William A Balk, Sr.’s “Wartime Experiences of a Colorblind Navy Pilot—7”

Ted Balk


I was flying Hot Shot Charlie’s left wing, but I don’t recall who else was in our division. An Atago class heavy cruiser was our designated target. Since we didn’t have any torpedoes, we had to make a ‘dive’ bombing attack. Charlie rolled over and started down with the right wingman behind him and to his right and then me slightly to his left, further behind. We started at 10,000 feet. The AA was pretty thick right from the start. I was about halfway down when the canopy on the left side of the cockpit blew in, but that’s all the damage I got.—By William A. Balk, Sr.

Dispatches from The Esso Club

By Ted Balk

William A. Balk, Sr. during flight training.

William A. Balk, Sr. during flight training.

Note by Ted Balk: This seventh and final installment of my late father’s memoir concludes the saga of his wartime experiences as a Navy pilot. Previously published installments on Weekly Hubris are: Installment 1Foreword & Preface; Installment 2Shakedown Cruise to Guadalcanal; Installment 3Invasion of Palau (Part One); Installment 4Invasion of Palau (Part Two) ; Installment 5Invasion of Palau (Conclusion), and Installment 6The Invasion of Leyte.


CENTRAL South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—3/9/2015— 

Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Greatest Naval Battle of All Time

The four main actions in the battle of Leyte Gulf: 1 Battle of the Sibuyan Sea 2 Battle of Surigao Strait 3 Battle of (or 'off') Cape Engaño 4 Battle off Samar. Leyte Gulf is north of 2 and west of 4. The island of Leyte is west of the gulf.

The four main actions in the battle of Leyte Gulf: 1 Battle of the Sibuyan Sea; 2 Battle of Surigao Strait 3 Battle of (or ‘off’) Cape Engaño; 4 Battle off Samar. Leyte Gulf is north of 2 and west of 4. The island of Leyte is west of the gulf.

Before we turned in on the night of October 24, we had been briefed on the possibility that we could be called on for a night torpedo attack against the Japanese battleships then approaching Surigao Strait. I don’t know of anyone who greeted that proposal with enthusiasm but we accepted the “opportunity” with more equanimity than it deserved. Not only would such an attack be extremely hazardous, it would probably be totally ineffective. The plan was for one plane to fly above the target area dropping flares to provide illumination. The attacking planes would than go in from all directions in the usual pattern. This might have succeeded if we had previously trained together for this particular purpose, and if mountains had not enclosed Surigao Strait. Under the circumstances, any success that we achieved would be mostly accidental.1

Sometime during the early morning hours of October 25 someone up the chain of command decided that hostilities were so well under control in Surigao Strait that VC-21 would not be needed for the torpedo attack. We could be used, instead, to deliver drinking water to an army unit isolated on Leyte. When we assembled in the Ready Room for the regular pre-dawn General Quarters call, we found that ten of us had been scheduled to deliver 880 gallons of water and 1200 K rations by parachute drop to troops of the 96th Division on Leyte Island.

We made a pre-dawn launch at about 5:30 with the Skipper in the lead. I don’t remember why, but I wound up flying as his left wingman. Normally, in a formation like this I would have been one of Nelson Charles’s (“Hot Shot Charlie”) wingmen. just as Jack Chrystal would have been one of Hank Suerstedt’s wingmen. We may have become disorganized while trying to join up in the dark or I may have been the second plane launched, but this is the only time I flew in the Skipper’s division while we were at sea.

With the Skipper leading, we headed in a roundabout way for our rendezvous with the Army. Instead of heading straight toward the beachhead area, he detoured to the south toward Surigao Strait. We arrived at the previous night’s battle scene just at daylight to see all the American ships calmly maneuvering on their stations between the strait and the beachhead. The strait itself was almost totally obscured by huge clouds of black smoke boiling up from the few Japanese ships that were still afloat. There was no question as to how the battle had come out. After sight-seeing for a while we headed north to complete our assigned mission.

The Battle of Surigao Strait.

The Battle of Surigao Strait.

A few minutes later, I heard an excited voice come on the radio. An ASP pilot from Taffy 3 was reporting that he’d discovered a bunch of Jap ships headed for Leyte Gulf. His ship’s CIC (combat information center) responded that he must be mistaken—they must be a part of Halsey’s fast carrier force. The pilot insisted they were Japs. They had pagoda-type superstructures and there were four battleships, seven cruisers and 15 destroyers. He then gave the latitude and longitude and their course and speed. He also said he was making an attack on one of the cruisers. This was one brave (or foolish) TBM pilot.

As soon as he gave the coordinates, I plotted their location on my map board. My God! They were about 20 miles from the entrance to Leyte Gulf. I looked at the Skipper. Surely he had heard this report and we would turn back to the ship. He flew serenely on. I didn’t want to use the radio, but I needed to get his attention. I knew he didn’t like his wingmen to crowd in close to his plane so I moved in toward him until my propeller was just inches from the trailing edge of his wing. He finally looked over and calmly motioned for me to move farther out. I pointed to my earphones and to him which he should have interpreted to mean, “Did you hear what I just heard on the radio?” He nodded and motioned me to move farther out and we flew on. Damn! I couldn’t stand it so I broke radio silence. “Skipper, did you hear what that guy just reported on the radio?” He turned and looked at me, nodded his head, and kept on flying north. I had two choices. I could stay with him or I could desert the formation and fly back to the ship alone. This would have amounted to insubordination and I never really considered it a viable choice.

