Five Pilots in December: Photographic Portraits of American Fighter Pilots Who Lost Their Lives at Pearl Harbor

I once lived in a model world. 

How could I not?

Growing up in a small suburban community in the Pennsylvania of the 1960s and 70s, the Second World War formed a historical and cultural backdrop for the world around me.  The son of a veteran of World War Two and the Korean War, every adult male I knew – or so it then seemed – participated in the struggle against either Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, or, Imperial Japan. 

For my parent’s generation, the war seemed to have been a foundational experience that generated a cultural commonality that resonated – for a little while, at least – through the immediate postwar decades.  At family gatherings, or, when I quietly observed even most random, fleeting, casual interactions between adults, reminiscences of the war – sometimes humorous; occasionally grim; oftimes profound – were mentioned in a way that could briefly transcend differences in politics, or even economic and social status. 

At least it then seemed as such, from my perspective. 

Like many boys of my generation, I built plastic model kits of warplanes, military vehicles, naval ships, and a variety of other subjects, like Revell’s 1/48 Mercury / Gemini spacecraft.  For me, building models wasn’t simply a hobby.  It was my way of identifying with, if not indirectly becoming, part of the past.  So, admiring my elders; with a sense of accomplishment from assembling a set of injection-molded plastic pieces into “a fighter plane!”, “an aircraft carrier!”, or “a tank!” (or a spacecraft, like Monogram Models’ beautifully produced 1/48 Lunar Module) and maybe patriotism too (though I built many kits of German and Japanese warplanes!), if I couldn’t participate in history, I would model history. 

If I couldn’t command a battle tank against Panzer IVs in the hedgerows of Normandy, I could put one together.  (Revell’s 1/40 M-4 Sherman)  If I couldn’t launch torpedoes from a PT-boat against a Japanese destroyer as dusk quietly descended over the Solomon Islands, I could assemble one.  (Revell’s 1/72 PT-109)  If I couldn’t pilot a fighter plane against Me-262 jet fighters over Berlin, I could construct one.  (Monogram’s 1/48 P-51B Mustang)

Then, I learned more.  In fourth grade, I received a copy of William Green’s Famous Fighters of the Second World War from my uncle, who served as a Flight Surgeon in a 9th Air Force Fighter Squadron. 

One day, I asked him to show me his album of wartime pictures.   

He sat next to me, and, placing the album before him, began to leaf through the photographs he’d accumulated or taken during his military service.  There were pictures of airfields in England and Continental Europe, with the usual array of improvised, nondescript buildings, shacks and tents associated with most any flying field.  But, the majority of the images were of pilots: fighter pilots.  The men were wearing flight helmets, attached to which were flying goggles (late-war style, with one-piece lenses), with the hoses of oxygen masks draped nonchalantly over their shoulders.  They were seated in the cockpits of their planes – birdcage and bubbletop P-47 Thunderbolts – or, standing casually at unnamed airfields. 

Whether shyly, confidently, or both, many were smiling. 

My uncle flipped through the album, page by page, momentarily lingering over each image as if in silent tribute, and he continued on until the last photograph had been reached.  Then, he closed the album.  Upon seeing each picture, he quietly, quickly, and matter-of-factly said words to the effect of: “He’s dead.”  Or, “He got killed.”  Or, he would point at a picture and softly say, “Dead”.  That was true for all the images, and that was all he said.

How many photographs?  I don’t remember.  Certainly more than ten; certainly less than thirty.  Certainly enough. 

Then, he returned the album to the bookshelf in his library, and walking away, said no more.

Other books were very different.

Famous Fighters of the Second World War became my favorite reading material throughout my latter years of elementary school.  Even if I didn’t understand (or have much interest in) the technical development of World War Two fighter planes (I liked the “birdcage” P-51B far more than the bubble-top D version of the aircraft; still do) the many profile line drawings in Green’s book were the templates from which I created innumerable aerial battles on sheets of tracing paper.  A host of other works in the same genre followed, such as Gene Gurney’s Five Down and Glory, Quentin Reynolds’ 70,000 to One, J.R.D. Braham’s Night Fighter, Walter Lord’s At Dawn We Slept, and a, plethora of paperback books published by Ballantine Books. 

Then, in 1970, I discovered Scale Modeler magazine.  A close-up photograph of Revell’s newly released 1/32 P-38J Lightning graced the cover.  Another discovery:  Al Kropff and Sydney P. Chivers’ The Art of Plastic Modelling.  And then, Joseph V. Mizrahi’s duo of Wings and Airpower aviation magazines.

I was, frankly, amazed that other people – adults?- what? – who? – how?! – shared the same interests as I. 

Came the autumn of 1970.  History was re-created; history had become real, for the 20th Century Fox Corporation had released the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, a cinematic depiction of Japan’s strike against America’s Pacific Fleet from both the American and Japanese viewpoints, portraying – as best as late-1960s technology and special effects would allow – the weaponry and events of the actual attack.  I had to see this movie.   I wanted to see P-40 Warhawks and A6M2 “Zeroes” and Nakajima B5N2 “Kates” and Aichi D3A “Vals” and the Akagi, Hiryu, and the other Japanese aircraft carriers, and of course, the battleship Pennsylvania.  And at the center of everything, the USS Arizona.  Or, more accurately, its demise.

(By that time, I’d known “about” Pearl Harbor.  Not from family lore; not from books; not from newspapers, but from television.  Namely, from “The Day The Sky Fell In”, an episode of Irwin Allen’s science-fiction series The Time Tunnel, which was broadcast by the ABC Television Network on September 30, 1966.  Popular culture, it would seem, had as much potency in 1966 as in 2016…)

So, with family members, I saw the film at a theater in a small northeastern Pennsylvania town. 

