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Dogfight over Tokyo
The Final Air Battle of the Pacific and the Last Four Men to Die in World War II
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When Billy Hobbs and his fellow Hellcat aviators from Air Group 88 lifted off from the venerable Navy carrier USS Yorktown early on the morning of August 15, 1945, they had no idea they were about to carry out the final air mission of World War II. Two hours later, Yorktown received word from Admiral Nimitz that the war had ended and that all offensive operations should cease. As they were turning back, twenty Japanese planes suddenly dove from the sky above them and began a ferocious attack. Four American pilots never returned—men who had lifted off from the carrier in wartime but were shot down during peacetime.
Drawing on participant letters, diaries, and interviews, newspaper and radio accounts, and previously untapped archival records, historian and prolific author of acclaimed Pacific theater books, including Tin Can Titans and Hell from the Heavens, John Wukovits tells the story of Air Group 88's pilots and crew through their eyes. Dogfight over Tokyo is written in the same riveting, edge-of-your-seat style that has made Wukovits's previous books so successful. This is a stirring, one-of-a-kind tale of naval encounters and the last dogfight of the war—a story that is both inspirational and tragic.
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SINCE THIS BOOK is written from the viewpoint of the Air Group 88 pilots, especially the last four men to die in the war, I faced what for me was the difficult task of casting Admiral William F. Halsey in the villain’s role. I have admired Halsey since my high school years, and in my later biography of the man I took pains to ensure a fair evaluation—hero during the first two years of the war, but flawed commander in the second half. Overall, though, I argued that his leadership from late 1941 to mid-1944 earned him a spot in the naval pantheon alongside John Paul Jones and George Dewey. This book required me to portray him as less heroic, because that is how the aviators of Air Group 88 saw him.
At the same time, Admiral Halsey was also the main influence in my writing this book. When researching his life for my biography, I was moved that the admiral made a point to urge that the final aviators to die in the war should never be forgotten. That remark stuck in my mind, and when thinking of an idea for my next book, I wondered if the experiences of those four fliers might produce a compelling story. I knew that if I could locate sufficient information on at least two of the four naval aviators, that I had the foundation for a book. Happily, I uncovered a vast amount of material—letters, official documents, reminiscences, interviews, and photographs—from the Hobbs and Mandeberg families, and additional information from the remaining two families. Combined with other official material from government records and from aviator recollections, I possessed all I needed to produce this book.
While the volume relates the accomplishments of Air Group 88—a collection of fighter, dive-bomber, and torpedo plane pilots aboard the USS Yorktown (CV-10)—while off the Japanese coast from July to October 1945, it is anchored by the experiences of those final four men to perish in the war. I thus see most of the action through their eyes and through the reactions of their families in the United States.
I need to clarify how I define the aviators as the last four men to die in the war. I use that description in the narrow sense that they were the last men killed while conducting a wartime mission. They lifted off the Yorktown during wartime, and they died during that mission. In no way do I mean to detract from the hundreds of thousands of World War II veterans who succumbed in the following decades from wounds suffered during the war. They are casualties of World War II every bit as much as are these four carrier pilots. This book simply relates the story of four men who perished while carrying out their orders during the final wartime action.
Many people deserve my thanks. The expansive Hobbs family in Kokomo, Indiana, freely opened their doors to me and shared Billy Hobbs’s diary, letters, flight log, and other mementos. So, too, did the Mandebergs on the West Coast, the Leviens in New York City, and the Reverend Robert Vrooman in New York State. Especially worthy of mention are Nancy Hobbs Exmeyer, the sister of Wright Hobbs, and Sonya Levien, Eugene Mandeberg’s fiancée. I was honored to interview Nancy and Sonya, who so deeply knew and loved two of the four aviators.
