My Interview With The Last Surviving WWII Marine Ace
''You have to be ready. We are trained officers, even though we are young. You have to constantly be analyzing situations, and wondering if we need to undergo contingency plans. The battle is changing, new decisions, sudden stress...we are supposed to be able to handle stress and keep our cool, the object is to survive. If you think about winning, you'll probably die. Think about surviving, and you give yourself the chance to win. Funny how that works out doesn't it?''
Col. Dean Caswell on the Urgency of The Men After the Attack on Pearl Harbor
There is only One USMC ACE still alive, and I am fortunate enough to have come to know him
On August 2, 2014, Jeaninne and I were heading into Lowes Department store in order to pick up some more painting supplies. I saw this elderly gentlemen making his way into the store and read his proud WWII hat. “’This – as I brought him to Jeaninne’s attention, ‘’…is a one-of-a-kind.’’ I make it a point to thank the men and women who are serving or have served our country. And the WWII veterans are becoming a scarce quantity. Of the 23 WWII Veterans I have met and interviewed over the past five years, only 6 are still among us. These men and women are treasured caretakers of the American Flag, free of any historical revision of the current day. On the rare occasion that you are fortunate enough to shake their hands and let them know they are appreciated, please consider the moment and tell them. As for the man standing at the front of the Lowe's, the decorations all over his hat and the manner in which he carried himself was compelling. I knew that I had to go and meet him.
‘’Hello Sir, I would like to thank you for your service to our country.’’ He smiled, looked at me and extended a hand, then smiled at Jeaninne and said, ‘’Hey, she’s a lot better looking than you are!’’ I replied that I might have been worried if he would have thought otherwise. Before either of us knew it, we began a conversation about his military service. Incredibly, he was five when Lindbergh completed his trans-atlantic trip to Europe. When he was fourteen, he got to fly a Bi-Plane very similar to the one Lindbergh flew. He was among the few whose name I recognized in part due to his semi-celebrity status. His exploits are written about in a number of military textbooks.
It has been an ongoing friendship where I learn something different about this man each time we speak. His health is robust and he is made of all the right stuff, the things that make men ''Living Legacies.''
''One Tough Little Bird'' The Corsair P-5
One of just two USMC WWII-ACES still alive, Caswell has an amazing story of heroics in his nearly thirty years in the service. He retired as a Colonel in 1967 after flying F4 Squadrons over the Mekong Delta.
Col Dean Caswell, 2015
Born on July 24th, 1922, in Bunning California, Dean Caswell would become an Ace in his very first mission and successfully fought on behalf of the United States during World War II. He grew up during the depression, and the American people had become economically exhausted and out of business. He took a series of jobs on ranches, learning hard work and dedication. But the world was changing throughout the late 1930s and with each day came more and more news about a new and brutal dictator, Adolf Hitler.
In 1941, after graduating from flight school at Pensacola, he was assigned to VMF-221 as a Marine Corps Pilot flying the F4U Corsair. In December 1943, Caswell went to sea aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill for battle against the Japanese in the Pacific. VMF-221 would ultimately claim the aerial destruction of 185 enemy aircraft, the second highest-scoring Marine Squadron.
On May 11, 1945, the Bunker Hill was seriously damaged by two kamikazes and had to return to the United States for repairs. After the war, Dean Caswell remained in the Marine Corps and continued flying from carriers until 1951.
After a short stint with the Blue Angels, he was called for duty in the Korean Conflict and served two tours, flying the F4U-5 Corsair, F7F-2 Tigercat and the F3D Skynight. In Vietnam he Commanded an Air Group flying the F4 Phantom and retired as a Colonel in 1967. He now resides in Austin, Texas.
Caswell is perhaps the most decorated soldier in this book and certainly one of the best known and loved.
For his service he was awarded the Silver Star, 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 7 Air Medals and 14 other citations and is only one of two surviving Marine Aces alive today.
In his Own Words
I had always wanted to fly planes. I dreamed about it practically each day. Every time a plane flew overhead I had to stop and look at it. I was obviously a dreamer as many young boys are, but I was uneducated and had no idea about early flying and certainly knew less about the history of flight. America didn’t seem to have near the romantic love of flight until after World War I. So if you wanted to be a pilot in World War I, your best bet was to go to Europe and fly over there – even if it meant flying for the enemy.
I followed the story of Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart. As a ten year old, I built small balsa-wood airplane and earned the Avaiation Merit Badge for the boy Scouts. This feeling of pride, though just a small award, drove me incessently to become not only a pilot, but the very best one I could be.
While I was finishing high school in Texas, we became aware of the new Germany under Hitler and the invasion of China by Japan. There was a fragile alliance between many of the nations of Europe at the time. We expected the dominos to fall, just as they had in World War I. Still, I graduated from high school and entered Pan American at Edinburgh Texas.
I wasn’t what you would say, focused, when I was in college. I had two majors, Aeronautical Engineering and girls, and not always in this order. I loved pretty girls. But by early 1941 it became clear that the war in Europe would affect us. By this time I was working at Lockheed, and so when I received my draft notice, Lockheed arranged a deferment for me. We were making P-38 fighters and Hudson Bombers for the British. It was a great job for me and it kept me out of trouble.
Since you asked about how I got into the military, I thought I would share with you how this happened. My cousin, Carl, and I were close to the same age and he asked me if wanted to meet him in Hollywood and catch a Burlesque show. I had never seen one before but I knew it would be fun, so I went.
