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VT-20 Sea Stories

Torpedo Twenty Sea Stories
by Frank J. Savage

Take several dozen red-blooded American boys, mix well, garnish with the Navy wings, and you have a torpedo squadron. Spice with a dash of liberty and alert the Shore Patrol. Season with sea duty and you have salty veterans. Simmer in combat and you have a great war record. Mix all the ingredients and you have a sterling group of guys - together a real Navy team called VT-20, but each having his individual flavor.

[Drawing: VT-20 Insignia]
VT-20 Insignia, courtesy Enterprise CV-6 Association.

Take, for instance, Eugene E. ("Easy-Easy") Rodenburg, a fun-loving young man off duty, and on duty a hot pilot. One Saturday night at Del Coronado, he had a romance with Mabel, the mannequin. To wind up the evening's entertainment, Rodey borrowed this mannequin that was carelessly left (naked as Eve) in one of the hotel's downstair shops. Members of Rodey's party lent Mabel for modesty a line mink (or simulated mink) coat, then helped carry Mabel horizontally past the hotel night-watchman, who averted his eyes on the assumption that Mabel was in a lamentable condition for any lady. She was loaded into McHenry's convertible, and spirited away to San Diego. This required paying an extra fare on the Coronado Ferry. The next day Rodey took a dim view of Mabel. He found her a poor conversationalist with a rather stiff manner. So with considerable ingenuity, Rodey toted his charmer back to the dress shop window by broad daylight. When last seen behind the plate glass, Mabel had a dreamy glint in her eye.

On duty, Rodey's all business. Our definition of a hot pilot is one who knows what he's doing, and thinks ahead. Rodey gets our nomination, and here's why. During our cruise, a strike was planned against Manila Harbor. The Task Force was in close, and no unusual difficulties were foreseen as the flight took off. But Rodey began saving gas the minute he left the carrier deck, and it paid off. The group returned late for a number of reasons: (1) they were forced to fly around a large tropical storm, (2) it became necessary to spend far more time over the target than planned, and (3) the Task Force had to steam away from the target thus widening the distance back to base. All these factors resulted in a trip that meant The Drink for several of the crews. In order to recover as many as possible, the Big E broke formation and sailed toward the returning group. The planes that had spent more time over the target at high speed, landed in the water. The others reached the carrier after dark. And when the deck was fouled with a barrier crash, still others were forced into the ocean. Only real skill brought any back aboard. The pilots who did get back had an average of 10 gallons of gas left. Rodenburg had 35 to spare.

There were others on that hop who rate a few words. Charlie Leeper will still be telling his grandchildren how, with our deck fouled, he had to find another landing place, and in a hurry. He flew 25 miles to the nearest carrier, and landed. Then as he taxied out of the gear, the plane ran out of gas.

Here's "Herr" Schlegel's story. In the same fix as Leeper, Schlegel made his way to the nearest carrier. The traffic around the carrier looked as busy as opening night at a Minsky's premiere, and our boy didn't get aboard on his first pass. On the second try, the plane began to sputter and cough on the approach leg to the blacked-out deck. Schlegel frantically switched tanks back and forth to get the last drops of fuel into the engine, thus getting enough power to pull up to 300 feet. There the engine died for good. Schlegel nosed down, dove for the dark deck ahead, and made a dead-stick landing on a carrier that was lighted with two dim rows of deck lights, the only visible means of support in the Pacific.

There are plenty of sea stories to go around, and the boys will be telling them for years to come, whenever two or more Navy flyers get together. One is the sea-sickness cure foisted on "Hawk" Conaway during, carrier qualifications out of San Diego. The trip was to take about three days, and Conaway was gripped with pains in the lower abdomen soon after we shoved off. It seemed a long way from his bunk to the port rail, and even farther to the Sick Bay. So Hawk enlisted the aid of Elmer "Abie" Czank, an unfortunate choice. Elmer, who enjoyed the lighter side of life, told Hawk that he had just the remedy. "Man's sense of equilibrium," he explained, "was designed to function vertically. Therefore, at rest, or in a reclining position, man's equilibrium is faulty, and easily disturbed by such phenomena as the rolling of a ship. Combined with the smell of fried pork, man's equilibrium is shot to hell."

