On September 29, 1943, Task Force 58, which included the USS Lexington CV-16, headed West towards Wake Island. On board the Lexington was Carrier Air Group Sixteen, which included VF-16, VT-16 and VB-16. I, Paul Bonilla AOM 2/c USNR, at the age of 22, was attached to VB-16 which flew SBD-5 Douglas Dauntless dive bombers which had a crew of two, a pilot and a radioman-gunner.
My pilot was Lt. (jg) William E. McCarthy who was my very first assigned pilot. We became partners at NAS Quonset Point, Rhode Island where CAG-16 was formed on December of 1942. On September 29, 1943 we were headed for the most unforgettable experience of my navy career or of my civilian life.
On the morning of October, 5 we were waiting in the ready-rooms prepared to strike a heavy blow to the Japanese held Island of Wake. While waiting for our flight times, we were advised that there would be a friendly submarine stationed in the vicinity of Wake Island for the sole purpose of rescuing downed airmen. We were forbidden to bomb, strafe or intimidate any submarine regardless of it’s nationality. We later learned how important this restriction was. The submarine SS-305 Skate was part of a newly formed Lifeguard League sent to perform a very difficult but necessary task. The Lifeguard League up to that time had been unsuccessful after two or three missions. Just having these brave men on duty in the area of the strike was very comforting to all of the fliers, successful or not.
After receiving this very important bit of information, we responded to the command to man planes. We rushed out of the ready-rooms, climbed up to the flight deck, where the plane’s engines were warming up, and carefully looked for our assigned planes. With the propellers turning, one had to be extremely cautious because the oily flight deck made your footing unsafe. Upon reaching the plane we climbed aboard the plane, hooked up our parachutes to the harness that we were wearing, buckled up our safety belts and waited for our turn to taxi forward to the signal officer who would then have the pilot rev-up the engine and if it sounded right we would receive the signal to start down the flight deck and take off. After take-off we joined up with our flight section and headed for our target for the day, Wake Island.
The planes pounded the tiny island with tons of bombs while the surface ships pounded them with salvo after salvo from their large caliber guns. The Japanese on Wake Island took an unmerciful pounding all of that day and was scheduled to undergo the same treatment the next day.
Early the next morning, October 6, 1943, we awoke from a restful night’s sleep, ate breakfast and again went to the ready-rooms to await our flight assignment. Mac and I were scheduled to fly on the last strike, which meant that we wouldn’t take off until late afternoon. We waited in the ready-room listening to the radio broadcast of the pilots over the target, and finally heard the command to man our planes. After Mac and I got off the flight deck we joined up with our group led by our section leader, R. N. McMackin and his gunner Spiro “Sak” Sakotas. Flying port wingman was George Glacken and his gunner Leo Boulanger. McCarthy and I flew on his starboard wing.
On the way to Wake we flew about 1500 ft. above the water to avoid detection by the Japanese. We had been requested to be on the lookout for a couple downed airmen from another group who had ditched their plane on the first strike of the day. This task was pretty much the job of the gunners because it was imperative for the pilots to keep their eyes glued to the lead plane as we flew in a very tight formation with our wings almost touching. Unfortunately we were unsuccessful in our search.
As we approached our target we began to gain altitude for our dive bombing run which usually began at 12,000 ft. After reaching that altitude we leveled off and circled above the island looking for a suitable target on which to drop our 1000 lb. Bomb. Looking down I saw what appeared to be a grounded submarine so I immediately notified Mac of this great target knowing full well that we had orders to lay off of any submarine. I had surmised that any submarine that close to the island must be Japanese. He quickly reminded me of the order not to bomb any submarine. So I realized that it would not be our target for that day. I kept looking at the submarine and saw splashes all around it and realized that it was being shelled by someone. I looked for a flash and then I saw the splash which told me that it was being shelled by the Japanese on the island. When I told Mac about it he spotted the flash and dove on it. It was hard for me to verify a hit because I was busy strafing when we pulled out over the water, but I found out later that someone had knocked out the gun, so being the ones that went after it I’m pretty sure that it was us who had knocked it out of commission. We had surmised that if it were being shelled by the Japanese it must have been one of the good guys but why was he in so close? We pulled out over the water where we rejoined our group and headed for the Lexington at an altitude of 1500 ft.
