Earl Garner, my turret gunner, shouted, "We're on fire!" I hauled back on the stick to gain altitude, then picked up the mike and shouted over the intercom: "Bail Out!"
At about 1000 feet I opened the hatch, sprang my safety belt and started to climb out of the cockpit. I thought my crew had already bailed out. Fortunately, in the confusion as I was preparing to jump, I forgot to pull the radio cord from my helmet. Consequently, I heard a call from Garner: "Don't jump, don't jump! Jackson's popped his chute in the plane and he can't get out!" It seemed that my belly-gunner, C. P. Jackson, in his excitement, had accidentally pulled his ripcord inside the belly of the TBF and the spring-loaded silk was released. He tried several times to bundle the slippery silk in his arms and work his way through the narrow door, but no such luck--he was trapped.
As I settled back into the cockpit, I picked up the mike and gave instructions to Jackson and Garner to fasten their safety belts and prepare for a crash landing. Our plane was still over the shipping lanes not far from the burning tanker.
With no way to land on that rough, rocky shore of Norway, I chose to make a water landing. I started letting down toward one of the small islands. Then I realized our plane was the lone target on concentrated A/A fire. It got hotter as we lost altitude. I began to think we would never make it all the way to the water before being shot down so I shoved the throttle forward and headed toward the open sea, taking some violent evasive action.
About 2 miles out I started climbing to gain altitude. The plane was still laying down a stream of smoke. I checked the cockpit instruments expecting to see several red warning lights, but there were none! Oil pressure, OK; cylinder head temperature, OK; tachometer and throttle, working. I was carrying about 30 inches of mercury. What a relief!
Now, some quick planning. I seriously considered going to Sweden--a neutral country closer than the carrier, but one look at the rough mountains with no place to land, plus the danger of A/A fire, soon convinced that a try for the USS Ranger was my best bet. I pulled the plotting board out of the instrument plane and made a rough calculation to obtain a heading for the task force.
A few minutes later I spotted several torpedo planes and joined them in formation. By now radio silence was broken by various distress calls, but I still didn't use the mike. I signaled to one of the pilots and pointed to my engine. He flew around Four-Tare-Nine and gave me the thumbs-up signal. As the plane continued to smoke, I wondered how the engine could still run. I watched the instruments carefully as I concentrated on the rest of the 100-mile flight over the cold North Atlantic. A water landing now offered little chance of survival.
When I finally spotted the task force, the USS Ranger, alerted to the approach of returning planes, had started turning into the wind. Breaking away from the other planes, I headed straight for the carrier. My canopy was completely covered with oil so visibility was limited. I dropped the wheels and tail hook and opened the flaps. The oil pressure was about gone, but the hydraulic system seemed to be functioning.
My first pass over the carrier was almost crosswise to the flight deck. The ship was still heeled over from its turn into the wind. Looking out the side of the cockpit, I spotted the signal officer giving me an emphatic wave-off. As I began my second attempt I knew I could not make a standard approach, nor could I follow the signal officer's hand directions through the oil-covered canopy.
But, with some visibility out the right side of the cockpit, I placed the ship's island about where it should be to line up with the flight deck, then chopped the throttle, pulled the stick into my lap to stall the plane, and hoped for the best.
Luckily, my tail hook caught the wire just as our plane hit the barrier and the right wing hit the ship's island. As the plane crashed, I released my safety harness and jumped out onto the wing. Plane handlers were spraying the smoking plane as I slid off the wing and ran forward on the flight deck. My crew escaped at the same time.
As we ran toward the hatch that led to the ready room, the flight deck officer stepped quickly into my path, grabbed the front of my flight suit and shouted: "You son of a bitch! You landed on a wave-off and fouled up the flight deck. Now, how the hell am I going to get the other planes aboard?"
I shook the air officer's hand loose from my flight suit and went on down to the ready room knowing I might face a court-martial. To land on a wave-off was a major offense.
A few minutes later we were informed that the flight deck was cleared and other returning planes were landing. I told my story, but no one gave me any assurance that I would not receive a reprimand. I have the Skipper to thank for helping me out of an embarrassing situation, and later recommending me for the Air Medal. My initiation as a boot ensign in Torpedo 4 was over.
Back aboard the ship, reports were coming in on the results of our strikes. The USS Ranger logbook shows the following 7 persons from Air Group 4 "missing-in-action."
- Lt(jg) John H. Palmer with crewmen Joseph L. Zalom, ART/c and Reginald H. Miller, AMM/c (TBF 4T4)
- Lt(jg) Sumner R. Davis with his turret gunner D. W. McCarley, ARM2/c (SBD #15)
- Lt(jg) Clyde A. Tucker, Jr. with his turret gunner Stephen D. Bakran, ARM2/c (SBD #19)
Palmer, Zalom, and Miller (TBF #4T4)
As the unofficial historian for Torpedo 4 after the war, I tried to find out what eventually happened to Lt(jg) Palmer. We all knew that his 2 crew members, Zalom and Miller, went down with the plane. Finally, in November, 1988, I learned that former P-51 pilot Richard P. Lucas was in the same German prison camp with Palmer (Stalag Luft Three). He gave me a lead that resulted in a reunion after 46 years. A part of Palmer's version of OPERATION LEADER follows:
"I must have caught a shell right through the back of the plane; it went under me and into the engine, because it caught fire. I think it must have killed Zalom and Miller. I called them on the intercom, trying to get them out but received no answer, so I jumped.
After I hit the water and got loose from my parachute, I swam to shore and walked into this antiaircraft station. I had hailed some fisherman, hoping to get picked up, but had no luck.
