The Professor and The Fabled Fifteen

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The fighters are first. Their folding wings lock in place, their two thousand horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines rev and kick to life. Behind them the Avenger Torpedoes get in position, followed by the Helldiver bombers.

Singer on deck in his Hellcat

Singer on deck in his Hellcat

 

Arthur Singer Jr. sits in his plane. His parachute harness tight around his flying suit, the one he had the parachute riggers sew extra pockets on. The propeller blast blows into his open cockpit, the roar of dozens of engines on deck deafen him. The first plane goes, edging down the carrier till it takes to the sky. Singer watches the man on deck, waits for the signal. When he gets it, he speeds down the flight deck, the plane vibrates as it reaches take off speed. He opens the throttle, faster and faster, shaking and rattling till the rumble of the deck is gone and there is nothing around him but air and sea.

 

The Hellcat drops for moment -a feeling Singer’s felt dozens of times, but one that always gives him a thrill- then it climbs skyward. Singer is twenty-three and handsome. He’s a fighter pilot, an Ace. That means he’s cocky and aggressive with a killer’s instinct. He flamed his first zero off Saipan. He got two more over Rota when he was jumped by four Japanese fighters. The first exploded, the second trailed fire into the sea. On a Photo Recon over Ie Shima he met a squadron of Japanese bombers, he shot down four of them single-handedly.

Arthur Singer Jr.

Arthur Singer Jr.

 

Singer’s squadron is Fighter Group 15, a squadron of aces. They call themselves “Satan’s Playmates” but they’ll be remembered by another name: “The Fabled Fifteen”.

 

In ten minutes or so, the whole Air Group is launched. The planes claw higher and higher, till their ship, the USS Essex,looks like a pebble in a desert. They are joined by aircraft from other carriers, till the sky glitters with planes.

 

Below them is Task Force 38, spread out for miles in all directions. In the center, the most valuable ship, the Aircraft Carrier. Back in 1942, there might have been one or two Carriers but in October 1944 there are six or eight or twelve carriers, and that’s just one Task Force. One group of ships in the most powerful maritime force the earth has ever seen, the United States Navy. The planes climb until they reach twelve or fifteen thousand feet. The ships below grow smaller till they seem to sit motionless on the ocean. The Avengers form in diamonds of four planes, two in front, two split out on the side. Higher up, Helldivers separate into divisions of six planes, split in three plane V formations. On the very top, in Echelon fours, are the fighters, the Hellcats.

 

Hellcats in flight

Hellcats in flight

The planes circle and wait. Last night, October 24th, enemy ships were spotted. Now on the 25th, scout planes are out trying to find them again. Somewhere out there is the Japanese Navy. Destroyers, cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers, four of them. One of them is the last remaining carrier from the attack on Hawaii on December 7th, the Zuikaku. The Americans want the Zuikaku; they want to sink the last reminder of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese know what the sinking means for the Americans and they will use it against them. They form Zuikaku and her fellow carriers into their Northern Force. The Northern Force will steam toward Task Force 38 and the 3rd fleet of which she is part of. The Japanese carrier’s mission is not to win. Their mission is to get the American force to follow them. The Japanese know they have no chance, they know they are floating ghosts. If they meet the bombs and guns of the U.S. 3rd Fleet the Japanese will have succeeded. It means they drew the powerful force away from the weak American Invasion Fleet, and the carrier-less Japanese Central Force of battleships can move in and destroy the invasion force before it hits Leyte.

Aboard the Essex heading to the Flight Deck

Aboard the Essex heading to the Flight Deck

At 7:10 AM a scout plane relocates the Japanese ships. The Air Group heads to intercept. Singer knows what combat is like. He’s been in it for almost half a year. He knows how the blue sea gives ways to turquoise reefs, sandy beaches and lush jungle. He’ll go in first, with the fighters. They’ll clear the skies then strafe the ground, open the way for the bombers. If a pilot gets hit, and he’s lucky, it’s quick. He smashes into a pulp and burns to nothing when his plane hits the ground. If he’s not, it takes longer. He’ll trail smoke, losing fuel and oil pressure until he has to bail out or ditch in the ocean. Maybe he’ll be rescued, maybe he’ll be taken prisoner. Or maybe he’ll be alone, drifting for days under the sun with no shelter, living on hope; hope that holds out longer than survival rations or fresh water; hope that keeps a man going until he realizes it’s all a sham, and he disappears without a trace. 