We arrived by car.  The parking lot was jammed.

I was bored, at first.  Very bored.  “Why are they talking about papers and plans and diplomats and codes and cables and translations and why all the talking?!  Gee, where are the ships?!  When are they gonna’ show the planes?” 

I was riveted, not long after.  The movie brought history to life in a way that didn’t supplant Day of Infamy, but enhanced it, and prompted me to read Lord’s book anew. 

In the hindsight of forty-six years, three memories remain. 

The line. 

The queue of theater-goers extended several hundred feet from the ticket-counter, to very the entrance of the parking lot.  Perhaps it was my age, but, I’d never seen so many movie-goers waiting for a film with such anticipation and patience; with what in retrospect was a kind of deliberation.  This was different.  This was important.  Well, it seemed so.

The silence. 

We knew about the Arizona.  I assumed everyone knew about the Arizona.  The destruction of the battleship and the massive loss of life among her crew, singularized, epitomized, and symbolized the suddenness and devastation of the attack. 

The silence in the theater is complete.  Val dive-bombers fly overhead.  The scene changes to the interior of one of the planes aircraft.  The film’s perspective pans toward a photograph of the Arizona, coincidentally attached to the interior of dive-bomber’s cockpit (with the caption in English underneath) a visual cue to the audience about what was coming. 

The ship, struck by a bomb, explodes.  A quiet, collective “oomph” emerges from the crowd; their spirit deflates. 

The cheers.

From Walter Lord’s book, I knew of the bravery and dedication of Second Lieutenants Kenneth M. Taylor and George Welch, and several other Army Air Corps pilots, in attempting to defend the naval base and its complex of army airfields from the Japanese attackers.  I knew they had shot down several enemy planes.  I knew that some of these army pilots were killed, on the ground and in the air. 

And with every Japanese aircraft shot down – by Taylor and Welch; by US Navy gunners; by an Air Corps mechanic manning a heavy machine gun (casualties and devastation all around him) – a cheer; clapping; a collective “yeeaaaah!” arose from the audience.  Loudly.  Clearly.  Distinctly.  Lengthily.  As if the audience was primed, wanting this to happen, waiting for this to happen. 

Considering the scope of the attack, though the number of aerial victories they achieved was few, the nominal fact that the American pilots were able to “fight back” created a small beacon of pride amidst a day of unrelieved disaster – in 1969.  Though the scale of their efforts was minor in comparison to the magnitude of the events of December 7, the fact that they were able to resist, was enough. 

The response of the audience to the film, rather than the film itself, is my strongest memory of seeing Tora! Tora! Tora!

The film inevitably and understandably simplified complexity, location, and the specific events involved in the aerial defense of Pearl Harbor by depicting Taylor and Welch’s attacks against their opponents in a nicely filmed three-minute aerial combat sequence, using a combination of aerial footage of actual P-40s, and, AT-6s and BT-13s modified to represent Zero fighters and Kate torpedo-bombers.  This is interspersed with studio footage of the actors playing Taylor (Carl Reindel) and Welch (Rick Cooper) seated in mock-ups of P-40 cockpits, behind whom a sky background is projected.  (A precursor to the use of a “green-screen”, which featured in the filming of Jude Law and Gwyenth Paltrow in a P-40 cockpit, in Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow!)

Only years later did I learn that the film received indifferent reviews and under-performed financially, partially attributable to the expenditures for ensuring realism and technical accuracy through the use of actual aircraft.   

The aerial combat sequence from Tora! Tora! Tora!, posted by “Combo Breaker 96” in July of 2015, can be found at:

Tora! Tora! Tora! P-40s versus Zeroes Scene

Well, that is how I remember the world of 1970.

* * * * * * * * * *

Some decades later, while researching images pertaining to the World War Two Army Air Force at the United States National Archives, in College Park, Maryland, I discovered the Archives’ collection of “Photographic Prints of Air Cadets and Officers, Air Crew, and Notables in the History of Aviation”.  This remarkable trove of photographic portraits and other images comprises 105 boxes (heavy, archival storage boxes, that is) containing several thousand – the exact number unknown – images of aviators, the overwhelming majority taken during the very late 1930s, and early 1940s; with a very small number from WW I and the twenties.  A few civilian flyers (like Amelia Earhart and Anthony Fokker) are also present, along with a few images of famous German WW I aviators.    

Most of the portraits are of Flying Cadets, or, men who had just graduated as Second Lieutenants and received their “wings” from Army Air Force pilot, bombardier, and navigator schools.  The majority of images seem to have been taken from 1941 through 1943, with some taken in 1944, and very few thereafter. 

Some pictures were taken outdoors, along an airfield flight-line, apparent from background scenery.  Some, with photographic back-drops of aircraft, clouds, or other aviation-related images, were obviously taken in studios.  Other were taken in very simple, unadorned, indoor settings.  Some images are printed upon 8 ½” x 11” black & white glossy finish photographic paper, while others, of smaller dimensions, are mounted upon (glued to) heavy 8 ½” x 11” stock.  Typically, information such the date of the photograph, name and rank of subject, and the aviation school where the image was taken is recorded with the images; sometimes on the image itself.     

Inevitably, given the coincidence between the timing of their graduation and the time-frame of the Second World War, many of these men were killed in action, while others lost their lives in training or operational accidents.  Similarly, it is notable that there are no photographs of aircrews; only individuals.  Notably, this collection of photographs comprises a limited number of the tens of thousands Army Air Force pilots, bombardiers, navigators who were Aviation Cadets, or were commissioned, during World War Two.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was the discovery of these pictures that has led to this post.

