Training A Seahawk
Eugene “Rocky” Staples
I was a young USMC second lieutenant in VMF 452 flying off the Franklin on March 19, 1945 when she was hit by a Japanese dive bomber and blew up spectacularly and at great cost in human life – and yet never sank. Here are two excerpts from my recently published memoir, Old Gods, New Nations: A Memoir of War, Peace, and Nation Building . The first describes my training as a naval aviator. The second recounts what happened to me and some of my squadron mates on that chilly gray day in March 1945 off the coast of Japan .
Excerpt from Chapter 2, “Training a Sea Hawk”
Training a Sea Hawk
Young men went off to the gathering storm of the war, as doubtless they always have, out of patriotism (or tribal loyalties), compulsion, the opportunity to break a dissatisfying routine, a spirit of adventure and mass psychology. Everyone is going. Why not me? And if I don’t go voluntarily, they will make me go anyway.
In my own case, I was not to be outdone by my brother, who in the first months of the war left a promising job as a junior chemist working for the government to enlist as an officer candidate in the Marine Corps, having completed the requisite college degree a year earlier. It took the Marines, well skilled in the arts of killing, just ninety days to turn him into a second lieutenant, teach him how to haul and shoot field artillery guns and command an artillery unit (which in those days still included knowing how to ride a horse), and ship him off to the already bleeding islands of the Pacific, from which he returned three long years later with bad malaria and a head wound.
When my brother left home, I decided I must continue the just-established family tradition and also become a Marine Corps officer. But I wanted to fly. It was far more dashing than slogging through mud. I had seen enough movies about World War I to know that aviators in their Spads and Fokkers were much sexier than the tired-looking, helmeted foot soldiers typified by Lew Ayres in “What Price Glory”. Aviators even earned extra flight pay for doing what one would think everyone would want to do anyway.
The way to become a Marine Corps flyer was to enlist in the Navy Aviation Cadet training program. In July, 1942, which symbolically seemed the appropriate month for such an historic occasion, I went to the Navy recruiting office in downtown Kansas City and enlisted as a Naval Aviation Cadet. I had finished two years at the junior college, and thanks to my YMCA training I was muscled and fit. Given the fact that my brother had just gone off to war, my parents wanted me to wait to see if in fact I would be drafted. I was not to be held back. A week later, after passing some relatively easy written tests and a tough physical examination (my brother, who had been a virtuoso model airplane builder, paradoxically became a military pilot only after World War II), I took the oath of service and was ready to go off and learn how to be a hero. That, it turned out, was going to take a while.
In the early months of the war, the Navy recruited a lot of young men to train as pilots. But its training capacities were still being built up. There weren’t enough trained Navy pilots to serve as instructors, nor for that matter enough flight base facilities. In addition, the Navy had decided to create a new network of pre-flight schools for its cadets at a number of American universities to eliminate flab and sharpen up practical math and physics for aerial navigation and related flight tasks. I could not even be immediately scheduled for an active duty call to one of these schools.
In the meantime, however, I could start flight training at government expense as a civilian under an already existing program subsidized by the Commerce Department, operated by aviation academies in various parts of the United States . A small private flight school at the Kansas City Municipal Airport across a bend of the Missouri river from the stockyards was eligible for the CPT (civilian pilot training) program and there, in the bright and beautiful days of the late summer of 1942 above the ripening corn fields of the river bottom lands, I began a love affair with flying. My first master was a young, relaxed flyer named Ray Baker who, like many pilots in those romantic days, wore a leather jacket and a white silk scarf.
Flying, particularly in the tiny airplanes I began with, is in its sense of feel and tactile rewards sort of like making love with the air, the winds, the clouds and the sky. One can always tell a fine flying airplane and a good pilot (even flying as a passenger in a 747) – the way the pilot gently holds off coming in for a landing, pulling back, holding, feeling for, and finally touching the ground. We frequently flew out of grass strips and farm fields. You can land like silk on grass. Like a bird, in a light plane you must master the air and the wind and soar in its updrafts and spiral like a hawk. Pilots are poets of touch. It has nothing to do with the physical appearance of coordination in walking or sports, although coordination is the essence of good flying. One of the best wingmen who ever flew with me, unshakable in any maneuver, could hardly climb a stairway without stumbling, and spluttered when he talked. With the mastery of touch comes the ability to be hard and firm when the moment demands violent maneuver – pushing over into a bombing run, or steadily pulling the controls back but not stalling out in an impossibly tight, gravity-multiplying turn in a dogfight; and emergency landings if you must thrust the plane down hard on a short runway or a pitching deck in a rough sea.
