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Our squadron went on the attack in support of the Third U.S. War Bond Drive.  We bombed El Centro with “Buy War Bonds” leaflets.

Mid-morning, we swept in from the West—wave after wave, in close formation—and we roared across El Centro at rooftop level.  That rattled the windows and brought out the crowds.

Beyond the fringes of town, we fanned out in high climbing turns, regrouped, and swept back over the town again, this time dropping leaflets.  We continued this escapade for awhile, crisscrossing El Centro, buzzing the rooftops with a roar.

Finally, our little War Bond disturbance ended.  We wagged our wings and withdrew across the desert, returning to base.

A couple of days later, the Imperial Valley Press gave us a warm salute in their lead editorial.  I didn’t read the “Letters to the Editor” column.


At about the same time, I received my appointment as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps.  That meant silver bars and a small increase in monthly pay.


“Always remember, you fly an airplane with your head, not your hands.  Never let a plane take you somewhere your brain didn’t get to minutes or even seconds earlier.”

An old Marine instructor barked out those words of advice during close formation training at Corpus Christi.  Months later, I mulled over his words at El Centro, the long night following Ox Wilson’s tragic accident.

Formation work is how most military flying is done.  By this time in our final combat training, tight formation work was second nature.

We were experienced.  We were confident.  At the end of a simulated dive bombing attack, for example, we would climb rapidly back into a defensive formation.  We would close in tight.  Routine stuff.

On that ill-fated day over the Salton Sea, however,  it was far from routine.

Regrouping after a fast skip bombing run, Ox Wilson had almost regained altitude and was moving into position on Jim O’Rourke’s left wing when it happened. Ox slid into position too fast—too close.

Ox’s prop cut into the fuel tank and sliced on into the cockpit of O’Rourke’s plane—and into the Irishman’s left leg.  An immediate fireball explosion erupted.  O’Rourke was blown clear.  Both planes were aflame.  And Ox bailed out of his fiery cockpit.

VMTB-242 I

The location turned out to be in barren desert country west of the Algodones dunes, a few miles outside the grubby, sun-baked town of El Centro.

There in the blazing heat of summer 1943, stocky, slab-jawed Maj. Bill Dean of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, skipper of newly commissioned VMTB-242, tackled the job of organizing and training what was to be the Marine Corp’s sixth and last torpedo bombing squadron destined for combat in the Pacific.

He started out with five SNJ advanced trainers, three aging SBD Douglas dive bombers from the Solomons, a skeleton ground crew and one grizzled sergeant major named Russell L. Hopkins.

By the luck of the draw, he landed four solid, experienced combat pilots as senior flight leaders: Barney McShane, Bud Main, Bill Ritchey and George “Sahib” Nasif.  All four had recently returned from the ongoing Guadalcanal campaign.

Next, Dean picked out 22 of us with advanced operational training as the squadron’s initial cadre of pilots.  At the same time, he added 68 enlisted men and a few essential ground officers to head up engineering, ordnance, radio and radar, intelligence, support material, plus a medical unit.

TBF Avengers began arriving early in August along with aircrews and additional pilots, including eleven junior pilots straight out of Pensacola and Corpus Christi.  During the intensive air maneuvers that followed, it became apparent the eleven juniors could not perform at a level with the rest of us.  They were transferred out to Goleta, a Marine Corps training base near Santa Barbara, for further seasoning.

More aircrews and ground crews reported in, more transfers ensued, bringing the new squadron in at full operational strength: 40 pilots, seven ground officers and 303 enlisted men.


Bill Dean was a consummate careerist, dedicated to the Corps, and gifted with strong organizational abilities.  His sense of humor was non-existent, however, and he had little rapport with his pilots.  He was not a popular commanding officer.  Whether or not he was a first-rate combat pilot is something I never determined.  He led few of the squadron’s missions—none of the sorties in which I was involved.