On 28 June 1991, the Golden Pelicans of U.S. Navy Patrol Squadron Forty-Four became only an entry in naval aviation’s storied past, ceasing operational service. Deactivated at Naval Air Station (NAS) Brunswick, Maine, the squadron would not post additional chapters to its distinguished service record as an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) squadron.
Over a period of fifty-two years of service, including World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, patrols during the Bay of Pigs, surveillance operations during the Cuban missile crisis, and hotspots all over the world, the squadron established the bench marks for excellence in patrol aviation. Garnering seven Battle “E’s” (awards for excellence), three of them consecutively in 1956-1958 and several Captain Arnold Jay Isbell Trophies for Continuing Excellence in ASW operations, the Pelicans established themselves as the premier ASW squadron on the east coast. In its recent history, it received five Meritorious Unit Citations.
During WWII, it was a VP 44 plane piloted by Ensign Jewell Harmon Reid that sent a report of the sighting of the “Main Body” of the Japanese fleet as it headed toward Midway. Frequently identified as the “single most important patrol plane contribution,” that action helped to shift the tide in U.S operations in the Pacific. And during its proud history, the squadron was recognized for many Meritorious Unit Citations and special recognition from the Fleet Air Wings to which the unit was assigned.
Some day in the future, the warriors will gather to tell of its beginnings, and of its glorious deeds, to toast their fallen comrades, and to seek the renewed comradeship of a time when they joined arms in a common cause, when loyalty to one’s country was unquestioned.
Summaries do not satisfy the need for full understanding of what took place during the squadron history. To fully appreciate the achievements, one should turn to the following:
|James Mills Blue Catalinas of World War II, published by Sunflower University Press, Manhattan, Kansas.|
|Nevil Frankel’s outstanding website dedicated to all VP squadrons, www.vpnavy.com, and|
|The Dictionary of American Naval Aviation Squadrons.|
There are numerous books about the patrol arm of the U.S. Navy identified on Frankel’s website, and they can be purchased on the internet.
VP44 at ford island and battle of midway
The organizational structure for the Scouting forces in April of 1942,comprised of the PBY aircraft based in the Hawaiian Islands, was formed into two wings, designated Patrol Wing One and Patrol Wing Two, which were located at NAS Kaneohe Bay and at the Fleet Air Base, Ford Island, respectively. Patrol Wing One included five squadrons of approximately 12 aircraft each, VP-11, VP-12,VP-14, VP-72, and VP-91.V P-11 had PBY-5 seaplanes, and the other four squadrons operated PBY-5A amphibians. Patrol Wing Two consisted of four squadrons VP-23, VP-24, VP-44, and VP-51, VP-23 had seaplanes and the other three squadrons had amphibians.
The chain of command for squadron commanders was, Patrol Wing, Commander Patrol wings Pacific Fleet,task Force 9 (Naval Air Base Defense Force), and Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet. RADM P.N..L.Bellinger held the titles of COMPATWING Two,COMPATWINGSPAC, and Com Naval Air Base Defense Force. In addition PATWING1 was administered from PATWING 2.
My squadron VP-44 was based at Alameda Naval Air Station,it had moved up from NAS North Island on 8 December 1941. The squadron left Alameda in two flights of 6 planes each. The first section left late in March 1942 and the second section left early April 1942. I was a S/2c so I and the rest of the squadron left in early April on the SS Lurline, a 3 ship convoy including the SS Aquatania, and the USS Detroit. The voyage took 4 and1/2 days.
The squadron set up shop in one the hangars on Ford Island. I don’t remember which. The squadron consisted of Commanding Officer LCDR Robert C. Brixner, Executive officer LT William L.”Tex” Richards, four LTJG’s and forty Ensigns. Enlisted crew comprised of 176 petty officers, 20 being Chief, and 8 Naval Air Pilots, 68 seaman, and 64 seaman apprentices, for a grand total of 356 officers and men.
The squadron began flying patrols immediately and I was placed in crew 6 as a mechanic/gunner.
In late May of 1942 the squadron was told that we would be going to Midway Island for advanced base duty.
The squadron left for Midway Island in two groups of six planes each, the first group left on May 22 and the second on May 23, and set up headquarters on Eastern Island. The maintenance crew, spare flight crews and spare parts left for Midway on the USS St. Louis arriving on May 25.
The squadron immediately began flying 700 mile patrols in pie shaped sections of 600 miles outbound and inbound with a 100 mile arc. These patrols were vectored to the north, around to the west, and to the south. We were joined by VP-23 in this activity.