I soloed in a tiny Porterfield monoplane, powered by a fifty horsepower engine which barely got two people off the ground, cruised at seventy miles an hour and landed at a speed of maybe forty miles per hour. We learned how to fly perfect circles in which, having held your altitude constant as you come around through the 360 degrees point, you bump into your own prop-wash. We did lazy S-turns above a road to learn how to compensate for the effects of the wind, that giant tide moving around the earth, on your pattern over the ground. We learned spins – pull up slowly and steadily into the stall, feel the tremble, plunge and flutter down, spinning around and around, feel the powerless stick, count your turns, reverse the rudder at two-and-a-half turns, pop stick forward, come out into a dive and ease up slowly into normal flight.
When I finished my training at K.C. Municipal Airport , the Navy said I would not be called up for active duty training before the end of the year. But there was a two-month, secondary civilian flight program I might be interested in at the University of Wyoming at Laramie . This training would involve larger airplanes and acrobatics. It would be my first time living away from home. In 1942 Laramie , lying at the eastern end of the high western plain before the first ranges of the Rockies begin to rise, was a cow town. Its business was livestock, ranch connected businesses and in more recent years the state university. Our flight school was located outside the city and used its own grass strip fields. My two months there could hardly have been closer to heaven.
We flew open cockpit Waco bi-planes, the instructor sitting forward and the student aft. Our group of fifteen cadets had rooms assigned in a university dormitory. The status of our group was quite mysterious to most other members of the university community. We were neither students nor on active military duty. We did nothing to dispel the mystery, and in fact tried to increase it by designing makeshift uniforms of our own consisting of khaki trousers and shirts, leather jackets, and white silk scarves.
The Wacos were direct descendents of the classic fighters of World War I, although with much increased power. They were designed for acrobatic training, which also derived its maneuvers from the early days of flying. For two months above the plains and low ranges of eastern Wyoming we learned and practiced chandelles, that graceful climbing turn which owes its name to early French aviators, loops and the Immelman turn, an old maneuver invented by the German flier, Max Immelman, in the first World War, which is half-a-loop going up with a half-roll at the top to come out headed in the opposite direction. We would dive down and waggle our wings at the cowboys and sheepherders and, if none were in sight, chase cows and sheep across the fields. At our main practice field we gathered at the landing end and watched each other whistling in for landings on the worn-down grass strip, scarves flying in the wind, and say: “There goes Paul. Not bad,” or, “Boy, Jim really screwed that one up.” On weekend nights, wearing our self-designed flight outfits including appropriate leather jackets and white scarves, we hung out in the Laramie bars with cowhands and occasional university students. Some of the cowhands knew us from our flights over their ranches and said our acrobatics were a welcome break in their routine. By late October, even with our blanket-lined flying suits and leather helmets, it was freezing and becoming far too cold to fly open cockpit airplanes. We finished our course and prepared to head either back home or off to active duty. By then, counting both primary and secondary training, we had accumulated seventy-five hours or so of flight time and deemed ourselves ready to become aces.
The Navy ordered me to active duty as an Aviation Cadet in December, 1942, at the University of Iowa pre-flight school. This was one of four locations the Navy established when the war began to start sorting out who was bright and tough enough to become a Navy or Marine Corps pilot (the Marines being a wholly owned subsidiary of the Navy, a fact all Marines periodically try unsuccessfully to put out of their heads). To staff and run these schools, a major part of whose curriculum consisted of extremely demanding, incessant physical training, the Navy commissioned as officers a truly menacing collection of ex-college athletic coaches and athletes. The commanding officer of the physical training side of the Iowa pre-flight school, for example, was US Marine Corps Col. Bernie Bierman, a famous football coach at the University of Minnesota . Younger, more junior jocks presided in person over the three-hour daily physical training sessions. These USN pre-flight schools were an earthly paradise for ex-college coaches: for the first time in their lives, they had a captive audience of generally smart young men under military discipline who would do virtually anything to avoid flunking out of the Navy flight program. Flunking out meant you said goodbye to wings and officer status and started at the bottom as an enlisted man.
