Combat Zone: WWII Marine fighter pilot Paul Becker

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2011 17:01

Becker with Corsair, 1944, on Emirau

He can’t get into the cockpit of a Corsair without getting emotional and, even at 89, swears he could still fly World War II’s fastest fighter if given the chance.

“You’re damn right I could,” says Sonoran Paul Becker. “I know that plane from top to bottom.”

A retired dean of students at Columbia College, Becker spent almost four decades as a successful teacher and administrator. But it was three years in the Marine Corps – including one remarkable year flying combat missions in the South Pacific – that shaped and guided his life.

“Very few days go by when I don’t think about something that happened back then,” says Becker, still fit and trim as he enjoys his third decade of retirement with his wife, Sunny. “It changed my mindset. It gave me discipline and a sense of competition I didn’t have before. I came out of the Marine Corps a different person.”

Corsair pilot Becker, then just 22, flew 92 missions in 1944 and ’45, shot down three Japanese fighters, took hundreds of rounds of fire himself, often dove thousands of feet to deliver bombs and torpedoes, and narrowly escaped death more than once.

He rubbed elbows with John Glenn, Charles Lindbergh and Pappy Boyington, and flew with Joe’s Jokers, a prestigious fighter squadron commanded by legendary Marine ace Joe Foss.

Becker earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 11 air medals, and numerous unit citations and campaign awards. Not bad for a kid whose college English teacher once said, “Paul, I’d pass you if you’d just come to class.”

College days

That was at Western State College, where Becker enrolled in 1940 after graduating from high school in his tiny (Pop. 631) hometown of Hotchkiss, Colorado. After years of getting up at 4 a.m. to milk cows, feed pigs and pick fruit on his parents’ farm, this young man was ready to have some fun. With a football and basketball scholarship, Becker lived the good life at the Gunnison, Colorado school.

“I was a party animal,” he confesses.

That all changed on Dec. 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“A buddy and I decided we’d be Navy pilots,” he says. “I was always intrigued by flying and remember bumming rides when barnstorming fliers would come through our town. That was always a thrill.”

After completing the two years of college the Navy required of its pilots, Becker in mid-1942 passed a series of tests in Denver and San Francisco, then was told to wait for orders. Months passed, and he was dispatched to Boulder, where he and his fellow cadets learned how to fly Piper Cubs. Then the Navy told him to wait some more.

I was scared the war was going to end and there wouldn’t be anymore Japs left to shoot down,” says Becker.

In early 1943 he was ordered to report to pre-flight school at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. “It was right up my alley,” says the always-athletic Becker. “It was half class and half PE – boxing, football, basketball, swimming. I was in great shape.”

A plane you could depend on

Next, it was to Pasco, Wash., for instruction in a Stearman biplane, to Beeville, Texas to fly single-wing Vultee SNVs, and to Kingsville, Texas for advanced training in North American’s SNJ Texan, a yet more powerful aircraft. In December of ’43, Becker got his gold wings, his second lieutenant’s bars and assignment as a fighter pilot for the Marines, a branch of the Navy.

At Green Cove Springs Naval Air Station in Florida, Becker learned to fly Chance Vought’s 2,000-horsepower, 420 mph F4U Corsair, touted by Marine pilots as the top fighter in the war. Its pilots shot down 11 enemy planes for every one they lost.

What was so good about the 18-cylinder Corsair?

“Everything,” Becker says. “The way it was built and designed, the engine power, the huge prop. You could depend on it.”

As luck would have it, his first assignment was ferrying brand-new Corsairs from the east coast to the west – so other pilots could take them into combat. But weeks later Becker was dispatched to El Toro Marine Base in Southern California to learn combat flying. One of his squadron mates was future astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn.

“John was very serious about ‘why does it fly,’ ” he says. “The rest of us just cared that our planes flew at all.”

