Elwood Ray Bailey
|HOME OF RECORD
|NEXT OF KIN
Wife, Mrs. Eunice R. Bailey
|DATE OF BIRTH
August 18, 1920
at Jackson, MI
June 26, 1941 (enlisted)
May 15, 1942 (commissioned)
|DATE OF LOSS
August 24, 1942
|CAMPAIGN / AREA
Missing In Action
Declared Dead August 25 1943
|CIRCUMSTANCES OF LOSS
Second Lieutenant Elwood Bailey, a Cactus Air Force pilot, flew an F4F-4 Wildcat (Bureau Number #02095) to intercept a Japanese air raid on Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, on 24 August 1942. He failed to return to base, and was listed as missing in action.
The wreck site was was located in 2012, and Lieutenant Bailey’s remains recovered in 2015. He was formally accounted for on 28 September 2017.
|LAST KNOWN RANK
|STATUS OF REMAINS
Chapel Cemetery, Sandstone, MI
Manila American Cemetery
Special thanks to Wayne Tompkins, Scott Tompkins, LeeAnn Rosel, Diana Agy, and Peggy Maher for the additional information included in this biography.
All family photographs of Elwood Bailey were provided by Wayne Tompkins, and are posted by permission.
Elwood Ray Bailey was born on 18 August 1920, to Michigan farmers Ray and Lula Livesay Bailey. He grew up on the family farm in Sandstone Township and attended schools and social events in nearby Parma. Photos from Elwood’s childhood show an outdoorsy boy rowing with his dog and fishing with his older sister, Helen Virginia, at McCormick Lake in the northern part of the state. He applied himself well in school, and after graduating from Parma High in 1938 was accepted to Jackson Junior College.
There were two great loves in Elwood Bailey’s young life. The first was his sweetheart. He noticed Daisy Eunice Roberts while attending Parma High, or maybe she noticed him first; he was good looking, athletic, and “a hell of a nice guy.” Their class was so small they could scarcely have missed each other. Elwood and Eunice – she went by her middle name – started dating, and by graduation were all but inseparable.
Elwood’s second love was flying. Jackson College was an early adopter of the Civilian Pilot Training Program, and flying classes were offered as part of the curriculum. The chance for thrills mixed with practical instruction was a popular draw for students – and as Europe descended into war, both the headstrong and the realists concluded that the United States might one day follow. A civilian pilot’s license might someday translate into a military commission.
Then, too, there was the simple joy of flying – still a novel experience in 1939 and 1940. Elwood was so enamored with the air that he pooled some of his savings with his buddies and bought a Piper Cub. Elwood Bailey, Zenneth Pond, and William “Bill” Maher spent hours behind the controls of their little plane practicing maneuvers and stunts. On the ground, they must have talked about the prospect of war and what they would do if America got involved in the global conflict. All three decided to beat the draft and earn the gold wings of naval aviators.
Zenneth couldn’t wait. He dropped out of Jackson Junior College, entered the Navy in May of 1941, and was soon earning honors in training at Naval Air Station, Grosse Ile. Elwood followed a month later, on 26 June 1941 – he wanted to graduate before joining – and easily passed the rigorous screening. The third friend, Bill Maher, wasn’t so lucky; the Navy uncovered a medical issue which they deemed disqualifying. After several weeks of elimination training, Seaman Second Class Bailey bade farewell to his family and set out on the journey from Jackson to Jacksonville, Florida, and the newly commissioned Naval Air Station where he would train as a cadet. Eunice wasn’t quite ready to let Elwood go, and made the trip down with him.
Cadet Bailey was in Jacksonville on 7 December 1941. His exact reaction to the news of Pearl Harbor isn’t known, but one might assume that practicing maintenance, maneuvers, and mock dogfights suddenly took on a new level of seriousness for every man in his class. Instructors bore down harder than ever, and the training grew ever more intense – solo navigation problems, night flights, and learning to fly on instruments alone. It was a far cry from doodling over Jackson in a Piper Cub.
Finally, on 22 April 1942, Elwood Bailey received the coveted “Wings Of Gold” that proclaimed him a fully qualified naval aviator. At some point, he made the decision to become a Marine – possibly as early as enlistment; the Corps did not have a separate aviation training program – and traded in his white Navy ensign’s uniform for the forest green of a Marine second lieutenant. His commission was effected in Miami on 15 May 1942, ten and a half months after he enlisted at Grosse Ile, and he was presented with orders instructing him to report to San Diego.