We met at the Trolley Terminal in downtown LA and decided to enhance out evening with a couple of pints of ‘Four Roses; bourbon. This was my first exposure to alcohol of any kind and it didn’t take me long to feel the effects. Around 2am, the manager of the bar comes over and escorts us out of the building. The streets were empty and both my cousin and I were stumbling around Los Angeles trying to gain some kind of composure.
We were singing and generally having a good time when out of a doorway, a tall man with a white-billed cap and gold stripes on his sleeve, mentioned to us that we looked like we were in pretty rough shape. It dawned on my then that come the morning, I wasn’t going to feel like singing at all. ‘’Come have a cup of coffee’ he offered, and we folllowed along. Another man stepped out and it was clear these were military recruiters.
So when we sobered up, still feeling like a train rolled over on us, Carl and I had enlisted for the Navy, and for me, the Marines. Because I enlisted and wasn’t drafted first, I was able to request flight training-----and that was a lucky break for me that made a huge difference in my life.
Several weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. What a shocker! In Los Angeles, we heard that there was political chaos. The Nazi party and the Communist parties were far more active than anyone reported. They were marching in the streets, down Brentwood, into Hollywood and generally throughout populated areas. They were marching in the streets and fighting each other, when they should have been backing the USA. Hollywood, go figure.
Rumors and the ‘’Fog of War’’ added fire to people’s fears. People tend to look at Pearl Harbor today, and they think – ‘’that is so far away, how could they make it to bomb our cities on the west coast?’’ But back then, that wasn’t the case at all. You were afraid no matter where you lived in the United States.
Like JFK’s assassination, we all remember where we were when Pearl Harbor was attacked. I never thought Japan would be our main enemy. It had always been Germany, and we didn't hear much about Japan. I left California for Hawaii thinking I was heading into Paradise. Here I was, a young pup, the whole globe was my oyster. I thought I was a snapping lad, walking around the islands like I owned them. I had never been anywhere before. So many beautiful places. We wanted to surf, to play, but we trained too. It was normal on Sundays to go to church and then head out for a picnic. But like I said, I was settling in. That was in November of 1941.
I had always been at home in the company of Asian people, living in California. In fact, I didn’t think the enemy would be Japan, but Germany. But when I got to Hawaii, the mood toward the Japanese had begun to sour, to say the least. I was just starting my career.
We were set up about a mile from the airport. They were new barracks and they had been built to last. Sunday morning something echoed in my ear. A humming, buzzing sound. Then a lull, and I began to sit up in bed. Then - BAM! Something with incredible force knocked me to the floor. ''What in the hell was that?'' Someone asked. Pieces of ceiling had fallen but the barracks were otherwise okay. We ran outside, and it was a sight you'd never forget. That damn Rising Sun on the Wings. They were flying low overhead and past us. We could hear the muffled explosions several miles away, but we couldn't see them.
Seeing those planes - there was a silence, a stillness. Someone ran inside and turned on the radio but nothing was on. We ran back inside and got the things we needed and there we were, standing, watching, helpless....just helpless.
We were finally rounded up and told of the attack. It got very quiet. Laughter and relaxation that comes with a Sunday afternoon were replaced with stillness and fear. It was surreal. We listened to the radio with a sense of awe and trepidation.
By the time of the second attack, several of the airplanes that hadn't been hit were able to engage in battle. I think it was only a few of our planes and as far as I know, they didn't lose even one of their 350 planes. Our airfield was lit afire and the hypnotic organization of the way we parked and locked those planes down was completely in pieces. We were there to clean up and that night- and we were terribly fearful of another attack...it was a long night, no one slept.
You have to be ready. We are trained officers, even though we are young. You have to constantly be analyzing situations, and wondering if we need to undergo contingency plans. The battle is changing, new decisions, sudden stress...we are supposed to be able to handle stress and keep our cool, the object is to survive. If you think about winning, you'll probably die. Think about surviving, and you give yourself the chance to win. Funny how that works out doesn't it?
There was a lot of anger and upset as you can imagine. This was especially true of leadership. It seemed like they were even more on edge than most. But their determination and resentment about the attack grew with each hour we were putting out fires. The people of Hawaii came out there to help us out.
You ask me, ''How does it taste?'' Well what a damn question! How does it taste....it tastes like airplane fuel on your lips, a burning in your throat that kept you from speaking above much of a whisper. When you combine that with rage, it tastes pretty damn bad.
Prior to Pearl Harbor, there wasn’t a concensus on where to put me. Now, all the military indecision was gone altogether. Almost immediately, they put my in a P5 program. This was because I volunteered to join them. The Marines were seriously short of aircraft fighers, so they began to earnesty train us in an effort to get us up in the air. Quickly.
Pearl Harbor, Photography by Robert Bluestein, 2001©
Training was very hard. You first get trained for civililan flight. If you can’t handle this, they won’t let you near the military aircraft. I cleared civilian trining and soon began Naval Fight training. Almost immediaetely I was put into a Bi-Plane, a Boeing Stearman N2S. To some the purpose of flying a biplane, open cockpit, leather helmet and white scarf blowing in the slipstream was a goal in and of itself. Flying alone in an open airplane is the purest experience of flight possible.
I loved the aerobatics. We had 75-hours of cross-wind landings, navigation, slips to a circle and barrell rolls. It was simply amazing – everything I could have hoped for. I leanred quickly – Cuban Eights, Falling Leafs, Short-Field landings….The more tricks in the air, the better.