Wake Island was 1181 miles from Midway bearing 253 degrees.
On May 30 we had our first contact with Japanese aircraft, codenamed Betty. Two of our planes were attacked after they had gone 400-500 miles on their outbound track. One crew had one man wounded.
June 1-At 0940 am on the outbound search leg, my plane 44-P-6 ENS. J.J.”Jiggs” Lyons, Patrol Plane Commander (PPC) was attacked by a Japanese plane, codenamed Betty. I had just made AMM3c on May15th and was a mechanic/gunner on the aircraft. On the Betty’s first pass the port .50 caliber jammed and couldn’t be fired, however the bow .30 cal.’s returned fire. The Betty used its superior speed to make a pass over us and dropped five 100 pound bombs. fortunately none hit the aircraft. As soon as the enemy realized that our port waist gun was useless all the runs were made on that side. In the meantime we were hastily getting the .30 cal out of the tunnel hatch so that it could be used in the port waist. On the 12th pass the .30 cal was able to fire 50 rounds at the enemy.
A total of 12 passes were made on us after which the enemy withdrew and we found a friendly cloud bank. Upon leaving the cloud bank we saw one our planes, 44-P-7 commanded by ENS. Richard Umphrey being attacked by another Betty, so we made a run on it firing our bow gun and the port waist and they departed the scene. We used up about 300 rounds of ammunition during this engagement..
June 3-, 22 PBY’s were scheduled for patrol from Midway. 10 from VP-44 were to depart from Eastern Island and the remainder, seaplanes from VP-23 operating out of Sand Island.
44-P-4 ,commanded by ENS. ”Jack” Reid, sector for that day was west by southwest, which was in the general area for a possible encounter with the twin- engine “Betty’s”.
The crew hoped for an encounter with one of these aircraft. The night before one of the crew members had traded some beer for 5 new explosive .50 caliber shells from a B-17 crew. The ordnancemen on the crew had loaded them on the port waist gun.
The flight came to the end of their outbound 600 mile leg with no sightings. The crew urged Jack Reid to go further to see if they couldn’t make contact with a “Betty”. Jack checked with navigator Bob Swan and was assured that they still had plenty of fuel to go another 20 or 30 minutes on the present course. Jack agreed to the plan and told Bob, just give me as heading when we get to the end of the time limit.
The flight continued on for the allotted time and as Bob was about to give Jack the new heading for the dogleg and at that instant Jack spotted specks on the horizon. He gave the binoculars to the second pilot Gerald Hardeman saying, ”Are those ships? I think we’ve hit the jackpot.” Hardemen concurred. Moments later John Gammell, in the nose turret, sang out “Ships dead ahead, about 30 miles dead ahead.” a radio message was immediately sent to Pearl Harbor saying, ”Sighted main body”, minutes later, a second message, ”Bearing 262, distance 700 miles.” Midway being the target of the Japanese force.
Jack Reid scouted the force for another two hours. He kept the Catalina at low altitudes and came up from different positions, counting the sightings at each one and radioing the results. The long wakes in the ocean from the armada led him to either port or starboard of the ships. He knew full well, if detected they would be hit by a sky full of Zero’s to a large force of scouting aircraft.
The force sighted consisted of 17ships, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and transports headed for Midway.
44-P-4 landed back at Midway with little fuel to spare. When asked why they were able to stay aloft for an additional 3 hours, Bob Swan replied, ”Raymond Derouin (the plane captain) has three dependents-a wife and two daughters. He always puts in an extra 50 gallons for each one.”
The evening of 3 June 1942 four additional PBY-5A arrived on Eastern Island from Ford Island, each plane carried a Mark XIII, mod 1 aircraft torpedo. Three planes from VP-24 and one plane from VP-51. LT. William L. ”Tex” Richards our squadron executive officer was given tactical command to make a night torpedo run on the Japanese invasion fleet. The crews on the these planes had already flown 10 hours to reach Midway yet each crew volunteered to make this mission. At 945pm they took off from Easter Island, rendezvoused, and headed out on a course of 261 degrees toward the Japanese fleet a full description of this mission is in the “Action Report” by LT. Richards is included.
June 4 – The operating plan for Midway Atoll was prepared by our skipper, LCDR Robert C. Brixner, acting as Operations Officer being senior naval aviator on board. A copy of this document is enclosed. Most of the crews had by this time been flying for thirteen days of extended patrols and semi-battle station alert.
We lost 44-P12 that day along with 5 crewmen. The ordnanceman aboard saved all the living members of the crew by inflating the life raft and getting them all on board, he received the Navy Cross for his actions that day.
