Yesterday, Microsoft co-founder turned philanthropist/explorer Paul Allen announced the discovery of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2), lost at the battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942.
The Lexington was struck by two bombs and two torpedoes from Japanese carrier aircraft. She maintained flight deck operations for several hours, but fires raged belowdecks and destroyed the ship’s damage control center. Captain Frederick Sherman gave the order to abandon ship at 1707 hours, and the Lexington was scuttled by the destroyer USS Phelps later that evening. The carrier went down on an even keel, “with her head up,” as one surviving officer put it. “Dear old Lex…a lady to the last.”
“To pay tribute to the USS Lexington and the brave men that served on her is an honor,” said Mr. Allen in a statement to PR Newswire. “As Americans, all of us owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who served and who continue to serve our country for their courage, persistence and sacrifice.”
The Lexington rests on the sea floor about 500 miles off the Australian coast, at a depth of approximately 3000 meters. At that depth, the process of decay is slowed, and parts of the wreck are incredibly well preserved.
An F4F Wildcat originally assigned to VF-3 rests on the ocean floor. This aircraft was probably transferred from the USS Saratoga, and never had its new squadron designation painted on. (The Lexington was home to VF-2.)
The aircraft is so well preserved that the original Felix the Cat squadron insignia – and a four kill tally – look like they were painted yesterday.
One of seven Douglas TBD-1 Devastators found near the wreck.
The Lexington went down with 35 aircraft aboard.
Two hundred and sixteen of the Lexington’s complement lost their lives at the battle of the Coral Sea. Among them were 21 members of the Marine detachment who were manning the 5″ anti-aircraft batteries on the port side of the ship.
One of the bombs that struck the Lexington hit just behind Battery #2, port side forward. It detonated in the ready ammunition locker of Gun #6, killing or mortally wounding the entire crew and spraying Gun #4 and Gun #2 with shrapnel. The survivors stayed at their posts, and the entire battery received a Letter of Commendation for their actions.
This view of Gun Gallery #2 taken during the afternoon of May 8 shows #2 Gun still manned in the foreground. The bomb impacted near Gun #6 in the background.
Gun #4, showing the damage caused by the gun blast.
This US Navy photograph, taken on the afternoon of 8 May 1942, shows the remnants of Gun #6. Twelve Marines were burned to death or blown overboard; the rest of the crew died of their wounds.
Battery #4, port side aft, was raked by machine gun fire from the bombers. Marines on Gun #8 and Gun #10 were hit, including one young private called Raymond L. Miller. Miller refused to leave his position and died of his wounds; he was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross. (Much later, it was revealed that Miller’s real name was Jesse Rutherford, Jr. He had enlisted under a fake name to hide his age.)
Corporal Vincent Anderson was the fuse setter and assistant gun captain for Gun #10.
The first Japanese torpedo plane was spotted off the port bow at 11:15 a.m., about 3,000 yards out, and we received the order to commence firing. Simultaneously we picked up speed and began evasive maneuvers. The sound of all our guns firing was deafening and suddenly we felt a violent vibrating blow to our ship [a torpedo hit on the port side forward].
The enemy torpedo planes, after launching their torpedoes, began strafing our gun positions and on my Gun 10 three of our men were wounded and one was killed from these strafing attacks. At about 11:25 a.m., while still under attack from enemy torpedo planes, enemy dive bombers began their attacks and one bomb hit on the flight deck on the port side forward and exploded in the ready ammunition locker for our Marine Gun 6, killing all fourteen members of that gun crew.
[Anderson had served as a loader with Gun #6 until his promotion in February 1942. “Making corporal saved my life,” he said.]
We then received another torpedo hit on the port side, just aft of the first torpedo hit. Then suddenly we lost communication with our gunnery officer in Sky Aft and we immediately went to local control, picking our targets. About that time a large bomb just missed by inches my Gun 10 splinter shield, throwing up a 70 foot high wave of water that washed all of us off [the gun], only the splinter shield saved us from being washed overboard. We quickly regained our positions and resumed firing….
