ATTACK ON THE CARRIER SHOKAKU
Zero fighters were sighted and they engaged our fighters in a dogfight and quickly shot down two of them. The other two fighters were trying to survive, and disappeared from our sight. That was the end of our fighter support. We were on our own - naked! I started hearing my gunner shooting his guns in short bursts. We were under attack. I caught a glimpse of what I at first thought was a pilots body spinning down off the right side of our formation but it was a Zeros gasoline belly tank. A Zero above us had jettisoned his fuel tank and the tank almost fell through our formation.
I could hear my gunner again firing at the Zeros, as they tried to attack us from the rear. One of our pilots, LT (jg) Roy Gee, observed a Zero make too steep a pull up from a gunnery run on us, which caused the wings to pull off and the plane spun out of control.
The magnificent Dauntless SBD dive-bomber turned the tide of the Pacific War against Japan. Clayton Fisher flew the SBD at the Battle of Midway and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. Attacking SBDs in tight defensive formations was a formidable task even for the deadly Japanese Zero.
Our flight leader led us through some cumulus clouds and we shook the Zeros for a short time but they attacked again when we cleared the clouds. I watched a Zero with two red bands around its fuselage attempt to make a high side gunnery run on our flight leader, Gus Widhelm, and then abort the run. He had previously tried to ram Widhelm's plane head on but Widhelm evaded this maneuver. He wanted to take our leader out. LT (jg) K.B. White, my roommate, said it was like he was stalking us. I watched the Zero pilot make his second attempt to hit Widhelms plane. This time the Zero pilot made a successful high side, almost full deflection, gunnery run. I watched two long yellow-blue flashes from the Zeros 20mm cannons. Widhelms engine was hit and the engine started streaming black oil smoke through our formation. His engine finally seized and he dropped out of the formation and successfully ditched. (Later he was rescued by a PBY (Catalina) flown by one of his ex-students he had trained at Pensacola).
"Moe" Vose took over as our leader. The Zero attacks increased in intensity. K.B. White, my roommate, had an aileron badly damaged and he was hit in his left hand. He could not keep his position and had to drop out of the formation. (He was able to later land on the Enterprise). LT (jg) Phil Grants gunner was either badly wounded or killed and an ammo belt was hanging out of his cockpit flapping in the slipstream against the side of the plane. Fred Bates watched Grants plane fall out of the formation and disappear.
In the last few miles, our leader was turning the formation in slow shallow evasive turns. I was flying in the tail end of the formation. It was like being on the end of a mild "crack the whip" and I would get sucked out of position. The only way I could stay in formation was to dive back underneath the formation and regain my wing position. The 1000-pound bomb made the plane sluggish to maneuver. Bursts of 7.7mm slugs finally hit my plane. A hydraulic line was severed and hydraulic fluid started running down to the bilges below my feet.
I checked to see if I could open my hydraulically operated dive brakes. No brakes! The formation started to break up and the planes went in a column and started down in 70-degree dives on the big Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku. In a 70 degree dive the plane is in a vertical position but your "track" down is 70 degrees. I had no choice but try to lose altitude in a steep glide. My plane accelerated rapidly and I knew I was going to overshoot the carrier. The Zeros followed us down to attack the dive bombers after they pulled out of their dives. I jettisoned my bomb and got down close to the water.
LCDR "Moe" Vose and LT Fred Bates both got direct hits with their 1000-pound bombs on the Shokaku. A small splintered piece of the Shokakus flight deck was later found in Fred Bates cockpit. He had flown through some of the debris from a bomb blast of a plane ahead of him. (We made our dives with the pilots cockpit hatch in the open position.)
After his dive, LT (jg) Roy Gee of VB-8 was able to join up on two VS-8 aircraft piloted by LT Ben Moore and LT (jg) Don Kirkpatrick. A Zero attacked them. A 7.7mm slug grazed Ben Moore's neck, and his gunner was hit in the arm. Kirkpatricks gunner was also wounded. The Zero ran out of ammunition, and the pilot flew alongside of the dive-bomber formation, saluted the pilots and flew off!
A single SBD dive-bomber is a little better off than a single fighter with a Zero on its tail because you have a gunner with twin fast firing 30-caliber guns. I needed to get close to the water so the fighter could not get a position below us where my gunner could not bring his guns to bear on the Zero. I couldnt outmaneuver the Zero. My gunner, George Ferguson, practically shot our rudder off trying to hit the Zero. We were getting hit with 7.7mm slugs that ripped holes in both wings and tail surfaces. I had a slug go between my legs that neatly holed my cylinder head temperature gage.
