted, beat with clubs, rifle butts, or shot. Some soldiers had diarrhea so bad that they couldn’t keep up and the Japanese shot them.”
Another reported what he had seen on the first day of the march “I saw two things I will never forget. A Filipino man had been beheaded. His body lay on the ground with blood everywhere. His head was a short distance away. Also, there was a dead Filipino woman with her legs spread apart and her dress pulled up over her. She obviously had been raped and there was a bamboo stake in her private area. These are instances I would like to forget.”
In his analysis of the Bataan tragedy and the legal aftermath, “A Trial of Generals”, historian Lawrence Taylor ascribed the guards’ atrocities to three factors, each of which contradicted Homma’s specific directive to treat the POWs humanely. First was the morale of the low-ranking Japanese soldiers. Having suffered themselves during the fighting, having seen many of their comrades die in battle, and having been trained to regard surrender as dishonorable, the Japanese soldiers sought revenge upon their now-helpless foes. The second factor was a shortage of Japanese officers, not enough to properly supervise the prisoner movement. Because a company of infantrymen might be spread out to guard a mile-long file of captives, its commander could not supervise carefully, leaving sadistic guards free to attack captives with impunity. The third factor was racism of some Japanese junior officers who held the view that the United States was racially inferior to the Japanese.
With the fall of Bataan, Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma still had to subdue the fortified island of Corregidor, sitting in Manila Bay across from Bataan.
The island bastion of Corregidor, with its network of tunnels and formidable array of defensive armament, along with the fortifications across the entrance to Manila Bay, was the remaining obstacle to the 14th Japanese Imperial Army. The Japanese had to take Corregidor; as long as the island remained in American hands, they would be denied the use of Manila Bay, the finest natural harbor in the Far East.
On May 5, Japanese forces led by Maj. Gen. Kureo Taniguchi boarded landing craft and barges and headed for the final assault on Corregidor. Shortly before midnight, intense shelling struck the beaches between North Point and Cavalry Point. The initial landing of 790 Japanese soldiers quickly bogged down due to surprisingly fierce resistance from the American and Filipino defenders whose 37 mm artillery exacted a heavy toll on the landing fleet.
The Japanese struggled because of the strong sea currents between Bataan and Corregidor and from the layers of oil that covered the beaches from ships sunk earlier in the siege; they experienced great difficulty in landing personnel and equipment. However the overwhelming number of Japanese infantry equipped with 50 mm grenade launchers (“knee mortars”) forced the defenders to pull back from the beach.
The second battalion of 785 Japanese soldiers were not as successful. They encountered the same currents but landed east of North Point, where the defensive positions of the 4th Marines were stronger. Most of the Japanese officers were killed early in the landing, the huddled survivors were hit with hand grenades, machine guns, and rifle fire. Nevertheless, some of the landing craft did reach the location of the first invasion force and together they found themselves moving inland where they captured the Denver Battery by 01:30 on May 6.
A counterattack was initiated to eject the Japanese from the Denver Battery. This was the location of the heaviest fighting between the opposing forces, practically face to face. A few reinforcements did make their way to the frontline 4th Marines, but the battle became a duel of obsolete World War I grenades versus the accurate Japanese knee mortars. Without reinforcements, the battle would quickly go against the defenders.
The final blow to the defenders came at about 09:30, when three Japanese tanks landed and went into action. The men around Denver Battery withdrew to the ruins of a concrete trench a few yards away from the entrance to Malinta tunnel, just as Japanese artillery delivered a heavy barrage. Particularly fearful of the dire consequences should the Japanese capture the tunnel, where 1,000 helpless wounded men lay, and realizing that the defenses outside Malinta tunnel could not hold out much longer, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainright expected further Japanese landings that night. He also decided to sacrifice one more day of freedom in exchange for several thousand lives.
By 4:30 a.m., Col. Howard had committed his last reserves – some 500 Marines, sailors and soldiers of the 4th Battalion. These men tried to get to the battle as quickly as possible, but several Japanese snipers had slipped behind the front lines to make any movement very costly. An additional 880 Japanese reinforcements arrived at 05:30. The 4th Marines were holding their positions, at the same time losing ground in other areas. The Japanese were facing problems of their own: several ammunition crates never made the landing; as a result, several attacks and counterattacks were fought with bayonets.
In a radio message to President Franklin Roosevelt, Wainwright said, “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.” Howard burned the 4th Regiment’s and national colors to prevent their capture by the enemy. Wainwright finally surrendered the Corregidor garrison at about 1:30 p.m. on May 6, 1942, with two officers sent forward with a white flag to carry his surrender message to the Japanese.
Although their defense was ultimately overwhelmed, the execution of MacArthur’s Bataan plan saved the troops on Luzon from immediate defeat, delayed the Japanese timetable for conquest by four months, and kept large Japanese combat forces tied up in the Philippines until May 1942.
News of the “Bataan Death March” reached the American public in January 1944, when the U.S. War Department released accounts from several survivors who had escaped from prison and reached Allied territory with the aid of Filipino guerrillas. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, congressional leaders, and newspaper editors throughout the United States expressed outrage and shock at the atrocity, and vowed revenge for the dead prisoners.
America avenged its defeat in the Philippines with the invasion of the island of Leyte in October 1944. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who in 1942 had famously promised to return to the Philippines, made good on his word. In February 1945, U.S.-Filipino forces recaptured the Bataan Peninsula, and Manila was liberated in early March.
Shortly after Japan’s official surrender on September 2, 1945, U.S. Army officers arrested Homma. A U.S. military commission arraigned Homma on December 19, 1945 for forty-seven specifications of the charge of violating the laws of war, primarily concerned with mistreatment of POWs on the Death March and in the prison camps afterward, in addition to the bombing of Manila in violation of the open-city declaration.
In his defense, Homma claimed that he was so preoccupied with the plans for the Corregidor assault that he had forgotten about the prisoners’ treatment, believing that his officers were properly handling the matter. He allegedly did not learn of the death toll until after the war. His defense failed and on April 3, 1946 he was executed by a firing squad, forbidden to wear his military uniform.
By the end of the evacuation in early May 1942, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 POWs had died. Another 18,000 prisoners died in the first six weeks of imprisonment at Camp O’Donnell. Those who survived remained in Japanese prisons from April 1942 until the end of the war in the Pacific in September 1945, enduring more than three years of torture, beatings, forced labor, illness and near starvation. Those who were liberated were in terrible condition, their bodies skeletal and ridden by diseases such as beriberi, dysentery and scurvy.
Altogether, 12,935 out of the 34,648 total American POWs died in the hands of the Japanese. Japan captured several thousand additional American prisoners throughout the Pacific; however, the vast majority of prisoners were captured in the Philippine Islands. The overwhelming majority of these prisoners came from the fall of Bataan and later, Corregidor. The fall of Bataan, alone, gave the Japanese in excess of 75,000 troops to deal with; 60,000 of these being Philippine nationals. The POWs in the Philippines experienced a mortality rate of forty percent (40%) with approximately 11,107 deaths out of the 27,465 internees in the Philippines.
In the years that followed, the men who fought in the Philippines formed a veterans’ organization, the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, to press for reparations from Japan and better treatment by the American government of the veterans of these campaigns. In the 1980s, the U.S. officially recognized the suffering and sacrifice of these veterans, awarding them the Bronze Star and eventually classified them as 100 percent disabled for government pensions.
On May 29, 2009, the 73 survivors attending the final ADBC convention in San Antonio, Texas, finally received the apology they deserved, after nearly 64 years of waiting, when Japanese ambassador to the U.S. Ichiro Fujisaki apologized to the assembled attendees for his country “having caused tremendous damage and suffering to many people, including prisoners of war, those who have undergone tragic experiences.”
Sadly, and for many years, few of us gave him much notice, rendering little more than a passing nod or throwing a curt, “G’morning!” in his direction as we hurried off to our daily duties. Why? Perhaps it was because of the way he did his job – he always kept the squadron area spotlessly clean, even the toilets and showers gleamed. Frankly, he did his job so well, none of us had to notice or get involved. After all, cleaning toilets was his job, not ours.
Maybe it was his physical appearance that made him disappear into the background. Bill didn’t move very quickly, and in fact, you could say he even shuffled a bit, as if he suffered from some sort of injury. His gray hair and wrinkled face made him appear ancient to a group of young cadets.
And his crooked smile, well, it looked a little funny. Face it, Bill was an old man working in a young person’s world. What did he have to offer us on a personal level?
Maybe it was Mr. Crawford’s personality that rendered him almost invisible to the young people around him. Bill was shy, almost painfully so. He seldom spoke to a Cadet unless they addressed him first, and that didn’t happen very often. Our janitor always buried himself in his work, moving about with stooped shoulders, a quiet gait, and an averted gaze. If he noticed the hustle and bustle of cadet life around him, it was hard to tell. For whatever reason, Bill blended into the woodwork and became just another fixture around the Squadron. The Academy, one of our nation’s premier leadership laboratories, kept us busy from dawn till dusk. And Mr. Crawford…well, he was just a janitor.
