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James Albert Vittitoe

Carlsbad, CA
Korean War Veteran of the United States Marine Corps

"This story was written for my three children and nine grandchildren"

- James Vittitoe


[KWE Note: James Vittitoe died July 25, 1994.  This memoir was submitted to the Korean War Educator in his memory by his brother, C. Hagan Vittitoe, and with permission of James' widow, Janet Vittitoe.]

Passing Thru...


Without elaborating too much on details, "Passing Thru" gives you the story of my life: my childhood during the Depression years of the 1920s and 1930s, followed by the war years of the 1940s and 1950s, and then the post-war years of unparalleled economic and technical growth.

Aviation has been my life’s work for more than 50 years. As a pilot, I have flown more than 20,000 flight hours in some 50-60 different types of aircraft and helicopters. I must say there have been a few moments of panic; however, I wouldn’t change anything. I have known people who worked in jobs they hated and could hardly wait to retire. So my suggestion to you is this: Whatever you do in life, do it because you enjoy it, not just because it’s a meal ticket.

– Jim Vittitoe

My Childhood

My early childhood memories are of a small central Kentucky railroad town, Cecilia, where the townsfolk would meet the trains just to see who was arriving and departing this metropolis of about 100 souls—including me. Saturday was the big day of the week when most of the local farmers would come to town to sell their produce, buy dry goods from Mr. J.C. Harrold’s general store, and sit around on his front porch telling stories of bygone times. My grandfather, Thomas Hagan (1855-1943), who most people called Uncle Tom (I called him Pap Paw), had traveled more than the others and was regarded as worldly. Most had been no farther than the county seat, six miles away.

Pap Paw came from a large Catholic family. They were determined that one son would be a priest, and guess what: Pap Paw was elected. However, just prior to being ordained, he left the monastery, joined the Masonic Lodge, and was forever an outcast from the family. No one ever knew what experience or disillusionment perpetuated this drastic change in his religious view.

It was during his travels as a lumber buyer that he met my grandmother, Mollie Harding (1863-1934), a school teacher from Campbellsville, Kentucky. Everybody called her Aunt Mollie. (I called her Mam Maw.) They were married April 3, 1893 in Campbellsville, Kentucky. Pap Paw’s father and mother owned several thousand acres of land and a number of slaves. But with the Northern and Southern armies going back and forth through that area taking what they needed, there wasn’t much left except the land by the time the Civil War ended.

Although Pap Paw had 11 brothers and sisters, without the slaves there was no way to work the farm. They had to start selling off the land to pay taxes. Pap Paw bought 100 acres, and he and Mam Maw set up housekeeping in an old log house that had been slave quarters. Uncle Albert and my mother, Esther Hagan Vittitoe (1895-1988), were born in this log cabin.

By the time my mother was in her teens, Pap Paw and Mam Maw had built a large two-story home just off old Litchfield Pike Road. My dad, James Lafe Vittitoe (1889-1953), grew up on a neighboring farm. His dad, Raleigh (1853-1895), was a deputy sheriff in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, a position of prestige. Raleigh was killed on his way to stop a disturbance in a local saloon – shot dead before he got through the door by a gunshot from inside. The story was told that a Negro handyman who had never owned a gun in his life was hanged for the murder. No crime could go unpunished in those days, and a poor illiterate black man was an easy scapegoat. To the townsfolk, justice was served. Dad’s mother, Susan Patterson Vittitoe (1856-1896), died shortly thereafter. Dad had two brothers and one sister, and the four young orphans were then raised by relatives. Dad was raised by an uncle and aunt named Criger on a farm not far from Pap Paw’s place. Two children were killed very young when they were caught on a railroad bridge and hit by a train.

Mother and Dad were married on May 22, 1919. No one ever told me whether they had any medical training, but they both worked in a hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. When World War I was over, they returned to Cecilia and Dad started working on the Illinois Central Railroad southwest of town near Princeton and Paducah, about 100 miles away.

In those days of limited careers, if a person didn’t farm, he worked for the Illinois Central Railroad. Dad got home most Friday nights and returned on Sunday. Mother coped with whatever Dad earned, which wasn’t much at that time. I remember eating a lot of salmon fish patties, except on Sundays after church when we would go to Pap Paw and Mam Maw’s for Sunday dinner. Mam Maw always set a fancy table with fried chicken, biscuits and gravy.

Mother was afraid of her shadow in those days as there were always tales of hobos traveling through town on freight trains, robbing and killing people … more tall tales than fact. I was born March 15, 1920. My brother Lloyd was born August 25, 1923. Hagan was born September 6, 1925. We lived in a two-bedroom home, but when Dad was away, we all slept in one bed: Mother on one side, Lloyd and Hagan in the middle, and me on the other side. Mother always put Dad’s pistol under her pillow. I was never sure whether it was loaded, and by morning the pistol could be any place in the bed. We three kids were probably in more danger nightly from the pistol than we were from interlopers. One night our 90-year-old neighbor scratched on the window screen, and Mother had the pistol pointed at her and was ready to fire before she realized who it was. I’m not sure she could have even hit the window, but it scared us all nonetheless.

Life remained on an even keel until I was around six and Hagan was a year-old baby and Dad was hurt on the railroad. He was on a motor car that derailed, and he was hit on the head by a railroad jack handle, an accident that put him in the railroad hospital in Chicago. Shortly after he returned to work, he started having epileptic seizures—not the convulsion type, but the kind that would cause him to stop whatever he was doing or talking about and pull on a chair, table, or anything near. After a couple of minutes he would recover, but would not remember what he was doing or saying. The railroad company laid him off. In today’s world, he would have been medically retired, but not in those days. Workers’ compensation, disability, and welfare were unheard of protection in a laborer’s contract in the 1920s. The country was about to sink into a deep depression.

With Dad out of work and bills piling up, something had to be done. Mother wrote to various hospitals in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. By a lucky coincidence, one of the doctors Mother and Dad worked with in Cincinnati was now head of the Indiana State Mental Institution in Richmond, Indiana, and the hospital needed a husband and wife to be in charge of a ward of about 40 patients. He offered Mother and Dad $30 a month to take the jobs, which was a godsend. The hospital was unaware of Dad’s condition, so in a sense, Mother had an extra patient to worry about. Employment qualifications were less comprehensive than they are today.

The next hurdle was what to do with three boys. They decided that Lloyd and I would stay with Mam Maw and Pap Paw, and Hagan would be boarded out near the hospital in Richmond. They owed Mr. Harrold about $300 for rent and groceries that had been charged at his store, and after a lengthy discussion, agreed to pay him on a monthly basis, depending on what they could afford.

Lloyd and I moved in with Pap Paw and Mam Maw on their farm, a mile from town. At that time, Pap Paw was nearly 70 years old and Mam Maw was around 65. Both were avid readers. Pap Paw studied various religions, but I guess he never settled on one; I never saw him in church. Mam Maw was a strict Baptist, and she had Lloyd and me in church every Sunday, rain or shine.

Pap Paw’s farm included about 30 acres of wooded forest, which became my hunting ground. Uncle Albert bought an acre from Pap Paw and put up a service station, though I heard later that he sold more "white lightning" than gasoline. Uncle Albert was a great hunter. He gave me a .22-caliber rifle and taught me to shoot. The most pleasure I had during those years was hunting in the woods with Uncle Albert or hunting by myself. I was seven or eight years old – practically a young man.

Pap Paw was one of those people who would get up before the chickens at 4 a.m. each morning. He’d feed his two mules, the cow and the chickens and return to the house about 5:30 a.m. for a breakfast Mam Maw would have ready after building a fire in the old wood-burning stove. They would work all day, Pap Paw on the farm and Mam Maw in her garden. Food was no longer a problem; Mam Maw canned food for our needs. Other necessities such as clothing were a little harder to come by, but fortunately bib overalls were the uniform of those years and we commonly needed only shoes and long-handle underwear (also known as long johns) in the winter.

I went to a one-room school in Cecilia, which was like most country schools those days – one teacher for eight grades. It was only a mile each way from Pap Paw’s place to the school, but it seemed like 10 miles in good weather or bad.

On a beautiful fall afternoon in 1929, just shortly after school started, a dramatic even occurred that probably had a profound and lasting effect on my young life. I saw my first airplane, a little red biplane that circled the schoolhouse and landed in a nearby field. The teacher dismissed us from our studies so that we could all go outside to see this wonderful flying machine. The pilot stepped out, a young fellow in his early twenties, dressed in riding boots, britches, leather jacket, helmet and goggles. He had flown down from Louisville to see his girlfriend, a nearby farmer’s daughter. It was something out of this world to us kids. He told us about flying and said it was dangerous, that the life expectancy of a pilot was only five years. Oh, but what a way to go even if it did last for only five years! That started my dream of flying, although I didn’t think it would ever happen.

In the spring of 1930, Pap Paw and Mam Maw told mother that they could no longer take care of Lloyd and me. They were getting up in years and could hardly take care of themselves. That spring Mother and Dad came home and brought Hagan with them. They located a cousin, Ina Yates Wallace, whose husband Lou had lost his garage business in Louisville in the depression. Lou was a great mechanic, made the first automobile wheel wagon I’d ever seen. Ina and Lou agreed to board the three of us.

We moved three or four times before Lou found an old farm that he liked. No one had lived there for years and it was run down and in need of considerable work, but it had a big log house that was comfortable, so we settled in. Lou got two mules, one that would get through any fence Lou put up. One day he loaded his shotgun with rock salt and when that old mule started through another fence, he shot that mule in the rear end and damned near killed it. He spent the next two weeks trying to save its life. I put in a lot of time behind those mules, plowing and working the farm. I’m not sure what happened to school those two and a half years. Our education was suspended by necessity, and no one seemed to mind.

In 1932, Dad started having 10-12 seizures a day. The doctors where he worked became aware of this and recommended that he be put in the Indiana State epileptic hospital, which was a large farm where patients worked and took care of each other. The farm was located in New Castle, Indiana, not far from Richmond. With only half the income, things got bad for Mother and she could no longer board us with the Wallaces, pay her debts at Mr. Harrold’s and take care of herself. With the help of the Baptist Church at Cecelia, we were put into the Kentucky Baptist Children’s Home at Glendale, Kentucky. It was only about 20 miles from Pap Paw and Mam Maw’s place, but it might as well have been 200. I saw Mam Maw only one time after that and she was very sick. She and Pap Paw had agreed that when the first one died, the remaining spouse would sell the farm and use the money to board and lodge. The farm sold at an auction for $3,000, and I guess it lasted until Pap Paw died in 1943 at 85 years old. I saw him only a couple times after 1932, the year we arrived at the Kentucky Baptist Children’s Home.

About 200 boys and girls ranging from babies to teens lived in the children’s home, situated on 700 acres of farmland. The boys worked the farm and dairy (one of the most modern dairy barns of its time), and the girls did the laundry, cooking, canning and sewing. We were cared for, but we certainly paid our own way with the work schedules. The girls’ and boys’ dormitories were separated by the administration offices, dining room and nursery, so it was a strictly segregated situation except for school and church.

The Nolin River ran through the farm, and there was never a boy raised in the home who could not swim. During the summer months there were always 10-50 boys swimming in the river. When the river was high and out of its banks, boys would jump off the old railroad bridge and swim 10 miles downstream around trees, logs, and anything else in the way. It was a miracle no one drowned. During those four years I was in the home, only one kid died, from polio. Three others had the disease, but recovered.

I had been there only three months when the girls had a chance to go swimming. It was made clear that the boys would stay away from the river when the girls went for their dip, but the boys had other ideas. When the girls arrived, three or four boys were perched in every nearby tree. The girls’ matron soon realized what was going on and called the superintendent, Reverend Hagland, who arrived in his ole 1930 Model A. Using his car to chase the kids across the farm, he ended up driving through a wheat field where about 30 kids were sprawled on the ground. It was amazing he didn’t run over a dozen. How we all survived, I’ll never know.

As sophisticated 10 or 11 year olds, we had to identify a girl as our own. I had been there about two weeks when I was told that my "girlfriend" was Virginia Wolf. It was another two weeks before I even saw Virginia. I started picking my own girlfriends, like Geneva Young and Mary Francis Womack. We were all in the same class from fifth grade on. The one I was a little more serious about was Golda Slusher, one class behind us, to whom I gave my class ring.

A boy had to be inventive to improve his lot in a place that housed 200 competitors. One of my jobs during this period was to build a fire in the old wood-burning kitchen cook stove. I would get up about 4 a.m. and have the stove hot for the matron and girls to cook breakfast. Albert Hicks was my helper. There was never any food in the kitchen, but behind the locked pantry door there was plenty. I soon learned that, with a pen knife, I could easily open the pantry door. So any time Albert and I were hungry in the evening or early in the morning, we would help ourselves and clean up the dishes in the morning while building the stove fire.