In California, Second Lieutenant Bailey was assigned to the newly formed Second Marine Aircraft Wing. He must have been delighted to find his old buddy Zenneth – now Second Lieutenant Pond, USMC – assigned to the same unit. Pond had completed his aviation training at Corpus Christi, Texas, and was commissioned only a few days before Bailey. The two friends were both assigned to a brand-new squadron which was forming in Oahu. With only a few days before shipping out, the new pilots scrambled to put their affairs in order. Elwood had one thought in mind – Eunice joined him in San Diego, and the long-time sweethearts were married. They spent one final day together. On 26 June 1942, Elwood and Zenneth boarded the USS Hilo and sailed for Pearl Harbor. Nine days later, they reported for duty with VMF-223 – the “Rainbow Squadron” or “Fighting 23” – at Ewa Field, along with Second Lieutenants Noyes McLennan and Kenneth D. Frazier.
“If any military man in Hawaii last June had told a colleague that Marine Fighting Squadron 223 was made of the stuff of heroes,” wrote LIFE reporter Richard Wilcox, “he would have been laughed out of the islands. It would take months for a bunch of kids, most of them straight from flying school and just learning to navigate, shoot, and maneuver their Grumman Wildcats, normally to be able to fly together as a squadron.” Since being commissioned on 1 May 1942, VMF-223 was racing towards a state of combat readiness under the leadership of Captain John Lucien Smith, “a hard-jawed, hazel-eyed Marine” all of 27 years old. He had a formidable task ahead of him. Only four of his pilots had more than a year’s service; the rest were young second lieutenants. Three of the latter were veterans of Midway and painted grim pictures of the abilities of Japanese pilots and the shortcomings of the Brewster F2-A “Buffalo” fighters with which the squadron was equipped. Smith “begged and borrowed planes for his green pilots” – eventually replacing the hated “Buffalos” with more advanced Grumman F4F “Wildcats” – and formed the squadron through a combination of hard work and sheer willpower. “All he could do was to double and redouble flying schedules, keep pounding technical knowledge into the heads of his enlisted men in the hope that the transformation from farm hand and store clerk to aircraft radioman and mechanic would be rapid and halfway thorough” Wilcox mentioned. “And he could pray that when the time came for the attack on the Solomons, VMF-223 would be prepared to fight.” The training regimen cost the life of one pilot a few days after Bailey joined the squadron.
Though Smith’s pilots anticipated change every day, the arrival of deployment orders was shockingly sudden. “The order came on a Sunday to be on the carrier Tuesday morning,” wrote Wilcox. “That left two days for a few final drinks in Honolulu, some movies and a last telephone call back to the States for sweethearts and wives…. [The] order was countermanded. VMF-223 had to be aboard in three hours. In the feverish haste of packing and last-minute plane checkovers, the squadron left Hawaii before it had time to make its farewells.” Nineteen officers and sixty-five enlisted men hurried aboard the escort carrier USS Long Island on 2 August 1942 and were at sea bound for “destination secret” by nightfall.
It took fifteen days to reach their next port of call, which turned out to be Efate in the New Hebrides islands. During that time, Bailey and his comrades were kept busy by the ever-energetic Smith. Second Lieutenant Roy A. Corry, Jr., one of the Midway veterans and the squadron’s gunnery officer, wheeled each of the squadron’s planes to the carrier’s side and fired bursts of tracers, fine-tuning each of the .50 caliber guns. “Scotty” McLennan dreamed up new dogfighting maneuvers, and Second Lieutenant Charles “Red” Kendrick became the squadron’s self-taught and self-appointed weatherman. In their downtime, the men chewed over tactics, war news, rumors, and gripes. And sometimes they talked just to talk. Richard Wilcox listened in on their conversations. Corry “brooded about being killed.” Kendrick and McLennan argued about the virtues of Harvard and Yale. Frazier and Pond made loud bets about how many Zeros they were going to shoot down. “All hard, clean-cut members of the new breed of fighting men,” proclaimed Wilcox, yet also “average Americans, some light-hearted, some solemn, some emotional.” He also spoke to Elwood Bailey, “who thought of the wife with whom he had lived for only a day before being sent into the Pacific.”
