Posted in Military History

Miracle at sea

At 9:00 p.m. on 6 December 1941, the first of 16 B-17 bombers took off from Hamilton Field (just north of San Francisco), headed to reinforce the Far East Air Force on the Philippine Islands. It was Saturday night and the nation was still at peace, so all non-essential items like ammunition were removed to save weight. When the heavy bombers reached Hawaiian airspace at 0800 on Sunday morning, they were welcomed by Japanese machineguns and found themselves ten minutes into a war.

Capt. Raymond T. Swenson’s B-17C

Enemy machinegun fire found the magnesium flares on Capt. Raymond T. Swenson’s B-17C as he was on final approach for Hickam Field, igniting a fire that had burned the plane’s fuselage in two by the time the aircraft rolled to a halt. But 1st Lt. Earl J. Cooper and the other 38th Reconnaissance Squadron pilots managed to safely land their damaged B-17s at Hickam.

Once ground crews repaired their bullet-riddled bombers, the newly arrived airmen were given new orders to fly patrol missions over Hawaii. On 26 December, Lt. Cooper’s crew were one of 16 Flying Fortresses scouring the waves for enemy activity. Patrol range had just been extended to 800 miles, meaning crews would be in the air for 12 hours. When Cooper’s plane returned that evening, the control tower confused their B-17 with an inbound PBY-5 Catalina, assigning both planes the wrong headings. The Navy crew’s assigned vectors caused them to crash, killing all aboard. Cooper followed the instructions, which sent them back out to sea where they ran out of fuel.

After bailing out, nine men crammed into just two life rafts, with no food or water, drifting in the Pacific Ocean with no land in sight. Continue reading “Miracle at sea”

Posted in Military History

Never Forget: Capt. Joseph S. Smith

Smith was posthumously promoted to captain

On 4 April 1971, two 612th Tactical Fighter Squadron F-100 Super Sabres took off from the Republic of Vietnam’s Phan Rang Air Base just before 3:30 p.m. to hit a large warehouse deep in central Cambodia. Behind the controls of the lead plane — codenamed BLADE 05 — was 1st Lt. Joseph S. Smith, a 25-year-old Notre Dame graduate from Assumption, Ill. who had started his tour in August 1970.

After four successful passes over their target, Smith was lining up for a strafing run when his aircraft suddenly leveled off before reaching the warehouse. Smith’s F-100 started trailing white smoke. His wingman and the forward air controller watched as the jet descended slowly and rolled over before impacting the ground half a mile away. He did not eject. There was no emergency beacon. Visibility at the crash site was obscured by smoke so there was no way the pilots could know what happened. But there was no parachute and no emergency beacon. With little to no chance of survival, they would have to wait.

The military determined that Lt. Smith had been hit by unseen enemy ground fire and died instantly. Aircrews observed heavy enemy activity in the area the next day when they returned to investigate the crash site — too heavy to send in ground units to recover the body. Continue reading “Never Forget: Capt. Joseph S. Smith”

Posted in Military History

Day of Infamy: What happened to the eight sets of brothers on USS OKLAHOMA

When the battleship USS Oklahoma turned over just 15 minutes after being hit by the first Japanese torpedo on 7 December 1941, 429 sailors and Marines were either already dead — or soon would be. Men that somehow survived the initial nightmare of torpedoes, bombs, shrapnel, bullets, and fire had to swim through another level of hell to reach the relative safety of land. Those that remained inside the flooding ship would spend days in pitch-black darkness with no food, water, and what breathable air they had was being slowly used up while they hoped for rescue.

78 years later, we can’t possibly comprehend what those men endured that day. For a few sailors, however, they were concerned not only with their own welfare, but with that of their brothers as well: Among the battleship’s crew of 1,300 were eight sets of brothers. Here are their stories.

Left to right: Charles Casto, Richard Casto, Daryle Artley, Robert Headington, Clifford Goodwin

20-year-old Charles Casto and his 19-year-old brother Richard, of East Liverpool, Ohio both perished. Richard’s body was found and buried after the attacks at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, but Charles was interred among hundreds of other USS Oklahoma unknown sailors and Marines. In 2017 the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency identified Charles’ remains, which had been buried with other unknowns in a group grave, and reinterred him alongside his brother.

Seaman 1st Class Kirby R. Stapleton (24, of Chillicothe, Mo.) was trapped below decks when the torpedoes tore open the battleship. His brother Delbert was topside and survived. Kirby’s remains were identified in 2018 and buried alongside Delbert, who passed away in 2001, at the Riverside (Calif.) National Cemetery. Continue reading “Day of Infamy: What happened to the eight sets of brothers on USS OKLAHOMA”

Posted in Military History

Never forgotten: Remains of over 200 Pearl Harbor sailors, Marines identified

On the morning of 7 December 1941, nine Japanese torpedoes struck the battleship USS Oklahoma, anchored on Battleship Row during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The massive ship capsized in just 15 minutes, trapping hundreds of sailors and Marines inside.

Crews worked feverishly to rescue the survivors, which could be heard tapping the inside of the ship’s hull for the next three days. Unsung heroes like civilian dock worker Julio DeCastro raced against the clock, cutting through sections of the hull to pull out dozens of men.

Two Oklahoma sailors earned the Medal of Honor: Seaman James Ward and Ensign Francis Flaherty both sacrificed their lives so their comrades could escape their battle stations. Chief John Austin posthumously earned the Navy Cross for assisting 15 of his fellow sailors out of a flooded compartment. Boatswain Adolph Bothne braved enemy fire and the hazardous waters, picking up boatload after boatload of survivors and ferrying them to Ford Island. Lt. (j.g.) Aloysius H. Schmitt assisted in evacuating a dozen trapped sailors through an opening, but when it was his turn to escape, he declined so that several other sailors that showed up as he about to be rescued appeared. Schmitt gave up his chance of survival so that others may live, becoming the first American chaplain to die in World War II. Continue reading “Never forgotten: Remains of over 200 Pearl Harbor sailors, Marines identified”

Posted in Military History

The ‘Fightingest’ Skippers of the 7th Marines

Senior officers of 7th Marine Regiment at New Britain, January 1944. From left to right: Lt. Col. Odell M. Conoley (Commanding 2d Battalion), LTC Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller (Regimental Executive Officer), Col. Julian N. Frisbie (Regimental Commanding Officer), Lt. Col. Henry W. Buse Jr. (Commanding 3rd Battalion), Lt. Col. John E. Weber (Commanding 1st Battalion), and Capt. Joseph E. Buckley (Commanding Regimental Weapons Company).

While researching the Battle of Cape Gloucester, I came across this photo of the 7th Marine Regiment’s commanders in January 1944. Granted, any group of officers that includes Chesty Puller (second from the left) has an epic advantage over the enemy, but when you consider these officers’ service records, it really shows how stacked this unit was, and perhaps why the 7th Marines were called the “fightingest outfit in the world.”

One Marine officer enlisted during World War I and served as a drill instructor (Frisbie)… two fought in Nicaragua (Puller and Frisbie)… Frisbie also faced rebels in the Dominican Republic… Puller saw action in Hayti… Two were China Marines (Conoley and Puller)… Two would later serve in Korea (Puller and Buse), and Buse also served during Vietnam… Continue reading “The ‘Fightingest’ Skippers of the 7th Marines”