During our 17 days at sea, heading due south across the equator and west beyond the Fijis, the sun was high and burning hot, tempered by sweeping, afternoon rain storms. It was January in the tropics—the cyclone season. Our destination: Espiritu Santo.
There were times at night when a few of us would climb up on deck to view the Southern Cross and surrounding skies and talk about home. I sometimes wondered if I would ever return to Oregon.
I spent most of my time in the carrier’s Ready Room, studying maps of the Solomons, reading tattered paperbacks, playing chess, or gin rummy, or taking an occasional seat in what seemed like a never-ending poker game. Up on top, the flight deck was jammed with tied- down F4U Corsairs and TBM Avengers, ready for delivery to the South Pacific combat zone.
TBF was the designation for the original Avengers made by Grumman. TBM was the designation for later models made to Grumman specs by General Motors. I think we just called them all TBFs.
About the time we were crossing the equator, word came through from the Marine base at Espiritu Santo that Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, flying an F4U Corsair, had been shot down that morning over Rabaul. The flamboyant Marine Corps ace and CO of the “Black Sheep Squadron” was reported missing in action.
Some months later—I don’t remember when— Boyington turned up alive in a Japanese prison camp near Tokyo. He had landed in the waters off Rabaul, badly injured. Following a strafing by Jap fighter planes, he had struggled onto his rubber life raft, wounded, and was later captured by a Jap submarine. Boyington spent 18 harrowing months in Japanese prison camps.
The Republic of Vanuatu is a chain of more than 80 Melanesian islands and underwater volcanoes set in the remote seas of the South Pacific—3,450 miles southwest of Honolulu, 1,300 miles north of Sydney, 555 miles southeast of Guadalcanal.
We knew Vanuatu during World War II as the sprawling New Hebrides, jointly administered by the French and the British. Espiritu Santo was the largest island in the chain. A steamy island of coastal plantations and dense interior jungle, Santo became the rear base and island headquarters for Marine Aviation in the South Pacific. It was selected by the Navy’s crusty, Vice Admiral John S. McCain, Commander of Aircraft, South Pacific. He wanted to secure a base nearer to Guadalcanal than his distant headquarters at Port Vila on the capitol island of Efate, 707 miles further south.