First Lieutenant Robert A. Schaeffer was among the luckiest Corsair pilots to both win and lose against Japanese Zeros over Rabaul and live to tell about it. In the course of 64 combat missions, Schaeffer shot down two enemy “Zekes.” If not for another one that got on his tail, he might have logged even more victories.
The son of a prominent Dayton, Ohio, attorney, Schaeffer was a 21-year-old sophomore at Stanford University when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941. The next day he went to San Francisco and enlisted at the Naval Air recruiting office. Just 32 days later, with nary a day in boot camp, he began flight training in Stearman biplanes across San Francisco Bay at the Oakland airport. Three months later he was in Corpus Christi, Texas, for more advanced training. Schaeffer graduated from flight school just a year after he’d enlisted.
“I’d heard a rumor that the Navy was going to put a bunch in PBYs, that large pontoon plane for observation, search and rescue,” Schaeffer remembered. “At the time you had a choice to transfer into the Marines and [be] promised fighters, which I did, mainly because I wanted to fly alone.”
He took his initial fighter training in Opalocka, Fla., flying obsolescent Brewster F2A Buffaloes because all the newest fighters were being shipped straight to the Pacific war zone. Schaeffer described the Buffalo as “like a bumble bee” since it “wanted to fly sideways as much as forward.” Fortunately, when he joined his squadron, VMF-222 in Hawaii, that unit had just received brand-new Vought F4U Corsairs.
Bob remembered the Corsair as “a beautiful gull-winged” machine. He recalled: “The story was that the Marines always got what the Navy turned down. The Navy said the nose was too long, obstructing views for carrier landings from the flag man. Well, they blew it.”
As impressive as the Corsair’s looks was its powerful new radial engine that made it the fastest fighter in the Pacific theater. The earliest models built by Vought were the first U.S. fighters to break the 400 mph barrier. They were faster than Mitsubishi A6M Zeros, even faster than North American P-51 Mustangs. The F4U-1s Schaeffer flew had a straight and level top speed of 425 mph and could climb 3,000 feet a minute. Their range of more than 1,000 miles was the best of any single-engine fighter in the Pacific. Corsairs also had sturdy airframes that could take plenty of punishment. That attribute became clear as the rugged fighters were flown in and out of dirt landing strips in the jungle.
Still, the Navy had early misgivings about the Corsair. Vought had actually designed the aircraft for a monster engine that didn’t exist, though the possibility of harnessing that hairy beast dictated the plane’s basic configuration. What Vought finally installed was the most powerful piston engine yet, the radial Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp R-2800, which pounded out 2,000 hp. The engine’s huge thrust required a 13-foot 4-inch diameter propeller, at the time the biggest in the world.
To keep that big prop clear of the ground, Vought inverted the inner sections of the fighter’s wings below the fuselage and slung the landing gear under the two lowest bends. This raised the nose enough to clear the prop and reduced drag. And those bent wings gave the Corsair its unique gull-like look.
In early Corsair modifications a fuel tank was inserted behind the engine, shoving the cockpit back even farther from the nose by 32 inches. This gave the fighter a “hose nose,” seriously impairing a pilot’s vision during carrier landings and takeoffs. Moreover, in flight tests the prototype Corsair exhibited erratic stall behavior, tending to yaw abruptly and bounce on landing. Yet another problem was that during wave-offs in carrier landings, when pilots had to quickly throttle up to regain airspeed and go around, the Corsair had a hair-raising torque roll.
Assigned to VMF-222, a squadron known as the “Flying Deuces,” Schaeffer arrived at Henderson Field on battle-scarred Guadalcanal in September 1943. In his own written account, he recalled: “Henderson was one strip only and quite crowded with fighters and bombers. ‘The Slot’ was a number of islands from Bougainville in the north and Guadalcanal in the south…an area of about 150 miles. We island hopped to Munda, Vella Lavella, Choisel and finally a strip on the western side of Bougainville Island to assault Rabaul on the isle of New Britain.
“There were three squadrons of [Marine] fighters alternating six weeks in the [combat] zone and six weeks back in R&R with a week in Sidney, Australia. Our prime duty was to protect the dive and torpedo bombers on missions, and they scheduled one about every other day. The idea, of course, was to get the main Jap supply bases.”