Doing anything was often required in the three-month immersion. Midwestern farm and city boys, many of whom could barely swim, floundered around slowly sinking in the huge university swimming pool, while officer/instructors dangled rescue poles just out of reach. Swimming was designed for survival, not style or speed. For years after the war, I could identify strange men of more or less my age in hotel swimming pools who had obviously been cadets at the Navy pre-flight schools by the way they swam the head-out-of-the-water, frog-kick breast stroke. Boxing and wrestling programs were designed so that competitions, rather than eliminating losers, allowed the winner of a couple of matches to stand aside: the more you lost the more you had to fight, and after a while in the losing bracket a room-mate was ready to kill his room-mate in desperation.
At six a.m. (0600 hours) a bosun’s whistle and a recorded voice came echoing through the loudspeaker “Hit the decks, cadets, it’s ten below zero”. We would muster outside in the ice and snow of the disheartening Iowa mid-winter landscape and then file in for breakfast. After eating, part of the cadet corps went off for military drill outside or for a forced march hike, trailed by an ambulance. The other half went to class: practical physics, math, navigation, meteorology, practice in aircraft identification using photographs flashed for split seconds on a wall screen, and Navy history and practices.
The Navy fed and clothed us well. We dressed in officer’s clothing – usually Navy green, although on ceremonial occasions we wore dress blues – without any emblem of rank. My favorite Navy article of clothing was the marvelous Navy North Atlantic storm coat (I still wear mine sixty years later). Since we were all burning calories like miniature stoves, the Navy fed us like prize animals being fattened for market (which in a way we were). We ate limitless quantities of bacon or ham and eggs, pancakes, steaks, ice cream and candy bars, which were provided free in containers in the dorms.
Cadets soon formed into small groups of friends. My best friend at Iowa , Billy Anderson, was a short, ruddy, quiet-spoken boy from a small town in Illinois , whose humor and steady philosophical approach to the indignities of cadet life helped keep my rebellious side under control. I thought some of the jock officers went way too far in their hazing. The chief swimming coach, a handsome blond fellow with the beautiful smooth musculature of a champion swimmer, was notorious. He liked to strut up and down the side of the pool yelling threats of expulsion at unfortunate cadets who thought they were drowning. “Now, now,” Billy would say. “Keep your mouth shut. Keep your eye on those wings.”
On graduation in early spring, I was ordered for primary flight training to the Hutchinson , Kansas , Naval Air Station. Hutchinson is a typical small farm town in the heart of the vast Kansas wheat plains. The Navy built an enormous circular asphalt landing field there – so that you could take off and land into the wind regardless of its direction – and set up a number of auxiliary grass strips and farmer fields for small field landing practice. I was elated at the prospect of starting flying again, although the first truth I learned from my first instructor on the first day at Hutchinson was that whatever I thought I had learned about flying in civilian pilot training in Kansas City and Laramie didn’t count as far as the Navy was concerned. There is only one way to fly: that is the Navy way. The Navy was different in one major respect: it demanded absolute precision in the small field procedures required for aircraft carrier landings and takeoffs and for flying out of invasion beach air strips.
Over the next six months, first at Hutchinson and later at the sprawling Naval Aviation complex at Corpus Christi , Texas , the Navy systematically turned us into military pilots. To the work in small field procedures and formation training, the Navy added navigation, gunnery and instrument flying. Primary cadets flew the open cockpit Stearman biplane, a thing of beauty, responsive in flight, lovely sweptback wings, a delicate tail and an alarming tendency to ground loop. At Corpus for advanced training, cadets graduated to the famous SNJ (the Army Air Force version was known as the AT-6), a low-wing, two-seater monoplane with a six hundred horsepower motor and retractable landing gear. They were a joy to fly – handsome, maneuverable and durable for the gunner and bombing training, formation flying and acrobatics that comprised the curriculum. The SNJ in silhouette bore a vague resemblance to the Japanese Zero fighter and for many years most of the Zeros depicted in movies about World War II were none other than the good old SNJ.