The American Air Group flies onward. On the horizon are small shapes that get larger with each passing minute. Long block-like objects, big and small, surrounding four flat ones, aircraft carriers. There are more shapes in the sky above, enemy planes. The Japanese fighters peel off and head for the American Air Group. They go for the Helldivers, dropping in from 9,000 feet above them. Machine gun and cannon fire racks the formation. The Hellcats rise to meet the Zeros, breaking them up.

Arthur Singer Jr.'s Flying Suit

Arthur Singer Jr.’s Flying Suit

Aerial Combat is not pleasant. It’s like a roller coaster, only there’s no rail and you’re going over two hundred miles an hour. Singer’s head snaps back and forth as he twists and dives. He downs a Zero, flame streaks from its engines as it falls. He sees another, making a rising turn, he shoots and pieces fly off it as it screams by. Singer doesn’t have time to chase it, his wingman spots four other Japanese and they go after them. Tracers fly under Singer’s wing. He snap rolls right, but the Zero is still with him, he twists and turns but the enemy follows his every move. Another Zero comes to join the hunt, sensing blood. For an instant, the second Zero passes before his sights and Singer lets off a long range deflection shot. Smoke pours from the Zero but Singer can’t watch, the first Zero is still stuck to his tail. The pilot is good, Singer can’t shake him. The nimble zero turns with the Hellcat, matching it move for move. The Japanese gunsight inches onto the American, it won’t take long before it passes him with enough lead to open fire on a moving target.

Singer slams his controls forward, his plane goes in a dive:7,000 feet, 6,000 feet, 5,000… The Zero follows, waiting to open up with its machines guns to get the range, then start with the large wing mounted twenty-millimeter cannons. The stick goes hard in Singer’s hand, the engine whines as momentum increases. The plane vibrates as it goes straight down towards the water. 4,000 feet, 3,600, 3,500, 3,400… at 3,000 feet Singer pulls out and jerks the stick right. The sudden change of direction yanks him in his seat. The windshield fogs up in the warmer lower altitude. Singer looks behind, above, to his right and left. Nothing. Maybe he lost the Zero in the dive, but he doesn’t think so. The pilot was too tenacious, too good. He looks again, all over, then he catches a glimpse of something moving through the thawing edges of his windshield. It’s the Zero. It comes head on, wings spitting fire. Singer pushes his trigger, the Hellcat vibrates as its machine guns empty their load. They catch the Zero as the two meet, the Japanese airplane explodes almost on top of him.

Singer after combat with a bullet hole in his windshield

Singer after combat with a bullet hole in his windshield


When October 25th is over, the
Zuikaku is underwater. All three other carriers in the Japanese force, the Chiyoda, Zuiho and Chitose also sink. The last of the ships that were the pride of the Imperial Navy are below the waves. But they did their job. The lured the U.S. 3rd fleet away to attack them. Their loss allowed the Japanese a crack at the unguarded American Leyte Invasion Force, who by luck and determination held out with the loss of a carrier, two destroyers and a destroyer escort.

 

In their six month tour of duty VF-15, Satan’s Playmate’s, shot down 310 enemy planes in aerial combat, the highest scoring Fighter Squadron in US Naval history for a single deployment. Twenty-six of them became aces. Arthur Singer Jr. finished as a double ace with ten victories, one of only sixty-five men to reach that status in the entire U.S. Navy.

Aces of VF-15. Singer in back row second from left

Aces of VF-15. Singer in back row second from left

When peace came, Singer put the war behind him and moved on. He earned a PhD. and became a professor at San Diego State University. The man with a killer’s instinct for combat spent the rest of his life teaching education. He became a member of the Council for Exceptional Children and the California Faculty Association. When the Professor died in 2004 his obituary made no mention of Arthur Singer Jr., Ace pilot in the Navy’s premier fighter squadron. It made no mention of his air battles in the Marianas and the Philippines with the Fabled Fifteen. The obituary only made a brief note that “he served as a Naval Aviator in World War Two” then went on to the important things, what made Arthur Singer Jr. more proud of than his kills in the air: his academic accomplishments, his teaching and professorship, enriching lives rather than taking them.

