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A Reluctant Hero

This is getting serious. I started looking for a small Okinawa island, one of the many that dotted the horizon in the chain—to possibly set down. Never thought the “Hog” would let me down as I lined the nose of my Corsair to hit between a line of trees on a small atoll 3,000 ft. below. I was losing power fast, with oil pouring out of the engine and a partial loss of flight controls.

And —I was mad—no, red hot, that I had been caught. With every jink and turn, there was no way to fight back— with guns— as the Jap kept pouring it on.

Six Months Earlier – The Mediterranean 1943

After the propeller was pulled through a few rotations to clear the cylinders, I energized the cartridge starter and brought the mixture to full rich as the engine turned over. The bang of my starting cartridge bounced off the other aircraft on the USS Tulagi flight deck and I was waved forward for launch and unfolded the wings in preparation. With wing hinges in position, I pulled the D ring to lock them and waited for a repositioning signal for my launch.

After six months of constant training we felt we were ready for anything the Germans would throw at us in the “Med.” With a full moon hanging over our task force, our night launch proceeded past the Straits of Gibraltar. On the north passage of the strait we took advantage of the tides. The prevailing winds out of the east did not require a large carrier turn into the wind. We coordinated with the fleet big gun ships (USS Nevada, Arkansas, Texas, Quincy, Omaha and Tuscaloosa) to provide spotting support. The scuttlebutt was—prepare for something big.

Our squadron’s primary task was not fun. Patrolling low and relatively slow over a set of coordinates while we looked for activity to target was what we did well, but disliked intensely. The frequent loitering to more precisely redirect fire, unnerved many in our squadron. It was tedious and dangerous– from shell fire in close proximity to our aircraft. We also often picked up rows of holes in the wing and fuselage from small arms fire at low altitudes. The call to “get high,” so as not to get hit, often preceded a salvo of 16″ shells from our ships. At first it was amazing then quickly turned to frightening to actually see fired shells flying into our designated targets. One of my squadron buddies was instantly vaporized by a direct hit from one of these 16 inch guns.

The Med proved to be fairly navigable but frequent unpredictable storms concentrated in the western Mediterranean and northern shores. The azure waters from 5,000 ft did not tell the whole story. The mountains held suffocating heat and unpredictable sea winds and sand—not good for plane or pilot.

On July 14, CAG led 5 sections of F6F Hellcats on a strike into the Italian mountains, north of Cape Negre. Ollie (Ens Edward Olszewski) and I were on a rail head strike as bombers. After our first few attacks on the railroad junction we were vectored to another target in the south of France. With the throttle pulled back to a max range setting, in combat spread, I pulled the canopy back, unclipped my oxygen mask, grabbed my Lucky Strikes and lit up. Ollie, off my starboard wing saw my actions but choose to remain focused and vigilant while I decompressed.

I was finally beginning to understand why I joined the Navy and placed myself in harm’s way. The fun and stupid games of skiing off huge moguls and trying to stick the landing in trees, strapped into an old parachute flying behind a car in a parking lot, skydiving into corn fields gave me clues as to my need for a little more out of life—to fly airplanes off carriers—YES!

Naval flight provided all I needed. We were action driven, adrenaline grabbing, above average intelligence males who needed an approved legitimization of our warrior spirit. Safety was a term we would gladly redefine from its civilian definition.

Operation Dragoon-Southern France

We were now flying (August, 1944) in Operation Dragoon—just a few hundred reconnaissance and interdiction sorties against German rolling stock and strikes in support of U.S. Army troops landing in southern France. Dragoon was developed to protect the flank of the Allied Normandy advance into Germany.

There we were, a flight of F6F cruising along over the Med, stroking throttles that never seemed to hold the required setting, eyeballing the sky for Germans that never seemed to show, monitoring temps and pressure for variance and being refreshed by the cold of altitude against the heat of the blazing sun through the canopy.