Joe’s Jokers  

Tacloban: Becker, left, with buddies, amid wreckage of crashed enemy plane

By August 1944, Becker’s long wait was over. He was ordered to Emirau, a tiny coral island airstrip near New Guinea. There he joined Joe’s Jokers, a squadron commanded by the cigar-chomping, poker-playing, Zero-killing Joe Foss, who shot down 26 Japanese fighters and made the cover of Life magazine before malaria sidelined him late in the war.

Although Foss spared his pilots no criticism, they were unfailingly loyal.

“Joe would give you holy hell,” says Becker, “but then he’d say, ‘Sit down and deal,’ and life would go on.”

A national hero, Foss after the war was elected governor of his native South Dakota and, later became commissioner of the upstart American Football League. “But he was approachable and accessible,” says Becker, whose tent was next to the commander’s. “And he sure loved to play poker.”

But life for the 50 Joe’s Joker pilots on Emirau was more than a card game. By this time, American forces had won key battles at Guadalcanal, Guam, the Marshall Islands and other fronts. Key allied victories had loosened the enemy’s grip on New Guinea and the Philippines.

Becker’s squadron was to neutralize Kavieng, a Japanese-occupied base on the island of New Ireland, part of New Guinea.

“We’d bomb and strafe military installations and hit Japanese ships bringing in supplies,” he says, making it sound fairly academic. In reality, however, his extensive training did nothing to erase the jitters of his first mission.

“I was shaking like a leaf,” he remembers. “Most of all, you figure you’re going to get killed.”

But he survived his debut sortie, although admitting that the hundreds of rounds he fired from the Corsair’s .50-caliber machine guns “killed more fish than anything else.”

Lindbergh and Foss

It was on Emirau that Becker met famed trans-Atlantic pilot Charles Lindbergh, then a consultant for Chance Vought dispatched to ask Marine pilots what they liked and didn’t like about the Corsair. Joe Foss thought enough of Becker to assign him to a group of four pilots flying cover for Lindbergh, who joined several of the squadron’s flights as an observer. The young pilot accomplished his mission: No Zeroes got close to Lucky Lindy.

But the pilots’ verdicts on the Corsair (“thumbs up”) and on Lindbergh (“stuck up”), differed. Likewise, Joe’s Jokers had no great love for competing ace Boyington, whose squadron was based near Emirau. “A blowhard” was the consensus, Becker says.

As 1945 began, the Jokers moved nearly 2,000 miles to a new front, the Philippines, setting up at Tacloban, a crowded base on the island of Leyte.

By this time, U.S. forces were well on their way to reclaiming the Philippines, lost to the Japanese in May 1942. The Allies had won a decisive victory in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October of ’44, and Luzon, the chain’s largest island, had become a key front.

Within days of arriving in Tacloban, Becker took off for what would be his most harrowing mission. A fleet of Japanese battleships, destroyers and troop carriers were headed toward Luzon in an effort to reclaim lost territory.

Armed with two 500-pound bombs each, the Marine Corsairs were ordered to blow those ships out of the water. Becker, in a hail of anti-aircraft fire, delivered the bombs only to find that his lead pilot had been shot down and he was alone.

“I kept looking for another plane to join up with, but all I saw was Zeroes,” says Becker. “One crossed my path, so I got on his tail and shot him down.”

Minutes later he spotted a second Zero, this one headed for the island of Cebu. “I chased him down, hit him, and saw him crash,” he says.

Becker still remembers the adrenaline rush.

“It’s all excitement, challenge and competition,” he says. “The primary feeling was that, by God, you’re better than they are, you know you’re better and there’s no way in hell that they’re going to shoot you down.”

But Becker’s day wasn’t over. Back at Tacloban, his Corsair was loaded with a 1,000-pound torpedo bomb and he was ordered back to the advancing Japanese fleet. His mission involved diving from 12,000 feet to 1,500, letting the bomb loose and heading skyward as fast as possible – which not only left the belly of his Corsair exposed to dozens of gunners, but gave rise to a logical conclusion: “I was bound to get killed,” thought Becker.

What goes through the mind of a pilot who survives such a day?

