The Battle of Midway Roundtable
In the Rear Seat at Midway and Santa Cruz
by ATC Richard T. Woodson, USN-Ret
Edited by Ron Russell
Born Into a Navy Family
I was born on Nov. 24, 1920 in Paterson, NJ to Russell M. and Eileen Nellie (neé Ring) Woodson. My father was a chief radioman in the U.S. Navy. We moved to Philadelphia in 1924, but my father was soon transferred to Guam in the Marianas Islands. After he found housing for us (a corrugated iron shack in Merico), my mother, older sister, and I took the train cross-country to San Francisco, got aboard the USS Gold Star and sailed to Guam. After a few months at Merico, my dad found a much nicer residence for us in Agaña.
We left Guam in February 1927 and came back on the USS Henderson through the Panama Canal. We arrived a month later in New York City where there was approximately two feet of snow at the time. We then went to Fire Island on Long Island, which had a lifeguard station with high-speed boats to get the rum runners, a lighthouse station and its crew, and a USN radio direction finder’s station where my dad was in charge. Due to the fact there was no school there, he requested a humanitarian transfer and we ended up in Amagansett, Long Island, NY. I started first grade there in 1927.
Late in 1928 my father was transferred to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to a destroyer and we moved to Philadelphia where I attended St. Agatha’s School. My dad retired from the Navy in 1930 and we moved to Pittsburgh, then Cleveland, Ohio; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Miles City, Montana; and finally to Denver, Colorado where I finished my education in 1939 at East Denver High School.
I joined the National Guard while still in school. While in the Guard, I applied for Annapolis but was not accepted. In December 1939 I joined the Navy (without being discharged from the National Guard) and went to boot camp at San Diego. My friend Doan Watson reported at the National Guard roll call that I had joined the Navy. After boot camp I went to aviation radio school on North Island NAS, and graduated in June 1940, I believe. I went aboard the USS Manley, DD-74, for transfer to the Panama Canal Zone. I arrived at Cocosolo about one and a half weeks later and was assigned to a PBY squadron, VP-32, in Panama.
I stayed with VP-32 until August 1941 when I was assigned to the commissioning of the USS Hornet Air Group. I was posted to VS-8, a dive bomber squadron. We flew SBC4s. We had our shakedown cruise in the Caribbean, went back to Norfolk (we were there on December 7, 1941) and finally went to San Diego around March 1942 where we changed our SBC4s to used SBD3s. We went from San Diego to San Francisco where we picked up Jimmy Doolittle and his 16 B25s and sailed for Tokyo. We launched the B25s for their raid on Japan on April 18, 1942 and returned to Pearl Harbor.
Four Sorties at Midway
We went to Midway. I flew four times during the battle: the morning of June 4th with pilot Don Kirkpatrick, the evening of the 4th with Al Woods (his rear seat man was missing so I volunteered to fly), and the evening of the 5th and the morning flight of the 6th with Kirkpatrick. We made attacks at all times except the morning of June 4th, which was an abortion for Hornet air group. We never found the Japanese on that run. Torpedo Squadron 8 found the Japanese, however, but they were all shot down with one survivor, George Gay. My friend Ronnie Fisher was killed in that raid. I wrote to a girl he had been corresponding with to let her
know about Ronnie. We continued writing to each other and she later became my wife.
I was injured at Midway, but not seriously. After we landed I mentioned to a friend that it really hurts when you wear your helmet for a long time. He asked, “what’s all that blood?” I took my helmet off and he got some pliers and pulled a half-inch piece of shrapnel from under my left ear. I didn’t know about Purple Hearts and knew there was another flight that day that I didn’t want to miss, so I never reported that injury.
Visiting the Cannibals
We returned to Pearl Harbor and then left for the South Pacific and the Coral Sea. We were to be joined by the Saratoga approximately the end of August, but it was hit by a torpedo. My pilot, Kirkpatrick, and I saw the oil slick while on the lookout for Japanese submarines. The Saratoga had a 20 by 26 foot hole in its starboard bow and was returned to the states.
The Wasp then joined us and on September 15th was hit by torpedoes and caught fire. Ten of our planes took off from the Hornet and flew to Espiritu Santo so the Wasp’s planes could land aboard. Five dive bombers were sent ahead of the ship on a search mission for Japanese subs and were then to go on to Espiritu Santo. Five of us in SBDs ran out of fuel and ditched near Pentecost Island in the New Hebrides. One pilot, Tipas, didn’t have a radioman since he had about five cases of liquor in his back seat to possibly sell on the island. He took a different route and crashed on another island in the area.
We spent about four days on the island and were finally rescued by PBYs. All of the islands were inhabited by cannibals—friendly, we hoped. We got back aboard the Hornet and our next mission was on October 5th when we (four fighters and 12 to 14 dive bombers) attacked Rekata Bay in the morning and Guadalcanal later that day. Rekata Bay was a seaplane base that we helped destroy.
Life and Death in the Santa Cruz Islands
On October 15, 1942 we hit Bougainville in an early morning raid, and on October 26th we fought at the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in the Solomons campaign. As Kirkpatrick and I pulled out of our dive after dropping our bomb, we found we were joined by four Japanese Zeros, two starboard and one to port several hundred yards away, plus one behind and below only about 25 yards away. We were 50 feet above the water and making evasive moves, but we were shot in the tip of the wing and rudder. The Zero behind and below us shot me with a 20 mm. cannon shell that came up between my feet and destroyed my radio transmitter and another that went through my left knee and left side, taking out part of my cockpit. That shot slewed me around which put my guns toward the port
side of our plane. I shot his wing off and watched him crash. We were so close that, if he had lived, I could have recognized him if I saw him on the street. He was my third unconfirmed kill that day.
