The Ship - All Hands - Decorations - Remembrance
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In fall 1944, Night Air Group 90 slowly coalesced in Hawaii. One of the first naval air groups charged specifically with conducting night and all-weather operations, NAG-90 underwent intensive training at Night Air Combat Training Unit, Barbers Point, and intensive unwinding at BOQ "Dog".
Life aboard a seagoing airstrip is not particularly conducive to literary efforts. Nerves are either at a high pitch, or the complete reverse. In our work there is the traditional deadline from higher echelons of "at your convenience or ten minutes ago, whichever comes first."
Yet, a few members of our "Nite Life" squadron have found the time, energy and ambition to write this chronicle. Bob Hadley, our historian, who has so conscientiously recorded our day by day events in a manner which warmly reflects the experiences and thoughts of each one of us; Eduardo Hidalgo, squadron sage and editor supreme, who through his polished contributions and careful editing has rounded out the story; Joe Jennings, the man who diligently pulled it all together; "Pop" Lawton, poet laureate and "sounder of the keynote"; Waldo Cummings, our own Cole Porter; Bob Jones, master of ceremonies and contributor-at-large; Bill H. Balden for his photographs in spite of unending difficulties; "Bourbon" Bill Bacon, keeper of the seal, exchequer, typewriter and endless enthusiasm; Roy Pintacura for the clever drawings and cartoons; and, finally, "Pee Pee" Shaw, "Hotch" Hotchkiss, John Fields, C. D. "Jonesy" Jones and Rex Holmgrin for laborious work in sending this document "to press".
-Charles E. Henderson III
This is the story of Night Torpedo Squadron Ninety: from its formation at Barbers Point in September 1944 to the time when the USS Enterprise - the historic "Fighting Lady" in the Pacific - turned its course homeward on 16 May 1945. It is the chronicle of eight months of "Night Life". Our campaigns included Barbers Point and the battle of Waikiki from September to December; Luzon-South China Sea in January; Tokyo-Iwo Jima in February; and Kyushu-Okinawa from April until May. Beyond a day-to-day factual record of our activities we have tried to recapture the spirit, feelings and camaraderie which have made this squadron a fighting unit.
We have intended to make this a story of the entire squadron - officers and men. If certain events have been omitted, it is due, in part at least, to the rapid tempo of our lives which made complete observation difficult and limited the time we could devote to this saga. You will undoubtedly find many places where personal thoughts and emotions have been recorded which may not faithfully reflect your own. We believe, however, that the pattern is sufficiently accurate and general to revive the specific experiences of each man.
This chronicle has been written primarily, of course, for the members of VT(N)90. Naturally it will mean more to them than to others who may read it - at least sentimentally. It may contain broader interest for all as a depiction of carrier squadron life, with its problems, uncertainties and sorrows, mingled with its friendships, humor and successes. At this point we have a brief word of tribute for our Skipper, "Hose-Nose" Henderson [LT C. E. Henderson], for his unwavering belief in our "pioneer" cause in the face of outside skepticism and opposition. His relentless spirit and courageous achievements often cemented each man's determination and reinforced our fighting unity.
We entertain no illusions about the literary characteristics of this document. It is meant, in all respects, as the informal story of each officer and man of VT(N)90.
And so - ON WITH THE PLAY!!
Navy records for time immemorial will read that Night Torpedo Squadron Ninety was commissioned on 25 August 1944. The process of commissioning often belongs only to the "paper war". It's a birth certificate without a "corpus delicti" - at least this was true in our case. If a roll call of VT(N)90 had been called on 25 August at Hangar "B", NAS Barbers Point, Oahu, T.H., any response would have been fraudulent.
On that date, most of the officers and men of 90 were scattered throughout various squadrons on the West Coast and in the Hawaiian area. Many of them were still relishing a 30-day leave after the rigors of battle with Torpedo Ten, supinely confident that months of stateside duty were ahead before returning to the realities of war. Few of the 15 officers and 25 air crewmen who ultimately composed 90 had yet heard the clarion call for night "volunteers" - for pioneers of the first night bombing and torpedo squadron to go aboard a large CV (carrier). History would tell the tale of how they came together, from all corners, at the Barbers Point night melting pot (Night Air Combat Training Unit - NACTU), straggling in throughout the month of September.
