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Interview: Three Wars and Admirals’ Stripes

By R.R. “Boom” Powell
10/18/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

Q: USS Hornet was sunk during the Battle of Santa Cruz, but you were on the aircraft carrier Enterprise, right?

A: Yes, however, when I got back to our task force, I saw a carrier in flames and feared it was Enterprise. It turned out to be Hornet, and it did sink later that day. Les and I managed to land on board Enterprise, but both of our Dauntlesses ran out of fuel on deck. As our planes were being pushed out of the landing area, General Quarters sounded because of an incoming Japanese strike. Les and I and the other pilots spent the rest of the battle in a darkened ready room. Enterprise took five bomb hits, but superb damage control kept her operating.

Q: Where did you go next?

A: Enterprise retreated to New Caledonia. After a week of repairs we rushed to Guadalcanal to intercept a Japanese invasion fleet. I was out on a sector search with another SBD and found the Japanese ships. My radioman gunner, John Liska, transmitted the contact report twice before we attacked one of the transports. As we pulled out of our dives, we were jumped by Zeros, and the other Dauntless was shot down. Let me interject here how important the sailors who rode behind us were. The voice radios in those days were very short-range. That was the radioman part of their job. They tuned the big radios, kept them working and used a telegraph key to send messages in Morse code. They also had a pair of .30- caliber guns to cover our tail and, best of all, they were another set of eyes. You can’t look around too much in air combat. I was particularly lucky to have John. I was as green as could be, and he’d been in the Pacific from the start. He had been credited with three kills before we were teamed up.

Q: How did you escape from the Zeros that time?

A: Same as before; John was blazing away at them when I managed to duck into a cloud bank. I returned to Enterprise and gave my action report to Commander John Crommelin, Enterprise’s air boss. He assigned me to guide the next strike to the invasion fleet. I wasn’t the flight leader, but I knew the way. It would make a long day for me.

Q: How did your second flight go?

A: Well, I managed a direct hit on a troop transport, but was again attacked by Japanese fighters during the pullout. A VF-10 fighter shot down one Zero that was shooting at us, and Liska shot down another for his fifth official victory. I believe it made him the first air-gunner ace in the Pacific. VS-10 then went to Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, where we flew for only a couple of days before most of the pilots were flown to Espiritu Santo in an R4D [Navy Douglas C-47]. Somehow I got to ferry a Dauntless, flying on my exec’s wing. En route, we encountered a storm front too big to go around, and the exec tried to climb through. At 6,000 feet in heavy, wet turbulence my SBD stalled and entered a spin. I took three full turns before I recovered below the overcast and only 300 feet above the water. I couldn’t find my leader, so I took up a heading I hoped would get me to Espiritu Santo. After seven hours of flying, the sun had set and my gas was almost gone, so I ditched while the engine was still running and I could see. In the water, I helped Liska into the life raft and huddled with him against the cold of the night. My watch had stopped at 2130. After drifting for hours in a turbulent sea, in the early dawn we made out the silhouette of an island. The current was sweeping our raft past land, so we began paddling like hell. We were exhausted, but managed to land on a rocky point and climbed to safety. We had no real idea where we were or who was on the island. The first thing I did was rip off part of my T-shirt and clean my .45 pistol so I’d be ready for action. I did get to use the .45—shot coconuts from a tree so we’d have something to eat and drink. We found a large clearing and a native man who, after much pointing and gesturing, led us to a small village. The next day the village chief, wearing a GI hat and shirt, led us up a high ridge to an Australian coastwatcher. Using a hand-cranked radio, the coastwatcher arranged a pickup for three days later. The entire village came out to the beach to say farewell. A [Consolidated PBY-5A] Catalina landed in the lagoon but could not come close to shore because of the onshore wind. That swim out to the amphibian came as close to killing us as the night in the raft. We were so tired they had to pull us into the entry blister. The PBY took us to the seaplane tender Curtis, anchored in a bay at the south end of Espiritu Santo, with Enterprise anchored a few miles away.

Q: Did you get any R&R after your rescue?