That changed one fall Saturday afternoon in 1976. I was reading a book about World War II and the tough Allied ground campaign in Italy, when I stumbled across an incredible story.
On September 13, 1943, a Pvt. William Crawford from Colorado, assigned to the 36th Infantry Division, had been involved in some bloody fighting on Hill 424 near Altavilla, Italy.
“William Crawford’s Medal of Honor Citation.”
The words on the page leapt out at me, “in the face of intense and overwhelming hostile fire… with no regard for personal safety… on his own initiative, Private Crawford single-handedly attacked fortified enemy positions.” It continued, “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, the President of the United States…”
“Holy cow,” I said to my roommate, “you’re not going to believe this, but I think our janitor is a Medal of Honor recipient.” We all knew Mr. Crawford was a World War II Army vet, but that didn’t keep my friend from looking at me as if I was some sort of alien being. Nonetheless, we couldn’t wait to ask Bill about the story.
We met Mr. Crawford bright and early Monday and showed him the page in question from the book, anticipation and doubt on our faces. He stared at it for a few silent moments and then quietly uttered something like, “Yep, that’s me.”
Mouths agape, my roommate and I looked at one another, then at the book, and quickly back at our janitor. Almost at once, we both stuttered, “Why didn’t you ever tell us about it?” He slowly replied after some thought, “That was one day in my life and it happened a long time ago.” I guess we were all at a loss for words after that. We had to hurry off to class and Bill, well, he had chores to attend to.
After that brief exchange, things were never again the same around our squadron. Word spread like wildfire among the Cadets that we had a hero in our midst – Mr. Crawford, our janitor, had been bestowed The Medal! Cadets who had once passed by Bill with hardly a glance, now greeted him with a smile and a respectful, “Good morning, Mr. Crawford.”
Those who had before left a mess for the “janitor” to clean up, started taking it upon themselves to put things in order.
Cadets routinely stopped to talk to Bill throughout the day and we even began inviting him to our formal Squadron functions. He’d show up dressed in a conservative dark suit and quietly talk to those who approached him, the only sign of his heroics being a simple blue, star-spangled lapel pin. Almost overnight, Bill went from being a simple fixture in our Squadron to one of our teammates.
Mr. Crawford changed too, but you had to look closely to notice the difference. After that fall day in 1976, he seemed to move with more purpose, his shoulders didn’t seem to be as stooped, he met our greetings with a direct gaze and a stronger “good morning” in return, and he flashed his crooked smile more often. The Squadron gleamed as always, but everyone now seemed to notice it more. Bill even got to know most of us by our first names, something that didn’t happen often at the Academy. While no one ever formally acknowledged the change, I think we became Bill’s Cadets and his Squadron.
As often happens in life, events sweep us away from those in our past. The last time I saw Bill was on graduation day in June 1977. As I walked out of the Squadron for the last time, he shook my hand and simply said, “Good luck, young man.” With that, I embarked on a career that has been truly lucky and blessed.
Mr. Crawford continued to work at the Academy and eventually retired in his native Colorado, one of four Medal of Honor recipients who lived in the small town of Pueblo.
A wise person once said, “It’s not life that’s important, but those you meet along the way that make the difference.” Bill was one who made a difference for me. Bill Crawford, our janitor, taught me many valuable, unforgettable leadership lessons, and I think of him often.
Here are ten I’d like to share:
1.) Be Cautious of Labels. Labels you place on people may define your relationship to them and bind their potential. Sadly, and for a long time, we labeled Bill as just a janitor, but he was so much more. Therefore, be cautious of a leader who callously says, “Hey, he’s just an Airman.” Likewise, don’t tolerate the O-1, who says, “I can’t do that, I’m just a Lieutenant.”
2.) Everyone Deserves Respect. Because we hung the “janitor” label on Mr. Crawford, we often wrongly treated him with less respect than others. He deserved much more, and not just because he was received the Medal of Honor. Bill deserved respect because he was a janitor, walked among us, and was a part of our team.
3.) Courtesy Makes a Difference. Be courteous to all around you, regardless of rank or position. Military customs, as well as common courtesies, help bond a team. When our daily words to Mr. Crawford turned from perfunctory “hellos” to heartfelt greetings, his demeanor and personality outwardly changed. It made a difference for all of us.
4.) Take Time to Know Your People. Life in the military is hectic, but that’s no excuse for not knowing the people you work for and with. For years a hero walked among us at the Academy and we never knew it. Who are the heroes that walk in your midst?
5.) Anyone Can Be a Hero. Mr. Crawford certainly didn’t fit anyone’s standard definition of a hero. Moreover, he was just a private on the day he earned his Medal. Don’t sell your people short, for any one of them may be the hero who rises to the occasion when duty calls. On the other hand, it’s easy to turn to your proven performers when the chips are down, but don’t ignore the rest of the team. Today’s rookie could and should be tomorrow’s superstar.
6.) Leaders Should Be Humble. Most modern day heroes, and some leaders, are anything but humble, especially if you calibrate your “hero meter” on today’s athletic fields. End zone celebrations and self-aggrandizement are what we’ve come to expect from sports greats. Not Mr. Crawford-he was too busy working to celebrate his past heroics. Leaders would be well served to do the same.
7.) Life Won’t Always Hand You What You Think You Deserve. We in the military work hard and, dang it, we deserve recognition, right? However, sometimes you just have to persevere, even when accolades don’t come your way. Perhaps you weren’t nominated for junior officer or airman of the quarter as you thought you should – don’t let that stop you. Don’t pursue glory; pursue excellence. Private Bill Crawford didn’t pursue glory – he did his duty and then swept floors for a living.
8.) No Job is Beneath a Leader. If Bill Crawford, a Medal of Honor recipient, could clean latrines and smile, is there a job beneath your dignity? Think about it.
9.) Pursue Excellence. No matter what task life hands you, do it well. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “If life makes you a street sweeper, be the best street sweeper you can be.” Mr. Crawford modeled that philosophy and helped make our dormitory area a home.
10.) Life is a Leadership Laboratory. All too often we look to some school or class to teach us about leadership when, in fact, life is a leadership laboratory. Those you meet every day will teach you enduring lessons if you just take time to stop, look, and listen. I spent four years at the Air Force Academy, took dozens of classes, read hundreds of books, and met thousands of great people. I gleaned leadership skills from all of them, but one of the people I remember most is Mr. Bill Crawford and the lessons he unknowingly taught. Don’t miss your opportunity to learn.
Bill Crawford was a janitor. However, he was also a teacher, friend, role model, and one great American hero. He passed away on Mar. 15, 2000 and was buried on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
For more on the life of Bill Crawford and the action that earned him his Medal of Honor, please go the following site: http://homeofheroes.com/profiles/profiles_crawford2.html
During his 30-year Air Force career, Col. James Moschgat accumulated more than 4,000 flying hours in fighter and trainer aircraft, including the F-4, F-16, T/AT-38, and the T-6A, and flew 60 combat missions in Operations NORTHERN and SOUTHERN WATCH, and IRAQI FREEDOM. He commanded two squadrons, an operations group, and an air expeditionary wing, and served staff tours at HQ United States Air Forces in Europe, Ramstein Air Base, GE, and HQ 12th Air Force, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, AZ.
Moschgat retired from active duty in 2007. He is married to the former Becky J. Daggett of Pleasanton, Calif. They have four children, Patrick, Rhonda, Kymberli, and Matthew.
Private William John Crawford was a scout for 3rd Platoon, Company I, 142nd Regiment, 36th Infantry Division, fighting in Italy during World War II on September 13, 1943 – just four days after the invasion of Salerno.
Crawford was a hero, lauded by peers for his actions in combat but was missing in action and presumed dead. Army Maj. Gen. Terry Allen presented Crawford’s Medal of Honor posthumously to his father, George, on May 11, 1944, at Camp (now Fort) Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colorado.
It was later learned that Crawford was alive and in a POW camp. He returned to the United States after 18 months in captivity.
He passed away on Mar. 15, 2000.
By LtCol Mike Christy – TWS Dispatches
He wanted to join the Marines, but he was too short. The paratroopers wouldn’t have him either. Reluctantly, he settled on the infantry, enlisting to become nothing less than one of the most-decorated heroes of World War II. He was Audie Murphy, the baby-faced Texas farm boy who became an American Legend.
The sixth of twelve children, Audie Murphy was born in Kingston, Hunt County, TX, on June 20, 1925. The son of poor sharecroppers, Emmett and Josie Murphy, he grew up on a rundown farm and attended school in Celeste. His education was cut short in 1936 when his father abandoned the family. Left with only a fifth grade education, Murphy began working on local farms as a laborer to help support his family. A gifted hunter, he was also able to feed his siblings from game animals he shot.
Though he attempted to support the family on his own by working various jobs, Murphy was ultimately forced to place his three youngest siblings in an orphanage when their mother died in May, 1941. This was done with the blessing of his older, married sister Corrine. Long believing that the military offered a chance to escape poverty, he attempted to enlist following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As he was only 16 years old, he was rejected for being underage. Six month later, in June 1942, shortly after his seventeenth birthday, Corrine adjusted Murphy’s birth certificate to make it appear that he was eighteen.