After a week in Oslo, the Germans transferred me to Frankfurt for a week of interrogation on bread and water and then to Stalag Luft Three. I was the only Navy guy in this camp and I found people ignoring me completely. They thought I was a German plant because nobody could identify me for about 2 weeks. They showed me a German newspaper that said the USS Ranger had been sunk. Of course, I told them that I was off the Ranger, and they didn't believe me. They believed the newspaper."
Lt(jg) Palmer was released from Stalag Luft Three after the war but he never returned to Norway.
Several years after the war, I started corresponding with some former members of the Norwegian Air Force who were interested in OPERATION LEADER. One of these individuals was Steinbjørn Mentzoni. As a 9-year old boy, he watched the attack from the village of Fagervika, Norway: Photo: Steinbjørn Mentzoni at Age 10.
"I saw smoke and saw the plane going down, but it went behind a mountain; so I could not see where it hit the water. When I was growing up and began reading newspapers and books about the Second World War, I always remembered the plane I saw and battle with the German flak guns… In my hometown, we are very conscious of that battle. We had 1,200 Norwegian people on this island and 3,000 German soldiers. They had guns, we didn't have anything. They took everything, including the radios, so we couldn't listen to the radio from England. They came to some of our homes and said, `Move out--We take over!´
While I was growing up, I tried to find out the real story of the battle and about the plane and pilot. I started talking to the fishermen of Fagervika. They told me where the plane was because they had lost fishing nets in the area. I have a friend in the Norwegian Navy because I was a reserve officer in the Norwegian Air Force at the time. I tried to get help from the Navy… One morning, a captain from the Navy headquarters told me I could go aboard a special ship… (and that) they would find the plane because they knew the area. After about an hour, we hit the target."
Underwater photographs showing the skeleton of the Avenger were taken in 1987. Parts of the plane were salvaged by the Norwegian team. On November 24, 1989, my wife Jean and I presented a plaque prepared by Mentzoni to John Palmer and his wife as they came through Las Cruces, New Mexico--our first meeting in 46 years. The plaque contained mounted parts of John's plane salvaged from the wreckage. One blade of the propeller from Palmer's plane became a base for a memorial in Fagervika, Norway, and one blade was a part of a ceremony held at the Naval Air Museum in Pensacola, Florida. Palmer and his son attended the Pensacola ceremony on October 6, 1990. Photo: Steinbjørn Mentzoni with Recovered Popeller Blade.
On October 4, 1987, 44 years after the strike, a ceremony organized by Mentzoni was held in Fagervika, Norway to dedicate a memorial to Zalom and Miller, Palmer's crewmen who lost their lives during OPERATION LEADER. Gunnar Bernstein, one of the Norwegians present at the ceremony, said:
"Those of us in Fagervika who witnessed the battle that raged more or less on our doorstep for one short, hectic hour that afternoon 44 years ago came to look upon the presence of the American aircraft as a reaching out of hands from the other side of the vast ocean--a reaching out of hands from brothers--a gesture which in itself bore promise of a new dawn, a new future for our beloved Norway."
Davis and McCarley (SBD #15)
Lt(jg) Sumner Davis ditched his damaged plane and he and his gunner, D. W. McCarley launched a life raft. The raft was spotted by Norwegians Odd Karlsen and his Father, who were fishing nearby. They took Davis and McCarley to their home. Odd Karlsen stated, "The Germans had seen the crash and had lookouts almost everywhere--and also the fact that we were on small islands away from the mainland--there was little we could do." Germans soon located the Americans and took them as prisoners of war.
Sumner Davis was placed by the Germans in solitary confinement in Oslo, Norway for 10 days, then transferred to Stalag Luft One. I recorded his experience:
"I was not allowed to take a shower or change clothes for 5 weeks. No mail or Red Cross supplies reached me for about 6 months. I remained a POW for 19½ months in Stalag Luft One, losing 40 pounds while in prison."
When Odd Karlsen met Sumner Davis as he arrived at the Bodø airport 50 years after OPERATION LEADER, they embraced and Sumner Davis said, "You saved my life. I will never forget that."
Tucker and Bakran (SBD #19)
The second Douglas dive bomber from Air Group 4 to be shot down during the strike was SBD #19, piloted by Lt(jg) C. A. Tucker with ARM2/c S. D. Bakran as gunner. Photo: SBD#19 Strikes the Water. There were no survivors from this crash.
SBD #19 was located by the Norwegians in 1990, but it was not until 1993 that parts of the wreckage were salvaged and occupants identified. The ceremony held in Bodø on October 4, 1993 was designed by the Norwegians as a tribute to the lost airmen, Clyde A. Tucker and Stephen D. Bakran. A special stamp and first-day cover were issued by Norway at the time and parts of the American dive bomber are on display in the city of Bodø. Photo: First-Day Cover Honoring Air Group 4 Airmen.
A very impressive sculpture was placed in the Bodø airport in honor of the lost airmen. The sculpture was the creation of artist Laila Lorentzen. She commented at the dedication:
"Many here in the North have seen boats sail away that never returned.
Our women and children know what it feels like for fathers and sons not to come home again.
And we know what it means to miss the comfort of a marked grave.
It was the women, the survivors, those who must go on with the problem of daily life that provided the main inspiration for my memorial plaque."
Commander Torolf Rein, Chief of National Defense for Norway, summarized the 50th anniversary ceremonies for OPERATION LEADER by stating:
"In wartime if is always the best and the bravest that are sacrificed. They gave their lives for our freedom."
For a report on a second visit to Norway by members of Air Group 4, see USS Ranger Veterans Return to Norway.