The PBM Mariner was one of the Navy’s most important patrol bombers in WWII. The Mariner carried out anti-submarine warfare patrols and rescue missions for downed pilots and ship-wreaked sailors, by Jim Tomlinson
EAST CHINA SEA
APRIL 7, 1945
Their call signs were “Dog Eight” and “Dog Ten.” Lieutenants
Dick Simms and Jim Young were the pilots of the two Martin PBM Mariners of
VPB-21 that had been shadowing the Japanese task force. Since early morning the
big flying boats had flitted in and out of the clouds, radioing position reports,
staying just out of range of the antiaircraft guns on the ships below. When the
strike planes showed up to hit the task force, the PBMs remained on station as
“Dumbos”—search and rescue aircraft—so named from the Walt Disney cartoon
featuring a baby flying elephant.
The Mariner was a gull-winged, two-engine flying boat with a
crew of seven and an on-station time of fourteen hours. It was both a lethal
weapons platform—it could carry 8,000 pounds of bombs and torpedoes and had
eight .50-caliber guns—and a sitting duck. Like all flying boats, the lumbering
PBM was slow and easy to hit.
In the hierarchy of military aviation, being a Dumbo pilot
didn’t carry the same cachet as flying a fighter. Dumbo duty was tedious and
often dangerous. When the PBM crew located an air-crewman in the water, they
would keep a vigil overhead, dropping a float light or a raft, flying cover
until a destroyer or submarine showed up. When necessary, they made an open
ocean landing, a high-risk maneuver in heavy seas. After hauling the airman
aboard, the Dumbo pilot would coax the flying boat back into the air, slamming
through waves and troughs, praying that the hull didn’t split apart.
Dog Eight and Dog Ten were ringside witnesses to the epic
sea battle playing out beneath them. Their greatest danger was collision with
the strike planes buzzing in and out of clouds and rain showers. They had
watched the grand finale—the pulsing fireball that leaped up from the dying
Yamato. The cruiser Yahagi was already gone, and so were several of the
destroyers. The Mariner crews could see Japanese survivors in the oil-slicked
water clinging to pieces of flotsam.
As the strike planes withdrew, a Yorktown Helldiver pilot
radioed that he had spotted a yellow life raft—the kind used by American
airmen. He didn’t know if anyone was in it or not.
Simms and Young, the Dumbo pilots, went down to take a look.
At first they saw only the heads of Japanese sailors. Nearby were three enemy
destroyers, still afloat and presumably able to fire their guns. Crewmen inside
each Dumbo scanned the water with binoculars.
Then someone spotted it. There was a yellow raft, and a lone
figure was in it, waving like crazy. While Dick Simms, flying Dog Eight, made a
decoy pass by the nearest destroyer, drawing fire but taking no hits, Young set
up for the water landing in Dog Ten.
The sea conditions were on the ragged edge of what the PBM
could handle—wave crests 25 feet apart, with a heaving swell. If the PBM
smacked directly into a wave, the hull could be crushed or a wing would snap.
There would be eight men in the water instead of one.
Young leveled out over the waves, floated for a moment while
he looked for the right place between crests, then settled the flying boat into
the churning sea. Still in one piece, Dog Ten wallowed through the water toward
the tiny figure in the yellow raft.
Bill Delaney had been afraid they were going to leave him.
Numb from the frigid water, he kept waving until, to his immense relief, he saw
one of the Dumbos turn back and land. Now it was plowing like a great seabird
toward him, rising into view on the tops of the swells, disappearing between
them. Delaney had broken open a second dye marker. Now the stuff was spread
around his raft like fluorescent goo. Nobody could miss it, including the
The Dumbo made two passes at the raft. Each time the wind
and waves caused the pilot to miss. On the third try, the pilot cut the engines
and let the seaplane drift toward the raft. When the PBM had floated to within
twenty yards, Delaney took matters into his own hands. He dived off the raft
and tried to paddle the rest of the way.
He couldn’t make it. Before he drowned, two Dumbo crewmen
managed to snag the floundering pilot with a boat hook and drag him aboard.
Meanwhile, the closest Japanese destroyer was taking a
renewed interest in the operation. Plumes of shellfire were working their way
toward the Dumbo.