Within the photo collection, there are images of Aviation Cadets Samuel W. Bishop (later 1st Lt., 44th Pursuit Squadron, 18th Pursuit Group), Hans C. Christiansen (later 2nd Lt., 44th Pursuit Squadron, 18th Pursuit Group), John L. Dains (later 2nd Lt., 47th Pursuit Squadron, 15th Pursuit Group), Gordon H. Sterling, Jr. (later 2nd Lt., 46th Pursuit Squadron, 15th Pursuit Group), and, George A. Whitman (later 2nd Lt., 44th Pursuit Squadron, 18th Pursuit Group).  All four except Sterling were photographed at (then) Kelly Field, in San Antonio; Bishop and Christiansen in 1940, and Dains a year later. 

On December of 1941, these five men were stationed at Pearl Harbor. 

The only one still alive on December 8 was Samuel Bishop. 

Bishop, Christiansen, and Whiteman, were stationed at Bellows Field.  The events there are described in 7 December 1941 – The Air Force Story, as follows:

Personnel of the 44th Pursuit Squadron rushed out to disperse, fuel, and arm their twelve P-40 Warhawks, which were lined up on the edge of the runway.  Only four of the squadron’s officers were at Bellows that morning, and three were pilots.  They wanted to get into the air immediately, despite the fact that their aircraft were not completely armed, but Lieutenant Phillips, the armament officer, insisted that all six .50. caliber guns be fully loaded before any aircraft took off.  As 2d Lt. Hans C. Christiansen started to get into the cockpit of his plane, he was struck in the back by enemy fire and fell at the feet of his mechanic, Cpl. Elmer L. Rund, who was standing by the lower right wing.  Blood gushed out from a large hole in the life jacket of the fatally wounded pilot.  Rund and his crew chief, Joe Ray, then had to quickly duck under the aircraft for protection from the strafing attack by the Japanese planes, which seemed to come at them from all directions. (27)

The third pilot at Bellows was 1st Lt. Samuel W. Bishop, who taxied into position, turned his plane toward the ocean, and began his takeoff roll directly behind Whiteman.  He saw Whiteman’s plane go down after a burst of gunfire went right into the cockpit.  The only emotion he felt was deep rage as he got airborne, holding the trigger down all the while, as Japanese planes swarmed around him.  He retracted his landing gear and hugged the water, trying to gain speed, but the Zeros clung tenaciously to him and shot him down in the ocean about half a mile offshore.  Despite a bullet wound in his leg, Bishop managed to get out of his plane and, with his Mae West keeping him afloat, swam to shore. (29)

5-bishop-samuel-w-44-rtd-400Flying Cadet Samuel W. Bishop.  Photographed on May 16, 1940.

6-christiansen-hans-47-kia-c-400Flying Cadet Hans C. Christiansen.  Photographed on December 26, 1940.9-whiteman-george-a-44-kia-400Flying Cadet George A. Whiteman.  Picture taken on September 5, 1940.

Biographical information for Christiansen can be found at his FindAGrave on-line memorial, as can that for Whiteman, after whose name the formerly inactivated Sedalia Army Airfield – reactivated in October of 1952 as Sedalia Air Force Base – was renamed in 1955. 

Sterling was killed in what would be his first and only dogfight.  As recounted in John W. Lambert’s The Long Campaign – The History of the 15th Fighter Group in World War II,

“The pilots mounted their planes, fired up their engines, and prepared for the first sortie from Wheeler.  At the last minute, leaving his engine running, Norris climbed out of his cockpit and ran to get a better fitting parachute.  Seeing the rest of the formation beginning to taxi out, 2nd I.t. Gordon H. Sterling, who had been standing by hoping to get into the fight, bounded into the empty cockpit of the fourth P-36.  He handed his wrist watch to an astonished mechanic, and said. “See that my mother gets this.  I won’t be coming back,” slammed the canopy and gunned the plane down the field.

“It was about 0850 when Sanders’ flight cleared Wheeler, entered a cloud base at 2.000 feet and headed southeast.  As they broke out of the clouds at 28,500 feet Sanders advised the fighter control center of his position and availability.  The fighter director reported many bogeys over Kaneohe and Bellows Fields.  Sanders acknowledged, increased his climb at full throttle to 11,000 feet, and turned north.

“By this time the first wave of the Japanese attack force was streaming back to their carriers.  Fuchida, cruising at 15,000 feet over Pearl Harbor, was surveying his handiwork and directing the next wave.  This force, led by Lt. Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki of the Zuikaku, had been launched at 0715.  It consisted of 167 Kates. Vals, and escorting Zekes.  About 0850 they began to deploy for the attack run on their targets off the East Coast of Oahu.

“Shimazaki’s units struck Kaneohe and Bellows airfields and renewed the attacks on Hickam and the badly wounded fleet at Pearl Harbor.  These Vals with Zekes flying top cover were the bogeys identified by fighter control who had directed the 46th Squadron’s P-36s to rendezvous.  Lew Sanders relates the action:

“In a slight dive at near maximum throttle, we sighted a formation of 11 enemy planes at about 6,000 feet.  I rocked my wings and the formation tightened up around me.  As I began to give hand signals to my flight I saw that Sterling had some- how taken over Norris’ plane.  It was quite a shock to discover this youngster in formation under such dire circumstances.  However, there was no alternative but to signal him to take my right wing position.  Then I directed the left element pilots to take aggressive action.