One of our ordnancemen AOM3c L. J. Ogeron volunteered to fly as gunner for NAP Darrell Woodside of VT-8 and was killed in action.
ENS. Howard Ady and his crew, of VP-23, sighted the main body of the Japanese fleet, consisiting of 2 carriers, 3 battleships, and 6 to 8 destroyers. This action was reported at 5:20am
One of our ordnancemen, A. O. Turner ACOM, set up a 50cal. machine gun at mid-island, near the shower and supply buildings and during the ensuing air raid on Midway shot down a Japanese aircraft, it crashed on Sand Island.
June 5-44-P-9 PPC, LTJG Carl Bauer, now operating out of Sand Island as a seaplane, there being no more room on Midway for any more aircraft took off from the lagoon and about 115 miles out on their patrol sighted 2 large Japanese ships and believing them to be battleships made a contact report. The two vessels sighted turned out to be the cruisers Mogami and Mikuma. They opened fire on 44-P-9 , the plane turned away from the action. Shortly after six Marine SB2U-2’s of VMSB 241 attacked the cruisers one of them CAPYT Fleming crashed his plane into the rear turret of the Mikuma.
44-P-10 PPC Shelby. O “Pappy” Cole’s course took him over the sea where heavy fighting had occurred the day before and where burning carriers had been seen. On the outgoing leg of the patrol, a raft with survivors was sighted but to land would have violated orders were to thoroughly search the sector. The rafts position was plotted and sent to base radio. The course continued to take them over a long spaced line of rafts with survivors in them. The last raft sighted was a single one with a one man aboard.
On the return leg, Cole asked the navigator, ENS Ralph Donaldson to plot a course back to the last survivor sighted, the one most distant from Midway. In a magnificent feat of navigation, the lonely raft appeared dead ahead. This spot, a tiny speck in the vast expanse of ocean, was located after hours of flight from the original sighting with several hundred miles traveled. Cole polled the crew for agreement to land and pick up the survivor. Knowing the risks involved, every man nevertheless concurred. The plane was successfully landed with minor buckling, popped rivets, and strut deformation. The survivor was identified as ENS. George H. Gay of the TBD Devastator Torpedo Squadron VT-8 from the carrier U.S.S. Hornet. He would go on to be an American hero, and rightly so, but it is ironic that the skill, perserverence and daring of those who rescued him, navigator ENS. Donaldson and pilot LTG Cole went relatively unnoticed and unrecognized. The rescue complete, considering the damage done to the plane and sea condition it would make takeoff hazardous. Making it neccessary to dump gasoline and once airborne proceed directly to Midway by passing rafts they had sent position reports earlier that day. Dumping gas proved to be a problem the aircraft was designed to dump fuel while in flight but not while on the surface. By rocking the aircraft for 30 minutes they were able to drain enough fuel to make it possible for a safe takeoff.
June 6 – Rescue work continued and survey of the floating wreckage from the battle. Early that day PBY’s rescued a crew from the carrier Enterprise. Another plane picked up CAPT Dick Blain and PFC Gordon McFreely of VMSB 241.
44-P-9, PPC ENS. Umphrey and crew located 24-P-11, ENS Gaylord Probst missing from the night torpedo attack made on June 3. 24-P-11 had run out of fuel attempting to land at Laysan – one of the western most of the Hawaiian Islands where the other three planes had landed. They had drifted in the ocean since the morning of June 4. The crew of 24-P-11 loaded aboard Umphreys plane and then sank their own. LTJG Norman Brady of VP-23 located the survivors of the ill fated 44-P-12. Brady and his crew had spent much of the day shadowing the heavy cruisers Mikuma and Mogami, they provided valuable position data for several attacks upon the cruisers that day. They were also part of a search organized to locate any possible survivors of 44-P-12. Aviation Pilot Strohmair, navigating for Brady studied water currents, weather conditions, position reports and carefully made projections of possible locations for any survivors. Having searched the assigned sector for 350 miles without results Brady, using Strohmair’s data, extended the search, and 100 miles away they spotted the raft with four occupants. Saved from a tragic death at sea was ENS. Lee C.McCleary, .AOM2c Philip L. Fulghum, AMM2c John C. Weeks, and AMM1c Virgil R. Marsh. ENS Jack H.Camp was seriously wounded and died the next morning on Midway.
June 7-9 — VP-44 along with all the other PBY units continued search for survivors.
June 9 — The ten remaining planes of VP-44 returned to Ford Island.
The squadron had sustained 5 men wounded in action and 6 men killed in action.