Firing up Dog Ten’s engines, Jim Young swung the Mariner
into the wind. Normally, an open-sea takeoff in a heavily loaded Mariner was a
close contest between machine and nature. But Dog Ten had just been equipped
with a new device called JATO—jet-assisted takeoff. Two pairs of solid-fuel
rocket bottles were installed on either side of the aft fuselage.
Young shoved up the throttles and ignited the JATO bottles.
Spewing a comet’s tail of fire and smoke, the big seaplane surged through the
swells, slamming into each wave, finally skipping off the top of a swell and
rocketing into the air.
Bill Delaney was one of the lucky ones. Several parachutes
had been observed descending in the battle zone, but only a few airmen had been
found alive. Tilley and Mawhinney, the crewmen Delaney had last seen bailing
out of his Avenger, were never found.
The warbirds headed back to their carriers. The only ones to
miss the party were the airmen from Hancock. Delayed in getting airborne, they
hadn’t joined the massed force from Essex, Bunker Hill, Bataan, and Cabot.
Heading off on their own, they milled around the East China Sea, never finding the
Yamato task force.
The strike group from Intrepid didn’t bother trying to
rejoin in a mass formation. The Corsairs, Helldivers, and Avengers segregated
themselves into separate flocks, each flying at its best fuel-conserving speed
for the long trip home.
Droning southward over the gray ocean, the pilots had time
for reflection. By some miracle, Intrepid’s group had made it through the
strike without a single loss. And each of them had been a witness to history:
they had watched the great battleship Yamato go to her grave.
For Ens. Jim Clifford, Will Rawie’s wingman, there was no
chance to savor the moment. Thirty feet away, his skipper was giving him urgent
hand signals. Rawie’s radio had failed. He was signaling that he wanted Clifford
to lead them back to the carrier.
The twenty-four-year-old ensign’s heart sank. Bombing
battleships was one thing; leading a formation back to the ship was another. In
the rush to launch for the Yamato mission, Clifford hadn’t paid any attention
to the navigational details of the briefing. Hell, he was a wingman, not a
leader. Clifford had no idea where the Intrepid was.
Neither, as it turned out, did the other flight leaders.
Clifford could hear them on the tactical frequency asking for a heading back to
the carrier. Then through the chatter came the voice of someone who sounded
like he knew what he was doing. A good heading would be about 165 degrees.
It was good enough for Clifford. Off he went, his commanding
officer on his wing, the rest of Intrepid’s Corsairs in trail. Weaving through
the clouds, peering down at the vastness of the Pacific, Jim Clifford prayed
that the heading would get them close enough to spot the fleet. If not, they
were all screwed. They would run out of gas and ditch in the ocean.
Two hours passed. Clifford’s butt hurt. His arms and legs
were stiff. There was no sign of the sprawling task force that they had left
behind nearly five hours ago. Clifford sweated and prayed while the fuel gauge
continued a relentless decline toward zero. He could feel Rawie’s silent gaze
from the cockpit thirty feet away.
After what seemed an eternity, he heard something in his
headphones—a faint dash-dot signal. It was the ship’s YE homing transmitter.
The signal couldn’t be picked up at a range of more than about sixty miles. It
was the most glorious sound Jim Clifford had ever heard in his life. Intrepid
was dead ahead, ten minutes’ flying time away.
Each of the Corsairs plunked safely back down on Intrepid’s
deck. Minutes later, the fatigued but adrenaline-charged pilots were jabbering
and gesturing with their hands in the ready room, reliving the dramatic
mission. They had been airborne five hours and fifty minutes, longer than most
had ever flown in a single sortie. Will Rawie was telling everyone who would listen
how his wingman, a lowly ensign, had led them back to the ship with such
uncanny skill. It was amazing.
Jim Clifford had the sense to smile and shut up. It was
amazing. He wasn’t about to tell them that it was pure blind luck.
While the battle for Yamato was playing out in the East
China Sea, the skies around Okinawa were filled with kamikazes. It was the second
wave of Admiral Ugaki’s initial kikusui, but on a diminished scale.
Like their brethren of the day before, the tokko warriors of
the second wave were drawn to the same targets—the destroyers on the picket
stations. And as they had before, the carrier-based CAP fighters pounced on
them, splashing five before they could reach the picket ships.