 “We dived, coming in on the enemy formation at an overtaking speed, from about level flight.  I fired at the leader, watched tracers enter the fuselage, saw him pull up slightly, and then fall off the right, smoking.  I made a fast 360 degree turn to clear my tail and, at a very short distance ahead, saw a P-36 I thought to be my wingman.  Sterling was shooting at a burning enemy plane in a near vertical dive.  An instant later another enemy fighter split S-ed on Sterling’s tail.  I pushed over on the three planes below me and began firing at the one on Sterling.  Soon the P-36 ahead of me was on fire and spiraling slowly out of control.  The Japanese fighter in my sights was in a dive, trailing white smoke.

8-sterling-gordon-h-jr-46-kia-600Flying Cadet Gordon H. Sterling, Jr.  Date unknown.

Lt. Sterling, whose body has never been found, is memorialized both at the Honolulu Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery

John Dains may have been the first American “friendly fire” fatality of the Second World War.  Shot down over Schofield Barracks, his fate is described by Leatrice R. Arakaki and John R. Kuborn, John R., and also in James R. Jones’ best-selling novel, From Here to Eternity

According to 7 December 1941 – The Air Force Story,

 “While this [the attempted take-off at Bellows field by Bishop, Christiansen, and Whiteman] was going on, Haleiwa launched aircraft as fast as pilots showed up.  Lts. John Dains and John Webster both got off at different times in P-40s, while Lts. Harry Brown and Robert Rogers each took off in P -36s.  From Wheeler Field, Lts. Malcolm Moore and Othneil Norris entered the fight, also flying P-36s.  Brown and Rogers headed out to Kahuku Point, where they engaged the enemy without any confirmed kills, but Rogers damaged one enemy aircraft. From there they joined up with Moore and Webster and headed west.  At Kaena Point, Webster damaged one aircraft, but could not confirm a kill.  Rogers was cornered by two Japanese; and Brown plowed into the fight, shooting down one attacker.  As the action started to wind down, Moore opened up on one retreating Japanese aircraft but failed to down it.  Brown spotted the smoking ship and also fired but, like Moore, could not hit a vital spot, and the aircraft got away.  Rogers started to run low on fuel, so he returned to Haleiwa where he took off on his second mission in a P-36.  Dains also returned to Haleiwa and got off on a second mission in a P-40.

“By this time the Japanese had completed their attack and were returning to their carriers as fast as they could.  Wheeler Field and Haleiwa kept launching aircraft for the next hour with little coordination or direction for the pilots.  No additional combat with the Japanese occurred.  One mystery still remains concerning the action that occurred in the air that Sunday morning.  Radar operators at the station at Kaaawa watched a P-40 shoot down a Japanese Zero during the height of the battle.  The operators were positive the American aircraft was a P- 40, and they identified it both from its distinctive silhouette and the sound of its engine.  None of the pilots that survived that morning’s action remembered flying in the Kaawa area.  The only pilot whose action was unaccounted for was Lt. John Dains, who flew two missions that morning in a P-40.  Both times he was separated from the other American fighters and fought by himself.  After landing the second time, he switched to a P-36 and joined up with George Welch for a third mission.  Neither pilot spotted anything because by that time the Japanese had cleared the area, so they decided to return to Wheeler Field.  On the return flight, antiaircraft guns at Schofield Barracks opened up on the two aircraft, killing Dains.  There were three plausible explanations.  First, the radar operators could have been mistaken in what they saw; second, some other P-40 pilot downed the Japanese plane and was unaware where the action occurred; or third, we suspect that Dains did get the enemy plane as the ground personnel observed and just never got the chance to tell his story.

The account of Dains’ death occupies a brief passage in Jones’ lengthy and superb 1951 novel, the clarity of the description therein suggesting that Jones witnessed the event firsthand, or, learned about the story from fellow soldiers.  Certainly this would be consistent with Jones’ presence at Schofield Barracks that December morning.  As penned by Jones,  

Lt. Ross dived under the porch for the supplyroom as another single [aircraft] came blasting in from the southeast and the roaring umbrella of fire rose from the roofs to engulf it.  It seemed impossible that he could fly right through it and come out untouched.  But he did.

Right behind him, but flying due north along Waianae Avenue and the Hq Building, came another plane; and the umbrella swung that way without even letting go of its triggers.

The plane’s gastank exploded immediately into flames that engulfed the whole cockpit and the plane veered off down on the right wing, still going at top speed.  As the belly and left under-wing came up into view, the blue circle with the white star in it showed plainly in the bright sunlight.  Then it was gone, off down through some trees that sheared off the wings, and the fuselage, still going at top speed, exploded into some unlucky married officer’s house quarters with everyone watching it.

“That was one of ours!” Reedy Treadwell said in a small still voice.  “That was an American plane!”

“Tough,” Warden said, without stopping firing at the new double coming in from the northeast.  “The son of a bitch dint have no business there.”

After the Jap double had flashed past, unscathed, Warden turned back and made another circuit up and down the roof, his eyes screwed up into that strained look of having been slapped in the face that he sometimes got, and that made a man not want to look at him. 

“Be careful, you guys,” he said.  Up the roof.  Down the roof.  “That last one was one of ours.”  Try and be careful.  Try and get a good look at them before you shoot.  Them stupid bastards from Wheeler liable to fly right over here.  So try and be careful after this.”  Up the roof.  Down the roof.  The same strained squint was in his voice as was in his eyes.