One Sunday night when everyone was off to Gilard Baptist Church for evening services, Albert and I were hungry. We made the pantry run, figuring we would catch up with the other kids returning from church and clean up our mess the next morning while building the fire. On our way to catch up with the kids returning from church, we noticed a car turning into the grounds—Reverend and Mrs. Hagland were coming back from a fund-raising trip in Kentucky. Our worst fear was about to come true; we knew they’d see the two dirty cereal bowls we’d left on the counter. The Reverend and Mrs. Hagland headed for the kitchen. Those Jack Armstrong cornflakes were like lead in our stomachs. The next morning, every boy was lined up like a row of corn, and the guilty person or persons was told to step forward. Albert and I were not about to admit our deed. It was two weeks before the furor settled down and we found new locks on the pantry door. A good thing was lost forever.

During the next four years, I worked as a farmer, shoe cobbler, bus driver, barber and general handyman. In the fall of 1932, I resumed school in Glendale, three miles from the home. Except for the small children, we all walked the three miles to and from school. At 12 years old, I was put in the fifth grade.

In 1936, I turned 16 and after school was out, I had to leave the home. John Gardner, the basketball coach, wanted me to stay with his folks in Glendale and play ball the next year. However, I went to Richmond, Indiana, and Mother found a place for me to board near the sanitarium. Mother and I visited Dad a couple times that summer, but otherwise it was a very dull summer. In the fall I went back to Glendale and stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Gardner, John’s dad and mother. They owned a general store in town, and I worked in the store to help pay for room and board. I broke no scholastic records that year, but did have a good basketball season.

In the spring of 1937, Mother moved from Richmond to work in the Cincinnati sanitarium, located in the College Hill section of town. When school was out, I hitchhiked to Cincinnati. Mother found a place for me to room and board for $5 a week. Mom and Pop Lawson’s had never taken boarders before. I got a job in Wayley’s Drugstore for $11 a week, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., six days a week. Wayley’s was the local hangout for the kids in College Hill. We had the best ice cream in town.

In the fall of 1937, I hitchhiked to Glendale for school and basketball. The summer of 1938, I was back at Wayley’s Drug Store and Mom and Pop Lawson’s. Each spring when school was out, I told everyone at Glendale that I would not be back the next school year. John Gardner, the math teacher and basketball coach, Miss Stella Elkins, history and geography teacher, and Mr. J.M.F. Hays, the principal, always lectured me to return and finish my studies. Mr. Hays is now 93 years old, and Mr. Gardner and Miss Elkins not far behind. I’m still good friends with each of them, and we exchange notes at Christmas to this day. The school did not have psychologists and counselors, but their dedication and encouragement gave me the education I may have missed.

The 1938-39 basketball season was a good one. We won the regional tournament, and I made the second all-state team. The summer of 1939, Bill Pierce and I hitchhiked to Charleston, South Carolina, to visit my aunt and uncle, Dad’s brother Raleigh and his sister, Elizabeth Cronin. Sis had no children but Raleigh had four girls and one boy. For about two weeks, we all had a ball swimming and relaxing at Folly Beach and the Isle of Palms beaches. Too soon it was time to head back to Cincinnati and on to school. I was ready to leave when Charlie Turkleson, Herb Dash and Bob Keifel decided to borrow Charlie’s dad’s car and take me to Glendale just to see what that town was all about. It was a 150-mile drive. We arrived about sunrise. Mrs. Gardner fixed breakfast for all, and then the others headed back to Cincinnati and I went off to school. Classes had already started.

During Christmas of 1939, I hitchhiked to Cincinnati for the holidays. It was on the trip back to Glendale that I ran into the first gay I’d ever met. It was just south of Louisville and only 50 miles from home. The car had a California license and I thought, "Good, he’ll go all the way to Glendale." I had just gotten into the car when he said he would have to take a detour because the road was closed a little farther down. I thought that was odd; I had just gone north on the same road a week before. He turned off the main road and it wasn’t long before he put his hand on my knee. I brushed it off and back came his hand. After he tried a couple more times, I reached into my overcoat pocket and placed a little .32-cal pistol I had in plain sight of this fellow and told him to get me back to the main highway – pronto! He didn’t waste time in doing just that. He didn’t know that the gun wasn’t loaded and I didn’t have a shell for it with me. When I got out of the car, he turned back toward Louisville, and I thought he was going back to report me to the police. It was five minutes until a bus came by. I flagged the bus and spent what little change I had left for a bus ride to Glendale. It was nice to get back.

I was never much of a student, but did get an offer for a basketball scholarship from Western Kentucky. However, by May 1940 when I graduated from high school, I’d had all the school I could handle. (And the other schools in the district had probably had enough of me. When I graduated from high school, I had just turned 20 and had played varsity basketball for five years.) Everyone there was aware that I was leaving for Cincinnati the day after school was out. Mary Francis Womack, my girlfriend at the time, said she wished she were going with me. This scared the hell out of me. I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to take care of myself, much less a girlfriend. So back I went to Wayley’s Drugstore in Cincinnati.

The summer of 1940 was a little wild. I was back working at Wayley’s and boarding with Mom and Pop Lawson. There was more talk of war, but this didn’t affect our summer. I bought an old 1926 Chevrolet for $20, put a $13 clutch in it, and maintained tires from Pearce’s service station. Bill, the younger of the three Pearce boys, was in our group. Sam Taylor, Charles Turkelson, and I all worked at the drugstore that summer. Herb Dash worked at his father’s dry cleaning establishment. Bob Keifel worked with his dad as a builder. Bob Webb and Harold Grabo didn’t work, just played. It was our last carefree summer. Not one of us knew that war would change our lives forever.

We made the rounds of every bar in Cincinnati that summer. Coke was five cents. Ten High bourbon was ten cents and beer was about fifteen cents. We also hit Echo and Mount Airy, the parks where the big bands played. No one had a steady girlfriend except Bob Keifel. That fall Bob married Hassie and bought a house in North College Hill for $5,000. We told him he was crazy on both counts. How would he ever pay off $5,000? But he and Hassie were obviously on the right track. They still live in that home 50 years later.

Joining Up

We all went into the military except Grabo. I’ve been told that he got mixed up with the mob and was found shot to death in downtown Cincinnati. Bob Webb was killed in a B-17 over Germany. Keifel and Dash went in the Navy. Bill Pierce went into the Navy as a pilot about three classes ahead of me.

It was January or February of 1941 that Turkelson and I were putting new magazines in the rack, including a LIFE magazine with a cover photo of a Marine in dress blues. I told Turk that was the outfit for me. Mr. Wayley was nearby and heard the remark. He said we couldn’t make it in that outfit, but Turk and I talked it over and decided to go to the recruiting office. The sergeant wanted to put us on the next train to Parris Island. We told him we would think it over and be back to see him. We both quit Wayley’s and took a two-week trip to Charleston, South Carolina. I sold the old Chevy when we got back and went down and signed up on March 24, 1941. Turk backed out.

The sergeant gave four of us our orders as he put us on the train to Parris Island. The three with me were strangers. When we were settled on the train, we opened the orders. There were two $1 bills attached. However, the orders stated that $3 was for food for the trip. I was told later that the sergeant was reported and court marshaled for taking $1 from each recruit he sent out.

When we arrived at Port Royal, South Carolina, we were met by a staff sergeant. I have never seen a man’s uniform started and pressed so well. This sergeant turned out to be our drill instructor. It didn’t take long to realize that we were in a new ball game. Before the day was out, we all had haircuts and a new issue of clothing. Despite our changed appearances, I did recognize the three guys I had traveled with on the train.

Well, boot camp is boot camp – all hell. However, the last week was rifle range. By this time the drill instructor had softened a little. I asked if I could have sea duty after boot camp. He said if I shot expert on the range, I could have what I requested. Two of us out of 60 made expert rifleman. (My hunting days at Pap Paw’s undoubtedly helped.) The following week when our orders came in and I got guard company NAS Jacksonville, Florida, I asked the DI about my request for sea duty. He said I wouldn’t like it, and to take my orders and get the next bus to Jacksonville. We had learned in boot camp NEVER to argue with the DI. I arrived at NAS Jacksonville around May 1, 1941. My first assignment was to guard the water tank – four hours on, eight hours off, and four on in a 24-hour period. Then I had two days off. That was a lot of time off with only $21 a month to spend. However, I was making an extra $5 a month for firing expert on the rifle range. Food and clothing were free and all the laundry you could send out was $3 a month, so with $23 a month to spend I was in good shape for liberty. Only the last week of the month was a little tight.

Guard Duty

We had a very sharp young second lieutenant by the name of Wayne Cargill. The lieutenant would make his rounds day and night and try to catch us off guard. I knew my general and special orders, so I guess this impressed him and he put me on the main gate after about two months. It was on this duty that I was almost killed. It was policy that the midnight-to-four watch cleaned the pistols. I had been there about two months when Tom McCarthy and I were cleaning several .45-caliber pistols. We were straddling a bench facing each other, with the .45s and clips between us. Sometime during this cleaning process, Tom picked up a .45, pulled the slide and pointed it at my stomach. I asked Tom who he was trying to kid. He turned his hand slightly and pulled the trigger. The thing went off and blew a hole in the wall. Needless to say, it scared the hell out of both of us. Lieutenant Cargill never knew how close it was to hitting me. He put Tom on two weeks’ restriction. When Tom’s folks arrived two days later for a visit, he had to talk to them through the fence.

With a lot of time off and not much money, I started spending time at one of the hangars where the cadets were flying. I asked an old chief about going up with one of the student pilots. The chief said if I cleaned the drip pans he would see that I got my ride. So I cleaned and cleaned and cleaned – and went flying.

Lieutenant Cargill made me a private first class in September 1941. That was very fast as there were Marines around who had been in the Corps three or four years and hadn’t made PFC yet. I was proud of those stripes. However, a couple of weeks later there was trouble. When Cargill got to me during the weekly Friday inspection, he checked my rifle (it was spotless), checked my haircut, and said, "Vittitoe, I went to a hell of a lot of trouble to make you a PFC and you fall out for inspection needing a haircut." He reached up and ripped my new PFC stripes off my shirt. I had a haircut on Monday, but he didn’t do any paperwork, so my "demotion" was only intimidation for the inspection.

Charlie Turkelson came down to visit for a week. We made the town and beaches and had a grand time. Charlie returned to Cincinnati and joined the Marines. After boot camp, they made him a drill instructor. He hated the job. He was later made a DI for women Marines, which was worse. Later he got sea duty, but the war was almost over and he saw little action.

Pearl Harbor is Attacked

In October, Cargill put in for flight school and got his orders, but before he left, I asked him if I could get aviation duty. He put in the request before he departed for Pensacola, Florida. To make sure I got the orders, I requested a furlough transfer. That means one pays his own way to the next duty station. Well, my orders arrived and approved a transfer to Quantico, Virginia, effective Dec. 8, 1941. On Saturday, Dec. 7, I was packed and ready to leave the next day. When the news of Pearl Harbor was announced, all I could think about was that someone would cancel my orders. So at midnight, I went out the gate with my sea bag and rifle and hitchhiked to Cincinnati. (I can’t imagine anyone hitchhiking with a rifle today, even in uniform.) When I arrived, everyone who hadn’t already joined the service was going into one branch or another. The old town just wasn’t what it used to be.

I heard that my old girlfriend, Goldie Slusher, was in town going to school. I located her, but she was going with some fellow who asked her not to go out with me. She returned my class ring, and married this fellow. I heard later that he was killed during the war. Meantime, Charlie’s younger sister Verna had grown up. I had been home three days, and she and I had one date before I got a telegram from the Commandant of the Marine Corps to report immediately to Quantico. With sea bag and rifle in hand, I hitchhiked there.

I arrived on December 13 to find that all aircraft that could fly were gone. The squadrons and personnel had left for the west coast. The two airfields at Quantico were Brown Field and Turner Field. Brown Field was soon closed; the runways were too short for the newer aircraft. Being a PFC, I was put in charge of overseeing the barracks clean-up while awaiting an aircraft service school. I had been there about two weeks when the officer of the day read the orders of the day before lunch, as was customary in those days. This day he started that anyone interested in volunteering for one of three reserve bases – Gross Ile, Michigan; Minneapolis, Minnesota; or Anacosta, Maryland – should see the sergeant major after lunch. I told him I would like one of those positions.  I was tired of chasing "boots" around to clean up the barracks. He asked which one would I like. I had heard of Minneapolis, so that way my answer. Then he asked where I was from and when I said Cincinnati, he pointed out that Gross Ile was closer to Cincinnati. I said fine. Two weeks later, I was on my way with my rifle and sea bag, except this time I went by train at government expense.

Training Base

When I arrived, I found myself at a training base for Royal Canadian Navy Cadets. There were about six Marine and six Navy pilots serving as primary instructors. The mechanics were a mixture of Navy and Marine personnel, mostly from the Detroit area. We had two models of trainers, the NP-1, made by Sparten, and the N2S, made by Stearman. Both were yellow perils with open cockpits. I had been working on these aircraft about three months when the maintenance officer, Lt. Meirs, came in one day and said to take the spoiler off of the NP-1. It was a three-quarter-inch triangular piece of balsa wood, covered with cloth. The problem was that every time someone bumped it, there was damage and it had to be replaced. Another mechanic and I removed the spoiler and covered the leading edge with cloth and painted it. It looked good and smooth. On April 3 (Good Friday), Meirs was ready to flight-test the aircraft. I asked to go up with him, and he told me to be ready right after lunch. I checked out a parachute. The chief who issued it said the chute was too big, but I said that it was all right, that we would only be gone a few minutes.

