Iwo Jima and the carrier air wing five experience.
The first struck the starboard side. From directly above, the second struck an elevator shaft and destroyed the ship's internal firefighting equipment. The resulting fire was uncontrollable. Shortly after sunset, Captain J. L. Pratt ordered the crew to abandon ship. Of the 923 men on board, 118 were killed during the attack or drowned during the night, awaiting rescue. Ninety-nine Sailors were injured. One of the survivors was my grand-father: LTJG Lewis W. Thompson, a bomber pilot assigned to VC-86 flying the F4F Wildcat. VC-86 was the only squadron stationed aboard USS Bismarck Sea.
The last known position of the carrier was 22 nautical miles to the north east of Iwo Jima, presently known as Iwo To. It was the eleventh and final Navy carrier sunk during World War II
Fast forward 70 years. A light division of three E-2C Hawkeye 2000s from VAW-115 approach the island of Iwo To, where my grandfather flew so many years ago. We're on a four-day Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) detachment. The arrival and departure into Iwo To each year takes all Carrier Air Wing 5 (CVW-5) aircraft directly over the last known position of USS Bismarck Sea.
As we approach the 22 DME mark and look out the window, I feel a chill. Beneath us, in several thousand feet of water, lays my grandfather's ship. Right here, in these waters, he and hundreds of others struggled to survive through the night. The waters were cold and rough in February, and Japanese aircraft strafed the survivors immediately following the sinking. Directly off our nose, surrounded by the clear blue waters and white puffy clouds of the Pacific, the island of Iwo To comes into view.
From directly overhead, you can see remnants of the two WWII airfields. As we approach for the break, we pass nearly level with the top of Mount Suribachi, providing a clear view of the Japanese flag that flies today. Just past the volcano is the infamous invasion beach, where thousands of Marines died during the initial invasion. To our left is "Shipwreck Beach," where a conglomeration of old American ships were filled with concrete and sunk after the war in a failed attempt to create a safe harbor. At the far end of the runway, two rusted anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns still stand, pointing skyward at our aircraft as we break over them. These guns might have fired upon my grandfather during the 36-day aerial assault that preceded the invasion.
Iwo To became the FCLP home for CVW-5 in 1989. Each Spring, the seven tailhook squadrons assigned to CVW-5 depart Naval Air Facility (NAF) Atsugi for the 649-mile trip due south towards Air Station Iwo To, run by the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF). Air controllers embarked aboard USS George Washington (CVN-73) join the air wing to provide control of aircraft in the Case III night pattern.
This form of training is unique to Iwo To and CVW-5, allowing pilots to practice their night landings using the full Case III bolter/waveoff pattern used at sea. The Chief of Naval Operations, once every two years, must waive weather and divert requirements to conduct training on the island. When aircraft depart each day for FCLP training, they do not carry enough fuel on board to allow for a return trip to the nearest divert, NAF Atsugi. Because of this, the single runway on Iwo To was built with four arresting gear to be used in emergencies. Three additional sets of arresting gear were built into the taxiways that parallel the runway.
Iwo To is a small tropical island rising directly out of the depths of the Izu Bonin Trench to several hundred feet above sea level. Weather can change quickly from clear and a million to heavy rain and low ceilings. Each year, aviators find themselves in an FCLP pattern that was clear on one pass and socked in with no visual cues to the island on the next. With only a TACAN and a portable "Bullseye" to use as navigation sources, these arresting gear, coupled with verbal assistance from Paddles, can quickly become a pilots only option.
In addition to training for CVW-5's yearly Pacific patrol, a trip to Iwo To provides aircrew and maintenance personnel a rare look at an island that has seen very little change in the past 69 years. As you step out of your aircraft and begin the walk to the barracks, you find yourself in awe at the sight of Mount Suribachi. After dropping off your gear and changing into clothes better suited for the 95-degree tropical heat, you can visit "Invasion Beach" and enjoy the sunset. Historians, witnesses, and the troops themselves have written about the invasion and the difficulty American troops had when trying to capture the island. Today, you can walk to the water's edge, turn around and then try to climb back up the 15-foot wall of coarse black volcanic sand. With each step, the sand beneath you collapses and you find yourself unable to maintain your footing, sliding back down to the bottom.
As you pause and look up, you might think that this wall would have offered great protection to the invading forces as they stepped off their landing craft. But then you look left at Suribachi, towering overhead, and you are awestruck by the clear line of sight the Japanese forces had on the invading force. On the beach, you can still find rusted rifle shell casings, pieces of shrapnel, and remnants of landing craft. A Japanese machine gun stands in a pillbox, almost 70 years after the original battle.
Every year, CVW-5 aviators and maintainers explore the countless caves and remnants of the battle. Many of these sites are rarely visited; many others have only recently been discovered. It is hard to avoid the spiders, cockroaches and scorpions at the mouth of each cave, but the history lesson within more than makes up for the unpleasant entrance. Most of the sites have been undisturbed since Japanese forces abandoned them after the battle. Clothing, cooking utensils, shoes, medical supplies, spent and unspent ammunition, communication equipment, lighting, and many other artifacts still lay untouched within the caves.
While exploring General Tadamichi Kuribayashi's headquarters cave, one can find many bottles of high quality Scotch. As a tribute, Japanese and Americans alike have left several bottles throughout the years for the general, a well-known fan of the whiskey. In addition to the caves, the island is littered with remnants of U.S. and Japanese aircraft from countless crashes, anti-aircraft artillery guns, unexploded bombs, memorials, and even an abandoned American tank with spent shell casings still inside.
The United States returned control of the island to Japan in 1968. Today it is manned year round by the JMSDF, who maintain a small contingent of search and rescue helicopters and a small detachment of P-3's that use the island as a base for Pacific patrols.
The battle for Iwo Jima claimed more than 6,800 American lives and resulted in more than 26,000 American casualties. More than 20,000 Japanese soldiers were killed in what was highly regarded as a futile attempt to defend the island. At the conclusion of the battle, only 216 Japanese survived and were taken prisoner. Many of the Americans and Japanese alike were buried in mass graves throughout the island, some of which are being excavated today. The Japanese treat the entire island as sacred ground.
Throughout the island, Japanese and American visitors have erected memorials to mark gravesites and honor those who fell. Each morning, prior to the commencement of flight ops, many of us rode bikes around the island, looking for a new shrine, artifact, or cave. On almost all of these bike rides, a member of the JMSDF out for a morning jog would flag us down and, in broken English, thank us for the friendship that Japan and America share today. Often they would direct us to another battle remnant which wasn't marked on the map we had gotten from our Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) staff. This modern-day friendship is a highlight of a Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF) tour.
As a third-generation naval aviator, I grew up listening to stories of my grandfather's WWII experiences in the western Pacific and my father's stories of WESTPAC cruises: the Cubi Point Officers Club, Russian TU-95 Bear intercepts, and his embellished stories of flying the F-14 Tomcat. The stories left me yearning from my own WESTPAC cruise experience. To be selected for CVW-5 for your first aviation assignment, you must finish at the top of your carrier qualification class at the Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) and have the luck of a rare spot being available. Some of your final positioning might be skill, but most is pure luck (and in the Hawkeye community, the occasional "hand of god" from the instructor in your right seat to keep you off the ace).
When I found myself in that position three years ago, I campaigned hard for the chance to join the VAW115 Liberty Bells and CVW-5. I am beyond grateful for the opportunities during my junior-officer tour.
LT THOMPSON FLIES WITH VAW-115
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2015|
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