Sometimes you could get uncomfortable doing these tricks. But I was amazed at the what the plane could do. I started on Cuban Eights, demonstrating the gravity pull and that the safety belt would do its job. I was convinced, but when I was upside down I still instinctively held on to the sides of the cockpit. My instructor inspired confidence in me and had me do more lops until I wasn’t holding on anymore. Finally – the confidence came and I enjoyed flying more-and-more each day.
When I flew the Stearman I felt pretty much at home in the cockpit and was always proud of each flight. I spent a lot of time perfecting manuevers like ‘’Falling Leaves,’’ ‘’Outside Loops’’ and ‘’Short Field Loops’’ and many more. It got to the point where I would even create aerobatics to add to the ones I had already mastered. Even the other pilots were most respectful.
As a sidenote – I nearly became a great singer rather than a pilot! We had a talent show and the great Benny Goodman brought his band in. I was chosen to sing ‘White Christmas’’ for the show. I was scared to death but I sang so well they had me perform again! I was worried they were going to take me out of the air and put me on the USO tour!
A target tug is an aircraft which tows an unmanned drone, a fabric drogue or other kind of target, for the purposes of gun or missile target practice. Target tugs are often conversions of transport and utility aircraft, as well as obsolescent combat types. Some, such as the Miles Martinet, were specially designed for the role. It was, and is, a relatively hazardous job, as live fire is typically employed and the people doing the shooting are usually still in training.
For the first time, I saw over 200 miles per hour on my airspeed indicator. When the sleeve was dropped on the runaway we could tell who was actually hitting the target because each pilot had a unique paint smear on his bullers which left a colored mark on the target sleeve. We did this many until we were good at it.
Action in the Pacific
I wasn't immediately put into action after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I was anxious to start but I was told I would be up there ''soon enough.'' The Pacific Military leaders were presented with two options to fight off Japan. MaCarthur wanted to do it by island hopping in the Pacific. His idea was to seize the Soloman Islands, Papua-New Guinea and the Soloman Islands. In this way, he could cut off newly defeated Burma and the Dutch East Indies. Japan would be starved, you see…forcing them to surrender.
But the Navy had a different plan. They sought to bypass the bigger islands and go after smaller ones like Iwo Jima, Wake, Guam and essentially have airports closer to Japan. They believed it would be quicker and more economical. Both plans sounded good.
The Heart of a Marine
For over a decade I have known a Marine named David Clark. He was co-worker of mine. I learned from him years ago what makes Marines so unique. I thought of him when I asked Col Caswell this very question. It led us into an entirely different direction in the interview but I wanted to make sure it was included in this chapter. BooYah!
You ask me - what makes a Marine different from anyone else? I can't explain it. Each Serviceman has their own reasons to be proud and they should ALL be proud. I just happened to be in the service of the Marine Corps. But amongst all of the branches of the military the Marine is unique, and I'll tell you why.
A Navy man is trained primarily in nautical warfare. They do have areas of specialization that of course require good training in land combat and aerial combat. They are also - like the others - trained in logistics and communications. Of course we all know about the Navy SEALS. Imagine if America had never had a Naval SEAL team, let alone multiple teams.
An Air Force Man is primarily trained in aerial recon and combat. They too, have areas of specialization which cross over into ground operations and sea recon as well. Few are as well trained as the Air Force Special Forces and of course we know just how great these men are.
An Army Man is primarily trained in ground operations and combat. Consider George Patton; he single- handedly changed the manner in which infantry was used in war and the way he put his strength into tank warfare. Army men are trained in ground-to-ground logistics and their own special forces are one of a kind.
But a Marine....You can go into each of the other disciplines without having to learn infantry. But only the Marines, every one of them, must learn infantry. We all learn how to use the weapons of war. We are the ones that get the least of all the new weaponry, and yet we make it happen, because to a Marine, there is no choice. Marines will always get the job done because for us, it really isn't about the weapons, but about the men alongside you.
During WWII, the word from our enemies was that they feared the Marines more so than the others. We must have given off the impression that we were caviler about life, charging head-first into oncoming bullets. The Marines are usually the first ones in, and the first ones out. And to the credit of the other branches of military, they often defer to the Marines. But here is the ''heart'' of the Marine that you ask about.
The Fighting Falcons were scheduled to support its sister squadron, VMF-211 on Wake Island. But very quickly the Japanese overwhelmed the civilian and allied forces. The Japs were unbelievable in their ruthlessness. They tortured the civilian intelligence by forced labor, then starvation, and then when there wasn't any use for them anymore, they executed them. Almost one hundred men and women, just treated like worthless pieces of meat.
We were in new planes, the Wildcat F4F-3s and not one of the pilots had more than thirty hours of time in these. That's nothing! We knew at once the planes were faster and more agile than the old Buffalo's that we were in before, but it was hastily put together and it felt like a tin can with wings. Our pilots were lost with poor radio communication and smoke and fog. One-by-one, we began to lose fighter planes, and most importantly, pilots. If you were a pilot and you were caught by the enemy, you were surely not going to be freed again in time to fly. Each of the pilots knew they were going to be lit up and tortured if they were caught alive.
One exception was Captain Henry ''Baron'' Elrod, a Flight Leader and a good friend of mine. He veered to the left, his plane leaking fuel and his engine on fire. He followed the coast line as far as he could, dumping fuel so that he could possibly make a beach landing. He was successful, but now he was all by himself. He could have waited it out, hoping that we would rescue him, but he thought nothing of it. Instead, he took his small arms weapons and two hand grenades and knocked off a key gun turret on the south side of the island. He killed almost 50 men, launching one grenade into the pit and then holding on to his last one, knowing by then he would certainly die. When they found his body, he had his finger in the pin of his last grenade, with a single wound in his femoral artery. He did all of this while slowly bleeding to death. He was awarded posthumously the Medal of Honor.
