Tom Bronn

 

 

 Mission Beyond Darkness

On September 29, 1943, Task Force 58, which included the USS Lexington CV-16, headed West towards Wake Island. On board the Lexington was Carrier Air Group Sixteen, which included VF-16, VT-16 and VB-16. I, Paul Bonilla AOM 2/c USNR, at the age of 22, was attached to VB-16 which flew SBD-5 Douglas Dauntless dive bombers which had a crew of two, a pilot and a radioman-gunner. My pilot was Lt. (jg) William E. McCarthy who was my very first assigned pilot. We became partners at NAS Quonset Point, Rhode Island where CAG-16 was formed  on December of 1942. On September 29, 1943 we were headed for the most unforgettable experience of my navy career or of my civilian life.

 

Below is a personal account of the "Mission Beyond Darkness," as told by Lt. Clyde L. (Tom) Bronn as a speech to the Rotary Club of Long Beach, California in October of 1991. Lt. Bronn was a pilot flying the Grumman Avenger attached to Torpedo Squadron 16.

 

Clyde L. (Tom) Bronn Speech
Long Beach Rotary Club Evening Program
October 2, 1991Mission Beyond Darkness

 

 

 

 

The things I will be talking about today occurred almost 50 years ago. To you younger members please treat my presentation as a short statement regarding a little bit of personal history. For those of you who are near my age, perhaps what I say will trigger memories of your own activities during World War II.

 

 

 

 

The things I will be talking about today occurred almost 50 years ago. To you younger members please treat my presentation as a short statement regarding a little bit of personal history. For those of you who are near my age, perhaps what I say will trigger memories of your own activities during World War II.
 
 I am humbled by the knowledge that there are many of you who served in the armed forces during World War II, Korea, or Vietnam that could just as well be in this position today relating to us, events from your own personal history.
 
 I had decided in 1941 that I wanted to become a naval aviator. At that time the two basic requirements in addition to good physical health, were that the applicant had to have completed two years of college and be 20 years or more of age. In June, 1941 I had met the educational requirement and on December 7, 1941 I became 20 years of age.
 
 I reported to the US Navy "E" (elimination) Base at the Long Beach airport on December 8, 1941 and was inducted into the US Navy Reserve as a Seaman 2c. I remained in Long Beach until about mid March, 1942. I was then designated a naval aviation cadet and ordered to Corpus Christi, Texas for flight training. Flight training continued until September 25, 1942 at which time I was commissioned an Ensign and given the coveted "Wings of Gold." I was then ordered to Opaloka Naval Air Station near Miami, Florida for operational training and further assignment to a fleet squadron and air group. One month later I was ordered to proceed to NAS Norfolk, VA for carrier qualification and then on to NAS Quonsett Point, RI where I would join Air group 16 as a member of the torpedo squadron.
 
 Upon arrival at Quonsett Point I learned that Air group 16 was destined to go aboard the new carrier CV-16 which was then in the final phases of construction at the Boston Shipyards. This new carrier was to be given the name USS Lexington and replaced a carrier by the same name that had been sunk on May 8, 1942 in the Battle of the Coral Sea.
 
 An air group in those days consisted of three squadrons made up of fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers. There were approximately twenty pilots each in the dive bomber and torpedo bomber squadrons, and sixty pilots in the fighter squadron. In air group 16 the fighter pilots flew the new Grumman F6F Hellcat; the dive bomber pilots flew the Douglas SBD Dauntless and the torpedo bombers flew the new Grumman TBF Avenger. I had not seen the Avenger before arriving at the squadron so I needed to get acquainted at once.
 
 It was at the squadron level that the real training for combat began. In addition to the pilot, the Avenger carried a two man crew consisting of a turret gunner and a radio/radar man. My crewmen were assigned to me; E.P. Linson, radio/radar man and Michael Banazak, gunner. We got to know each other and to respect each other. Each of us was learning a job that was new to us and it became apparent that each of us had to depend on the other to be an effective team.
 