Hawk thought briefly about fried pork, and readily agreed. When Hawk returned from a dash to the head, Elmer explained further: "Therefore, on the high seas, the sole sure way to avoid nausea is by remaining vertical. Stand up. It's as easy as that." "How about sleeping?" Hawk wanted to know. "Look, Hawk," confided Czank, "If you've ever been really sea-sick, you'll agree that it's worth standing up all night to avoid it." Well, Conaway was sure that if he wasn't sea-sick right now, he never wanted to be. Came time for chow and Conaway toyed with a lettuce leaf, standing up. The wardroom was sympathetic: they were primed to go along with the gag. Conaway spent an uneasy night, leaning against the bulkhead, or pitching across the room. When he learned that Elmer's remedy was not the accepted medical treatment, Hawk took quite a ribbing, and soon became as seaworthy as the next man. He yearned to try the remedy on some other landlubber but unfortunately didn't have the chance. During the cruise, his plane was forced down in the Pacific. He made a good landing, and his crew escaped, but he was unable to get clear of the plane, and was lost.

Naval aviators never tire of watching others land aboard a carrier. Whenever time permits, the boys watched flight operations from the catwalk on the island structure on the carrier's starboard side. This perch is called "Vulture's Row". Here each pilot sets himself up as an expert on landing signals, intervals, carrier traffic patterns, safety authority, and sometimes even fancies himself as mythical skipper of the ship. Here he condemns poor approaches, faulty techniques, interprets the pilots' emotional, physical, and moral backgrounds, makes snide running comments, and grudgingly acknowledges an occasional perfect landing.

Thus the vultures were gratifying their egos one day during carrier qualifications mentioned above. Danny Noon was in the pattern making his approach. It was not the ideal approach and Danny got a wave-off. The wave-off came late as Danny was ready to land. He was settling over the deck when he added full power to go around again. Just as he did, the tail hook engaged on one of the landing wires. The hooked plane flopped over the port side and all hands held their breath while the LSO dove for his safety net. The wire held and the plane dangled helplessly over the side, headed straight down. The captain of the ship led all the vultures in his comments, which cannot be repeated here. And while Danny was hauled back to the safety of the deck, via some quickly fashioned lines hung over the side, the captain made his decision. Qualifications were finished. He would take his ship back into port, with a big TBM dangling overboard, a horrid symbol of the prowess of VT-20. When we tied up to the dock, the "Torpeckers" sheepishly walked ashore. And the vultures had little to say, each knowing full well that it could happen to anyone.

When not flying, Naval aviators keep their youthful minds busy solving navigation problems, reading Technical Orders, and the like. Everyone knows that training doesn't stop when you get your wings. There is a never-ending job keeping up with the technical advance of the air ... long hours spent in recognition and identification ... there are arduous lectures. These things are with us as much as comic books and poker.

In spare time aboard ship, it wasn't hard to find a small game of chance. And it was easy to find Bill (Sam) Schaller in the midst of one. You could hear his clear, bell-like laughter booming whether you were in the engine room or on the bridge. And why shouldn't he be laughing? Schaller did pretty well with the pasteboards. He was the undisputed bridge champ. Poker, too, and gin rummy helped clear many billfolds of useless dollar bills, and an unidentified number of very useful ten, twenty, and fifty dollar bills. But nobody got hurt. And Schaller went home a millionaire. Whereas in training there were extra-curricular activities: baseball, football, basketball, in all our days there was an exciting game called "Jacks or Better". It is played with 52 cards, and you have to pay to learn. The way it was played in the squadron, it cost some lads a small fortune.