We finally reached the rendezvous area and the Skipper got the unit’s Commanding Officer on the radio. He designated a small open field as the drop area and said he would be standing in the middle of it. We couldn’t miss it because we should be able to see his red hair from a mile away. He wasn’t far wrong. We made the run in single file at about 100 feet so the ‘chutes would open just before the packages hit the ground. “Red” had to dodge some of them to keep from getting hit. He thanked us profusely and the Skipper said we were glad we could help, but we’d have to go now because there was a lot going on that we needed to attend to.

I never discussed this with anyone in the squadron, but I finally decided that the Skipper did not understand the significance of the latitude and longitude report of the ASP pilot. If he hadn’t checked the location on his map he could have assumed it was one of Halsey’s pilots at a completely different location.

On our return trip, we flew across the mouth of Leyte Gulf while headed toward Taffy 2 about 20 miles away. Off to our left we could see the Japanese ships on the horizon lobbing shells at Taffy 3’s ships, some of which were on fire. The American destroyers were weaving back and forth, laying out a smoke screen as protection for the escort carriers. We turned southeast and finally headed home. When we caught up with Taffy 2, they were headed at full speed away from the Japs, just out of range of the battleships’ big guns. To take us aboard they had to turn into the wind which meant they had to head straight back toward the Japs. We expedited the landing and then they started retreating again while the ship’s crew frantically went about arming the planes.

Carriers in general have no real defense against any kind of surface or sub-surface attack except for their aircraft. This was especially true of the CVEs. Other than their 20-millimeter and 40-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, these ships had one 5-inch cannon located on the fantail. They had absolutely no armor protection. The hull was made of quarter-inch steel plate and the flight deck was made of wood. Each ship contained thousands of gallons of aviation fuel as well as tons of ammunition. They also carried sufficient diesel fuel for their own operation as well as for refueling the destroyer escorts.

At the time we passed Taffy 3, it was obvious they were in a very precarious situation. Later on we learned that the Japanese finally got close enough to fire at point blank range. They were apparently under the impression that this was part of Halsey’s big carrier group so they assumed these carriers had some armor protection. Many of their shells went clear through the thin-skinned CVEs before exploding on the other side.

Taffy 3 (Northern CVE Gp) engaged with Kurita, with Taffy 2 (Middle CVE Gp) supporting.

Taffy 3 (Northern CVE Gp) engaged with Kurita, with Taffy 2 (Middle CVE Gp) supporting.

During the early stages of this battle (while we were delivering groceries), Taffy 3, as well as Taffy 2, immediately launched all flyable aircraft with whatever ammunition they had readily at hand to harass the Japanese as best they could. They made strafing runs and dry runs, causing the Japs to take evasive action and ease the pressure on Taffy 3’s surface units. While our ten TBMs were out sightseeing and delivering rations to the Army, the planes from other squadrons landed on the Marcus Island and loaded up eleven of our twelve torpedoes as well as some of our other ammunition. When we finally got back, the Skipper demanded and got the one remaining torpedo.

By 10:30, all of our planes, as well as the other planes of Taffy 2, had been reloaded. Until then all the air strikes had been uncoordinated, with each ship and each squadron attacking pretty much at will. This “noon” attack was to consist of well over 100 planes from all six CVEs in Taffy 2. Lt. Commander Dale of VC 20 on the Kadashan Bay was designated leader. He was to coordinate the strike and choose specific targets for each of the various units in the Air Group. Our assigned mission was not to try to sink individual ships, but to damage as many as possible.

We intercepted the Japanese force shortly after 11:00 a.m. At that time, they had broken off their attack on Taffy 3 and were headed due west, straight for the entrance to Leyte Gulf. I counted four battleships, ten cruisers and eleven destroyers in the group. I was flying Hot Shot Charlie’s left wing, but I don’t recall who else was in our division. An Atago class heavy cruiser was our designated target. Since we didn’t have any torpedoes, we had to make a “dive” bombing attack. Charlie rolled over and started down with the right wingman behind him and to his right and then me slightly to his left, further behind.

We started at 10,000 feet. The AA was pretty thick right from the start. I was about halfway down when the canopy on the left side of the cockpit blew in, but that’s all the damage I got. Our targeted cruiser was making a tight clockwise circle and I estimated its speed at close to 40 knots (45 mph). It was a beautiful ship, shaped like a huge pencil and obviously made for speed. I remember thinking what a shame it was to have to destroy something like that. Shortly before I reached my bomb release altitude (under 1,000 feet) I noticed a pattern of four bombs hitting the water wide of the target. I thought “what a waste, somebody had an accidental release.” Then I released my bombs and timed my pullout so I’d be flying level when I got about ten feet above the water.

Suddenly, I realized I was headed straight for a battleship and they had their big guns aimed my way. They fired them. I don’t know if the shells went over me or under me or if they were blanks, but it sure scared the hell out of me. I don’t know if these were Yamatos 18-inchers (the biggest in the world), but they sure looked like it. I scooted on across the armada as close to the cruisers and battleships as I could get so they couldn’t get their guns lined up on me.