He first went to a U.S. Marine Corps recruiting office but was rejected due to his small stature (5’5″, 110 lbs.). Next he tried the U.S. Army Airborne but was again rejected. He was similarly rejected by the U.S. Navy. Pressing on, he ultimately achieved success with the U.S. Army and enlisted at Greenville, TX. on June 30, 1942. Ordered to Camp Wolters, TX., Murphy began basic training. Murphy completed basic training and transferred to Fort Meade, MD for infantry training.
Finishing his infantry training, Murphy was assigned to 3rd Platoon, Baker Company, 1st Battalion 15th Infantry Regiment 3rd Infantry Division in Casablanca, Morocco. Arriving in early 1943, he began training for the invasion of Sicily.
On July 10, 1943, the division made an assault landing on Sicily at a beach town called Licata. In one of the initial contacts, Murphy used his marksmanship skills to kill two Italian Officers attempting to escape on horseback. Five days later he was promoted to Corporal. Over the coming weeks, the 3rd Infantry Division fought its way into Palermo and raced on to capture Messina, thus ending the Sicilian campaign, where the 3rd had a short rest to take on replacements.
With the conclusion of the campaign on Sicily, Murphy and the Division shifted into training for the invasion of Italy. Coming ashore at Salerno on September 18th, nine days after the initial Allied landings, the 3rd Division immediately went into action and began an advance to and across the Volturno River before reaching Cassino. In the course of the fighting, Murphy led a night patrol that was ambushed. Remaining calm, he directed his men in turning back the German attack and captured several prisoners. This action resulted in a promotion to Sergeant on December 13, 1943.
Pulled from the front near Cassino, the 3rd Division took part in the landings at Anzio on January 22, 1944. During the course of the fighting around Anzio, Murphy, now a Staff Sergeant, earned two Bronze Stars for heroism in action. The first was awarded for his actions on March 2nd and the second for destroying a German tank on May 8th. With the fall of Rome in June, the 3rd Division was withdrawn and began preparing to land in Southern France as part of Operation Dragoon. Embarking, the division landed near St. Tropez on August 15, 1944.
On the day he came ashore, Murphy’s good friend Lattie Tipton was killed by a German Soldier who was feigning surrender. Incensed, Murphy stormed forward and single-handedly wiped out the enemy machine gun nest before using the German weapon to clear several adjacent German positions. For his heroism he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
As the 3rd Division drove north into France, Murphy continued his outstanding performance in combat. On October 2, 1944, he earned a Silver Star for clearing a machine gun position near Cleurie Quarry. This was followed by second Silver Star for advancing to direct artillery near Le Tholy. Recognizing Murphy’s competence as a combat leader, he was given a battlefield commission of 2nd Lieutenant and command of a rifle company.
On January 26, 1945, Audie Murphy and some 40 U.S. troops were tasked with holding a frigid snow-covered clearing around a roadway near the Alsatian town of Holtzwihr, awaiting promised reinforcements that were late in arriving. Just after mid-day, enemy artillery announced the arrival of at least 250 German troops and six Panzer tanks as they emerged from the woods.
Murphy had to once again quell a familiar sense of panic as the Germans lined up to attack, a mastery he had learned at the ripe young age of 19 during 18 months of bitter fighting across Italy and France. With two Silver Stars and the Distinguished Service Cross under his belt already, the baby-faced young Infantry Officer was leading men 10 years his senior into battle. Once the shooting began, though, he knew his instincts would take over. “The nerves will relax,” he later wrote, “the heart, stop its thumping. The brain will turn to animal cunning. The job is directly before us: destroy and survive.”
Knowing that his men stood no chance against so large a force, he instructed them back to pre-prepared defensive positions along a nearby tree line. As they ran for cover, he stayed behind and used his field telephone to call in an artillery strike. He had just enough time to radio in his coordinates before German tank fire began delivering devastation around him, and hit a nearby tank destroyer which began burning.
As the assault advanced, Murphy held his ground and continued calling in the Allied artillery. As his position became more precarious, he grabbed his field telephone and took cover atop the burning tank destroyer. Over the radio, he could hear the artillery commander asking how close the Germans were to his position. “Just hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one of the bastards!” he yelled back.
As the tank destroyer was slowly being engulfed in flames, Murphy saw that its .50-caliber machine gun turret was still operational and quickly seized the gun and began spraying the nearest German troops with withering fire. “My numbed brain is intent only on destroying,” Murphy later wrote in his autobiography. “I am conscious only that the smoke and the turret afford a good screen, and that, for the first time in three days, my feet are warm.” He continued firing burst after burst, mowing down Nazi troopers by the dozens and keeping the tanks at bay. All the while, he remained on the phone, directing artillery fire ever closer to his own position and dealing catastrophic damage to the advancing infantry.
Murphy’s troops watched in shock from their cover among the trees. “I expected to see the whole damn tank destroyer blow up under him any minute,” Private Anthony Abramski later wrote. In fact, the blaze provided a veil of smoke and flames that prevented the Germans from closing on his position out of fear that the vehicle was about to explode. In spite of this, continuous waves of German Infantrymen inched toward Murphy’s position. A flanking maneuver on his right side was met with a hail of pinpoint fire from his .50-caliber gun. German gunners riddled his smoldering tank destroyer with small arms and tank fire. One blast nearly threw him out and sent razor sharp shrapnel flying into his leg, but he ignored the wound and kept fighting. It was only when he ran out of ammunition that he finally withdrew. Dazed and bloodied, he jumped from the still-burning tank destroyer and limped back to his men. He later wrote that as he walked away, one thought in particular kept racing through his mind: “How come I’m not dead?”
It was the “greatest display of guts and courage I have ever seen,” a stunned Abramski later wrote. “For an hour he held off the enemy force singlehanded, fighting against impossible odds.” Murphy had personally killed or wounded some 50 enemy troops and directed artillery against dozens more. Even after reaching safety, he refused to be evacuated from the field and instead rallied his men in a counterattack that drove the Germans back into the woods.
Audie Murphy was hailed a national hero and awarded the Medal of Honor for his superhuman exploits at Holtzwihr. Not wanting to risk the life of its newest celebrity Soldier, the Army reassigned him as a Liaison Officer and removed him from combat. By the end of the war a few months later, the battle-hardened G.I. had endured three wounds, a nasty case of malaria, gangrene and more dead friends than he cared to remember. “There is VE-Day without,” he wrote of his mixed feelings at the war’s end, “but no peace within.”
In recognition of his overall performance between January 22, 1944 to February 18, 1945, Murphy also received the Legion of Merit. In May 1945, when victory was declared in Europe, he had still not reached his 21st birthday. Yet he had earned every military combat award for valor available from the U.S. Army, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism.
Hailed as the most-decorated American Soldier of World War II, Murphy returned home a hero and was greeted with parades and elaborate banquets. LIFE magazine honored the brave, baby-faced soldier by putting him on the cover of its July 16, 1945 issue. That photograph inspired actor James Cagney to call Murphy and invite him to Hollywood to begin an acting career. The two men, one a heroic actor and the other an acting hero, both short in stature but large in presence, hit it off.
Removing his younger siblings from the orphanage, he took Cagney up on his offer, arriving in Hollywood with only his boyish good looks. However, despite his celebrity, for the next several years he struggled to make it as an actor. Jobs were few, and he was only able to land just two bit parts: “Beyond Glory” (1948), and “Texas, Brooklyn & Heaven” (1948). He finally got a lead role in “Bad Boy” (1949), and earned critical acclaim for his starring role in Stephen Crane’s Civil War epic, “The Red Badge of Courage” (1951), directed by John Huston.
In between movies, Murphy published his autobiography, “To Hell and Back.” The book quickly became a national bestseller, and in 1955, after much inner debate, he decided to portray himself in the film version of his book. The movie was a huge hit, setting a box-office record for Universal that wasn’t broken for 20 years until it was finally surpassed by “Jaws” (1975). One of his better pictures was “Night Passage” (1957), a Western in which he played the kid brother of James Stewart. He worked for Huston again on “The Unforgiven” (1960).
During his rise to fame, Murphy met and married 21-year-old actress Wanda Hendrix in 1949. Their marriage appeared rocky from the start, ending with divorce in 1950. He then married former airline stewardess Pamela Archer, and they had two children: Terrance Michael “Terry” Murphy (born 1952) and James Shannon “Skipper” Murphy (born 1954).
In the 25 years that Audie spent in Hollywood, he made a total of 44 feature films. He also filmed a 26 episode western television series, known as “Whispering Smith” which aired on NBC in 1961. Although the series earned good reviews, it was also characterized as unusually violent. Only 20 episodes were aired before the series was cancelled.