While I was strafing the island I had a malfunction in my guns so I immediately started to field strip my twin 30 cal. machine guns to remedy the malfunction in case I needed them on the way home. My guns were still apart when about 50 miles out, the engine quit. I continued working on the guns because I thought that Mac had forgotten to switch tanks which was a pretty common occurrence. It was when I heard Mac say that we were going in the drink, that I pushed my guns back in the housing without enough time to secure them and turned around to brace myself for the impact of the water landing. Mac immediately pushed the nose over to maintain flying speed. Fortunately we were headed into the wind at the time so we didn’t have to make a turn which would have taken a little time which we didn’t have because we were only 1500 ft. up. We hit the water so hard that Mac’s shoulder harness didn’t keep his face from hitting the instrument panel and his hood slammed shut at the same time. Seeing the hood slam shut, I made getting out and releasing his hood my first priority thinking that he would be trapped in the cockpit. When I tried getting out of the cockpit, I discovered that my guns had come out of the housing, trapping me in my seat. I reached back searching for the release to push my guns away and fortunately was able to find it right away and freed myself. Mac had been able to slide his hood back and before I could get out, he had already gotten out of the cockpit and was standing on the wing holding on to the fuselage. His face was covered with blood from the cut he received on his nose. Now my first priority was to retrieve the two-man raft located on the starboard side of the fuselage just behind my seat. After getting the raft out, I pulled the toggle of the CO2 bottle and the raft began to inflate. By the time it was inflated enough for me to climb in, I had floated about 30 or 40 ft. from the plane. By the time I got into the raft and looked back for Mac, the plane had sunk and Mac was floundering in the water trying to stay afloat. I had no time to hunt for the oars so I got on my stomach and paddled as a surfer would do on a surf board and paddled towards Mac. I noticed that Mac had failed to remove his parachute which had a one man raft and rations in his backpack. He also failed to inflate his Mae West jacket. I kept yelling to him to inflate the jacket but to no avail. The blow on the head was hard enough to render him semi-conscious. His actions were triggered by survival instinct. He kept struggling to stay afloat but was losing the battle. By the time I reached him, his head was underwater. I managed to get to him just in time to grab his parachute harness and pull him high enough to get his arms into the raft. We were both totally exhausted. About that time his wallet floated out of his pocket and I released him and grabbed his wallet. We later laughed about which was more important, he or his wallet. He shared the contents when we were enjoying R&R on Waikiki.
After catching our wind I pulled him into the raft. The gash on his nose went clear through and when he would hold his nose and blow, the blood would squirt out. I hunted for some first aid material in the raft so I could practice what I learned in Boys Scouts several years before. Mac having to keep one hand on the stick could not brace himself enough to keep him from going forward and hitting the instrument panel. I was able to find the first aid kit so grabbed some sulfa tablets, crushed them and sprinkled it on his nose and covered it with wet gauze.
McMackin and Sakotas had followed us down to see how we made out and continued circling us while other planes from AG-16 and other airgroups were flying slowly and very close to the water tossing life rafts and Mae West jackets to help us survive the ordeal. We were witnessing one of the most unforgettable acts of comradery, unselfishness and love for your fellow man. I have never forgotten nor will I ever forget that memorable scene. The things that were thrown to us were too far away to be retrieved. An F6F pilot from the Cowpens came by with flaps down about 15 ft. over us and dropped his Mae West jacket close enough for us to retrieve. Our hearts skipped a beat when he pushed the throttle forward and his engine sputtered momentarily. We were relieved when the engine responded and he flew off towards his carrier without the one thing that could save his life if he found it necessary to ditch his plane in the water.
It got very quiet as the planes headed home over 100 miles away. Quiet except for one lone SBD circling above us as he climbed high enough for the ship to pick him up on radar in order to pinpoint our location in the water. In this lone SBD was our section leader, R.N. McMackin and his gunner Sakotas. In doing this, they put themselves in a very vulnerable position because they were now alone and subject to enemy attack. They were also using up precious fuel they needed to get back to the Lexington. After reaching the necessary altitude and our position was recorded, they headed home to get our rescue underway.
I learned some forty years later that the pilots in the airgroup were close to mutiny trying to persuade the admiral to send someone back to pick us up. They were unsuccessful in this endeavor and we were left to our own resources. The admiral did what he thought best and I don’t fault him for his decision.