Well, we took off and Meirs climbed to 3,000 feet and put it into a spin to the right, recovered and climbed back to 3,000 feet and put it into a spin to the left. The spin lasted longer than I thought it should have and Meirs started yelling something, but I couldn’t understand him. Then I saw him climbing out of the aircraft. I tried to lift myself up, but the force of the spin kept me in the seat. I put my hands on the side of the cockpit opening, then tumbled out on the inside of the spin. I reached for the rip cord, but couldn’t feel it. I threw my goggles off and the cord was back under my left side. When I did pull the cord, my hand came flying up to the right. I could see the D-ring, but couldn’t see the cable that was supposed to be attached. I looked at my hand when I saw the silk go by and felt a mighty jerk. The chest strap was under my chin and I couldn’t see down. I didn’t know much about parachutes, but had heard that you could unbuckle the chest strap and hold the risers with your hands. I did this and low and behold, I was right on top of a 100-foot water tank. I had also heard you could pull either riser and drift in that direction, so I did this. From the leg of the water tank were three high-tension power lines, but there was no time except to cross my legs and go between two of them. I hit the ground and the chute bellowed out over the wires. I unbuckled and stepped out. Meirs was about 50 yards away. The aircraft landed in the parking lot of a railroad repair station and wrecked seven automobiles. The fellows at the railroad station saw the whole thing. They said my chute opened at about five hundred feet.

Meirs and I both went to sick bay for a physical check-up and were released. By 4 p.m., I had a hell of a cramp in the calf of my right leg. Guess the tail section had clipped me in the leg and I didn’t realize it until later. That evening, the Detroit paper came out with big bold headlines, "U.S.S. Langley Sunk." Just under that, but in smaller print, the article stated that two Navy flyers stuck to a plane to save the town. It sounded good, but that wasn’t the way it happened.

Flight Program

Shortly thereafter, I heard that the Marine Corps was taking some enlisted men into the flight program. I went to the commanding officer, Major Charlie Adams, and asked for flight training. He said that after my experience bailing out, if I learned to send and receive six words of Morse Code a minute, he would see what he could do. A sailor named Bill Gray and I rigged up a key button and started practicing. By August 1, 1942, we could send and receive maybe two words per minute. I went back to Adams and told him I was ready. He sent a request to headquarters and by the end of August 1942, I had orders to report to pre-flight school at Athens, Georgia. On Nov. 24, 1942, I arrived and entered the 13th Battalion; Bill Gray was in the 12th Battalion.

I made buck sergeant by the time I reported to Athens. Here, I was back in school with 45 cadets and four Navy enlisted and one Marine sergeant. Everyone wore the same uniform, so except for liberty, no one could tell the difference. However, the enlisted could stay out on the weekend and the cadets had to be back by 10 p.m. This got me in trouble later with one of the cadets. The weekend that we finished pre-flight school, I rented a room in Athens for a party. We all had too much to drink. I made sure the cadets all got back to Langley Hall by 10 p.m. However, the cadet who had to bunk above John Urell got sick and vomited all over John’s freshly cleaned and pressed uniform, which he was to wear at E Base in Dallas the next day. John got all over me for that one. I ran into him at El Toro in 1950. He was a major and I had reverted to master sergeant. He didn’t let me forget that incident, as we were both in the same squadron. We left for Dallas March 1, 1943 and I made my first flight on March 17, 1943. I got every flight I could and had more than 100 hours by the time I left for Pensacola, Florida.

One day I looked over the schedule board and there was an airplane available. I requested it and told that if I could make it off with the group going out, I could have the flight. Well, I jumped into the N2S, started it and taxied out, climbing up with the rest of the group. I was in the acrobatic stage so I went to that area and did a barrel roll. But by the time I got half way around I knew something was wrong. I got the airplane upright by holding on to the stick and throttle. I had failed to put on my seat belt, and my knees were shaking so badly I thought I would never get it fastened.


Shortly thereafter, I was on the way to Pensacola as a staff sergeant. When I checked in, I was assigned to Saufley Field for formation flight in an SNV, then to Cavilier Field for instruments. From there everyone was sent to a field that would indicate what type of aircraft he would fly in the fleet. I asked for fighters and was sent to Barron Field, called Bloody Barron. I was assigned to a flight of six; one other enlisted pilot, Bill Brockman, and four Navy lieutenants, all academy graduates who had come back from the war zone—Lt. Seaman, Lt. Brown, Lt. Craft and Lt. Bronson. Only Seaman made it through the war. Brockman and I walked a straight and narrow path, but the lieutenants didn’t take guff from anyone. They kept us in trouble all the time. During that period the commandant put out a letter to all enlisted pilots saying that if they were interested in a commission, to have two officers make the recommendation. These four made a recommendation that should have promoted Brockman and me to colonels, at least. I saw Seaman after the war as a Navy captain in Washington, D.C. One of the instructors made a statement to us during the first week at Barron that would hold true. He said, "If you guys can get through the hot-rod stage and make about 500 hours without killing yourselves in some dumb operational accident, you may have a chance to live a full life." He was right.


I finished Pensacola and graduated on Sept. 14, 1943 as a master sergeant. Brockman made second lieutenant and stayed at Pensacola. I have not heard from him since. I got orders to Melbourne, Florida; why, I’ll never know. Most Marines went to Jacksonville for operational training. I checked in at Melbourne, the only enlisted pilot on the base. Melbourne had F4Fs and the new F6Fs. The Marines were now flying F4U/Corsair. Any flight they had a Marine in the group flew F4Fs; the Navy pilots got F6Fs. They didn’t know what to do with me, the only enlisted pilot, so I stayed in the Marine barracks. By the end of September, I was appointed a second lieutenant. The Marine Corps said I could stay in the barracks for the two remaining weeks of training if I didn’t wear the second lieutenant bars on base. I agreed.

The F4F had very narrow landing gear. My first flight was to be a touch-and-go flight in the pattern. Well, on my first takeoff I felt something that I thought was a blown tire. I told the tower my problem and flew around Melbourne for an hour. But I had to land sometime, so I told the tower I was coming in. When I touched down, the plane started veering off to the left. I let it go and it ran off the runway and stayed upright. I had no problem with the narrow landing gear after that. We had an Ensign Santana who ground looped three before they grounded him. When I left Melbourne they didn’t know what to do with him. Two years later I ran into him at Floyd Bennett Field. He had gone into the ferry command from Melbourne and was checked out in almost every airplane in the Navy.

The F4F had a Curtis electric prop. On a bombing run I had a runaway prop. I thought it would fly off before I could get it under control. I finished operational training the last week of November 1943, one year from start to finish. The only thing left was to get a check out in the F4U/Corsair at El Toro on the way to the South Pacific.

El Toro

I left Melbourne for Cincinnati around the first of December 1943, a new second lieutenant. When I arrived in Cincinnati on my way to El Toro, California, all the gang was gone. Mother was still working at the sanitarium; my brother Lloyd had joined the Marine Corps and was in Guadalcanal with the 1st Marine Division. Hagan, my youngest brother, was in boot camp at Parris Island. Mom and Pop Lawson were getting old and both were in poor health. Verna and I saw a few movies. I had a few meals at the Turkelsons. They always set a great table. Charlie was at Hunter University in New York as a DI for women Marines. The old town was not what it used to be. Verna drove me to the train station and I was on my way to California and the South Pacific. I remember at the train station the loud speaker was playing the hit of the time, "Sentimental Journey." How true!

I arrived at El Toro and was assigned to a flight with three other pilots: Ralph Thomas from Idaho, Rob Roy from Washington state; and Preston Kaymier from Virginia. Our instructor, Capt. Trenchard, who was just back from the Pacific, said he voted Kaymier most likely to spin in. Kaymier stayed in the Marine Corps after the war and was killed in an automobile accident in Hawaii in 1970. Trenchard was killed at Mojave three months after we left El Toro.

The first woman Marine I saw was at El Toro. She was the shuttle bus driver between the BOQ and flight line. She said she went through boot camp at Hunter College in New York. I asked her if she knew a DI there by the name of Turkelson. Well, Turk’s ears must have burned. A drunken sailor could not have used more profanity in describing him. Turk had made her and a girlfriend scrub down a stairway with toothbrushes.

Who should I find at El Toro but Lt. Cargill, now a major and commanding officer of a diver bomber squadron, and Major Charlie Adams, now a colonel and executive officer of the base.

We flew every day through January and February of 1944. When we weren’t in the air we were living it up in L.A., mostly at a bar called Mike Lyman’s in Hollywood.

One night in early February we were assigned night-flying duties. The four of us were beginning to have a good feel for the ole Corsair. The moon was bright and on landing I was leading the section, with Thomas on my wing. We were to stagger our landings. Rob landed first on the left side of the runway, and Kaymier on the right. I was on the left and Thomas on the right. I had just touched down, when I noticed Kaymier cutting across the runway in front of me for the taxi way. I poured the gas to the Corsair and went around, pulled the wheels up and left the flaps down, made a tight turn and landed right behind Thomas. But as I landed sparks started flying in all directions. When it stopped, I jumped out and ran. When I looked back, I realized what I had done – landed wheels up.

The next morning I was in front of the executive officer. For 30 minutes he gave me hell, telling me that aircraft cost $60,000, and I was restricted to base for 10 days. When not flying I was to stay in the BOQ. Then I had to go see the commanding officer. He agreed with the executive officer, but added one thing. He said I should take that Corsair as high as I could get it. I’m not sure he wasn’t trying to get rid of me. I made 43,000 feet and at that altitude it was a very wobbly aircraft. To keep from pulling the wing off, it took me almost as long to get down as it did to get up there.

We needed transportation, so we would get a rental car with limited mileage. Gas rationing was on but we could get gas from a station in Santa Ana. We had a hard time paying for the rental, though, so someone decided to loosen the speedometer cable under the dash. We drove the rental car all week that way, then put in the proper amount of gas and hooked up the speedometer just prior to taking it back.

During this time the Army was training pilots in P-38 at the ole Santa Ana Army base. We used to mix it up and that was encouraged until someone in a P-38 tried to loop a flight of Corsairs and hit and killed the lead Marine of a flight of four.

Bob Wright, a flight buddy, found an old LaSalle and bought it for $300. We used that until we got orders and drove it to Miramar, which was an overnight stop prior to getting aboard ship. We tried to sell the car, but there were no takers. We ended up giving it to some sailor who had just returned from the South Pacific.


We boarded the USS Salvo Island and on March 15, 1944, my birthday, sailed on the shakedown cruise to Esprito Santos in the New Hebrides. This took 30 days because we zigzagged all over the place to stay away from Japanese boats and subs. We stayed there two days and then were sent to a southern island called Efate to joint he fighter pilot pool. When the squadrons came south, those pilots who had three tours of combat were sent home; their replacements and those killed were taken out of the pool. While there, we continued to train.

On one occasion 12 Corsairs were to cover 36 dive bombers. They were to do the navigation as we were doing a weave well above for their protection. The target was covered by clouds and they were lost. We had no idea where we were; there was no land in sight. The fighter pool C.O. got concerned as we were well overdue. He had a radioman start calling, and we picked up the call. He took a radio bearing on us and said we were at 070 degrees from the base. By this time everyone was on his own. The bombers had fuel, but the Corsairs were getting mighty low. One Corsair pilot had already jettisoned his canopy, ready to ditch. When we saw land we were between airfields; one called Havana Harbor and the other, our field, called Qoin Hill. I was almost to the beach indicating 10 gallons of fuel when the ole Corsair engine quit. I lowered the flaps, left the wheels up, and just as I was raising the nose to make a water landing, one side of the flaps started coming up. I managed to keep it level with rudder as I hit the water. As I started settling into the water, the nose hit the coral reef below the water. All I could think of was that it would flip over, and I would be pinned between the coral and the aircraft. Luckily, it stayed upright. In fact, I could still use the radio. I called the base and told them where I was – two miles from the runway with nothing but trees between there and the beach. Two pilots made the trees and were killed. One landed just short of the strip at Havana Harbor and wrecked the plane, but the pilot was okay. I was four hours and fifteen minutes on that flight. In 1950, I read in an aviation magazine that at low tide the Corsair would come up out of the water, which indicated there had been an airfield in the area at one time. In 1990 I returned to Efate with my son Craig and daughter-in-law Suzanne. We found the Corsair. It was in fair shape, considering it had been in salt water for 46 years.

[KWE Note: "Return to Efate" is found in the Appendix of Jimmy Vittitoe’s Memoir on the KWE.]

I joined VMF212 and headed for Green Island in the Salmomans, just north of Bougainville. We had a bomber strip and a fighter strip on Green which was only five miles long and about two miles wide. There were three fighter squadrons on Green Island: VMF212, 213 and 214. Our main target was Raboul on New Britton, a large island off the east coast of New Guinea. Raboul was the largest Japanese base in the South Pacific. They still had aircraft; however, by the time I got there they would not bring them up. They would taxi them down the runaway to try to draw us down. They had the most concentrated fire power in the Pacific. On the first flight to Raboul, Lt. Wilson led us through Simpson Harbor. (The flight was made up of Wilson, with me on his wing. The section leader was Lt. Knudsen and tail-end Charlie was Lt. Al Semb. We remained as a team for my first combat tour.) I have never seen so much fire power. How we got through without getting hit is beyond me.

