Dinner Speaker for February 22, 2001
Lt. in the US Navy flying Grumman F6F Hellcats with VF-6. He ended the war as the Navy's fourth-ranking ace with 19 aerial victories. Became an ace in a day flying an F6F Hellcat in the Pacific Theater. Alex relates a wide variety of experiences from flying with 'Butch O'Hare' to shooting many bombers and fighters. He talks in detail about night landings on carriers and ditching or bailing out of many shot-up airplanes. Rich with Historical detail.
Phil Schasker introduced Alex by stating the Wing would be getting more question and answer. However when Alex started speaking, the memories just started flowing!
Alex started by correcting Phil on his native state and the college he attended. For the record, Alex is from East Chicago, Indiana and attended De Pauw University. He told us how he was just one of the hundreds of thousands men who wanted to serve their country, and worked the night shift at a steel plant.
An opening in the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) allowed him to start his aviation career. One of his instructors was an ex-Navy pilot so Alex signed up for that branch of the service. He went to Indianapolis and took the oath, and in October 1941 he was called up. On December 7, 1941 Alex was in Glenview Illinois. After that fateful day, he was sent to Dallas for one month.
Alex said that Navy pilots were allowed an inclination of what type of flying they wanted to do. Alex wanted to be a fighter pilot, and if the Navy would not give that to him he was prepared to join the Army Air Corp. Alex got what he wanted but Dallas was not to active yet because of the lack of planes and squads. He spent most of his time at the pool ogling blonds!
His next assignment was in Melbourne, FL to train in and fly F4Fs. In the unit at the time were Gene Valencia and XXXXX Campbell. He thought is odd that this unit would later produce some of the Navy’s top aces. His routine while in Florida consisted of flying in the morning and playing golf or fishing in the afternoon.
He then shipped to North Island in San Diego. His carrier qualification was done by landing on the converted paddle wheeler, the Wolverine. He got his required eight landings then flipped a coin with a buddy to see who would go to Guadalcanal. Alex won.
Alex saw his first action as the wingman of Butch O’Hare (ORD fame for the civilian pilots). “He was a good pilot” stated Alex, who taught many of the squadron members little things that would later save their lives. One example was to swivel your neck before starting a strafing run to make sure enemy fighters were not on your tail. Alex went on to say “A lot of us learned from guys before us.”
Alex flew the F4F while in the South Pacific. Many of his squad mates preferred the Wildcat over the zero, even though it was underpowered and the guns sometimes froze at altitude. By starting an attack from above, the pilot could get up a head of steam and use the momentum to engage the enemy. In addition, it allowed a downward escape, which made it hard for the Zero to follow. Lastly the Coast Watchers often provided enough warning that the F4Fs could get to altitude before the enemy arrived.
His first action was with the 1st Air Combat unit aboard the CVL Independence at Wake Island. Flying with Butch O’Hare, they came across an enemy formation. Butch took the outside airplane and Alex took the inside plane. Alex said, “it felt good” to have an enemy airplane in his sights. Butch went below the clouds to get a Zero and Alex lost him. So he kept an eye on a Zero that went to Wake Island and landed. Alex smoked him on the ground, then saw a Betty bomber and got it also. Upon returning to the carrier, Butch asked him where he went and Alex knew then that he should have stayed with his leader.
Alex related that the US Navy was badly hurt at Pearl Harbor, and that many guys had an attitude about getting back at the Japanese. One example was the units attack on a Japanese trawler at Marcus Island. The ship was sunk, but it grew bigger and bigger each time the pilots told the story of how they got a Japanese ship! Alex got into some hot water with this particular trawler because he made another pass at it and the ship blew up after his run. This prevented the torpedo pilots from practicing with a live fish on the trawler.
Next Alex told us about his memories of Tarawa. One day while on patrol flight lead O’Hare test his guns with telling his flight. Immediately Alex’s hair went gray and all the guys were jumpy! Another thing they did was to strafe the Japanese control tower on the island and shot it up good.
While on Tarawa, his unit was warned to avoid touching anything on the island for fear of booby traps. Alex received a gold tooth from someone on the island and assumed it came from a dead soldier. He related that in retrospect things were pretty ghoulish at the time, and that the war did strange things to normally respectable men. The tooth was drilled and made into a pendent for one of his nieces who thought it was a fine piece of jewelry.
Although the GGW heard from a night fighter a couple of months ago, Alex claims that Butch O’Hare rigged up a TBM for night flying before radar. This was out of necessity because the Betty bombers would hit the carriers day or night. The idea was that the fighters would fly in wing position with the TBM, and the torpedo plane would vector the fighters into the enemy formation. They would sneak up on a Betty, and had orders to open fire if they saw exhaust flames.
One mission Butch was in a four-ship attack and Alex thinks he was caught in the crossfire between the Americans and the Japanese. Alex wants to think that Butch was shot down by a Japanese gun, but we will never really know. The hardest thing Alex had to do was to talk to Butch’s widow after returning stateside.
Next up was Truk Island for Alex and a new airplane - the F6F. He got some fighter to fighter action while there. During a strafing mission, Alex was at the trail end of a 12-plane formation. They group was getting ready to start the strafing run when Alex remembered to look back on last time, per Butch O’Hare’s instructions. Sure enough there was a flight of Zeros with the Hellcats in their sights. Alex peeled off and engaged the fighter formation. He stayed above 10,000 feet and kept his speed up, with the out being to dive down to escape.