Speaking of clear, bell-like voices, Schaller met his match in Toby Trowbridge. Toby was from Loosiana, in the deep South. Toby and Schaller were room-mates, and the best of friends. One would give the other the shirt off his back. If you spoke ill of Schaller, you had to fight Toby. And if you disagreed with Toby, you ran the chance of a well-placed niblick shot from Sam - he generally had a golf club in his hands and was often heard to chuckle and murmur, "I won't be very hot in that National Open!" Yes, they were the best of friends. Unless some crisis came up, such as who should occupy the upper bunk. On such occasions would the boys have words. Sam might be found on his way to the upper sack, just when Toby wanted it. Toby would politely yank him down, bounce his head on the deck and hurl him into the passageway. Schaller would bound back into the room and bounce a chair off Toby's skull. It was generally nip and tuck, as to which would go over the side first. It took the sound of General Quarters to separate the two. But minutes later the boys would shake hands, laugh it off, and settle down for a game of cribbage - until Toby might accuse Sam of cheating, then off they'd go again, back and forth against the bulkheads.

Just as the South was represented by Toby, so was the West coast supported by George "Willi-Waw" Wilson. The California Chamber of Commerce had a real team-mate in George. To hear George tell it, the day his high school played Notre Dame, it was a re-enactment of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. To make the game fair, according to George, the high school let the girls play the second half. But Notre Dame ran out of players early in the third quarter. The trouble was, George was really good - the squadron's ace athlete. Few batters could hit his pitching. In basketball, volleyball, and all other games aboard ship and on the beach, George was easily top man. If you could call the odds in war, you'd bet on George anytime. But you can't. The odds didn't work out on a strike against Clark Field. And just as George dropped his bomb that day, his plane was hit, and three gallant men went in.

Then we come to Dickey, the squadron candidate for the most successful beach-comber. Dickey contrived a record amount of sack time. However, he managed to amble out of his sleeping-bag long enough to slip a fish to the Musashi, the pride of the Jap Fleet, the fabulous 50,000 ton battleship. This so excited Dickey that he didn't sleep a wink on the return trip to the carrier.

The Air Group was credited with sinking the Musashi that day. VT was credited with eight hits, scored by the Skipper Sam Prickett, "Big Ed" Holley, Toby Trowbridge, and his friend "Sam" Schaller, plus Old Mac McHenry, "Sarge" Ross, and George Swint. (Charlie Dickey's lurid tale of this triumphant hop can be found in the August, 1945, issue of "Blue Book", and it's recommended for adults.) Incidentally, the hop included the 8 torpeckers, 9 dive bombers, and 16 fighters. The CAG, Dan Smith, spotting from above, counted 8 torpedo hits, 16 1,000 lb. bombs (of the 18 the dive bombers delivered). Meanwhile the fighters cut down anti-aircraft fire from the Jap fleet and are believed to have sunk a Teratsuki class destroyer, named Teratsuki. By a miracle and an adroit coordinated attack, not one pilot or crewman was lost! This feat was duplicated the next day when the squadron helped sink the Jap carrier Zuikaku, and some 17 other Jap ships. In two days of fleet battle, no pilot or crewman from Air Group 20 was lost.

Of all the training done from Barber's Point, the pilots enjoyed most the contest of skill with Air Group 15. The prize was an all-expense trip on the legendary Enterprise, the fightin'est ship afloat. Our Air Group made a fine showing, dropping live bombs on a sled, towed by a destroyer-escort. Most of the boys looked pretty good. But then there was Doc Savage. He pushed over into his dive, let fly with a 500 lb. bomb which exploded rather closer to the DE than to the sled, towed several hundred yards astern. The DE took it in good part, except for a terse radio message, "Tell that joker that we're pulling this sled, not pushing it." Even with Savage's marksmanship, our group averaged better than the other group, and we went aboard the Big E, the Navy's finest carrier. The ship was loaded with officers and men of whom the Navy should be proud. For the most part, they had long sea duty behind them, and by usual standards, should have been relieved. They met us newcomers with open arms, made us feel part of them. Everyone in the Air Group made plenty of friends in ship's company. We all respected the Big E's gallant war record, and looked up to the men aboard, especially the deck crew, the Navy's best.

