Monday, March 7, 2011

Mission Beyond Darkness, 1945

This print by renowned aviation artist Robert Taylor is one of many that can be found at

At the end of the First Battle of the Philippines, on June 19, 1944, United States Navy planes from Task Force 58 attacked a Japanese fleet. They sank at least one carrier and four tankers and damaged several other ships. Our losses were ninety six planes and forty nine men.

The attack occurred late in the afternoon amid a barrage of such intense anti-aircraft fire the ships below appeared to be on fire. From out of the clouds came a horde of Japanese fighter planes. Those who survived enemy retaliation then faced their greatest challenge: returning to that little sliver of home that is a carrier flight deck, in darkness, while running out of fuel.
Sixty four men took off in thirty four planes from Group 16's flagship, the USS Lexington.The book my grandfather wrote with Philip Reed, Mission Beyond Darkness, is an account derived wholly from statements by the survivors.

On that moonless night, Admiral Marc A Mitscher broke with protocol and had every ship in his task force switch on their lights to guide the planes home. So heavy was the stampede to the landing strips, plenty of exhausted pilots had little choice but to ditch.
Not all of them ditched within sight of the ships.
After cartwheeling in the waves 22 year old Ensign Edward Wendorf came to consciousness to find himself upside down in a Hellcat filling up with water. He managed to kick himself away from the sinking plane and into a raft. Filled with nausea from all the fuel he swallowed, he caught sight of something afloat.

From Mission Beyond Darkness:

The vague object drifted closer. It's a piece of wreckage from my plane, that's what! Soon it was close enough to touch. He was about to reach for it when he saw that it was moving. It was a shark. Another followed it, and another.
Wendorf became a madman. He pounded the water with his shoe, then threw it at them, screaming and cursing. The fins glided off, but turned and came back until they were three feet away. His screaming made him retch again, and his retching upset the raft tilt. He was terrified that it would upset, or that the sharks would puncture it and sink it. He thought of his pistol. The next thing that moved, he shot at. He fired eight times before nausea overwhelmed him again, and when the spasm passed, the sharks had disappeared...
He curled up and tried to sleep.
It'll be dawn soon.
Dawn was six hours away...

Though nine planes were lost all but four men survived. That was due in part to Admiral Mitscher's decision. He had brought thousands of men and a billion dollars worth of ships into enemy waters. He knew if he lit up the ships any Japanese torpedo plane or bomber or submarine in the area could hardly miss.
On the other hand, the prospect of several hundred planes fumbling for those narrow decks in the dark meant sure catastrophe.

Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher

It's important to note Mission Beyond Darkness was published in 1945, a war time book. It was produced in full compliance with the Government and was even printed with a seal of a bald eagle holding a ribbon that read "Books are weapons in the war of ideas."
After writing this book, Grandpa Joe worked for the Central Intelligence Agency with a concurrent commission as lieutenant colonel in the air force, giving him the unusual distinction of having been an officer in all three major branches of the armed services.

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