We made it back aboard the Enterprise since the Hornet had been sunk. We were the next to last plane able to land on the Enterprise. A crewmember was heard to say, “look, that plane’s bleeding!” It was from my wounds. Our plane was so damaged that it was shoved over the side.
I had surgery two days later. When we pulled into Noumea, New Caledonia, I was transferred to the Solace, a hospital ship. The Solace had to go back to Guadalcanal so the injured were transferred to the Lurline, a passenger ship, and I ended up in San Diego in December at Balboa Naval Hospital. I was finally allowed to go on liberty in February and met my future wife for the first time.
Into the Atlantic
I spent five months in the hospital at Balboa and was released in April 1943. I had orders to CASU 5 (Carrier Aircraft Service Unit) which I didn’t want and reported instead to Commander, Fleet Air West Coast for an assignment. I finally found a dive bomber squadron (SBD-4s or -5s) that I was qualified for and went to VC-58, then forming at Sand Point Naval Air Station in Washington. We changed to TBF-1s and after training we went to San Diego, were fitted with rocket rails, went across country to Quonset Point, and finally down to Norfolk where we got aboard the CVE USS Block Island. We made one trip with four destroyer escorts to Casablanca and back which took about six weeks. We dropped sonic buoys after German submarines submerged but didn’t make any attacks.
My pilot, LCDR McCroskey, died in a night field carrier landing practice accident at East Field. I started flying with LT Helmuth E. Horner on the USS Guadalcanal on the next trip. In the middle of April 1944 we contacted a submarine on radar, made an attack and hit it with two depth charges that destroyed the ballast tanks. It couldn’t submerge and they abandoned ship. All 58 or so crewmembers survived and were brought aboard ship.
About two nights later (we flew five nights out of six, launching at 2330 and recovering at 0400) we caught another submarine on the surface. It submerged while we were making a run on it and we dropped a sonic mine, a “hot dog,” which went off and destroyed the submarine. We recovered seven or eight survivors.
Patrol Bomber Aircrew
The Guadalcanal returned to the states and Horner and I went out next time on the USS Wake Island. We didn’t see anything on that trip. We returned to Norfolk where I got orders to flight school at Pre-Flight Training in Iowa City, Iowa. Before reporting for pre-flight training, I married Betty Lou Mathes in Long Beach, CA. I then went to the University of Iowa for pre-flight school. I got out of there in June 1945 and went to Memphis, TN for primary training. I was in primary training when the war ended and we stopped flying for several weeks while the authorities figured out what to do with us enlisted pilots. They basically
ended up purging us from the program.
I went from there to electronics school at Dearborn, Michigan at the Ford Factory. Mr. Ford wanted his property back since the war was over so the school was transferred to Great Lakes Naval Training Center. I left there and went to Annapolis. While there, I got my private pilot’s license. I spent a year at Annapolis and then was transferred to VPMS-1 in Bermuda. When I reported to Norfolk, I found out that VPMS-1 was being decommissioned and I ended up in VPML-8, the first P2V squadron formed at Quonset Point. I went there in July 1947.
I took a discharge from service in October 1947 in order to get on the west coast where my wife and newborn daughter were living at the time. I reenlisted a month later in VP-42 at San Diego, a PBM squadron. In September 1948 we left San Diego and went to Tsingtao China. We spent seven and a half months in Tsingtao, came back from there and were decommissioned. From there I went to VA-195 at Alameda Naval Air Station. I spent about four months there, then requested a transfer to VC-5 at Moffett Field. I got the transfer around September 1949 and stayed in VC-5 until June 1954.
Around April 1950, while with VC-5, I was in one of three crews that flew a P2V off the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Navy wanted to get into the atom bomb race. This was a test run to see if a P2V could possibly carry an atom bomb for a long distance. I flew with Fillmore B. Gilkeson non-stop for 24.5 hours. We had to maintain a true air speed of 200 knots and climb to 10,000 feet in order to drop the bomb. In that trip we passed over Cuba, bombed (simulated) the Panama Canal, and returned to Moffett Field non-stop, a trip of approximately 5,000 miles.
Down to Earth At Last
I left VC-5 in 1954 and took orders for shore duty at Pt. Mugu, CA. I stayed at Pt. Mugu for two years and in July 1956 received orders to the Naval Air Technical Training Center ATV School. After finishing there I went to Jacksonville, FL to VFP-62. I retired from active duty in August 1959 and returned to California where my wife and I had bought a house. I completed my service with a Silver Star, three Air Medals, two Letters of Commendation and one Purple Heart.
I went to work for Naval Air Missile Test Center at Pt. Mugu in November 1959. I worked there on several different projects, Gorgon Five and so on, until 1976 at which time I retired with a total of about 37 years of federal service. I had a TV shop in the meantime and ran it until 1983 when my wholesaler closed down. Without a source of parts I decided to give up that work. I played golf with a group of friends most of the time, did crossword puzzles, etc. My wife and I had four children. They are now all married and live in California. I have one grandson, three granddaughters and two step-granddaughters.
My wife passed away on June 4, 2001 from ALS (Lou Gherig’s Disease). I’ve been living by myself with my two cats since that time in the same house we bought in 1954. And that’s about all I have to say.
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