New Ireland was about 10 miles east of New Britton, and on the southern tip was a point called Cape St. George. At this spot were the best Japanese anti-aircraft gunners in the South Pacific. There was nothing there but gun emplacements. We gave it a wide range. Lt. Prestrige was leading a flight one day and decided to give them one bomb and a strafing run. They hit him. The shell went down from one end of the Corsair to the other. He got home, 150 miles over water, but the Corsair was junked. Prestrige flew wing on the commanding officer for the next two weeks. We lost the first pilot a week into our operational tour. Lt. Semberviva was hit in the fuel tank and losing fuel like mad. Halfway back to Green Island, the fuel was gone and he had to ditch at sea 75 miles from home. He got out of the aircraft but didn’t use dye marker and was never found. We heard later that he couldn’t swim. I knew several other pilots who couldn’t swim either. How they got through flight school, I will never know.

By August I had completed my first tour and was going to Sidney for R&R. The squadron of 15 aircraft had lost six pilots during that tour. Wilson went home; this had been his third tour. We had a ball in Sidney for seven days, and then it was back to Green Island. During this time the only news from home were letters from Mother and Verna. Mother kept me up-to-date on Lloyd and Hagan. Lloyd had been hit in the arm with shrapnel from a grenade. Hagan was on the landing at Palau. We were all three overseas at one time for a short period. Verna kept me posted on the fellows from College Hill. I’m not sure I ever told her how much I enjoyed her letters.

My second tour was the same operation as the first except that this time I was a section leader and Knudsen was the division leader. My wing man was Bob Wright. We escorted bombers and made strafing runs before the bombers came in with their bombs. I still don’t know how I ever got through that tour without a hole in an aircraft. I have made strafing runs where I could see the tracer bullets come directly at me, then seem to separate and go by on both sides of the cockpit. Our biggest find on this tour were five fully loaded fuel barges in a cove on New Ireland. What a fire! We all got the distinguished flying cross for that and 56 other missions, but still no Japanese aircraft. The only one I saw flying in that area was when we were escorting a C-47 from Green Island to Emirau off the north end of New Ireland. We saw a zero off the coast and started for it, but the pilot of the C-47 saw it too and yelled, "If you bastards leave me, I’ll have you all court marshaled!" We stayed with the C-47; Rolo Hielman got it a few days later.

My second tour was up and we had one more flight. It was a dusk patrol over Green Island. We took off fully loaded. Knudsen was leading. We climbed to 10,000 feet. Things were slow; no action. Knudsen was heading home the next day and the rest were going to Sydney. He said to follow him in a loop. He didn’t have enough speed for our altitude and weight. When I was at the top of the loop, I was out of speed. I knew Bob Wright could never make it. I looked back to see how Bob was doing, and he’d spun out. He stopped the first spin but went right into a progressive spin the other direction. All I could do was watch and hope he could get the spin stopped and pull out before he hit the water. I saw him stop the spin and start the pull out. He had vapor streamers the full width of the wings and cleared the water with less than 200 feet. The next day we were off to Sydney. Bob said he was sure glad to be with us. We lost four pilots on that tour.

On Nov. 8, 1944, I headed for my second R&R in Sydney. Our transport pilots this time were from the Army Air Corps, both second lieutenants, flying a DC-3 from Bougainville to Townsville, about a six-hour trip. Everything was going great until about midway through the flight when these two yokels spotted a huge thunderstorm—and plowed right through the middle of it. With nothing but fighter pilots (15 to 20) in the back, it was a mistake on their part. We were thrown all over the place. No one was strapped in. When they broke out on the other side of the storm, a major and captain were just about to throw them out the door. Needless to say, after that they stayed in the clear to Townsville and Sydney.

The normal R&R was seven days in Sydney, and each of us had taken the money required for a seven-day tour. The Australian Hotel had a bar that went through the hotel from one street to the other. The Army Air Corps had their bar, Army had theirs, but this one was for Marines. Freida Hall was the barmaid. She had every Marine squadron patch on the back bar wall with names and pictures of all the Marine aces. When our seven days were up and we were out of money, there was no airplane to take us back. We found out that MacArthur had returned to the Philippines and the transport aircraft were being used to move personnel there.

Each week, we borrowed 10 pounds (about $35) from the Red Cross. When we got back on Dc. L5, 1944, there was a letter from the Red Cross asking us to pay up. The day we were back in Corsairs flying to Raboul, we learned Lt. Zanger had been shot down that morning and had bailed out near the water. We found his chute in the trees but he never made the beach. We don’t know whether he made it as a prisoner or was killed.

The squadrons were reorganized and headed for the Philippines. This was my last tour and I was now the division leader. On my wing was Lt. Wilder. He was killed at Cebi City, from ground fire. Section leader Tom Mooney, who later flew F86s, was an exchange pilot with the Air Force in Korea and after retirement, flew one of the Corsairs in the movie Ba Ba Black Sheep. He was killed in 1987 flying a sea plane in the Caribbean. Frank Tallman of Tall-Mantz fame (Orange County Air Museum) was returning from San Francisco to be a pallbearer for Tom when he hit Saddleback Mountain and was killed. Tail-end Charlie was Brian (Dumbo) Graham who retired as a test pilot from Sikorsky Aircraft in 1980.

We were also assigned to a new squadron, VMF222. (The pilots were accustomed to being shifted around from squadron to squadron.) We left Green Island on Dec. 9, 1944 and headed to the Philippines. We arrived at Samar on the Gulf of Layte, after 15 hours of island hopping—Green to Emirau to Biak to Pelelieu and 600 miles from Pelelieu to Samar. Should anyone have to ditch, there was one P.B.Y. sea plane somewhere between. Everyone made it, but the last 200 miles was through one of those South Pacific storms. It rained so hard you couldn’t see 20 feet. Our escort and navigation plane was a B-25. Fifteen Corsairs were tucked in so close the B-25 couldn’t make a turn without notifying us. We arrived on Jan. 12, 1945. MAGII had arrived two weeks earlier. They had heavy losses in both aircraft and pilots.

My first mission was two days later. My division and one other escorted two DC-3s to Mindoro with supplies. The strip was too small to handle the DC-3s and eight Corsairs; we had to circle while the DC-3s were unloaded. We had belly tanks: 300-plus gallons of extra fuel. The flight took nearly seven hours. When we arrived home we made the standard fighter break. I lead the second division which made me number five to land. When I reduced power to make the landing the engine quit. There was no place to go except the strip, so I dived for the strip in between two landing aircraft. I made it, but with the speed I had, I hit the tail of the Corsair ahead before I locked the brakes and nosed up. No one was hurt, but both planes were used for spare parts.

Our major job was flight cover for the Navy convoys and after release by other aircraft, we hit any target of opportunity. This was the fun part of the flight. We all used the water from our canteens to our on our heads to keep from going to sleep. It was hot and humid. On one of those Layte Gulf patrols I had an engine failure. I dead sticked the ole F4U into the Tacloban Airfield along the beach where MacArthur waded ashore on his return to the Philippines. We would cover these convoys as far as 200 miles out. The early-morning flights would take off two hours before dawn and get over the convoy prior to daybreak and the other would stay until after dark. We lost several pilots on those missions. There was no weather briefing to speak of and just fly dead reckoning to the area. With radio silence sometimes a pilot would be missing and none of the others would know it until the sun came up.

We had three major accidents on the Samar strip. The executive officer was taking off on a pre-dawn flight and another Corsair was taxing down to take off. The tower had cleared the takeoff but not the taxi aircraft. Both lived but were badly burned. The second was a B-24. We shared the strip with a B-24 squadron. They were bombing Okinawa from Samar. The strip was narrow so the lead B-24 on a takeoff drifted near our parking revetment area, and a Corsair turning up cut a portion of his wing off. The B-24 crashed just off the end of the runway, and all aboard were killed. The third almost wiped out the squadron. I was the duty officer this particular day and was to record each aircraft as it took off. Pilots had been going to the revetment area and if their assigned aircraft was down for any reason they would just take another. The maintenance officer and I were standing amidst our tents, operations, parachutes and maintenance as the first division took off and I recorded the numbers. The first aircraft of the second division took off and as the second aircraft was about to lift off, he hit a hole in the runway and blew a tire. The aircraft swerved toward us. We could see that Corsair coming directly at us, and we both ran like hell. The wheels of the Corsair caught the first tent and took out the other two. Just as the maintenance officer and I stopped running and turned to see the damage, the aircraft exploded in our revetment area. The Corsair ended up on its back, and Lt. Orth was knocked out. The mechanics in the revetment area rushed in to get him out. Fourteen men were killed and many others hurt. Several other aircraft were damaged.

In April 1945 my third tour was over and the squadrons were heading for the Marianas, getting closer to Japan. During that year I had flown 111 missions, seen some outstanding pilots lose their lives and never saw one that didn’t face the dangers head on. Most were very young and eager. The older ones were cool, but they too were eager. Some were high school graduates, some had masters degrees—yet in the aircraft you couldn’t tell one from the other. It is said that the military is the great leveler, and it was proven overseas.

Back in the States

On the way home, I stopped in Hawaii for four days awaiting transportation. Verna had told me Bob Keifel was stationed there, so I looked him up. We tried to drink the island dry, fought the war over again and caught up on the ole gang. I got out of Hawaii on the Pan Am clipper which had eight bunks and ten plush seats. I was still a second lieutenant so I didn’t have the rank to get a bunk, but who cares. I had made it through a very tough year, and 14 hours later I would be back in the good ole U.S. of A. in San Francisco.

We arrived there just as the first United Nations meeting was being organized. We all headed for Harris and Frank clothing store to get new uniforms, a few ribbons, and then on to liberty in ‘Frisco. We had a ball for a couple of days until my wallet was stolen. I had to borrow enough money to wire Mother to send me what little I had saved during the year. I never cared much for San Francisco after that. We then went to Miramar for assignment. I was asked what I wanted: East Coast, West Coast, or ferry duty. I said ferry duty. This time it was by train with a room. Rob Roy and Ralph Thomas had picked the same duty, and there were several others I had known from other squadrons on the same train.

From Floyd Bennett Field in New York we went to Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, to check out in the various aircraft we would be flying. As fighter pilots there wasn’t much choice, F4Us and F6Fs. The F6F was much slower so the Marines tried to stay with the F4Us, but the Navy saw that we took our share of F6Fs. We would leave Floyd Bennett Field for San Diego with new aircraft for the fleet. The major stops were Spartanburg, South Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; Shreveport, Louisiana; Ft. Worth, Texas; El Paso, Texas; and then San Diego. Per diem was $7 per day. Hotel was $4-$5, and food and beverages took care of the other $2-$3. The routine was to deliver the airplane to North Island in San Diego and catch a commercial airline back to New York. We had top priority, so at times the aircraft (DC-3s, either American or United) were loaded with ferry pilots. Take a load of fighter pilots, put their parachutes in the cargo hold, and fly through thunderstorms from San Diego to New York for 10-14 hours, and you have real panic on your hands. When we got back to New York, most paid $5 a night (special rate) to stay at the Pennsylvania Hotel just to get off the base.


In early July 1945 I was sitting in a bar on 42nd Street with several friends. For some reason I left the group, and as I stepped out on the street two good-looking girls walked by. I invited both back inside for a drink. It turned out they were sisters from Altoona, Pennsylvania. One was going to nursing school at Flower 5th Avenue Hotel. The other was visiting from Altoona. Neither girl drank except for an occasional glass of wine, and the evening was young when Janet said she had to get back to the hospital by 10 p.m. I took her back by cab, got her phone number and told her I would call when I got back in town. I made two or three trips before I called. When I did I wasn’t sure I would recognize her or that she would recognize me. I figured my uniform would help some, but there were uniforms all over New York in those days. Anyway, we agreed to meet by the statue at Rockefeller Plaza. We went to dinner and saw the show, "Up in Central Park." Janet had to be back at the hospital by 10 p.m.

This went on for several months every time I got back in to town. She ate with such gusto that I was beginning to think the hospital didn’t feed the poor girl. We had our favorite place, Kelly’s Steak House. (Forty-eight years later, she still has an appetite!) I kept ferrying aircraft and feeding Janet. It was late in August or early September when I got back from a trip and Janet had a couple days off. New York was hot and humid so we decided to take a train up the Hudson, not knowing where we would end up, which was somewhere in the Catskill Mountains. We swam and went horseback riding for two days, and then it was back to New York and the routine.

Post-World War II

I had just landed at North Island when I heard the Japanese had surrendered. The Navy put out the word that no alcohol could be served in San Diego, not even a beer. I got the first airline I could back to New York where the parties were still going on. Sometime during this period the Floyd Bennett ready room was full of pilots set to ferry aircraft all over the country. They were just waiting for the weather to clear when over the speaker system came an announcement that a B-25 had hit the Empire State Building at the 82nd floor. It was a weekend, so the loss was not so bad as it could have been.