The flying domain of NAS Corpus Christi with its huge main field and numbers of auxiliaries spread out over thousands of acres of scrub brush, most of it the property of the enormous King Ranch, and waterfront land along the Gulf of Mexico. It was a fabulous location for pilot training: there wasn’t a hill for hundreds of miles. An occasional hurricane might roar in from the Gulf but typical flying weather was a hot, sunny day with a mild wind blowing in from the sea bearing white, fluffy cumulus clouds. It was a perfect playground for young pilots to roll and dive and chase each other’s tails around the cloud peaks and valleys in the sky.
Our instructors were Navy flight officers, in most cases only a few years older than the cadets, who had been unfortunate or fortunate enough, depending on one’s point of view, to be assigned to training rather than combat duties. I thought they had terrible assignments but managed not to say so. In spite of the fact that instructors weren’t much older than us, we were enormously respectful. After all they were commissioned pilots and our fate depended on them. And what tough jobs they had, particularly in primary training, condemned to sit in the front seat of the open cockpit Stearman biplanes while the planes, cadets handling the dual controls, staggered over field-bordering trees into and out of small fields or skidded perilously close to each other in formation training.
A half-century plus later, one of my few surviving squadron mates wrote me that the Navy was about to dispose of old flight training records that it had, rather unbelievably, retained in storage since World War II. Former cadets could write in and get their records. A mid-course comment July 25, 1943 , by Lt. (jg) U. E. Orvis, an instrument flying instructor at Corpus Christi , noted: “Cadet Staples has a quiet and even disposition. He has the industrious and persevering spirit which makes him capable at all times. He has been conscientious in handling all of his duties. He has demonstrated above average officer like qualities.” The final comment in the file dated September 1, 1943 , from Ensign R. James, just before I graduated: “Cadet Staples exercises sound judgment and is sensible and cool headed but is somewhat cocky and opinionated. I believe he will make a good officer.”
One day, Ensign James led a flight of six of us out to a tiny auxiliary strip in the middle nowhere in the scrub brush to practice landings. We parked our planes and sat under a wing to talk about flying. I looked around at these beautiful machines and my companions dressed in their khaki flight coveralls and helmets and thought we were the finest fellows in the world. We were absolutely, as Tolstoy as a youth said about his aristocratic coterie, “Comme il faut” – “all correct, as it should be.”
On weekends at Corpus, we cruised and drank in the bars and picked up local girls and an occasional WAVE (the Navy’s female component, in those days completely land-based). One night, after a long drinking and nude swimming party on a beach outside Corpus, I awakened on the sand, buck naked, with the sun boring into my eyes and a naked girl next to me. After a minute, I placed her as a WAVE left over from the night’s partying although I wasn’t sure of her name. We wandered back down the beach, found our clothes, hitched a ride into Corpus and never saw each other again.
Hard drinking on weekend leave became a routine for me and a good many other cadets as well. A favorite partner was Don Boyd, a husky, red-haired, bright-eyed and totally engaging cadet from Flint, Michigan, who decided I was someone he liked to party with. I was a willing recruit. Don’s other best friend, a tough Chicago boy named Joe Bohlen, had developed a morphine addiction while undergoing hospitalization for a serious operation, and was rumored to be an occasional drug user. Drugs were, of course, totally prohibited. The Navy tolerated alcohol use as a common weakness, although never on duty. Virtually everyone smoked tobacco. Marijuana was known but not widely used. Joe Bohlen decided one day that I was so fond of talking about my flying prowess I should be dubbed a “Hot Rock.” That metamorphosed into “The Rock” and then to “Rocky,” which has remained my nickname until today. One of my favorite ladies, my first wife’s cousin, dryly commented years later that she knew a number of men named Eugene . They all preferred their nicknames, she said.
Don and I, along with about ten percent of our entire class, were notified a few weeks before graduation that our requests to be commissioned as Marine Corps aviators, which meant in most cases flying either from small aircraft carriers or ground bases in support of Marine ground troops in invasions and land battles, had been granted. Thus on September 4, 1943 , I put on the Marine Corps working green officer’s uniform, with a single gold bar on each shoulder, and took the oath of office. I was twenty-one years old, beautifully trained and sure of myself in the air. Although I was less confident and certain than I tried to appear in my official and social life, I found that other young officers usually accepted me as someone who knew what direction to go and was therefore to be followed.