On 5 September our flying personnel consisted of the equivalent in rank of a Rear Admiral - five Ensigns: Ashton [John M. Ashton], Barton [Charles W. Barton], Brooks [Charles E. Brooks], Hinrichs [H. Gordon Hinrichs] and Landon [James D. Landon] reported aboard. It was the one period in 90's existence when the non-flying officers almost matched the pilots man-for-man. In fact, through shrewd lobbying and the immutable despotism of rank, they succeeded in electing their candidate for S.O.P. [Senior Officer Present] - Lt. "Bourbon Bill" Bacon. Bill had almost mastered the language of Immelmans and, especially, "water" injection, when Capt. Jack Griffin of NACTU began a campaign of interference with his command. It will always stand to Bourbon's glory, however, that he vanquished his characteristic "reticence" and out-talked someone into lending five decrepit TBM-1Cs to our skeleton squadron, simultaneously blackjacking the pilots into additional time insurance. They needed it!
The other non-flying conspirators consisted of two Radar Officers (subsequently transferred to other commands) and Lt.(jg) Ed ("I-have-a cousin-on-those-islands") Hidalgo. ACI [Air Combat Intelligence] Ed early began the fruitless task of daily sketching the firing areas around Oahu - danger warnings which the pilots religiously ignored. It was an omen of the later reaction to the vain efforts of Flak Analysts (for further information on this point, consult "Pogo" Roy).
NACTU kept the members of our skeleton squadron on the go - refresher instrument hops in SNJs ["Texan" - a Navy training plane], familiarization flights and the hours of night time each day. From the outset, every pilot of 90 had to face the individual problem of acquiring the skill, precision and psychology requisite for night operations. This was one of our major tasks - a costly and difficult one. The former members of Torpedo Ten had the benefit of limited night training at Maui in the latter part of 1943, and during their 1944 cruise on the Big E; they had made the first carrier-based night bombing attack against shipping at Truk. All in all, however, it was a pioneer field for everyone. You shall see, as our story unfolds, that we were given our quota of the hardships and uncertainties necessary to qualify for the role of "pioneers" and to tie the bonds which bring men together.
From the outset, 90 showed the rugged spirit of the "pioneer". The charter members immediately laid the groundwork of the massive fortification at BOQ [Bachelor Officers' Quarters] "Dog" where eventually huge stockpiles of essential materials were amassed, all for the better and relentless campaigns at Barbers Point. But wait - we're getting ahead of our story. Actually, when 90 first arrived at BOQ "Dog", that lovely romantic two-story frame structure was the symbol of rural tranquility. Its spacious rooms, thickly carpeted parquet floors (decks, in case you USNRs don't understand) were linked by an intricate maze of winding, marble staircases (ladders). The antique furniture - some dated it back to prehistoric times - could not have been more unique. The mattresses were of rare vintage - in fact, the opinion was expressed that only the chow could claim priority in rank. Whatever the truth of these questions may be, 90 lived happily and lustily at BOQ "Dog" from September until the date in December (the 24th: "T'was the day before Christmas and all through the night there was ... bitchin'") when it went aboard the mighty Enterprise. Nor must we forget the strategic location of "Dog", just spitting distance from the Officer's Club where the Planter's Punch and Mike Jennings' double old fashions often made us feel almost as primitive as our surroundings.
WELL ... such were the early beginnings!!