The high spirit of all hands aboard the Enterprise was due in large part to her Executive Officer, Commander Tom Hamilton. The Exec would man the bull horn when the ship was under fire from the enemy. He'd stand on the flying bridge and report the attack for the benefit of those below, who could only wait expecting a direct hit from bomb or torpedo at any time. Such consideration was returned by earnest hard work from all hands.

Another good guy (and we say this only because he is bigger than we are) was "Dutch" Cheadle, the squadron Personnel Officer. His was the job of baby-sitting for irresponsible flyers. He had to teach them to make out their insurance properly and show them how to defraud the government at income tax time. He also had a way with the Air Group flight surgeon: it was partly through his efforts, with some stimulating help from a man named Halsey, that we received minute rations of brandy. This potion would now be sneered at on any self-respecting Skid Row in America, but it tasted good at the time.

Dutch was a man for morale, but he fell a little short of the Hamilton touch. We all dashed for the ready room one day when GQ was sounded; following the rules, we donned our steel helmets, and otherwise muffled ourselves against fire or shrapnel. As usual, Cdr. Hamilton began to describe the battle overhead. To put all hands at ease, Cheadle talked about the necessity to keep cool, to keep our gear on. We all did as we were told, and listened tensely to the Exec describing the fate of a Zeke as it flew into the cone of AA thrown up by the Task Force and made his death plunge. He then turned his bifocals on another Zeke that was starting its dive from directly overhead, about "Angels 10". With confidence he told us how the force was throwing a withering hail of steel at the Zeke, but that it hadn't yet been hit. Cheadle admonished us to keep cool. At 5,000 feet, Zeke was still intact and had us boresighted. Cheadle reminded us calmly, to button up our helmets and to keep cool. At 3,000 feet our 20mm guns started their staccato, and we awaited word from Cdr. Hamilton of Zeke's demise. It didn't come. At 2,000 feet, Hamilton said "Stand by for a hit ... stand by!" And Cheadle bellowed, "Where in the name of Heaven is my helmet!" His helmet was on his head, and at that moment, at a mere 1,000 feet, Zeke's wing was torn off and he plunged into the drink about 30 feet off the ship's port quarter. Shortly after that, partly through Cheadle's efforts, with some help from a man named Halsey, General Quarters station for the Air Group was in the ward room, a few steel decks below.

Between flight quarters, general quarters, torpedo defense, and mail call, there was a good deal of spare time. And in between meals there were some fancy snacks in the boys' rooms. Spain was all right for some folks, but Doc Savage, Marv Leedom, and Jay Manown had fancier ideas. Before leaving the States, Doc had instructed his wife to knock off sending fruit cakes and cookies and to send canned tuna. Manown bought a two gallon jar of olives, Marv set in an ample supply of mayonnaise. Raids on the wardroom pantry provided bread, and there was a series of banquets. Olive pits carpet the floor of the Pacific from Hawaii to China.

The Skipper and the Exec of the squadron, as division leaders, led the other crews in the number of strikes. Calmer far than Cheadle and cool was Sam Prickett. While the others moaned and hollered about their number of strikes, Sam quietly went about his business piling up a record number of strikes for the squadron. On one strike, half of his horizontal stabilizer was shot off, but the Skipper made a normal landing, catching the second wire. Again, if you could play the odds, they would by the very numbers, be against the Skipper. But he beat the odds and came through in good shape. The role of squadron Exec was a different story. We left Hawaii with Jay Manown as Exec. Then came the softening-up campaign in preparation of the invasion of Palau. The Japs had a heavy concentration of anti-aircraft there, and Jay's plane was hit as he dove toward his target. The plane disintegrated, and the squadron lost a valuable pilot and crew. Chick Bretland became Exec until the ill-fated hop over Manila harbor. In the darkness, Bret ran out of gas as he approached a carrier for a landing. There are few things harder to see than a blacked-out ship on a pitch dark ocean. And as he was preparing to make a water landing, Bret crashed into the side of a carrier.

[Photo: LSO]
An Enterprise LSO signals a good approach to an AG-20 plane about to land.

