Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Greater Love Hath No Man

A True Story of a Naval Aircraft Carrier Pilot[1]
By Jackson D. Arnold, ADM USN, RET

The pilots of Torpedo Plane Squadron TWO had been working hard, training for combat over the waters of Narangansett Bay at Quonset Point, polishing their techniques in the many intricacies of modern war-- glide bombing, strafing, mine laying and the most important phase of their work, dropping a torpedo, and not just dropping it like a bomb, but laying it straight and true, holding the point of release until the plane is so close the enemy tracer bullets are combing the cockpit, and then finally, releasing it so that its wake would cut an intercept course with the enemy ship.

The day for the Squadron’s departure for the South Pacific combat was only forty-eight hours away. Each pilot knew that one from this group would not make the trip. There was one too many assigned to the squadron-The Navy’s way to make sure each man would prove his mettle. Equally important, this provided a spirit of competition, so important in the development of a championship team. The stakes in war are high, and it is better by far to lose a pilot in preliminary competition, during training, than to have that man fail in combat. There, the price may not only be the pilot’s life, but those of his two aircrewmen, the gunner and radioman.

It was after just such a day of practice, dropping torpedoes under the most realistic of settings: a dusk attack on a maneuvering vessel in Narangansett Bay, that a tall, prematurely—graying, shaggy—haired pilot “Soupy” Campbell by name, found himself standing before the desk of the Squadron Commander. “Soupy’s” face was set in determination, but the look in his blue eyes was one of plea rather than chagrin as he addressed his commanding officer.

“Skipper”, he said. “I know that you’re going to leave one of us behind tomorrow, and I also know that I’m probably the worst ‘torpedo dropper’ in the outfit. I just couldn’t make that “fish” run straight and true. I kept imagining that the target ship was firing back at me, and I couldn’t bring myself to take that torpedo in close enough to get a hit. The skipper eyed the pilot standing before him, and as “Soupy” continued to pour out his feelings, the officer charged with leading these men in combat did some thinking. He knew that the pilot standing before him lacked some necessary skills. He had studied the background of each pilot assigned to him and was aware of what was going on in this man’s head.

At the Squadron’s farewell party several nights earlier, the skipper danced with the pilot’s sister and she had said: “You know, ‘Soupy’ is in love with his work. He’s an artist at heart, but I’ve never seen him so enthusiastic about anything before. Is he a good pilot?” Before the skipper could answer, she continued “Mother and Jean----, you’ve met her of course? She and ‘Soupy’ are engaged.—We’re all so happy, because ‘Soup’ has been waiting to get into combat for the past three years, but somehow he just couldn’t get out of that job in (U.S Navy) Primary Instruction School.”  He remembered. Jean had said the same thing. The words echoed in the Squadron Commander’s ears: “I guess ‘Soupy’ will never be happy until he has put a torpedo into a Jap ship, and I’ve told him to go on and drop his darned old torpedo and come back so that we can be married.”

And now the Skipper’s stare focused again on the man in front of his desk. “Soupy” continued, “I know I’m not the best pilot in the squadron, but if you’ll just le me go, I’ll try twice as hard as any other fellow, and when the chips are down, I’ll come through, I promise!”

It would have taken more than the four years’ discipline of the United States Naval Academy, more than the nine years of Fleet experience on board ARIZONA, SAVANNAH, and ENTERPRISE, to enable the young squadron commander to refuse this pilot’s request to fly against the enemy. He knew that an aggressive, determined man was the best he could want in a torpedo plane pilot. As the Skipper arose from his chair, he placed his hand on the pilot’s shoulder, he said “Okay, Soupy, it’s a deal. Now we both have a special purpose in our fight against the enemy… You’re going out to prove to yourself when the chips are down, you can come through, whether it’s in action against the enemy, or in the pursuit of happiness in the life following this war. I’ll try and stick close to you, just in case you need me.”

He continued “As for me and my special purpose, you probably know that on December 7, 1941 I was at Pearl Harbor. With no plane to fly, I fought with a Browning automatic rifle, a Helluva’ place for a pilot to be! But I watched those Nip sons of b’s put their fish into my old home, the ARIZONA! Before the day was over, I had a letter in the mail to the Navy Department requesting command of a torpedo squadron. I had a score to settle, and I was determined that the Japs would one day regret that they had ever waylaid the Gallant Lady, the old ARIZON!A It may strange to you that the carrier pilot would ever carry the torch for a battle wagon, but she was my first sea-going home, and you’ll learn that in this man’s Navy, your first love will be the ship from whose decks you first fly. Now, let’s get packed! We leave for the West Coast and Honolulu in the morning.”

During the days the squadron waited in Honolulu for assignment to their first carrier, the Skipper saw to it that more torpedoes were dropped; there could be no slacking off; each pilot must be trained to a fine edge. “Soupy” spent those days trying over and over again to perfect his technique.

Finally, the day arrived. The squadron’s new home was to be a new carrier, the HORNET (CV12). The new HORNET had quite a tradition to maintain. The old HORNET had been the carrier from which General Doolittle’s raiders had hit Tokyo. She was later lost in a gallant fight at the Battle of Santa Cruz. She was to be home, and would look to her air group for protection while the fight was being carried to the enemy from her decks.

In the months that followed, the Air Group first hit Palau, the deepest penetration into Jap territory at that time. In rapid succession, attacks were mounted on Woleai, Wakde, Sawar, Sarmi, and Hollandia in New Guinea; Truck and Ponape were raided. Then one day the squadron was briefed on the Marians Invasion; landing on Saipan, Tinian and Guam were to be theirs to support.