On 22 September, Cmdr. William I. Martin arrived with his Air Group staff and our Skipper Lt. Russell F. Kippen (Rip) with 15 pilots, their air crewmen, and a considerable number of non-flying personnel. During the first week of October an additional 25 pilots, plus air crewmen, joined the ranks. The latter contingent came in groups of two or threes, stemming from a dozen or more squadrons. "Rip" and his shipmates represented the Torpedo Ten offspring - strictly legitimate. As you can see, we had more than our share of the usual "human" problem which confronts squadrons - that of creating a single fighting unit free from any disturbing forces or factions and based on a spirit of mutual help and friendship. We did this job well, part of it at Barbers Point, the rest of it during our fighting days in the Pacific. Navy plans first specified 1 December as our sailing date. Our squadron was to consist of 27 planes and 40 pilots; our equipment was to be the latest. We were to be supplied with TBM-#D type aircraft, carrying the ultimate in electronic gear. Yet, on the 14th of December (after our sailing date had been postponed until the 22th) we had only eight planes; and these incorporated few, if any, of the ninety-nine modifications considered for night operation. The squadron itself - much to the credit of Charlie Henderson, Joe Jewell and Herb Wade - assumed the task. It took three weeks - after endless planning, red tape and controversies, to do the work on our eight original planes. It is somewhat of a miracle that the 19 planes which we finally acquired within a week of sailing were subjected to the scores of changes and modifications in time to meet the deadline.
And so you can see that we had a material problem. You might as well convince yourselves at this point that you are dealing with a group of men who overcome all problems - we modestly admit it. As Bob Jones would later say, time and again, in our ready room "Jamborees" aboard the Big E: "This is the finest squadron in the Pacific Fleet, men." It was the only statement ever made in the ready room which met with wholehearted approval.
Well, what did we do for planes? We begged, borrowed, and stole some 16 TBM wrecks of every type and modification. This gave us a total of 24 aircraft for our concentrated training in night operation. Instrument and familiarization flights came first. The boys always grumbled about those instrument hops but they certainly pay major dividends in night operation: in fact, they are part of the capital investment. As the time passed, we became ripe for NACTU'S withering program of simulated night attacks. The last six weeks or so threw us into a real night schedule, with hops commencing after midnight and terminating after dawn. As you will shortly see, it also threw BOQ "Dog" into a state of turmoil. The guests of other squadrons who slept at night (as natural laws ordain) resented our mode of life and we showed mild and "ever-courteous" signs of the vice versa.
As for those night attacks - well, we undoubtedly sanded the "Sara Maru" [Saratoga CV-3] a thousand times; and it was often a major feat of night search. Theoretically, we would be given the position of the carrier with escort; but (shades of POINT OPTION at sea) more than often a few luggers or clouds (see Lt. Cmdr. William II Sackit Chace for expert advice) would be found at the appointed rendezvous. Most of the time, however, we found our prey and became quite proficient at an art which never paid direct dividends since the Jap fleet was destined to remain concealed in the clouds and harbors of their homeland. We also staged practice bombing and mine-laying attacks against installations in surrounding islands - Kauai to the northwest, and Molokai to the southeast of Oahu. We waged mock-warfare with the search-lights at Oahu, learning the bare beginnings of a technique which we employed against the Japs at Chichi Jima in February and Kyushu in May.
We have stated that our intense training in the skills and psychology of night operations proved costly and difficult. Even in our stages of mock warfare, six of four comrades were taken from our midst. Ens. James J."Big" Murphy crashed on land during a night familiarization hop; Ensigns Charles W. Barton Jr. and James L. "Killer" Crane were lost at sea during simulated attacks against shipping. Bart was with his two air crewmen, Ramsey, K. H. ARM 3/c and Hays, J. C. ARM 3/c. "Killer" was flying with Herlofsen, M. G. ARM 3/c. In these and other subsequent heavy losses which we endured, men said little, felt much. As soon as it was realized that one of our planes was missing, a day-long search over miles and miles of sea commenced. Pilots who had been flying all night, flew all day. The rest of us sat restlessly, quietly, grimly in the ready room, waiting. Few words were said on the return - even fewer thereafter. But as time passed, you would often hear us recalling some crazy happy experience which a lost comrade had shared. You could always tell what men felt by the way they laughed at the humor of the story - and their persistence in repeating it. That was our way of remembering.
We are deliberately summarizing the months at Barbers Point with a quick sweep of the pen, hoping to capture the highlights. The memory of each man will fill the gaps, differently in almost every case. We are aware that the period at sea will stand out most sharply - will be the longest to endure in the minds of all. It is a habit with men to gloss over the early beginnings, particularly in our case where the foundations of our fighting unity were being laid so unknowingly, and yet, so positively.
