On An Intercept.

George Arthur Treptow is still on his intercept mission.

The oldest son of a successful railroad family, George spent most of his childhood in Chicago. Although his family relocated to Ohio for a few years – George finished high school in Youngstown – they moved back to the Chicago, settling in Morgan Park. After two years of study at nearby Woodrow Wilson Junior College, George transferred to Depauw University. As athletic as he was – he played football at Depauw and was known on the Englewood YMCA basketball courts – George was equally academic, particularly when it came to history, and was an active member of the school’s history club. Finally, he balanced his interest in the past with a thoroughly modern pastime, taking time out of his schedule to earn a civilian pilot’s license.

Senior photo and accolades at Depauw University, 1941.
Senior photo and accolades at Depauw University, 1941.

As a budding historian, Treptow certainly had no illusions that he was living in a momentous time; he joined the Navy Reserve in 1941 while still a senior at Depauw. Shortly after graduation (with, naturally, a history degree), the young man was assigned to active duty. He must have breezed through the pre-flight training at Corpus Christi, Texas, before earning his wings and his commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps in April, 1942.

GAT at home
George Treptow in his dress whites stands by the family fireplace. Photo on the mantle is his younger brother, Bill.

Treptow’s first assignment took him to San Diego, California. Not long after his arrival, word of the battle of Midway reached the station – with particular emphasis on the heroics of Marine fighter pilots. Some of those young second lieutenants had graduated from Corpus Christi just days before Treptow’s class; at least one, Martin Mahannah, had been killed. For his part, Treptow spent an additional several weeks training in California before heading overseas as a member of Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 121.

GAT in the field
Lt. Treptow in the field. Date and location unknown, but probably in California, early 1942.

The first stop for the “Green Knights” was Noumea, New Caledonia. The pilots preceded their aircraft by several days; upon arrival, they found that only a handful of fighters were available. By this point in 1942, another island had replaced Midway as the focal point for a Marine flyer’s attention – a slug-shaped speck in the Solomons codenamed “Cactus.” A handful of Army, Navy, and Marine pilots, calling themselves the Cactus Air Force, were performing incredible feats against impossible odds several times a day. Reinforcements were clearly needed, but VMF-121 was not ready for full deployment.

So five of their pilots – Second Lieutenants Mann, Dean, Lynch, Stub, and Treptow – volunteered to go it alone. On 25 September, these lieutenants arrived at the fighting front.

 

The flight line, Henderson Field, Guadalcanal.
The flight line, Henderson Field, Guadalcanal.

 

Six days later, George Treptow sat down to write a letter to his younger brother.

Dear Bill,

I thought it about time I wrote you, even if it does take about two months for a letter to reach you.

 Right now I’m on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, attached to a Marine Fighting Squadron. Still flying the same ships and at times it does get rather exciting down here. Sorry I can’t say much about the action but as is customary the censors have a mania for deleting what they think is important.

Since joining VMF-224 on September 25, life had been a whirlwind. At 0130 the morning after their arrival, a rumored Japanese landing sent two aircraft out on a futile search around the island. Regular sector searches occurred all day. A flight of massive B-17s paid a visit, their excited crews telling tales of a Japanese convoy put out of action. On the 27th, they weathered their first “Tojo Time” raid and watched with unbridled excitement as the seasoned Cactus pilots sent an estimated eleven enemy aircraft down in flames. And the day after that, it was the new pilots’ turn.

Our squadron knocked down 23 out of 27 bombers on the 28th of September, for which we duly received a citation from the General.

Dean, Mann, and Treptow scrambled at 1258, joining 31 other Marine and Navy pilots in a pitched fight with 25 Japanese bombers and 30 Zeros. When they landed and counted noses, it was found once again that not a single American plane had been lost. The victors were jubilant. Those who were legends – Smith, Carl, Galer, Bauer – added to their impressive tallies, and many of the younger pilots notched one or two. George Treptow joined in the congratulations, but submitted no claims himself. He would have plenty of opportunities to catch up, and was especially anxious after Admiral Nimitz paid a visit to award a handful of Navy Crosses and Distinguished Flying Crosses to members of the squadron.

All in all it isn’t such a bad life. Five of us live in a large pyramidal tent fully equipped with cots and mosquito netting. There’s a little creek nearby where everyone goes swimming and washes the week’s accumulation of clothes. Matt Kennedy is also in my outfit so it seems rather like old times.