By the end of October all Marine pilots were transferred to N.A.S. San Pedro, near Long Beach. Our job was to move the aircraft that we had flooded California with to various stations throughout the country.

The BOQ was full so we had to find our own quarters in Long Beach. Rob Roy, Ralph Thomas, Charlie Chop and I moved into the Terry Apartment on Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach. This was the first time I had ever seen a Murphy Bed, but I didn’t have to worry about using it much because we were always on the road. We were to pay rent weekly. The lady who ran the apartment house could get more by renting weekly. We finally solved that by each leaving her a check for our weekly charge. I tried to get any aircraft going to the East Coast, then catching a Navy transport to New York to see Janet. If there was nothing ferrying out of New York, I would go commercial. Late one night when I returned tired and dirty to the Terry Apartment, I heard a noise before I opened the door. When I stepped in there were strangers all over the place. One girl asked, "Who in the hell do you think you are breaking in on our party?" The place was a mess. Charlie Chop had started a party two or three days earlier and had taken off on a ferry flight. I borrowed a key to one of the other pilot’s apartments that night. I cleaned house the next day.

Rob Roy was from Yakima, Washington. Rob had picked up a Corsair in Whidby Island and had stopped in Yakima to see his folks. He was weathered in for 29 days, and when he got back he put in for a $2 cab fare each day from his folks’ place to the airport. The disbursing officer almost court-marshaled him for trying to charge the government $2 a day. He definitely did not get his cab fare. Rob stayed in the Marine Corps, when to test pilot school, and was killed on an instrument flight in a Beech-18 in 1948 when the aircraft hit a mountain 75 mil4es west of Quantico, Virginia.

Ralph Thomas left the Marine Corps and went back to Sun Valley, Idaho and later became the manager of the Challenger Inn in Sun Valley. He is now retired.

Charlie Chop was called back during the Korean War and became one of the early helicopter pilots. He worked with me at Hughes in 1964 in Culver City. Later he worked with the FAA as an examiner. I haven’t heard from him for several years.

In early 1946 people were getting out of the service in droves. In mid-March I decided to give civilian life a try. I was in Alameda, California, had just delivered an F6F and was told to taken an FM-2 to Olathe, Kansas – the junkyard for older aircraft no longer needed. I told the operations officer that I was not checked out in the FM-2. He said I had flown the F4F, which I had at Melbourne, and they were basically the same. I went out to look at the aircraft. It had seen better days. The aircraft had no log books, but that excuse didn’t work either. So I was on my way. When I got to Tucson, I discovered a friend was taking a TBM to the same place. I had never flown the TBM and he had never flown the FM-2, so we agreed to trade aircraft from Tucson to El Paso. We gave each other a cockpit checkout and headed for El Paso.

Well, this old TBM had an automatic pilot. I called my friend on the radio and asked him how it worked. He instructed me to line this and that up and when I had that taken care of, push a button. Well, when I pushed that button, the darn thing almost flipped on its back. I unplugged it and went on into El Paso. When I got to Olathe there was no transportation back to California. The operations officer said they had a DC-3 going to Wichita, where there were 12 TD2Cs waiting—six to the West Coast and six to Jacksonville. I had no idea what a TD2C was, but I found a typewriter and put it on my ferry card and left on the DC-3 for Wichita.

When I saw the thing I knew I had made a mistake this time. It was a small single seater with tricycle landing gear, which I had never used before. I cornered one of the other pilots and asked a few questions and was told the engines were made out of reclaimed metal, good for 60 hours, because the Navy was going to use them as target drones. It was modeled after a pre-war civilian aircraft called the Culver Cadet. I must say it was a "going little ginney." I brought it back to San Pedro as my last ferry.

When I arrived back at NAS Terminal Island my orders for separation had arrived. I was to report to the Naval Ammunition Depot at Craine, Indiana for discharge. In order to save money on transportation I hitched a ride on a PBY going east. The weather was bad through Banning Pass so the pilot, a lieutenant commander, decided to go to San Diego and then east through Yuma. The PBY was an amphibian that could land on water or land. Shortly after takeoff I was at the radioman’s station tuning in some good ‘40s music when both engines quit. The pilot headed for the water just off Huntington Beach and hit it so hard that it split the hull and the ole PBY started taking on water. He got the engines started and instead of lowering the landing gear out in deeper water, he plowed the bow into the beach. Everyone got out and before I left the scene the waves were breaking over the top of ole PBY. I went back to Terminal Island and got another flight east.

When I arrived at Craine, Indiana, I was a first lieutenant. Being a temporary officer, I was put back to my permanent rank of master sergeant, then appointed a second lieutenant in the reserves, and finally discharged from active duty as a second lieutenant. Back in Cincinnati, things were not the same. Everyone had to get on with his life. I was bored. I took a civilian flight instructor’s course on the GI Bill, but flying those light aircraft was just not cutting it. I was used to pushing the throttle forward and getting results. Push the throttle forward on an Aronica and not much happens.

Lloyd got home and started looking for a job. Hagan stayed in the Corps and went to China. I finished the instructor’s course, bought a 1941 Packard sedan, took Dad out of the hospital and drove him down through Kentucky for a couple of weeks. I drove up to Altoona where Janet was visiting her parents. The only time I ever paid for flying, I rented a Cub for $6 and took Janet for an airplane ride around Altoona.

By the time I got back to Cincinnati I decided I would try getting back in the Corps on flying status. I checked with recruit depot, and they wired the commandant for an answer. The reply stated that if I signed up within 90 days of my discharge, I could come back as a master sergeant. If I signed up after 90 days, I could return as a technical sergeant. When the answer came back I had been out 88 days. I signed up and the only place I could make in two days was Quantico, Virginia. I checked in just under the wire at AES-12, NAS Quantico. The C.O. of AES-12 was Col. John L. Smith, one of the top aces of the Marine Corps and a Medal of Honor winner. When I checked in at AES-12 I had on my officer’s uniform but no stripes as master sergeant and no bars as a lieutenant. Smith didn’t know what to make of me. Years later I stopped at headquarters in D.C. and looked up my fitness reports. There was always this question on those reports: "Do you recommend this man for promotion?" Well, one of Smith’s first responses was no – because I had refused a permanent commission. I don’t know where he got that idea. Several reports later he responded to the same question by saying, "Yes, he has more on the ball than most of the officers in my outfit."

I had been there a month or so when Smith sent four of us (three officers and me as a master sergeant) to San Diego to pick up four Corsairs freshly out of overhaul. When we got back it happened that I was the only one to fill out the log books properly. From then on he sent me on most of the ferry trips. AES-12 maintained the aircraft for school pilots and used them also as a demonstration squadron for Congress, demonstrating new rockets and bombs. On one occasion Smith was leading two others and me. We were carrying a new rocket called the Tiny Tim. When we got to the range the weather was bad and we couldn’t drop the rockets. We couldn’t land back of the airstrip either, so what to do. We flew down the middle of the Potomac and dropped them unarmed. As far as I know four Tiny Tim rockets are still on the bottom of the Potomac somewhere between Quantico, Virginia and Maryland.


My ole Packard came in handy too. Janet was still in school in New York, so some weekends when I had enough money for fuel and food I would drive to New York to see her. I found a way to supplement my meager wages. John Gibba, another master sergeant, had to hitch a ride to D.C. each night because he was going to watchmaker’s school. He would fill the old Packard with four or five Marines for $1 each and stop at an all-night restaurant, then on his way back, do the same, so by the weekend I would have a few bucks. This went on for almost a year until Janet and I decided to get married. She left school in August 1947, and then I only had to drive to Altoona to see her. Sometimes I would take a test hop and fly to Altoona and buzz her house. I was the designated test pilot for the squadron, so I would file for a local test flight and if I was gone a little longer than normal, no one knew the difference.

Janet and I were married on November 22, 1947. I had to sell the Packard to have money to set up housekeeping. We rented a trailer in Quantico. I remember the first meal she prepared. She was going to economize and had bought some salted fish and forgot to de-salt it or whatever you do with salted fish. We had to throw it out and get hamburgers. We moved from the trailer to an apartment over a grocery store. I had put in for NCO quarters on the base and got base quarters just before the roaches ran us out of the apartment.

We didn’t have much money in those days. We did a lot of things that didn’t cost much, like fishing and hunting. I think one of the most upsetting things for Janet was when I spent $45 for a fishing rod and reel. I heard about that for years. All in all Quantico was the most enjoyable tour I had in the Marine Corps.

Memorable Flights

Five flights during this tour stand out. The first was another ferry flight to pick up four Corsairs freshly out of overhaul at San Diego. The flight consisted of Captain O’Neal, a low-time Corsair pilot; Lt. Dan Stith, technical sergeant; Woody Williams; and me. When we got to Dallas, Stith said he would lead the flight on the next leg, and we were going by way of St. Louis. I had no maps for the St. Louis area, so I went into operations and checked out a set of maps. The weather was bad but we managed to climb to about 10,000 feet and headed for St. Louis. When we got near, we couldn’t raise St. Louis on the radio. We had no idea what the bottom of the cloud cover was. It turned out that Stith had a set of maps for the area and we were going this way because St. Louis was his hometown. He was not on a leg of the radio range when he said we would go down. I started down with him but soon realized I was in a skid. I broke off and went back on top, picked up the radio range and started down. I decided that I would go as low as 1700 feet as the terrain was 1400 feet, and if I hadn’t broken out by 1700 feet I would climb back on top and call for help. As it turned out I broke out of the clouds right at 1700 feet and went on in and landed. It was another 20 minutes before the other three arrived. The lieutenant never said anything about it. However, Woody said he wished he had broken off with me, as they almost hit the hills just outside of St. Louis.

The second was a ferry flight from Pensacola. I went to Pensacola to pick up a newly overhauled SNJ. I left Spartanburg, South Carolina, for Quantico, Virginia, on a Saturday morning. The weather report was marginal, but I needed to get back. By the time I reached Richmond there was a full-blown snowstorm. After going around a few flurries, I was overdue at Quantico and the duty officer had called Smith. After flying around, getting nowhere, and burning fuel, I picked up the railroad tracks from Richmond that went right along side of Quantico. At 500 feet or less, I went home. When I got to Quantico, the field was covered with ice and snow and it was still snowing like mad. There were no numbers or stars on the wings of the SNJ, so those on the ground could hear me but couldn’t see the aircraft until I was on the ground. I had no problem seeing the field from 400 to 500 feet. As I taxied by operations, Colonel Smith was driving away. I thought to myself, "Boy, on Monday, you are going to get hell." Nothing was ever said.

The third flight consisted of more than 100 aircraft which flew down Pennsylvania Avenue in Harry Truman’s inaugural parade in 1948. Cherry Point sent 40 or 50 Corsairs and F7F to Quantico for the flight. A gas truck backed into the radar dome of the F7F from Cherry Point. We had one F7F at Quantico. The operation officer told me to take our F7F and fill in for the damaged Cherry Point F7F. Well, I ended up on the lead formation of three F7F’s; Col. Bob Gayler leading, Lt. Col. M. Carl on his left wing (both Medal of Honor winners) and Master Sergeant Vittitoe on the right wing. We formed over Pax River with all 80 to 100 aircraft and flew down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The fourth was during the period you could fly your dependents for an hour. It was assumed that flight would be in a twin-engine aircraft, but one Sunday I had the duty, so I called Janet to see if she would like to take a ride. She always said she would like to go in the F7F. I told her that we would make it in the SNJ first. Well, I strapped her in the back seat so tightly she couldn’t move. I took her up over Washington on a sightseeing trip, then asked her if she would like to see a roll and loop. She shook her head no. Well, I took her through several loops and rolls anyway, and she was ready to return. Years later I learned she went home and spent the rest of the day sitting in a chair trying to settle her stomach. Why she didn’t tell me off that day I can’t imagine. She may have been too terrified to speak.

The fifth was an SNJ flight from Quantico to Dayton, Ohio. Rip Haws, a good friend, a master sergeant who had just been selected for second lieutenant, needed to see his mother who lived in Dayton. Rip had bought a house for his mother and had to sign some papers. I agreed to fly him to Dayton, wait a couple of hours while he took care of the paperwork and return to Quantico. The weather report showed a storm to the south; however, we had time to make Charleston, West Virginia before the storm arrived from the south. Well, before we arrived at Charleston, the term picked up speed and forced me lower and lower. By this time I was down in the valley wandering around and too low to pick up the radio range to Charleston. I had no idea where I was.

After about 30 minutes of this, I was concerned that I might have to put the SNJ on the highway, but as I came around a mountain I saw an airfield below the clouds. The airfield had sticks with red flags on the runway to indicate chug holes in the runway. I managed to land and miss the holes. It turned out to be Beckley, West Virginia, about 50 miles south of Charleston. After about two hours, Charleston tower told me that they had an aircraft takeoff heading south and thought the weather had improved. I put Rip in the back seat and headed toward Dayton. It wasn’t long before I realized the weather was no better, and after a few turns around the mountains of West Virginia, I couldn’t find Beckley again. I told Rip we were going up through the clouds. Rip didn’t like flying in good weather, much less in this stuff. I got in a valley, started a climb, and by the time I reached 2000 feet, I was able to pick up the radio range and head for Cincinnati at about 8000 feet.

