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Home > December 2014 > This Month In Intrepid’s History
This Month In Intrepid’s History
Seperator
Posted: 12/19/2014 9:39:46 AM

USS Intrepid was commissioned on August 16, 1943, joining the U.S. Navy in the middle of World War II. For the next two years the ship and crew trained, fitted out and fought their way across the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, the contributions the ship and crew made to victory were vital and the price they paid was high. Travel with our Museum tour guides here each month as they follow Intrepid’s journey and its crew’s experience throughout World War II.

December 1944: Aftermath

On November 26, 1944, the surviving members of Intrepid’s crew gathered to pay their respects as 69 men, killed by kamikaze attacks the day before, were buried at sea. Air Group 18’s historian wrote, “The marines fired a salute, and everyone jumped as the guns went off.”

 

As members of the crew solemnly look on, casualties of the kamikaze attack of November 25, 1944, are buried at sea. (Courtesy of the National Archives)

As Intrepid limped back to Ulithi, many aboard were still reeling from the trauma of recent events. In the days that followed, the sight of their battle-scarred ship along with the lingering smells of battle served as an inescapable reminder for the survivors that not everyone had been so lucky.

 

In the aftermath of the kamikaze attack of November 25, 1944, a lone sailor gazes through a gaping hole in the flight deck. (Courtesy of the National Naval Aviation Museum)

Missing from the burial service was a large part of Air Group 18. Before the kamikaze attack, two large strikes had been launched against targets in the Philippines. Because Intrepid’s flight deck was knocked out in the attack, the pilots were unable to return to the ship. It seemed the only option was to have the pilots land on other carriers and then shove their planes over the side to make room for more. Fortunately, Lieutenant Benjamin Sturges, Admiral Bogan’s air intelligence officer, had an idea: the army had just completed a new airfield at Tacloban on Leyte. Bogan redirected the aircraft to the army field, and later he nominated Sturges for the Bronze Star for his quick thinking.

Touching down on Tacloban was a challenge for the pilots. The airfield was made of Marsden Matting, slippery metal sheeting with which Intrepid’s aviators had little experience. Despite the unfamiliar terrain, all the pilots managed to land safely, spending the next two nights in fox holes they had to dig themselves. From Leyte they began a sequence of long-distance flights by way of Palau and Yap. Finally, on November 30, Air Group 18’s wayfaring members arrived at Ulithi and saw firsthand the devastation that made their long journey necessary.

That same day Admiral Halsey himself came aboard to inspect Intrepid. It was clear the carrier would be going back stateside for repairs, but not everyone would be going home with the ship. The emerging threat of the kamikaze and the mounting losses among other air groups meant that additional fighter planes and pilots were sorely needed. As a result, Fighter Squadron 18’s remaining Hellcats and pilots were reassigned to USS Hancock.

There was also talk of reassigning Air Group 18’s Avenger and Helldiver pilots not just to other carriers but to fighter planes, despite minimal training.  In his diary, Avenger pilot Kenneth Barden praised Admiral Bogan for going “to bat for us” and preventing the reassignment of the pilots in the two bomber squadrons. Another Avenger pilot, Ben St. John, later explained that his squadron, after little more than three months aboard, already had a casualty rate of over 30 percent and had not yet completed the requisite six-month tour of duty that would automatically rotate them home. St. John believed that this sobering statistic played a key role in preventing their reassignment.   

On December 1, 1944, after a wild goodbye party, the Hellcat pilots left for USS Hancock. The next day Barden, St. John, and the rest of Air Group 18 left with Intrepid for the long journey home.
After stopping at Eniwetok and Pearl Harbor to offload equipment and pick up passengers, Intrepid finally arrived in California on December 20, 1944. By foot instead of flight, the men of Air Group 18’s two remaining squadrons left Intrepid for the final time and went their separate ways.

 

The pilots of Torpedo Squadron 18 shortly before arriving aboard Intrepid in August 1944. In less than four months, they earned 15 Navy Crosses and suffered 30 percent casualties. (Lloyd E. Karch Collection (AFC/2001/001/03798), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress)

In their time aboard Intrepid, Air Group 18’s three squadrons had stacked up some sizeable records, shooting down more planes, raiding more islands and sinking more ships than any other air group in Intrepid’s history. Among the Avenger pilots alone, 15 earned the Navy Cross for their actions during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, including the destruction of the super-battleship Musashi.

From California, some of the pilots were going home. Helldiver pilot John Forsyth later wrote of his jubilation, “I was being sent home, I had survived! I’d see my family again! I had a life ahead of me again! The excitement and anticipation were like those of a small boy the week before Christmas.” After flying cross country, he was forced to land in Buffalo, New York, because of a snow storm in his native city of Rochester. Catching a bus for the last leg of his journey, Forsyth walked through his front door at 9:00pm on Christmas Eve 1944.

 

Crew members gather on Intrepid’s hangar deck to celebrate mass on Christmas Eve 1944. (Collection of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum)

Ben St. John, on the other hand, knew his respite was temporary. He would eventually join a few other veterans as the nucleus of a newly forming squadron. After leaving the ship, he and several fellow aviators took a trip to Hollister, California, where they had spent months in training. Many of the pilots who trained in Hollister, including some who had died, had girlfriends who still lived there. St. John and his comrades had the unenviable task of informing some of these women that their loved ones would never return.

For all the damage they wrought on the Japanese, Air Group 18 held one other record: the highest number of losses of any air group in Intrepid’s history. In less than four months of combat, 47 officers and men gave their lives for their country while another 11 were still missing as of December 1944. Yet whether it ended in triumph or tragedy, for the men of Air Group 18, their time aboard Intrepid was over. For the ship itself and the remaining crew, the Pacific War held one last campaign.

Read the previous installments of "This Month in Intrepid's History":

October 1943
November 1943
December 1943
January 1944
February 1944
March 1944
April 1944
May 1944
June 1944
July 1944
August 1944
September 1944
October 1944
November 1944

 


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