 In addition to squadron tactics there were overall air group tactics that had to be learned and practiced again and again and again.
 
 Training of the air group and the respective squadrons continued until the Lexington was available for boarding. In the summer of 1943, the ship and her crew left the east coast and headed for Pearl Harbor.
 
 My first combat mission was in support of troops landing on the island of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. These kinds of missions usually consisted of predawn attacks on the island prior to troop landings. This was the combat mode for the Lexington and air group 16 through the Gilbert Islands and north through the Marshall Islands and Mariannas. There was only occasional sightings of enemy ships and therefore only occasional use of aerial torpedoes. We were usually carrying four-five hundred pound general purpose bombs.
 
 I now want to focus in on a specific strike in which my crew and I participated. I will attempt to make you feel a part of the action. This particular event began while we were doing our usual thing covering troop landings on the island of Saipan. The Lexington was then the flagship for Adm. Marc A. Mitscher, Commander of Task Force 58.
 
 On June 17, 1944 there was enough intelligence information available to cause Adm. Mitscher to believe that the Japanese fleet was coming into the area with the design of sending a series of strike forces against TF-58 then after completing the strike against our ships fly on to its land base on the island of Guam which was then under the control of the enemy. Once on Guam the strike force would refuel and rearm and return to TF-58 carry out another strike and fly on back to its carriers.
 
 On June 18th, 1944 my crew and I manned one of two Avengers and along with two Hellcats, flew long search sectors from our ship probing for evidence of the enemy's position. Shortly before reaching our intended turnaround point in that search we came upon two enemy Zero fighters and an enemy torpedo bomber probably doing the same thing we were dispatched to do. In order to get back to the main story I will simply say we all got back to our ship that day but none of the enemy planes or pilots got back to their ship. With the information gathered from this contact with enemy carrier planes the Admiral now knew our planes and their planes could reach each other. However, there was not a clear definition of the location of the enemy fleet.
 
 The next day, June 19, 1944, search planes were again sent out looking for the fleet. Admiral Mitscher had strike planes on the several carriers in the task force loaded and ready to go at a moments notice. At 4:00 pm one of the search planes reported a contact and sent the message "Enemy force sighted" and proceeded to give the position of the force. This position report was immediately established on the ship's charts by the ship's navigator and he wrote a figure on a slip of paper representing the number of miles that the enemy force was from TF-58. This information was carried to Admiral Mitscher by his staff. His first inquiry of his staff was whether our planes could reach the enemy and have enough fuel to return. His staff informed him that it would be close and would involve night operations in taking the returning planes back aboard. Admiral Mitscher then gave the order to the carriers involved to launch the first strike force of approximately 100 planes against the enemy fleet and then prepare the decks for a possible second launching.
 
 Torpedo pilots and their crew had been in their ready rooms all day well aware of the activity of the search planes. Seven of our planes had been loaded with aerial torpedoes in anticipation of a contact being made. Pilots and crew knew by schedule at the front of the ready room who would be on the first launch. Sometime prior to 4:00 pm the decision had been made that the aerial torpedoes should be unloaded and 4 -500 lb. semi-armour piercing bombs be placed in the bombays of the Avengers. This is the load that would have been used the next day as strikes against the enemy ground installations and troops would have continued. Armed with bombs rather than torpedoes changed drastically the nature of the attack as far as the torpedo pilots were concerned. This meant we would be doing glide bombing which calls for a different game plan than that of an aerial torpedo attack against shipping.
 
 When Admiral Mitscher told his staff to send out the order to launch planes this in turn started a network of commands through the air officer on every carrier involved in the TF. Within minutes we received in our ready room the familiar order "Pilots man your planes." I along with Clint Swanson, Norm Sterrie, Bill Linn, Kent Cushman, Mac McLellan and Buzzie Thomas and our crews buckled on our flight gear that we had either hanging on us or near at hand all day and proceeded up the familiar passage ways and ladders one deck up to the Flight Deck and assumed our positions in our planes and readied them starting. Within a few more minutes the order "Start Engines," came booming across the flight deck. From this point on, what happens on the deck of a carrier is enough to make your spine tingle and your adrenaline to really flow. Every movement of an airplane on a carrier deck during launch is controlled by the signals and motions of a deck hand to the pilot. The pilot must follow those instructions. There are no independent decisions of the pilot as to where or when or how fast he will taxi his plane. The entire launch of a strike group is a series of sequences of motion not unlike an intricately choreographed production.
 