Audie Murphy also wrote some poetry and was quite successful as a songwriter. One of his better-known poems is “The Crosses Grow on Anzio” which appears in his autobiographical movie “To Hell and Back.” He also wrote a poem titled “Freedom Flies in Your Heart like an Eagle” which was part of a speech he gave at the July 20, 1968 dedication of the Alabama War Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
His songwriting talents were notable, as his penchant for country music and his poetic skill with rhyming and pentameter (a rhythmic syllabic pattern) resulted in many popular recordings. He usually teamed up with talented artists and composers such as Guy Mitchell, Jimmy Bryant, Scott Turner, Coy Ziegler, or Terri Eddleman. Dozens of Audie Murphy’s songs were recorded and released by such great performers as Dean Martin, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride, Jimmy Bryant, Porter Waggoner, Jerry Wallace, Roy Clark, Harry Nilsson and many, many others. His two biggest hits, both written in 1962 in collaboration with Scott Turner, were “Shutters and Boards,” which by the early ’70s was recorded in multiple languages by over 60 vocalists, and “When the Wind Blows in Chicago,” recorded by multiple artists including country artist Eddy Arnold on his 1993 RCA album “Last of the Love Song Singers.”
Despite his success in Hollywood, Audie never forgot his rural Texas roots. He returned frequently to the Dallas area where he owned a small ranch for a while. He also had ranches in Perris, California and near Tucson, Arizona. He was a successful Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racehorse owner and breeder, having interests in such great horses as “Depth Charge.”
Always an advocate for the needs of veterans, he broke the taboo about discussing war related mental problems after his experience. In an effort to draw attention to the problems of returning Korean and Vietnam War veterans, Audie Murphy was outspoken and candid about his personal problems with PTSD, then known as “Battle Fatigue”. He publicly called for the United States government to give more consideration and study to the emotional impact war has on veterans and to extend health care benefits to address PTSD and other mental health problems of returning war vets.
Murphy earned a great deal of money in his life as an actor and as part owner of the Great Western Arms Company, but also had a major gambling habit which meant his finances were in a poor state for the last years of his life. One friend estimated Murphy lost $3 million through gambling. In 1968 his film career had dried up, and he declared bankruptcy. When he filed for bankruptcy, he stated that he lost $260,000 in an Algerian oil deal and was dealing with the Internal Revenue Service over unpaid taxes.
On May 28, 1971, Murphy was killed when the private plane in which he was a passenger crashed into Brush Mountain, near Catawba, Virginia, 20 miles west of Roanoke in conditions of rain, clouds, fog and zero visibility. The pilot and four other passengers were also killed. The aircraft was a twin-engine Aero Commander 680 flown by a pilot who had a private-pilot license and a reported 8,000 hours of flying time, but who held no instrument rating. The aircraft was recovered on May 31, 1971.
At the time of his death, major television news networks ABC, CBS, and NBC only gave him a combined total of 1 minute and 30 seconds of news.
In 1975, a court awarded Murphy’s widow and two children $2.5 million in damages due to the accident.
He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, just across Memorial Drive from the Memorial Amphitheater. A special flagstone walkway has been constructed to accommodate the large number of people who stop to pay their respects to this hero. At the end of a row of graves, his tomb is marked by a simple, white, government-issue tombstone, which lists only a few of his many military decorations. The stone is, as he was, too small.
According to cemetery records, the only grave visited by more people than Murphy’s is that of assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
His widow, Pam Murphy, established her own distinctive thirty-five-year career working as a patient liaison at the Sepulveda Veteran’s Administration Hospital, treating every veteran who visited the facility as if they were a VIP. She remained working full time at the VA until 2007 when she was eighty-seven. She died peacefully at the age of 90 in her home in Canoga Park on April 8, 2010.
During Audie Murphy’s three years of active service as a combat Soldier in World War II, he became one of the best fighting men of this or any other century, earning 33 awards and decorations. What he accomplished during this period is most significant and probably will never be repeated by another soldier given today’s high-tech, stand-off type of warfare. The U.S. Army has always declared that there will never be another Audie Murphy.
By LtCol Mike Christy TWS Dispatches
Very little is known about the life and times of Minoru Wada except for a moment in time during August 1945; but what a remarkable moment that was.
Minoru Wada was born in the United States and followed the Japanese-American Kibei custom of traveling to Japan for his education. He attended the University of Tokyo and then the Kyushu Military Academy. The Kibei practice was to return to America after their schooling but in Wada’s case, the Pacific war broke out while he was in Japan and he was pressed into service in the Imperial Japanese Army. Wada became a junior officer in the Army’s transportation section and by 1945 he was serving with the Japanese 100th Infantry Division on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Lt. Gen. Jiro Harada commanding.
As the war progressed, Wada detested all the killing and he became very disillusioned with the nature of war. He never believed in the warring character exhibited by the “Old Guard” of the Japanese military. After seeing war up close, more than anything he wanted peace to return to the Japanese islands and to the Japanese people. As the Pacific war moved past the Philippines, past Iwo Jima, and was passing Okinawa, Wada’s anti-war feelings began to fume as the fighting and dying on Mindanao seemed more and more pointless. Then, in the first week of August 1945, Wada was captured by American troops – defected, according to some sources – but in either case, he became a Prisoner of War.
Japanese Prisoners of War were routinely interrogated by Intelligence personnel but the interviewers found an unusually sympathetic subject in Minoru Wada. He shared his disillusioned feelings about the war and described his strong wish for the war to end. He said he would do anything, even sacrifice his own life, to stop the war and bring ultimate peace to the Japanese people. The Army Intelligence officers offered him the chance to help the Americans end the war on Mindanao but he initially refused the request, since bombing his own countrymen was something he was unwilling to do. Wada then reconsidered after going through a thought process that was eerily similar to what U.S. President Harry Truman had just gone through days before and it led Wada to the same place: perhaps it was better for a smaller number of people to be killed now than for vastly larger numbers to be killed later. For Truman, this led to his decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan in the hopes of avoiding greater losses in an invasion; for Wada, this led to his decision to help U.S. forces destroy Lt. Gen. Harada’s well concealed headquarters complex in the hopes of avoiding greater losses from prolonged and pointless fighting.
As a transportation officer, Wada had an excellent knowledge of the island and its terrain. He also knew the key locations of the command structure of the Imperial Japanese forces. Wada pointed out the headquarters location on maps but the rugged terrain and dense jungle of Mindanao’s Kibawe-Talomo Trail region meant that the only sure way for the Americans to find the complex would be for Wada to take them there. Thus the stage was set for one of the most unusual raids of the war.
On August 9, 1945, the day the second atomic bomb of the war was dropped on Nagasaki, Marine Bombing Squadron VMB-611 flying PBJ-1D Mitchell bombers and Marine Fighting Squadron VMF-115 “Joe’s Jokers” flying F4U Corsair fighters prepared for take-off from Moret Field in Zamboanga, Mindanao bound for Gen. Harada’s headquarters. Wada helped brief the pilots and then the pilot of the lead plane had to add the names of three unusual passengers to his flight manifest: Army Ground Liaison Officer and Strike Coordinator Maj. Mortimer Jordan, interpreter Sgt. Charles Imai (Wada did not speak English), and Imperial Japanese Army 2st Lt. Minoru Wada. Still dressed in his Japanese Army uniform, Wada sat in the radio-gunner’s position and looked for familiar landmarks. Speaking through Sgt. Imai, he was able to direct the bombers right to his own headquarters complex. The strike group then dropped 22,000 pounds of bombs on the area plus a healthy dose of 5-inch rockets.
Wada also identified a number of additional critical targets, and the Marines pounded the target areas with napalm, fragmentation bombs, rockets and heavy machine gun fire. The raid was extremely successful and the headquarters network was thoroughly demolished. Major Jordan later told debriefing officers, “The Japanese officer put us zero on the target and we did the rest – maybe overdid it.” The loss of the 100th Division’s command and control establishment virtually ended the fighting on Mindanao overnight.
Many aspects of this mission remained classified and the full details have still not been disclosed. For Wada, the raid brought him mixed feelings, but he did not regret his actions and firmly believed he helped save the lives of many for the sacrifice of a few.
In the peace that followed, Wada was given a new identity and appearance and a place to live by the U.S. Government. He was then allowed to disappear into history.
Photo One: Sgt. Charles T. Imai, right, interpreter, explains to the 1st Marine Air Wing fighter and bomber pilots the nature of the target as described by Minoru Wada. Maj. Mortimer H. Jordan, the air strike coordinator, stands on the left, checking the information which Wada has already given him.
Photo Two: In the waist of a Marine Mitchell bomber, Minoru Wada scans the mountains below, picking out landmarks that will aid him on leading other Marine bombers and fighters over the target. Maj. Jordan has moved forward into the nose of the bomber to take command immediately as the target is pin-pointed.
View the service history of actor:
BM1c William D. Hopper, Jr.
View his Service Profile on TogetherWeServed.com
Short Bio: Best remembered as “Paul Drake” on TV’s long running “Perry Mason”, the son of legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, young William served with the United States Navy during World War II, as a volunteer with the Office of Strategic Services and as a member of the newly created Underwater Demolition Team. He received a Bronze Star and several other medals during operations in the Pacific. Operations on Pelelieu, Anguar Island and the Occupation of Ulithi as well as other Islands in the Caroline Islands and on the Invasion of Leyte and the Lingayen pre-landing activities.
