Corsair pilot earned Navy Cross for battleship hit during WWII

Naval aviator Neil Swarthout is pictured second from left in front of F4U Corsair

U.S. Naval aviator Neil Swarthout — who flew F4U Corsair fighter bombers off the aircraft carrier USS Hancock during World War II — was awarded the Navy Cross, “for extraordinary heroism in combat,” during the battle at Japan’s Kure Naval Arsenal in July, 1945.

The Navy Cross is the second highest military decoration for valor — only the Medal of Honor is higher — that can be awarded to a member of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard.

Swarthout was just 19 and attending Oregon State College (now Oregon State University) when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

The draft age was 20, and Swarthout, in an effort to stay out of the “walking Army,” enlisted in the Volunteer Naval Reserve class V-5 Naval Aviation Cadet program. The program enlisted candidates to train as aviation cadets.

He began flight training in October, 1942 in Miles City, Mont., where he learned to pilot a Piper Cub.

After a short leave spent at home in Portland, in January, 1943, he boarded a train for a trip east.

From Portland, the men were sent to Iowa City, Iowa on a coal-burning train. Coal dust blew into the train, coating the men — who did not have a change of clothes — in soot.

“It took five days to get there,” he said. “When we arrived, it was six degrees below zero.”

His training days in Iowa City were split between academics and athletics.

“They were trying to build up our minds and our bodies,” he said.

After three months, he was sent to Hutchinson Naval Air Station in Kansas for primary training in a Stearman bi-plane. Three months later, he was off to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, where he received his pilot wings and was commissioned as an ensign on Nov. 6, 1943.

Former President George H.W. Bush graduated from NAS Corpus Christi just a few months earlier, in June, 1943.

Swarthout was assigned to Naval Auxiliary Air Station Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla., where he learned to fly SBD Dauntless dive bombers. He returned to the West Coast in early 1944, and was assigned to Naval Air Station Alameda in California.

He joined Air Group 6 in May, 1944 and did his final flight training for overseas operations at Santa Rosa Auxiliary Air Station.

There, the pilots practiced simulated aircraft carrier flight deck take-off and landings on the airfield.

“We probably did that 100 times. Then they sent us out to a jeep carrier (a Liberty ship with a flight deck attached) and we flew out to the ship from San Francisco. It was pretty exciting. I was more scared of the take-offs than the landings. I never knew if the engine was going to stay running. I didn’t want to go for a swim,” he said, laughing.

After qualifying for carrier landings, Swarthout was assigned to a fighter bomber squadron (VBF-6) in Hilo, Hawaii. But instead of flying the familiar Dauntless dive bomber, he was switched to F4U Corsairs.

“I’d never landed with a Corsair on a carrier, so we practiced out on a field.”

Swarthout went aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hancock in February, 1945.

“My first mission was on my birthday — March 14 — in Southern Kyushu, Japan. We bombed the airfield and strafed the airplanes on the ground. We were preparing for an eventual landing,” on the Japanese mainland.

Before dawn on March 19, 1945, two bombs hit the the USS Franklin, leaving the aircraft carrier dead on the water. While desperate efforts were being made to save the vulnerable ship, Swarthout saw another enemy aircraft coming in for a strike.

“I shot down a Japanese plane trying to make a suicide run on the Franklin. I was so close to this guy the bullets were converging in front of him. I could have chewed him up with my propeller.”

The twin-engine “Betty” bomber dropped out of the sky and crashed into the ocean.

The “kill” earned the 23-year-old aviator his first Air Medal.

The USS Hancock provided a close airport for the 10th Army’s landing on the west coast of Okinawa on April 1, 1945.

“On April 7 we got hit by a suicide bomber. I was flying at the time … the bomb went through the flight deck and exploded on the hangar deck. We lost a couple of rows of airplanes.”

According to military reports, 62 men were killed and 71 were injured. The fires were quickly extinguished and the ship was able to return to action before heading to Pearl Harbor for repairs.

In late July, 1945, Swarthout participated in a Naval air attack against the Kure Naval Arsenal and nearby ports, where the Imperial Japanese Navy’s remaining large warships were concentrated.

“I got a hit on a battleship, and they gave me the Navy Cross,” he said, understating his actions.

The official citation states the Navy Cross was awarded to Swarthout, “For extraordinary heroism,” in operations against enemy Fleet units at Kure Harbor, on July 28, 1945.

“Lieutenant Junior Grade Swarthout made a skillful and courageous bombing run upon an enemy battleship scoring a direct hit with a 1,000-pound bomb, despite accurate and intense anti-aircraft fire from enemy warships and shore batteries. His attack contributed materially to the heavy damage inflicted upon the enemy vessel. His outstanding courage and determined skill were at all times inspiring and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Navy Cross

Neil Swarthout

Age: 90
Birthday: March 14, 1922
Hometown: St. Helens, Ore.
Residence: Palm Desert
Branch of service: U.S. Navy; USS Hancock (CV-19); Bombing Fighting Squadron Six (VBF-6)
Years served: January, 1943 – October, 1945; he served in the Naval reserves until 1963 and called back to duty during the Korean War
Rank: Lieutenant Junior Grade (World War II); Attained rank of Lieutenant Commander in reserves.
Awards: Navy Cross; Air Medals (5)
Family: Wife Marilee; two children, Michael Swarthout of Kalama, Wash. and Melinda Boyd of Gresham, Ore.; two grandchildren

Yes, I do happen to have a model of a F4U Corsair on my desk!