In June 1942, MacArthur’s plan was launched. They would name it Operation Cartwheel for the way it looked on a map. A two-pronged attack over the north of New Guinea and the other one went over the island itself. The unheatlhy climate and jungle made this a slow mover! It was a hot and humid hell-hole, and you couldn't help but get something in your system in that place. I heard the guys in the Army thought it was where every mosquito on earth lived. No one wanted to be in New Guinea! God forbid my plane got shot down in that place. I’d get eaten alive before being found!
One thing about being a pilot…I was privy to all kinds of top-secret information. After-all, I had to know where I was flying, right? So often I would get to sit in on these meetings. I understood how the earth looked from 25,000 feet and very few of these guys had flown enough to appreciate, let-alone understand the different terrains. So often, my feedback was enlisted, especially when it came to matters that affect pilots that you don’t normally think of. Things like updraft off of a warm beach, or changes in cyclonic weather in the South Pacific. I knew these things intimately. Very few of them had nary a clue.
I was able to sit in on a meeting where Admiral Aubrey Fitch was speaking. He had been a favorite of mine, a flyer, a risk-taker. He had mastered the use of radar to interrupt Japanese merchant ships. Back then, it was hazardous to fly at night. This man knew no hazard. As was my custom, I took notes and this man was a captivating speaker. He gave one of the most inspirational speeches, yet really, in a way that went beyond words. But he had a stern warning to Naval Commands that ended up on the islands.
''You will see terrains unfamiliar with you and your will to carry on can get lost once the mission at hand goes in a manner you don't expect. And learn to EXPECT the UNEXPECTED. Nothing will go as you want it too. You can trust that. You sure cane trust that. Build fall-back plans but then keep them in your mind, and don't look at them until you absolutely know you need to. If you are lucky, you won't come back shot or wounded. If you are lucky, you won't come back from a slew of other injuries which happen as a side-effect of combat.
If you are lucky you won't comeback with your muscles torn, your bones broken, your skin penetrated by shrapnel. If you're lucky, you won't have lost 50% or more of your hearing, your sight, and your intestines will likely have worms. If you are lucky, it will be a medical miracle that you come back in good shape. If you're lucky you won't see the enemy behind the heavy cloud cover so that you know the fear. If you come back without injury, thank the Lord himself for sparing you when so many others perish. Treat every soldier as a brother for eternity."
Meanwhile, as the US Army took control of the Solomon Islands, the US Navy began flying these onto these Essex Class Aircraft Carriers. The new carriers were equipped with great new planes, like the Hellcat, Torpedo Bombers and my own beauty, the Corsair. These aircraft carriers were the most important weapon outside of the Atom Bomb in WWII. No gun, no destroyer, and no plane changed the course of history like these ‘’mobile airports’ where we landed our fighter planes. Think about it. It wasn't like there were just airports everywhere that we could use, and our planes still had limitations on how much fuel they could use.
The Navy’s first targets were the outposes at Makin and Tarawa Islands. For a week, carrier based aircrafts softened the shoreline. Amphibious boats made an almost unopposed landing. The Japanese took positions on the island in well-built tunnels and caves.
Then in November of 1943, the island of Makin was captured easily. But the island of Tarawa was a different matter. As I mentioned, sometimes the top brass would look at a map of colored-thumb tacks and make war decisions based on their two-dimensional view. You cannot win a war in this way. What they failed to account for was the lack of geological knowledge of he landscape of the island.
The Amphibious landers weren’t able to land, and the men had to swim to the shore. It was a Pacific version of D-Day really. 1500 of our boys and nearly 300 Aussies were killed and buried there, in a tiny remote piece of jungle and desert island in the dead-center of the Pacific. It was too bad. But of the 4,200 Japanese soldiers on the island, only 17 – that’s right – 17 – were taken out alive.
Pretty soon, atoll after atoll fell to the USA. But the Japs put up one hell of a fight. They would fight to the last man and even then they would launch suicidal ‘’Banzai’’ charges screaming in an awful manner and most never made it within 50 yards of a US Soldier- cut down. I just knew that I loved flying and I did everything to fly that I could.
Now then you can imagine how news of this went over in Tokyo. On June 19th, 1944, the Japanese set out to launch airstrikes on our ships. I’ll never forget the day. Our radar saw them coming and we took to the skies. We had fifteen Aircraft Carriers and over 900 Aircraft. The Japanese had nine Aircraft Carriers and 400 planes. Many of their pilots were inexperienced, their planes falling apart. But still to this day, it is the largest Aircraft and Naval battle of all time. And I was part of it. I took down two confirmed Jap planes and four unconfirmed planes.
Take Saipan for instance. The Japanese civilians who lived there decided to jump to their deaths rather than be under American rule. And then came their suicide charge. My friends who were there described it as ‘unreal.’ They simply ran directly at the American and Aussie troops. 32,000 Japanese soldiers were dead. We lost 3,000. And all for a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.
And then on May 11th, 1945, we had a black day for the Flying Falcons VMF221 and the entire ship’s crew. Two kamikazees slipped under the radar and the combat air patrols and dove into the USS Bunker Hill. These suicide planes each dropped huge 550-lb bombs just before impact – one on he flight deck and the other on the surface. The destruction was severe and the additional explosions of the two planes was made even worse by the explosions of ammunition that were on the ship. Fires were everywhere. The heat was so severe that iron bars were reduced to twisted and unrecognizable rubble.