 Thirty four planes were to be launched from the Lexington in the first strike; 11 fighters, 16 dive bombers and 7 torpedo bombers. The fighters were launched first they were always first off because they need less deck to get airborne). The Avengers were next to be launched. I was the first Avenger to leave the deck only because the plane I had been assigned happened to be spotted in that position. The dive bombers were the last to launch.
 
 Bill Linn's Avenger had a problem develop going down the deck on takeoff when his propeller slipped from full low pitch to medium high pitch. It was too late for him to do anything but keep on going and hope he would be able to get into the air. He had lost half his oil before clearing the deck but he was able to get her airborne but obviously could not continue on the strike. He flew clear of the TF screen of ships and jettisoned his bombs in an unarmed condition and would hopefully make it to another carrier before his engine would fail.
 
 The remaining six Avengers flew in sections of three each. Our leader was Lt. Norman Sterrie who until a few days earlier had been the squadron's Executive Officer. Our skipper, Lt. Commander Robert Isely had been shot down over Aslito Airfield on Saipan. Sterrie became the captain of the squadron on the day that Isely was killed.
 
 Each strike force from each carrier involved in this event operated independently from the others. However, everyone had been ordered to go for the enemy carriers first and we all had been given the same information regarding the position, direction and speed of the enemy fleet. The launches from all of the carriers had been made at approximately the same time. The result was that as we came closer to the target area planes from other carriers were visible and it was a good warm feeling to realize we were going to have lots of company on the attack.
 
 We all knew that we had to be careful about fuel consumption. We also knew that if we did not make a certain ground speed we would arrive over our target in near darkness.
 
 Things were progressing pretty well when a scout plane gave an update on the position of the enemy fleet. This new location placed the enemy fleet approximately 60 miles further away than first anticipated. This was an additional concern for the dive bombers and torpedo planes. The initial position that had been given made the issue of range a little "iffy" these added miles to the target compounded the concern.
 
 At 6:45 pm visual contact with the enemy fleet was made. The ships appeared to be in three groups. The main group consisted of two large carriers, two battleships, two or three heavy cruisers, four or five light cruisers and destroyers. It was this groups that was selected by our leader for the attack.
 
 We were at about 9500 feet and still a few miles from pushover to the target when we came under attack from enemy fighter planes. We were now flying in very close formation and in alignment that allowed our turret gunners to give maximum firing power against the attacking planes. At this point the radioman becomes a gunner and mans a 30 caliber machine gun that protrudes out of the stern of the tunnel of the Avenger and that has a capability of covering a 40 degree angle right and left and down from the tail of the plane. Things were popping and cracking pretty good for awhile. My crew counted four Zeros on our tail at one stage of this melee. Some kind of miracle occurred however as only one of our six planes was shot down. Mac McLellan and both his crewmen were able to abandon the plane as it was burning and parachute down to what turned out to be smack dab in the middle of the show.
 
 Over the target the gunfire from the enemy ships started to pick us up. We all had experienced enemy antiaircraft gunfire on numerous occasions during strikes against island strongholds. But this enemy gunfire that we were now experiencing had a new twist to it. Instead of the usual ugly grayish black bursts when the shells reached their intended altitude we were seeing bursts in very vivid colors encompassing every color of the rainbow. It looked more like a Fourth of July fireworks display than enemy fire. However this fireworks display was not to be our concern for long. We were now over the target and it was time to go to work. We had been told to go for the carriers and we had two of Japan's largest right below us.
 