It was now time to take inventory of our resources and to consider what we must do in order to survive. We were very confident that there were individuals working towards our rescue. First Mac estimated that we were east of the island about 50 miles away and the prevailing winds and current would take us directly back to the island, something that we didn’t want to occur. We decided that we would have to row the raft in a northeasterly direction. We also decided that we had to help anyone sent out to pick us up. The only thing we could find were a smoke bomb and some very small flares with a device to fire them. The flares were about the size of a 410 ga. shotgun shell. The flares that we really needed went down with the plane. I had no time to gather up the Veri’s pistol and cartridges, so we had to make due with what we had. We also decide that they would send, because of the approaching darkness, surface ships or a submarine. We decided that we should fire a flare about every 15 minutes and continue rowing in our prescribed direction. We only had 6 flares so after firing five of them, I decided to save one, putting it in my shirt pocket which was under my flight suit in order to have a dry one when I needed it.
Later that night the sea got very rough and we were being tossed about quite severely until we found the sea anchor that helped to stabilize the raft. A wave would break over us, drenching us, then the wind would make us feel quite cold as it dried us off a bit and eventually made us a bit more comfortable. It was dark now and the stars shone brightly. Every so often Mac would see a star close to the horizon and would get very excited thinking that it was someone coming to pick us up. Because the raft was moving constantly up, down or sideways, it made a star appear to be moving. Later I would do the same thing. Thinking positively gave us hope as did our prayers. I kept thinking to myself, somebody is on the way to pick us up. At no time, I’m proud to say, did we ever panic. I was wearing my sterling silver Saint Christopher medal that my dear mother had sent to me. I never went anywhere without it. I still have it.
We continued rowing all through the night, and saw many more bright stars that looked like rescuers, and just as it began getting light, there was a very bright search light which made one 360 degree sweep and then turned off. It appeared to be very close which made us think that it was Wake Island. That made us row harder and faster. We could never understand why there was only one sweep. Wake Island was so low that you could be very close to it and from a raft you could not see it. We decided that we didn’t want to fire the flare if it was the island. We kept looking towards the light source but there was nothing to see.
When the sun broke the horizon and the day became brighter, we felt that it was time to check the rations and see what we could eat and drink. We discovered a small can of pemmican and a small can of water which we opened. We were determined to conserve water and food anticipating a log voyage. As we continued to row, we amused ourselves by looking at the clouds that looked like people, animals or anything else. We heard a plane overhead and identified it as Japanese so we covered ourselves with a provided tarp, blue side up so they wouldn’t spot us.
Later that day we discussed the light that we had seen earlier in the morning. We began to wonder if we had done the right thing by not firing the flare. The submarine was supposed to leave the area during the night but we began to wonder if they had stayed in the area overnight to try and find us and they had flashed their searchlight so that we would see it and fire a flare before they submerged for the day. We convinced ourselves that is what happened and we failed to fire the flare and they would now give up the search. We were very disappointed but we still didn’t give up thinking that God was still with us and that we shouldn’t give up hope.
We continued rowing in a northeasterly direction. During the day we tried our hand at fishing using a line, a hook and pork rind that was extremely difficult to cut, all found in the survival gear. We were unsuccessful in this endeavor. We did have a very entertaining adventure with a small fish about 8” long that followed us for quite a while allowing us to touch him while he nibbled on our fingers. Had we been successful in catching him we would have released him immediately. After that we gave up the idea of fishing, but continued rowing and looking for interesting cloud formations. We consumed a couple malt balls and had a small sip of water during the day. Our bodily functions consisted of only one thing and that was urination which was accomplished by hanging over the edge of the raft. As the sky darkened, we settled down for a night of rowing as we wanted no contact with the enemy on Wake Island. We would take turns cat napping which was done sitting in an upright position. With two people in that small raft, it was difficult stretching out. We were always sitting in water and our upper body would get wet every time a breaker would hit us and make us cold until our jackets were dried by the wind. It was very uncomfortable but we were young and it really didn’t bother us much.
