(WWII) THEY LANDED BEFORE MACARTHUR

September 2, 2002 is the 57th anniversary of the Japanese surrender and end of WW II. An unusual remembrance of that occasion is detailed in the following vignette from a Seattle newspaper feature of September 1945 — which I have rewritten to include corrected information provided through a recent telephone interview with one of the participants, Navy dive bomber pilot J. D. Stanlake, of Kalamazoo, Mich. There are thousands of untold stories about that war, and I would never have known about this one except for a mutual friend of Stanlake's, Harley Koets of Sarasota, FL, who gave me a copy of the old newspaper clipping about the aircraft carrier Essex's return from the war and the exploits of the officers and men of its Air Group 83.

Seattle, Wash., September 1945 – Lt. Joseph Breslove, 29, Pittsburg, Pa., and Ens. J. D. Stanlake, 22, Duluth, Minn., can boast that they landed at Atsugi airport near Tokyo two days before Gen. Douglas MacArthur arrived there to accept the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri. But their unusual landing wasn't initially planned.

They were compelled to land somewhere after the engine of Stanlake's SB2-C Curtiss dive-bomber developed a bad oil leak during a reconnaissance flight on August 28. Typical of all pilots in such an emergency, they immediately looked for a place to set it down, spotted an airport just below, and decided to take the risk of landing there rather than ditch at sea and lose a valuable aircraft. Even though the Japanese had unofficially surrendered, and there was no air opposition or antiaircraft fire, neither pilot knew what to expect from the enemy.

After their landing, a black '37-Ford arrived (powered by a charcoal burner in its trunk) and a Japanese Army Colonel got out, approached them, and asked, “Why are you here?” He had word that MacArthur would soon arrive there and he came to see if these aircraft were part of that event. However, the oil that covered most of Stanlake's Helldiver made it quite obvious that this was an emergency situation, not an official meeting. The Japanese at the airfield were courteous and showed no intention of attack, but had no supplies, parts, or even gasoline — thus explaining the charcoal-burning contraption. The war damage to production, and shrinking imported supplies, had taken its toll.

The above AP news photo after the ship's arrival in Seattle in September 1945, shows (from left to right) Ens. J. D. Stanlake, Lt (jg) V. T. Coumbe, of Lombard, Ill., and Lt. Joseph Breslove.


The above AP news photo after
the ship's arrival in Seattle in September
1945, shows (from left to right) Ens. J. D.
Stanlake, Lt (jg) V. T. Coumbe, of
Lombard, Ill., and Lt. Joseph Breslove.
But the American ingenuity came to the fore when Breslove took the cardboard from a K-Ration box and fashioned a gasket to stop the leak. Together with air crewmen ARM2 Joseph Brophy, Boston, Mass., and ARM3 Robert Cooper of Arkansas, they completed the repair.

A DC-3 with General McArthur's advance party did arrive at Atsugi later that day, 28 August 1945. The Japanese hosted a banquet for all of the Americans, including the Essex group that evening. They had gathered the staff from the pre-war U.S. Consul to provide for McArthur. The Essex “guests” then returned to the ship with an enviable “sea story” of their adventure.

Coumbe had the distinction of being the first American pilot to land on Honshu and get back to his ship. Japanese anti-aircraft flak knocked down his plane and he drifted to the island after three hours in his inflatable life raft.

The following morning Coumbe's Very pistol shot signaled two OS2U Kingfisher seaplanes searching from Battleship North Carolina, and one landed to pick him up. Japanese artillery then started firing at the rescue plane. As the seaplane pilot crawled out of the cockpit to get on the main float and throw a line to Coumbe in the raft, he accidentally brushed against the throttle, causing the plane to lurch and toss him into the water. Ordinarily, the Kingfisher had a backseat gunner-radio operator, but during searches, the pilot flew alone to make room for the rescued airman. On its own the aircraft began circling on the water surface in a widening arc, drawing the shore fire away from the pilots. The other OS2U landed, picked up both men, squeezed them in the backseat, and returned them to safety.

A fighter pilot in that Air Group, Milton M. Truax, of Ft. Worth, Tex., was a personal friend of mine from our Navy flight training days. During his first combat mission off the Essex he shot down six Japanese aircraft within 90 minutes, and later added several more kills to his total. After his death in the 1990s, the Navy renamed the air station at Corpus Christi “Truax Field” in his honor.