We could feel the vibrations of many near bomb hits…. We did receive a bomb hit in a port side boat pocket [converted to hold 20mm antiaircraft guns] and one bomb hit and exploded in the aft end of our stack, killing a number of men manning the .50 caliber machine guns on platforms…. This bomb also broke the siren pull cord and jammed the siren valve open, adding to the deafening noise of combat.
The enemy attack ended at about 11:39 a.m…. Immediately after receiving the order to stop firing we began cleaning up our gun battery and caring for the killed and wounded. It was then I found my buddy T. D. Germany, who was a loader on Gun #8, had been shot in the back by a strafing enemy torpedo plane. He was lying on the deck behind Gun #8 with a corpsman working on him. I kneeled down and spoke to T. D. who told me he was not going to make it and for me to take my pipe which I had loaned him to break in for me. At first I resisted but he insisted…. The last I saw of T. D. was when they took his body to the flight deck to put with those that had been killed.
Corporal Vincent’s crew continued manning their battery in case of any additional attacks, though when they noticed their ammunition was growing “dangerously hot” from fires belowdecks, they threw many of the shells over the side. He remarked on the calmness of the crew as the abandon ship order was passed.
It was understood that our Marine Guard would be the last division to abandon the ship. The men did not seem eager to leave…. Some men went to the Service Store on the port side aft and rescued the ice cream, which they put in their helmets and shared with others…. The bodies of the dead had been moved to the aft end of the flight deck and covered with tarps.
At about 5:50 p.m. Captain Sherman came over to our Marine Gun Battery Four and relieved us of our duty and ordered us to abandon ship. At this point our First Sergeant Payton said, “Men, let’s give three cheers for the Captain,” and we did….
Anderson went down a line into the warm sea and swam out to a life raft, where he plucked a pilot and three sailors out of the water. He was picked up by the USS Dewey and promptly put back to work on one of the destroyer’s 5″ gun mounts. The survivors were taken to Noumea, where Anderson was reunited with his buddy T. D. Germany, who was recovering from his wounds in the hospital. Germany had been left for dead on the flight deck, but two sailors saw his hand move, and carried him over the side to a waiting destroyer. (Anderson presented Germany with the pipe at a 1981 reunion.)
Eighteen Lexington Marines went down with their ship, and are officially classified as unaccounted for.
Mr. Anderson kindly provided the following roster of the Marine detachment, along with their battle stations on the day of the Coral Sea battle. Sadly, he passed away in December 2017, joining his shipmates at long last. Semper Fi.
If you have pictures of Lexington Marines to share, please contact the webmaster.
Battery Officer Captain Ralph L. Houser Survived
Asst. Battery Officer
Marine Gunner James E. Hunt Wounded in action
Gun captain Sergeant Albert J. Hafner Survived
Sergeant Harold L. Carmichael Survived
Gun captain Corporal Oliver D. Nicholson Died of wounds 8 May 1942.
Note: Post updated to include PFC Murray, announced 20 June.
Today, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency today released the news that two more Marines killed in action at Tarawa have been accounted for.
Private Archie William Newell…
…age twenty-two and raised in Lemmon, South Dakota, was a recon guide with Company C, Second Tank Battalion. Guides were responsible, in part, for searching out safe passage for tanks – a dangerous job that required them to be on foot, walking ahead of the vehicle and showing the way with signal flags. PFC Melvin Swango, another guide, recalled:
Our mission was to guide the tanks around the bomb craters on the 800 yards of reef…. There were about twenty of us, all in one Higgins boat. By the time we hit the edge of the reef the machine-gun fire was so intense it was tearing through the bulkhead of the Higgins boat. I would guess that maybe five or six of the men fell to the deck there, either killed or wounded. We just left them in the boat…. They landed us right at the edge of the reef and we started wading in…. Wherever we found a bomb crater, one man would stand there to wave the tanks around it, because if a tank got into that bomb crater the men couldn’t get out. It would sink like a rock.
Machine-gun fire was so intense it was like raindrops in the water all around us. Each time I looked around, there would be fewer of us. A man would simply sink beneath the water, and that would be the end of him. Most of the tanks got in. Then it was up to us to follow the tanks in, if there were any of us left, and replace the tank crews wherever necessary. I only know of three of us who survived.
Quoted in Tanks In Hell: A Marine Corps Tank Company on Tarawa by Oscar E. Gilbert.