One kamikaze managed to slip through the gunfire and crash
into the destroyer Bennett, killing three men and wounding eighteen. Another
slammed into the destroyer escort Wesson on her screening station north of Ie
To the northwest of Okinawa, another handful of kamikazes
found Task Force 58’s fast carriers. Only one, an Aichi D4Y Judy dive-bomber,
survived the CAP fighter screen and then the antiaircraft fire from the
surface. Spotting the great gray shape of the carrier Hancock, the kamikaze
swept in on the carrier’s bow at such a low angle that the propeller chewed
through the port catapult before the crash. The Judy’s 250-kilogram bomb
detached, smashing into the flight deck just aft of the forward mid-deck
What happened next was becoming a familiar scenario. The
bomb punched straight through Hancock’s wooden flight deck, exploding in the
forward hangar bay, killing every man in the space. Fueled and armed warplanes
in the bay burst into flame and exploded. Topside, the hulk of the shattered
dive-bomber caromed down the flight deck and slammed into a pack of nineteen
parked airplanes, setting three ablaze and starting an inferno on the windswept
Hancock was engulfed in flames belowdecks and topside. Her
skipper, Capt. Robert F. Hickey, ordered a hard turn to starboard in a desperate
attempt to slide the burning airplanes over the side. The fires on the hangar
bay extinguished all the carrier’s lights and filled the darkened compartments
with deadly smoke.
By 1345—a little more than an hour after the
attack—Hancock’s crews had the blazing airplanes shoved overboard and the fires
extinguished. It was eloquent testimony to how the U.S. Navy’s damage control
skills had evolved in the past three years.
The kamikaze strike wasn’t the only indignity that Hancock
would endure that day. While the ship’s crew was fighting the blazes, her air
group was groping through the clouds over the East China Sea, searching for the
Yamato. They never found her. At the end of their fuel, they were forced to
jettison their bombs and torpedoes and return to Hancock.
But instead of a ready deck for landing, the airmen were
greeted with a gaping hole in the flight deck and an ominous cloud of smoke.
They orbited overhead, conserving their last gallons of fuel, praying that the
damage control crews could patch the hole.
They did. At 1630, after a down-to-the-wire feat of damage
repair, Hancock was bringing her aircraft back aboard.
There was no celebrating aboard Hancock that evening. Smoke
and the smell of death wafted through the passageways. Sixty-three crewmen were
dead and eighty-two more wounded, mostly from burns.
Hancock was able to continue operations for another day, but
the port catapult was demolished and the forward elevator inoperable. The
damage could not be repaired on station. Hancock was detached from her task
group and sent to Ulithi, then further eastward to Pearl Harbor.
One more carrier was out of the fight. By the time Hancock
returned, the battle for Okinawa would be history.
It was a bitter pill for Intrepid’s ambitious air group commander,
Johnny Hyland, to miss the historic Yamato strike. That morning when the
mission was being hurriedly put together, Hyland was already airborne on a
fighter sweep over Tokuno, in the north Ryukyus. By default, group command of
the Yamato attack had fallen to Will Rawie.
But the day wasn’t a complete loss for Hyland. While he was
covering the Corsairs strafing the Japanese airfield, he glimpsed the
silhouette of a low-flying Val dive-bomber headed south. Pouncing like a hawk,
Hyland gunned the Val down with a single burst from his .50-calibers, chalking
up his second air-to-air victory of the campaign.
The CAG wasn’t the only one in the group to score. Ens.
Raymond “Freddie” Lanthier, while strafing a target at Tokuno, spotted an
incoming Nakajima Tojo fighter. The Tojo was a fast mover, nearly as capable at
climbing and diving as the Corsair. Attacking from below, Lanthier put enough
rounds into the Tojo’s engine to send the fighter flaming into the sea.
Another senior officer who missed the Yamato battle was Lt.
Cmdr. Wally Clarke, skipper of the VF-10 Grim Reapers. Clarke had led another
twelve-plane strike on the airfields in the northern Ryukyus. Despite heavy
antiaircraft fire, Clarke’s fighters strafed the field, destroyed eight parked
airplanes, and withdrew to the south without losing an airplane—until they were
en route home.