The next morning just before sunrise approximately the same time we witnessed the search light sweep, we were again startled by the same 360 degree sweep of a searchlight which seemed much closer than the day before. This time we decided that it would be a smart thing to fire the last remaining flare. I reached into my shirt pocket and retrieved the flare and the launching device and quickly fired our last hope of being found. I was facing in the direction of the light and Mac was facing the sunrise which was almost breaking the horizon. We kept looking for any sign of rescue effort and I was praying that I would see our submarine and not a Japanese gunboat coming over the horizon. It seemed an eternity before Mac yelled, “There they are.” I turned around to look in the direction that he was looking and saw nothing. I told him that the light was in the opposite direction, where I was looking. He again yelled. “There they are.” Again I turned around and saw nothing. I then told him that I would look in his direction and he was to tell me when he saw it again. “There.” I couldn’t believe my eyes, the sun had just broken the horizon and right in the middle of this big orange ball, just like in a corny “B” movie was the silhouette of the most beautiful submarine in all the world. I quickly turned my attention from the light source to the silhouette in the middle of the sun. The reason that I had not seen what Mac had seen, was because when he saw it we were on the crest of the swell and by the time I turned around we were in the lower part and the sub was not visible.
Now I was very excited and began looking for the smoke bomb to show the sub our position. They were headed right for us but still miles away. We yelled, waved our arms, but they were too far away to see or hear us. I located the smoke bomb but could not locate the attachment that was necessary to attach the bomb to the oar because it would become too hot to hold. While waiting for the sub to arrive, we discussed the possibility that it might be a Japanese sub. At this point there was nothing we could do but to wait and see. We assumed that if it was a Japanese sub they would treat us better than if we returned to Wake Island where we would receive cruel treatment.
As the submarine approached we began hearing voices. We listened intently but it was only sounds. We began to make out silhouettes and one was a short man wearing shorts with slightly bowed legs. I said to Mac, “I think they’re Japanese”. The sun directly behind them made it difficult to recognize anyone. As they approached we could see many guns pointed towards us. We were disappointed until we heard five of the sweetest word we had ever heard, “Take your helmets off navy.” We responded immediately and the guns were put away as the sub approached very slowly. They threw a life-ring to us to pull us up to the sub. Mac was the first to be pulled aboard and he found it difficult to stand, his legs were like rubber. I thought to myself he was injured more than I had imagined. When they were ready to help me aboard, I told them that I required no assistance, they grabbed my hand anyway and as I stepped aboard, my legs turned to rubber as Mac’s did. They all laughed and so did Mac. When we were safely aboard the sub, they grabbed the raft, pulled it aboard and punctured it with a knife. We were very thankful , our prayers were answered.
Pharmacist Mate Florshinger led us down the conning tower to examine us and to give us an alcohol rub. Our bodies were covered with immersion sores from sitting in salt water for three days. After treating Mac’s nose, the cook brought us some hot split pea soup with the instructions that we were to have only one serving. We sweet talked the cook into bringing us another bowl which he did. After we finished the soup we told him that we were still hungry, so he sneaked in a sandwich for us. We considered him an angel of mercy. So with a full stomach and dry clothing, we settled down for a long, restful nap.
Later that day about 1630 they picked up the last downed pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Mark A. Grant, the Airgroup Commander of the Cowpens. There were three other men that had been picked up before us. They were, Lt. Harold T. Kicker (who goes down in Naval history as the first successful rescued airman by the Submarine Rescue League), Ens. Murray H. Tyler, the only other flyer from the Lexington, Lt. R.G. Johnson, a fighter pilot from VF-16, The next 21 days Johnson and I became very good friends. Lt. Johnson lost his life on the very next mission. I had lost another good friend.
I immediately volunteered to stand watch which was greatly appreciated by the crew because I could better identify planes as friendly or enemy. I enjoyed this assignment because it was a way of thanking them for what they had done for us. It was a new experience for me and it afforded me the opportunity to get a little sunshine and fresh air.
The name of this submarine was the SS-305 Skate, this was a brand new boat on it’s first war patrol. Her captain was Commander E.B. McKinney and her executive officer was Lt. Cmdr. Marion Frederick Ramirez de Arellano. The Skate had been assigned to the newly formed Lifeguard League whose main purpose was to rescue downed airmen during an air strike such as the raid on Wake Island.
During the 20 or so days I spent aboard the Skate, I had many conversations with the crew. I was pleased to learn that the grounded submarine that I had first noticed as we circled Wake Island was the Skate. They had purposely gotten that close to the island to rescue Lt. Kicker and Ens. Tyler who were floating in their Mae West jackets without the aid of a liferaft. They were so exhausted that they could not swim to the Skate so Ens. Kay, Gunner’s Mate Bill Shelton and Torpedoman Smith, who swam out to rescue one of the pilots as the sub was being shelled by shore batteries, pulled the two men safely aboard. Had the guns not been bombed, the sub could have been hit and disabled and unable to save the lives of the airmen who went on to fight the enemy again, not to mention the lives of all of the brave and dedicated men of the Skate who went on to sink many enemy ships and compile a great war record.
