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World War II Blog

I Join the Navy

My name is Gerald W. Thomas. I am the author of Torpedo Squadron Four – A Cockpit View of World War II, an account of my service in WWII as a VT-4 Torpedo Bomber Pilot on the USS Ranger, the USS Bunkerhill, and the USS Essex.

I learned about Pearl Harbor two days after it happened when I went into town for groceries. I had been working in Yellowstone National Park and living in a tent.

I recall the first newsreel I saw about the bombing of Pearl Harbor — although it may not have been the one linked below. The audience and I sat stunned in silence at first, then people began speaking and responding to the moving images, which were so much more intense than photos in the newspapers.

Bombing of Pearl Harbor — World War II — Newsreel

I hitchhiked to California and tried to enlist as a Navy Aviation Cadet. I met the first criteria, a college degree, but I ran into trouble with the Navy doctor. He said he would not consider me unless I had my tonsils pulled and a tooth filled at my own expense.

I did and was accepted on February 5, 1942. The same day I was sworn in by Wayne Morris, the movie star, who never stood during the ceremony and was on the phone the whole time with someone in Hollywood.

Morris was in the Naval Reserves and later became a member of “McCampbell’s Heroes” in Air Group 15. He was credited with shooting down 7 Japanese planes and contributing to the sinking of five ships.

Wayne Morris, VF-15, Aboard USS Essex

Wayne Morris, VF-15 Hellcat Pilot, USS Essex.

For my first Active Duty I was assigned to the “Elimination Base” at Los Alamitos, California. The concept of the E-Base was to prescreen prior to regular aviation cadet training. Elimination was the key word and the instructors set about this task with a vengeance. Everyone feared the “downchecks” which would lead to a “wash-out.”

On July 2, 1942 I passed my “B-check” in a “Yellow Peril” (N3N) and received orders to report to Aviation Cadet training at Corpus Christi, Texas.

Junior College and ROTC

After graduating from John Muir Technical High School, Daniel and I enrolled in Pasadena Junior College (P.J.C.). I chose to major in Forestry.

At P.J.C. I enrolled in ROTC and I joined the “Red Crown” Unit — a special group that put on fancy drills and marched in the Memorial Day Parade.

ROTC - Red Crown Unit - Pasadena, 1937

John Muir Tech ROTC – Red Crown Unit – 1937

It was the worst of the Depression. Money was a constant struggle. I considered myself lucky to have a part-time job delivering groceries to wealthy families in Pasadena, Beverly Hills and parts of Los Angeles. I learned the hard way that you never deliver to the front door of wealthy homes.

My brother Daniel and I graduated from PJC in 1938 (it was a two-year college). To return to Idaho, Daniel bought an old Model T Ford. In spite of numerous blowouts, a broken wheel, and throwing a rod, we made it home in four days.

Model T Ford - "Idaho or Bust!"

Even after throwing a rod, we still made it home to Idaho in 4 days.

Assignment To Torpedo Squadron Four

In January, 1943, I was assigned to Torpedo Squadron Four (VT-4) attached to the USS RANGER (CV-4). VT-4 was a 9-plane TBF Avenger unit with 12 pilots and 2 non-flying officers. We were a part of Air Group 4 along with a 16-plane fighter squadron and a 16-plane dive bomber squadron.

Torpedo Squadron Four (VT-4) Insignia Patch

Insignia for Torpedo Squadron Four (VT-4) designed by Walt Disney. Our nickname was the “Torpeckers.”

Before we could be assigned to carrier-duty, we had to make 8 qualification landings. None of us had landed on a carrier before, although we had practiced on “Field Carrier Landings.”

On my eighth and last landing, after I cut the throttle and hit the deck, I felt a sharp jerk but the plane never slowed down. I crashed into the barrier and stopped with my Avenger facing toward the fantail of the carrier. When it was discovered that I had caught a tie-down iron instead of a wire and consequently the tail hook had snapped off, the qualification officer said, “Since it was not your fault, we’ll count this as a qualified landing.”