Ens. Donald “Mighty Mouse” Croy, killed in a midair
collision, April 7, 1945
Clarke’s wingman was one of the Tail End Charlies, a short,
youngish-looking ensign named Don Croy, whom the squadron nicknamed “Mighty
Mouse.” A few days earlier, Mighty Mouse had had a close call. On a strike over
Minami, he’d taken a hit and ditched his Corsair dangerously close to the enemy
island. After several hours in his raft, he had been rescued by a daring OS2U
Now Croy was flying close formation on Clarke’s wing while
the skipper weaved through the towering cumulus that obscured most of the East
China Sea. In a moment of inattention, Croy didn’t see Clarke’s Corsair banking
What happened next was never clear. Clarke’s propeller chewed
into Croy’s wing. An instant later Mighty Mouse was spinning uncontrollably
toward the sea. Clarke’s broken propeller was shaking his airplane so violently
he had to shut the engine down. He glided to a water landing 4,000 yards behind
a destroyer. Minutes later, the tin can crew was hauling him aboard.
But not his wingman. The destroyer sailors told Clarke they
had witnessed the whole thing—the collision, the Corsairs dropping to the
ocean—but no one saw a parachute. Mighty Mouse had disappeared without a trace.
Still slumped in his padded chair in Bunker Hill’s flag
plot, Mitscher received the reports from the strike groups. When the strike was
finished and the last warplanes had landed safely aboard their carriers, the
Bald Eagle scribbled a message of congratulations to all the air groups. They
had achieved a glorious victory, he wrote. He was proud of them.
Each strike group had brought back rolls of film documenting
the attack. As quickly as the film could be processed, prints were being rushed
to the flag bridge on Bunker Hill. With his ever-present cigarette dangling
from his mouth, the admiral peered at the still-wet black-and-white images.
It was all there in the photos. Mitscher’s gamble had paid
off. The grainy images provided the ultimate proof of the airplane’s dominance
not only of the sky but of the sea. The age of the battleship was over.
Mitscher should have been reveling in his moment of triumph.
But he wasn’t. The Bald Eagle was not his old self. His face
was more haggard than ever, his eyes red-rimmed from the undiagnosed medical
event of the night before. Mitscher took one more look at the photos, then rose
from his chair. Without comment, he returned to his cabin and went back to bed.
Aboard New Mexico, Adm. Raymond Spruance was also digesting
the reports. Although he’d gotten over the disappointment at missing out on a
last great sea battle, he wasn’t ready to recall Deyo’s surface force, which
was still steaming northward to engage the enemy. Four destroyers from the
Japanese task force were still afloat, leaving the remote possibility that
there might still be a surface action.
Rear Adm. Mort Deyo, on his flagship Tennessee, was
accepting the fact that the damned airedales had again stolen the glory. That
night, when the recall order finally came from Spruance, he sent off a jovial
note to Mitscher. It was too bad, he wrote, that the surface sailors wouldn’t
have “Japanese scrambled eggs for breakfast.”
A battle with the Yamato task force would have been a
glorious last hurrah for Deyo and his beloved battlewagons. The next day they
would go back to their shore bombardment duties off Okinawa.
For Mitscher’s airedales, the destruction of the Yamato and
five of her screening ships had not come without a price. Ten warplanes—four Helldivers,
three Avengers, and three Hellcats—had been lost. Four pilots and eight
aircrewmen were missing and presumed dead. Several, including eyewitness Bill
Delaney, had been snatched from the enemy’s midst by daring Dumbo crews. Still,
the losses were minuscule when measured against those of the previous great
air-sea battles. Mitscher’s airmen had won a spectacular victory.
Now Spruance could return his attention to the bigger
picture. The Yamato encounter was dramatic, satisfying, perhaps even historically
significant. But the pragmatic admiral knew the truth: it was a side show. The
real battle for Okinawa was just beginning.
Aboard Eldorado, Kelly Turner was in an ebullient mood. A
week had passed since the landings on Okinawa, and as far as the Alligator was
concerned, things were going exceedingly well. The Yamato and five of her
entourage lay at the bottom of the East China Sea. The greatest wave of
kamikazes ever seen had been gunned down like coveys of quail. Buckner’s Tenth
Army was meeting only sporadic resistance in its march across Okinawa.
Turner couldn’t resist sending a jocular message to his
boss, the Pacific Fleet commander in chief. “I may be crazy,” he signaled
Nimitz, “but it looks like the Japanese have quit the war, at least in this sector.”
Nimitz wasn’t buying it. From his Guam headquarters, he
signaled back, “Delete all after ‘crazy.’ ”
As it turned out, Nimitz’s instincts were correct.