When I got to the other side, I felt I could relax a little. Then, Edinger got on the intercom and reminded me that Al Pagnotta’s ears were stopped up and he was in pain—this happened every time we made a steep dive from high altitude. I started climbing to relieve the pressure on his ears and Jim reported that we got a hit amidships of the cruiser. I asked him where the other bombs had gone and he said close alongside (which could be better than a direct hit).

At the time I was too busy to realize that this wasn’t a good explanation, but later on it dawned on me. With the spacing we had set into the release mechanism and the angle that the pattern should have made across the ship, the possible combinations were: [3 short, 1 on]; [2 short, 2 on]; [1 short, 2 on, 1 long]; [1 on, 3 long]. From his description I thought I should have gotten at least two hits. When I asked Jim about this later on he said, “Oh, you didn’t have but two bombs to start with. They ran out of 500-pounders when they got to our plane.” I’m glad I didn’t know it at the time. I probably would have missed with both of them.

While I was climbing to get the pressure off Al’s ears, I watched the Japs get themselves reorganized after our attack. I don’t think we did a lot of serious damage to them with the type of ammunition we had, but it looked like it made them change their minds about going into Leyte Gulf. When we first arrived on the scene, they were on a course due west, headed straight for Leyte Gulf, with nothing in sight to stop them. When they regrouped after this attack, they headed north, back towards San Bernardino Straight, where they had come from that morning.

The historians, however, don’t give us credit for turning them around. They say Kurita was suffering from lack of sleep and made a bad decision.

I found Hot Shot Charlie’s plane and the two of us headed back to the Marcus Island together. The others must have straggled home alone. On the way back, we passed a Jap cruiser, dead in the water. It could have been the one we hit. We were flying low and well within AA range, but they didn’t bother to shoot at us. Apparently, as long as we didn’t bother them, they weren’t going to bother us. When we got back to the ship, we reported that the Japs were headed north and the threat to Leyte was over. Nobody believed us and they started reloading the planes for another attack.

We had an hour or so before the planes would be ready for the next strike; this gave us time to get something to eat and go to the bathroom. The tenseness among the ship’s crew was beginning to ease, so the Captain took this time to call some of us pilots to the bridge. This was a fairly common occurrence and usually they wanted to chew us out for some misdemeanor or occasionally to praise us for a good job. Sometimes they just wanted to hear our version of what went on.

I don’t recall who all was summoned this time other than the Skipper and me, but there were several others there, too. The Skipper had a bloody face and the Captain said he was going to recommend him for a Purple Heart. Remember, the Skipper had the only torpedo available and, as I recall, he’d gotten a hit on one of the heavy cruisers. He demurred about the Purple Heart and said the blood came from smashing his nose against the instrument panel because he didn’t have his shoulder straps tight when he landed. I don’t remember what I talked about, but I’m sure they wanted details of how the raid went.

After we left the bridge, Patton caught up with me and remarked that I was scheduled for the next raid but that he wasn’t. He said he didn’t get a hit on the last one but I did, so how about letting him take my place on the up-coming sortie. I thought about those four bombs that were obviously an accidental drop and realized they could have been his. I didn’t say anything about that but I did say OK about him taking my place.

He looked surprised, and I believe he truly appreciated my “generosity.” What he didn’t know was that I wasn’t unhappy about giving up the flight. For the last two days a boil had been festering on my butt, and by then it seemed like it was getting worse each minute. I had already spent about seven hours that day strapped to the hard cover of the parachute pad, and I really wasn’t looking forward to three or four hours more. There was no way I could adjust my position in the cockpit to ease the pain. If I had gone to Doc Kloth he would have prescribed talcum powder and probably grounded me. The best thing to do was to try to tough it out, but I wasn’t really being generous when I gave up the flight for Patton.

The planes were finally refueled and loaded with whatever ammunition they could scrape up. They successfully intercepted Kurita again before he could slip into San Bernardino Passage and bombed and strafed him with whatever they had. On the way home, they successfully repulsed an air attack by three Jap planes.

The next day, the Skipper led another attack on stragglers from the Surigao battle. They located a light cruiser and two destroyers and worked them over thoroughly. I wasn’t scheduled for this flight so I missed out on that action, too.

While all this was going on, our fighter pilots were very busy as well. They made numerous strafing runs on the Jap fleet, primarily to divert AA away from us as we made our attacks. They also provided air cover for our formations and for the ships. Austin, Flory, Chapman, Houck, Clevenger, and Clarke shot down one plane each during this period. “Benny” Penny got two.2

Light Aircraft Carrier Princeton, on fire and being rescued by USS Birmingham on October 24, 1944.

Light Aircraft Carrier Princeton, on fire and being rescued by USS Birmingham on October 24, 1944.

I should mention that when the last flight of October 25 returned safely after dark, we hounded Doc Kloth to break out the “medicinal” alcohol. At first he refused, arguing that we didn’t need it. We told him we didn’t give a damn what he thought; he’d better get it out anyway. He finally relented when we threatened to throw him overboard, but even then he tried to ration it.

After this battle, we stayed on station east of Leyte Gulf until the last day of October. During that time we continued to fly regular ASP, CAP and ground support missions but now this type of work seemed tame indeed.