A: I suppose you could call it rest, as the air wing was ashore, but all hands lived in Quonset huts or tents. There sure wasn’t much recreation. We stayed there until the Enterprise task force was ordered to sea to protect four transports during offensive operations in the Solomons. On January 29, 1943, the force was diverted to protect the damaged cruiser Chicago, being towed to Espiritu Santo. The next day, VF-10 intercepted 12 twin-engine [Mitsubishi G4M1] “Betty” torpedo planes and destroyed all but two. Sadly, those two managed to launch their torpedoes and sink Chicago. There wasn’t much after that; Enterprise made several brief sorties, but saw no further action. There was an attempt to night-qualify pilots, and I got all of one trap. Finally, in May, Enterprise reached Pearl Harbor, seven months to the day after leaving.

Q: Were you rotated to what the Navy calls “shore duty”?

A: Sort of. After a month of leave, my wife and I drove from California to Norfolk in a ’34 Chevy. I was promoted to lieutenant about then and assigned to Bombing 8. VB-8 had been recommissioned and was based at Fentress auxiliary airfield. Because of our experience, Les Ward and I were a big help in making the training program more realistic. Shortly after the entire squadron, 45 pilots, requalified in Dauntlesses on a jeep carrier in Chesapeake Bay, the squadron was switched to a new airplane—the Curtiss SB2C-1 Helldiver.

Q: Didn’t pilots call the SB2C-1 “the Beast”?

A: We sure did, and it started in VB-8. After a particularly hairy landing, one of our nuggets [newly designated pilots] was heard swearing, “My God, what a beast!” The SB2C was a larger and more complex airplane than any of us were used to, and the name stuck.

Q: But the Helldiver——the Beast——became the U.S. Navy’s standard dive-bomber, as well as being used by the French, Italian and Portuguese navies and the Thai and Greek air forces well into the 1950s.

A: It was a good airplane, but had teething problems as most new planes do. Our air group was assigned to the newly commissioned carrier Intrepid and went to the Gulf of Paria in Venezuela for shakedown operations. VB-8 was sent to Trinidad, where I was the senior officer ashore while we worked out the problems the SB2C was having. By the time we were back on the ship, Intrepid was on its way to California. Going through the Panama Canal, Intrepid grazed a lock and spent six days in port before heading up the West Coast with concrete filling the gash in her side. We flew as much as possible. I wound up in the water during one of those training flights.

Q: You ditched a second time?

A: I was pulling out from a dive attack on the spar towed behind the ship when my right main landing gear popped out, and the Beast rolled violently. I almost bailed out, but hung on. A recycle of the landing gear handle got both wheels down and locked, but while recovering I damaged the rudder badly enough that I could not land aboard, and we were ordered to ditch. I had a new gunner, Jake Orphan, and I assured him: “Ditching’s not difficult. I’ve already done it once.” It was easy. After splashdown, the airplane remained upright and floated. I climbed out and deployed the life raft. The two of us then stepped from the wing into the raft, and only our shoes got wet. We were rescued by a destroyer and remained as “guests” until we pulled into San Francisco in time for Christmas.

Q: What changes did 1944 bring?

A: Several. Air Group 8 left Intrepid in Hawaii and joined Bunker Hill, which was fresh out of rework, and I became VB-8’s executive officer. Also a new phase of car rier warfare had begun: Instead of massive single strikes, the carriers worked cyclic ops—3l⁄2 typically—to keep aircraft over Japanese-held islands almost continu ously. Our first target was the Palau island group. I almost got an air kill there.

Q: In a Helldiver?

A: Yes. I had spotted a Mitsubishi Betty speeding along down low, maneuvered behind it and squeezed the trigger. After only a couple of shots, both of my 20mm cannons jammed. I was really frustrated. I told my gunner, Orphan, to close the rear canopy to reduce drag, advanced the throttle and managed to pull alongside the bomber. Orphan then opened the canopy to blast away with his twin .30-caliber guns. As soon as he did, the extra drag slowed us down, and we fell behind. We did the same thing twice more—no idea why they didn’t shoot at us—before I gave up. If I had had enough gas, I’d have chased him all the way to Japan. Soon after that our CO became the air group commander, and I was acting skipper until a new CO came out from the States. He arrived just before what became known as the “Marianas Turkey Shoot.”

