Torpedo Squadron Four – A Cockpit View of World War II
By Gerald W. Thomas
This is the sole personal account emerging from World War II of a carrier-based Torpedo Bomber pilot. Thomas served on combat duty with Torpedo Squadron 4 (VT-4) for 25 months, beginning in February, 1943. During this period, he was assigned to three aircraft carriers: the USS RANGER, USS BUNKER HILL, and USS ESSEX. On the RANGER he served in the Atlantic Theater; on the BUNKER HILL and ESSEX, he served the Pacific Theater. Air Group 4, of which Torpedo 4 was one component, was the only air group that served in both theaters of the war.
While on the RANGER, he participated in OPERATION LEADER, the most significant attack on Northern Europe by a US carrier during the war. OPERATION LEADER was a strike against German shipping and shore installations along the fjords south of Bodo, Norway. This operation was a complete surprise to the German defensive forces and destroyed 23,000 tons of shipping, damaged 4 other ships, and killed about 200 German troops.
During LEADER, while attacking a freight barge carrying 40 tons of ammunition, Thomas’ plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The engine began burning and it appeared the plane was going down. Thomas ordered his crew of two to bail out and had just opened the cockpit and was climbing out when his turret gunner yelled, “Don’t jump, don’t jump.” The other crewman had accidentally opened his parachute in the belly of the plane. With bailing no longer possible, Thomas considered his options and decided their best chance was to fly the plane toward the carrier as far as it would go. Surprisingly, in spite of the considerable engine damage, the plane made it back to the RANGER, where Thomas crash-landed. That landing was his 13th official carrier landing.
In the Pacific, Thomas participated in the numerous actions against Japanese targets in the Philippines, including strikes on Ormoc Bay, Cavite, Manilla, Santa Cruz, San Fernando, Lingayen, Mindoro, Clark Field and Aparri.
Following these actions, Thomas’ squadron made strikes on Formosa, French Indo-China, Saigon, Pescadores, Hainan, Amami O Shima, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Japan. The attack on Japan was the first attack on Japan from an aircraft carrier since the “Doolittle Raid.”
While on the ESSEX, just after Thomas had returned from a strike on Santa Cruz, the ship was hit by a Kamikaze piloted by Yoshinori Yamaguchi, Yoshino Special Attack Corps. Yamaguchi was flying a Yokosuba D4Y3 dive bomber. The Kamikaze attack killed 16 crewman and wounded 44.
You can listen to a 2001 interview in which Thomas describes Yamaguchi’s Kamikaze hitting the Essex here (2.28 minutes).
On December 28, 1944, the Bombing Four (VB-4) component of Air Group 4 was replaced by two Marine squadrons, VMF-124 and VMF-213. Flying F4U Corsairs, these squadrons were the first carrier-based Marines of the war. Although they had trained for carrier operations, and were carrier qualified, the initial carrier deployment was costly, with two Marine pilots and three F4Us lost in the first two-day shakedown.
Returning from a strike on Hainan, off the Chinese coast, Thomas’ plane ran out of fuel. After a harrowing water landing, Thomas and squadron photographer Montague succeeded in inflating and launching one rubber boat and his crewman Gress another. After a long day in pre-Typhoon weather with 40 foot swells, the three were rescued by the USS SULLIVANS.
On March 1, 1945, Air Group 4 made its last strike of the war. The pilots and crew of all planes approached this strike on Okinawa with notable nervousness, no one wanting to lose their life or be taken POW on a last mission. Sadly, one Torpedo Bomber and one F6F Fighter where shot down by Ack Ack, costing three men their lives.
In recounting the events in this book, Thomas draws upon his daily journal, his letters home, and extensive interviews and research conducted over 40 years with fellow pilots and crewman. The book cites 20 interviews and 5 combat journals, and contains 209 photos documenting the ships, planes, men, and combat actions of Torpedo Squadron 4. Many of the photographs were collected by Thomas during the war and include gun photo shots, recon photos, and, remarkably, a picture of the tail of Thomas’ Torpedo plane as it sinks in the China Sea following his water landing.
Thomas was awarded 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 2 Air Medals, and 2 Presidential Citations for his combat actions in WWII. He retired from the Navy Reserve with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
Paperback, 280 pages, 209 pictures, price: $13.95
Ebook, all text and photos, price $2.99
Thomas can be found @Gerald_W_Thomas.
YouTube Video of Thomas discussing Operation Leader here: Operation Leader — World War II Battles
Sample chapter here — Chapter 1: Operation Leader: Initiation Over Norway — Free online version
Sample Chapter: Operation Leader: Initiation Over Norway — Download free Kindle version
Sample Chapter: Operation Leader: Initiation Over Norway — Download free Epub version
Table of Contents here
Back cover here
Book review of Torpedo Squadron Four here
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