The trip back to Manus was completely uneventful. The air conditioner for the Ready Room had been inoperable for the past two weeks so we spent our daylight hours in whatever shady spot we could find. In the stifling heat of the unvented Ready Room, it was almost impossible to do the paperwork for pre-flight calculations, so other ships took over our share of this duty. On the CVEs, the Ready Room was located just under the flight deck, so that the tropical sun beating down on the flight deck soon turned the low- ceilinged room into an oven. It seems incredible that the capacity of this ship to function as an effective combat unit was dependent on an air conditioner, but this was the situation in these latitudes. The air conditioner would have to be repaired during our break at Manus.

End Notes for Chapter IV
Note 1. The Complexities of an Aerial Torpedo Attack
The secret of a successful aerial torpedo attack—with minimum loss to the attackers and maximum damage to the enemy—depends on many factors, but primarily on how well coordinated the attack is. It is a complex procedure that can best be explained with a hypothetical example. It begins on board the carrier in the Ready Room with briefings and duty assignments for the pilots, while the line crewmen are fueling the torpedoes and preparing them for launching. The air crewmen are busy checking the equipment in their pilots’ assigned planes. During a major attack, planes from more than one carrier would be involved, but for the sake of simplicity in this example, only one composite squadron was deemed available and it was ordered to make the attack alone. Its entire complement of twelve TBMs and 18 FM2s were airworthy and could be utilized for this raid. This would not be an unusual situation, given the reliability of the aircraft and competency of the maintenance crews on board the ship. Six of the TBMs would be loaded with one 2,000-pound torpedo each and the other six with four 500-pound armor-piercing bombs each. The fighters would rely on their six .50 caliber wing guns and eight 4-inch rockets for assault weapons.

The short flight deck of a CVE and its slow speed mandates that all TBMs be launched by catapult. After they are airborne, the smaller, lighter fighters have enough space to make running takeoffs. As soon as the lead TBM is launched it starts gaining altitude and turning left in a wide circle. The other TBMs are launched at intervals of 45 to 60 seconds—the time it takes to move a plane into the exact position for attaching the launching cables, rev up the engine to maximum power, and recharge the catapult. The catapult officer stands on the flight deck, slightly ahead of the right wing in view of the pilot. He makes hand signals to the pilot to get the plane maneuvered into position, then rotates his hand rapidly to indicate that the plane is secured to the catapult, and the pilot may now safely rev up the engine. In the meantime, the pilot has set the plane’s trim tabs for launching, checked to see that both magnetos for the engine ignition system are functioning properly, moved the back of his head to the pad behind him and placed his right elbow against his belly while grasping the control stick with his right hand. These last two positions are intended to avoid the effects of inertia during the rapid acceleration of the launch. As soon as the pilot is satisfied that the plane is ready for launching, he signals the catapult officer by raising his left hand across his chest then quickly returning it to the throttle. He doesn’t grasp the throttle because inertia during acceleration could cause him to pull it back, unintentionally reducing power during the critical seconds of the launching run; instead he props his fingertips against the back side of the throttle and fuel mixture control levers. As soon as the catapult releases the plane, he retracts the wheels and flaps, makes a sharp jog to the right to reduce air turbulence for the next plane, drops briefly toward the water to gain flying speed, then starts climbing to join up with the lead plane. Each of the fighters then goes through a similar procedure to get into position and make his takeoff run. They are able to do this at interval of about 15 to 30 seconds and, when airborne, immediately start climbing to join the formation being assembled overhead.

In a twelve-plane formation, the TBMs could be divided into four divisions of three planes each, or three divisions of four planes each. In this hypothetical mission with six planes loaded with torpedoes and the other six loaded with bombs, the preferred arrangement would be four divisions of three planes each with the Skipper leading two divisions and the next highest ranking officer, Hank Suerstedt, leading the other two. The Skipper would probably choose to lead the two divisions carrying torpedoes.

In the meantime, the fighters would be joining up with each other in various combinations based on two plane sections. Fighter tactics require that the basic combat unit consist of a lead plane and a wingman. During aerial combat, the wingman’s primary function is to protect the lead plane against an attack from behind, while the leader is engaged in shooting down an enemy. In this escort formation, the fighters would probably divide their group so that eight or ten would be about a half-mile to each side of the TBMs and slightly ahead. They would weave in and out and sometimes cross our line of flight, swapping sides while keeping the sky behind and ahead of the formation under surveillance.

From the time the first TBM was launched until the last FM2 joined the formation, perhaps 15 minutes would have elapsed; then the lead TBM would set a course to the target area and begin climbing gradually to about 10,000 feet. On arrival at the target area, the Skipper would designate our specific target ship, then the six TBMs with torpedoes would break from the group and also from each other. Each would then head for his designated location around the target ship. For example, if the target ship were headed due north, then one plane would attack from the northeast, the second from the east, and the third from the southeast. The other planes would do the same thing on the other side, with one going in from the northwest, the second from due west, and the third from southwest.