By LtCol Mike Christy Together We Served Dispatches
Following the December 1941 Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Wake Island and other Pacific islands, the U.S. began to halt Japan’s aggression expansion with important battle victories at Midway Island in June 1942 and Guadalcanal from Aug. 1942 to Feb. 1943. To continue the progress against the Japanese occupying scattered island chains, Allied commanders launched counter-offensive strikes known as “island-hopping.” The idea was to capture certain key islands, one after another, until Japan came within range of American bombers. Rather than engage sizable Japanese garrisons, these operations were designed to cut them off and let them “whither on the vine.”
By themselves, the islands held little value to the Japanese or the Americans. They were situated about halfway between Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and were barely large enough to hold an airfield. But they served as an essential steppingstone across the Pacific: If American bombers wanted to reach Japan, they would need an air base in the Mariana Islands; to capture the Marianas, they would first need the Marshall Islands; and for the Marshalls, they needed Tarawa Atoll, a series of small islands in the Gilberts. The major Japanese outposts were on Betio, a bird-shaped island in the southern part of the chain; and Makin, which was raided early in 1942 by U.S. Marines.
Tarawa turned out to be the most fortified atoll America would invade during the Pacific Campaign. The leader of the Japanese garrison, Rear Adm. Keiji Shibazaki, and 2,500 Imperial Naval Marines with 2,300 Korean and Japanese laborers transformed Betio into a fortress of unparalleled intricacy, with coconut log bunkers cemented with crushed coral and intersecting zones of fire supported by coastal guns, antiaircraft guns, heavy and light machine guns and light tanks. Betio’s beaches were naturally ringed with shallow reefs, which were covered with barbed wire and mines. Shibazaki reportedly bragged that the U.S. “couldn’t take Tarawa with a million men in 100 years.” American forces proved him wrong.
On Nov. 20, 1943, after a three-hour bombardment by naval gunfire and bombing runs by carried-based aircraft, the 2nd Marine Division landed on Betio. It would take 35,000 men three days to conquer Tarawa. At the end of the battle, neither side would look at the war the same way.
The attack was a monumental effort of combined arms coordination in a new war tactic which relied upon heavy pre-invasion bombardment by battleships and carrier planes. Marines were to approach the shore in new amphibious tractor vehicles dubbed amphtracs. These landing crafts, armed with machine guns and carrying 20 troops each, were able to crawl over shallow reefs and other barriers.
The highly coordinated U.S. battle plan at Betio relied on the precise timing of several key elements to succeed, but almost from the beginning there were problems. Heavy sea turbulence slowed transfer operations of the U.S. Marines to the ship-side landing crafts. A pre-invasion air raid was delayed, upsetting the timetable for other parts of the assault. Holding for the air raids, support ships ready to launch massive pre-invasion bombardments lingered in position longer than expected. They were forced to dodge increasingly accurate fire from the island where Japanese defenders were dug in.
Compounding these problems was a lower-than-anticipated tide level around the island that morning. Most amphtracs in the first assault wave were able to reach the beach as planned, but nearly all the larger, heavier landing crafts behind them jammed into coral reefs exposed by the shallow tide. Japanese coastal guns pounded the snagged vessels and desperate Marines gave up on freeing the boats and instead waded toward shore hundreds of yards away through chest-deep water under intense enemy fire, and within the first hour the first wave had suffered almost total casualties.
Precious gear, especially radios, became soaked and useless. Many Marines were hit in the open water, and those who made it to shore arrived exhausted or wounded, ill-equipped and unable to communicate with supporting forces.
Making matters worse, the assault path through the lagoon to the shore became congested with disabled landing crafts and bloodied corpses, which hindered the dispatching of reinforcements. Marines on the beach crawled forward, inch by inch, knowing that to stand or even rise slightly made them easy targets. By the end of the first day, 5,000 Marines had landed at Betio; 500 had perished in the process. By the end of the first night, it was not definite that the Americans were here to stay.
Like the Japanese Navy in the Solomon’s, Americans were losing their junior officers and non-commissioned officers rapidly. Advance was only due to a Sergeant or a Lieutenant leading their squad or platoon over the seawall and moving inland. The Japanese would not give up. They would fire until they had one bullet and kill themselves with their big toe in the trigger of their rifle.
On the morning of November 21, the second day of fighting, unexpectedly low tides continued to plague the U.S. assault. Again, assault troops had to leave their crafts short of the shore and wade in through enemy fire. In addition to being fired upon from shore, Marines were also assaulted from their sides and rear by enemy snipers who had entered the lagoon under the cover of night to position themselves on crafts that had been wrecked and abandoned the day before.
By noon, however, the tide finally began to rise, and U.S. destroyers were able to maneuver closer to shore to lend accurate supporting fire. Reserve combat teams and support craft transporting tanks and weapons raced to shore, and the ground assault finally took orderly form. The Marines moved inland, blasting surviving enemy emplacements with grenades, demolition packs and flamethrowers.
On day three of the battle, November 22, the Marines fought on, destroying several Japanese pillboxes and fortifications. Dead and wounded were mounted on both sides and even the division reserve could not turn the tide. At dusk the Americans had occupied enough ground to ensure that Tarawa would be taken; the only question was the amount of blood. Shibasaki and his entire command staff died sometime on the third day, committing suicide rather than face capture.
That night, the remaining 300 Japanese and Korean laborers came out of their last positions and attacked in a desperate attempt to inflict as many casualties as possible. If these men had died in their pillboxes, certainly more Americans would have died.
At morning light on November 23, the island defenders lay in tangled heaps: All but 17 Japanese soldiers had died defending Betio. Seventy-six hours after the invasion began, Betio was finally declared secure.
It was a fight that lasted only three days, but it was among the bloodiest in 20th-century American history. By the time the battle ended, 1,084 U.S. Marines lay dead on the sandy earth and churning water. Some 2,101 were wounded. In the 76-hour Battle of Tarawa, U.S. Marines suffered almost as many killed-in-action casualties as U.S. troops suffered in the six-month campaign at Guadalcanal Island.
Legendary war correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote, “No one who has not been there, can imagine the overwhelming, inhuman smell of 5,000 dead who are piled and scattered in an area of less than one square mile.”
Offices of government and military offices were flooded with angry letters over the number of Americans dead on Tarawa. The number of dead and wounded on both sides would only get larger as the war in the Pacific progressed. However, according to “The Pacific War” by John Costello, U.S. commanders learned important lessons from the Battle of Tarawa that would be applied to future island wars, including the need for better reconnaissance, more precise and sustained pre-landing bombardments, additional amphibious landing vehicle and improved equipment.
After the battle, Marines who died were wrapped in ponchos and folded into shallow graves in several areas around Tarawa. But there were so many bodies, including the thousands of Japanese soldiers, that the U.S. Navy eventually bulldozed the site and expanded the airfield and built a network of roads and offices. By the time an excavation team arrived in 1946 to exhume and identify the dead, no one could remember where they were. Investigators spent three months searching, but they found only half the Marines in five of eight known impromptu burial sites.
One of the unfound sites was Cemetery 27, presumed to contain the bodies of 33-year-old Medal of Honor recipient 1st Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, Jr. and approximately 40 other Marines killed in action. Its occupants were officially declared “unrecoverable” by the U.S. government which issued a letter stating that most of the Tarawa war dead were presumed lost at sea near the island.
But without conclusive proof that Bonnyman was among them, his family began a decades-long campaign to procure information about their beloved soldier’s final resting place.
In 2008, working with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Mark Noah’s History Flight funded and conducted two six-week long searches in the Marshall, Caroline and Gilbert Islands hunting for remains previously believed to be unrecoverable. History Flight also hired a geophysical inspection firm and brought a geophysicist to the island of Tarawa to search for “lost” Marine graves with a ground penetrating radar. In the six weeks the team spent on Tarawa â interviewing local residents who had accidentally unearthed 20 American skeletons during construction activity on the island â they were able to locate, identify and survey five large American burial sites and three individual sites that contained over 200 U.S. Marines left behind after WWII. Cemetery 27 was not among the burial sites found.
Over the years, letters and calls went unanswered as Bonnyman’s family sought answers, and the details of the soldier’s death and burial became even further muddied in the memories of his loved ones.
A glimmer of hope came in 2010, when a joint team from the Defense POW and MIA Accounting Agency began a recovery mission on the Gilbert Islands in hopes of locating the mass graves in which U.S. and Japanese soldiers were said to have been buried.
That was the first time members of Bonnyman’s family – some of whom were unaware the remains were still missing – heard that there might be chance of recovery.
In 2011, JPAC discovered Cemetery 27, the site where Bonnyman and 35 others were buried underneath a parking lot. Excavation began in March 2015 and continued through the end of June.
When History Flight began calling families to obtain DNA samples of the Marines unaccounted for at Tarawa, Bonnyman’s grandson Clay Bonnyman Evans jumped at the opportunity to volunteer with the group and flew to Betio to assist in excavations.