 The assignment for the torpedo bombers was to follow immediately after the last dive bomber started his dive. That was the way it was planned and that was the way it happened. We commenced our dive at about 9500 feet. I was the third Avenger to dive out of the 5 remaining torpedo planes. Sterrie had led us into position on one of the two large carriers. All of the enemy ships were taking evasive action as we dove. The carrier that we had selected accommodated us very nicely by making a rudder change just prior to our drop altitude. This resulted in the ship being on a relative steady course for a few seconds before it changed direction. I saw one of Sterrie's bombs hit the flight deck and another explode along side of the ship. By this time I was between 3000 and 2500 feet and looking from the stern of the ship right down the carrier deck to its bow. If I had been intending to land, my deck alignment would have been perfect. I released the bombs, continued for a few seconds in the dive and then started looking for a way out. Others in our flight said they saw all four of our bombs hit the carrier deck. The assessment of my crew and me was that 3 bombs hit the ship and one
 went into the water just off the bow.
 
 Now reality began to set in. As we started our dive at a little after 7:00 pm we could still see the sun low in the horizon to the west. When we completed our dive at that lower altitude it was dusk and the sun had disappeared on the horizon. This was both bad and good. Good from the standpoint that the gunners on the ships would have greater difficulty picking us up in their sites but bad from the standpoint that when we got clear of the enemy task force we had to try to find each other and start back to our own ship.
 
 The intent of every pilot that ever bombed a ship is to get as far away from that ship as quickly as possible. They just do not like to have you bomb their ships.
 
 My crew was well aware that my next move would be to get as close to the surface of the water as possible and the sooner the better. Our next goal would be to thread our way out through the other ships in the enemy TF and out of the reach of their guns. This is accomplished with some rather violent changes of direction at a very low altitude and with the throttle as far forward as you can push it. For these few minutes you really do not spend a lot of time thinking about conserving your fuel.
 
 My crew and I do not believe we took any appreciable enemy fire during our dive. We do believe however, that on our way out of the enemy TF we did take some fire. It did occur to me shortly after the dive that the bombay doors might still be open. I had pushed the lever that should have closed the doors but a red light on the instrument panel indicated that they were in the open position.
 
 Within a few minutes (which seemed like an eternity) we were outside of the destroyer screen of the enemy force and looking for our friends. We found Sterrie and Swanson at about 1000 feet circling and waiting for us and the other planes. Soon Cushman and Thomas joined us and the five planes headed out on a course that Sterrie had plotted while he waited for the rest of us to join him.
 
 Shortly after starting back toward our ship, the oil pressure gauge in the cockpit was indicating a problem. I let Sterrie know that and that I might have to drop out at any time. Linson heard me call Sterrie. He then tried to talk to me on the intercom. I heard him and responded but Linson could not hear me. Linson, realizing that he could not hear me on the intercom crawled forward to the center cockpit immediately aft of the pilot and handed me a written message. He said he had heard my message to Sterrie regarding the oil pressure problem. He had further written, "if you want us to bail out blink the arm-master switch 3 times, or twice to get set for a water landing." The arm-master switch when activated shows a red light in the tunnel of the plane where the radioman is located. I wrote back to Linson, "Okay, oil pressure up and engine acting up be ready for anything." Linson crawled back through the tunnel and pushed the note pad to Banazak in the gun turret. Banazak turned on his light and read the message and handed it back to Linson with a "thumbs up," understood.
 
 Sixty miles from the Lexington Sterrie picked up the homing signal from the ship. At 8:30 pm the first visual contact with our TF was made.
 