It did, in fact, feel somewhat like being stateside again. Kennedy, a “Bengal” with VMF-224, was a friend from flight school; so were Jacob Stub and John Dean from VMF-121. Classmates Bill Lees and Ken Frazier were stationed with the neighboring squadron, VMF-223. And George Treptow was beginning to fit in with his new squadron, too – they even invited him in for a group photo, posed around one of their venerable Wildcats.

Generally I get up at 0500 and hit the sack about 1900 since there is nothing else to do. I had to leave my accordion behind at a reserve base but maybe it’ll catch up with me later. Nice country this – sweat, rain, mud!

He may have considered going on – mentioning that not all of his old friends were present. Charles Bryans died on the last day of August, when a pair of Zeros jumped him from behind. His surviving wingman, Dick Amerine, blamed a faulty oxygen system for Bryans’ lack of awareness. And Robert Jefferies had been missing since a strafing mission in early September; his Wildcat was seen to crash into the ocean and explode, which meant little hope of his return. The Bengals had been lucky in the days since he’d arrived, but Treptow knew it was only a matter of time before their next pilot vanished into the skies, jungles, or waters of the Solomon Islands. Marine scout bombers seemed to disappear every day. Despite the lopsided outcome of the last two big fights, the Japanese were still a very dangerous foe.

George switched topics.

I was wondering if you had registered for the draft or were about to. And I’d appreciate learning just what boys are left in the house and who’s been drafted and who’s in one of the Air Services.

(Bill, age nineteen, was starting the school year at George’s alma mater Depauw.)

I personally don’t think that there’s any hope of our being relieved this year so I guess I shan’t see the States for quite some time. How’s your love life? Changed girls yet or still consistent?

He was running out of paper, if not things to say; besides, the censors would have a field day if he said any more.

I have a devil of a time writing home since about all I can say is that I’m healthy and in one piece – yet. So take it easy boy and maybe I’ll see you later on.

As an afterthought, he added the date.

October 1st.

The good luck streak ended at 1230 on October 2.

“George took off with the rest of the squadron one day on an intercept,” wrote fellow pilot Stanley Nicolay.

A good deal of confusion always accompanies this kind of thing, and it is very hard to tell just who is flying in the planes near you.

It was cloudy at altitude over Guadalcanal; the previous day’s rain retreated, but a thick overcast made visibility difficult. When the alert sounded – Japanese planes at 120 miles and closing – the Cactus Air Force scrambled to defend their field. According to historian John Lundstrom, thirteen Marines from VMF-223 and -224 made up the main body; four VMF-212 pilots fought their own fight, and four off-duty -223 pilots jumped into free aircraft and joined the fray. The Americans were badly scattered when the first of their divisions broke through the clouds to find the sky swarming with Zeros.[1]

The Japs were contacted during this flight and, as I remember it, we lost two or three airplanes. When I say lost, I mean they did not come back to the field when it was all over.

Treptow’s classmate Bill Lees was the first to fall; his shattered Wildcat was seen plummeting through the clouds as the pilot pulled frantically at his parachute ripcord. Another group broke up Captain Nicolay’s flight. Majors Smith and Galer, two of the top-scoring pilots at Cactus, were shot up and forced down. And three Wildcats simply disappeared from the sky as if erased.

George didn’t land with the rest and upon inquiring other pilots in the flight, no one could say for sure just where he was flying, nor did anyone see him get shot down. This had happened before – no one could remember seeing them after they had joined the fight – they just didn’t come back.

What happened to George Treptow between the squadron’s scramble and return to base may never be fully known. Historian Lundstrom states that Treptow “chased the main body” of the Marine force, and was “climbing alone” to the fight.[2] His aircraft may have been suffering from engine trouble; at least four other pilots, including Marion Carl, complained of similar trouble. The Wildcats’ breathing apparatus was notoriously faulty; oxygen deprivation may have slowed his reflexes and made it impossible to reach altitude. Whatever the cause, George Treptow was missing. So was his squadron leader, Major Galer; so were Major Smith, Bill Lees, and 2Lt. Charles Kendrick from VMF-223, and a Navy pilot, Ensign G. J. Morgan. The dismayed pilots only claimed four Japanese shot down.

The day’s toll. Lees, Kendrick, and Morgan were killed.
Photograph of Ensign Morgan kindly provided by Tom Harmer via Pierre Lagacé.

It is very possible that George landed safely somewhere on the island, but in enemy territory. The plane that Matt found was located on Guadalcanal, but was behind the enemy lines. At the time this happened, we held a very, very small portion of the island right near the field, all other territory belonging to and occupied by the Japs.

