Combat Zone: Jack Glass, USS Enterprise

By Guest Contributor September 13, 2010 23:04

Jack Glass, 86, with model of SBD Dauntless; in video below, he discusses the Enterprise's historic role/Ben Hicks photo

By Deanna Maurer

On the vast flight deck of the USS Enterprise, there was no place to hide when Japanese bombs started falling. “We didn’t have any foxholes,” says 86-year-old Jack Glass, his faint smile betraying no hint of the stories he is about to tell.

When U.S. forces invaded Guadalcanal in the summer of 1942, Glass was an 18-year-old sailor aboard “The Big E,” an 810-foot-long floating airbase that carried 2,000 men and 90 planes, including bombers, fighters, torpedo planes and scouts. The Enterprise went on to become the most decorated ship in World War II. For the crew’s role in downing more than 900 Japanese planes and sinking more than 70 enemy ships, she was awarded 20 Battle Stars, along with a Presidential Unit Citation and a Navy Unit Commendation.

Glass was aboard the massive carrier for 13 of those 20 major engagements, including the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, Battle of Santa Cruz Island, Battles of the Eastern Philippines and the attack on Japanese bases at Truk in the Caroline Islands. His last mission was the Marianas Invasion in June and July of 1944.

Initially a radio maintenance man, Glass later became a gunner on one of the Enterprise’s SBD “Dauntless” dive-bombers and flew 60 missions with Air Group 10 before the Japanese surrender in 1945. Asked the most memorable part of his service in the Pacific, Glass quickly replies, “It was the flying.” But it was during the Guadalcanal Campaign, one of the first major Allied offensives against Japan, that Glass had some of his most harrowing experiences – including a brutal attack that claimed the lives of 74 shipmates.

As a 17-year-old high school graduate, Glass needed his parents’ signatures to enlist in the Navy in 1941. This railroad worker’s son had grown up in rural Forsythe, Georgia, with three brothers and one sister. “We were just coming out of the big Depression when I graduated, and I’d been offered a job in a five-and-dime store,” Glass recalls. “That was going to be my future and I knew I didn’t want that.”

Following stateside training, Glass was stationed on the USS Saratoga, at Pearl Harbor. The carrier had been spared the December 7 attack because she was undergoing modifications in a Navy shipyard. Arriving on January 7, Glass was shocked to see ships still burning in the water. The posting reunited him temporarily with his older brother, Howard, stationed in Hawaii since 1939.

Mission revealed

A few months later, Petty Officer Third Class Glass was reassigned to the Enterprise. His first tour of duty encompassed the Guadalcanal Campaign, code-named “Operation Watchtower.” Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands, held a vital strategic position and was the site of a critical landing strip, still under construction, later named Henderson Field.

Between August 1942 and February 1943, the U.S. and its allies fought numerous battles to wrest control of the airstrip and key islands from the Japanese. The campaign cost the U.S. dearly: The USS Hornet and the USS Wasp were both sunk, leaving the Enterprise the only aircraft carrier in the Pacific Theater for a time. However, the Japanese withdrawal from Guadalcanal is widely considered a turning point in the region, when the Allies shifted from a defensive posture to offense.

Yet when the Enterprise left Pearl Harbor for the South Pacific on July 15, 1942, most of the crew did not know exactly what the mission was.

Jack in 1941

“Most people didn’t know anything about the Pacific Islands, and especially not guys like me from small towns,” Glass recalls. “We found out real quick what we were heading for, though. Once we were two or three days out to sea, they started briefing everyone about what we had to do. It was a touchy situation we were sailing into. U.S. forces had almost lost the momentum at that time because we were ill-equipped … inexperienced. The Japanese were much more experienced in the air; they had been at war in China for six or seven years. We really took a beating there, the first six months.”

Glass’s first major combat experience came on August 24, 1942 in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons.  Here, in his own words, are his memories of that terrible day.

“We always started the day at ‘general quarters,’ meaning we were on high alert. Some days they’d lower our alert status, but this day we knew we were heading for trouble because we stayed on high alert. The radar turned constantly, high on a pole – it looked like a big bedspring – and we hated to see it stop turning because that meant it had found a target. Of course, we were always up before sunrise and in the dark we couldn’t see it because we could only have the running lights on. On this morning, as the sun came up, the radar was still turning, still searching. We knew there was a Japanese fleet coming though, to try to retake Guadalcanal.”

As the pilots and flight crews prepared the planes for launching, Glass took his place in the radio maintenance shed, a tiny metal shack near one edge of the deck. In the pre-dawn, Enterprise launched her scout aircraft to search for the Japanese fleet. Glass and fellow crewmen waited in the humid darkness, ready to fix any equipment problems on departing planes.