Preliminary photo reconnaissance had to be accomplished before the invasion took place, and “Soupy” volunteered for this most special and dangerous of missions. During the many “softening up” attacks in the days which followed, “Soupy” could be seen over the target almost any time of day. It was easy to spot him, one had but to look up for the anti-craft fire dotting the  air, there just one jump ahead of the last AA burst was “Soupy.” If one looked closely, there was always another plane, a Hellcat, which could be seen hovering over “Soupy’s” Avenger, a watchful eye to see that no Jap fighter interfered with the photographic procedure.

Somehow, as he looked over his shoulder, “Soupy” knew that as long as the “Skipper” sat up there on his tail, he was safe. On at least two occasions, the “Old Man” had shot down Jap fighters as they attempted to make a run on his photo plane.

As the air group landed on the carrier and the pilots proceeded to their Ready Room, the Skipper called “Soupy”, the artist turned pilot, aside and presented his idea for a large plaque on which it was proposed to inscribe the achievements of the air group. It was to be placed in the ship’s wardroom as a goal for future air groups to meet or exceed. There was another, quieter side to “Soupy.” After each flight, “Soupy” the artist worked on the plaque the Skipper wanted. Finally on a day in August, it was complete. Each pilot in the air group was proud to see their efforts inscribed on the large brass replica of a Naval aviator’s wings. As the air group took to the skies that morning for a strike at the Japanese island of Chichi Jima, it was with a feeling of pride and admiration for “Soupy’s” work.

The air group, with the Torpedo Squadron leading found their way through the heavy weather which usually prevailed in the area of Bonin Island Group, and they could begin to make out the rugged outline of Chichi Jima.

As the Air Group Commander dived his Hellcat through the overcast for a “looksee” at Furami Ko, the Jap’s harbor, all ears were glued to the headphones for the command: “Attack” But a look of disappointment came over each pilot’s face as the message came through “They’ve skipped the coop, boys, --no ships--, head towards Tokyo; we’ll track that convoy down!”

Probably the happiest man in the air at that moment was “Soupy” Campbell. He had lugged his torpedo several hundred miles, and he was happy at the thought of finding a nice, fat Jap cargo ship loaded down with those sons of Nippon.

As the flight of American carrier aircraft headed northwest towards Tokyo, the Air Group Commander’s voice came in loud and clear; “There they are boys, prepare for attack!” Looking like tiny, miniature models, the convoy could be seen below the scattered clouds. There were six big cargo ships and three large oilers, with five Jap destroyers of the Terutsuki class deployed around the circumference to protect the cargo vessels.

As the Hellcats dived to spray the antiaircraft gunners on each ship, the torpedo planes swung wide to commence their attack. “Soupy” picked out a large oil tanker as his victim, checked all switches, and over the mike, checked with his turret and tunnel gunners: “Everything O.K,  “Ski”” “All set sir” came from the turret gunner. “How about you, Sparks?” “Ready”, cracked the answer from the tunnel.

“Soupy” leveled the Avenger, steadying her for the last thousand yards of approach. Now the tracers from a destroyer were combing the cockpit. His lips were a little dry, and a lump seemed to fill his throat. Would he be able to hold straight and true through the hail of ack-ack until he could reach the release point? The tanker loomed large in his sight. His finger pressed the release. But even has he mentally congratulated himself, the voice of the tunnel gunner came through; “Sir, we’ve been hit in the bomb bay; the electrical system is out; the torpedo is still aboard.”

“Soupy” banked the Avenger in a sharp turn. He must go back. He couldn’t carry that “fish” all the way back home. Now, he saw another large cargo vessel and started for her, but there was the Terutsuki, guns blazing away. A blinding flash, and now the cockpit was full of smoke. He knew he could never reach the cargo vessel, and without hesitation, he pointed the Avenger’s nose at the Jap destroyer, pulled the emergency torpedo release… and then he was passing over the destroyer. More tracers combed and entered the cockpit of the burning plane.

Though wounded, “Souper” ditched the Avenger, landing her on the water as safely and as smoothly as if he had put her down on the field at Quonset Point. Simultaneously, his torpedo struck the Jap destroyer, breaking her in two and sending flames high into the sky.

The spray from the water landing had not settled before the gunner and radioman were out of the burning plane and scrambling to assist their pilot. As “Ski” and “Sparks” told their story after being picked up by a destroyer and returning to the HORNET; “Skipper”, they said, “we jumped up on the side of Lieutenant Campbell’s cockpit to help him out, but his body was bent forward, and as I raised his head, I knew he was dead, but you know, ‘Skipper” I could swear he had a smile on his face.”

Authors Note: There is a plaque in the form of a large pair of Navy Wings hanging in the wardroom of a Carrier in the Pacific. Inscribed on it is a record of 267 Jap planes shot down and of 49 Jap ships sunk. On a small brass plate below the wings is the inscription:

“This plaque was designed by Lieutenant “Soupy” Campbell, USNR. It was completed on Auguest 3, 1944. On August 4, 1944, during an attack on a Jap convoy, he gave his life. Greater love hath no man.”

Editors Note: This true story was written by Jackson D. Arnold, CDR USN in 1944. LTjg Kenneth Glass was “Soups” roommate aboard 

[1] This watercolor was painted by Jack Arnold when he returned from the mission.  As a matter of interest, when it was pointed out the destroyer was much less true to life than Soups’ Avenger, he responded, “Who cares, it was about to sink anyway.”