We have said that BOQ "Dog" was a charming scene of rural tranquility when 90 arrived. That's a damn lie, of course. But, it is said to have been so by comparison! At first our boys were scattered throughout the two wings and the two decks. This offered plausible excuses when complaints were registered against the racket caused by our "somnambulists". "It was the fellow next door", or "When the hell do you expect us to live, relax, play our symphonies and swing if we fly all night", or "The day boys don't soft-pedal any of their trumpets when we're trying to sack out during the day...". The upshot - 90 was huddled in the left wing, second deck of Dog!! A very cozy set-up it was and damn poor foresight on the part of those who sought law and order.
Oh, we really weren't very bad; no worse than a thousand others. But when we played we showed all the spirit and tenacity of the "finest squadron in the Pacific". The "O" Club, as you'll recall, was only a stagger away. Whether we were on a day or night schedule, many of us would be there at 1600 when the curtain rose, and also for the lowering at 1815 - it was "curtains" then. The drinking ran in cycles, of course. Often it consisted merely of an "aperitif", sipped slowly and with elegance. There were times when the pineapple juice diet prevailed unchallenged. Fellows like "Stud" Balden and E. J. "Pop" Lawton were always present to temper the alcoholic quotient of the squadron. But the majority of us hit the jack-pot every now and then. The Saturday night dances were a choice occasion and a fitting tribute to "Sackit" Chace, "Shaky" Emmons [LT William B. Emmons] and their coterie who added dignity and solemnity with their spotless "whites" - con decoraciones (come on, Spanish students).
It so happened that the drinking cycle was often accompanied by a pursuit known as the "Baiting of Herr Mueller" - a jovial little game designed to create chaos in the Mess Hall. Now, mind you, the Mess Hall was chaos before we touched it - steam trays with the rarest concoctions of buffalo "B", dank darkness and congestion which rivaled the Time Square subway. But we added our share to the confusion. There was the historic occasion when Cliff Largess, "Casey" Moore [LT James S. Moore], "C" "B" Collins and others wended their way to the Mess Hall after one of the "cycles" at the Officers Club. Cliff had meekly chanced upon a bottle of grapefruit juice "mix" completely untainted by alcohol, and this he carried with childish innocence into the sanctum of our great salon. Some of his companions took a glass or two of stronger sterner stuff. Our gentle little group was struggling with the repast when suddenly and without introduction "Herr" demanded to know the contents of the glasses and grapefruit bottle. Cliff told him to "go away" in his best Worcesterese, adding certain embellishments. "Herr" countered with a command for his name. "Clifton Rogers Largess Jr." was the response; and for many days thereafter a hopeless man-hunt for Rogers was under way. The injustice of it all was that the glasses were analyzed by bearded chemist and found to be full of vice and corruption. No one analyzed Cliff's innocent bottle of grapefruit juice. It would have been the vindication of all!
Then there was the scene at "Dog" after 9O had been wisely huddled in the left wing. Just about 0100 the RED ALERT was sounded, everything was blacked out, and our Duty Officer sent trucks from Hangar B to take the squadron to its battle station in the ready room. Large numbers of our warriors were on hand to fight the Nip threat - and able to do it. But there were a few, more eager than anyone to fight, who couldn't have maneuvered into the seat of a helicopter. Of course, we all suspected, if we didn't know, that it was the usual Army ace flitting around without the proper identification. But our boys showed grim determination in accordance with best Naval tradition, sitting around the ready room, in full flying regalia. "Shaky" Emmons - in the "cycle" - was strutting from one group to the next, proclaiming a different emergency frequency with each breath. And "Bourbon" Bill was snapped in one of those unforgettable scenes. Fully equipped with red goggles - no one could figure it out since the hangar was in almost complete darkness - he was found haranguing the air crewmen who sat prostrate on the deck of their ready room. Bourbon solemnly orated: "Men, this is the real thing - you must be prepared - Nelson, you fly with so and so - Wengler, Poritzki person... ." At the dramatic climax of his oratory Ed ACI walked in and stated that the bogey was an Army Black Widow. Bourbon was crushed!