A special thanks goes to the Air Group 88 survivors who willingly gave their time to share their recollections during interviews. My sessions with them, either in person or by telephone, were highlights of my time researching this incredible story. The men include William Watkinson and Earl Godfrey of VF-88; Gerald Hennesy, Bernard Hamilton Jr., and Merald Woods of VBF-88; and Arthur Briggs of VB-88. The widows of two VF-88 aviators, Margaret Odom and Betty Proctor, were also helpful, as was John Haag, whose father, Lieutenant (jg) John Haag, flew with the fighting squadron.
Todd Cummins, executive director of the USS Yorktown Association, and his staff aboard the aircraft carrier at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, provided valuable aid in locating records and photographs of Air Group 88. My agent, historian, and most of all, friend, Jim Hornfischer, encouraged me at every step of the way, for this book and for every previous volume. In the process, he helped me attain a dream I had long held of writing books about the Pacific War. The comments of my editor at Da Capo Press, Robert Pigeon, improved the manuscript, and publicist Sarah Falter brought her stellar talents to promoting this book. Cartographer extraordinaire Jeffrey Ward designed the maps that accompany the text.
Two individuals who are no longer with us helped start my writing career. My writing mentor, Tom Buell, whose powerful biographies of Pacific commanders fueled my desire to write about that conflict, offered comments about my early writings—exhausting numerous red pens in the process—and put me in touch with people and organizations that furthered my career. My history adviser at the University of Notre Dame, Dr. Bernard Norling, mailed cogent comments on various topics in his lengthy single-spaced, typewritten letters. I owe much to these two amazing historians.
My family has been at my side throughout this decades-long literary quest. The pride in me exhibited by my daughters, Amy, Julie, and Karen, has made every moment of the writing process worthwhile. Their joy, in turn, has filtered down to the next generation, as my grandchildren, Matt, Megan, Emma, and Katie, text or telephone their joy at my accomplishments. The unquestioned support of my big brother, Tom, a naval aviator residing in San Diego, blends with the memory of my parents, Tom and Grace, and of my younger brother, Fred, to prod me to excellence. Terri Faitel, my companion of more than two decades—and the person to whom this book is dedicated—has as always added her incisive comments to the manuscript as well as offered her support. I am fortunate to have their encouragement, and I love them all.
John F. Wukovits
October 30, 2018
JUNE 1943 TO JULY 1944: Flight training for Wright Hobbs, Eugene Mandeberg, and other aviators-to-be.
AUGUST 15: Commissioning of the first three squadrons: VF-88 at NAS Atlantic City, NJ; VB-88 at NAS Wildwood, NJ; VT-88 at NAS Quonset Point, RI.
AUGUST 19: VT-88 moves to NAAF Martha’s Vineyard, MA.
NOVEMBER 15: VF-88 moves to Otis Field.
DECEMBER 1: VB-88 moves to Otis Field.
DECEMBER 8–9: VT-88 moves to Otis Field.
DECEMBER 12: VB-88 reduced from 36 to 22 men.
JANUARY 2: The fourth squadron, VBF-88, commissioned at Otis Field.
FEBRUARY 1–15: Air Group 88 moves to California.
FEBRUARY 20: Air Group 88 leaves the West Coast for Hawaii.
FEBRUARY 24: Air Group 88 arrives in Hawaii for training.
APRIL 30: Air Group 88 leaves for Saipan.
MAY 12: Air Group 88 arrives in Saipan for training.
JUNE 12: Air Group 88 leaves for the Philippines.
JUNE 16: Air Group 88 arrives in the Philippines.
JUNE 17: Air Group 88 joins the USS Yorktown (CV-10).
JULY 1: Air Group 88 leaves for Japan.
JULY 10: Air Group 88 attacks Tokyo-area airfields.
JULY 14–15: Air Group 88 attacks Hokkaido and Northern Honshu.
JULY 18: Air Group 88 attacks Nagato and Yokosuka Naval Base.
JULY 24–25: Air Group 88 attacks Kure Naval Base.