“I spent my childhood idolizing him, even though he died 18 years before I was born,” said Evans, who made the long trip from his home in Boulder, Colorado, to Tarawa to be here while JPAC is digging for remains. Evans traveled at his own to observe the team’s work, hoping they might find his grandfather’s remains.
“I have felt a very strong connection to this man that I never knew. He loomed large for me as a kid …,” Evans said. “I have wanted to come here for a long time.”
He retraced his grandfather’s steps at Tarawa, wading through the water onshore, then climbing to the top of a bunker referred to as “Bonnyman’s Bunker.” Now overgrown and filled with trash, the bunker was a Japanese stronghold during the battle.
It was at this bunker that assault troops were pinned down by heavy enemy artillery fire at the seaward end of the long Betio Pier, on his own initiative Bonnyman organized and led five men over the open pier to the beach. There he voluntarily obtained flame throwers and demolitions and directed the blowing up of several hostile installations.
On the second day of the struggle, Bonnyman, determined to breach the enemy’s strong defensive line, led his demolitions teams in an assault on the entrance to a huge bombproof shelter which contained approximately 150 Japanese soldiers. The enemy position was about forty yards forward of the Marine lines. Bonnyman advanced his team to the mouth of the position and killed many of the defenders. His team was forced to withdraw to replenish its supply of ammunition and grenades. Bonnyman again pressed his attack and gained the top of the structure, thereby flushing more than one hundred of its occupants into the open where they were shot down. When the Japanese fought back, the Lieutenant stood at the forward edge of the position and killed several attackers before he fell mortally wounded.
For his actions during the battle, Bonnyman was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The medal was formally presented to his family by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in 1947. His 12-year-old daughter, Frances, accepted the medal on behalf of the Bonnyman family.
Evans knew that his grandfather had distinctive dental work, including gold teeth. He said he was breathless when Kristin Baker, the History Flight Recovery Team leader, called him over to examine the teeth on an exposed cranium.
“It is gold,” Baker told him. Evans said it’s very likely that the remains are those of the Medal of Honor recipient, but legal verification was still required.
On July 26, 2015, the remains of the three dozen Marines arrived at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu Hawaii where a team of specially trained dentists and other experts work to authenticate their identities.
On August 27, 2015 Bonnyman’s remains were identified and on September 28, 2015, he was returned to his childhood home town of Knoxville, Tennessee and interred with his family, with full military honors at West Knoxville’s Berry Highland Memorial Cemetery.
For nearly 73 years, Bonnyman’s family – members of which now live in Boulder County – remembered the handsome, adventurous man they had lost with what few artifacts they had left: his Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously for his efforts to hold back a Japanese counterattack; a large portrait, commissioned from an Italian oil painter; and a few black-and-white photographs taken during the assault on Betio.
“It feels great,” Clay Evans said of the culmination of his family’s generation-spanning quest. “My great-grandparents really worked hard to get his remains back. They wrote letters, and they just sort of got every story in the book from the military; they thought they would never have his remains.”
“I actually grabbed my stomach and thought, ‘Good grief. Is it really going to happen?’ I never thought it would,” said Bonnyman’s oldest daughter, Frances Evans, now 83.
Bonnyman was the last of four Medal of Honor recipients from the Battle of Tarawa to be located.
With the discovery of Bonnyman’s remains, there are only 30 Medal of Honor recipients killed in World War II whose final resting places are still unknown, according to Laura Joyey of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
By LtCol Mike Christy – Together We Served Dispatches
Immediately after Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and other American bases in the Pacific, the United States declared war on Japan. Several days later Nazi German and Italy declared war on the U.S., embroiling the world into World War II.
The war heightened American prejudice against German Americans and Italian Americans but the racism directed against Japanese Americans was particularly vicious. The calculated response culminated in the forced removal and unconstitutional incarceration of 120,000 residents of Japanese ancestry, including the complete elimination of communities and individuals from the entire West Coast of the United States. This racism was precipitated by the attack on Pearl Harbor but it had deep antecedents in the nearly half-century of legal, social, and economic policies directed against Asians in general within the United States.
As the war progressed, however, more American units were needed to successfully fight the Axis powers. One such unit was the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), organized on March 23, 1943, after more than a year during which Americans of Japanese descent were declared enemy aliens, 4-C, by the U.S. War Department. It had taken all that time plus several key events to convince the Roosevelt Administration that these men should be allowed to enter combat for their country.
Eventually, the 442nd, bolstered by the combat-hardened 100th Infantry Battalion, initially made up almost entirely of Japanese Americans from Hawaii already in Italy fighting the Germans, became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare. The 4,000 men who initially made up the unit in April 1943 had to be replaced nearly 2.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts. The unit was awarded eight Presidential Unit Citations (five earned in one month).Twenty-one of its members were awarded Medals of Honor. Its motto was “Go for Broke”.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team is best known for rescuing the “the Lost Battalion” in the Vosges Mountains. The 442nd and the 141st Texas Regiment were both part of the 36th Division under the command of Maj. Gen. John Dahlquist. They were fighting in Eastern France, near the German border.
The 442nd had just finished 10 brutal days of fighting to liberate the French towns of Bruyeres and Biffontaine. Finally, on October 23, 1944, the Nisei got clean, dry clothes, hot food and rest. Glorious rest. But not for long.
Gen. Dahlquist had another trapped unit that needed rescuing. Dahlquist had ordered the 141st Texas Regiment to advance four miles beyond friendly forces. The Texans warned that they would get cut off, but they pushed on as ordered. Naturally, the Germans surrounded them. In fact, 6,000 fresh German troops moved into the area. Der Fuhrer’s orders were to hold the area. No surrender. No retreat.
More than 200 Texans, known as the “Lost Battalion” were stranded on a ridge. They were low on food, water and ammo – just like the men in the 100th at Biffontaine. However, the Texans were not rescued by their own men in the 141st, or by other white soldiers in the 143rd Regiment. Dahlquist ordered the Nisei soldiers to save them.
Once again, on October 25, after less than two days rest and already short of men, the Nisei trudged through the dark and the cold rain. The stranded Texans were about four miles from friendly forces. But, it was more like nine miles – because the hills were steep, the ravines and fields were littered with mines, and the few roads that crossed the terrain were narrow, sodden logging trails bristling with German roadblocks. By early afternoon on October 27, the Nisei were moving toward the narrow ridge that held the besieged Texans.
On the right flank, the 100th chased the Germans across a gully toward the next hill. But it was a trap, and the Germans blasted the Nisei with an hour-long artillery barrage. The shelling wounded 20 Nisei, but the 100th held its ground.
In the center, on the narrow ridge K Company hit a series of three heavily entrenched barriers. By evening, the 100th and 3rd Battalions had gained only a few hundred yards, but they had managed to take 70 German prisoners.
That same night, 2nd Battalion Commander Lt. Co. James Hanley, led E and F Companies to circle behind the enemy troops around a nearby hill – Hill 617. Meanwhile, 2nd Battalion’s G Company spread itself thin to simulate a battalion. At dawn, G Company attached frontally, while E and F Companies attacked Hill 6l17 and 61 Germans prisoners.
By October 29, the Lost Battalion’s situation was desperate. Isolated for six days the Texans had beaten back five enemy assaults. Deaths and casualties mounted, yet they couldn’t evacuate the bodies. They pooled their meager supplies of food and ammo and risked German sniper fire to get water. The Allies tried to send supplies. First they shot shells filled with chocolate, but the shelling caused casualties. A few days later the Allies dropped supplies by parachute, but most of the packages landed in German-occupied positions.
The 522nd Field Artillery Battalion’s accurate fire hit the Germans without harming the trapped Texans or the Nisei rescuers. Often the tall trees and steep slopes made it impossible to adjust artillery fire properly. The terrain made tank travel almost impossible, too.
The American GIs had to fight with what they could carry; bazookas, grenades, BARs, machine guns, Tommy guns, pistols, and rifles and bayonets.
By October 29, the Nisei had fought for five days, but hadn’t made much progress against the heavily entrenched Germans. 3rd Battalion’s I and K companies were on a narrow, exposed ridge. With a steep drop on the left and right, the men had no choice but to go straight up the middle. I Company Private Barney Hajiro was pinned down on the ridge. He saw enemy machine guns kill eight and wounded 21 of his buddies. Then suddenly, a few men, including Hajiro decided to “Go for broke.” He charged up the ridge, shooting his BAR and running 100 yards under fire. He single-handedly destroyed two machine gun nests and killed two enemy snipers. His brave actions spurred his comrades to rally and boldly attack. Hajiro was awarded a Medal of Honor. (Hajiro was awarded the DSC, but in June 2000 it was upgraded to MOH.)
The same day, October 29, Private George Sakato of 2nd Battalion’s E Company led a charge that rescued his pinned squad and destroyed a German stronghold. He earned a DSC, which was upgraded to Medal of Honor in June 2000.
Finally, on October 30, after six days of desperate combat, the 442nd broke through to the “Lost Battalion.” The Nisei infantry in B, I, and K Companies were the first to arrive, but the entire 442nd had helped. Forward observers from the 522nd fought along with the infantry. Members of the antitank units carried the wounded and braved enemy fire. Clerks, cooks and Nisei from the 232nd Combat Engineer Company joined in combat.