Once the planes were in the air, Glass moved to the flight deck, repairing and recalibrating radios on the remaining planes. The day passed tensely. By late afternoon, the crew was ordered to “clear the decks,” and men raced to launch the last of the planes. The radar had found the enemy, and the PA system warned everyone to take cover. Soon after, the Enterprise’s anti-aircraft guns began firing.

“When we were told to take cover, we just dropped everything and left the airplane we were working on. We always knew when we were coming under attack because all our anti-aircraft guns would start firing, first the long-range ones, then medium-range, and then short-range. When the short-range started, we knew we were really in trouble.”

Glass was huddled in the tiny maintenance shed when the first direct hit came. Before the second bomb hit, he raced to a ladder and climbed 50 feet down to the hangar deck. His voice cracks a bit as he recalls that terrifying time.

“There was nothing I could do but pray. We were maneuvering violently … We’d heel and turn, trying to avoid the bombs and torpedoes that were launched from planes above. It was really hot, hard to breathe and hard to hang on …The noise of the bombs was almost deafening; we didn’t have any ear protection. When a bomb hit us, it felt like the ship was running over giant jagged rocks. It seemed to last forever, but it was really just a matter of minutes before our planes shot down their bombers.”

Despite taking three direct hits – and four near-hits – the Enterprise successfully fended off the Japanese. Though badly damaged and burning in several places, the carrier resumed flight operations an hour after the “all clear.” For Glass, the aftermath was almost as terrible as the bombing.

“As soon as the attack was repelled, we got back up on the flight deck and started looking around to see what we had to do. It was gruesome. Medics were running around with stretchers, trying to get the wounded below to the hospital. The decks were slick and gaping holes had been blown in several places. I was kind of in shock and looking for my crewmates, hoping they were okay.

“The men who operated the anti-aircraft guns had no cover at all. They sat in small metal seats, one to elevate the gun, another to traverse it. Some powder casings near one of the guns had been ignited by a bomb, causing a secondary explosion. I saw the two operators of that gun still sitting in their positions, totally burned. I’ll never forget that awful sight. There was a sickening smell, which was picked up by the ventilating system and carried all through the ship.

“The devastation wasn’t only on the top deck, either. People were also killed on the hangar deck below by armor-piercing bombs that went straight through the flight deck. We had to repair the holes with temporary patches before our planes could land.

“An hour later, when the planes started landing, I was back at my station. I would meet each airplane, jump up on the wing, and quickly ask the pilot if he was having any problems. If he said no, I was on to the next guy. There were four or five of us in my group and I greeted about 20 planes. When all the planes were back in the hangar, I got back in the equipment room, ready for the next engagement.”

The next day, the 74 sailors killed during the battle were buried at sea. Officers read the roster of casualties, the chaplain said prayers, and crewmen slid the weighted body bags one by one over the side. Despite widespread damage, the Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor for repairs under her own power.

The Battle of the Eastern Solomons took a high toll on the U.S. fleet, but bought precious time to shore up the Allied hold on the strategically all-important island of Guadalcanal.

Gunning aboard the ‘Dauntless’

Glass continued in his post on the flight deck for several weeks, weathering more enemy encounters. After the Battle of Santa Cruz Island in October 1942, Glass became a gunner and radioman on one of the Big E’s SBD “Dauntless” dive-bombers. The SBD stood for “Scout by Douglas,” though men who flew them said it stood for “slow but deadly.” Considered by many the backbone of the WWII naval dive-bomber fleet, the plane carried a pilot and radioman, each armed with two machine guns, the pilot’s switch-controlled from the plane’s flight stick.

“I was young and foolish and I liked flying better than being out on the flight deck,” Glass recalls. “For one thing, you could do something to avoid getting hit when you were in a plane. I never really thought I was going to die when I flew, but I remember saying a lot of prayers.

“Sometimes when it’s all over you get kind of brave, and on a lot of missions I’d say to myself, ‘If I can just get back alive, I don’t think I’ll ever fly again.’ The next day comes, though, and you go right back up.”

Glass had many close calls in the air, but the closest came amid the 1944 campaign to recapture the Marianas from Japan, starting with a June 12 strike on Saipan and ending with a July 4 raid on Guam. Late in the afternoon of June 20, the Japanese fleet was spotted at the far limit of the U.S. planes’ range. With daylight fading, more than 200 planes were launched from U.S. carriers, including the Enterprise, Lexington, and Wasp. Roughly two hours later, the strike group found and attacked the Japanese ships, inflicting heavy casualties.

The U.S. suffered casualties, but far fewer. Aggressive anti-aircraft fire claimed 17 planes, according to operational accounts. The rest faced a two-hour flight home in the dark, too far out to rely on the carriers’ homing signals. With barely enough fuel to make it back, even using the most skilled conservation tactics, the pilots would have to land using only the carrier lights, switched on despite great risk to the ship. Nearly 80 of the pilots fell short, ditching in the water and spending the night in emergency rafts, their planes on the ocean floor beneath them.