While in VF6, Alex participated in the attack on Rabaul, before VF6 was sent home. Back at Pearl Harbor, Alex requested to be transferred back to a fighting unit. He got his wish with a transfer to VF16 on the Lexington. He also got a new wingman, and he vowed to his wingman to get 10 Bettys for Butch.
During one busy day, he was on his third hop at Kwajelean. Before starting a strafing run, he looked down and saw three Bettys at 300 feet. He attacked the formation highside and shot close in range (another thing learned from Butch). He got all three of the Bettys with the 1st one going down due to an engine fire. The second one was also on fire and Alex saw the crew bailout. The third one was more of a problem, because he was down on the deck and had his guns jam. He had to make 8 passes before he finally got number three.
The highside pass was learned from Butch and was important when attacking Bettys. The Japanese bomber had 20-mm guns which “would discourage you from doing your job” said Alex. So the highside technique was used to avoid the 20-mm fire.
Not all of Alex’s landings were picture perfect and he explained with his next story. When he first got on board with VF16, he was given a plane that the prior pilot had complained about. Alex’s mission was to take this plane, so away he went. He got up to altitude and smoke started filling the cockpit. The carriers were still launching aircraft, so no ship could allow him to land. He made a pass on the carrier with his tail hook down as a signal to land immediately but before he could land, the engine quit. He ditched in the ocean and had to wait for a destroyer to pick him up. The custom in the Navy was for an aircraft carrier to exchange some ice cream for each pilot rescued by another Navy vessel. The destroyer passed Alex three times before finally getting him. On the third pass, Alex yelled “What’s the matter, don’t you want the ice cream?” Once on board the Lt. Cmdr of the ship stated that the destroyer crew usually did better than that. They also treated him great, by getting his wet cloths washed and dried in 15 minutes. After getting treated so well Alex kept his humor to himself and respected the other sailors for helping him.
His next water landing happened near Truk Island. On the second hop of the day, he went in with bombers to do some strafing. The AAA barage came up through the cockpit and got his landing gear handle, so he could not put his gear down. He had a choice of ditching again or parachuting out of the airplane. Ditching in the Navy requires some rules, like not ditching in front of a ship or causing the destroyers to break formation and jeopardize the fleet protection. Alex made to setups to ditch and both times, right before splashdown the fleet changed direction. His second ditching was rather unspectacular and the plane floated. This gave him time to get his life raft out and he walked out the wing, jumped in the raft and barely got wet. However he was picked up too late in the day to get back to his carrier and had to spend the night on the smaller destroyer in heavy seas.
Alex was used to a large carrier that did not heave as much. The destroyer ride was getting to him, so he schemed to get back to the Lexington. He sent a message back to the Lex stating “us, get me off this danged roller coaster or I’ll vote for McArthur!” (Gen. McArthur once stated in a speech that the US Navy belongs to him and this was a sore point with Navy personnel.) After sending the message, it took 45 minutes to get a response so Alex starting worrying that he insulted someone on the Lex. However the next order from the Lex was for the destroyer to pull along side, and Alex transferred over. When he got on board, he was introduced to Adm Mitchner as the man who sent that message!
His third eventful return to earth was a parachute jump on the Philippines. He went out with a load of rockets and bombs, which turned the fighters into multipurpose attack platforms as the plane returned to its fighter role after dropping its ordnance. Well Alex’s plane got hit and he had to parachute out. He was picked up and rescued by a local gentleman named Clarke Kellogg. (Clarke got his name from the movie star and a box of cereal!) Clarke later moved to Daly City, CA and Alex maintained a friendship ever since.
Alex spoke briefly of his day during the famed Marianas Turkey Shoot. He was out on a mission using his spot gazing technique, something he perfected back in Dallas looking at the women! He spotted a loose formation of around 50 Japanese planes. He had to abort his first pass because a fellow Navy pilot had gotten in his way (overeager to engage!). His subsequent passes were very successful as he got 6 airplanes in 8 minutes. The one that stuck out to him was the one where the tail gunner kept firing at Alex, as he followed it down. Alex felt a tinge of pity at the time, because the tail gunner kept doing his job - firing at the enemy - as he neared the end of his life.
The next day the fighters took off on a mission late in the day. Many returning pilots arrived after dark and had little night carrier landing practice. This was the day that the Adm ordered the lights turned on the carriers so the pilots could land, risking exposing his position to enemy submarines in the area. Sadly, many pilots did not make it back successfully that day and some perished due to the night.
There were other times when Alex remembers some of his mates getting hit by US Navy bullets. This was particularly a problem during the intense attacks on the US fleet and the gunners on the ships fired at anything in the sky.
Another incident that stuck in his mind was the flight that his wingman kept trying to warn Alex of something. Due to radio silence Alex could not understand the particular communication, and completed his mission. Upon landing on the carrier and going through his post flight checklist, Alex found out what his wingman was trying to tell him. Alex had not secured the bolts that held his wings in place before leaving, and flew the whole mission in an unsafe aircraft!
Looking back at his participation in the war, Alex can now understand the strategies. At the time he was just a fighter pilot in the ready room waiting for his next orders. Now he sees that the Japanese got stung badly at Midway and did not come out to fight for a while. He also noted that the Japanese sacrificed their carriers to draw Adm. Halsey farther north during the Philippine sea battles.
Question and answers finally arrived after one and a half hours of Alex’s reminiscing. This was supposed to be more Q&A than talk, however once Alex got started people just listened. This writer left at 2240 hours (10:40 pm) and Alex was still surrounded by seven people answering questions and signing autographs.