Private Newell was reported as missing in action on 20 November 1943; his status was later changed to Killed In Action, but his burial location was not recorded. Jennifer Morrison notes that “left to mourn Archie were his parents, Archie Francis & Thresia May (Stevens) Newell, and younger sisters, Laura Mae and Joyce Elaine. He was preceded in death by his brother, Elmer.”
* * *
Private First Class Ray James…
…age twenty-one and hailing from Sylvarena, Mississippi, served with Company F, Second Battalion, 8th Marines. Ray and his twin brother Roy enlisted together on 3 December 1942, went through boot camp together, and shared a dream of becoming Marine parachutists at Camp Gillespie. Roy dropped out when an injury sent him to the hospital in April 1943; Ray washed out the following month, and briefly attended tank training before landing at the Camp Elliott infantry school. Roy and Ray both sailed for New Zealand as members of replacement battalions (the 22nd and 24th, respectively) and upon arrival were assigned to the Second Marine Division. Roy became an artilleryman with Battery A, 10th Marines, while Ray joined the infantry company F/2/8.
On 20 November 1943, PFC Ray James and twenty-six other Marines of Fox Company lost their lives on the island of Betio, just off Beach Red 3. Roy survived the war, only to die in 1966 at the age of forty-four. Jennifer Morrison notes that “Left to mourn Ray were his parents, Luther Hinds & Sallie Anne (Huff) James, and 11 siblings, Gladys Viola, Joseph Truman, Phillip, Luther Henry, Frances Vida, William, Sally Ruth, Blanche Myrtle, Roy (twin) and Bettie Lou.”
* * * UPDATE
Private First Class George Bernard Murray…
…age twenty and from Oceano, California, was killed in action on 20 November 1943 while serving with Company B, First Battalion, 2nd Marines. He was accounted for on 9 June 2017, and formally announced on 20 June. More information forthcoming.
First and most importantly: the number of unaccounted-for Marines has just decreased by five.
I have a regular (at times, seemingly tireless) commenter who goes by “TF.” I don’t know their real name or their connection to the MIA community, but it obviously runs very deep because it seems that every time a news story breaks, TF knows about it and wastes no time in letting me know. It’s thanks to TF that I can share this great news, too, so TF – wherever you are – salut and thanks!
The five now coming home are from Betio, and all were discovered by History Flight. With one exception, all were killed on the first day of the battle. Most notable among these is Second Lieutenant Ernest A. “Matty” Matthews.
Matthews was born in 1908 – old for a Marine – and prior to joining the service was a reporter for the Dallas Morning News. He enlisted in 1942 and almost immediately was assigned to the intelligence section of the Second Marine Division, seeing his first combat in the tail end of the Guadalcanal campaign. In addition to being an expert rifleman, Matthews was a skilled photographer, even learning to handle a motion camera through a training program coordinated with 20th Century Fox. Matthews earned his field commission in August of 1943, and was well known to the small cadre of correspondents, cameramen, and PR professionals assigned to the division – including Norm Hatch and Robert Sherrod.
One of Matty’s close friends was the well known combat correspondent Jim Lucas. “He was one of the most popular men in our outfit,” said Lucas, himself a seasoned veteran of Guadalcanal. The two lieutenants swapped addresses and letters home on the eve of the invasion, and “joked about the fun they’d have handing them back when it was over.”
As correspondents, Matthews and Lucas were not high on the priority list to land on Betio; as the attack developed and November 20 wore on into bloody uncertainty, they were probably quite glad to be missing the “scoop” of being first on the beach. Loaded as they were with cameras, film, and typewriters, they would have had little chance on the beach – nevertheless, Lucas wrote that their boat tried three times to gain the shore. At around midnight, they finally reached the pier, swearing at “the brilliant moon…. We were perfect targets.”
When we reached the dock snipers in the wrecked ship opened up, but they were firing over our heads. We climbed on the dock and more snipers fired. We hit the deck. We moved down the dock ten feet. Japs on the beach began throwing mortars our way. We hit the deck again. Minutes later, a second mortar hit directly beneath us. I felt the blast and was sprayed with salt water. Someone yelled, “Get to the other side! The next one will be right on!”… Crouched, we sprinted down the pier, silhouetted against the coral. Snipers opened up, and six men fell screaming in agony. We lay like logs.