Arthur Singer and his wife

Arthur Singer Jr. and his wife

Side Effects

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In 1942, as war entered American life, a non-profit, government funded group called the Council on Books in Wartime was created and staffed by some of the largest names in the publishing business. The Council’s aim was to maintain the will to fight through information, printing books about how the war was being won and about the enemy. Books, the council felt were the “Weapons in the War of Ideas”.

For men and women serving overseas boredom was a more persistent enemy than the Germans or the Japanese. The Council on Books in Wartime felt reading was the perfect solution and endeavored to get books to soldiers. Believing in  the patriotic and generous American spirit the council organized book donation drives. Americans responded, donating thousands of books. The drive was a great victory but the victor was the American public.

Emblem of the Council on Books in Wartime

Emblem of the Council on Books in Wartime

Although the Council netted large numbers of books, the majority of tomes would put a strain on a soldier’s attention span. The Council book drives had given the public a chance to pass on volumes no one would want to read while feeling patriotic about doing it. In May of 1943 the Council decided “American soldiers were going to have books, even if the Army had to buy them itself”. A plan was drafted to purchase an initial 50,000 books for the armed forces. But this plan was not a solution.

Even with reading material available, soldiers weighed down with army equipment did not have room to carry a hardbound novel, even paperback books were not pocket sized. The Council decided the best answer to the problem would be to print the books themselves. Using magazine rotary presses thousands of books could be made to give to bored soldiers. From a business standpoint, it gave publishing houses a cheap, easy way to expose a captive new market to reading. The solution seemed obvious but there was one problem—money.

The problem wasn’t finding the cash to print the books or distributing them. The problem was if popular books were given away, who would buy them after the war? Publishing houses would be flooding the market with free books that could be taken home and sold second hand when the boys came home. Companies would be giving away millions of dollars worth of a reusable products, cheating authors and booksellers out of business by a good but unsound patriotic deed. The problem was solved in two ways: one, books for the armed forces would only be available overseas, not competing with the US market. And two, they would be printed on cheap paper that would fall apart with multiple readings.

Actually printing the books proved challenging. The rotary printing presses available were designed to print magazines not books. To navigate around this problem, two separate books were printed as one, magazine size, one on top of the other, then cut in half. Short paged books were printed in Reader’s Digest size and long volumes in pulp magazine size resulting in books measuring 5 1/2 by 3 7/8 inches or 6 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches respectively. The books were sold to the military at cost of about six cents per volume plus ten percent overhead, with authors and publishers receiving a half cent each per book.

Soldier on a troopship reading an Armed Service Edition book.

Soldier on a troopship reading an Armed Service Edition book.

Inside cover of an Armed Service Edition book

Inside cover of an Armed Service Edition book

Armed Service Edition books

Armed Service Edition books

Titles were decided upon by a committee that tried to cater to “all levels of tastes within reasonable limits” and had to be acceptable to both the Army and the Navy. Minor disagreements arose between the committee which wanted to print serious literary works, and the Army that wanted popular best sellers, westerns and mysteries, while the Navy held opinions somewhere in between the other two. Works deemed anti-democratic, offensive to an ally or religious or racial group were excluded.

Starting in September 1943, Armed Service Edition books found their way to the front line in the Pacific as men traveled from island to island before entering the combat zone. In England in June 1944, each soldier boarding an invasion ship for Normandy was given an Armed Service Edition book. Newspapers reported at the time that, although many things were found discarded from soldiers packs before going into D-Day, not a single book was left behind.

From 1943 to 1947 nearly 123 million copies of 1,322 different titles on all subjects were printed and became the only type of book reliably  available to service personnel overseas. Authors received hundreds of letters from people who before the war had never finished reading a single book. Some would meet ex-servicemen years later telling them how they had read their book in a foxhole in France, in some Pacific jungle, or in a frigid Alaskan or Icelandic outpost. The most reprinted book was Webster’s New Handy Dictionary, a book that depression kids with little education wanted to help them understand the new written world given them.