I started picking up ice on the windshield and told Rip if the build-up got bad, we would have to bail out. He said "no way" and promptly pulled the radio cord out of his headset. We broke out of the clouds at 10,500 feet and before we reached Cincinnati the weather cleared. I headed to Dayton and landed. The weather was too bad to try getting back the same day, but the next day conditions had improved slightly. It looked better going to Pittsburgh than Charleston, so I flew to Pittsburgh. No problem this time.

I refueled and filed a flight plan for Quantico. The Air Force major operations officer looked at the flight plan, then at me, a master sergeant, and asked what was I doing with a military aircraft. I think he was about to call the military police. I told him he had better call Quantico first, which he did. I don’t think he ever understood how the Marine Corps could let a master sergeant fly around the country in a military aircraft.

The weather was still marginal over the mountains, but with Rip strapped in the back seat, I headed for Quantico. It wasn’t long before I decided I couldn’t make it to Quantico due to weather, so I returned to Pittsburgh. By this time Rip had all he could take of the back seat of the SNJ and the weather, and he decided to take a train back to Washington. I got out about 2 p.m. and made it to Quantico with no problems this time. I got cleaned up and drove into Washington, D.C. I was sitting in a bar, Benne and Eddie’s, a local hangout, having a cool drink, when Rip walked in about 8 p.m., dirty from train coal dust. Rip said he would never fly again. He later transferred to line company (7th Engineers). I saw him off and on for years and he would always bring up his SNJ ride. He retired after the Korean War and I lost track of him.

In July 1949 I received orders transferring me from Quantico, VA to MCAS El Toro, Santa Ana, CA. Janet (wife) and I packed our 1947 Chevrolet convertible and headed west with only a few stops on the way. I wanted to arrive at El Toro early because they had a new fighter squadron, VMF 311, with F-80 Shooting Star Aircrafts (Lockheed). The only other fighter squadron in the Marine Corps at that time was at Cherry Point, NC.

Before I checked in I went to see Col. Fontana, the Commanding Officer of VMF 311. However, I didn’t get to se him only the Executive Officer. I figured I was one of the high-time fighter pilots in the Marine Corps during that period. That didn’t cut it as they had three NAPs (enlisted pilots) in the squadron, and I was told that NAPs would only fly the Corsairs as target planes for the Commissioned pilots. I let my assignment fall where it may, and I ended up in VMF(N) 542, a night fighter squadron flying F7Fs, but here again I was in a new position. Flying had been my primary job before this. Now it turned out that I was primarily a mechanic, which was my primary MOS as a Master Sergeant; flying was secondary. Anyway I worked on the F7Fs and then flight-tested the ones I worked on.

The squadron had six NAPs and later that year there was talk about doing away with enlisted pilots altogether. The Navy and Marine Corps had stopped sending enlisted men to flight school in 1947. Janet and I rented a little place on the Bechtel Ranch down Laguna Breach Road, Santa Ana, CA and started thinking about raising a family. Early in 1950 there was talk about a Korean conflict. In the meantime, Cherry Point Marine Air Station in North Carolina sent three pilots to El Toro to check out in the F-80 jets, two of which were enlisted pilots. VMF 311 then had to let three enlisted pilots fly the F 80s.

Korean War

In June 1950 the Korean thing got hot and it looked like the Marines would go. I was transferred to MAG 33 service squadron and back to a job where flying was my primary job. I was one of the few pilots checked out in all the aircrafts in the air group. VMF 311, with their F80s was in air group 14. We were put on alert that we might have to go to Korea.

Janet and I started looking for a house. We bought a new home in Santa Ana on the GI Bill for $8,700. It had three bedrooms, one bath and we had to pay $2.00 extra for refrigerator, washer and dryer. We had just gotten settled when orders came for Korea. I left Long Beach on a carrier loaded with aircrafts and equipment on July 30, 1950, first boat out. Janet was eight months pregnant.

We arrived in Japan and set up shop at Itami Airfield, a U. S. Air Force base near Osaka, Japan. It wasn’t long before the Corsairs were out doing field carrier landings. I knew the fighter pilots would go home first. The colonel in charge of personnel (G-1) was an old friend so I marched up to his office a couple of days later and ask him to assign me to one of the fighter squadrons. He said, "Vittitoe, you have your job assignment. go back there and do it." Well, in September the landing at Inchon happened, and I was right in the middle of it as the service squadron was sent to Korea to maintain MAG 33 aircrafts. We set up at Kimpo (K-14) just outside Seoul. I did the test flying and on occasion would fly a mission with one of the squadrons. One of these missions was with Kaymeir with whom I had gone to flight school. He flew a F7F photo flight, no guns, and I was his only cover in a Corsair. The mission was to photograph Wansan Harbor, which we didn’t known at the time was to be the next big landing north of the 38th parallel.

I got a telegram from the Red Cross that Craig was born on September 24th and that he and Janet were doing fine. Also, I learned my brother Hagan had been wounded at Inchon. He was with the 1st Marine Division. Earlier, before I left Itami, I was watching a newsreel of the fighting in the Pusan Perimeter and saw Hagan jumping for cover under a truck. Later, I learned when landing at Inchon he was wounded in the hand and the bullet had gone through his middle finger and the palm of his hand. The bullet splintered his rifle butt sending wood fragments into his hand. The wood did more damage then the bullet. This later healed and there was no permanent damage.

The North Koreans had a small aircraft that would fly over Kimpo at night and drop a small bomb, with little damage, but effective at night. One of the night fighter boys got him after about a month. In late November the landing at Wonsan was a success and MAG 33 was ordered back to Itami. It looked like this little war would be over by Christmas. We hadn’t set up at Itami when the Chinese moved across the Yalu River into Korea. This started a whole new ball game. My Colonel friend at G-1, Art Steincross, called me and five other pilots to his office at 1000 one morning in early December and told us to pack and be ready to catch an R4D transport to Hungnam, North Korea by 1300. We were to relieve six pilots of VMO-6. VMO-6 had been both observation aircraft (OY-5) and helicopters. There was such a shortage of helicopters and helicopter pilots only flew helicopters and had no replacements for either helicopters or pilots. About noon Col. Steincross called back and said instead of taking the R4D there was an F7F for VMF(N) 542 at Itami that needed to go to Hungnam. I landed the F7F at Hung Nam about 1500 and walked over to VMO-6 and into the operation tent. I had never seen so many bedraggled pilots in my life. Herb Valentine, M. D. (Bullet Proof) Hill and Pat Britt.  Bullet Proof got his name from an OY that had so many bullet holes in it that no one could figure out how he escaped being hit by one.

The next morning I got my first taste of OY flying. With a 200-pound observer, I was to spot artillery for the 1st Marine Division. The Marines were in a bad way with the Chinese coming in droves. To get there from Hungnam at sea level to Hagaru-ri, it was a climb to over 5000 feet and the OY was not noted for engine power. As we flew artillery would fire below and the concussion would pop the ole OY up 50 to 100 feet. That first day we lost an OY with pilot and observer. A week later we found out that some of the division boys had seen it go down and pulled the two out. Someone got them to a hospital ship in the harbor, both in bad shape, but alive. Meanwhile, they fought from Hagaru-ri with the Chinese on their backs all the way to the beach.

We pulled out of Hungnam just before Christmas 1950. Anything that couldn’t fly was destroyed, plus all equipment and buildings were destroyed. We then moved back to the Pusan area where it had all started. After re-grouping we started back up the peninsula. Our first base was K-3 about 80 miles up the east coast of Korea, north of Pusan, an old Korean airfield. This is where I started flying a TBM. I was the only one in VMO that had flown the TBM, and that was a one-hour flight in the Ferry Command. The ole TBM would carry anything you could get inside it. We used it for radio relay and for mail and hauling equipment for the division. I’d land it anywhere I could find a level area, riverbed or grass field. On one occasion, I was coming out with a load of division mail when three news people showed up trying to get back to civilization. I had no room for them, but they and the Division Commander insisted that I take them. I told them I had only one parachute and that was the one I had on, and if they could get in over or under the mail bags, they could go. They managed to get in, and off we went back to K-3.

In February 1951 we were moving again. This time it was in the middle of Korea, what had been a town called Wonju. The TBM stayed at K-3 and I was back to the OY. The field was a mud strip and in the morning and late afternoon it was frozen, which made take offs and landings a challenge. On one mission returning from an artillery-spotting mission with Captain Calvert as my observer, we spotted a ridge line with Chinese and North Koreans dug in and a Company of Marines charging up the hill not knowing what was in store for them. I turned around and Captain Calvert started dropping smoke grenades on them. About the second or third pass we were getting all their firepower. My radio was out so I couldn’t call for an air strike on their position. We used all of our grenades and the Marines were alerted. We headed for the base where we called for an air strike on their position. How those clowns missed the OY with all their firepower I will never know, but we only had three holes in the OY, two in the wing and one just behind Captain Calvert. This action had to have saved a lot of Marines.

In March I got orders back to the States. When I left Korea, I hadn’t had a bath in six weeks. When I got back to Japan I took the longest shower of my life. Korea is the coldest place on earth. After a two or three-hour flight in the OY with everything you could wear on, it would take an hour or so to thaw out. I arrived back in the States by the end of March 1951. Craig was six months old. Janet had done a great job of taking care of the home front. In those days, the Marine wives never complained, just did what had to be done. I’m not sure they didn’t have the worst part of the whole mess.

El Toro Again

I was reassigned as maintenance chief and test pilot for Marine Air Group 15 Service Squadron at El Toro Marine Corps Air Base, Santa Ana, California.  Two things come to mind about this tour. The group had an R4D (DC-3) that made runs from El Toro to El Centro almost every day. The operations officer asked if I would like to check out in the R4D. I said sure. Well, come Saturday I was assigned co-pilot. After take off I reached for the landing gear handle to raise the gear, when the crew chief stopped my hand and said he would take care of that. I sat in the co-pilot’s seat and looked out the window. Mind you, this R4D made a trip each day to El Centro, but the following Saturday, I was again assigned as co-pilot. I got the message and told the operation officer what he could do with the R4D.

The other was a Corsair that had a new engine installed after several run ups with power checks while the tail was tied down and everything checked okay. I was ready for a test flight. On take off I had a prop runaway. The max RPM on the Corsair was 2720 RPM.  Well, this damn thing went to 3300 RPM or better.  I had no control of the prop and it was too late to cut the engines and land, so we went around and landed with uncontrolled RPM.  This happened twice before we pulled the engine nose section and found the cause: an oil pressure line was misaligned.  It's a wonder the prop didn't fly off the ole Corsair.


In early 1952, I got a note from the group stating they needed three of my best mechanics for helicopter school.  Six weeks later I got the same notice for three more mechanics.  This time I put my name first on the list of three.  Two weeks later Janet and I packed our new 1952 Chevrolet with Craig and his gear and headed east.  I left Janet and Craig with Janet's folks in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and went on to Bridgeport, Connecticut and the Sikorsky factory.  Six weeks later I was on my way down to Quantico for helicopter flight training.

On May 8, 1952, I graduated as the 876th Navy and Marine helicopter pilot.  I picked up Janet and Craig at Altoona and headed back west to Santa Ana.  I joined HMR 162.  Most of the pilots flying helicopters at that time were reserve pilots who had been called back to active duty and had no desire to get back in the ole Corsair.  We were in heavy training, troop carrying, external loads and mountain flying.  The big training missions at the time were at Desert Rock, just outside Las Vegas.  There were about 20 helicopters with five troops each and two pilots parked 10 miles away from an atomic blast from a tower.  We were to close our eyes on the count of ten.  We were all parked with our backs to the blast.  The count was off, so the blast happened on the count of eight.  That was the weirdest sight I have ever seen.  Everything turned white and as we picked up and headed to ground zero, the mushroom cloud was all the colors of a boiling rainbow as it moved to the heavens.  We dropped the troops and walked into ground zero shortly after the blast.  Cacti were burning like dry cord wood.

On the return to Santa Ana and after refueling at George Air Force Base, we were in a formation of about 20 helicopters when the pilot on my left wing dropped out of formation with an engine failure.  He had forgotten to switch fuel tanks.  We had just crossed the crest of Cajon Pass and he had no level place to land.  The helicopter rolled over and both pilots and crew chief were hurt.  I landed on a ridge line nearest to them, but had to maintain rotor RPM as I didn't have room to put the wheels on the ground.  My co-pilot got out and pushed the brush away from the exhaust.  He and the crew chief moved to the crash.  I was teetering the helicopter on the ridge line when my co-pilot pointed at me and started waving his hands.  I looked to see what was happening.  My exhaust had started a brush fire.  It wasn't long before the whole hillside was burning.  The injured and my co-pilot went up the hill to the road, but the mechanic went down into the brush.  I had a hell of a time getting him out, the brush being shoulder high.  The county called prisoners from a local prison farm to fight the fire.  A foot locker with twenty .38-caliber pistols was in the helicopter that crashed.  Not one pistol was ever found.