There was room for some optimism. Major Smith was spotted walking away from his crash site; he would return to the squadron that evening, around the time Major Galer was radioing in from Tulagi. Marine infantry units reported sighting at least two crash sites, and patrols were sent to investigate.[3]

Charles Kendrick’s smashed aircraft was found on a hilltop southeast of Henderson Field. He had “apparently attempted a belly landing in a difficult area,” and had died on impact.[4] As they were behind enemy lines, the Marines torched the aircraft to destroy its sensitive IFF equipment, and buried Kendrick in the area.[5]

Infantrymen of the Fifth Marines had been watching the dogfight with great interest when suddenly a Wildcat came screaming out of the clouds and smashed into the jungle 400 yards away. A rescue patrol was immediately dispatched, and located the wreckage with the pilot still inside. Word of their discovery reached Henderson Field at 1400, and a Navy pilot named Bill Robb volunteered to head out to the site, both to destroy the IFF equipment “and to identify the plane and pilot if possible.” The VF-5 pilot hoped to find the remains of his buddy, the popular Ensign Morgan. Instead, “the plane proved to be that of a Marine flyer.” Lundstrom concludes that this must have been George Treptow’s plane; by process of elimination, this seems likely.[6]

One final tragedy would play out on the last day of George Treptow’s life – his remains could not be moved back to the Marine cemetery. John Lundstrom notes that, “while the wreck evidently failed to disclose any bullet damage” (indicating that it was fairly intact), the pilot’s “body could not be recovered.”[7] While it can be hoped that the patrol managed to give the pilot a field burial at least, the war diary for Marine Air Group 23 has a more chilling notation: “Plane and body burned.” This may have been the result of the crash, or possibly the overruling need to prevent the wreck from falling into enemy hands.[8]

Whatever the reason, George Treptow was left where he fell. And although Lt. Robb reported his findings (they are recorded, briefly, in his own unit’s war diary), the young Marine was officially declared “missing in action” as of October 2, 1942.

GAT-MIA telegram

Back in Chicago, the Treptow family rallied behind Agnes’ staunch declaration: “We still have hope.” They began a letter writing campaign extending beyond the usual appeals to the Marine Corps for more information. When articles about Guadalcanal began appearing in the Chicago Tribune, George Senior wrote to the paper’s war correspondent, Bob Cromie. A LIFE Magazine article about the Cactus Air Force described the October 2 action in detail; this led them to Captain Stanley Nicolay, who sent comforting words: “I do think there is hope and pray that near future may bring you good news” – but could not say for sure what had become of George.[9]

Despite their optimism, George Treptow was declared dead on 19 February 1945. The Marines gave him a posthumous promotion to the rank of captain; his family gave him a memorial stone in Bethania Cemetery. Today, the precise location of his crash site is unknown.

George Treptow’s remains, and those of his Wildcat, still remain on Guadalcanal. His family – including his younger brother, Bill – are actively seeking more information. If you can help, please contact me at missingmarines@gmail.com

Thanks to Katie Wahrhaftig and Bill Treptow for providing personal photos and documents for this article.

____
NOTES:

[1] John Lundstrom, The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 295.
[2] Ibid., 295-297.
[3] Smith passed the wreckage of a Wildcat “smashed to smithereens” during his hike; he believed it belonged to 2Lt. Noyes “Scotty” McLennan, missing since 13 September 1942. Richard Wilcox, “Captain Smith and His Fighting 223,” LIFE Magazine Vol. 13 No. 23 (Dec. 7, 1942), 192.
[4] Quentin Pope, “Finds Grave of War Ace Son in Four Year Hunt,” Chicago Sunday Tribune Part 1 (23 February 1947), 12. Charles Kendrick’s father was successful in having his son’s remains returned to the US.
[5] Muster roll of VMF-223 gives the location as “5 miles east and 2 miles south of Guadalcanal airdrome.”
[6] Of the five Marines shot down this date, Galer and Smith survived, Lees was observed to bail out of his aircraft, and Kendrick was found and identified at a separate location. Neither Lees nor Morgan were ever found.
[7] Lundstrom, 299. This gave rise to the theory that oxygen failure contributed to Treptow’s death; if so, he was mercifully unconscious when his plane hit the ground.
[8] In the event of a field burial, muster rolls would usually record the location of the grave with varying degrees of accuracy. No such record has yet been found regarding George Treptow.
[9] This is an interesting impression when combined with unit muster rolls. VMF-121 (George’s regular unit) noted he was missing in action, while VMF-224 (his adopted unit) does not mention his presence at all. In Captain Nicolay’s defense, his letter was written in December 1943, and “this all happened so long ago, it is hard for me to realized that it ever happened at all.”

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