The men and women of World War Two came home with something other than memories of war, they came back with educations in history, the arts, poetry, science and popular fiction, all from little books named Armed Service Editions, a side effect of a war.

Ink for Ammunition

Mr. Hook

Mr. Hook

In 1942, Henry K. Ketcham was sworn into the Naval Reserve. Henry was from Washington State, where he had dropped out of college in his freshman year.  He had hitchhiked to Los Angeles, California in 1938 where he lived until he joined The Navy.

Navy poster with artwork by Henry Ketcham

Navy poster with artwork by Henry Ketcham

Mr. Hook eyes his target after coming home rich on war bonds

Mr. Hook eyes his target after coming home rich from investing in war bonds

The War brought thousands of men like Henry together; Americans who were ready to serve their country in its time of need. Henry was going to fight the Japanese and his weapon would be his pen.
Henry was an animator. He had worked on Woody Woodpecker films until he made it to the big show at Disney, working on films like Bambi, Pinocchio and Fantasia. Studios such as Disney and Warner Brothers threw themselves into supporting the war effort by designing insignias and creating military films.

Many of Hollywood’s best and most talented men served their country in the Armed Forces. Henry’s job was to make war posters. He came up with catchy slogans mixed with funny pictures: A fat sailor eying a curvy beauty is told to  “Watch your own waistline”  being reminded that “Food is scarce, don’t waste it on your waist!”. Cartoons were a fun and innocuous way to teach and indoctrinate. It gave Henry an outlet for his humor and creativity. He created Half Hitch, a comic strip about everyday navy life.

He also worked on propaganda films for The Navy. He created a character named Mr. Hook,  a sailor who fought treacherous, buck-toothed Japanese. Henry wrote four short films with titles like “Tokyo Woes” and “Take heed Mr. Tojo” featuring Mr. Hook  winning his battles by using war bonds.  Henry reminded the viewers to “Sink the Rising Sun with war bonds as your gun. War Bonds are ammunition!” and “Be a hero down a Zero with war bonds”.

Ketcham at work for the US Navy

Ketcham at work for the US Navy

Henry also appreciated women and the roles they played in providing humor for a male audience. Wolves were a common way of depicting overactive and excited males. One of Henry’s works of this period was entitled “COMWOLFPAC STAFF” a play on navy acronyms of “Com” short for “Commander” and “Pac” for “Pacific”. One wonders how much of Henry’s art imitated his own life.

Henry served in The Navy until 1946 when he returned to being a civilian. He married and had a son.  He changed his focus from animation to comic strips. He started to sign his work “Hank Ketcham” and in 1951 created a character based on his son entitled “Dennis the Menace”.

Zero being attacked by War Bond in "Take heed Mr. Tojo"

Zero being attacked by War Bonds in “Take heed Mr. Tojo”

Ketcham's "ComWolfPac Staff"

Ketcham’s “ComWolfPac Staff”

Henry’s four years in World War II continued to find it’s way into his work.  Dennis the Menace’s father Henry was a navy man and Henry’s wartime character Half Hitch was revived into a comic strip in the 1960’s.

Though The War was just an interlude in his career, Henry Ketcham and many other talented young men and women served their country in its time of need, using their wit as a weapon and ink for ammunition.

Jitterbug goes to war

Avengers on their way to Wake Island

Avengers on their way to Wake Island

The greatest thrill of his life came as he landed for the first time on the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea. Two years before in 1941, Elton Dale Snodgrass was a kid who read everything in the library and lived to go bowling and dancing. In the summer of 1941 he had just graduated high school in Terre Haute, Indiana. The summer after graduation is always memorable, the last vacation before friends got jobs or went off to college. The summer of 1941 was not special for that reason alone. It was the last summer before the storms in the East and West reached the isolationist beaches of the United States; the last summer where an eighteen year old from the Midwest would only have to worry about being a teenager. In December of that year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and changed the face of America.

