The Battle for Okinawa & The Team of 19-Year-Old Phillip VonVille and His F4U-1D
By Bob DeLay, reprinted from the Society of Naval Aviatorís "Flight Plan", Columbus, Ohio used here by written permission of Philip VonVille.
Helldiver Philip VonVille was there with VMF-123 picking off enemy planes and Kamikazes. Phil flew the F4U-1D Corsair which was the pride of this 19 year old Marine. Phil had 3 kills and had only been out of Pensacola and the SNJs five months. He graduated in the top ten of his class and was able to choose the Marine Corps, as had been his dream. He was stationed at Quantico before heading to the Pacific.
Phil grew up on Grove Street in Columbus and attended high school at nearby Aquinas High.
After the Battle of Leyte, the Japanese struggled to regroup and rebuild their forces to defend the homeland. Its surviving forces from the Philippines moved to Formosa and land based aircraft on Japan and nearby islands organized to smash any invasion fleet.
Round trip bombing raids on Japan by B-29s required 2,800-mile flights. ADM Raymond Spruance had drawn up a plan in mid 1944 to seize Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the Ryukyu chain in order to place fighter escort and B-29s on Japanís front gate.
In the Pacific Phil was assigned to the carrier Bennington (CV-20) which was the only carrier never to be hit during World War II. From the Philippines he worked his way north participating in many battles including Iwo Jima and making seven strikes on mainland Japan prior to Okinawa.
The month long conquest of Iwo Jima was launched on 19 February 1945. It was a bloody, hard-fought victory. The next target was the 60-mile long, mountainous island of Okinawa, which lay astride Japanís lines of communication with Formosa and all points south.
As Naval Aviators from many carriers began to soften up Japanese Naval Land based airfields on Kyushu, the desperate acts of the Kamikaze menace began to unfold, especially as the carrier task forces moved towards the Ryukyu island chain.
Admiral Takijiro Onishi had initiated the concept of the Kamikaze in the Philippines, realizing it was the only way to stop invading fleets. At Kyushu nearly 4,000 planes (including Kamikaze) were assembled to protect the islands of Japan from invasion.
The escort carrier Bismark Sea was hit and sunk by suicide aircraft from Kyushu on 21 February 1945, the same day the Saratoga was hit by five Kamikaze Zeros in the space of three minutes.
Task Force 58 launched aircraft to hit Kyushu on 19 March 1945, one day after the Yorktown was hit by Judy dive-bombers. Again counter attacks by Kamikaze hit the USS Franklin and the USS Wasp was hit by a bomb.
Pre-invasion battles with Task Force 58 pilots claimed destruction of 528 enemy aircraft. Fleet defensive tactics were strengthened.
Thanks to these pilots the actual invasion of Okinawa on 1 April 1945 was nearly uncontested as 50,000 troops crossed the invasion beaches.
On the afternoon of 6 April 1945, Kikisui (Floating Chrysanthemum) was put into effect with 900 planes taking part (a third were Kamikaze). The battle for Okinawa was shaping up to be one hell of a bloody battle. During a period of one hour and ten minutes, the destroyer USS Laffey was attacked by 22 Kamikaze and survived six hits.
During the month and a half battle prior to the 20th of May, Phil had participated in sortie after sortie providing ground support and air cover for the task force as wave after wave of Kamikaze attacks came at the fleet.
20 May 1945- Phil describes how that day changed his life: "We were flying support for ground forces. The island had hundreds of deep coral caves that repeated shelling and bombings did nothing to. The Japanese would go to the rear of those caves when we hit, wait it out, then come back ready to fight". Phil said, "Napalm attacks were the only way to hurt them. We would fly our Corsairs at water level, then pull up at the bottom of the cliffs dropping our napalm. When it hit it would spray up into the cave openings, and it burned so hot it sucked the oxygen out of the air and suffocated them. It didnít even have to hit the enemy directly-just the heat was enough."
"On the last Thursday of May, 1945 I was preparing to attack the cliffs with my group. Flying at 75 feet off the deck I had just dropped my napalm when I took ground antiaircraft hits on the left inboard part of my wing. Metal flew through the cockpit from either the original rounds or from parts of my plane. They tore off my right kneecap and laid my head open real bad". He later found a jagged piece of metal stuck in his skull, which knocked him unconscious.
"I regained consciousness at 6,000 feet. Thankfully I was climbing when I was hit. The cockpit was the first thing I had to take care of since it was filled with smoke. I opened it and was able to get my bearings. At 8,000 feet, I made a 180-degree turn and emptied my excess ammo as I headed back toward the Bennington. When I told them my condition they said ditch the plane or bail out but I thought I could make it".
"They radioed me and told me to bail out and said they would pick me up as soon as they could. The scariest part of the whole ordeal was thinking about the shark-filled waters that surrounded those islands. Iím afraid of sharks to begin with, and on top of that I was bleeding badly. My right leg had my belt tied around it so I wouldnít bleed to death and I didnít know how badly my head was wounded. All I could think about was bleeding into the sea with sharks heading for me. Looking down where my foot rested on the rails I could see my right boot was full of blood".
Phil had only been out of school nine months and the stories about sharks were very fresh in his memory.
"I called for the ship again and asked if I could make one attempt at landing on the carrier. Since I wouldnít be interfering with the group that was still attacking the island, they agreed. I flew to the ship in a plane more severely damaged than I had thought. The wheels wouldnít even go down, but Number 18 made its landing and I skidded to a stop on the deck".
Phil was struggling to maintain consciousness from excessive blood loss. He had always prided himself in his flying by the clock and compass. "I did my own calculations even when following the CO". By Philís calculations he just made it to the Bennington as his fuel was depleted. He later learned that he only cleared the end of the carrier by six feet. Wheels up, nearly unconscious, one cylinder through the cowl at touch down, he hooked the number 3 wire.
Phil continues, "The medics pulled me from the cockpit. Only the rudder and elevator were salvaged before they pushed my plane over the side to clear the deck for the incoming strike force. I had over 1,200 hours on Number 18 and we went through three engines before I lost her".
At 19 years old, Phil said the toughest thing to adjust to was the loss of all body hair due to the ordeal. It was never to grow back.
By 22 June 1945 the last Kikisui attack was made as the land battle was effectively over. Defending Hellcats shot down 29 of 44 attackers and scattered the others.
Casualties in the Okinawa fighting were higher than any other Pacific campaign-U.S. Navy deaths were at 4,907, exceeding the number of U.S. Navy wounded of 4,824. The American and British lost 38 ships, with 368 damaged and a loss of 763 aircraft.
But the Japanese had lost 11,000 men, 16 ships and a staggering total of 7,800 aircraft, plus the island of Okinawa itself, just one hour from Kyushu, Japan. Let it be well remembered in the national conscience that America was saved by many such men as 19-year-old 1st Lt Phillip VonVille.
Editorís Note: Phil finally had the opportunity to ride in a Corsair again after 50 years. While visiting a flying museum, he convinced one of the guys to sit on his lap in order to take him up. "The fellow didnít take to that idea at first" said Phil.
Once they were airborne the pilot allowed Phil to take the stick and eventually he brought her into that old familiar Corsair carrier approach only to release control of the stick at the last minute.
I doubt there was ever a flyer who enjoyed that one last time in the cockpit more than Phillip VonVille.
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