A sniper or a shell caught Matty on the pier. Lucas later recalled that “a 40mm shell” exploded under their feet, blowing him and Matty into the air. Matthews’ casualty card records his cause of death as a “gunshot wound, abdomen.” It may have been a combination of the two, but regardless, the reporter from Dallas would never write home again. His name would appear in the newspapers, both in Lucas’ account and as a credit for the Oscar-winning documentary With The Marines at Tarawa.
There’s an interesting coda to Lt. Matthews’ story. In 1946, Time magazine published a feature about the process of returning American servicemen from their temporary burial sites overseas. The practice was a matter of some debate at the time, with a portion of the population believing that a fallen fighter should stay on the battlefield, surrounded by his buddies. Time chose to quote “the only war widow who has yet visited her husband’s grave in a Pacific battlefield.” Mrs. Virginia Matthews was a Red Cross worker whose Pacific sojourn led her to Betio.
I wish that all the other families who have loved ones there could share the experience. . . . These men earned the right to lie there. In some places native plants have started to come back and this results in a gorgeous flood of purple morning-glories — it reminds me of a little old cemetery in the U.S. which is mellow and not closely pruned. I can’t think of a righter place for my husband to lie.
Had Mrs. Matthews known that she was visiting only a memorial grave, and not her husband’s actual remains, she might have had a different opinion.
The remaining Marines were all enlisted men, three from the Second Battalion, 8th Marines, and one from the Special Weapons Group, 2nd Defense Battalion. Gunnery Sergeant Sidney Cook, PFC James Whitehurst, and Corporal Walter Critchley were all killed shortly after landing on Betio in the early part of the fighting. PFC Larry Roberts lost his life to rifle fire on November 25, just minutes after his comrade PFC Ben H. Gore died from grenade wounds. (Gore was accounted for and buried late in 2016.)
GySgt. Cook (E/2/8), PFC Whitehurst (E/2/8), Cpl. Critchley (F/2/8) and PFC Roberts (2nd Defense Bn.) IDPF photographs courtesy of an anonymous source.
As of yet, no burial information has been announced for any of the five, but details will be reported here when they’re available. (Unless TF beats me to it, which is pretty likely.) Check the Accounted For page for updates.
Less important to the big picture but extremely satisfying nonetheless: Names and Faces is complete after seven months of work. This is a major revision both in terms of information available and ease of reading; if you remember the old version (and I rather hope you don’t, although a few still show up in Google indexing) they were an absolute mess. I’m quite pleased with how this turned out, and hope it’ll be a useful tool for researchers and family members. Eventually, all the names will link out to individual pages instead of repetitive posts, but that’s going to have to wait a little bit. (For more on why, skip down two paragraphs.)
To avoid the aforementioned repetition, the storytelling aspect of this site is going to revolve more around incidents than individuals. For example: if you scroll back in the posts on this page, you’ll eventually come across a series concerning a platoon that suffered a fatal accident aboard a barge being towed across Sealark Channel. They quickly get repetitive, telling the same story of the event over and over, with only the Marine’s personal details being different. Makes everyone sound too similar, and why tell one story multiple times with lots of repetition when you can tell it one time with greater detail? So, to that end, there is the Last Days page. I’ve divided the cause of every casualty into individual (or group) events, in hopes that will be a more compelling form of storytelling. Check out 1941 for an idea of how they’ll be divided. Personal histories up to the cause of a Marine’s death or disappearance will go under Names and Faces, the war stories will go under Last Days. And presumably I’ll remember to cross link everything correctly. This too is going to have to wait a little bit. (For more on why, skip to the next paragraph.)
If it gets a little quiet around here – quieter than usual, that is; even though I don’t post regularly, I’m making tweaks and edits almost every day – there’s a good reason, and that reason is that I’ve been asked to write a book. Yes. This, as you can imagine, is a very exciting prospect. I’ve been working on the research part of it for several months, and should be delivering a draft by the end of the year (unless you’re the publisher reading this in which case I *will* be delivering a draft by the end of the year, no worries). It’s focused on the peculiar battle that is Guadalcanal and how Marine and Army casualty collection operated (or in some cases failed to operate) when it came to caring for the dead. Although the battle has been well dissected in works by historians far more talented than I, it’s rare to hear about the ones who were left on the field – some of them were household names for their exploits – and this book will hopefully tell some of their stories and maybe lead to additional recovery efforts.
