Combat Zone: A Tale of Two Aces and One Lucky Number

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins June 15, 2010 16:27

John O'Brien, former Marine/Photo by Ben Hicks

As a young man barely out of his teens, John O’Brien was the crew chief for “Number 13,” a fighter plane shared by two Marine aviators who would join the ranks of World War II’s greatest aces.

The plane that bore what turned out to be a surprisingly lucky number was a Vought F4U Corsair: top speed 425 mph, 31-foot wingspan, six 50-caliber machine guns mounted on its gull-shaped wings, sporting a 14-foot, 8-inch, three-blade propeller. Though initially built for carrier duty, the fighter-bomber played a decisive role from land bases in Marine aviators’ grinding fight in the Pacific.

Now 86 and a longtime resident of Chinese Camp, O’Brien was just 20 when he served on Guadalcanal, on “Fighter Airstrip 1” adjoining Henderson Field. He arrived at the close of an epic months-long battle to secure the island as a strategic staging point for the Allied push north through the Solomon Islands toward the Japanese homeland.

O’Brien’s role in the aerial successes to come was not in a cockpit, but on the ground with tools and expertise devoted to keeping the F4Us in top flying and fighting shape. For a time, he says, the plane was shared by two legends in Marine aviation history: pilots Kenneth Walsh and Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. Each was later awarded the Medal of Honor, Boyington credited with shooting down 28 Japanese planes, and Walsh, 21. Each pilot was shot down more than once, and Boyington was a prisoner of war for 20 months.

The two men couldn’t have been more different, recalls O’Brien, who in 1942 joined the Marines with a bunch of Indiana motorcycle buddies who agreed the war might last just a few months more. As a teen, he learned to fly in a Taylor Cub, schooled by a Chicago doctor while working part-time at an airport. After training at Camp Kearny, near San Diego, O’Brien was assigned to VMF-124, the first F4U squadron. In January 1943 he traveled to the Solomons via the Lurline, a luxury liner turned troop transport, and the USS Kitty Hawk. He met Walsh in February soon after arriving in Guadalcanal.

“He wasn’t a lieutenant yet, and when I was assigned to crew chief, he came over and introduced himself,” O’Brien says. “He was quiet, six-foot-tall, reminded me of kind of a farm type – laid back and very easy to get along with. And he was an excellent pilot. He was very meticulous in checking out the plane, asking questions about it, and boy, he knew that plane inside out.”

When he did make lieutenant, O’Brien recalls, “Walsh wasn’t too happy at first, because he had to start paying for his own uniforms.”

In May, O’Brien met Boyington after the combat death of 124’s commanding officer, Major William Gise. Pappy’s reputation preceded him.

“They said he was a wild old son-of-a-gun, I’d heard that,” O’Brien recalls. “He drank a lot and smoked cigars, was always chewing a small little stub of one in his mouth.”

Walsh’s partner in flying Number 13 was transferred to another plane on base, O’Brien says. Enter Boyington, who had flown for China with the Flying Tigers, and later led the Black Sheep squadron, a storied fighter unit later depicted in Robert Conrad’s 1970s TV series.

At the time O’Brien first met Boyington, Pappy had his pick of any plane in the squadron – and chose Walsh’s proven fighter, Number 13, on which O’Brien had painted a shamrock for luck.

“Walsh had already become an ace and had about six known kills to his credit, with the insignias bonded on the right side of the plane by the cockpit,” O’Brien says. “Boyington wanted to get on a real good ship, proven in battle … He came over and said, ‘I’m going to be flying this plane,” and I said, “Well, it’s a good one.” He said, ‘Walsh thinks it’s real good, so I’ll take it.”

“He was short, roly-poly, came up about this high,” O’Brien recalls, hoisting his right hand to nose level. “He wasn’t as meticulous as Walsh, but when he jumped in the plane it was all business all the time – getting strapped in, locked in, plugging in his earphones so he knows what’s going on.”