JULY 24: Ensign Edward Heck is rescued by a Dumbo aircraft in the Inland Sea.
JULY 25: Lieutenant Howard M. Harrison is rescued by a Dumbo aircraft in the Sea of Japan.
JULY 26: President Harry Truman and British prime minister Winston Churchill issue the Potsdam Declaration calling for Japan’s unconditional surrender.
JULY 28: Air Group 88 attacks Kure Naval Base and Honshu airfields.
JULY 30: Air Group 88 attacks Tokyo-area airfields and shipping.
JULY 30: Lieutenants (jg) Donald R. Penn and Henry J. O’Meara are rescued by a Dumbo aircraft in the Sea of Japan.
AUGUST 6: The United States drops an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
AUGUST 9: The United States drops an atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
AUGUST 9–10: Air Group 88 attacks Hokkaido and Central Honshu.
AUGUST 13: Air Group 88 attacks Tokyo Plains Airfields.
AUGUST 15: Air Group 88 attacks Tokyo-area airfields; the war ends while Air Group 88 aviators prepare to attack Tokyo airfields; the final four men to die in the war are shot down and killed.
SEPTEMBER 2: Japanese officials sign the surrender document in a ceremony held aboard the USS Missouri (BB-63).
OCTOBER 1: The Yorktown and Air Group 88 leave Japan for the journey back to the United States.
OCTOBER 20: The Yorktown and Air Group 88 pass beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and arrive in the United States.
TO THE WAR
“And Then Came the War”
Training for Combat, 1943–1944
ATLANTIC CITY’S CLARIDGE HOTEL boasted a proud heritage at the famed New Jersey resort center. Its twenty-four stories of rooms, restaurants, and shops dwarfed other structures that crowded the Boardwalk area by the ocean and stood as a landmark that attracted tourists by the score. Hotel management and workers had accommodated parties and functions for decades, from wedding receptions and family reunions to small gatherings of people seeking a restful weekend free from the burdens of everyday life.
The group that walked in on September 1, 1944, differed in crucial ways from its predecessors, however. Whereas most affairs featured an assortment of ages, youth prevailed among the sixty-eight uniformed naval officers who entered the establishment for their fighter squadron commissioning party. They were not there to celebrate a wedding or other joyous occasion, but to mark the origins of their air squadron and to embrace the realization that they would, within months, be posted to the Pacific, sent there to operate in the dangerous skies over Japan. Strafing enemy shipping, bombing oil refineries, and engaging Japanese Zeros—then the superior fighter aircraft of the war—in spectacular dogfights awaited this group of young officers, but from the laughter and joking that rose as they filed into the banquet room, an observer could never deduce the serious nature of the business that soon would be theirs.
Like all fighter pilots, they crowed of aerial feats to come and bragged that no enemy pilot was their equal. The younger and less experienced the aviator—and the more alcohol he ingested—the more boastful he became, for each had yet to learn what any veteran of the war could quickly explain: air combat is nothing to take lightly.
Fighting Squadron 88, like most Navy squadrons in the latter half of the war, featured a core of experienced aviators blended in with a mass of neophytes. The youngsters, like twenty-two-year-old Ensign Wright C. “Billy” Hobbs Jr., a Hoosier who grew up on an Indiana farm, or the fun-loving, cigar-chomping Lieutenant (jg) Joseph G. Sahloff from New York, so thin he was compared to Ichabod Crane, viewed the veterans with awe. Hobbs and the other newcomers wondered if they had the guts and skill to match Lieutenant (jg) Marvin R. Odom, who had only a few months earlier helped break up a formation of fifteen Japanese fighters and notched the first of his Pacific kills. Everyone discussed Lieutenant John P. Adams’s feats during the war’s first months, when he amassed two Navy Cross decorations—the Navy’s highest honor—and one Distinguished Flying Cross in combat over the Gilbert and Marshall Islands and in the crucial May–June 1942 Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, where he destroyed two enemy aircraft.