One quick scan of the instruments told me I was not alone.

The small black dot didn’t grab my attention right away until it suddenly moved across my field of vision. Was this welcome allied air company or one of the few German HE 111 bombers we were told to look to keep an eye out for?

Nope — A wayward fly was flying the needle on my compass better than I. Besides providing a needed gut check, this stowaway gave me a welcome bit of humor and some support in my task to stay alive. My thoughts moved to the book, “God is My__,”— you know the title. I named him Louie and wondered how he would take to our impending combat. I now had my own little copilot— a welcome friend this day.

Our approach to the second target was through beautiful cumulus clouds with streaming sunshine followed by broken clouds with a low overcast. With the target finally in sight we closed up in right echelon in preparation for the preplanned roll in dive to the target. As we took our spacing for the dive to the target, each pilot began toggling switches to arm their rockets or bombs for release. “Don’t screw up,”— I told myself— as I armed up and rolled in.

With my airplane’s belly pointing to sky I looked out the canopy and pulled hard to stay with my wingman. Everyone was hanging in their straps working their butts off. My flurry of effort included; Kicking rudder, compensating for aircraft drift, keeping separation from those ahead as we passed between cloud layers, readjusting power settings, confirming the arming up checks, eyeballing the bursts of flack at various altitudes, continued reconfirmation of the target location, flinching at the close burst of flack which seemed to be just above my canopy, wiping the sting of sweat out of my eyes, aligning the pipper for release… and of course flying my F4F Hellcat. It was a good feeling to see my comrades strung out in front of me. Even so, with the sudden change of altitude, flack bursts and the altimeter unwinding I found myself unconsciously trying to get as small as possible to keep safe.

Then bomb release and pull up, followed by jinking and trying to keep the aircraft from the inevitable stall shudder as we grabbed for altitude in the join up. I wrapped up the F6F in an effort to quickly rendezvous with the returning strike group 5 miles off my port wing tip. We were fortunate that no one got bagged as flight lead took us back to the boat. Looking back on the target— secondary explosions and fires told of our success this day.

Without a hand signal or radio call warning, Ollie banked hard away from our formation giving chase to two He 111s he had spotted. A direct line gave Ollie a pure in trail shot as he pumped.50 caliber bullets into the German and knocked him out of the sky. Ens Wood broke off and headed southbound to follower the splitter.

On the way back to the boat the excitement was contagious. Intermittent hooting and hollering over the radio echoed our victories. Back onboard the Tulagi Ollie provided the play by play of his shoot down of the two Ju 52 transports while and Wood received credit for 2 Heinkel bombers. Not too shabby for a spotter squadron’s first tangle with the enemy.

Even so, my vision of war as a naval officer certainly did not fit the image of death and destruction we wrought on the German troops in southern France. A numbness hung over our squadron from both fatigue and the sight of the killing from our bombs and guns up close. The loss of friends only added to the emotional drain as we gutted it out until our naval squadrons were of no further use in the allied European effort.

After 15 days of a heightened state of German destruction and death we were ready for a break. Our work had demoralized the Germans. We were taking them apart one tank, rail line, vehicle and ship at a time. Our unrelenting harassment of motorized columns and impact of naval gunfire turned their retreat into a rout.

Little did we know that our European efforts would be recognized by the French population and specifically the town of Pennautier for many years. The town’s people recognized that our Hellcats played a big part in completely wiping out the German presence in their town and country side. In a 2001, a remembrance ceremony for 7 navy pilots was held. The tablet in marble, in the town square, with each pilots name includes; Lt CMDR W. F. Bringle, Ens W. C. McKeever, Ens J. M. Denison, Ch P. Skelly, Ens R. Candler, Lt J. M. Alston and Ens F.Fenzel. It is engraved as an homage and thank you from the town’s people for hunting and chasing away the “German wolves.”

After months in the “Med” our ships and aircraft were redirected for combat against the Japanese in the Pacific.