Training went on, with several trips back to Bridgeport to pick up new helicopters.  On those trips we would stop along the highway at truck stops for breakfast or lunch.  At times there would be five or six helicopters parked alongside the trucks in the parking lots.  In September 1952, I was appointed a second lieutenant, my third appointment to this rank.

About this time Janet and I decided it was time for our second child. Things looked stable and there was talk about the Korean War peace talks getting started. Well, in June 1953 someone decided that as a backup for the peace talk, Marine Air Group 16 should go to Japan. Sure enough with Janet eight months pregnant, off we went again.

MAG 16 had three helicopter squadrons of 15 planes each 161, 162 and 163. We set up in an old abandoned Zero Air Base called Honshin near Itami. A month later I got the word that Gail was born. On one occasion when a hurricane went through that part of Japan, we were credited with saving more then 100,000 people by the use of helicopters.

The conditions at Honshin were miserable, living in tents that were cold and wet. On one occasion during this time, it was about 0600 when I was told that I had a call from Janet on our field phone. Most of the time you couldn’t get anyone five miles away on those field phones. Before I could get to the phone, I had all kinds of things going through my mind. What could have happened? When I got there, Janet was saying that Craig was sick, Gail was sick, and she was sick. Afterwards I thought I didn’t give Janet much sympathy.

In December I got a message that my father had died. I took leave but by the time I got home he had been buried. I had gotten such a cold on the way home that I was two weeks getting well myself, but I got to see Gail at four months.

When I got back to Japan, we moved to Opama near Tokyo. This time we were living in decent quarters. Shortly thereafter, I was sent to Korea to attend escape and evasion school. This time Korea was just as hot as it had been cold the last time I was there. In September I returned to the States and was assigned to MCAS Jacksonville, North Carolina, Marine Air Group 26 (helicopters). By late 1954, most of the reserve pilots were getting out. The Marine Corps said thanks and the next time we nee you we’ll call. The regulars who were left were flying extra time. Our Commanding Officer wanted to make name for himself and we pilots helped him make it. He ended up as a Lieutenant General.

Janet and I decided we would have our third and last child (before another war started).  Todd was born on February 5, 1955. In June 1956 I was ordered to Pensacola, Florida, as a helicopter instructor. By this time I had made Captain. In Jacksonville our recreation was boating, fishing and water skiing. We loaded the kids and headed for Pensacola, where we continued our water skiing. I instructed half days, one week morning and the next week afternoons and evenings. Craig was skiing by age six.

Some of my old fighter pilot friends showed up for helicopter training.  They would say, "Give me the handbook and turn me loose."  I'd put them in the middle of a 10-acre field and say, "If you can keep the helicopter within the field boundary, I will give you a bottle of booze.  If you can't, you give me a bottle."  I had more booze than I could handle.

We had a T-28 fighter/trainer at Elyson Field to keep our hand at fixed wing flying.  It was always good to take it out for some acrobatic flying.  I had the job of taking a Lt. Col. Al Ringblum out for a check ride to either wash him out, or straighten him out and keep him in the program.  I got him through the program, and two years later he became my commanding officer at Santa Ana.  I was one of two standardization pilots; the other was Bill Collins.  We had a hard time trying to get all instructors to teach the same things.  Each had his own methods.  At the end of each training stage there was a check ride, and if all were not teaching the same it showed.

In July 1958, I completed my two years of instructing.  I had one student that had an engine failure on his first solo, and he landed without damage to the helicopter.  I had one student flying HUP-2 (tandem rotor) who was always wide on his approaches.  I kept telling him he would never make the field if the engine quit.  Sure enough, on one of his wide approaches the engine quit.  I grabbed the controls and just made the field by pumping the collective to clear a fence.  The helicopter stayed upright just inside the field.  I probably couldn't have made that landing one time out of a hundred again.  I left Pensacola with a citation for having instructed over 1000 accident-free hours.

When Janet and I and the three kids arrived back in Santa Ana we had to find a rental house because we had sold our house there in the years we had been gone. I checked the Air Facility at Santa Ana and low and behold, a friend had been in Pensacola with me had just made Lieutenant Colonel (Ken Moos) and was assigned as the Commanding Officer of a new helicopter squadron of HR2S, the first twin engine helicopter in the Marine Corps. He asked me to be his maintenance officer. I never seemed to get an easy job in the Corps. The HR2S was a maintenance nightmare. I had a great maintenance Chief, a very capable Master Sergeant. About eight months into this program the Maintenance Chief got on one of the Crew Chiefs pretty heavy. Two nights later the Maintenance Chief was in the NCO club having a beer when in walked in the Crew Chief, who pulled out a .45 caliber pistol and killed the Maintenance Chief. The Crew Chief got life in prison.

In 1960 Lt. Col. Moos was replaced by Lt. Col. Ringblum, the pilot I had saved from being washed out at Pensacola.  We did all the heavy lift jobs around California, like replace the 7,000 pound water tanks on Falron Island 40 miles off the coast of San Francisco for the Coast Guard. We had a call from George Air Force Base at Victorville, while I was getting briefed by a Colonel to pick up the engine of an Air Force F-100 that had crashed in the desert, I heard someone speaking behind me who sounded familiar. I turned around to see a man who had been in the Kentucky Baptist Children’s Home with me 20 years ago. He was now Major Sam Gray, Commanding Officer of the Squadron that had lost the aircraft.

In early 1961 the Marine Corps came out with an order that would revert or retire all temporary commissioned officers after they completed 20 years of service. I would reach 20 years in March. The Corps soon realized this was going to lose more officers than they first realized, so they came back and said anyone interested could apply for a reserve commission and continue on active duty. I applied and was selected. However, we were to lose promotion for a year. I was due for Major at that time, and it would mean another year or two before I would get promoted. I turned it down and my retirement from the United States Marine Corps was set for September 30, 1961.

Hughes and Civilian Life

In September, I was at Camp Pendleton going through a retirement physical when I saw a picture of Bill Collins standing by a little helicopter called a Hughes 269.  I called Bill since I hadn't seen him since Pensacola, and asked him how he could call that a helicopter.  He invited me up to see it at Culver City.  I took an HR2S into "Hughes" Culver City.  He showed me around the factory that was getting ready to produce this helicopter.  He asked me to fill out an employment application, which I did.  Then I forgot about it.  The day I was checking out at El Toro, I got a call from Hughes Helicopters asking if I could come up and talk to them.

I went to Culver city and was hired on the spot as the first production test pilot at $180 per week.  I had to go back and tell Janet to unpack.  I was starting Tuesday, October 2.  Monday was a holiday.  Upon my retirement, General John Dobbin wished me well and said if I ever needed a reference he would be glad to hand write one for me.  I never needed it.

On October 2, 1961, I started my second career with Hughes Tool Co., Aircraft Division, Culver City, California.  The flight test department had two pilots, Raleigh Fletcher and Gene Moore.  Raleigh was the manager; Gene and I were to be the production test pilots.  The first production helicopter was due off the production line in two weeks.  We did have two proto models for flying demonstration flights for potential customers or friends of the company president, Ray Hopper, and its vice president, Al Bayer.  In one week I had gone from flying the largest helicopter in the USA to flying the smallest.  The last week of October, the first production 269A rolled off the line.  Hughes decided to build their own radios.  The 269A had the worst radio I had ever seen and the headsets were no better, but for $19,000, the helicopter was not that bad.

The auto rotational characteristics were not that great.  It took more skill and practice than most helicopters of its time.  Therefore most sales pilots would not demonstrate auto rotations, and that's what customers wanted to see.  That procedure hurt sales for years.  If a customer insisted on seeing auto rotations, Gene or myself had to demonstrate them.

There's an old saying that there is the right way and wrong way of doing business.  The Marine Corps had their way and now Hughes had another way.  We were required to wear a coat and tie during production tests because frequently we got calls to fly someone from the front office or demonstrate to a potential customer.  We were also required to put in five hours of flight time on each helicopter, and by December we needed another pilot.  I was asked to find one.  I hired Whitey Roles, a former Marine with whom I had worked in the Marine Corps.  Within a year I had hired four more pilots -- all former Marines, and all guys I'd known in the Marine Corps.  The department was made up of Fletcher, Moore, Roles, Williams, Riess, Chop, and me.  Charlie Chop and I had been in the same squadron during World War II.  Gene Moore was let go.  That left me as number two and chief pilot in the flight test department.  During the fall of 1961 and most of 1962, we did all testing of the 269A which included production and experimental testing.

I thought that now in civilian life I would have more time off to spend with Craig, Gail and Todd, who were ages 11, 9, and 6, respectively, and the same ages as Lloyd, Hagan and I when we went into the Kentucky Baptist Children's Home.  But it didn't work out that way.  I worked six or seven days a week.  At $180 a week, the pay was almost the same as the Marine Corps.  At least I was home at night and there were no overseas assignments.

When I first started with Hughes we were living in Santa Ana.  I tried commuting to Culver City, but that turned out to be a three to four hour trip each day.  I then rented a room near Culver City.  That lasted a couple of weeks.  Next, I rented a house in Culver City and moved the family there at my own expense.  I did have one move coming from the Marine Corps but I didn't want to take advantage of it in case this thing with Hughes didn't work out.  I figured I'd work for Sikorsky Helicopters or move to Lake Barkley, Kentucky, and try to develop something in an area where I had four lakefront lots.

As it turned out, things looked stable at Hughes, so after about six months I bought a house in Culver City on Minerva Avenue for $21,250.  For the next year, all of my spare time was spent on fixing up the house.  We had been there almost a year and the house was in top shape when a real estate person knocked on the door and asked if I wanted to sell.  She said she could get $27,700 for the house.  I said, "Be my guest!"  The house was sold within tow weeks.  I started looking around for another and found I couldn't replace the house in Culver City for $30,000.  I ended up buying a place in Conoga Park, which increased my driving time to work from 10 minutes to 45 minutes.  The Santa Monica Freeway opened three months later, and my time increased to over an hour each way.

Family-wise, we were doing fine except on three occasions.  The first occasion occurred before we left Santa Ana and the Marine Corps.  Craig and Todd were horsing around in the shower and Todd was holding the glass door on Craig when Craig hit the door with his knee and the door shattered, cutting Todd all over his upper body.  Janet and I couldn't tell how bad the cuts were, there was so much blood all over the place.  We wrapped him in towels, and I drove him to the emergency hospital at El Toro.  The doctor was great.  He started cleaning up Todd to see what was needed, talking to Todd all the time.  Todd asked the doctor if he was going to die.  The doctor assured him he wouldn't and started to stitch his cuts.  I had to leave the room; I was almost to the point of becoming sick.  It took more than 80 stitches to close all the wounds.  After that, I changed the shower door to a plastic door and made sure all shower doors were shatterproof.

The second occasion occurred in Culver City when Craig was swinging a golf club.  Again, Todd got the blunt end of this one.  On Craig's backswing, the club hit Todd above the left eye.  That took another four or five stitches.

Then there was the time in Conoga Park when we were visiting at Whitey Roles' house and the kids were all playing in the swimming pool.  Craig did a dead-man's dive into the pool, hit his head on the bottom of the pool, and broke one of his front teeth.  Wouldn't you know that just the week before, he had won the Smile of the Year of all L.A. County children for his near-perfect teeth.

On the whole, we were doing fine as a family.  Janet being a health-conscious person, the kids had their vitamins along with regular meals.  All in all, with kids being above average in smarts, civilian life was not bad.

I was busy at Hughes; in fact, I was asked by the vice president to be the chief experimental test pilot with  $20-a-week salary increase.

One of the first programs was to reestablish the height velocity diagram on the 269A.  The height velocity curve is to establish the altitude at which you could lose the engine and still make a safe landing.  I had made hundreds of throttle chops at various altitudes.  The one at 50 feet and 50 miles per hour was a very tight point.  On August 12, 1962, I failed to make this point, and the result was a crash that totaled the helicopter and gave me some minor back problems.  We increased the speed by 5 mph and it made the point okay.

Four days later, we called the FAA to verify the HV curve.  John Fransik was the FAA test pilot assigned.  We had completed the HV curve when John asked for another point at 150 feet and 60 mph at the hover RPM, which was 2500 RPM.  We had done the point at 2700 RPM, but not at 2500 RPM.  We didn't make it, so another helicopter crashed.  John and I were put into an ambulance and sent to the hospital.  This all happened about 6 a.m.  We went to the wrong hospital, Baldwin Hills instead of Daniel Freeman, and there were no doctors on duty until 7 a.m.  so we just had to sit in the lobby until the doctors came in.  I did get a good one, an osteopath surgeon, who I saw off and on for almost a year.  It was almost a year before I could get through a night's sleep because of back pain.

I still went to work and did my flying.  I just couldn't lay down any length of time.  John later broke his back on a similar test in the Heller F1100.  During most of 1963, I was doing test flights on a 269 with four main rotor blades to simulate the new army turbine helicopter Hughes was building for the Army as a scout Helicopter, the OH6A.  On February 27, 1963, Fletcher and I made the first flight on the OH6A.  The OH6A had the same characteristics as the four blade 269.  The rotor system was unstable and had unsatisfactory vibration from the four main rotor blades.  Fletcher and I did all the flying on the OH6A until about June 1963, when the company hired two new experimental test pilots, Zimmerman and Atherton.  I was the first pilot to get the helicopter to 100 knots, but Mel Harned, the vice president of engineering, had promised the Army that we would meet the 113 knots required speed by the end of June.