Smilin' Jim Howell took over as Exec and the jinx was broken. Odds or no odds, nobody envied Jim the task. He had moved up from Ordnance Officer to Exec in three fast moves, and there was work to be done. For one thing, old Smilin' Jim was in charge of citations and ribbons, and he collected a barrelful for the squadron. The Navy exacts a formal wording of citations. If some extraordinary" act is written up properly, it can rate the Navy Cross, DFC, or other appropriate medal. If entered incorrectly, the answer will be a stony NO. Jim was so expert in verbiage that all hands wondered when his own Congressional Medal would arrive. But Honest Jim Howell went home with no more medals than the rest (oh, well, maybe just a handful or so, but nothing the Skipper, Cheadle, and Halsey wouldn't approve).

Take a couple of dozen red-blooded American boys, send them 200 miles away from a carrier, and you have a set of mighty interested prospects for a dead-reckoning navigation class. Take Mike Krause, for example. It wasn't a matter of navigation, but the lack of 100-octane that set Mike adrift. It wasn't so much for morale ... it wasn't so much that the Navy had spent in the neighborhood of $30,000 training Mike alone ... it wasn't so much that the squadron needed these men - it was just that Mike had drawn a pair of summer gloves (MK 8, mod 3) from Supply in San Diego. Supply wanted those gloves back, so the Task Force sent out a searching party. And so it was that the next day one of the squadron planes spotted Mike and his party, in their life raft, as well as Hawk Conaway's crew. Mike had his dyemarker, flares, lights, whistles, and bells, but that wasn't what made spotting easy. When he saw the plane overhead, Mike grinned from ear to ear, and his sparkling white teeth shone over a 65 mile area. You never saw five happier lads. A destroyer was dispatched to pick the boys up, and they were still grinning days later.

But you really have to live right to pull a McHenry. Old Mac, an easy-going dreamer with a rich baritone, was undisturbed by a routine strike against the enemy. And so, to conserve fuel while returning from a rather dull strike, Mac throttled back and entertained himself with his rich baritone while the rest of the group dashed for the sack aboard ship. All was well. Mac's navigation was checked and he had a good bearing on the Task Force. His ZB had checked out before he took off. It was a fine day with fleecy cumulous clouds against a blue sky. His baritone was faultless. Mac felt close to heaven. He was. As he approached his ETA, his voice cracked ever so slightly. His ZB was out, and some irresponsible, slap-happy admiral had removed the entire force from the spot Mac had picked for them. The blue sky faded into a stormy black. In short, the Task Force was lost. Mac finished his return leg, and looked longingly ahead, into some rainy stuff. "Pshaw," said Mac to himself in a fairly cheap falsetto, "All the boats will be right on the other side of this local storm." Well they weren't. Mac began remembering things he learned as an aviation cadet, and started a square search.

On the ship his pals were shaking their heads and muttering "Poor fellows". Checking his takeoff time against fuel consumption charts, it looked as though Mac and his crew were in the drink, and we plotted a new search for the morning. But Mac was still chugging around on an ever-widening square search. He covered a mess of empty ocean. After a while things got a little tight even for easy-going Mac, and he had to think about letting down gently into the drink while he still had enough fuel. They had been airborne more than seven hours, which any one will tell you is highly improbable in a TBM.

With about 5 gallons to go, and nothing around but lousy weather, Mac started setting down into the drink. He was ready to ditch when through a break in the weather he saw ... he saw ... you guessed it! Ships! Then, singing in a rich baritone, Old Mac made for the Task Force and ran out of gas right in the middle of it. He was quite content to make a water landing. He was home! After that, Mac returned to base with the Air Group. His rich baritone has never been finer.