The squadron spent a single day at Port Vila, which Smith used to exchange a handful of his pilots for more experienced flyers from VMF-212. By 19 August, they were at sea again. This time, the destination was well known: Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where Marine ground forces were desperately hanging on against determined Japanese attacks on land, sea, and air. The little USS Long Island took on an outsized importance as one of the few operable carriers in the South Pacific, and rather than risk the ship, it was decided to launch the Rainbow Squadron some two hundred miles out at sea. On the morning on 20 August 1942, the first of their Wildcats roared down the flight deck and wobbled into the air. It was a hair-raising challenge for the young aviators, few of whom had had the chance to qualify on carriers. Captain Marion Carl, one of the more experienced pilots, recalled “a tedious process with only one catapult and a crowded deck. Our formation was led by Lt. Col. Charles Fike, executive officer of MAG-23…. We watched Fike manage a shaky launch” – from the worryingly short flight deck – and “everybody else got off safely,” followed by the dive-bombers of VMSB-232. Elwood Bailey joined the formation circling above the Long Island, and at around 1330 hours the flight departed in the direction of Guadalcanal.
August 20…. Was roused by the sound of planes overhead. Cheers were going up all around. Could it be that they were our own planes, the ones that have been coming in “tomorrow” for so long? They were. Grim faces brightened as the planes circled our field and came in for landings. The first hit the runway at 1607.
– Herbert C. Merillat, Guadalcanal Remembered
The infamous island “looked green and peaceful in the morning air,” Wilcox wrote. “As they brought their planes over the airfield which had been captured from the Japs, all of Fighting 23 felt that this was going to be fun.” They landed to a hero’s welcome. Overjoyed Marines, some with tears in their eyes, poured out of the jungle and swarmed over the aircraft, shaking hands and slapping backs. Until then, they had had no ground-based air support. Elwood Bailey and his buddies spent the balance of the day nervously critiquing the Navy servicing detachment – who “although willing and intelligent had, for the most part, less than four months service” and “required the closest supervision.” They also solicited advice from the infantry: “Never go off in the jungle alone. Eat and sleep every chance you get. Duck when you hear a big one coming over.” That night they lay under captured Japanese tents and mosquito netting and listened to the battle of the Tenaru blazing a few hundred yards away.
Patrols began the next day. Noon was already established as “Tojo Time” – most likely for a Japanese raid – and a four-plane flight of “Rainbows” tangled with six Japanese Zeros. The squadron’s first combat resulted in a kill credited to Major Smith, and four Wildcats shot full of holes. Elwood Bailey likely made several flights in the days that followed – an ordinary combat patrol was about two hours long, and the Marines also flew air cover for damaged ships taking cover near Tulagi. Reports of a Japanese naval task force sent excitement rippling through the “Cactus Air Force” on the afternoon of 23 August, and a strike group was assembled and sent to investigate, but bad weather forced them to return without making contact. Much later that night, a Japanese submarine sent some shells into the perimeter, a belated riposte to the aborted strike.
“In a few days, the picnic atmosphere of life on Guadalcanal was dispelled,” wrote Richard Wilcox.
Life became a deadly, never-ceasing struggle. Fighting 23 was in the air every day…. At about 9:30 AM, the pilots of Fighting 23 would get an all-plane scramble as a flag was run up in front of the aircraft operations office. The pilots would sprint for their dispersed planes, then climb to meet the Japs coming in from the sea. They would get up into the sun and wait for the enemy to come, in their precise V-of-V’s. Then Smith would give the signal and they would scream down as bombers and Zeros fell like burning leaves from the Jap formation. Sometimes, along with them, one of Fighting 23’s Grummans would plummet crazily down and crash into the hills or in the sea around Guadalcanal.
On the twenty-fourth day of August, 1942, the Rainbows encountered their first major air raid of twelve Zeros and fifteen bombers in a two-wave formation. Fourteen Wildcats – the Rainbows and their attached buddies from VMF-212 – went to intercept. As Marion Carl’s four-plane flight entered the fray, Elwood Bailey and Zenneth Pond were either racing for their Wildcats or, if they were on alert status, were already in the cockpits and making frantic preparations to take off. A fully-laden Wildcat could take up to 45 minutes to reach attack altitude, and there was no time to waste. The Japanese fighters obliged by coming down to the deck, strafing the last Rainbow pilots as they took off and wrecking one of the Wildcats.