Another memorable event that happened during our trip on the raft was when I decided not to fire our last remaining flare and saving it for when we really needed it. We had been correct in believing that the light came from Wake Island. The next event that happened was the very next day when the light shone again, there was no hesitation in firing the last flare to signal to our rescuers where we were as we were convinced that the light came from the submarine. The light was from Wake both times.
The most remarkable event, and I believe Devine Providence had a hand on all of the decisions that Mac and I made, was that the night before my last flare firing, the sky was overcast making it impossible for the navigator and Executive Officer De Arellano to shoot the stars for navigation purposes. He got up one half hour earlier in order to be on the top deck to shoot the stars. In order for one to understand this scenario, one must know that on board a submarine, the men on watch do so with binoculars, skimming the horizon to pick up any mast of an enemy ship before being detected. There are three such lookouts on duty at the same time. They stand on the conning tower with two looking forward, each having a 90 degree sector and one looking aft with a 180 degree sector. When looking through binoculars you have no peripheral vision. You only see what you are pointing at. The lookout on the stern, looking aft was not aiming at us so did not see the flare. Because we were located behind the sub, he was the only one that had an opportunity to see us. The person that sighted the flare was the navigator who by chance didn’t have his sextant up to his eye at that precise moment, looking in the right direction and was up there simply because it had been overcast the night before. He said that the flare barely broke the horizon and we were about 17 miles away. They had passed us only a few minutes before, almost hitting us because they turned around 180 degrees and headed straight for the spot where they had passed us in the dark. The reason why they happened to be in a position to see the flare was because they had already left the area around Wake Island to return to Midway but received orders to turn around and head in a southeasterly direction and endeavor to intercept a large Japanese convoy heading toward Truk. To expedite the chase they were to head straight towards the convoy without traveling their usual zig zag course, which was the normal way to avoid confrontation with friendly submarines. It was this order that put the Skate in a position to rescue Mac, Mark Grant, and me. We owe our lives to the crew that located the Japanese convoy.
The only encounters that the Skate had after rescuing Mark Grant were a couple of happenings in the vicinity of Wake when planes spotted us and dropped depth charges on us without damaging the sub. And late one night we encountered another submarine and they saw us also. We were going around in circles trying to get a torpedo into each other and when the challenge was sent which was You. The response was Rat and this sub proved to be friendly. They pulled up close together and exchanged needed item and we then headed for the convoy again. The crews were extremely stressed during this encounter knowing that any hit they inflicted would mean eternal rest from everyone on the sub that was hit. In the morning the crew asked me if I had been scared during the encounter and I answered, “What encounter?” They answered my question and I said, “Thank God.” I had slept all through the encounter.
After ten or eleven days on the chase, it was called off and we had orders to return to Midway Island. We had wished for a successful hunt because if it had been successful we would have earned the right to wear our wings on one side of our uniforms and the submarine Dolphins on the other. We were extremely disappointed that the convoy had gotten away but happy that we were still alive and well.
We spent about 20 days aboard the Skate and now we were going to be put ashore on Midway Island where we were scheduled to fly back to Pearl Harbor and then to our respective airgroups. We were about to say goodby to a vessel that we called home for awhile and to a wonderful, brave, friendly and dedicated men that I am proud to call shipmates. We arrived on Midway Island on the 26th of October. We had a photo shoot whose pictures appeared throughout the USA. An admiral from Pearl Harbor flew all the way up to Midway to pick us up and return us to Pearl Harbor. The admiral invited me to sit next to him and we chatted all the way home. I believe that the invitation was because I was the only enlisted man in the group. The very first thing he said to me was, “If this was the Army, I’d have your medal for you right now, but that isn’t the way the Navy does it, you’ll have to wait for yours.” He couldn’t have been more correct, I’m still waiting for it.
When we arrived at Pearl Harbor on the admiral’s PB2Y we were greeted by a handful of navy brass and serenaded by the Navy Band. After a short welcoming speech we were escorted to the Lexington where we were greeted by the commanding officer of the Lex, Capt. Felix Stump who served us ice cream and cookies, chatted a little and welcomed us home. After that we were flown to our airgroup where we received a warm welcome from our shipmates. Our odyssey was over.
Note: by Paul T. Bonilla