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.