Operation Musketeer – Luzon

The squadron proceeded into the Pacific onboard the USS Wake Island (CVE 65).

During this time Jap suicide attacks had been picking up and we kept a wary eye out for them. Our patrols were continuous as our small task force passed through the Surigao Straits near Leyte Island. While circling off shore in preparation for another strafing run on a Jap naval installation I caught a glimpse of a glistening metallic dot through the wind screen.

Nah, couldn’t be my winged cockpit buddy from the Med — now in full glistening armor. No—The pack of Zeros grew in size as I called out their high and low positions. Flight lead heard my call and turned into the onslaught. They were coming hard— directly at us— Vals (carrier borne Jap dive bomber), Oscars with more Zeros in high cover.

As they passed through our section at speed it was obvious that ramming us was their intention. I quickly wheeled and got a solid deflection shot on a Val which, for some reason took its time burning. As I poured more lead onto this burning bomber the sound of metal hitting my aircraft registered. I broke the engagement and dove to increase energy for speed protection in this battle. The Zero did not follow me down and I chuckled at such a quick victory. Bomber turned fighter pilot in a day-I never would have thought.

But the realization that our enemy had nothing to lose in our aerial engagements and would seek to take their lives with mine was sobering. This variable now brought a whole new dimension to our fight in the air and I wondered how our tactics would change to fight this new menace.

Gratefully back aboard, we received new orders for Okinawa and more of the same. You know—Okinawa, one of those little dots on the map— south of Iwo Jima?

Bad Day over Okinawa

Our job was to destroy ground/sea targets, shipping, merchant men and Jap island ports. Our flight of 4 was booking along at 6,000 feet and around 400 knots. Suddenly I found myself fighting for my life. Where did those Zeros come from and how did they surprise us?

The fight was on. I was now a gun fighter— a new and exciting but uncomfortable role— maybe now a chance to really stand out from the intensive ground attack missions we had been flying.

We had been told to initiate a fight at a superior altitude against the Zero and carry enough speed to “boot out of there incase.” “Oh, and the Zero cannot turn right.”

I saw my chance to for a shot and followed him down. The Zero made a right turn and I smirked as I pulled the trigger in a perfectly setup deflection shot. He instantly reversed, splitand somehow got on my tail—no right turns my foot. Time for the “boot out”? —but it was too late. My F4U Corsair shuddered from hits to my wing and engine. I kept turning right — but he stayed with me and even cut inside my turn.

The melee above continued between my VOF-1 “Rebel” Squadron mates and our enemy—a flight of 16 Vals and their fighter cover. While diving to shake my opponent his 20mm bullets hammered my armored seat and took chunks out of my right wing as he followed me down. He was drilling me good.

I glanced down at my wing root leading edge and noticed the damage to the oil cooler area along with additional 20 mm bullet holes throughout the engine cowl. This was not good. I confirmed the damage with a glance at my rising temperature and pressure gauge readings. To make matters worse the propeller would not cycle—a shot up prop governor—GREAT. Just a matter of time now, I thought. Stan, my crew chief, was really going to be happy with me. His airplane was now full of holes.

Whoever proffered that a Zero could not turn right had better rethink their position because I was finding out the hard way. Thankfully the pounding stopped as tracers from my wingman’s F4U lapped off my port wing. One of my boys finally got to him.

I had what seemed like a second to take stock of this situation. With temps and pressures rising fast—I was going down.

While coaxing the throttle and propeller controls the heat and humidity at a lower attitude finally caught up. Adrenaline was only going to take me so far today. The heat was just another impediment in my fight to survive and I knew I’d be a puddle of jello in short order if I did not get out of the Corsair—one way or the other.

How had this guy survived his role as a Kamikaze or being killed —like the best of Japanese fighter pilots earlier in the war? I guess the 4 swastikas painted on Al Wood’s F6F-5 aircraft fuselage caught his attention. He was experienced and motivated and I was paying the price.