Many were wounded or killed by mines, sniper fire, heavy artillery, and spraying shrapnel. More than 25 of K Company’s wounded were treated by medic, Technician Fifth Grade James Okubo. Okubo was the only medic to earn a Medal of Honor (Silver Star upgrade), but many other medics braved enemy fire and saved countless lives.
The men of the Lost Battalion and their rescuers exchanged happy greetings, but it was a short celebration. After the successful rescue, after 16 days of almost non-stop combat – the worst the 100th/442nd had ever experience – after losing many of their buddies and officers they expected to be relieved. Instead, Gen. Dahlquist ordered the men to keep pushing and securing the forest for nine more days.
On November 7, near the village of La Houssiere, Private First Class Joe Nishimoto, an acting squad leader in G Company broke a three-day stalemate against German forces. He destroyed a machine gun nest and with his hand grenade, and killed the German crew of another nest with his Tommy gun. Nishimoto was later killed in action. He received a DSC, which was upgraded to Medal of Honor in June 2000, posthumously.
November 17 when the 442nd was finally relieved, the dead and the wounded outnumbered the living. The 442nd ended up at less than half its usual strength. K Company, which started out with 186 men had 17 left. I Company started out with 185. At the end, there were only 8.
During the six days the 442nd fought to rescue the Lost Battalion, 54 men were killed and many, many more were wounded and sent to hospitals. During the entire Vosges Campaign, 34 days of almost non-stop combat – liberating Bruyeres and Biffontaine, rescuing the 211 Texans, and nine more days of driving the Germans through the forest – the 442ndâs total casualties were 216 men dead and more than 856 wounded.
When Division commander Dahlquist ordered the 442nd to assemble for a recognition ceremony, he scolded a 442nd Colonel. “You disobeyed my orders. I told you to have the whole regiment.” The teary-eyed Colonel looked him in the eye and reportedly said, “General, this is the regiment, the rest are either dead or in the hospital.”
To the U.S. Army, the rescue of the Lost Battalion became one of the top 10 battles in its history. But to many, questions still remain. Why did the General order the 141st to advance nine miles beyond reasonable support, and without protection in the rear? Did Dahlquist use the Nisei more ruthlessly than the other American troops?
Gen. Dahlquist was so much disliked as a person that Lieutenant Colonel Singles, an officer of the 442nd, ran into Dahlquist a few years later and was not willing to shake his hand.
“After returning the salute, General Dahlquist offered his right hand saying, “Let bygones be bygones. It’s all water under the bridge, isn’t it?” Lt. Col. Singles maintained his salute, ignoring the Generalâs extended hand. Although he rendered proper military protocol by maintaining his salute, he could not forget what many considered the Generalâs blatant waste of Japanese-American soldiers.
“Comrades who are slain
In our charge on the ridge
Have not died in vain
But forged through heroism a bridge
For all Japanese Americans to cross
This was I Company’s fate.
To prevail with heavy loss
And then there were eight.”
Video of 442nd in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=33&v=CuLrxLJYmWM
By LtCol Mike Christy
Together We Served Dispatches
Deciding on a military career at the age of 12, Olds attended Hampton High School in Hampton Virginia where he became a standout football player. Declining a series of football scholarships, he elected to take a year of study at Millard Preparatory School in 1939 prior to applying to West Point. Learning of the outbreak of World War II while at Millard, he attempted to leave school and enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
This was blocked by his father who forced him to stay at Millard. Completing the course of study, Olds was accepted to West Point in July 1940 and played for the renowned coach Red Blaik, compiling so stellar a record as a tackle on both offense and defense that in 1985 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Selecting service in the U.S. Army Air Forces, Olds completed his primary flight training in the summer of 1942 at the Spartan School of Aviation in Tulsa, Oklahoma.Returning north, he passed through advanced training at Stewart Field in New York. Receiving his wings from Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, Olds graduated from West Point on June 1, 1943 after completing the academy’s accelerated wartime curriculum. Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, he received an assignment to report to the West Coast for training on P-38 Lightnings. This done, Olds was posted to the 479th Fighter Group’s 434th Fighter Squadron with orders for Britain.
Arriving in Britain in May 1944, Olds’ squadron quickly entered combat as part of the Allied air offensive prior to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Dubbing his P-38J aircraft the “Scat II” (every fighter he flew in combat was named “Scat” and numbered sequentially), Olds worked closely with his crew chief to learn about aircraft maintenance. Promoted to Captain on July 24, on a low-level mission over Montmirail, he spotted two bogeys far in front of him, heading to his right, about 200 feet off the deck.
He pulled behind the two FW-190’s and at 400 yards behind the trailing plane, he fired a six-second burst, hitting the left wing and then pulling his gunfire onto the fuselage. Big pieces flew off, flame and smoke poured out, and the airplane rolled off to the right. Turning his attention to the second plane, he did not see the first one hit the ground. As the second plane pulled a full 360 turn, Olds stayed with him. From dead astern, he fired a five-second burst and observed many hits. The Focke Wulf zoomed up and the pilot bailed out.
On August 25, during an escort mission to Wismar, Germany, Olds shot down three Messerschmitt Bf 109s to become the squadron’s first ace, making him the last P-38 ace of the Eighth Air Force and the last in the European Theater of Operations. He also claimed three more unofficial kills that could not be verified by witnesses.
In mid-September, the 434th began converting to the P-51 Mustang. This required some adjustment on Olds’ part as the single-engine Mustang handled differently than the twin-engine Lightning.
After downing a Bf 109 over Berlin on Oct. 6, Olds completed his initial combat tour in November and was given two months leave in the United States. Returning to Europe in January 1945, he was promoted to Major the following month on February 9, and received his seventh aerial victory the same day, using his P-51D’s new K-14 gunsight to calculate the deflection and hit a Bf-109 at 450 yards over Magdeburg with his first burst, a result that surprised even Maj. Olds. He closed in and fired twice more, with his third burst sending the Messerschmitt down in flames. Five days later, on February 14, he claimed three more kills but only received credit for two with the other listed as a “probable.”
On March 25, less than two years out of West Point and at only 22 years of age, Maj. Olds received command of the 434th. He never forgot it. Decades later he said, “As a Major I was responsible for feeding and housing my men, training my men, and rewarding or punishing them. As a Colonel I had to check with some general for permission to visit the latrine.”
Unlike many pilots who regarded airplanes as tools, Olds could be sentimental about his machines. Near the end of the war he was one of six P-51 pilots who attacked a German airdrome and found himself the lone survivor. He nursed his crippled Mustang back to base but found that it stalled at 175 mph, rolling violently. But as he said, “Scat VI had taken me through a lot and I was damned if I was going to give up on her.”
Somehow he got the bird on the runway and kept it in one piece.
Olds was a team player as long as the team wanted to play. When the leaders were only interested in suiting up, he exercised some initiative. In other words, he went freelancing. In his first two dogfights he was alone with his wingman, having left formation to hunt on his own. As he wryly noted long afterward, “When I shot down my first two airplanes I was relieved to see that they had black crosses on their wings.”
Olds used to say that the two best things about World War II were London and Col. Zemke. When the 479th’s first commander was shot down in August 1944, Hub Zemke moved over from the fabled 56th Fighter Group and rejuvenated the Mighty Eighth’s last fighter outfit. Not that Olds needed any rejuvenating, but the group had plodded along in pedestrian fashion.
In a few weeks Zemke turned things around, and added to Robin’s already formidable determination to succeed as a shooter and a leader. The group converted to P-51s in September but on October 30, 1944, while flying in unforecasted turbulence, the wing of Zemke’s P-51 was torn off. Zemke was forced to bail out over enemy territory and was captured. He was liberated when the war with Germany ended.
Olds had made ace in both the P-38 and P-51, probably the only pilot ever to do so. Postwar after VE-Day, he returned to the States and reverted to his permanent rank: a 23-year-old Captain.
With the end of the war in Europe in May, Olds’ tally stood at 12 kills as well as 11.5 destroyed on the ground. Returning to the US, Olds was assigned to West Point to serve as an assistant football coach to Earl “Red” Blaik.
Olds’ time at West Point proved brief as many older officers resented his rapid rise in rank during the war. In February 1946, Olds obtained a transfer to the 412th Fighter Group at March Field, California, and trained on the P-80 Shooting Star. Through the remainder of the year, he flew as part of a jet demonstration team with Lt. Col. John C. “Pappy” Herbst.
In 1946, while based at March Field, Olds met Hollywood actress (and “pin-up girl”) Ella Raines on a blind date in Palm Springs. They married in Beverly Hills on February 6, 1947, and had two daughters, Christina and Susan, and a son, Robert Ernest, who was stillborn in 1958. Most of their 29-year marriage, marked by frequent extended separations and difficult homecomings, was turbulent because of a clash of lifestyles, particularly her refusal to ever live in government housing on base. Olds and Ella Raines separated in 1975 and divorced in 1976. Olds then married Abigail Morgan Sellers Barnett in January 1978, and they divorced after fifteen years of marriage.