This, however, was a time for fun, laughter, and above all, exaggeration. They knew that the United States had gained the upper hand in the Pacific, but in their opinion, victory was far from certain, at least until Fighting Squadron 88 arrived to settle the score. If anyone doubted their feelings, all one had to do was read the poem titled “Fighting Eighty-Eight,” a fitting ode to his squadron and to the men who would fly the planes into battle, written by Lieutenant Paul E. Williams and printed in that night’s program.
Fighting Hellcats riding high
Japs, come meet your fate
Other outfits, step aside
For Fighting Eighty-Eight.
Tojo’s pilots, one and all
Have hara-kiri dates
They’ve received the word that here
Comes Fighting Eighty-Eight.
Of this one thing you can be sure
That lead will perforate
The hide of every Jap who faces
Bombers and torpedo planes
Hurry, don’t be late
For your path will be cleared out
By Fighting Eighty-Eight.
And if St. Peter’s Angels have
All left the Pearly Gate
You’ll find them out there, flying wing
On Fighting Eighty-Eight.1
The squadron was a part of Air Group 88, a unit that would eventually comprise four squadrons. Ensigns Hobbs and Sahloff already exhibited some of that cocky attitude so prevalent among fighter pilots, whose task would be to clear the way for the squadron bombers and torpedo planes that followed them to the target. They would be the first to grapple with the enemy; they would be the first to engage Zeros and face Jap antiaircraft fire.
They were ready, they were eager, they were young.
“BILLY WAS BORN TO FLY”
Norman Rockwell, whose celebrated paintings depicted homespun America, would have felt right at home with Billy Hobbs and his family. Born August 15, 1922, to a farming family in Kokomo, Indiana, Billy Hobbs swam and fished in Little Wildcat Creek, which lazily meandered through the 160-acre Hobbs farm just outside of town. “We had sleds and would go on down the hill,” said Nancy Exmeyer, Billy Hobbs’s younger sister. “In the summertime we’d swim. We had a briar patch and a big woods.”
When the leaves turned golden and wintry temperatures turned the creek to ice, he and his siblings—three sisters and two brothers—donned skates and raced its length, although the shallow depth sometimes produced a choppy surface. Should the creek lose its allure, those nearby woods and its hidden secrets captured their fancy.
More importantly Billy’s parents, Wright Sr. and Hattie, fit the Rockwell scheme by fashioning a sheltered world for their children. “We had great parents,” added Exmeyer. “If someone today says I’m just like them, I say, ‘Thank you.’” They stressed the importance of treating people kindly and of developing good manners. Be good to people, keep your word, and work hard: those were the traits inculcated by the parents.
Kokomo residents knew the father through his work on hybridization of corn. Farsighted and inquisitive, he experimented in increasing the yield before anyone else in the area, and no one was surprised when his feats garnered notice in the local newspaper.
Since her husband spent most of his days in the fields, Hattie, like so many mothers, was the one who dealt with the everyday issues presented by Billy or one of his siblings. She dispensed the advice; she patched scraped elbows and bandaged cut fingers. She was especially close to Billy, her firstborn, even though she would never admit it, but the two developed a strong bond during Billy’s emergent years.
The Hobbs family escaped the worst ravages of the Great Depression because of the family farm. They experienced hardship—pretty much everyone in the Kokomo area suffered in the 1930s—but they fared better than their neighbors, with whom they frequently shared the bounties from their fields and from their collection of animals. “We’d give food to the neighbors who were hard off,” said Exmeyer. “Nothing fancy. Meat and potatoes. My parents gave to people, and gave and gave. When we were poor, there were others who were real poor.”