Q: Wasn’t that the night Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher ordered the lights turned on because the airplanes returned after dark?

A: True, but frustrating for me. I had pleaded to go on the first strike against the Japanese carriers, but the new CO took that mission and assigned me to lead the second wave. I was on deck with my engine turning when the launch was scrubbed. I still wonder what might have been—VB-8 lost all but one of the Helldivers that launched. The losses were soon replaced, and my mission list grew: Hollandia, Yap, Woleai, Formosa, Samar, Davao, Leyte, Subic, Tacloban, Lingayen, Cebu, Negros, Okinawa, Legaspi, Iwo Jima, Saipan, Tinian and Haha Jima. At Taipei, after a particularly successful attack I led my flight low over the river to avoid enemy fighters. Off the coast I spotted a small freighter and led my team in an attack with our 20mm cannons. The ammunition laden ship blew up in a spectacular explo sion. Finally, in November 1944, the longest deployment of any SB2C squadron ended when Bunker Hill went to Manus Island and offloaded the air wing. Ten days riding a jeep carrier to San Diego had me home in California for Christmas 1944.

Q: Did you finally get some shore duty?

A: I was sent to VB-98, an oversize squadron at Naval Air Station Los Alamitos, near Los Angeles. Our job was to train the world’s best dive bomber pilots. In five months I became the exec and eventually the commanding officer. The first half of 1945 was hectic with weapons training and carrier ops on several different ships. Then V-J Day came, and everything changed. VB-98 became VB-23A and moved to NAS North Island, in San Diego. Flight time was slashed to five hours a month. There were no supplies or parts. I learned how to scrounge.

Q: Scrounging——as in midnight requisitioning?

A: Not quite. Scrounging is obtaining stuff outside normal channels: irregular but never illegal. That lasted until I got a surprise set of orders to be air ops officer on ComCarDiv 3 [Commander Carrier Division 3] staff. Not only did I have to learn about surface ships, but I attended an air intercept controller course. I became the staff coordinator for the operational evaluation of the first radar search air craft—the [Eastern Aircraft] TBM-1W Avenger. One of those airplanes could look at more ocean than 20 of our old SBDs could during the sector searches in WWII. I was hooked. I became a true apostle of radar and what came to be known as EW, electronic warfare.

Q: Were you able to put your knowledge to work?

A: Eventually. I attended Navy Line Officer’s School and then became an NROTC instructor at the University of Louisville—where, I’m proud to say, I recruited 20 students one year for Pensacola. When the Korean War started I flew to Washington to request a West Coast air command and wound up as operations officer in VC-11, a large com posite squadron that provided AD-3W [Douglas Skyraider] early warning de tachments for the carriers. Once I got checked out in the “Guppy” Skyraider, I finessed temporary orders and began a Pacific odyssey to get a feel for night car rier combat ops. From Japan I rode in the “hellhole” of a TBM COD, an Avenger modified for carrier onboard delivery, to the task force off Korea. Scariest thing I’d ever done. In a whirlwind couple of weeks, I flew missions from Philippine Sea, Antietam and Valley Forge—all of them at night.

Q: So your Korean experience was in electronic warfare?

A: It only started out that way. A Navy Reserve [Vought F4U] Corsair squadron at Miramar had two pilots killed in crashes, and their commanding officer was relieved for a variety of reasons, so I was drafted as the new CO. I had to replace both the exec and flight officer. VF-874 had 18 F4U-4s “out of the can,” as we called airplanes that had been pre served. I asked that for our first carrier qualifications on Oriskany, the previously part-time pilots of VF-874 be last to qualify in order not to slow up the other squadrons. I needn’t have worried—they all aced the qualifications without inci dent, and with good grades. VF-874 flew off Oriskany from October 1952 to April 1953. Bad time of year to be in Korea; we had to wear “poopy-suits” [full body rub ber anti-exposure garments] on every mission. The squadron did not lose any pilots, although almost every airplane was shot up, including mine. I took a hit from an 88mm gun, limped back to the ship and flew a straight-in approach to a trap. The Corsair was so badly damaged it had to be pushed over the side.