From Here to Eternity

James R. Jones

(1951) 1954

New American Library (Signet Books; paperback edition), pp. 720-721

The defense of Schofield Barracks occurs three-minutes into this snippet from the full film.    

It’s entertaining and well-acted, and, akin to the dogfight scene from Tora! Tora! Tora!, shows the near-inevitable, natural simplification of characters and events that occurs when a story – any story; any text (this action comprising 14 pages in the paperback edition); fiction or fact – is transformed from text to the moving image. 

It’s notable that stock footage of SBD Dauntless dive bombers was used to represent Japanese bombers and torpedo plane, while AT-6 trainers – “Japanese” by virtue of the hinomarus painted on their wings and fuselages! – represent strafing Zero fighters.  This was in 1953, only eight years after the war’s end, when certainly much of the viewing audience – inevitably including many recent veterans – would have recognized these incongruities. 

I remember how shocked I felt when I read the above passage in Jones’ novel.  I suppose it’s understandable that in the context of 1953, John Dain’s loss was not incorporated into the film.  Well, at least one thing was consistent:  In the film as in the Jones’ novel, the soldiers of Schofield Barracks do shoot down a Zero.     

Well, no matter.  Vastly different in concept, creation, and scope from Tora! Tora! Tora!, this was a film that was driven, and extremely well driven, by character, plot, and setting.  The aerial attack on Schofield Barracks in From Here to Eternity (spliced from video version posted by Trena Sorman), can be viewed at:

Japanese Attack on Schofield Barracks as portrayed in From Here to Eternity (1953)

Dains is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, in Honolulu.

7-dains-john-l-44-kia-600-cFlying Cadet John L. Dains.  Picture taken on June 4, 1941.

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Should you visit the National Archives to search for an image of an aviator, I’ve created a finding aid, adapted from the original document at the National Archives, which alphabetically lists the number of the box where his photograph might be found, based on and correlated to an alphabetical list of surnames.  The document can be found at:

Photographic Prints of Air Cadets and Officers, Air Crew, and Notables in the History of Aviation – NARA RG 18-PU (Finding Aid)

May the search for your flyer be successful.


Arakaki, Leatrice R. and Kuborn, John R., 7 December 1941 – The Air Force Story, 1991, Pacific Air Forces Office of History, Hickam Air Force Base, Hi. 

Clausen, Christopher, Living Memory, The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn, 2004, at

Howard, Clive and Whitley, Joe, One Damned Island After Another, 1946, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.

Jones, James R., From Here to Eternity, (1951), 1954, The New American Library (Signet Books), New York, N.Y.

Lambert, John W., The Long Campaign – The History of the 15th Fighter Group in World War II, 1982, Sunflower University Press, Manhattan, Ks.

Maurer, Maurer, Combat Squadron of the Air Force – World War II, 1982, Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center and Office of Air Force History, Headquarters, USAF.

From Here to Eternity, posted by Trena Sorman on January 7, 2016, at

George Welch, at

History of Whiteman Air Force Base, at

Kenneth M. Taylor, at

The Time Tunnel, episode directory, at

Tora! Tora! Tora!, Internet Movie Database entry, at

– Michael G. Moskow

A Helldiver From the Deep: A Crashed SB2C Dive-Bomber Retrieved From the Coastal Waters of Japan

The Army Air Force’s institution of Missing Air Crew Reports (MACRs) to track Army Air Force personnel and aircraft lost on operational missions was an impressive way of collating and organizing a variety of information – from a range of sources – towards the central goal of resolving the fate of its missing aircraft and personnel.  These documents were certainly effective in their immediate and direct mission, both during and after the war.  However, what was almost certainly neither anticipated nor appreciated at the time – how could it have been? – was the usefulness of MACRs in the future.  Commencing with the declassification of these documents in the early 1980s, families of servicemen, veterans themselves, and aviation and military historians were able to use them to research historical events and solve aviation mysteries from four decades prior.

In that sense, the documents proved their worth for two generations. 

When I first began researching MACRs, I assumed that the WW II Navy generated similar documents, to track its own missing aviation personnel.  As I quickly learned, no such system of documents was created.  Instead, information about missing WW II Naval aviators is found in the Navy’s Casualty Files.  As described in the National Archives’ finding aid for these documents, they,

“Contain lists, radio messages, and correspondence relating to casualties (both combat and accidental), sustained by particular naval organizations or during particular actions or events.  The records include notification received by BUPERS (Bureau of Personnel) that an officer or sailor is a casualty, preliminary reports on the status (confirmed casualty or missing), ultimate disposition of the case (sometimes a finding a year or more after the event of presumptive death), and indication of notification of next-of-kin.  Some cases include considerable detail about the events surrounding the casualty and the efforts made to locate or determine the status of the individual involved.  Other cases simply include lists, such as names of the crews, of those casualties sustained by major combat vessels, or other naval units.”

The fundamental difference being, with MACRs, a researcher works with a single document on microfiche, or digitally, via  With Navy Casualty Files (well, a least at the United States National Archives!), a researcher can work with the original document.  And because of that, sometimes – ironically – you can find something as startling as it is unexpected.

Case in point, this posting. 

As part of a project to identify WW II Allied POWs of the Japanese who – as members of the USAAF, USN, USMC, RAAF, RNZAF, and RAF – were captured after their aircraft were shot down during operational missions in the Pacific Theater – and who had the good fortune to return home at the war’s end – I discovered the photographs which appear in this post.