CVL 22, USS Independence at sea

CVL 22, USS Independence at sea

Elton Snodgrass joined the Navy and went to Boot Camp in Great Lakes Illinois. He applied for pilot training but they made him an aerial gunner instead. Leaving Indiana, he carried two things from home, a pair of black converse sneakers he bought in high school for $9, and his nickname: “Jitterbug”, after the dance step he loved.

By November 1943, he was an Aviation Ordnance Man 2nd class, and a turret gunner on a Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo plane in Torpedo Squadron Twenty-Two (VT-22) on sea duty aboard the USS Independence. He had already seen action in the Marcus Islands, and flown raids on Wake and Rabaul before VT-22 was given a new task. The Independence, along with the carriers USS Essex and Bunker Hill, was now part of Task Force 50.3, providing air support for the US Marine landings at the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.

On November 18th the flight crews of the Independence, along with other carrier and land base planes launched 910 sorties against Betio, bombing the airfield and other installations, flying 170 sorties the day after.

At dawn on November 20th, Task Force 50.3 again launches its planes at the island, the focus is ground targets in preparation for the invasion.  The planes land, and the naval bombardment of the island begins, and the first of the Marine assault force climbs into their landing craft. At nine in the morning, a half hour later than planned, the Marines make their way toward the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.

The men of Torpedo 22 (VT-22)

The men of Torpedo 22 (VT-22)

VT-22 too heads toward Betio, flying continuing close air support missions.  Below, landing craft shepherd the 18,600 Marines invading the island.  The 1,900 horse power radial engine vibrates the airframe. The plane dips and climbs slightly as it navigates the tropical air.In the front of the Avenger, the pilot sees what is coming and reacts to it.  The airplane responds to his touch, his desire. Below him, the radio operator has the most room, space to man the radios and the ventral machinegun, things to keep him occupied. The turret gunner’s world is confined to a metal seat with a 50. caliber machine gun, a thin veil of Plexiglas separating him from the blue sky. He is almost like a passenger, having no control over where he is going, just knowing whatever lies ahead will be dangerous and that he cannot see the danger because he faces the rear.

Jitterbug watches the sky and waits.  He thinks of stuff from when he was a kid back in Indiana, things he carries with him in his mind. Stuff like selling strawberries in grade school, and waking up before the sun rose to work a milk route with his mother. His sister Doris, bowling with friends, the things that keep him going, things from the past he wants a future with. He thinks of Mary, the girl who waits for him. He retraces the steps of their last dance on the metal turret, the rubber soles of the black converse shoes muted by the engine noise. He carries his nickname with him too, written on his flight helmet and goggles.

Tarawa Atoll

Tarawa Atoll

There is another thing he carries, something he shares with every man on the plane and the men down below: fear. Fear as the ground at Betio flickers when the Japanese defenses open up, fear when black puffs of anti-aircraft buffet the plane, as tracer bullets fill the air with bright glowing streaks; fear that would change Jitterbug’s full head of black hair almost bald.

When they drop their bombs, they head back to the carrier. Below them the Marines are engaging the Japanese. There is smoke over the task force, and it is from the Independence. A torpedo from a Japanese plane struck its starboard side. The ship is badly damaged, its flight deck closed. Jitterbug’s Avenger makes an emergency landing on the USS Essex. The Independence sails to Funafuti, in the Ellice Islands for temporary repairs.

Two days later, the fight for Tarawa would be over. In three days, 1000 Marines and almost the entire Japanese garrison will lay dead on the island. There will be a documentary film about the battle that for the first time would show the American public the uncensored carnage of war.

Without a ship, Jitterbug’s crew flies raids with the Essex against Kwajalein before going to Pearl Harbor to catch up with the Independence as it heads to San Francisco.

In February 1944, Jitterbug would marry his sweetheart Mary while on a 30 day leave in the US. His crew would train for night flying before orders came for them to be shipped to the Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier USS Cowpens.  On a stop at Pearl Harbor, Jitterbug’s application for pilot training is approved with orders back to San Francisco. His Avenger crew head to battle in the Pacific without him, where, on their first mission they are shot down and killed.