Oh the losses! This was one of the worst days of my career. The USS Bunker Hill and the USS Bennington had roughly one third of their ninety-six Marine pilots killed, one third shot down and rescued…I lost many close friends that day, many close friends….
Task Force 58 moved back north to begin the final push in early March 1945. The Allied plan of island hopping and passing by some when they could no longer be decisive in the conquest of Japan, was working. Saipan, the Philippinesm Iwo Jima the powerful Naval base at Truk had all been taken or neutralized. The B-29s were hitting Tokyo and other cities on a regular basis. In addition, the war in Europe seemed to be winding down that would mean the availibility of thousands of men and mountains of equipment.
The conrtrol of the Pacific was ours, but the cost in American and Allied lives were staggering. And still more would required. We needed a huge staging area for the final invasion of the Japanese home islands. It’s loication – just 325 miles south of Kyushi made the largest island of the Ryukyus chain, Okinawa, the logical choice. The plan was to take Ohinawea and was called ‘’Operation Iceberg.’’
Okinawa would be Japan’s last major stand before the invasion of their homeland. Okinawa would be very tough, and with the added enemy intent to use the most of his remaining aircraft in suicide dives on the American fleet , it became even harder. The kamikaze raids started in October in the Philippines and be April they had reached a crescendo.
They were using every type of airplane they had and their aircraft factories were turning out more than they were losing. On the morning of March 18, 1945, at 0445, we had a deck of fighters with cockpits full of pilots and were ready for the first phase of our coming attacks on the home island of Japan. When we finished our job, the strikes almost completely destroyed the airports and factories of Koizumi, Nittagahara, Sadohara, and Korimoto.
We carried 5-inch rockets and a full load of 50-caliber ammo for our six machine guns. As we pulled out of our attack it lookled like the aircraft factory was in complete ruins from about 70-direct rocket hits.
We knew it was going to be a big day because we had steak and eggs for breakfast. Captain John Delancey, my division leader, gave us a good briefing and our team was ready for a fight. I didn’t see any planes in the air - a fact which disappointed me because I wanted to shoot some down. I should have been more careful about the things I asked for – because we got bushwhacked over Tomitaka Airfield.
On our return flight to the fleet, steaming offshore they were waiting for us, in force. Jap planes were everywhere and I flamed three of them in about five minutes. And yet the film in my camera caused a bit of hard feeling in me. There was no way I could get a count on the number of fighters.
They were all around me and I didn’t help anyone without knowing these things. My inexperience was on total display and suddenly I was scared to death.
The method of determining enemy kills were always different in the various branches. Some accept the word of the pilot – even though this is rare. Sometimes it is determined when wreakage is found and there is an eyewitness – essentially another pilot. Some units only accepted positive evidence from a gun camera. And sometimes a soldier wouldn't get credit for a kill if a ranking officer decided to claim it. After they viewed my camera, my superior, a wonderful man named Roberts, the squadron CO, awarded me three kills and three probables. As a 2nd Lieutennent I knew not to dispute this, but I was sure that I had taken out more then five on my own. Not a bad day’s work!
Basic Features of the Plan
The immediate task imposed upon the American forces by the terms of the general mission was the seizure and development of Okinawa and the establishment of control of the sea and air in the Ryukyus. The campaign was divided into three phases. The seizure of southern Okinawa, including Keise Shima and islands in the Kerama Group, and the initiation of the development of base facilities were to constitute the first phase. In the next phase Ie Shima was to be occupied and control was to be established over northern Okinawa. The third phase consisted of the seizure and development of additional islands in the Nansei Shoto for use in future operations. The target date of the operation was set at 1 March 1945.
Planning began in October 1944. The general scheme for Operation ICEBERG was issued in the fall of 1944 by Admiral Nimitz as Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas (CINCPOA). The strategic plan outlined was based on three assumptions. First, the projected campaign against Iwo Jima would have progressed to such an extent that naval fire-support and close air-support units would be available for the assault on Okinawa. Second, the necessary ground and naval combat units and assault shipping engaged in the Philippines would be released promptly by General MacArthur for the Okinawa campaign. Third, preliminary air and naval operations against the enemy would ensure control of the air in the area of the target during the operation
Air superiority was the most important factor in the general concept of the operation as outlined by Admiral Nimitz's staff. The CINCPOA planners believed that American air attacks on Japan, from carriers and from airfields in the Marianas, combined with the seizure of Iwo Jima, would force a concentration of enemy air strength around the heart of the Empire-on the home islands, Formosa, the China coast, and the Ryukyus. From these bases, strong and continuous air attacks would be made against the forces invading the Ryukyus.
On April 1st, 1945, it was D-Day for the battle of Okinawa. This was going to be hell. Simple as that, hell. Over 100,000 well armed and well trained men. Task-Force 58 had had allocated part of its carrier fleet to make raids and strikes on Okinawa airfields and other military installations. The softening up process was aimed at clearing the beaches for the largest amphibious assault in history, the First and Sixth Marine Division the ten Army divisions.
If the pilots were taking off the aircraft carriers like I was, there was almost a state of shock or something like that. Two and three flights a day, udner combat conditions for several months, produce a numbness of mind and body. Two or three flights a day and your adrenalin is rushing and draining you each time you land your plane. I suffered from severe headaches and nausea.