Since some of the planes would have to travel a greater distance to get to their jumping off point, the others would delay their attack by making S-turns while out of AA range, until all six planes were ready to start their attack run simultaneously. In the meantime, the fighters and bombers were high overhead, holding off their attack until the torpedo planes were ready; then the fighters would peel off and start down in a steep strafing dive, going in from all directions. The bombers would follow shortly behind while the torpedo planes were coming in low, jinxing up and down and right and left to avoid anti-aircraft fire. When they got about a thousand feet from the target ship, they would level off briefly at about 200 feet altitude, release the torpedoes and start closing the bomb bay doors. They would not cross over the ship, but would turn hard towards its stern to avoid colliding with the planes attacking from the other side. As they got the hell out of there, they would drop down low on the water or else do a lot of jinxing until they got out of antiaircraft range. After that, the group would reassemble the formation and head for home. All of this would be accomplished while maintaining radio silence.

Note 2. Historical Background

To gauge the importance, or perhaps the lack of importance, of our squadron’s participation in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, it is necessary to have an appreciation of the overall dimensions of the battle. Historical accounts of this event all tend to describe it as “the greatest naval battle of all time,” or words to that effect. It involved hundreds of combat ships of all kinds. There were fast carriers and escort carriers, old battleships and new battleships, heavy cruisers and light cruisers, destroyers and escort destroyers, PT boats and submarines. Aircraft included Hellcat and Wildcat fighters, Avenger torpedo bombers, and Helldiver dive-bombers. All types of weapons were used, ranging from the 18-inch cannons on the Yamato to the .50 caliber wing guns in the fighters. There were aerial torpedoes, destroyer torpedoes, PT boat torpedoes, and submarine torpedoes. Bombs of all sizes were used as well as rockets, depth charges, mines, and smoke generators. And, for the first time ever, the Japanese introduced a new tactic—the Kamikaze suicide bomber. A total of 282 ships were directly involved in the battle and almost 200,000 men. Dozens of ships were sunk and thousands of men went to the bottom with them. These statistics and many more are from Thomas J. Cutler’s excellent book, The Battle of Leyte Gulf: 23-26 October 1944, which gives a very readable account of the complexities, the mistakes, the heroism of the men, the strategies, and the conflicting personalities of the leaders involved.

The Japanese attack on the American forces at Leyte consisted of three main groups: the Northern, Center, and Southern forces. The Northern Force consisted of four aircraft carriers, two converted battleship-carriers, three cruisers, eight destroyers, and a supply unit of two oilers with escort vessels. Their combined air groups consisted of 80 Zekes, 25 Jills, 4 Kates, and 7 Judys.

Halsey’s Third Fleet consisted of 17 carriers, six battleships, 17 cruisers, and 16 destroyers. It also had a supply group of 28 oilers, ten escort carriers with replacement planes, and four destroyers. His air groups totaled 567 fighters, 264 dive bombers, and 245 torpedo bombers.

The Japanese admirals were well aware of Admiral Halsey’s obsessive urge to destroy all their carrier force by whatever means possible. They correctly calculated they could use their comparatively weak Northern Force as bait to lure Halsey away from his assigned task of protecting the vulnerable American invading forces at Leyte. With Halsey distracted, their Center and Southern Forces could then slip into Leyte Gulf and destroy the entire American invasion operation.

With Halsey out of the way, the Japanese Center Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Kurita, was free to penetrate the central Philippines from the South China Sea with a force of five battleships, ten cruisers and 16 destroyers. Their plan was to transit San Bernardino Strait on the northern end of Samar Island, proceed south along the east coast of Samar to arrive at Leyte Gulf at about midnight October 24 to coordinate their attack with the Southern Force arriving simultaneously through Surigao Strait. Although he came close to maintaining this schedule, Kurita was delayed considerably by continuous air attacks from Halsey’s carriers during daylight hours on October 24. Prior to that, his group had been subjected to submarine attacks while in the China Sea. Shortly after dawn on October 25, approximately eight hours late for his rendezvous with the Southern Force, he arrived close to the mouth of Leyte Gulf only to find himself practically in the middle of an American carrier task group. This was Taffy 3, one of the escort carrier groups providing close air support for the invasion forces on Leyte. Kurita apparently thought it was part of Halsey’s fleet.

Prior to this, the Southern Force, under Vice Admiral Nishimura, had crossed the Sulu Sea and passed through Surigao Strait between the Islands of Mindanao and Leyte. Once through this narrow passageway, they were on the Southern flank of the American forces in Leyte Gulf. Nishimura’s group, consisting of three battleships, three cruisers and eleven destroyers, was on schedule, arriving at the southern end of Leyte Gulf shortly after midnight. Ready and waiting for them were the main assault elements of the American Seventh Fleet under Vice Admiral T.C. Kincaid. This force consisted of six battleships, eight cruisers, and 15 destroyers. There were also “many” PT boats, but these do not seem to be listed in the regular chain of command. Of the six battleships, five had been resurrected from the wreckage of Pearl Harbor.

In order to transit the narrow waters of Surigao Strait the Japanese had to form a line so that only their forward turrets could be used against the defending ships. On the other hand the Americans located in the wider area of the gulf could line up broadside to the oncoming Japanese and bring all their guns to bear on the invading force. In addition, the American destroyers could make torpedo runs on the Japanese ships as each one emerged unprotected from the narrow confines of the strait. The result was devastating to the attacking force. Before they were able to get away, they lost two of their three battleships, two of three cruisers and five of 15 destroyers. Personnel losses of the Japanese are unknown, but they must have been in the thousands. The Americans lost 39 men with another 114 wounded. One destroyer and several PT boats were damaged and one PT boat was sunk. The destroyer was severely damaged by “friendly” as well as enemy fire. It was caught in the middle between the two forces. While all of this was taking place in Surigao Straight, we were sleeping peacefully in our bunks, cruising calmly about 20 miles east of the entrance to Leyte Gulf.