Q: How many missions did you fly?

A: I personally led 65 combat flights, but am proudest of the many kudos the whole outfit received from Joint Operations Command Korea for our close air support of ground troops.

After Korea, Carmody had his first Pentagon tour and wrote requirements for air-to-air refueling, as well as for the ECM model Douglas A3D Skywarrior; the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor, North American T-28 Trojan and North American T2J Buckeye trainers; and modifying the Grumman F9F-8 Cougar into a two-seat trainer. He helped specify requirements for a multiplace, multi-engine AEW air craft that eventually became the Grum man E-2 Hawkeye, and a bigger COD, which became the C-1. Promoted to com mander, he became operations officer at ComFAir Alameda. Next came command of Air Wing 8, which commissioned Ranger before he joined Forrestal for a “showboat” trip up and down the East Coast. Back in Washington, as head of Fleet Training, he proposed the NAO/NFO program for the McDonnell F-4, North American A-5, Grumman A-6, Lockheed P-3 and E-2 Hawkeye aircraft. A sea tour as executive officer of Oriskany preceded his third tour in Washington, as program manager for Navy attack aircraft. Promoted to captain, Carmody headed up the Air Requirements branch. Some of his projects were to convince the Marine Corps of the value of the four-place Douglas EA-6B design, supervise the quali fication of Lockheed U-2s aboard aircraft carriers, and arrange for carrier landing trials of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules.

Q: Let’s go on to your third war, Vietnam.

A: Oriskany was my first real experience at ship-handling, and I loved it. I had com mand of USS Zelima, an older vessel, but being the captain was an enjoyable chal lenge. We did well supporting warships of the Seventh Fleet in the Far East, but I admit I was somewhat surprised to be selected as CO of Kittyhawk for its first combat deploy ment in 1965. That was the year the air war was heating up fast. A [North American RA-5C] Vigilante returned aboard from a reconnaissance run, and the film showed a massive new coal-handling facility near Cam Pha in North Vietnam. During the Johnson era, local commanders were allowed some latitude in choosing targets, so I got together with “Jig Dog” Ramage, with whom I had served many times, and was then chief of staff for CTF-77, the highest ranking admiral in the Vietnam theater, and we worked up a scheme. We initiated a massive strike using A-6 In truders and F-4 Phantoms as bombers. The timing of the strike was critical, as we had to send what the Navy called an “UnODir” (unless otherwise directed) message with our intentions to the Penta gon. I had carefully briefed my ship’s com munications officer—another Navy pilot—and the strike group was over the target rolling in when the “cease and desist” message arrived and was slowly handed to me—too late to stop the attack. Kittyhawk’s planes clobbered the facility, and some flying debris struck a nearby Polish freighter, so there was a big interna tional hoopla, but nothing in the way of a reprimand ever came. We blasted that port so hard it did not operate for more than a year. I wish I could have flown the attack myself.

Promoted to rear admiral, Carmody returned to the Pentagon to supervise Navy electronic warfare programs. He later returned to the Tonkin Gulf to command a carrier battle group. He characterized his next tour, as head of the Navy’s Operational Development Force in Norfolk, as “the most fascinating period of my life.” He took control of 220 projects that included LAMPS helicopters, the Grumman AV-8 Harrier, at-sea trash disposal, satellites, aircraft electronic measures and counter measures, submarine rescue devices and the sea control ship concept. Assignments as commander of the 12th Naval District and as inspector general completed his career.

 

R.R. “Boom” Powell flew from carrier decks in Douglas A-4 Skyhawks and North American RA-5C Vigilantes for 16 years. He later worked for American Airlines. Additional reading: The Dauntless Dive Bomber of WWII, by Barrett Tillman.

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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