That about covers it from here. I have been meaning to share some of the photos I took from two more repatriation ceremonies (for George Traver and Wilbur Mattern) and hope to get those up soon. At both events I was fortunate enough to meet family members of the returning hero, and every conversation with them reminds me why we do what we do: it’s not so much for the dead as for the living.
Nicholas Cancilla entered the world on December 6, 1924. He was the second son of Frank and Maria (Arcordia) Cancilla, born two years after his brother, Frank Junior.
Though their parents were Italian immigrants, the Cancilla boys grew up all-American in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Nick was particularly outgoing, and was well known to the residents of his Polk Avenue neighborhood. Frank recalled his younger brother as “a jolly fellow [who] didn’t have a care.” He led the busy life of a typical teenager: football practice with the Keith Junior High Rams, out-of-town wrestling meets, and bugle performances with the local American Legion Junior Drum Corps. Sunday mornings were reserved for services at Mount Carmel Catholic Church – but the rest of the weekend was spent at the center of a social circle which, increasingly, included girls attracted to Nick’s charming personality and athletic stature.
Nick was still a student when the news of Pearl Harbor reached Altoona. Young men scrambled to enlist; Frank Junior thought about the Navy, and Frank Senior might have dusted off the cavalryman’s uniform he wore in 1917. Neither of these paths appealed to young Nick. “He was going to be a glorified Marine,” remembered Frank. So “gung ho” was Nick that he dropped out of school – over his parents’ protests – and walked into the Pittsburgh recruiting station on October 7, 1942. Two days later, he was at Parris Island. His youth, strength, and enthusiasm would serve him well in the months to come.
After a mere six weeks of boot training, Private Cancilla was presented with the coveted Eagle, Globe and Anchor insignia of a US Marine. Evidently mechanically minded, he learned the job of a motor vehicle operator at New River, North Carolina, earning his operator’s license and the single stripe of a private first class into the bargain. He was shipped overseas to join the veteran Second Marine Division, where his specialized training landed him in motor transport. Driving a heavy truck around New Zealand was hardly the place for a “gung ho” eighteen year old Cancilla, and after only a month of this duty he managed the unusual feat of securing a transfer to a rifle outfit: Baker Company, First Battalion, Second Marines.
For the next two months, Cancilla learned the ways of amphibious combat alongside new replacements and veterans of Tulagi and Guadalcanal. How to climb down a net into a bobbing landing craft, how to get off the beach and find one’s objective, and how to fight the Japanese and win. Nick must have heard the veterans’ stories with a mix of wonder, apprehension, and excitement as he trained and waited for his chance to follow in their footsteps.
On 12 November 1942, Frank and Maria received a letter from Nick. His unit was on the move, he said, but they weren’t to worry about him – he was well, in good spirits, and had even heard from Frank Junior, now in the Navy. Ten days later, the Altoona Tribune blared “YANKS INVADE JAP ISLANDS” and credited the Second Marine Division. It was the first time the Cancilla family heard the word “Tarawa.” In the weeks that followed, the full extent of Marine casualties gradually became known – and there was no further word from Nick.
The telegram arrived at 1525 Polk Avenue in January 1944. A mimeographed message informed Frank and Maria that their son, Private First Class Nicholas John Cancilla, had been killed in action. Much later, they would learn he had died at Tarawa on November 20, 1943. The family and community mourned their loss: a solemn mass was said, a commemorative plaque was inscribed, and a memorial headstone emplaced at Calvary Cemetery. Frank Junior named his first son Nicholas. And, in accordance with Maria’s wishes, Nick Cancilla remained where he fell for sixty-eight years.
In June of 2011, a non-governmental organization named History Flight located a long-forgotten burial site on Betio – a site they believed to contain the remains of several Marines killed in action. The following year, JPAC (now DPAA) excavated the site and recovered three sets of remains.
