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 Japanese.
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 Shima.
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 elevator.
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 deck.
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 floatplane pilot.
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 into him.
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.