In mid-June, after some engineering changes, I was going to try for the speed of 113 knots again.  Atherton was with me when the VP of engineering and his assistant, Ed Cohen, showed up on the flight line.  The assistant walked over and asked if I would make the 113 knots on this flight.  I told him that depended on how the helicopter handled.  Harned sent Ed Cohen over to the hangar to get Zimmerman to take my flight.  I was in charge of experimental flight tests at that time, because Fletcher was down at Fort Rucker, Alabama on company business.  When the VP asked Zimmerman to take this flight thinking Zimmerman would push the helicopter to 113 knots, I got out and told the flight test engineer, Mort Lieb, to tell Mr. Harned where to go.  I went to my office and cleaned out my desk, preparing to leave the company.  Later that day, I called Fletcher in Alabama and told him what had happened.  The VP action made Fletcher mad as hell.  He told me to go back to production flight test as chief until he got back.  When Fletcher got back from Alabama, he had a fight with engineering and took off for a two-week vacation, which upset engineering to no end.  It was two months later that the OH6A met the 113-knot speed requirement.

In the meantime, I was working the production line.  We were selling 269s to the Army as primary trainers.  In all, we sold about 1400 269s to the Army.  Besides training the Army acceptance pilots, I went to Fort Walter, Texas, every quarter to assist them with any problems they had with the 269 helicopters.  In 1964 and 1965, I was very busy with production training, commercial and military pilots.  In mid-1965, it was evident that Hughes needed a new test facility with the OH6A and 269 business.  We didn't have room at Culver City, and the noise problem was becoming too great to maintain production flight testing there.

Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, California, was selected as the site for a new production flight test facility.  In January 1966, we moved all production helicopters that were flyable to Palomar.  We set up using mobile home trailers as office space while the new site was being completed on the southwest corner of the airport.  In March 1967 we moved into the new facility which was designed specifically for our helicopter operation.  For the next 17 years, I was busy with production flight tests and training.  At one time I had 15 production test pilots, and at that same time the Army had 17 acceptance pilots.  As turnover occurred, I checked out all of the Army pilots.  These must have been 50 or better during this time.  During one month in 1967 we put out 113 helicopters; the average was 50 to 60 per month.  During that time, we had only one major accident and no fatalities.

In 1976 I was assigned to set up the flight line for the International Helicopter Association convention at Disneyland in Anaheim.  The program was such a success that I got the job again in 1976 in Palm springs and again in 1977 in San Diego.  All went well except in San Diego, when the city fathers received so many noise complaints that they threatened to make us truck the helicopters out of the Town and Country Convention Center to Montgomery Field.

It was during this time frame that Carl Perry, the new VP of marketing, came to Palomar for a visit.  We went to lunch and upon our return I had some chest pains and decided to go home.  I was feeling bad and decided that if this was the start of a heart attack, I had no business driving.  I pulled off to the side of the road, and some young fellow following me pulled over and asked if I was having a problem.  I asked him if he would take me to Tri-City Hospital, which he did.  I'm sorry I never found out his name.  Two days in the hospital proved my problem was an ulcer.  That is when I bought a set of golf clubs and joined El Camino Country Club.  Janet, Craig, Todd and Gail all started playing golf.  Sometimes I wonder if my game won't give me another ulcer.

In 1970, Hughes lost the military contract for the OH6A scout helicopter to Bell Helicopters.  We then started the commercial program to sell the OH6A, now the 500 model, to civilian customers.  With several changes, the 500 became one of the major helicopters on the civilian market.

In 1976, Hughes had developed an Army attack helicopter called Apache or AH64.  I only had one flight in the Apache, and that was bringing it back to Palomar from Edwards Air Force Base.  After the Army had tested it against the Sikorsky model, Hughes won the program and went into production on the Apache in 1978.

It was 1978 that Fletcher retired.  He asked me if I wanted his job as manager of the facility.  I said no because I didn't want to put up with the petty politics of Larry Sansini, our vice president of flight operations.  In fact, the last two years Fletcher was there he was gone most of the time on one test program or another because he couldn't cope with Sansini.  I had been running the organization anyway, but Fletcher and I picked the new manager, Morie Larson, my new boss.  I ended up with the job of facility manager anyway in 1982, after Sansini retired.


I retired from Hughes April 1, 1983.  There was a golf tournament in my name and a party of approximately 200, including locals as well as people from Culver City and Palomar.  It turned out to be one big roast.

I started playing golf about four days a week.  This lasted about a month when Ted Vallas, owner of El Camino Country Club, asked me to take over his helicopter operation.  In 1978, I had taught him to fly a H500 that I talked him into buying.  He put about 300 hours on the helicopter the first year he owned it and bought three 300s to start a civilian helicopter school, Flight Trails Helicopters.  He had gotten into fixed-wing operations and started an airline, Air Resorts.

Ted gave me 25 percent of the helicopter operation to take over and manage it while he played with the airline.  In 1983, the gross profit was $50,000.  By 1988, it was $2.5 million.  I haven't seen any of the 25 percent yet, except the use of a company car.  I needed something to do anyway.

Craig won a full football scholarship to the University of Pacific, and Todd won a full football scholarship to Cal Poly at Pomona.  While at Palomar College, Gail took up archery and within a year won the California Collegiate Championship and the Southwest USA Collegiate Championship.  She also made a run for the Olympic Team.  She came in twelfth and the Olympic Team took only five.

During my time at Hughes, in addition to the two experimental crashed, I had two engine failures--one in the H300 and one in the H50 with no damage to either helicopter.  In 1986, Hughes (now McDonnell Douglas) moved to Mesa, Arizona.  They asked Flight Trails Helicopters to relocate to Falcon Field in Mesa.  In 1984, I was asked to bid on work for Hughes Helicopters and we still do that work in Mesa today.  The reason I won the Hughes contract is that I had a copy of their own mechanic labor requirements for each job, but Hughes had never met these requirements in-house.  We made or bettered all requirements.  Things have slowed down in Mesa as MDHC hasn't been selling helicopters during the slow economy, but we are still holding our own.

This [with Addendum below] completes the story of my life as I recall it.  Now at age 74, I have few regrets and would not change anything.  Maybe I would have taken a little more time off from work, but I had that chance and didn't do it, so I probably wouldn't have enjoyed it anyway. 


My thanks to Shirley Banks for urging me to put all of this on paper, and for deciphering my handwriting and typing my story.

- Jimmy Vittitoe


Women I Have Known in Aviation

The following women all did their things, and that was before women's liberation.  They and others like them have made it easier for women today, and all women should be thankful for their determination and fortitude.

Betty Miller

Betty and her husband ran a fixed-wing flight school at Santa Monica Airport.  Al Bayer, the vice president, decided we would train her to fly helicopters in exchange for Betty training his secretary to fly fixed-wing aircraft.  I trained her to an FAA Flight Instruction rating.  Betty later flew a twin engine Cessna aircraft solo to Australia, one for the history books.  I was visiting in Hawaii 10 to 12 years later when I saw Betty and her husband, chuck, walking down the street in front of the house I was visiting.  They were both with the FAA and living in Hawaii.

Rose Mary Collins

Al Bayer's secretary Rose Mary got her FAA private rating, but didn't like flying and soon dropped out.

Louretta Foy

Louretta was a WAAF pilot during World War II and continued flying in civilian life.  In 1962 or 1963, she got her helicopter rating.  I did a lot of auto rotations with Louretta.  She later became chief pilot of Southland Helicopters, a flight school owned by Hughes in Long Beach.  The last I heard she is still flying helicopters.

Nancy Antista

Nancy joined Hughes in 1965.  She had been flying a H300 back east with Ronsin Helicopters.  I checked her out in the H500.  she was a good pilot, but something happened.  she quit flying in the 1970s.  She still works for MDHC but doesn't fly.

Barbara Fasken

Barbara flew as a WAAF during World War II and continued to fly after the war.  In the 1980s she bought a H500E.  I taught her to fly it and she still flies the 500.

Barbara Kirby Jayne

Barbara no longer flies, but she and Barbara Fasken went to flight school together in 1937.  Barbara Jayne was one of very few women production test pilots during World War II, testing fighters for Grumman Aircraft. 

Return to Efate

On May 2, 1944, I arrived at an airfield called Quoin Hill on the island of Efate.  Efate is the southern island of a group of islands in the beautiful South Pacific called the New Hebrides. It was established as the first Marine Airbase in the South Pacific in our effort to stop the Japanese in May 1942. Guadalcanal was only 600 miles northwest. By the time I arrived two years later with fifty to seventy-five replacement fighters pilots we were all afraid that the pilots ahead of us would get all the enemy aircraft before we could get into combat (which was true). Out of one hundred and eleven missions I only saw one enemy aircraft in flight. I saw plenty of the enemy on the ground and their anti-aircraft gun fire, but for us young pilots, combat was the ultimate test that we had been trained for and we did not concern ourselves that the pilots we were to replace may have been killed by enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft gun fire. The Marine Corps had a more practical idea in that we would continue to train until we joined a fighter squadron and headed for the Solomon Island and combat.

Well, I had only been there three days when I was assigned as one of twelve Corsairs to escort thirty-six dive bombers (SBD’s) on a bomber-training mission. The bombers were to navigate and the Corsair’s were to cover the bombers at two to three thousand feet above, doing what was called the Thatch Weave, thereby protecting the bombers and at the same time protecting each other from enemy aircraft. We, in the fighters, were busy doing our thing when one of our second tour pilots realized something was wrong. The bombers had missed the target and we were lost. Nothing but blue Pacific as far as you could see. Our Commanding Officer, LtCol Gregory Weissenberger, back at Quoin Hill realized that we were well over due. He got someone with a radio homing device that gave us a heading back to Quoin Hill, 070 degrees. However by this time it was every man for himself to get back with what fuel he had left. The bombers all made it back to their field called Bauer. I had the propeller on that ole Corsair turning so slow I could almost count the revolutions, and just enough manifold pressure to maintain altitude. By the time we had Efate in sight we were given the choice of Quoin Hill or Hauannah Harbor Airfield. I had Quoin Hill in sight at about one-thousand feet and about one-half mile from the beach indicating ten gallon of fuel remaining, when the engine quit. I turned left to parallel the beach and into the wind I think, and headed for the water. I dropped the flaps kept the wheels up and glided to the water. Just prior to hitting the water my right flap started retracting due to no hydraulic pressure. I was able to keep the aircraft level with rudder. As it settled, the propeller and engine started hitting coral and for a moment it looked as if it was going to flip on its back, but settled on the reef half submerged.

Two natives waded out, took my parachute, and I followed them ashore in waist deep water. Two pilots were killed on this mission. Their Corsair quit between the beach and the air strip. The end of May I joined FMF 212 and headed for the Solomon Islands and combat.

On April 2, 1990, one month short of 46 years, I returned to Efate and I must say under much better conditions. This time with my oldest son, Craig and his wife, Suzanne. I had told Craig this story when he was growing up. He and Suzanne were going to Australia on vacation and talked me into meeting them in Fiji and we would all go back and try to find the Corsair. (F4U-1 S/N 02270 ditched May 5, 1944, after 4 hours and 12 minutes of flight). I had always thought about going back, but probably would never have made it without their insisting. I bought a map of Efate and had plotted where I thought it was located. The plane was within 200 yards of my plot. We landed at Bauer Field, now the International Airfield for New Hebrides, now called, The Republic of Vanuatu. We checked with a travel agency in the terminal building. The young Lady attendant was from a village near Quoin Hill and was familiar with the Corsair on the beach and one in the trees between the beach and the airstrip at Quoin Hill. She said all the pilots were killed and I told her, "not all". Although Quoin Hill is no longer used, the concrete guard house is still standing at the entrance. She told us to see Henry Cyrel at his restaurant near the site and he would have someone show us the way. It was almost three hours later that we found Henry. He took us to a nearby village, where a native took me by out-rigger canoe, Craig and Suzanne walked the beach with 4 or 5 natives for about a mile.

There she was in surprisingly good shape for 46 years. We took pictures and video tapes. It brought back a lot of memories. Looking back it was no big deal at the time. I made a good landing and walked away. I told Craig, had that Corsair flipped over neither one of us would be here today. Then again, this is one I know about. How many times was there a close call that I was never aware of. That not only goes for me, but most flyers, sailors and soldiers during the war. I was glad that Craig and Suzanne could see the ole Corsair after all these years. My other two children, Todd and Gail will have to settle for pictures, as well as my eight grandchildren as in another year or so the Mangrove Forest will have covered it completely.


James A. Vittitoe
Captain, USMC Retired
James A. Vittitoe
Chief Pilot
Hughes Helicopter Retired
1961 – 1983

s/James A. Vittitoe
James A. Vittitoe
Flight Trails Helicopters
1983 - ______

April 10, 1990


James Albert Vittitoe

(Click picture for a larger view)

Janet & Capt. James A. Vittitoe at his swearing-in-ceremony. c-1951
(Click picture for a larger view)



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