Schaeffer scored his first kill, a Zero, during a bomber escort mission near the heavily defended Japanese stronghold of Rabaul. Three days later on February 19, 1944, while flying fighter cover over that same location, he got his second Zero. But then his luck ran out. Another Zero got on his tail, shot out his controls and put a 20mm shell right below his cockpit. “I never saw him,” Schaeffer recalled.
The 20mm shell exploded, starting a fire that set his flight suit ablaze. He beat frantically at the flames, but with all his controls gone he couldn’t save his plane. He jerked back his cockpit canopy, climbed up on his seat and bailed out. At that moment he was only 500 feet above Rabaul’s Simpson Harbor. His parachute opened just before he hit the water, and he plunged far below the surface. He managed to come up for air by inflating his Mae West life vest. The sting of salt water impressed on him how badly his hands, legs and face had been burned. As he struggled out of his parachute harness, he grabbed the harness’ rubber seat and inflated a small rubber life raft.
“I had not the slightest idea where I was, with all the confusion,” Schaeffer said.“After getting in my little boat I saw that I was in the middle of Rabaul harbor looking at the end of the Jap runway. My position wasn’t good. Then I heard a big splash in the water about 100 yards away and then another, about 50 yards away. The bastards were shooting at me.”
A Marine Corps account of his ordeal reported: “The Japs on shore, a short distance away, had seen him. They began firing at him, first with rifles and machine guns, later with 20 millimeters. Schaeffer, paddling furiously with his sore hands to get away, watched bright tracers glide gracefully toward him. Some landed short, some too far beyond him, but they were getting closer.”
In fact, the Japanese gunners began firing at him not just with 20mm guns but also 37mms. After a piece of shrapnel pierced his life raft, deflating one side, he had to pump furiously to stay afloat.
“They didn’t want me,” Schaeffer concluded, “they wanted my position in case a PBY [Catalina flying boat] would come in for a rescue, but I was too close for that. I had to chuckle as the second splash hit. I got into the water as if, I guess, that little boat was going to protect me.
“About 4 p.m. a little ferry boat went across the harbor,” Schaeffer recalled, “but paid no attention to me. As darkness finally came I started to paddle with my hands toward the outer part of the harbor.”
Just a month earlier Marine Corsair ace Gregory “Pappy” Boyington had been shot down not far from where Schaeffer ended up. Four Zeros strafed Boyington for nearly 20 minutes as he floated defenseless in the sea. Finally a Japanese submarine picked him up, and he spent the remainder of the war in prison camps.
Though frequently overcome by pain and exhaustion, Schaeffer alternately pumped up his punctured raft and paddled throughout that long night. “I suppose the current helped me,” he said, “as I was quite far out by morning.”
Not long after daybreak a Navy Lockheed PV-2 Ventura patrol plane flew by and apparently spotted the downed pilot. By that time he was 10 miles beyond Rabaul, in the middle of St. Georges’ Channel. “I hoped they saw me,” Schaeffer remembered thinking. “Sure enough, about 10 a.m. a beautiful Navy PBY escorted by eight beautiful Marine F4Us came right at me.”
When the air-sea rescue Consolidated PBY—often referred to as a “Dumbo”—landed near Schaeffer, he had been in the water for some 25 hours. He was suffering not only from serious burns but also severe exhaustion and exposure to such an extent that he was semiconscious.
An alert PBY crewman leaped into the sea, corralled the limp flier with a rope and towed him to the rescue plane, where he was heaved aboard. A Navy photographer captured his dramatic rescue on film, and six months later three photos of Schaeffer’s rescue appeared on the front page of the Dayton Journal-Herald, his hometown newspaper. Those same images had been provided by Wright Field, the Army Air Forces base near Dayton that had developed the gear which kept Schaeffer afloat during his harrowing ordeal.
“The crewmen patched me up a bit going back to the tender or ship the PBY was attached to,” Schaeffer recalled.“They put me in sick bay, two narrow bunks. The doctor was a young obstetrician, good guy, and worked a couple of hours on me, and when he was done I looked like a mummy…only my feet were showing.”
Schaeffer received further medical care, including extensive skin grafts, at a hospital on Guadalcanal. By then he’d been promoted to captain. Later he was flown back to the States for additional treatment at a Navy hospital in San Diego.
“After a month…my knee quit bleeding, and I was as good as new,” he recalled. He went home on leave and married his high school sweetheart, Isabel Kuntz. Looking back, Schaeffer said he thought it was ironic that “the one plane I didn’t want to fly rescued me. I never thought they’d come in that far and get me, but they did.”
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.