In attempting to piece together the dogfight that followed, aviation historian John Lundstrom admits “confusion as to the details of the fight pretty much set the tone for this immensely perplexing air battle.” As proof, he cites an interaction between correspondent Richard Tregaskis and Ken Frazier: “He [Frazier] could not say how many enemy bombers there had been or whether they were one or two motored craft.” Marion Carl remembered that “this fight was very confusing” – and he had good reason to remember it; when he landed, he was the first ace in Marine Corps history. The Rainbow war diary claimed fifteen enemy aircraft shot down and three more probably destroyed. Zenneth Pond personally accounted for two bombers and a Zero; a few days later, he would be an ace. The bombers inflicted no damage. It was a great victory for “Fighting 23.”
I went to the airport immediately after the “all clear” and waited for our fighters to come down. Most of them seemed almost hilariously elated as they taxied in one by one and jumped down from their cockpits…. [Colonel Fike] was taking notes on their stories, arranging a tally of victory. The memo on his notebook pad showed a total of ten bombers and eleven Zeros shot down in the fight.
Two of our fighter planes were still unreported when we left the airport. Another pilot had been seen to bail out over Tulagi Bay. The rest had returned. It was not a bad score at all: three of our men missing, in exchange for twenty-one Japs shot down.
– Richard Tregaskis, Guadalcanal Diary
The elation was tempered by the sudden realization that not all of the Americans had returned. Second Lieutenant “Rapid” Robert Read, who had been caught on takeoff by the strafing Zeros, managed to ditch near Florida Island. He returned safely after a few days. The Wildcat flown by Second Lieutenant Lawrence “Red” Taylor, one of the VMF-212 pilots, fell in flames after shooting up a bomber. And F4F-4 Bureau Number 02095 – flown by Elwood Bailey – did not come back at all.
“The first to go was Bailey, the boy who had been married the day before he left to join the squadron,” wrote Richard Wilcox. “On Aug. 24 he flamed into the sea after shooting down two Zeros attacking Henderson Field.” Historian Lundstrom described “a low-level running fight” over the island of Malaita that pitted a pair of Wildcats and three Army P-400s against six seasoned Japanese navy pilots. One of those veterans shot up Bailey’s plane, and “although seen to bail out over Tulagi, he [Bailey] never came back.” (Lundstrom does not provide a source for this anecdote, although he may have sourced it from Tregaskis. How he concluded that Bailey was the parachutist is not known.) War diaries for squadron and group simply recorded that Bailey “failed to return,” and after a month with no news, he was dropped from the rolls of VMF-223 and taken up by the Prisoners of War and Missing Persons Detachment at Headquarters, USMC. He was far from the last. One by one, Rainbow pilots fell from the sky: Corry, Kendrick, McLennan, and even Zenneth Pond, who became a certified ace before disappearing on an intercept flight on 10 September.
News of Elwood’s disappearance reached Jackson, Michigan a few weeks later, and in the year of uncertainty that followed, his loved ones tried to keep their spirits up. Eunice moved in with Ray and Lula while attending the Foote Memorial School of Nursing in Jackson. On 7 December 1942, the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, LIFE hit the newsstands with a photo of Major John Smith – now a famous flier – on the cover. The Baileys bought a copy for the Richard Wilcox story, and his description of Elwood’s fighter falling in flames to the sea must have been terrible to read. The new year came; the anniversaries of Elwood’s graduation, enlistment, commission, and marriage came and went. Then it was 25 August 1943, and the Secretary of the Navy declared that Elwood Ray Bailey was officially dead. They could not even be sure they would have a body to bury.
His family tried to move on. In 1947, Eunice came to Ray and Lula with a request. She had been treating a wounded soldier in the VA hospital in Dearborn. They had fallen in love. Did she have their permission to remarry? The Baileys agreed. Importantly, this meant that Ray became the primary next of kin and contact point for a final attempt to recover Elwood’s remains. Between 1947 and 1949, teams from the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company traveled the Pacific in search of thousands of missing or non-recovered Americans who fell between 1941 and 1945. The Baileys might have read a newspaper item about Charles Kendrick Senior, a wealthy businessman who personally traveled to Guadalcanal to search for the body of his son, Elwood’s squadronmate “Red” Kendrick. Mr. Kendrick beat the odds; his boy was found. The Baileys were not wealthy or well-connected; they could not make such a journey. And the search teams had no more luck. With hundreds of square miles to cover in the Solomon Islands alone, and with no specific idea of where Elwood’s aircraft had disappeared, they could only make the most general search. The Wilcox story seemed to be confirmed: Elwood must have gone down at sea, and there was no hope of his recovery.