Finally, the Zero fired his 20mm cannons and a shell exploded in our radio transmitter, located behind my armored pilots seat. A radio frequency manual was blown into confetti, which flew all over the cockpit. I felt a very hot burning sensation in my right arm just below my shoulder. Small pieces of shrapnel had flown all around inside the plane. The terrific concussion from the shell exploding stunned me for a few seconds. As I started to recover, I had a vision of the faces of my wife and mother. I didnt want to die but felt completely helpless. I finally looked out over my right wing and the Zero was flying alongside of our plane and the pilot was staring at me. When the pilot saw me look at him he started to drift back to get behind us.
Ferguson had been shot in both thighs with 7.7mm slugs and had a piece of flesh gouged out of the calf of his right leg. We were flying an almost new SBD aircraft, which had been in the air when the aircraft carrier Wasp had been torpedoed and sunk on September 15. A Wasp pilot had landed the plane on the Hornet. This SBD had a newer system of rollers to feed the ammo belts. The belt links had been coming apart and jammed the guns. Therefore the gunner had to re-feed the ends of the belts back into his guns. Ferguson, in spite of being wounded, managed to get his guns re-loaded and waited for the Zero to get into firing range. The Zero pilot must have felt we were "cold turkey", and moved slowly into position for the "kill". Ferguson fired first and hit the engine of the Zero. The Zero, with its engine smoking, pulled up sharply away from us and disappeared. We had survived. Ferguson had not panicked. He had saved both our lives.
I finally picked up a compass heading for the Hornet, checked my wrist watch and it read 10.00am. The pain in my arm now felt like I had been hit just above my elbow and not just below my shoulder. My right flight glove had filled up with blood and I emptied the blood into the bilge below my feet. I used my left thumb and pressed it in my right armpit, hoping I could put pressure on the artery and to try to reduce the bleeding. The blood mixed with the hydraulic fluid in the bilge and I started to worry about how much blood I could lose and still function. George assured me he was okay in spite of being wounded. He never complained.
After I had flown what I thought was about thirty minutes I checked my $29.95 watch I had purchased at a PX in Pearl Harbor. It was still reading 10.00am! Im on a course for the Hornet but now have no idea how far we have flown. After we had flown what seemed like a long time, I started looking for the Hornet. We had unlimited visibility. I started to worry and think about how much farther I should stay on our course. I could be too far off course and miss the Hornet. I had almost decided I should turn south, and if we had ditched, we might have a very slim chance of floating into one of the Solomon Islands.
I thought I would never want to see another Japanese airplane but when we had a Zero pass underneath us headed in the opposite direction I was very relieved. Then I saw two fixed landing gear Japanese dive bombers and a Zero pass underneath us. I knew we were on the correct heading and could not be too far from the Hornet.
THE HORNET DEAD IN THE WATER
Finally, I could see the Hornet with a destroyer alongside and a single cruiser. I was shocked to see the Hornet dead in the water, listing to its port side and the flight deck covered with yellow foam and debris. I could see the Enterprise in the distance east of the Hornet. When I closed the distance to the Enterprise, there were a lot of aircraft swarming around in the landing flight pattern. I was going to have to fight for a position in that pattern. If any landing aircraft, which would include battle-damaged aircraft, made a bad landing, the deck would have to be cleared for landings to continue. Then there could be delays. I didnt have operable landing flaps and would not have been able to slow down enough to make a safe carrier landing. The fuel gage for the last main fuel tank was pegging close to empty.
Clayton Fisher returns to his carrier to find USS Hornet is dead in the water, without power, and listing eight degrees to starboard after a massive and sustained attack by Japanese carrier launched dive-bombers and torpedo planes. The carrier was hit by three bombs and two torpedoes. Two Japanese pilots committed suicide by deliberately crashing their dive-bombers on Hornet.
I decided to ditch in front of what I first thought was a destroyer and as I approached the ship I tried to stay on a parallel course, showing my side silhouette only. We were supposed to do a 360-degree recognition turn to indicate we were friendly aircraft but I didnt want to use up more fuel to make the turn. I finally positioned us about a quarter mile ahead and to starboard of the ship, which I had now recognized as the light AA cruiser Juneau.
Ferguson was able to jettison his guns as we were preparing to ditch. Dive-bombers didnt have shoulder straps like the fighters so our squadron mechanics had improvised a single strap that crossed our chests. I tightened the chest strap and lowered my seat as far as possible so I would not damage an eye if my head hit the gun sight. The sea was not too rough but I was worried about the swells. I decided I had to get as close to the water as possible and to keep adding power, "hanging it on the prop", to ditch at the lowest possible airspeed because I didnt have landing flaps. I didnt want to start to spin, dig a wing tip and cartwheel into the water. As the plane started to shake as I approached a stall, I chopped the throttle.
I dont remember actually hitting the water. I was temporally knocked unconscious when my head banged into the instrument panel and I received a cut on my forehead. The water rapidly filled the cockpit and it revived me. Ferguson had already pulled the life raft out of the side of the aircraft, had inflated it, and was trying to help me out of the cockpit. We were able to climb into the raft from off the left wing before the plane sank.