They are of a US Navy SB2C Helldiver dive-bomber of VB-82, of the USS Bennington, which was recovered intact (albeit in separate parts! – airframe and engine) from the coastal waters of Japan, as part of the postwar investigation into the fate of the aircraft’s crew.  Happily; fortunately, both the pilot and radio-operator / gunner survived ditching and captivity, and returned to America after their liberation from the POW Camp at Ofuna (Shinjku), Japan.

Their aircraft was an SB2C-4E, Bureau Number 20593, number “26”.  The plane was shot down during an attack against warships in Hiroshima Bay on March 19, 1945. 

As described in the War Diary of the USS Bennington for that date,

Receiving word that units of the Japanese Fleet were at anchor at Hiroshima Bay and Kure Harbor, STRIKE ONE BAKER was launched, amid a grand scramble among pilots to decide who should be the lucky ones to make the flight.  Thirty-eight (38) aircraft from the BENNINGTON joined with an equal number from the HORNET plus smaller groups from the BELLEAU WOOD and SAN JACINTO.  The flight proceeded to Hiroshima Bay in search of the elusive enemy and sighted two or three BBs, one CL, a number of DDs, and various ships of the train.  Attacks were made on one “Yamato” class BB, several DDs and cargo types.


  • One (1) battleship “Yamato” class, four (4) destroyers, one (1) Sugar Able Love, and one (1) Sugar Able Baker were damaged.
  • Two (2) radar stations and one (1) coastal defense position on Otada Shima were damaged in strafing attacks.
  • On the west coast of Shikoku Island, two (2) trains were strafed and the engines hauling both were destroyed.


  • Lieutenant Donald Doris WORDEN, (A1), USNR, File No. 125994 of 16-18 138 Street, Flushing, L.I., New York, and his radio gunner BROWN, Clifford A., ARM 3c, USNR, 826 27 71, of 44 Mercer Street, Hamilton Square, New Jersey, were last seen in their rubber life raft in Hiroshima Bay after making a water landing as a result of damage to their airplane, SB2C-4E, Bureau No. 20593, by AA fire while making a dive bombing attack on a Jap battleship. Lieutenant WORDEN and BROWN have been declared “missing in action.”

Oddly, the serial given for Donald Worden is incorrect.  It should be 0-130061.

And, in the Bennington’s Action Reports covering March 14 through April 30, 1945 (“Operations against Southern Kyushu Area, Kure Area (Honshu) and Nansei Shoto area in support of the Invasion and Occupation of Okinawa Gunto”):

19 March 1945

     1 Baker (15 VF, 11 VB, 12 VT), 0647-0941, together with flights from other carriers and task groups was assigned the mission of attacking the main Japanese battle fleet at its home base.  The BENNINGTON Group in the face of severe AA fire attacked a YAMATO Class battleship, four destroyers and a large tanker all underway in HIRSOSHIMA BAY.  Three hits with 1000 lb. SAP bombs were scored on the battleship – one being confirmed by photographs, three destroyers were damaged by near misses with bombs, rockets and strafing, and three hits and a miss with 500 kb. Bombs were scored on the tanker.  One VB was severely damaged by AA and made a water landing South of the Bay.  The pilot, Lt. D.D. WORDEN, USNR, and aircrewman C.A. BROWN ARM2c are listed as missing in action.

Due to my unfamiliarity with Japanese geographic terms or the Japanese language in general (!) I’m unable to actually identify – using on-line maps – the location where Lt. Worden ditched 20593.  However, knowing that the aircraft landed some-where in Hiroshima Bay, I’ve included a Google Map as a general guide to that locale.   

mapThe above is the account of the loss of the SB2C from the American side.  What is particularly noteworthy in the Casualty File is its coverage of this incident from the vantage point of five Japanese witnesses, the hiring and interaction with the Japanese salvage team, technical details of the Helldiver based on a description of the salvaged wreckage, and above all, the four photographs of the plane that were – and are still – included with the report.  (Unfortunately, the plane’s identification plate was not found in the Casualty File!)  A transcribed version of the Casualty File is available, below:

Report of Investigation of Unidentified SB2C Helldiver by Legal Section GHQ, SCAP (SB2C-4E crewed by Lt. Donald D. Worden and ARM 3C Clifford A. Brown)

The four photographs appear below.  All were scanned at 600 dpi to ensure high resolution.  Though the staples (1947 vintage staples, at that!) in the last two images are rather obvious, I’ve decided not to “crop” them out of the scans, so viewers can get a complete impression of the “character” of the original photos – and thus the landscape in the images.


A view of 20593 from the front.  Captain Hacker is presumably standing in the cockpit.  Note that ARM Brown’s opened parachute, still intact after two year’s submersion, laying upon the right wing;   Seaweed has become attached to the underside of the wings and elevators, the fabric of the latter, and also the rudder, shows damage to fabric incurred from combat, or, when Lt. Worden ditched the plane.


And, a nice view of 20593 from the rear.  Damage to the tailplane is clearly visible.  Note that the radio-operator / gunner’s twin thirty-caliber machine guns, pointing to the left rear, are still present.  The white arrow denoting VC-20 can be seen on the starboard aileron.


Captain Hacker holding the Helldiver’s cowling, while the plane’s Wright R-2600-20 Cyclone sits forlornly nearby.  The propeller was not found during recovery.

The “back-seater’s” canopy is missing (probably having been jettisoned prior to ditching), while the rear-canopy sections of the turtleback are partially folded.  Note that the number on the cowling is “89”, while that on the tail is “26”. 


An overall view of 20593.  Not quite in focus, but still quite interesting.  ARM Brown’s parachute was first found in the rear cockpit, and then placed upon the starboard wing.