It is interesting to note that this extremely successful phase of the Battle of Leyte Gulf was conducted without aircraft participation by either side. Also, on the American side, many if not most of the ships were of pre-World War Two vintage.


Invasion of Mindoro & Luzon

After all the activity around Leyte, we were ready for some relaxation and a change in atmosphere. On November 3, we arrived back at Manus with the air conditioner still not working in the Ready Room. This gave us an excuse to request accommodation ashore, which, surprisingly, we got. Luckily, the quarters assigned to us were on Ponam Island rather than at the Fleet Officers Club on Manus. We had practically the whole island to ourselves, while Manus was unbelievably crowded. Ponam is a coral island just long and wide enough for one runway. Palm trees provided shade between the runway and the sea, and a few Quonset huts were hidden among the palms. These provided comfortable shelter for a mess hall and sleeping space. The brief rain shower scheduled for noon each day provided welcome relief from the heat.

I don’t recall if we moved all the planes from the Marcus Island to Ponam, but we did have some TBMs available. These were essential for cooling beer. Whenever we wanted some cold beer, we loaded ten or 15 cases into the bomb bay, then took off for the high altitudes. Thirty or 40 minutes above 15,000 feet did a wonderful job of making the beer drinkable.

When we weren’t drinking beer or sleeping, we could spend hours swimming in the shallow lagoon between the island and the barrier reef. The water here was perfectly clear and three or four feet deep. The bottom was mostly white sand covered with hundreds of different kinds of seashells of all sizes and shapes. There were also giant clams that we were careful to avoid. They were almost two feet across and the lips of the shells were serrated so that if they closed around an ankle they could cause serious injury.

One of the interesting features of Ponam was the regular visit of enterprising natives from the main island. An outrigger canoe occupied by one guy and five or six women would pull up on the beach to gather wood and do some trading. The native guy called all the women Mary and, although I don’t know what they called him, I assume it was Joseph because of the strong Catholic influence in this area. The Mary’s did the paddling and wood collecting ashore while Joseph sat amidships with his arms crossed. After the Mary’s had pulled the outrigger up on the beach, Joseph sedately stepped out, gave some orders to the Mary’s, then reached into the boat and brought out a handmade model of his outrigger outfit.

In the meantime, all of the Mary’s except the young sexy-looking one went about the beach gathering wood. The young one found a palm tree leaning at just the right angle and arranged herself on it to enhance her very admirable physical attributes. I should have mentioned that the ladies were all topless. It didn’t take long for a sizable collection of sailors to gather around to see what was going on. Then, Joseph began his sales pitch. I’m not sure what language he used, but it must have been understood because it took only a few minutes for him to get his price for the boat model. As soon as he had the cash in hand, he said something to the Mary’s, stepped into the canoe, and folded his arms across his chest while they scurried to load and launch it. They headed toward Manus with all the Mary’s paddling energetically. It seems that sales promotion is pretty much the same wherever you go.

My flight log for the two weeks on Ponam is interesting. I made a total of 15 flights averaging about 30 minutes each on November 10, 12, 13, 14, and 16. These couldn’t have all been beer flights and the passengers listed were mostly fighter pilots. The flight description is also baffling. For example: “Ponam to Pityliu and return.” Pityliu is an adjacent island even smaller than Ponam. Also, “Ponam to Pityliu to Mamote and return to Ponam.” “Ponam to Mamote and return.” Mamote may be a town on Manus. “Ponam to Los Negros and return.” This may be another island, but it could be a town. I have no idea why the fighter pilots were interested in going to these places but the passengers included Clevenger, Esch, Walker, Bradford, Houck, McAulay, and flight line crew Chiefs Haldstadt, Hollingsworth and McKnight.

While I was doing all this chauffeuring, Jack Chrystal, the Skipper, Al Austin, and Ed Dandridge found somebody who had a cabin cruiser available. I can’t imagine how anybody managed to get a cabin cruiser out there unless they smuggled it aboard a big carrier, but there it was. They spent their days fishing and caught enough mackerel to feed the squadron at least once.

On November 17, I made a 4.3-hour ASP flight with my regular crew and also Ed Dandridge as an extra passenger. Ed was the squadron intelligence officer and I imagine he was getting in the four hours per month he needed to remain eligible for flight pay.

On November 19, we returned to the Marcus Island much refreshed and raring to go. For the remainder of the month we did routine convoy duty providing ASP and CAP for invasion type vessels being assembled in Kossol Passage at the northern end of the Palaus. It soon became obvious that a new assault was being prepared and that we would be a part of it. We reduced our TBMs from twelve to nine and also temporarily assigned two TBM pilots to duty on one of the islands. At the same time we increased the FM2s from 16 to 20 and the number of fighter pilots accordingly. This was an obvious move to enhance our capability for coping with the threat of increased Kamikaze attacks. The island targeted for invasion was Mindoro, just south of Luzon, facing the South China Sea. We rendezvoused with the invasion force in Leyte Gulf on the night of December 13, then went through Surigao Strait and entered the Sulu Sea early the next morning.