“How good a drink would taste,” laughs Becker.

But alcohol was no part of the debriefing. Instead, the pilots would get together and tell stories of their exploits. “There was a certain amount of pride,” he says. “We did stop the Japs from making a landing, and that was important.”

Close call

But it wasn’t Becker’s closest call. That came toward the end of 1944, and he wasn’t even in the air.

He had finished a mission and was in the operations tent “when all hell broke loose.”

A Japanese transport plane loaded with suicide commandos approached Tacloban in a torrent of anti-aircraft fire, burst into flames and was headed directly for the operations tent.

“This time we knew it was over,” says Becker, who dove for cover and “waited for sudden death.”

The flaming transport hit the ground in front of the tent and, miraculously, crashed through it before slamming into several parked Corsairs. Against odds, no Marine suffered more than minor injuries. Becker had burns on one arm.

“You could get a Purple Heart,” suggested a medic.

“Not for that,” scoffed Becker, waving him off. And the war went on.

In April 1945, not long before the Nazis’ unconditional surrender in Europe, Joe’s Jokers were transferred to Zamboanga, at the southern tip of the Philippines. By this time, Allied forces had retaken Bataan and Manila, but the Philippine campaign wasn’t over. While Becker and his wingman were patrolling the Sulu Archipelago, a Navy cruiser reported that three small boats were approaching.

“I made a low-level pass, confirmed they were Japanese and began strafing,” says Becker. “Then this Zeke (a newer Japanese fighter, faster and more powerful than the Zero) appeared, and I shot him down.”

He earned a second Distinguished Flying Cross for his trouble.

War’s end

In August, American B-29s dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the war in the Pacific was all but over.

So Becker, still only 23, and four more senior pilots left Zamboanga without orders. “Which you don’t do, but in all the confusion we figured, what the hell,” he says. “Plus, after 13 months in combat and 92 missions, we were ready.”

Becker in 2011, reading one of more than 200 letters he wrote to his parents during WWII

They hitched rides on Navy transports and ships back to the U.S. Becker’s discharge, as a first lieutenant, came a few weeks later. He returned to Colorado and joined the Marine Reserve, in which he served for 15 years, retiring as a captain.

In Denver, Becker had lined up an interview for a pilot’s job with Pan American, but a college buddy instead convinced him to return to Western State and play basketball.

The hoops team didn’t do well, but Becker did, getting A’s and B’s and meeting his first wife, Jean, on his way to a degree in education and a teaching job near Denver.

He followed with a master’s degree at Stanford and an administrator’s job at San Jose City College. In 1971 he moved to Tuolumne County to help lead Columbia College, where he was dean of students for 16 years and became a charter member of the school’s Hall of Fame. He also raised a son and three daughters, divorced, and in 1978 married Sunny, a college admissions clerk at the time.

News coverage from Becker’s long and successful career makes scant mention of his Marine hitch.

“Although it guided what I did, I didn’t preach it,” he says. “If I thought a student was so inclined, I’d talk to him about my experiences, but I was no recruiter.”

Reflections

Paul Becker’s World War II service is now more than 60 years behind him and he hasn’t piloted a plane since 1950. Still, his years in the service are a cornerstone of his life.

For years he remained close to his squadron mates and regularly attended reunions, but now virtually all have died: Becker believes he may be the last of the World War II Joe’s Jokers.

He treasures the photos he took and souvenirs he brought back from the war. Recently he re-read the more than 200 letters he mailed to his parents while overseas.

A Japanese sword he salvaged from that flaming Japanese transport is at the Tuolumne County Veterans Museum in Sonora. In his garage are his Marine dress uniform, his flight suit, more photos, news clippings and old magazines, all of them hearkening back to the Jokers.

An irrational attachment? Not for Becker, who credits his success in life to lessons he learned while flying Corsairs in the skies over the Pacific.

“The discipline, the competitiveness, the esprit de corps – I brought them to everything I did in my career,” he says. “It made me what I became and what I am. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2011 17:01