Every torpedo squadron has its frustrated fighter pilot. Ours was Big Ed Holley, transferred from fighters to TBM's over his dead body. Such was his anger over flying the TBM that he never gave up the effort to be transferred back to fighters. As close as he could come was to fly the TBM as though it were a fighter. As a result, he could do a lot of things with the TBM that the designers never intended. The TBM's forward guns were really only put there to keep torpedo pilots from feeling shy when they encountered fighter pilots. Torpedo pilots were given the basic facts about gunnery, but never quite got the word on "What every fighter pilot should know about fixed gunnery". But Big Ed kept his guns charged, and waited. Then one fine day a fella flying a Zeke with a little too much confidence appeared in front of Ed, and Ed promptly shot him down.

That was not half the battle, however. The real job was to convince the authorities that he had actually done the deed. The ACI Officer broke out the rule books, and could find nothing to cover the act. It was plain preposterous. "Imagine shooting down a fighter with a TBM!" It was impractical, foolhardy, and entirely unheard of. Holley drew graphs, charts, and pictures to prove that it had been done, and in the end, won a grudging belief thus adding a moral victory to his laurels.

Naval flyers are, by qualification requirements, the handsomest class of people in the world. In a squadron chock full of Adonises, Phil Bradley was the real lady-killer. We can thank Phil for getting us out of North Island: the parents of all local girls over 10 years old complained that their daughters couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, and the Navy got tired of them hanging on the cyclone fence that separated them from North Island and their Phil. But he only sneered and threw stones at them. His heart belonged to Rockport, Mass., and nothing could turn his head.

As H. L. Murphy, the squadron doctor, told the authorities, "I don't know what to tell you to do." Somewhere in the course of the cruise, it occurred to Murph that the squadron needed a doctor, and he appointed himself to fill the bill. His advice was always the same - "I don't know what to tell you to do." Murph had another routine, his role as witness, or counsel for the defense, and during any lull in any dispute, he would state with quiet finality, "He'd been drinking, yes - but he wasn't drunk."

Yes, take several dozen red-blooded American boys, mix them all together in just the right combination and you have VT-20. Each remaining one could go on and on, telling and re-telling sea stories, remembering the days from September 1943 to March 1945. The memories of "Little Bax" and "Big Bax", the California blues as related by "Willi-Waw" Wilson, the heart-breaking quartet featuring "Easy-Easy" Rodenburg, Old Mac McHenry, Doc Savage, Toby Trowbridge, plus other loud and off-key voices of the rest; the detailed briefings by Joe Woodle; the unprecedented luck of George Swint as he missed all the landing wires, left his engine, port wing, and landing gear on the deck and went over the side, without injury to himself or his crew; the tough luck of Hamilton, who made his attack on the Zuikaku with the rest only to have his torpedo stick in the bomb bay; the ecstasy of "Swifty" Armour, not so much for a torpedo hit on the Zuikaku, but for the beautiful picture his crewmen took of the carrier's death throes - one of the great pictures of the war; the rough road "Old Sarge" Ross and his team had to go when forced down off Formosa. The pleased look on the face of J. M. O'Brien as he got early orders to the States, only to find that he was to be shipped out again, to become Military Governor of one of the most God-forsaken islands in the Pacific.

The sea stories will never end, and no pilot will ever forget his crew. Their story isn't told here - the space and one man's memory can't do them justice. But each pilot knows the magnificent part of his own crew in the success of the cruise. And for each officer and aircrewman, the roster will bring back memories of pilot to crew and crew to pilot. Turn to the list of personnel and start another chain of sea stories for each member of the squadron.

Remember the statements of Dave Dressendorfer, who organized the squadron as Skipper. As he left he gave us prophetic advice. He said that the squadron, and the air group, had the making of the best the Navy had to offer. He foresaw that we would go far beyond the shores of Saipan, and on to Japan. And he called the odds. One out of every three men in that ready-room that day, he told us, would not return. But there would be no stopping us if we lived up to the training we had.

He was right. The air group record tells the story of one of the Navy's best. Saipan, Tinian, and Guam were no longer in the combat zone by the time we set out, and before the end we had traveled farther west than Japan itself. We were one strike short of attacking the mainland of Japan, which was all right with everyone in the air group. And of the original squadron, thirty of us did not return to the States. Their memories came back with the lucky ones, and their memories will stay alive to every member of VT-20.

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