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On a slow boat to Rabaul

On a slow boat to Rabaul

A brief memoir of VMF-215 missions in WWII

I received a copy of this E-mail the other day from my Uncle Fred, son of Capt. Donald Aldrich, USMCR of WWII fame (20 Zeroes shot down in the Pacific flying F-4U Corsairs). The letter was written by LtCol. Arthur Roger Conant, USMC Ret’d, to other surviving members of the VMF-215 “Fighting Corsairs” Association.

LtCol. Conant suffered a heart attack recently, but apparently is really “hanging in there.” I’m very glad to have an opportunity to share his letter with fellow Marines, and perhaps meet some of you in September at the Gathering of Corsairs in Indianapolis.
Semper Fidelis,

Steve “Wookie” Wilke,
SGT USMC Inactive Reserve, 29MAR74-30MAR80,
Airborne weapons fire control specialist LETTER BEGINS

It’s February 5, 2002. Where were you 59 years ago…or was it 58? Whatever, you were on the Island of Bougainville, but how you got there is another story. I’m sorry I have been amiss in keeping you up to date. I’ll try to make up for it.

Well, we finished our second tour in November and went on R & R in Sydney. Smitty and I played golf, went to the races and chased girls. Smitty caught some. Then we came back to our rear base, which was now Efate. We got some replacements and did a few familiarization flights, then went up north on our third and last combat tour, which would turn out to be our most memorable.

We started out being based on Vella la Vella…code named Barakoma. We’d fly to Torakina, Bougainville, fuel up and do a mission to Rabaul…all in one day. They were really something. I think we had enemy contact on every mission we made to Rabaul.

My log book says I made sixteen and I remember every darned one. We’d get airborne and meet the bombers…usually B-24s. We’d weave close to them…so darned close you could see them aiming their guns at us. Actually, there were so many of us weaving it was the safest place to be…there was always someone facing out to cover your six as you turned back in your weave. I got a zero on the 18th, I think it was. I really didn’t get him, he just got in front of me and I pulled the trigger. Big hero, huh? Someone later said he had dropped a phosphorous bomb but I don’t know about that.

Well, on about the 26th of February we moved to Torakina. Now we were able to start our missions without the ferry flight from Barakoma. But, that didn’t make them any easier. (BGen Robert) Owens got shot up by his wingman and in spite of what B K Shaw says, it wasn’t me. Then about this time we lost Sammy Stidger as he tried to make a landing with his engine cutting out and missing.

I remember one time we couldn’t get airborne because of a tremendous thunderstorm and we missed the bombers. O says it was because of a screw up by the Indian code talkers. He might be right. I didn’t even know we had them. Anyway, we missed our join up with the bombers…B25s this time, and they went on without us. We caught up with them just as they were leaving the target area. The Zeros were all over them but now we had the advantage…height and speed.

Smitty, Jake Knight and I caught three trying to leave the area. We shot down all three. But as the last one went in we looked up and there was a string of Zeros. They were above us and had us dead to rights. I was even out of ammo. We went into a three-man weave and they never touched us. Why, I’ll never know. Not having to make the ferry flight from Barakoma was a blessing except now we were able to make missions every day. Life on Bougainville was not too bad. We were camped next to VF17. Which reminds me, I recently got the book “The Jolly Rogers,” the story of VF17 and Tom Blackburn. I don’t know what we were doing there, VF17 seems to have won the war all by themselves…with a little help from the Black Sheep.

Ya know, as I read about the heroics of Tom Blackburn and Boyington I have to realize how lucky we were to have Bob Owens guiding us. I think a lot of bombers and some of us have him to thank for us surviving these missions. I really don’t think Bob Owens is given enough credit for leading the finest Corsair squadron in the Pacific. You all can have Boyington and Blackburn, I’ll take Owens. Not only did he have a great squadron, he led them.

Bob made every mission and was right out in there in front when things were the toughest. I’ve never said it before but I do now, “Thanks Bob, we owe you. You never got enough credit for what you did.” Your squadron did a fine job and you got us home safe and sound. We had some other guys that were pretty good too…Hansen (25 kills), Aldrich (20 kills), Spears (15 kills), Hernan…we had a lot of great ones, 13 aces in fact. Some were so eager to go after the fighters Bob had to hold them back…”Stay with the bombers.” I heard him say it a million times…and we did…and the bombers thanked us too. Our job, Bob said, was to protect the bombers, not shoot down Zeros.

Our last mission to Rabaul was February 12 and I remember it well. If we came back from this one we’d get to go home. I was scared as hell, but we made it and home we went. I didn’t fly again until April 18 as an instructor at El Toro but what a time we had celebrating. I ended up in night fighters but that’s a whole new story. I was on my way back out when the war ended.

So this was the final month of VMF 215, the “Fighting Corsairs” and what a month it was. We scattered in all directions when we got back but we still get together annually. Next time will be at the gathering of Corsairs in Indianapolis. I’m looking forward to that. We are having our 215 reunion there at the same time and it should be something. I’ll see you all there. It will be the same again except now Smitty and I won’t be chasing girls. I don’t need to. I finally caught one…a keeper.

Rain City Roger

————————– LETTER ENDS —————————–

(Col Roger Conant,
USMC Ret’d)

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