The hardest thing for me during this time was watching my friends get shot down. It was traumatic, and it still is, to this very day. Task Force 58 had come to Okinawa early, supplying heavy strikes on the big island and the many small islands north of Kyushu. Supply vessels were covered by air-cover. Wow, what a sight. Perhaps a thousand planes filled the air, the noise was deafening, the feeling on your skin still gives me chills. I witnessed a huge invasion fleet as far as the eye could see in the waters. The bombers softened the defenses as the ships moved closer and closer to the shore.
The Japanese mounted a military suicide bombing mission that defied all logic. They dove their planes directly into our ships. It was hell to watch. These planes were very fast and almost impossible to intercept before they dove into our ships. In one battle, we had just three Corsairs against 25-30 Japanese fighters, all determined to blow themselves up. Their planes would twist and dive and try to catch our Corsairs before they kamikazeed themselves into our ships.
The battle wore on and the Japanese kept coming and coming. I would climb to 10,000 feet and dive to 5,000, twisting, turning, divind, and shooting the entire time. I was doing a ‘’Thatch Wave’’ with my other pilot and I was terrified….I am not ashamed to admit that I wet my pants out of complete fear. But one think you can be sure of, I never lost my bearing during aerial combat.
And just like that, the Japs vanished into the bows and sterns of our battleships and carriers. It was terrible. I was helpless in the air, watching our men float and wade around helplessly in the shark-filled waters. It is something I go to sleep with every night. And as fast as it began, it ended. Smoke filled the waters, debris and fire was everywhere. But we took Okinawa and the battle put me on the map as a pilot. Four Kills and three or four more probable.
The Japanese Kamikaze’s were largely kept off the front-pages in America but we saw them time-and-time again. It would have affected morale for the war effort.
Task-Force 58 took down 155 Japanese Planes and we lost just nine planes. We were so lucky to be alive to join up and go home safely. It is still a moment frozen in time for me. But then again, who can argue – I was unhurt and the pants could go into the wash.
The Imperial Navy’s suicide pilots sunk or damaged 232 ships in that battle alone. Some 3,500 kamikazes were shot down in this attack. Before they went down in flames, the Japanese aviators sent 30 Allied ships to the bottom of the sea.
Thousands of Japanese pilots went to their fiery deaths crashing headlong into 122 destroyers, 19 aircraft carriers, 10 battleships, 12 cruisers and 69 auxiliary ships during the 82-days it took to defeat enemy forces on Okinawa.
In this engagement—involving air, sea and land troops—11,933 Allied servicemen lost their lives and 31,312 were wounded. The enemy suffered an estimated 109,629 killed and wounded.
Meeting John Wayne and Hollywood Roles
Colonel Dobbin called me into his office one morning and gave me the shock of a lifetime. It was during the Korean conflict and I had been Quasi-Retired by then. He called me into his office and informed me that Marine Headquarters wanted to provide a combat ace to Republic Studios in Hollywood to do some action flying and otherwise helping John Wayne make a couple of Marine Corps motion pictures. ‘’You are it.’’ Things seemed to be moving fast with the war on, and I was the only one at El Toro he could pick on. I had not been in an airplane in months, but soon became a quasi-movie star!
These were exciting times for me. I flew the Japanese version of the Zero Mitsubishi AM-6 fighter and it was shot down by John Wayne, Robert Ryan and others I don’t remember. For two months the ‘’Zero’’ was always shot down with smoke trailing from the engine, spinning, corkscrewing, and appearing on he screen as crashing into a California mountain. The Japanese pilots, also known as me, were always losing the fight!’’
Maureen O'hara Lauren BaCall Betty Grable
She took a bodyguard on our date
''I got to meet so many beautiful women in Hollywood. But I was always the Jap being shot down!""
I had some good times in Hollywood. John Wayne did introduce me to Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Lauren BaCall and Betty Grable. He even arranged a date for me with Maureen O’hara. I had such a thing for O’Hara. She brought along her own personal body guard! The others were great too.
One thing you may not know about John Wayne --- He didn’t volunteer for the service in WWII, and few really understood why –Perhaps it was because he was already 34 years old at the time pf Pearl Harbor and the Selective Service program was classified 3A, due to age and family status. He attempted to enlist several times, but the movie studios were threatening to sue him if he didn’t honor his movie contracts. So perhaps that explains why ‘The Duke’ never served in the war!
Korea- The Experience of a Lifetime
In 1949, I had enrolled at the Massachussetts Institute for Technology for math and science. I was one of ten marined corps officers to be selected to have a future in ground to rocket work. We were hard at work when the Korean conflict began to dominate the newspapers. This war, as I was called, was very taxing on me. The North Koreans were hellbent on pushing Communism onto the South….Of course, it was all about the Chinese. They were great at logistics – running many supplies back and forth across the border. They could run truck after truck after truck across the border and they had uncanny accuracy when it came to supplying the North Koreans.
Korea would become a forerunner to Vietnam. The Peninsula had been a place of ongoing conflict for much of the 20th century. Japan and China fought over it, and then Russia and China and members of the United Nations Peacekeeping forces jockeyed back-and-forth for control of the country. But at one point, the South was pushed back to a tiny portion of the country and were on the verge of capitulation.
It took a daring counterattack by Douglas MacArthur to push the DPRK and its Chinese allies back across the border. The conditions that they served under were appalling – even to MacArthur.
Many of the bodies picked up of DPRK soldiers showed that many of them were carrying weapons that didn’t work, were devoid of ammunition, were often without even basic footwear. MacArthur viewed the war as an easy one to win due to these conditions, something which would arouse his convictions as time wore on.
I lost my bunk-mate and best friend, Bud Iland, in a heavy storm when he became disoriented on take off during a very dark night.