The F4Us typically flew four at a time, two planes and two wingmen, O’Brien says. The pilots often flew daily, and sometimes twice in a 24-hour period, so the plane was in near-constant use. Their missions took them to nearby points like the Russell Islands and Bougainville, and far beyond, engaging in aerial battles with Japanese “Zeros” and escorting B29s on bombing runs through hazardous skies. “I would say we lost about 50 percent of the pilots,” O’Brien notes.

“When they came back from a sortie or an escort or whatever mission they were on, they’d circle the tower and come in for a landing. As crew chief, you’re out there counting the planes, waiting with your heart in your mouth to see how many come back.”

The Corsair was more structurally sound than the Zero, but the Japanese fighter could sometimes outmaneuver the F4U, O’Brien recalls. “If they got right on your tail, the only way you could get rid of them was to dive toward the ground, then maybe 500 feet off the ground pull out – when the Zero went to pull out, his wings would collapse. Structurally, the Zeros weren’t sound enough to withstand a pullout like that.”

The Corsair had its own problems. The F4U pilots sat against a steel bracing from the seat to the back of their heads. Technicians finally revised the canopy with a Plexi bubble and a rear-view mirror so pilots had a better view of approaching enemy planes, O’Brien says. “They reduced their pilot losses greatly. Before, that was a blind spot.”

Another problem became evident, he says, when a dogfight over the Russell Islands led to the “friendly fire” downing of a U.S. plane. The Corsair’s encircled star insignia, too similar to the Japanese planes’ identifier, was altered with a broad white strip on either side “to prevent those types of incidents in the future.”

Japanese bombing and strafing raids on Guadalcanal continued during O’Brien’s time there, once or twice a week or more. Repairs were constantly under way, he recalls, as the bombs destroyed sections of the steel mats that overlaid the airstrips.

The buzz of incoming planes sent soldiers scrambling into foxholes four or five feet deep, covered with coconut logs and earth. “In the rainy season it would fill up, and you’d climb in the middle of the night, into all that mud, the mosquitoes buzzing around,” he recalls. “There was malaria, dengue fever, yellow jaundice.”

Most of the raids were in the pre-dawn hours, he says. Finally, radar-controlled lights were installed “so we could see the bogey planes in the crossfire of the lights, an easy target for our planes that were flying guard duty,” O’Brien recalls.

On Guadalcanal, Number 13 flew safely during his tenure, through the fall of 1943, after which O’Brien returned stateside briefly. The plane was later lost, he says, shot down with Boyington at the stick in 1944.

O’Brien later rotated back in, serving on Guam. He recalls with sorrow the day a B-29 returned crippled, no landing gear, engines gone and main wing on fire. As it bounced, some of the crew fell onto the runway; all survived. Axes in hand, he and another crewman raced toward the flames as the trapped rear gunner clawed at the Plexi cover. When they broke it open, the pressurized plane exploded, killing the man and leaving O’Brien with facial burns.

Boyington, December 1943/Photo courtesy of Naval Historical Foundation

From Guam, he served on the 3rd Marine Division’s observation squadron, then in the ground fight on Iwo Jima during the February 1945 invasion. It was in a foxhole there, he says, that he carved the sandstone figure of a Marine that now rests on a bookshelf in his home.

O’Brien received an honorable discharge in April 1946. Feeling “lucky to be alive,” he left the service with a new understanding of the thin line between life and death in a war zone. After the war, he worked for aircraft companies, including Boeing and Lockheed, in Southern California.

He moved his family to Tuolumne County in the 1970s. For years, he and wife Dottie owned and operated tiny Chinese Camp’s only store. John helped organize the town’s volunteer fire department and dabbled in the movie business, signing extras for companies making films here.

To his regret, he had to work when Boyington visited Columbia some years back, and missed a reunion with the hard-living legend. Boyington died in 1988 and Walsh, 10 years later. But O’Brien will always remember the time spent with the daring Marines engaged in a daily life-and-death fight that hinged on their flying skills, a bit of shamrock luck, and a capable aircraft.

“Their life was in our hands, and we took it real seriously,” he says, emotions overwhelming him. “They had the best care I could give them.”

© 2010 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins June 15, 2010 16:27
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