Two years later, Frank Cancilla’s phone rang. A genealogist working on behalf of the United States Marine Corps informed him that one set of remains located on Betio might belong to Nicholas. Although initially hesitant – still mindful of his mother’s wishes long ago – Mr. Cancilla submitted a DNA sample, hoping it would help to bring his little brother home. Tragically, Frank Cancilla did not live to hear the news that “mitochondrial DNA analysis, which matched a brother, as well as circumstantial evidence and laboratory analysis, to include dental comparisons and anthropological analysis” confirmed the identity of Nicholas Cancilla in October 2016.
On November 7, 2016, Nick Cancilla will be laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery with full military honors – reunited with his parents, big brother Frank, and his nephew and namesake Nicholas, killed in action in Vietnam. He is survived by his niece, Darlene Johnson and her husband, Frank, of Midlothian, Va.; great-nephew, Travis; great-niece, Marissa, and his brother’s widow, Mary (Cannamucio) Cancilla.
Public reinterment services for Nicholas Cancilla will take place at:
2417 Pleasant Valley Blvd, Altoona PA 16602
The DPAA has just announced the positive identification of Field Music 1c Warren Gordon Nelson – a member of Company E, Second Battalion, 8th Marines, who until today was listed as missing from the battle of Tarawa.
Nelson, who hailed from Lakota, North Dakota, was just twenty years old when he died on Betio, Tarawa atoll, on 20 November 1943. Buried in the field with several of his comrades, Nelson’s remains were undiscovered by subsequent expeditions to return the remains of the dead to the United States. The grave was pinpointed and excavated by a History Flight team in 2015.
Appropriately, this announcement comes on the very day that Sgt. Fae Verlin Moore, another Marine from E/2/8, will be buried in his hometown of Chadron, NE. (There’s an excellent site dedicated to Sgt. Moore at Return to Beaver Valley, which is highly recommended.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Six days later, George Treptow sat down to write a letter to his younger brother.
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.
George Treptow’s last letter home, written on Guadalcanal.
The letter was signed and dated October 1 – the day before Treptow’s final flight.
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.
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. 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.
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. As they were behind enemy lines, the Marines torched the aircraft to destroy its sensitive IFF equipment, and buried Kendrick in the area.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com
Thanks to Katie Wahrhaftig and Bill Treptow for providing personal photos and documents for this article.
 John Lundstrom, The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 295.  Ibid., 295-297.  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.  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.  Muster roll of VMF-223 gives the location as “5 miles east and 2 miles south of Guadalcanal airdrome.”  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.  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.  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.  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.”
Major news from Hawaii last night: the DPAA has begun the process of exhuming the remains of 94 servicemen killed in the battle of Tarawa.
Unlike History Flight’s recent discoveries on Betio itself, these 94 are much closer to home. Located by Army graves registration personnel in the late 1940s, each man was subsequently labeled “unidentifiable” after efforts in the field failed to disclose their identities. They were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (the “Punchbowl”) under stones marked “Unknown.”
Yesterday, the first of the 94 was disinterred and transported to the DPAA’s lab – where, hopefully, the first of 94 new identifications will be made, and the first of 94 families will have the remains of their soldier, sailor, or Marine returned after more than seven decades.
He’s twenty-one years old in this picture. Just about a year ago, he was a student at Montana State College in Bozeman; a leading scholar and member of Phi Kappa Phi. Not bad for a kid from Moccasin, a tiny community five avenues wide and two roads deep.
Graduation at Montana State College, Boseman, in 1941.
Thompson managed the football team; he was “Ready and willing to do anything to help…. A lad who was constantly putting forth everything for the betterment of the team.”
At Montana State as a fraternity brother, graduate, and (at center) manager of the football team. “Ready and willing to do anything to help…. A lad who was constantly putting forth everything for the betterment of the team.”
He’s smiling extra wide today, probably because those wings are a new addition to his forest green uniform. They were earned in rigorous training at Pensacola, Florida; Second Lieutenant Thompson is a fully qualified fighter pilot in the United States Marine Corps. The picture was likely taken in San Diego in May or June of 1942, while he awaited assignment to a squadron.