Billy, who shared one of the three bedrooms with his brothers while his parents and his sisters occupied the other two, exhibited his parents’ kindness and responsibility, and developed an interest in new challenges from his father. His siblings looked up to their well-mannered big brother as their role model, and they tried to emulate his politeness and friendliness. “Billy was always after us, for the best,” said Nancy Exmeyer. “He was pushing everyone. He wanted perfection, ever since he was a kid. He was friendly, courteous, and modest. There were times as a young girl I wished he wasn’t my brother, because he could be so strict, but Billy was a good big brother to have.”2
The student at West Middleton High School compiled above-average grades in his four years, excelling in physics, and helped his dad at the farm. Flashing a charming grin beneath blue eyes and a crop of brown hair, Hobbs liked the Talbert sisters and went out with other girls, but everyone at school and home knew what most grabbed his attention—flying. “Billy was born to fly,” said Nancy Exmeyer. “He knew he was going to fly. He just knew. He was always making the paper airplanes. We were only three-and-one-half miles from the airport, and he’d see those planes take off and land. We knew Billy was destined to fly. We knew.”3
Billy loved fashioning airplanes from almost anything, including matchboxes, and launched a stream of concoctions skyward, most of which gained minimal altitudes before crashing to the fields. The aerial antics of barnstorming pilots lifting off from nearby DeGrasse Airport so captivated the youth and further entrenched an affection for flying that some later believed Billy saw flying as his ticket out of the backbreaking labors and long hours of farming. After cashing his first paycheck working odd jobs while in high school, Billy snuck over to Clyde Shockley’s makeshift airfield, later named Ruzika Airport, not far from the farm and surreptitiously took flying lessons, keeping his antics hidden from his parents because he feared they would put an immediate halt to the activities. Exmeyer always suspected that Hattie knew what her son was up to, but said nothing to her husband to avoid any confrontation between father and son. “He got his pilot’s license before he ever got out of high school,” said Hobbs’s sister, Joyce Clelland. “He was slipping over and taking flying lessons all that time. Bill was really determined to fly. He had his pilot’s license before we all knew it.” Once he learned the rudiments of flying, Billy, eager for any opportunity to lift into the air, often traipsed to the airfield and took a plane up without first checking with Shockley.
Billy knew his path by the time he graduated from West Middleton High School in the spring of 1940. “And then here came the war,” said Clelland.4
“ONE SIMPLE MISTAKE WHEN FLYING COULD BE FATAL”
For more than a year, Billy grabbed the opportunity to fly whenever his work allowed. He continued his lessons and became one of the few Kokomo boys his age to solo in a plane. With the surprise Japanese attack against the Hawaiian naval base at Pearl Harbor, Billy’s thoughts, like those of so many of his former classmates, turned to the military. He and his buddies never questioned the choice; it was their duty, if physically able, to enter one of the military branches and help defend their nation. Nineteen-year-old Herbert Wood of Iowa, for instance, who would later join Hobbs in the same carrier air group, enlisted after watching newsreels of the war in his local theater.
The Army and Marine Corps stood as excellent options, but Billy Hobbs had his eye on only one choice—the air. In September 1942, he enlisted in the Navy’s V-5 Aviation Cadet program, which in the early stages of the war accepted males with a high school diploma. After successfully passing a battery of psychological and aptitude tests showing they possessed the skills to meet the Navy’s requirements, the Navy sent the hopefuls to local junior colleges or universities to begin four months of half a day’s instruction in mathematics, physics, navigation, and aerology and half a day of flying with an instructor. The lanky Hobbs, listed as 6′0″ tall and weighing 145 pounds on the Navy’s official entry card, thought that the Navy and its carriers offered enticing chances for him to keep flying, and even better, he did not have to leave Indiana for these initial months of training. He could fill his mornings and afternoons with aviation, yet be close enough to home that he could see family and friends, almost as if he were embarking on a trial run of what the military would be like. Hobbs understood that his chosen field of combat—the sky—brought risks that ground troops did not face, but he had the desire and the fortitude to accept the challenge.