Jitterbug would never become a pilot with the US Navy. He was honorably discharged after a week of pilot training. He returned to Terre Haute, Indiana, the place he had left in 1942. He read in the library, bowled with his friends and danced with his wife. But things were never the same as they had been that summer long ago in 1941, when high school had finished and life was waiting to be found.  Jitterbug had gone off to war and come back and life had moved on.

Elton Dale "Jitterbug" Snodgrass

Elton Dale “Jitterbug” Snodgrass

Jitterbug (right) and fellow gunner

Jitterbug (right) and fellow gunner

Jitterbug's flight helmet, goggles, shoes and other mementos

Jitterbug’s flight helmet, goggles, shoes and other mementos

The Sinews of War

The landings at Omaha Beach

The landings at Omaha Beach

When the darkness fell in Normandy on June 6th 1944, it gave time to reflect on what had happened that day. In the East, the British had secured their beachhead sectors at Gold and Sword, with the Canadians in the middle at Juno. To the West, the Americans had taken Utah and Omaha beach and scaled the steep cliffs of Pointe-du-hoc. Further inland, British and Canadian Airborne soldiers were dug in around the Orne Bridge. American Paratroopers banded together around towns like St. Mere-Eglise and St Come-du-Mont. Nearly 160,000 Allied soldiers had landed in France, another 197,000 were offshore. Now they waited for daybreak.

 
In later days, some people would call June 6th the “Beginning of the end of the war in Europe”. On this Tuesday night, that end was still a long way off. The Allies had gained a foothold, but completed few of their objectives. Hitler’s Armies had not been brought into action yet. His Armored Divisions and elite units of SS and Paratroops were still alive and well, lurking somewhere in the darkness. They too waited, to see what the next dawn would bring.

Helmet of Chief Carpenter's Mate Kennedy, 108th Naval Construction Battalion

Helmet of Chief Carpenter’s Mate Kennedy, 108th Naval Construction Battalion

On that night, Chief Carpenter’s Mate Bruce Kennedy pondered his fate around Omaha beach. He and his men had arrived in Rosneath, Scotland in October 1943. Over the next eight months they traveled from Rosneath, to Plymouth and Netley in England. They knew why they were there. All of South England was alive with men and material bound for the assault on Europe. They also knew they would be a part of it.They had painted their helmets with a blue band to identify personnel on the invasion beaches. Bruce and his group would come ashore on Omaha Beach, becoming part of the 73,000 Americans to land in France on D-Day.

 
The job given them was not glamorous or romantic or even heroic. They would not storm beaches and fight for ground inch by inch. Their task was mundane, a thankless job, but a dangerous and vital one. They were the men of the 108th Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees), and it was for them to feed the invasion, overpower the enemy not with brawn but with supplies.

 

Seabees watch trucks roll onto an Rhino ferry in Normandy

Seabees watch trucks roll onto a Rhino ferry in Normandy

Today, on D-Day, their work was curtailed by heavy seas, mines and beaches not cleared of enemy action. Tomorrow they would land more vehicles and material on flat ferries called “Rhinos” and set up piers and bridges along the shore. Tomorrow too, the Germans would start to shell them with 88mm guns, and the Luftwaffe would strafe them on the beaches.

 
As the Allies moved farther inland in Normandy, the men of the 108th Naval Construction Battalion stayed on Omaha Beach; spreading the thin trickle of supplies to the flood that eventually pushed Hitler back to Berlin. In October of 1944, the 108th was sent back to the USA and inactivated. Chief Carpenter’s Mate Kennedy would be transferred to Saipan and serve with the Seabees until November of 1945. He and the men of the Seabees were not the men in the foxholes and trenches, the men winning awards and adoration. They were the men that made the war go, made it move in a mechanical fashion ever forward, men without which battles would not be fought, and wars could not be waged. They were the men who provided the power behind the spear, the arm to the fist. They were the body without which an army could not move and support itself: the sinews of war.

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to Echoes of a War. I have had a keen interest in the Second World War since I was a child. In my blog I hope to share history, personal stories and artifacts that will be of interest to the historian, collector and anyone who likes to learn about and share history.

I am new at this so I hope to learn more about blogging as I go along and connect with some interesting people.

Thanks for reading.