Torpedo Squadron Four Aboard the USS Ranger

Torpedo Squadron 4 aboard the RANGER. September, 1943. Back row (left to right): Lt(jg) John H. Palmer, Lt(jg) Lawrence L. Hamrick, Lt(jg) R. R. Anderson, Lt(jg) Robert E. Trexler, Ens Gerald W. Thomas. Middle row: Lt(jg) Louis G. Gardemal, Lt J. Welch Harriss, Lt Richard Claytor, Lt Cdr D. Woot Taylor, Lt Cdr Homer H. Hutcheson, Lt(jg) George W. Bolt. Front row: Ens George D. Walker, Ens Robert “Bob” F. Ruth, Lt(jg) Page P. Stephens, Ens Felix E. Ward, Ens Wilbur S. Souza, Ens Gerald M. “Buck” Barnett.

Naval Air Station Corpus Christi

Naval Air Station Corpus Christi Logo

Naval Air Station Corpus Christi Logo

July 12, 1942 I reported to NAV, Corpus Christi. My first check was in my old friend the N3N “Yellow Peril.” Next it was on to Curtiss SNC’s, where I passed my C and D checks. My final check was with an North American Aviation SNJ.

North American Aviation SNJ-4

North American Aviation T-6 “Texan” known in the Navy as an SNJ. July, 1942.

I received my Navy Wings and Ensign Commission November 27, 1942.

I wrote home:

“Graduation exercises at Corpus Christi were comparatively simple. We received our diplomas from Admiral Montgomery, saluted and were dismissed as officers. The government gave us $150 plus $30 back Cadet pay which covered part of the cost of our new uniforms.”

Cadet Graduating Class, Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, November, 1942.

Cadet Graduating Class, Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, November, 1942. That’s me, the third from the right, in the back row.

To California — To Finish High School

In 1935, my brother Daniel and I graduated from the 11th grade at our Medicine Lodge school. That was the last grade the school offered.

We knew we wanted to attend college, so we had to finish High School somewhere. Mother asked the advice of an Aunt in Pasadena, California, and she suggested Mother rent a house there, take in boarders, and enroll us in John Muir Technical High School. Dad agreed even though it meant he would do all the farm work normally shared by Mother, Daniel, and I. We took a neighbor’s son with us so he could also finish High School.

Dad built a 4-wheel trailer out of a old Model-T Ford and we loaded chickens, potatoes, apples, canned fruit, and other living supplies in the trailer. We hooked the trailer onto a used, beat-up Model-A Ford we bought for the trip. Our outfit would only manage about 25 miles an hour, so it took us several days to get to Pasadena. We camped out along the road.

Model A Ford With Trailer Made From Model T Ford

Packing for California. Dad made this trailer out of our old Model-T Ford. We loaded it with food and supplies, hooked it to Model-A, and Mother drove. 1935.

Every day in California was exciting. We had lots of time after school and on weekends — no cows to milk, no pigs to swill, no horses to harness or other farm chores. We were only a few blocks from the high school so we could play tennis, shoot baskets, and practice baseball.

When High School started, we went out for baseball. I didn’t make the team, but I did become the co-manager of the Junior Varsity. I soon met Jackie Robinson, who was a short stop for the Varsity team. Mother had rented a house in the same neighborhood as the Robinson family. I frequently played tennis and shot baskets with Jackie and his older brother Mack.

John Muir Varsity Baseball Team with Jackie Robinson

John Muir High School Varsity Baseball Team with Jackie Robinson, who played short stop.

Let Me Introduce Myself…

I was born on a ranch on Medicine Lodge Creek, Small, Idaho on July 3, 1919.

Our home consisted of an old log house with one bedroom and closet. The small addition that had been added was inadequate so Dad bought an abandoned farm house about 10 miles east of our place. Mother’s Uncle Seymour and the neighbors helped Dad jack up the house, place logs under it and move it with two 4-horse teams and wagons to our ranch. It was exciting to watch the move which took several days. This house was then attached to the log house and became our kitchen, dining room and a bedroom for Dad and Mother.

We had no indoor plumbing. For the first few years, we obtained our water from the creek. Later we put down a house well, which provided cold, clean water. Our outhouse was fancier than many of our neighbors, as it had two holes.

Thomas Ranch Medicine Lodge Idaho

Thomas ranch on Medicine Lodge Creek, Idaho, in the winter.

Thomas Ranch Medicine Lodge Idaho

The corral was built into the creek to provide water for the livestock.