Life moved very fast for Gordon Thompson. On 5 July 1942, he became a “Bengal” – a member of the brand-new VMF-224 in Barber’s Point, Hawaii. He spent the following month learning the peculiarities of the F4F Wildcat as his squadron ferried planes throughout the Territory of Hawaii. In August, the Bengals packed their bags and shipped out to the Pacific. Their destination was Guadalcanal: an island rapidly growing famous for all the wrong reasons. These brand new pilots would bolster the “Cactus Air Force” as they fought against some of the toughest fliers produced by Imperial Japan.
Gordon Thompson arrived at Henderson Field on 30 August, just in time to duck the flying shrapnel sent up by the daily “Tojo Time” raid. He had less than twenty-four hours to acclimatize himself to his new surroundings. The heat was debilitating, the planes were decrepit, but the pilots who flew with the Cactus Air Force were anything but dispirited. Thompson probably bedded down that night filled with equal parts excitement and fear. The next day, he was slated to fly his first combat mission.
Gordon Thompson vanished on his very first mission.
He was with the squadron for so little time that he is all but forgotten by the historians of Guadalcanal. His name appears in few publications; he is actually misidentified in a photograph appearing in a well-known source.
It is believed that he succumbed to a routine maintenance problem – a faulty oxygen system. Amerine and Bryans had them, too. Amerine blacked out in midair but recovered in time to bail out; Bryans was jumped by Zeros and shot down. Thompson simply “failed to return.” He vanished into the jungle or into the sea, as completely as if he had never been born, with no known eyewitnesses to see him fall.
To this day, no trace of Gordon Eugene Thompson or his plane, F4F-4 02104, have been found.
And on this day, 74 years after he vanished, we remember him.
Photograph courtesy of Lt. Thompson’s nephew, Gordon Thompson.
The DPAA has announced the identification of three more Marines MIA since the battle of Tarawa.
Private Frank Francis Penna of Canistota, New York, served with Company E, Second Battalion, 8th Marines. He was killed in action on November 20, 1943, and was buried in the fifth grave of the 8th Marines Cemetery #2. Penna’s remains were found in the History Flight excavation of 2015. Read the press release.
Nearby layPFC Ronald William Vosmer of Denver, CO. Vosmer also served with E/2/8, and like Frank Penna lost his life on November 20, 1943. He was buried a few feet from Penna in Grave #18 of the 8th Marines Cemetery. Read the press release.
Private Emmett Leonard Kines of Grafton, WV served with Company F, Second Battalion, 8th Marines. Although he served in the same battalion as Vosmer and Penna, and lost his life on the same day, Private Kines was reportedly buried in the East Division Cemetery. Read the press release.
Further details about the return and reburial of these three Marines will be announced in due time.
Welcome home and Semper Fi.
One day, the war ended. And Jack Prince didn’t come home.
He didn’t walk through the door of 88-11 247th Street as he might have done in 1945, with a row of ribbons on a forest-green uniform coat telling a silent story of all he’d seen and done. He never saw his hometown with a grown man’s eyes; eighteen when he left, he’d have been twenty-one in ‘45, old enough to amble down to the local VFW post – which would be named, no doubt, for another dead Bellerose boy – and share a beer or something stronger with other grown men who knew what he had been through without having to ask. He didn’t get to thank Grace for the gift and show her how he’d worn it every day, until he could put it in a jewelry box or a foot locker for the day his kids (maybe their kids) found it and asked what it was.
Jack didn’t come home with scars, on crutches, missing an eye or an arm, hair prematurely graying, prone to bouts of rage, drinking, depression, or silence. And he didn’t come home with an escort, carried into the living room by four somber Marines, laid in state for friends and family who knew him as he was to say goodbye, to go with him to a cemetery and leave flowers on Memorial Day.
Jack just didn’t come home.
One year to the day after he left Bellerose to enlist, Jack was buried on Betio with forty other men, Grace’s gift on his wrist, a bullet in his body, and a stick driven into the ground by his head, marking the resting place of
John F Prince 502466
Nov 20 1943
and there he stayed as the marker moved, the cemetery vanished, the cases closed and the questions remained. Killed in action. Body not recovered. Lost at sea, his family and friends were told, and gradually they came to believe and accept the story.
Until seven decades later, when the story changed.