Let me share with you about the Korean fiasco. We were involved in a war we were not allowed to win. While we were allowed to eliminate certain targets this side of the Yalu river, we were not allowed to eliminate tactical targets and we could not destoy the enemy’s bases across the Yalu River. We were engaged in a war where we could not destroy the enemy’s will to fight.
They say that pilots are the lucky ones, we get all the pretty girls. I guess you can say I took liberties with only two things in my life – planes and women. And this is a story that could have cost me my career.
I had been at the Marine Bases Officer Club in Diego enjoying a few beverages when a tall, beautiful woman in uniform slid up to the next stool at the bar. ‘’Wow,’’ I thought….’’..And to think, I wasn’t even looking tonight!’’ She made a lot of flirtatious small talk with me and I with her. The liquor was flowing heavily now, as were my steady pick-up lines. Could anyone believe that?
‘’You fly the F3Ds donbt you? I believe I nodded affirmatively. Then she said, ‘’Those have two seats in them, yes?’’ And again, I told her they did. I could see where this was going, but not sure how I was going to handle it. ‘’I need to be in San Francisco tomorrow. Can you take me?’
She also added that she knew I had taken Marine General Brown to Washington DC last week and he is not a pilot. ‘ Here is where alcohol and women don't mix. I said 'Yes' without even thinking about the ramifications. First of all, it was illegal for me to take her at all, but especially bad because she wasn’t a pilot. Indeed however, I had taken General Brown to DC and he was direct suprerior officer. So I rationalized that this was somehow okay.
We spent the next few hours going over emergency procedures and trying to find a flight suit that was not only her size but somewhat clean. I half-way felt like I was givng Mae West a direct orientaton. As for the flight suit, I had to help her into it, but when push came to shove, I was actually a little old fashioned and I decided to treat her more and more like a lady as the alcohol wore off. Good thing too. ‘’Why are you having to go to San Francisco anyway? What’s the big rush?’’ Finally she tells me, ‘’I am getting married tomorrow!’’
I was happy to olblige her but my intentions were not all too pure in the beginning, After all – you are going to help a damsel in distress, a beautiful lady in need, and it seemed I was in a really good spot! So much for that! I was happy to help her out though, and its one of those stories that you can never forget. Nothing ever happened to me and it was an opportunity to strike up a fine friendship with a wonderful person, Lieutennent Schofield.
Witnessing a UFO!
Here is one of those stories that may make you think I lost my mind. But I saw an unidentified flying object – and it still sticks in my mind to this day. It happened like this – I was asked to head up to 8,000 feet in order to check out blips that were showing up in International Waters off the coast of Korea. In no time at all, anti-aircraft rockets were whizzing past me. Though none of them hit me, it was highly unsettling….nothing in our intelligence even suggested that the Chinese had anything close to this powerful.
Once evaded, I was on cruise control, patrolling a relatively quiet area of the universe. I was startled to see a bright shimmering light pulsating that appeared off the starboard wingtip. ‘’Wow!...What IS this?’’ It stayed right off my wingtip, changing colors, from green-to-yellow-to white. No matter what I did, dipping, diving, rolling – the light stayed right on my wingtip. It was amazing, unsettling and surreal.
My crew wanted to eject and get into the water, but I wouldn’t approve of this. The waters were too cold and it was a very low visibility. After ten minutes, I couldn’t shake free of the lights. It moved far faster than any object I have ever seen. It was detected on my early warning radar and even then if It quickly zipped across the skies and ended up in front of me, then behind me, to the sides and above me --- all at speeds I could never have imagined. When I brought this to the attention of my superiors, they listened to my story but did nothing. It was upsetting enough that I could not concentrate on subsequent missions.
As a sidenote, later that month, Allied radar spotted an object zipping along at 50,000 feet at close to 4,000 MPH. It flew over South Korea just a while earlier and allied radar had it rising, then falling, 10,000 feet within seconds. There were reports in military communications, but no such information reached the media.
Years later, while visiting Major George R.A. Jones, who had flown F4’s and F5’s related that he saw to the Intelligence Officers. He said under oath that he saw a flying saucer and he made a full report to his squadron Intelligence officers. But we never heard another word about it….strange???’’
In October of 1959, I had volunteered to pick up a pilot in Norfolk but he was not there. I did a quick turn around but made a flight plan to return to Norfolk. I was to fly a two-seated jet, a TV-2. It was raining heavier and the viability was less than a quarter mile. Clearing the runway at max speed, I pulled up my wheels and started a fast climb to get on top of the clouds. All of a sudden, its quiet! NO ENGINE NOISE! I am all of 250 feet above the end of the runway.
I turned the jet away from downtown Norfolk and headed for the Jaines River. Getting as much altitude under me as I could, I ran out of airspeed at 5000 feet. I pulled the ejection seat handle, and NOTHING happened. Something's very wrong. I turned upside down and that enabled the canopy to be ripped off. I threw off my shoulder straps, flipped the seat belt off, and with the wind blasting meI fell out of my seat. But then - I got inexplicably hung up by my Mae West, if you know what I mean. Oh, what cruel pain that was! I couldn't pull the rip-cord because I was tied to the plane and dangling in the wind. My helmet tore off and I must have prayed hard to God at that moment. Seconds later, the plane began rolling over and I inexplicably fell back into my seat. I grabbed the control stick. I yanked hard on it and pulled the plane out of the screaming dive and just above the water managed a water landing. I untangled my 'Mae West' from the the cord holding it to the plane and was quickly back on land. The story was all over the news!