During the next six days we remained at battle stations almost continuously. The Kamikazes appeared at random intervals all day long but tended to concentrate at dawn and dusk. I don’t know the total number that our task group shot down during this period, but I do recall that on one day, December 14, the ships and planes of CarDiv 27 (our division) accounted for 100. We lost one plane but saved the pilot.

Two of the Jap planes accounted for were Kamikazes that made simultaneous attacks on the Marcus Island. One dived in from the bow and the other from the stern, both at about a 60o angle. Those of us who were not flying usually stationed ourselves near some anti-aircraft gun sponsons to help identify planes and to stop any friendly fire in the event of misidentification. When I spotted the Kamikaze approaching from the stern, I was standing on the flight deck about 30 feet aft of the ship’s island near some 20 and 40-millimeter guns. The gunners were blasting away and I was cheering them on: “Get him boys, get him. Shoot the bastard. Hurry up! He’s getting close.” By then, I was getting nervous. I emptied my .38 revolver at him, but that didn’t faze him. By then he was smoking but hadn’t deviated from his course. He couldn’t possibly miss us and I thought he was aimed straight at me. I jumped down to the catwalk and crouched up against the bulkhead as close as I could. Right next to me was one of the stewards from the officers’ mess. He was serving as an ammunition handler for the guns and had on a huge anti-flack helmet. I said, “Hey, let me under there with you.”

He said, “OK, if you can figure out a way to get in.” Then came the explosion! Wham! Pieces of metal and water started raining all around us. I vaulted back to the flight deck expecting to see utter destruction. Everything looked normal except that the deck was littered with small pieces of metal and human flesh.

Apparently, at the last possible instant, the plane had altered its angle of dive slightly. Instead of a direct hit, the ship had been grazed slightly at the forward lookout position on the starboard side. The forward lookout who had maintained his assigned vigilance was decapitated. The ship was not damaged. I never did see the other plane, but it missed by a slightly wider margin on the port side, causing no damage at all.

By now it was obvious why the decision had been made to increase the number of fighters and reduce the number of bombers. This was now a fighter war. They were in their element and I envied them their opportunity to stay airborne most of the time. The TBM pilots had been reduced to a few uneventful ASP flights and had to stay deck-bound during the worst possible time. After we deposited the invading troops on Mindoro, I wasn’t disappointed when we were ordered to return to Manus for another assignment.

After a brief rest at Manus, we departed on December 29 with another assault force that had been assembled in our absence for the invasion of Lingayen Gulf, near Manila on Luzon. My flight log shows that on December 30 I spent three hours towing a target sleeve for ship anti-aircraft gunnery practice. After our experiences on the last trip through the Sulu Sea, we intended to do everything we could to have our gunners at peak performance for this one. We retraced our route of a few weeks before—back through Leyte Gulf and down through Surigao Strait, then northwest into the Sulu Sea. Negros and Panay Islands were visible on our right while Palawan Island was below the horizon on our left.

We maintained the usual ASP while the fighters continued their excellent CAP coverage. The only Kamikaze penetration that I recall during this period is the one I recorded in my flight log for January 6, during which our sister ship, the Kadashan Bay, was hit at the waterline. Commander Stafford also records this attack in detail in his excellent book, Little Ship, Big War. Apparently, he was not aware of the rest of the story, however.

Just inside the ship, where the Kamikaze hit, one of the fighter pilots of VC27 was asleep in his bunk. I believe his name was Buddington but, since I could be wrong, I’ll call him Bud for the purposes of this story. The only real damage the Kamikaze did was to knock a large hole in the side of the ship slightly below the waterline. The arrangement of watertight compartments in the ship limited the amount of water that penetrated the hull so that the “Katy B” was able to maintain its position in the task group and continue to land aircraft, even though it was down somewhat at the bow. What nobody knew at the time was that Bud had been engulfed by the rush of water that came in through the hole and was washed outside into the South China Sea. He was wearing his dog tag and skivvy shorts and nothing else. The damage control crew soon got the hole temporarily patched and everything under control, so everybody relaxed. Bud probably wasn’t supposed to be asleep in his bunk at the time anyway, so nobody missed him.

About four hours later, an entirely different task group, following about 40 miles astern of our group, contacted the Kadashan Bay to ask if they had a man missing. They had picked up this guy swimming in the ocean, but he was pretty much incoherent. He didn’t remember the name or number of his ship, but he did remember the radio code name. They reported his name from the dog tag and said they thought he was a pilot. That’s when the Kadashan Bay discovered they had lost a pilot. A few weeks later, VC27 and VC21 were ordered to return stateside together, so we all got to hear his story first hand. About all he could say about it was, “I woke up in the ocean and just kept on swimming.”

Other groups supplied the direct ground support for the actual invasion of Luzon at Lingayen Gulf while our group continued the ASP coverage and long searches for the remainder of the Jap fleet. On one of these searches, Jack Chrystal and his fighter escort, Benny Penny, sank a 2,000-ton cargo vessel off the coast of Luzon. Hank Suerstedt also reported sinking a miniature sub off the coast of Mindanao. Coincidentally, on the same day, January 5, in Little Ship, Big War, Commander Stafford reports a destroyer’s encounter with a midget submarine at about the same location. Apparently, there were two midget subs operating as a team.