 Sterrie led our 5 Avengers across the TF screen and started to search for the identifying glow light of the Lexington. We were flying now at about 500 feet and finding ourselves dodging other single and groups of planes doing the same thing we were doing, trying to find the right ship. Sterrie went back up to 1000 feet to try to avoid some of the traffic. In the change of altitude, Cushman and Thomas disappeared. After awhile Sterrie dropped down to 500 feet again, located the Lexington and broke off into the landing pattern and landed aboard. Getting into the landing pattern turned out to be a real chore. The order had been given to land on any available carrier. Everybody by this time was running on empty or near empty. When I was finally able to safely maneuver into the landing pattern and turn on the downwind leg of the approach I could see that the deck of the Lexington was fouled and she was not taking on planes. I made two more passes with the hope that the fouled deck would be cleared. It did not clear and all of my fuel gauges now showed empty. To go looking for another carrier was an option but not my favorite with the fuel situation what it was. We had been trained that if you thought you would have to make a water landing, do it while you still had power if at all possible. I reached down and flicked the arm-master switch twice. This was the prearranged signal for the crew to prepare for a water landing. Banazak saw the reflection of the arm-master switch light in his Plexiglas turret. He knew what was about to happen. He took off his parachute harness and unlocked to escape hatch which would allow him to go out the port side of the plane and get to the wing on the opposite side from where Linson and I would be. Linson climbed into the middle cockpit. The crew was now in position for a water landing.
 
 Up ahead and to my port I saw one of our TF Destroyers. By now, I had the flaps down. The landing gear remained in the up position. I made my last change of direction toward the destroyer blinking my running lights with the hope of attracting someone's attention, and allowed the plane to settle slowly down toward the water. The reflection from the exhaust flames from the engine became brighter and brighter against the water as we came closer to the surface of the water. The plane hit and crushed to a stop with water spraying up over the cockpit and the wings of the plane. For a moment it seemed like the plane would go right up on its nose, but then it settled back and actually floated for a matter of seconds.
 
 By the time I got out on the starboard wing Linson was already there and had the hatch to the life raft storage compartment off. Banazak was on the port wing, had taken off the hatch on that side to assist in pushing the raft out on the starboard wing. When he discovered the raft was already out he jumped over the cockpit to the starboard wing. Our next task was to inflate the raft and board it hopefully before the plane fell out below us. There was no moon and at the moment no artificial source of light. It was dark! Unfortunately we inflated the life raft upside down and had no time to do anything about it then as the plane sank away from us. We were holding on to the raft and decided we would be better off to inflate our life jackets that we each were wearing. This solved the problem of staying above the water for the moment. I had a flashlight that was attached to my life jacket. I started waiving the light as high above the water as I could reach and blew the whistle as loud and long as I could. We were in the water only a few minutes when we heard a voice from the destroyer call out, "hold on! we'll be right back."
 
 We were all a little disappointed that we had not been picked up by the ship that we had picked out to be our rescuer. We made some efforts to turn the raft right side up but found that there was practically no wind to assist us in that effort and finally decided to just hold on to it and rest. I think that it was about at this point that the energy level of all three of us had reached the empty point on our own gauges.
 
 We had been in the water about twenty minutes when we saw a second ship approaching. We could see search lights from the deck of the ship playing out over the ocean in all directions. We started the flashlight and the whistle routine again with a few shouts mixed in. Finally the lights honed in on us. I can tell you that at that point there were three very wet but happy flyers. The ship turned out to be the light cruiser, USS Reno. It put a whale boat over the side and came out and picked us up and took us aboard.
 
 We were immediately taken to sickbay and checked over. They wanted to know who we were and what ship we were from. We were then allowed to try and get some sleep. Sleep was hard to come by for me. The events of the day and night kept replaying over and over again; always with the continuing doubts about the decisions I had made and concern for the safety of those whom we knew had encountered difficulty both before and during the strike.
 
 The next day we were transferred from the Reno to a destroyer that delivered us by breeches buoy to the Lexington. Sterrie was on the hangar deck to greet us when we came aboard. I inquired about those of our squadron that I feared had been lost. He smiled and said Mac and crew were picked up earlier today and all are fine, Buzzie had a successful water landing, Cush, Swanny and I landed here and Bill was able to land on the Enterprise. So we are all accounted for.

 

 

     
Copyright 1998 by Patty Cannon all rights reserved