Ella Raines died in May 30, 1988 Sherman Oaks, California from throat cancer. She was 67.
Seen as a rising star, Olds was selected for a U.S. Air Force-Royal Air Force exchange program in 1948. Traveling to Britain, he commanded No. 1 Squadron at RAF Tangmere and flew the Gloster Meteor. With the end of this assignment in late 1949, Olds became the operations officer for the F-86 Sabre-equipped 94th Fighter Squadron at March Field in California.
Olds next was given command of the Air Defense Command’s 71st Fighter Squadron based at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. He remained in this role for much of the Korean War despite repeated requests for combat duty. Increasingly unhappy with the U.S. Air Force, despite promotions to Lieutenant Colonel (1951) and Colonel (1953), he debated retiring but was talked out of it by his friend Maj. Gen. Frederic H. Smith, Jr. Shifting to Smith’s Eastern Air Defense Command, Olds languished in several staff assignments until receiving an assignment to the 86th Fighter-Interceptor Wing at Landstuhl Air Base, Germany in 1955. Remaining abroad for three years, he later oversaw the Weapons Proficiency Center at Wheelus Air Base, Libya.
Made Deputy Chief, Air Defense Division at the Pentagon in 1958, Olds produced as series of prophetic papers calling for improved air-to-air combat training and the increased production of conventional munitions. After assisting in generating the funding for the classified SR-71 Blackbird program, Olds attended the National War College in 1962-1963. Following graduation, he commanded the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters. During this time, he brought over former Tuskegee Airman Col. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. to Britain to serve on his staff. Olds left the 81st in 1965 after forming an aerial demonstration team without command authorization.
After brief service at Shaw AFB in South Carolina, Olds was given command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. He knew from his own sources that all was not well in the 8th TFW and resolved to see it from the perspective of the FNG (the “freaking” new guy).
He went through the normal in-processing routine like any other newbie, paid close attention and spoke little. By the time he reached the front office, he reckoned that he knew all he needed to. He began cleaning house.
First he cut loose the deadwood, the ticket punchers and careerists who had “sniveled some counters “- missions that counted toward completion of a tour when in fact they had not gone north. Then he began learning the way the Wolfpack did business so he could improve upon it. He stood before the F-4C Phantom crews and said, “I’m going to start here by flying Green Sixteen (tail-end Charlie) and you guys are going to teach me how. But teach me fast and teach me good, because I’m a quick learner.”
Sitting in the audience was Capt. Ralph Wetterhahn, a future MiG killer. Like so many other pilots and WSOs, he was energized by the new CO’s press-on attitude. Years later, Wetterhahn compared Olds’ arrival with that of Brig. Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) in Twelve Oâclock High.
The old ways were not only out, they were deceased. A new regime had arisen, and the Wolfpack began showing results. Olds ruled over a fiefdom like a feudal baron, enjoying the excitement of the hunt by day and discussing the great game with his men at arms by night.
Under Olds’ predecessor, who seldom flew combat, the 8th had eked out a meager kill-loss ratio. Like the rest of the Air Force, it had barely broken even with Hanoi’s MiGs, peaking at a 2-1 exchange rate. Under Olds, the Wolfpack shot to the top of the Southeast Asia league, bagging 18 MiGs, and when he left, the wing’s kill ratio stood at 4-1.
The free-wheeling environment at Ubon fueled morale, and the Wolfpack’s was stratospheric. Dedicated consumers of booze and red meat, they reveled in the warrior ethic. In contrast, todays sedate, sober young professionals are superbly educated, highly competent, and terrified that they might say something that somebody would find objectionable. Olds did not want to live in that world.
And he didn’t.
Increasing concerned about F-105 Thunderchief losses to North Vietnamese MiGs during bombing missions, Olds designed “Operation Bolo” in late 1966. This called for 8th TFW F-4s to mimic F-105 operations in an effort to draw enemy aircraft into combat. Implemented in January 1967, the operation saw American aircraft down seven MiG-21s, with Olds shooting down one. The MiG losses were the highest suffered in one day by the North Vietnamese during the war. A stunning success, Operation Bolo effectively eliminated the MiG threat for most of the spring of 1967. After bagging another MiG-21 on May 4, Olds shot down two MiG-17s on the 20th to raise his total to 16, including the four MiGs over Vietnam.
Over the next few months, Olds continued to personally lead his men into combat. In an effort to raise morale in the 8th TFW, he began growing a famed handlebar mustache. Copied by his men, they referred to them as “bulletproof mustaches.” During this time, he avoided shooting down a fifth MiG as he had been alerted that should he become an ace over Vietnam, he would be relieved of command and brought home to conduct publicity events for the Air Force. On August 11, Olds conducted a strike on the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi. For his performance, he was awarded the Air Force Cross.
Upon return to the U.S., Olds was acclaimed as America’s top gun of the war to date, a record he retained for the next five years. But he was contemptuous of the Air Force’s attitude toward air combat, exclaiming, “The best flying job in the world is a MiG-21 pilot at Phuc Yen. Hell, if I was one of them I’d have got 50 of us!”
Despite his MiG-killing fame, he was perhaps proudest of the strike against North Vietnam’s best-defended target: Thai Nguyen steel mill. In an ultra-low-level attack, leaving rooster tails on the paddies behind them, Olds and two wingmen put their bombs on target. He considered it a dangerously wasteful effort, as the mill had been hit repeatedly, but its smoke stacks had remained standing. What he valued most was the courage and skill of his aircrews.
Leaving the 8th TFW in September 1967, Olds was made Commandant of Cadets at the US Air Force Academy. Promoted to brigadier general on June 1, 1968, he worked to restore pride in the school after a large cheating scandal had blackened its reputation. In February 1971, Olds became director of aerospace safety in the Office of the Inspector General. That fall, he was sent back to Southeast Asia to report on the combat readiness of USAF units in the region. While there, he toured bases and flew several unauthorized combat missions.
He found what he feared: most Air Force fighter crews “couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag.” Commander John Nichols, a Navy MiG killer brought to Udorn, Thailand to teach dog fighting to the Air Force blue suits, saw Olds taxi his F-4 into the chocks after a practice mission. “The canopy came open, followed by General Olds’ helmet in a high, lofting arc. He was not happy.” But his report and analysis were not well received, and his recommendations were ignored.
When Operation Linebacker began in May 1972, American fighter jets returned to the offense in the skies over North Vietnam for the first time in nearly four years. Navy and Marine Corps fighters, reaping the benefits of their TOPGUN program, immediately enjoyed considerable success with a 12:1 kill-loss ratio. In contrast, by June, as Olds had predicted, the Air Force’s fighter community was struggling with a nearly 1:1 kill-loss ratio.
To the new Inspector General, Lt. Gen. Ernest C. Hardin, Jr., Olds offered to take a voluntary reduction in rank to Colonel so he could return to operational command and straighten out the situation. Olds decided to leave the Air Force when the offer was refused (he was offered another inspection tour instead) and he retired on June 1, 1973. With 17 career victories (thirteen in WW II plus four in Vietnam) when the triple ace died, he was America’s third-ranking living ace. His 259 total combat missions included 107 in World War II and 152 in Southeast Asia, 105 of those over North Vietnam. Scat XXVII (F-4C-24-MC 64-0829), the plane he flew for his four MiG kills, was retired from operational service and placed on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, with the four red MiG stars representing his four MiG kills in Vietnam painted on the splitter vane of the intake.
Retiring to Steamboat Springs, CO, he became active in public affairs. Enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001, Olds later died on June 14, 2007. His ashes were interred at the US Air Force Academy.
Far too many military personnel, policemen, and politicians mouth their oath of office as a rote exercise. Not Robin Olds. He thought about the words, absorbed, them, and passed them along. In addressing newly commissioned officers he said, “The airman swears that he will obey the orders of the officers appointed over him. Do you realize what responsibilities that puts on your shoulders? Your orders have to be legal and proper. Think about it, before you give one. But think about how to protect and defend the Constitution. Because do you know what that is? That is by, for, and of The People. It is not the President; it is not the Speaker of the House; nor the Leader of the Senate. It is the People of the United States; who, hopefully in their wisdom will guide their forces properly.”
Olds had been writing a memoir for several years prior to his death. Says F-4 pilot and novelist Mark Berent, “It was well written, as you’d expect from Robin, but it wasn’t really about him. It was more about people he knew.”
Another Air Force officer who read part of the text said that it began as an ethereal discussion with the ghost of Robin’s father. Robert Olds had asked his son the status of the U.S. Air Force and got a detailed debriefing on what’s wrong with the service. It was a long list.
When he died on June 14, not quite 85, Olds left the work incomplete. The fact that his book remains unfinished represents a major loss to aviation literature.
Gen. Robin Olds once said his magnificent mustache represented his defiance. This defiance grew into the modern-day practice called “Mustache March” in the U.S. Air Force, in which Airmen of all ranks grow their mustaches out of regulations for the entire month of March in defiance of AF hair grooming standards.