Clayton Fisher and George Ferguson were plucked from the sea by the light cruiser USS Juneau. Juneau was twice torpedoed during the first Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on 13 November 1942. Captain Swenson and most of his crew perished.
The Juneau came alongside of our raft and sailors threw lines down at us. I was able to catch a line and I wrapped it around my wrists. Ferguson tackled my legs. The Juneau was still slowly moving and I almost dislocated my shoulders when the line tightened and Ferguson and I were being dragged along with the raft. The Juneau had a large cargo type net rigged to hang down the side of the hull to assist in the rescue of men in the water. Sailors climbed down the net and secured a line looped under my arms and hauled me up on the main deck. Ferguson with wounds in both legs climbed up that net! We had been rescued in about 4 minutes!
Ferguson and I were helped down to a small sick bay. Dr Neff, the ship's doctor, examined my arm. My elbow joint was exposed and I had lost some flesh just above the elbow. The doctor asked me if I could move my thumb. I could move it and the doctor told me "Your are one lucky son of a bitch!" It basically was a flesh wound; no damage to the tendons or bone joint. The doctor dusted the wound with sulfa powder, loosely bandaged the arm and put me in a bunk. He threw blankets over me, told me I was in severe shock, and to stay in the bunk or I might die.
The space Ferguson and I were in was one deck below the main deck and close to a twin 5-inch gun mount. Shortly thereafter the task force came under an aerial torpedo attack and the Juneau, which was a new type anti-aircraft light cruiser, let loose with all its 5 inch guns. The whole ship shook. I could only lie in the bunk wishing I could see what was going on. Finally the firing stopped and I realized I needed to visit a head (toilet). I had been on "hold" for over six hours. There was a young seaman with a broken leg in a cast in our space. I asked him where the nearest head was, and he pointed up the ladder. I climbed out of the bunk wearing a white bathrobe and started up the ladder. I started getting nauseated but reached the main deck and felt the wonderful fresh air. I moved over to the handrail on the port side just below the ships bridge. I was vomiting over the side when the ship accelerated and started a hard turn to starboard. I just hung on to the handrail and could see 40mm gun crews with their steel helmets, flash clothing, goggles, gloves and life jackets. The men in the open had to be protected from muzzle blasts. I must have looked like a ghost standing out there in the open.
Doctor Neff, a big man, came down from his battle station on the bridge, grabbed me, threw me over a shoulder and hauled me back down to the bunk. He put the blankets over me and said, "Goddammit, you stay there!"
That night, after the Juneau crew came off their battle stations, Dr Neff and his corpsman put Ferguson and me out with sodium pentothal and cleaned our wounds. Ferguson and I had a bad night after the drugs had worn off. By morning, my arm had hemorrhaged and my bunk was a bloody mess.
Dr Neff visited me in the morning and asked what the hell possessed me to go up on deck. I told him I had desperately needed to relieve myself. I told him about the seamans directions. Doctor Neff asked the seaman why he didnt tell me there was a head right behind my bunk. The seaman said, "That is an enlisted mans head"!
The first day I could eat in the officers wardroom, I sat next to the ships gunnery officer. He asked me why I didnt make the 360-degree recognition turn when I approached the Juneau. I told him I was about ready to run out of fuel. He told me he was just ready to give the order for the Juneau's guns to fire at me when some crewman yelled "SBD"! They would have blasted my plane out of the air like a clay pigeon. I was lucky some Juneau sailor had stayed awake in his aircraft recognition training class!
The Juneau had also picked up a fighter pilot and a torpedo plane crew. The fighter pilot from the Enterprise had been my roommate during flight training at NAS Jacksonville. His name was Andrew Jackson Loundes, III. When we were introducing ourselves, at the cadet barracks at Jacksonville, I told Andy he had a funny name. He had attended the University of Virginia, and wore expensive, sharp looking clothes. He looked at my cheap olive green covert cloth suit and told me his name was no funnier than my suit! We both had a good laugh and became very good friends. It was a small world. Andy and I had just become short-term shipmates on the Juneau.
The task force was headed into port at Noumea. The entrance channel was heavily mined for submarine protection and the ships proceeded in column and had to zig zag through an intricate approach path. We passed close to a destroyer that had the forward gun turret blown apart from a bomb.
I was to be transferred to the Navy hospital ship Solace. I was able to meet with Captain Swenson, the skipper of the Juneau, before I was transferred. I asked him why he took the risk of slowing down the Juneau and almost stopping to pick me up. He grinned a little and shrugged his shoulders. The Juneau was torpedoed and sunk about a month later by a Japanese submarine, Captain Swenson and most of the crew, which included the five Sullivan brothers, was lost.