No one will ever forget the episode in "Dog" when some of our playful fighter comrades sprayed foamite and water over everyone and everything in or near the premises. The identity of all the accomplices is not known - nor does it matter. All hands were having a jolly time until some mid-Victorian Lieutenants (new arrivals of a day squadron who had caused bedlam on more than one occasion) called the Shore Patrol. When our boys discovered the vile act of treachery they took the situation in hand. No tornado or typhoon or Kamikaze could have matched the results of their handiwork.
Suffice it to say that the Lieutenants didn't (couldn't) sleep, sit or walk in their room for some time thereafter. The aftermath was serious - but not too much so. Capt. Griffin was on the spot before long and "El Grouppo" (Cmdr. Martin) was given no alternative but to issue a reprimand. A watch list of senior officers was established to keep law and order in our two-story mansion. It wasn't an easy job!
Since we have artificially separated the discussion of our social activities from the very brief resume of our working life, you may easily think that what we are about to say is ridiculous. Yes, about midway through our training period the higher-ups decided that we needed an organized recreation program! Two to three days for every officer and man at the Volcano House at the slope of Manau Loa on the island of Hawaii! We were flown by our own pilots in TBMs to N.A.S. Hilo. A thirty mile trip took us to the delightful and cool hotel, surrounded by mountains and craters. For those who wished it, there was riding, golf, tennis, and endless sight-seeing. Evenings were spent on the veranda or near the crackling fireplace in the spacious lobby, sipping long drinks. As the night progressed we drifted back to our rooms for a poker game and a bit of our private stock. Three cheers for the program of the higher-ups!
We had many celebrations and get-togethers at Oahu. There was the one at the Beach Club near Barbers Point early in October. A posse was sent out, well in advance, to round up every available female - out they went to Shafter and Hickham, Waikiki and Aiea. The result was gratifying - for some, at least. Shannon McCrary's lady was smothered with attention by a host of "loyal" shipmates. Shannon left early and someone else squired the lady home - he says it was indigestion. We ask - from what? There were several guests: Captain Gould of Barbers Point, Cmdr. Roscoe Newman who later was with us as Operations Officer to Admiral Gardner, and others we didn't see or recognize. We swam, danced, ate, and drank heavily. As darkness set in we saw some shadows along the sandy dunes, moving faintly, always in twos. They must have been goblins - or the planter's punches were raising hell with our imagination!
The celebration to end all celebrations occurred in December, shortly before we put to sea. The swanky Outrigger Club was chosen, and the guests of honor outnumbered the Air Group, two to one. The "posse" seemed to have an easier time, due no doubt to the sense of security instilled by "fashionable" surroundings (are we insulting the Beau Brummels of Ninety?) They came in large numbers from the Red Cross, Navy Nurses, Waikiki society - and there was a new denomination known as the "Gooks". Let those who studied it explain it to you! The setting was so delightful that it (almost) inhibited us. There was much cooing and swooning as the Barbers Point Hellcats played their tunes and couples danced on the veranda overlooking the famed Waikiki surf. "El Grouppo" was there, of course - and hence there was a speech. In his finest "Douglas County" manner, he sang and introduced the ranking guests. Admiral Gardner blew the trumpet call of action - forward we go gloriously into our triumphant adventure of night operations aboard the almost mythical Enterprise! Cheers, cheers! Tex Luscombe of the fighters symbolized the other indivisible part of our life with his inimitable "Texas Stomp". As the curfew hour of 2200 approached, everyone was searching for some remnant of the vast supplies of "brew", rather than the nearest exit. It is rumored that there were many who ran afoul of the Hawaiian police that night for minor infractions of the curfew and speeding regulations. It anyone thought it might impede their cruise aboard the Big E, they were sadly mistaken.
The truth is that we were all deeply restless by this time, anxious to meet the test of our training period - in fact, of our lives. Most men soon tire of theory. They want to see the results of their efforts. Beyond that, each one of us was out here for a definite purpose - to do our part of the job and return home as quickly as possible. The chance was finally here, as you shall see from the following chapter in our chronicle.