The Baileys couldn’t bury their son, so they buried the mention of him for the next generation. “I think the subject of his death left such a scar on everyone that it was just too painful a subject for them to discuss,” recalled Elwood’s nephew, Wayne Tompkins. His mother, the former Helen Bailey, rarely talked about her younger brother. “We knew that he had died heroically in aerial combat in Guadalcanal,” said Tompkins. “The unfortunate reality is [his family] died not really knowing for sure what had happened to him…. The fact that the circumstances of his death were unknown created a real sense of anguish.” While details about Elwood’s early life faded into obscurity, the family continued to treasure his memory. The LIFE Magazine issue became an heirloom. Eunice told her children “glowing stories” about her first husband, and Wayne’s son also became a naval aviator, following in Elwood’s footsteps.
Seventy years passed.
In 2012, Mr. Clay Chulao was exploring in the jungles near his home in Mbarana Village, Guadalcanal when he stumbled across the rusting wreckage of an American fighter plane. He managed to pry loose a wing, which he sold to the proprietor of a museum in Honiara. The buyer alerted the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and a search team was dispatched in 2013. The site had been picked over, but significant debris remained – including the tail assembly, weather-bleached and rust-spotted, with the number “02095” still plainly visible.
Elwood Bailey’s plane had not gone down at sea at all – instead it had crashed to earth in the foothills of Mount Austen, significantly inland from Henderson Field. One mystery was solved, but the whereabouts of the pilot were still unknown. Had he bailed out, leaving the fighter to crash unmanned? Had the official records mistaken which plane he flew on the day he disappeared? Had he perhaps survived the crash, only to become lost in the jungles or caught by a Japanese patrol? Or were his remains somewhere nearby, hidden by years of jungle growth and disturbed by scavengers? The JPAC team recovered debris from the site, but nothing that could be identified as human remains.
Three more years passed before Mr. Chulao entered the picture once again. He had more items from the site of BuNo 02095. A pistol. An identification tag, bent and folded nearly in half as if hit by something hard. And, in the cautious language of the DPAA, “possible human remains.” The tag, though damaged, was still plainly legible. It was of the early war style, acid etched instead of stamped, and bore the inscription “E. R. BAILEY 2nd Lt. USMCR.” With a reasonable association thus confirmed, the DPAA contacted Elwood Bailey’s family.
On 5 September 2017, just days after the seventy-second anniversary of his death, Elwood Ray Bailey was officially accounted for. His life and friendship with Zenneth Pond and Bill Maher become the subject of a documentary film produced by students at his alma mater. And on 13 October 2018, he was laid to rest beside his parents. “It’s nice to finally think that their souls will be a little more at peace, knowing this whole thing had been brought to a conclusion,” commented Wayne Tompkins.
Sadly, Eunice passed away in October 2015 – after Elwood’s plane was found, but before his official recovery.
 Wayne Tompkins, email to the author, 9 January 2018.
 Author unknown, “58 at Grosse Ile Base Earn Advanced Training in Aviation,” The Detroit Free Press, 13 July 1941. According to Navy muster rolls, Pond enlisted on 31 May 1941. He was the youngest cadet in his class, and earned the top spot by winning the Knudsen Trophy.
 Maher later joined the Army Air Corps and spent the wartime years flying “The Hump” – a notoriously difficult transport route over the Himalayas into China. He went on to have a distinguished career as a civilian pilot.
 Muster rolls for NAS Jacksonville indicate that Bailey was appointed an aviation cadet on 13 November 1941.
 Richard Wilcox, “Captain Smith And His Fighting 223,” LIFE Magazine vol. no. (7 December 1942), 120.
 Ibid., 121.
 War Diary, VMF-223, August 1942. The remainder of the squadron sailed aboard the USS William Ward Burrows several days later.
 Wilcox, 121.
 John Lundstom, First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November 1942 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 118.
 Marion Carl and Barrett Tillman, Pushing The Envelope: The Career of Fighter Ace and Test Pilot Marion Carl (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994).
 Wilcox, 122.
 War Diary, Marine Air Group (MAG) 23, August 1942.
 Wilcox, 124.
 Lundstrom, First Team, 144.
 Carl and Tillman, Pushing The Envelope.
 Wilcox, 124
 Lundstrom, First Team, 143.
 Pond received the Navy Cross for valor in the air over Guadalcanal. His remains have not been recovered as of 2018.
 Wayne Tompkins, email to the author, 9 January 2018.
 Taylor DesOrmeau, “Remains of Michigan WWII pilot found, coming home for burial,” MLIVE.com, last accessed 12 October 2018.