This is the fifth blog post in a series marking the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II, and will feature an “Aviator Flight Log Book,” which will be available during the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover in September 2020.
I think we can all agree that summer 2020 looks a little different than we had planned. Having cancelled this year’s vacation, I found myself reminiscing about past adventures. In May of 2009, I stood on the shore of Key West watching as the USN General Hoyt S. Vandenberg (T-AGM-10) was submerged in a watery grave in order to find new life as the world’s second largest artificial coral reef. I couldn’t wait to return to Key West to explore this new world.
Unable to dive the remains this year, I chose to console myself by looking through the information I could find online. I was surprised to learn that this transport vessel was originally named the USS General Harry Taylor (AP-145), where she served as a haven for the battle-ridden Guadalcanal veterans transported back from “green hell” in 1944.
I wondered what those veterans would have thought if someone had told them then that the Solomon Islands would one day have a tourism bureau that entices vacationers with images of picturesque seaports, tropical jungle retreats and history tours that provide a window into one of the most pivotal battles of the South Pacific. Aptly called “Iron Bottom Side,” the stretch of water at the southern end of the slot between Guadalcanal and Florida Island is also a mecca for scuba divers to marvel at the 78-year-old ships, submarines and aircraft relics that are strewn across the sea floor. Looking at pictures of the now peaceful Guadalcanal, it is hard to fathom the fighting that transpired over a half-finished airstrip on an island not much bigger than Delaware.
Following Coast Watcher reports of Japanese airfield construction, in August 1942, U.S. Marine amphibious landings stormed the shores of Guadalcanal. If completed, the airport could support attacks on supply routes between the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. Recognizing the vitality of air power, the U.S. joined with Allied air powers to form what became known as the “Cactus Air Force.” Their mission was to provide close air support for the front lines, and to go toe-to-toe with the Japanese Mitsubishi Zeroes and G4M “Betty” Bombers. Realizing that the Cactus Air Force was regularly outnumbered, worn down by the ferocious daily combat and outperformed by the Zero’s speed and agility, commanders worked on an innovative solution.
Marine Fighting Squadron 224 commander Robert Galer helped develop a plan for the venerable Grumman F4F Wildcats. Following Coast Watchers reports on Japanese movement, the Wildcats would take to the air, climbing to an altitude of 25,000 feet and attack downward, capitalizing on their firepower and providing a tactical advantage against the formidable Zeros. Their daring raids led to impressive successes, including destroying over sixty Japanese aircraft in less than two month. Galer, himself, is credited for taking down 11 enemy bombers in only 29 days. Although overall successful (Galer was named a triple ace and even received the Medal of Honor for his leadership in Guadalcanal), the method was extremely physically taxing on the pilots, some of whom were still “green.”
Once technique was mastered, there was still the threat of enemy fire which resulted in a number of aircraft being downed. Galer was shot down multiple times, finding himself on one occasion “pancaking” in the water. After escaping the aircraft, he swam over an hour to the nearby island where locals helped him fashion a canoe for him to paddle to the nearest Marine outpost. Upon finally arriving to his home base days later, he learned that his men assumed he was dead and had started preparing his memorial service.
Humbled about his record and good fortune, Galer announced during his Veterans History Project oral history that he is the “luckiest old Marine around.”
Another self-proclaimed lucky Guadalcanal veteran pilot was Welton I. Taylor, an African-American man who served in a segregated Army. While most of the African-American men were sent to fight in Europe, Taylor deployed to the South Pacific to serve as a liaison pilot for the Army Field Artillery’s 93rd Division. Having trouble sleeping one of his last nights aboard the troop ship, Taylor decided to walk the deck. Exchanging salutes with the ship’s officer, Taylor commented on the brewing thunderstorm on the horizon.
That’s no storm! That’s Guadalcanal getting shellacked by the Japanese Navy, but you will find that out soon enough, warned the ship’s officer.
To Taylor’s great surprise, it wasn’t the Japanese Imperial Army who awaited him at the shore, but rather four American Red Cross women with coffee and cookies.
Two months after his arrival, the 92nd and 93rd Division’s aircraft finally arrived, enabling them to serve as the official “eyes in the sky,” radioing what they saw. From 1,000 – 3,000 feet, Taylor witnessed the some of the six-month-long grueling naval, land and air battles for control of the airfield which would later be known as Henderson Field. In between aerial reconnaissance and supply runs, Taylor was able to salvage parts from wrecked aircraft and modify his L-4H to optimize its performance. He regularly took Navy and Air Force pilots for rides to show them his L-4’s Bell AIRACOBRA P-39 joystick, turn bank indicator and Curtiss Warhawk P-40 hub, which added an extra ten knots to his airspeed.
U.S. Army Air Corp pilot Doug Canning never had the opportunity to join Taylor on a flight as his first tour of duty at Henderson Field included frequent shelling from the Japanese Navy, primitive conditions, scarce food and debilitating malady that precluded him from flying. After 10 days of paregoric treatment, he was well enough to be sent to Tontuta to train in the twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Canning flew a number of sorties on his second and third tours of duty, including when the Japanese withdrew from Guadalcanal in January and February of 1943. Some flights included combat, some included counting sharks to break the monotony and once included bailing out of his aircraft – ditching it into the shark invested waters. All of these led to Doug “Eagle Eyes” Canning being selected to participate in Operation Vengeance.
In April 1943, U.S. Navy code breakers intercepted Japanese radio traffic that indicated that Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, architect behind the attack on Pearl Harbor, would be flying to Bougainville Island early on April 18th. One year after the Doolittle Raid, 16 P-38s launched a 1,000 mile round trip excursion to intercept Admiral Yamamoto. After two hours of complete radio silence, Canning clicked his mic to utter
Bogeys! Eleven O’clock, High!
Precisely on schedule, Admiral Yamamoto’s two Betty Bombers and six Zeroes appeared. Battle ensued, resulting in Yamamoto’s plane being downed over the jungles, nine miles from the town of Panguna. Although heavily scavenged, the main parts of the plane remain to this day. The event continues to be one of the most studied fighter engagements of the Pacific War. After action reports indicate some discrepancy as to which pilot was responsible for downing the Admiral, but the result of the mission remains that Japan never again won a major battle in the Pacific War.