Hobbs joined a group called the “Lombardiers,” a central Indiana naval aviation unit named after the late Carole Lombard, actress and wife of noted film star Clark Gable. The commanding officer invited Clark Gable to attend the induction ceremony to be held during halftime of the Kokomo-Logansport football contest, but Gable was unable to accept. Along with eighteen other Kokomo males, Hobbs was sworn in on October 16, 1942.
From that point, Hobbs’s instruction continued at Ball State Teachers College about fifty miles southeast of Kokomo. Navy instructors intensified the training for the civilian pilot trainees, cramming 240 hours of instruction into eight weeks, in addition to the flying based out of nearby Muncie Airport. Hobbs handily advanced through every stage of his instruction until, on January 18, 1943, he received a certificate from the Civil Aeronautics Administration naming him a student pilot. He was now ready for the next step—Naval Preflight School in California, followed by primary flight training at the Naval Air Station in Livermore, thirty miles east of San Francisco. Hobbs’s ties to Kokomo would remain strong, but they now stretched across the continent.
WITH BILLY HOBBS set to leave Kokomo for California, for the first time the war personally impacted the Hobbs family. Hattie’s worries over the welfare of her son intensified. “Mom and Dad didn’t want Billy to go into the service,” said Nancy Exmeyer. “Oh Lord, no! They were scared to death for him, but they knew he would have to go sooner or later. We weren’t surprised that Billy wanted to fly.”5
Billy reported to Naval Preflight School in June 1943, which one pilot labeled “the most dreaded and supposedly the toughest part of the training program.”6 Now formally under the aegis of a military organization, Billy and the young aviators-to-be spent the next three months learning the Navy’s procedures and rules. Half each day Hobbs and the group engaged in arduous physical training—calisthenics, running, and hiking over hills tested each person’s stamina, while sporting contests offered a spirit of competition to boys who wanted to match their skills against their fellow cadets.
Classes occupied the remainder of the days, where instructors hurled official terminology, military customs, saluting, close-order drill, aerology, navigation, and a hundred other items at Cadet Hobbs and the other overwhelmed candidates. Hobbs had to be able to identify every combat plane then in use, either by the United States or by one of her adversaries, and within a second recognize the aircraft from any angle. The instructors constantly reminded them that if they thought this was difficult now, in combat, where hesitation meant death, they would have no time to think about their foe.
They also had to master the series of training manuals offering advice about everything from how to handle an emergency landing in the ocean, to marksmanship and avoiding sharks. A booklet titled “There’s No Substitute for Marksmanship!” emphasized the need for accuracy and explained that “one blow gun which HITS is better than one 16-inch gun which MISSES.” Hobbs learned that “the plane is just a platform to get your guns up where you can hit the enemy hard and quickly,”7
- "What we know of war usually comes from survivors. This book is about four young flyers who didn't come back. Those who die give up all that they have, all their hopes and dreams, all the infinite potential life offers. Wukovits captures that tragedy in a powerful way. Superb."—Stephen Coonts, New York Times bestselling author
- "But for one tragic hour, they would have returned safely to the loved ones who worried over them so much. Instead, four Navy fighter pilots became the final combat casualties of World War II. As he did in Tin Can Titans and Hell from the Heavens, John Wukovits skillfully entwines the personal stories of young men at war with the horrors of the larger conflict. Dogfight Over Tokyo is a haunting tale of heroism and sacrifice and the continuing agony of those left to grieve."—Walter R. Borneman, bestselling author of Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers aboard the USS Arizona
- "In this meticulously researched work, John Wukovits provides rare personal insight to the aviators who fought the U.S. Navy's LAST major combat of World War II-and those supporting them on the home front. If it's true that no war truly ends while some still remember it, then Dogfight Over Tokyo extends our national memory of those who brought the world's greatest conflagration to a joyous, painful, and bittersweet end."—Barrett Tillman, author of Whirlwind and On Wave and Wing
- "An expertly researched addition to the military history/biography genre"—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Aug 24, 2021
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Hachette Books