The Human Side of War - (A Sad Casualty)
Atsugi Japan is the sight of the Kamikaze Air Force training base. Seems ironic that you need to train men to crash their planes on purpose, but the Japs didn't do anything without a script. So when the US Navy was tasked with rebuilding it as a training base for us, it seemed like a good idea. We built a nice golf course on it. The golf club shop had a Japanese lade we called ''Sam'' but we could not help noticing how terribly scarred her legs were.
Then one day I asked her how it happened, and when I heard her story, I wished I hadn't. She raised her skirt to the panty line and she was scarred from her waist down to her toes. She told her story, ''In 1945, I was three years old'' she said, 'playing with my friends on that cold winter day in the grass at the end of the runway. My house was just a short distance away and we played there all the time watching the pretty airplanes take off and land. That day, American planes were a different sight. My brother yelled at me to 'run, run!' But I was just three, I looked up and then the fire from the sky came down on the grass, catching it on fire. Some of this hot powder or liquid got onto my legs and began to burn. You can see what it did to me, but it killed everyone one of my friends and my family.''
I was badly shaken. I knew at the moment she finished what she was talking about, and I fear it was I who caused all of this suffering. There were the results of my attack, and it affected me...it still does. Flying high and being distanced so much from the attack, I hadn't even thought that I might be maiming little children.
Just to be sure, I wanted to look through my gun camera film and see what happened. I sorted through them and finally found that fateful day on film. The attack on Asugi showed just how much destruction we caused, and at the end of the runway were tiny colored specs in the grass - the innocent and colorful clothes of children who weren't meant to pay for the violence and ambitions of grown men. There, at the end of that runway was my friend Sam.
Flying With NATO
During the Cold War, I was the guinea-pig for just about every new plane we had made. This is top-secret stuff. There are planes I flew that the world still has never seen. Some of the first Delta-Winged Jets were just plain uncomfortable. They couldn't accelerate and they were forever falling apart. That 's not a good trait for a plane, that's for sure.
The F4D, ''Not the Best Plane in the World''
From 1963-1966, I ran a Command of Air Group 32 in South Carolina. I took the Command of an Attack Squadron and got to fly a Skyhawk-A4D-4B. I loved this jet. It was such a tight and controlled turn....like wheels hugging the highway. This agile plane is designed to deliver Nuclear Cargo and there were only five men to have been trained on them at this time. Back then, there was a real possibility that I would have to carry out the ultimate weapons drop.
The Skyhawk A4D - ''One of My Favorites''
One of my last really memorable flights was one that neither the US Air Force or the US Navy would partake in. It involved a recon flight over the western most border of Norway. Why we needed to do this was a mystery even to me, but it was a plan that required refueling over the North Pole. I was offered the chance to do this, and of course, I don't really think about it. ''Of course I'll take it.'' And then I really begin to see how complicated this actually is going to be. Doppler hadn't been invented so we were going to refuel over the North Pole using Celestial Navigation on a night when there was a bright 3/4 moon to chew up light from the stars.
Operation ''Cold-Boy'' was to begin in South Carolina and head over the North Pole, over Greenland, and turn due west-north-west to Bodo Norway. The border had always been open there, and the Russians wouldn't have been interested in that little town, but I was there, I completed the mission, and earned some more decoration for it.
I might not have amounted to much if not for the opportunity to fly. The country needed us, we responded. No one ever thought there was a choice. You served because you had to. You learned a lot about yourself as a man in the military. For instance, you learned that you didn’t really need much rest. You learned that you didn’t need much to eat. And, you certainly did not to eat anything very good either! You learned you could reach inside and pull out the fear and the insecurity of being young and stupid and cast it aside when you are with hundreds of other boys just like yourself. The pride – I feel the pride every time I see another blue baseball cap that announces the man wearing it has served our country. I probably won’t know them, but I sure know what they went through. It’s an unspoken brotherhood.
For my part, I had flown over 100 missions, destroyed in the air ten, or more of the enemy, smoked or partially disabled several more, destroyed 25-30 aircraft on the ground and never received a hole on any of the Corsair I had flown. I flew in over sixty different aircraft - many of which were top-secret but nonetheless flawed. I was nearly hit by a sniper while on the latrine in my second year of war and I took a nasty fall out of the wing-net over thirty feet from the the ground. I was too naive to be scared, and only those who have been in the service can know what that means.
After WWII, I found myself helping America fight in a Cold-War. I was fascinated by all of the new technology and was usually the first one to want to try out the new flying machines. I crossed paths with a number of Astronauts and like me, each of them had that 'devil may care' attitude when it came to testing new planes. But our wars became increasingly taken away from the men who were supposed to fight. Korea became a war we couldn't win, then of course Vietnam came along. I found myself older and although I had a Command of my own, I was behind the desk, not in the air.
To an extent, seeing the Vietnam War made WWII very real to me. You know, you are so far away when you are in a plane. I saw the horrors when our carriers had Japanese planes crashing into them so I know, without a doubt, that I was seeing all the aggression that went unchained from the years beforehand. Vietnam was going to be the same war, but this time we were pawns in a larger chess game. After two decades and then-some, the time had come.
I was awarded the Silver Star, Three Distinguished Flying Crosses and 5 Air Medals. In July of 1945, I received my promition to First Lieutenant, USMCR. One cannot argue that I had a Guardian Angel. I had not won the war, but I felt I had done my part. And no one can ever take that away from me.
No One. ***
Caswell can be found on the Military Hall of Valor's Website.