* * * * * * * * * *

The fate of the wreckage of 20593 is unaddressed in the VB-82 Casualty File.  The aircraft and its engine may have served as raw material for tools, household furnishings, or workplace implements for nearby inhabitants.  Or, the wreckage may eventually been sold for scrap.  Ironically, precisely because it was intact when recovered, there are likely now – seventy-one years later – no traces of the plane still remaining at the site of its recovery.  Like the overwhelming majority of military aircraft of all nations, once the machine served its purpose, it passed out of existence.

Well, machines can be replaced.  The men who fly them cannot be. 

What of the two airmen who crewed 20593?

Among SB2C aircrews shot down in combat during the Second World War, there were eight other instances where both crewmen of this two-seat dive-bomber – pilot, and, radio-operator / gunner – survived capture and captivity.  They are:

June 15, 1944

VB-2, SB2C-1C, Bureau Number 261

Lt. Daniel T. Galvin (California), and ARM 2C Oscar D. Long (Greenville, S.C.)

POWs at Ofuna

February 16, 1945

VB-12, SB2C-4E, Bureau Number 20308

Ensign Charles H. Brown (Kingwood, W.V.), and ARM 3C Donald J. Richards (Fort Lauderdale, Fl.)

POWs at Ofuna

March 18, 1945

VB-82, SB2C-4E, Bureau Number 20555

Lt. Carlyle Newton (Connecticut), and ARM 1C Edward G. Curtin (Washington, D.C.)

Newton: POW at Ofuna; Curtin: POW at Omori

March 19, 1945

 VB-10, SB2C-4E, Bureau Number 20971

Ensign Robert Brinick (Detroit, Michigan), and ARM 3C Crawford H. Burnette (Douglasville, Ga.)

POWs at Ofuna

VB-82 (Worden and Brown – in this post)

VB-83, SB2C-4E, Bureau Number 20702

Lt. Eugene J. Tougas (Jacksonville, Fl.), and ARM 1C Charles J. Richardson (?)

POWs at Ofuna

July 18, 1945

VB-83, SB2C-4E, Bureau Number 20684

Ensign Ernest W. Baker (Richmond, Va.), and ARM 3C Walter L. Owens (Chicago, Il.)

POWs at Ofuna

July 28, 1945

VB-86, SB2C-5, Bureau Number 83246

Lt. JG Joseph D. Brown (Baltimore, Md.), and ARM 2C Frederick C. Lockett (Ardsley, Pa.)

POWs at Ofuna

VB-94, SB2C-4E, Bureau Number 20946

Lt. Joseph G. Costigan (?), and ARM 3C Warren E. Collins (Essex County, N.Y.)

POWs at Ofuna


The names of Donald Worden and Clifford Brown appear (as do those of seven other airmen) in the list of returned prisoners in the USS Bennington’s Cruise Book.  Both were imprisoned at Ofuna (Shinjku) POW Camp, in Tokyo.

uss-bennington-cruise-book-1945Presently, my information about Brown is limited to the entry for him in Combat Connected Naval Casualties of World War Two, which lists his wartime next-of-kin as his father, Mr. Amos Stanley Brown, of 44 Mercer St., Hamilton Square (Mercer County), New Jersey.

More information is available about Donald Worden.  Navy Muster Rolls list him as having been stationed – in December of 1941 and February of 1942 – at the Naval Reserve Aviation Base at Kansas City, respectively.  By March of 1942, he is listed at the Reserve Naval Aviation Base in New Orleans.

Notably, he was the recipient of the Navy Cross.  His award citation, dated 9 July 1945 and available at Military Times, states,

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant Donald Doris Worden (NSN: 0-130061), United States Naval Reserve, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Bomber and Division Leader of four planes in Bombing Squadron EIGHTY-TWO (VB-82), attached to the U.S.S. BENNINGTON (CV-20), on 19 March 1945.  On that date, Lieutenant Worden engaged in an eleven plane attack against a new enemy battleship and its destroyer-cruiser screen near the Naval Base at Kure, Japan.  He dove his aircraft and maneuvered his division with skill and aggressiveness in a closely coordinated dive bombing attack on this force, his determination and able airmanship contributing vitally to the damage scored on the battleship by repeated direct hits and near misses.  His attack was driven home in the face of extremely intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire from the battleship, its nine screening destroyers and cruisers and from surrounding shore batteries, and in spite of his own plane being struck before his dive.  His courage and daring were at all times in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Combat Connected Naval Casualties of World War Two lists his next-of-kin as his wife, Evelyn Louise Worden, her wartime address being 1860 Southwest 10th Street, in Miami, Florida.

Further information is available about Lt. Worden, but it reveals a future – post-1945 – that one wishes had been far different.

After surviving being shot down and captured by the Japanese – a fate from which many Allied airmen did not return – and spending the next half-year as a POW, Lt. Worden remained in the Navy, rising by the early 1950s to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. 

He was killed in an aviation accident only eight years later.