I had to concentrate on the landing —now! If I survived this crash—an ocean dip would feel great.

I rolled back the canopy for some ram air, tightened the harness and felt an immediate rush from the sea scent. It was strong and refreshing.

I needed to keep my F4U flying as long as possible with the airspeed above 80. The small atoll ahead looked like it had enough room for a let down on what looked like hard coral. A gear down landing might be possible—I told myself.

My sink rate was getting critical as the prop would just not bite the air. Maintain control—stretch the glide—wow, only holding 10 inches of manifold air pressure (MAP) with the possibility of a runaway prop? Keep the nose down—no buffet yet—-just 300 yards to go—I’ll hit the ocean before I stall this bird—I told myself.

A fully oil covered wind screen now forced my head out of the cockpit. Boy, did this bird have a snout. I could hardly see over the engine nacelle for my straight in to the tree line. Descending—150 yards now looked like 500—getting heavy on the controls.

I hoped that the Japs name, “Whistling Death” for the mighty Corsair only ½ fit for me today.

Almost over the beach—time to dirty her up with the gear and hold enough airspeed to hit the atoll—Hold 77 knots or it’s all over, Willy!

Whoa—Geez, where am I? Must have passed out. The smell of engine oil and fuel, sea salt, rotting vegetation and my aching back and neck all conspired to wake me. I lifted my head—to terrible heat—how long I had been out? My seat harness had done its job for I was in one piece with minor scrapes and only a little pain. The fear of fire pushed me out of Corsair while the beach and a stand of palms provided escape. I turned to look back at the extent of the F4Us damage and realized how lucky I had been to strap

One wing lay several yards down the beach, in line with a furrowed ditch in the sand from the aircraft with parts all over the place. To my surprise—no fire. My Corsair had saved my life

Finding a bit of shade I took stock—first aid kit, ammo bandolier, 1911 45 revolver, canteen, escape packet and more in the wrecked Corsair. Contemplating my next move my body started to squawk— just like the seabirds around me who were unhappy with this new invader. Scanning the tree line for the enemy, I thought about a short run to the surf to help with the many cuts and abrasions— not to mention the pig pen like smell that was following me.

I hoped this island in the middle of the Okinawa chain was small enough not to contain a garrison of Japs or any of the others on the horizon.

The hot afternoon sun slowly yielded to a few boiling clouds and cooler sea breezes. Near sunset, with a watchful eye, I finally found glorious relief in the surf while looking to the sky for my squadron mates.

What I didn’t know was that one of my squadron mates saw my smoking aircraft crash and radioed for a PBY rescue. Once back on the USS Wake Island I learned I was finally credited with my first kill as a Navy Pilot— from the Luzon shoot down. Even so, I was saddened to learn that we lost a good friend, Lt (Jg.) Thomas Murphy this day.


Our outfit had been together eighteen months in two theaters of war. That was 12,994 combat hours of flying with 25,968 total flight hours.

With the surrender of the Japanese at Okinawa our escort carriers were reformed and squadron VOF-1 was renamed VOC-1. We were no longer needed in the Pacific Theater. Eighteen months spent together had yielded much success and many gave of themselves selflessly to achieve our goals. Our squadron was now headed for decommissioning in the states. A welcome rest and thoughts of the future waited.

I thought long and hard about returning to the University of Michigan but just could not pass up being one of the first to fly the Navy’s first jet. Here we go—again.

Biography – Lt. William Robert Candler

William Candler is a graduate of the University of Michigan in aeronautical engineering. He served on board 4 carriers, during WWII, in the Mediterranean and the Pacific Theaters of war as a Naval Aviator in VOF-1 and VOC-1 squadrons. Candler flew the following aircraft: F4F, F6F, F4U, YP-59 and FJ-1— and is credited with downing one Japanese Aichi D3A2 “Val.”



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