After a short detour in Jacksonville , Florida , flying torpedo planes, which I thought would get me into combat sooner, I reported to a Marine Corps fighter training unit in El Toro , California and was almost immediately assigned to join a new squadron, VMF 452 (the VMF stands for Fleet Marine Fighter squadron) at the Marine Corps Air Station in Mojave. Mojave was a road stop in the vast scrub bush and sand desert that starts east of the coastal hills in California and extends far past Las Vegas . It was the kind of town that actually had a greasy spoon restaurant called the Silver Dollar Café. The desert’s inhabitants were snakes, lizards, birds, wild cats and an occasional prospector pursuing his dream of finding gold in the middle of military bombing and gunnery ranges, which was what much of the desert had been turned into. The Marine Corps built a modern flying field and aircraft hangers at Mojave, erected some simple wooden barracks for officers and men, around and through which the wind howled day and night, burning hot in the summer and cold in the winter, two small but well stocked officer’s and non-commissioned officer’s clubs and the requisite mess halls, ordnance and equipment buildings.
One could fly at Mojave day and night virtually every day of the year, since it practically never rained. Huge open tracts of desert and mountain were marked off for gunnery and bombing training. An Army Air Corps field was located nearby at Muroc Dry Lake (now known as the Edwards Air Force base, famous in later years as the advanced flight test base where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier and then as the west coast landing strip for the space shuttle). The Army Air Corps trained B-24, heavy bomber pilots at Muroc.
Our squadron had been assigned the still relatively new Chance Vought Corsair, a sleek, powerful, inverted gull wing fighter that looked like an aerial torpedo with wings. It was the Marine Corps fighter of choice for invasion support, increasingly replacing some of the Navy Grumann Hellcat fighter squadrons aboard the big aircraft carriers. The Corsair was a hustling, heavy but sensitive machine, lovely to fly, and tricky to land (dozens of pilots were killed in the early version before engineers figured out how to prevent premature stalling and rolling on final landing approaches). It was faster than the Japanese Zero, although less maneuverable, tougher and more versatile.
So we flew, and flew and trained, and flew. I always sought the early morning flights, rocketing off over the fragrant sage in the still relatively cool air before closing the cockpit bubble and climbing steadily into the fathomless blue sky. In addition to the daily training routine, a few of us would sign up for extra flying time in available aircraft and go off dog-fighting on our own over the mountains. A formal aerial dogfight started when the two fighters crossed courses on 180 degree opposing courses, one a thousand feet higher than the other (the height advantage was either agreed to or won by the toss of a coin). The goal was to get on your opponent’s tail where a fighter plane is unprotected (like a dog’s rear) and shoot him down (in these fights, of course, this act was recorded only with a triumphal whoop on the radio and occasionally a camera). The trick was to maneuver one’s plane with such a delicate touch in impossibly tight turns and at high G (gravity) forces so as not to stall out until finally sliding into the hawk’s position behind the enemy. My favorite opponent was an impassioned youngster named Hanson, who after the war became a philosophy professor at Yale University . He died in the 1960s flying his personally owned World War II fighter in a crash in a snowstorm.
The Corsair mounted six fifty -caliber machine guns and carried up to five hundred pounds of bombs or rockets. We flew gunnery runs over the mountains in four-plane formations thousands of feet above the white target sleeve pulled by a utility plane, rolling over to dive down for the kill and leading the target to compensate for the relative speeds and courses of target and shooter. It was bird hunting on a grand scale. The Muroc heavy bomber airfield, some fifty miles away, was an irresistible, off-limits magnet for the more venturesome of us, who would come flat-hatting in across the sagebrush to rocket down the camp streets ten feet above the ground, waggling our wings at startled Army Air Corps troops and fliers, or occasionally swoop down in mock gunnery runs on B-24 formations lumbering along in the desert sky. Most of the time we got away scot-free but my wingman and I finally got a sulfurous dressing down from the un-amused Mojave base commander and a ten-day confinement to quarters.