As reported by the Kansas City Times in that newspaper’s issue of December, 1953:


Lieut. Milton Kay Walsh, Son of Mrs. E. L. Walsh. 2 East Sixty-Second, Is a Crew Member

Kansas City Times

December 22, 1953

     The navy announced yesterday that a Kansas City man was aboard an R4D transport plane which disappeared Sunday in the Guam area of the Western Pacific while on a flight looking for another plane, lost since Wednesday.  He is Lieut. Milton Kay Walsh, 30, husband of Mrs. Betty Kerr Walsh, Palo Alto, Calif., formerly of Kansas City.  His mother, Mrs. Edward L. Walsh, lives at 2 East Sixty-second street.  Ten crew members were on the plane, which has not been heard from since it went out to look for the other craft.  Lieutenant Walsh attended Southwest high school and Junior college before he enlisted in the navy in World War II.  He has been in the service eleven years.  In World War II he was a flier based at Attu in the Aleutians.  He has a 5-year- old daughter, Peggy Jean Walsh, Palo Alto.  A sister of the lieutenant, Mrs. E. Albert Aisenstadt, lives at 1204 West Sixty-seventh street.  His wife’s parents are Mr. and Mrs. J. A. Kerr, 1120 East Seventy-fifth street terrace.  Others listed as being on board the transport: Lieut. Comdr. Donald D. Worden, son of Mr. and Mrs. William Ralph Worden of Stewartsville, Mo.; Kenneth John Schmitz, chief aviation machinist’s mate, son of Mrs. Mary Helen Schmitz. San Diego.; Thomas Theodore Lillie, chief aviation electronicsman, son of Mr. Ernest Lillie of El Reno, Ok.; William Boykin Jenkins, aviation machinist’s mate, first class, son of Mr. and Mrs. John H. Jenkins, Atlanta.; Hollis Mimhell Burks, parachute rigger, first class, son of Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Mitchell Burks, Huntsville. Ala.; Edward Frank Geis, aviation elecronicsman second class, son of Mr. and Mrs. John E. Geis, Dos Palos, Calif.; Marion Leon Carpenter, aviation machinist’s mate, third class, son of Mr. and Mrs. Rufus Gordon Carpenter. Bessemer City, N. C.; Billie Edward Hall, aviation machinist’s mate, third class, son of Mrs. Everett Hall, Amarillo, Tex.; Douglas Anthony Anderlini, airman, son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Louis Anderlini, St. Louis.

This story was also reported in the Lewiston Tribune in its December 27 issue (found at the Google News Archive):

Navy Plane Found in Volcano Crater

Lewiston Tribune

December 27, 1953

     GUAM (AP) – A search team Saturday found the wreckage of a big Navy plane that disappeared last Sunday while looking for another lost Navy plane.  They said there were no survivors of the 10 crewmen aboard.

The wreckage of the R4D8 was found in the crater of an extinct volcano on tiny Agrahan Island 380 miles north of here.

The searchers said it apparently had crashed into the cloud capped 3,166-foot cone without warning.

The search for the first missing weather plane was called off by the Navy at noon Saturday.

A very detailed account of the incident appears at the website of VJ-1 / VW-3.

R4D8, Bureau Number 17179, was assigned to Naval Air Station Guam, and was lost while searching for PB4Y-2S 59716 of VJ-1 (Weather Squadron One), which went missing on a, “low level typhoon penetration on Typhoon ‘Doris’ on 16 December 1953.”

A comprehensive account by Max Crow concerning the loss of 57916 and her nine crewmen (who were never found) as well as Skytrain 17179, is available at the Weatherplane Down website.  The website includes a list of the Privateer’s crewmen and an aerial photograph of Agrihan Island

Remarkably, a photograph of R4D8 17179, via Cheryl Davis, is present at the Aviation Safety Network website, and is shown below.

19531220-1-p-1Lieutenant Commander Worden, born in 1921, is buried at Stewartsville Cemetery, in DeKalb, Missouri.  Though FindaGrave denotes his date of death as December 20, 1983, viewing a “full-size” image of his military grave marker shows that the marker is indeed correctly engraved as 1953.

* * * * * * * * * *

And so, a very brief tale of one airplane and two men, the fate of one reminiscent of the epigraph to John O’Hara’s 1934 novel, Appointment in Samara, itself based on an ancient Babylonian Tale

They have passed into history – as do all men and all things  – but perhaps this brief account is enough to remember them, at least for a time.


Doll, Thomas E., Jackson, Berkley R., and Riley, William A., Navy Air Colors – United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard Aircraft Camouflage and Markings, Vol. 1911-1945, 1983, Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc., Carrollton, Tx.

Stern, Robert, SB2C Helldiver in Action, 1982, Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc., Carrollton, Tx.

Swanborough, Gordon, and Bowers, Peter M., United States Navy Aircraft since 1911, 1968, Funk and Wagnalls, New York, N.Y.

Combat Connected Naval Casualties, World War II, by States: U. S. Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, 1946, Government Printing Office, Washington, District of Columbia.

Finding Aid, for “Casualty Branch / Casualty Assistance Branch of the Personal Affairs Division – United States Navy” – “Ship, Stations, Units and Incidents Casualty Information Files, 1941-45 and 1950-60” (MLR Entry 1024) (Records Group 24), from the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. 

Casualty File for VB-82 at United States National Archives.  Location:  Records Group 24, Entry 1024, Stack Area 470, Row 55, Compartment 6, Shelf 7.

Aviation Safety Network Data File for R4D8 17179, at

Aviation Safety Network Photograph of R4D8 17179, at

Bureau Numbers for SB2Cs for Baker, Charles H. Brown, Joseph D. Brown, and Costigan, from Aviation, at

Donald D. Worden biography at, at

“Flier Down in Pacific Navy Plane with Ten Aboard is Long Overdue”, in Kanas City Star for December 22, 1953, at website of, at

Navy Cross Citation for Donald Doris Worden, at

“Search Plane Crashes into Agrihan Crater”, in The Daily News (Guam), for December 23, 1953, contributed by Mike Iverson, at

VJ-1 / VW-3 home page, at

– Michael G. Moskow