On January 28 and 29, we were granted one last fling at providing direct support for an invasion. This one, at Subic Bay, on the northwest side of the Bataan Peninsula, turned out to be very tame indeed. Whatever resistance existed at the beginning evaporated quickly and the troops walked ashore virtually unopposed.

On the night of January 31, we began our long journey back to San Diego for some genuine rest and relaxation. Our immediate goal was Ulithi Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where we would leave the Marcus Island and await transportation back to the States. The Marcus would take on a new squadron and head back to the combat area.

For all practical purposes the old VC21 ceased to exist when we arrived at Ulithi. Later, when we reached the States, many of our personnel would be reassigned to other units. A few of us would remain with the reorganized VC21 and begin training a cadre of fresh pilots for combat duty. If all went well, we should again be a competent combat squadron in time for the scheduled invasion of Japan. None of us had any illusions about the enormity of this undertaking and its potential for excessively high casualties. There was every reason to believe that the Japanese people would defend their homeland as fiercely as their soldiers had defended their untenable positions during the earlier stages of the war. They would fight to the last man.

From our own experience, we knew that the survival rate of a combat unit may be correlated with the cohesiveness and the competence of the individuals within the unit. Of the ten Ensigns that comprised Torpedo Flight 53 (the nucleus of VC21) at Fort Lauderdale on August 1, 1943, eight were with the squadron when we arrived at Ulithi. Two had been transferred to other units early on because of personality conflicts with the Skipper. Later on, nine more had been added to bring the total complement of TBM pilots to 18. During this entire period, from August 1943 to February 1945, with thousands of hours of intensive training, carrier operations, and combat flying, we had not lost a single pilot. Our complement of 32 fighter pilots had not been as fortunate.

Jon Joyce was killed in a mid-air collision during a training exercise with VC27 near Point Loma at San Diego.

Sherwood Wilson was lost during night carrier landing exercises at sea near Pearl Harbor.

William McLemore did not pull out soon enough from a steep strafing dive at Guadalcanal during the dress rehearsal for the invasion of Palau.

John Jeffs was lost during an attack on Bablethorpe during the invasion of Peleliu.

William Garner and Charles Chapman were lost in combat during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

During the five-month period from mid-September to mid-February, we had participated in the invasions of Peleliu, Anguar, Leyte, Mindoro and Luzon. We had helped repulse a major portion of the Japanese fleet when they attempted to destroy our troops on Leyte. Our fighters had destroyed 17 enemy planes in aerial combat and many more on the ground. Our total number of combat hours exceeded 5,000.

We were happy to learn that we were being relieved for duty stateside.

End Note for Chapter V

Note 1. Suicide Attacks

The following pictures are intended to show how lucky we were on the afternoon of December 14. The first picture indicates the flight paths and impact areas of the two Zeroes that attacked us simultaneously. The next two pictures were taken seconds after the impact of Kamikaze 1 off the starboard bow of the ship. The top photo was taken first. Then the camera was panned to follow the helmeted crewman as he retreated from the impact area. The crewman with the white helmet and a handkerchief nose mask appears again in the bottom photo. The two prone crewmen are at the forward edge of the flight deck, just above the impact spot. The debris from the exploded Kamikaze is starting to rain down on the flight deck.

Kamikaze carrier attack.

Kamikaze Attack!

Kamikaze Attack!

Ted Balk

About Ted Balk

Ted Balk hails from the heart of South Carolina’s Sand Hill country. Brought up on a Clemson University agricultural experiment station, he and his four siblings had the run of 3,000 acres of Carolina farm and woodland (visited every two weeks by The Barnwell County Library’s Bookmobile), but also spent time in Augusta, Georgia, the midland-South’s closest approximation to a city. After high school, Balk received an appointment to the US Naval Academy, but the affair was short-lived. Next, leaving an unedifying job working third shift in a local textile mill, Balk volunteered for duty in Viet Nam, “to save some other poor son of a bitch from getting his Greetings letter” and because “there was a war on, and Southern boys weren’t going to miss out on the fun.” Some fun! Following a revelatory year in ‘Nam, Balk served another year in Germany and then got out of the Army post haste, all the illusions of his youth shattered. He hastily decamped to Flemish Belgium, began growing serious head and beard hair, and landed at The World Commune, where as wildly multi-cultural a group of hippies as could then be found farmed organically, ran a vegetarian restaurant, and studied Eastern spirituality while consuming great quantities of Greek wine and Belgian beer. “Called home” again by his Southern family, Balk finally settled down Stateside and got a degree in Civil Engineering at Clemson University. Following 33 years of working on various engineering projects (Read: cleaning up after others so we could all go on voraciously consuming resources and making rich people richer), Balk retired near his beloved Clemson. His latest studies have led him into the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as interpreted by B.K.S. Iyengar but, when not on a Yoga mat, he may be found, most days, at or near Clemson’s Esso Club. Beer, Yoga and story-telling are the current Balk trifecta. Author Photo: Josh Norris of www.JoshNorrisStudios.com; Watercolor of The Esso Club available from www.AllensCreations.com
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