When the skipper announced “land on any base,” Glass and his pilot landed on the USS Wasp – commissioned in November ’43 to replace its torpedoed predecessor – with barely a gallon of fuel left after 5.8 hours in the air. For his role in the landmark mission, Glass was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, recognizing “extraordinary heroism.”

Jack and Mary, 1945

A lasting love

During his stateside refresher training early in 1945, Jack met Mary Cowart, a farm girl from Merigold, Mississippi, on a blind date. Three weeks later, they were engaged. Married just before the war ended, the Glasses celebrated their 65th anniversary in May.

Mary still recalls her immense relief at the war’s end, upon learning that Jack didn’t have to go back into combat. “I don’t know how I would have been able to stand it,” she reflects.

After the war, her husband transferred to the Air Force, assigned as avionics chief for the 31st Fighter Bomber Wing stationed in northern Japan. He retired in 1961 at age 37, but began a second public service career the following year when the State Department called on him to join the Foreign Service. He retired in 1974 after working as a staff officer at U.S. embassies all over the world.

Several years ago, the Glasses moved to Tuolumne County to be near their daughter, Jacki, and her family. Their other daughter, Nancy, lives in Washington, D.C. The Glasses have 10 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, and memories of a long and happy life together. Jacki, whose 33-year-old son, Michael, is a Marine now serving in Afghanistan, calls her father “my hero, hands down.”

‘So many good men’

Ever fewer men share firsthand knowledge of the Enterprise’s role in World War II. Jack and his wife have attended 11 “Big E” reunions over the past 20 years. About 200 veterans attended the 1989 reunion, Jack recalls; just 45 came to last year’s. The next is scheduled for Austin, Texas in 2011.

As for the Enterprise, the ship hosted more than 300,000 civilian visitors during her October 1945 mooring in New York. In 1958, the famed carrier was sold for scrap after a failed effort to raise $100,000 for a floating museum. The name, however, carries on in the form of the Navy’s first nuclear-powered carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN-65), launched in 1960 and set to retire in 2013.

Over the years, Jack has seldom spoken about his combat experiences, says Mary, “and I never wanted to push him on that. He used to wake up with nightmares but he always said he didn’t remember what they were about.”

Jack still doesn’t recall the details of those dreams, and has always chosen not to dwell on the real-life experiences that fueled them.

“I’m just so lucky to have survived,” he says. “So many good men never came home from the Pacific.”

Copyright © 2010, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Guest Contributor September 13, 2010 23:04
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9 Comments

  1. B.Z. Smith September 15, 06:30

    Thank you to FAN for these important tributes to our few remaining WWII veterans. As a country we have an obligation to capture and preserve these stories, our history, while we still can. As a community we need to take an active role in rooting out and interviewing these great American heroes.

    Thank you to the staff of FAN and to Deanna Maurer for helping to advance this important work in OUR community!

  2. Ethel Schmidt September 20, 11:17

    I think the article and video are MAGNIFICENT. Jack is my brother-in-law and I had no idea he had such horrifying experiences and to him such memorable ones. He had so many bragging rights, but never expressed them during all the 67 years that I have known him. I appreciate being able to read about all of his experiences, and to know that they will be preserved and passed down to his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and those yet to come. Thanks to all who had a part in giving us this article and video.

  3. Faye September 20, 14:59

    Proud to know you Jack and Proud to call you family! Love Faye

  4. Connie Cowart Peacock September 21, 06:21

    Thanks, Uncle Jack, for serving our Country and sharing your story. I too am proud to know you and to call you family! Love, Connie

  5. henry finley September 21, 11:44

    i live in union,ms Jack is& will always will be my favorite uncle his service to country will always be on my mine

  6. Cheri Cowart Howell September 24, 13:23

    Uncle Jack, and am so proud of you and reading this article and listening to you makes me so proud and so thankful for you and the rest of the men and women who serve our country to make it a better place for all of us. You are an amazing person.
    Love,
    Cheri

  7. Sandy Barber September 28, 13:46

    This article brings tears to my eyes. In the midst of all the Iraq and Afghanistan headlines we sometimes forget that our American soldiers have made many sacrifices for many generations now. I’m proud to call Jack Glass my uncle and my hero!

  8. Sara & Jim Langston October 19, 15:07

    Amazing! Thanks for your service to our country. We think of you often and love you very much. We are so thankful to have wonderful courageous men like you to serve our country.

  9. Bill Schoolar November 5, 15:44

    Jack what a nice tribute to you for for your service during WWII. I’m sure you have some fond and not so fond memories of your tour of duty aboard the USS Enterprise. As a member of the greatest generation, your nation salutes you and your shipmates. Your old Sunday School Class at Ridgeway Baptist Church in Memphis, Tn will fond memories of you.

    Best wishes,
    Bill Schoolar

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