Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Profile 86: "523" as flown by Leo Istas, VMF-313

Think about this—can you "bounce" a 1,000 pound iron bomb along the water?

Most of us have skipped rocks across a pond; that's easy enough to imagine.  But ginormous poundage of explosives kissing itself off the waves onto a target takes the physics-of-the-moment to a new level!  But, the process worked well enough to be prescribed as a bona fide tactic.

See, skip-bombing was used on targets that were best-hit down-low.  If you can imagine dive-bombing a ship from straight-overhead, you can see in your minds-eye that the target is slim.  And if it's turning, all kinds of motions come into play that will throw off a well-aimed bomb; never mind the fact that the anti-aircraft fire would be like pointing the lit-end of a roman candle at one's face!

Of course dive-bombing ships worked (just do a little research on the Battle of Midway).   But if you really wanted to take out a ship, you'd plant a bomb right smack in the side.  Right on the waterline.   And, that's what Torpedo Bombers like the TBM Avenger were designed to do.  But torpedo planes were slow, big and could get shredded by a whole bunch of roman candle's in the face! Plus, those torpedoes were not cheap.

That's where skip-bombing came in - use a smaller fighter*, wound up with a nose full of steam from a 12,000 foot dive and deliver the iron bomb at wave-top height.  It makes sense.  If you had a pilot who could do it.

To hear Leo Istas describe it, the sheer thrill, madness and mindset of a skip-bombing attack must have been out-of-this-world.  Though his body had aged 90 years, his mind snapped-too as if the moment were yesterday.
Corsair cockpit - source unknown

"We went over the bay (somewhere in the Phillipines) to hit a convoy.  We knew (the Japanese convoy) was there and our job was to hit the ships.  I can remember we got a little ways away, then (and he starts using his hands in an effort to describe what happened next) I pulled the wing over and began my dive.  From 12,000 feet.  The ship (I picked) was up ahead and (my airspeed) started to climb!"

Now, a loaded Corsair would weigh about six tons.  Already a fast airplane (400+ in level flight), the bent-winged machine could also bend the airspeed needle at 550 miles per hour (or more) in a dive.  If you were on the deck of that ship watching this affair, there wouldn't be much time to ponder what would happen next.

Of course, I'd been listening with an active imagination.  I could feel the temporary suspension of gravity and the pull of horsepower against my seat harness as the airplane plummeted towards the gray-blue water below.  The coal and moss colored hills surrounding the harbor were on the horizon; in between them and my indigo machine floated the gray-brown ships of the enemy, just far apart to offer each other covering fire but not too close in case one of them blew to high heaven.

Leo leaned forward, his wheelchair wiggling against a faulty set-brake,  "I pulled out just above the water.  Just above the water!  Do you know what I mean by that?"

"I think so.  But tell me."

"I was level and low!  So low that when I fired (my machine guns) I could see the sparks hitting just above the waterline.  My prop couldn't have been more than a foot or so above the water!"  Leo laughed, but it was a nervous, incredulous-sounding chuckle, as if he couldn't believe his memories.

Brilliant balls of explosive arced toward Leo.  A few big ones and a blizzard of small ones...chat-chat-chat-chat-BOOM-chat-chat-BOOM-chat-chat...

"What were you thinking when...!?"

"Nothing!  Too fast!" Leo interrupted. "Too low...just too much going on to think.  You just had to get let that bomb go at the right time to bounce it's way into the ship."

Leo, inbound - source, me.

I could imagine a metallic 'cunk' sound as the latches holding the bomb opened and the giant iron device fell from the screaming blue fighter.  At that speed, the water would become like a trampoline and the bullet-shaped casing would glance off the surface and spring it forward.  It's kind of a cool thing to visualize but at the time, my head was locked onto the Corsair.  I imagined blue beast howling across the freighter at mast-height, too fast for the Japanese to do anything but inhale. One final time.

"So did the ship explode?!"  Though the movie-camera in my mind had "filmed" the entire event, I still needed to know what special effects to add to the final scene.  I had a few options; one, a sliver of bright orange flame erupts from the cowl as Leo takes a fatal hit.  Two, the bomb wavers so slightly and catches a wave, exploding harmlessly in a gigantic column of water.  Three...

Leo looked away, out the window of the VA hospital.  "I didn't see.  I just got out of there.  When you do something like that, you don't look back."  He paused, lost himself for a second, then, as he picked up his fork to pick at his lunch, added, "Another guy saw it though.  Boom. The ship split in two and sunk."   He took a few more bites and then finished, "And that's what got me my DFC.  I blew up a ship."

He took a few more chews, mocked up a quick smile and continued his lunch.  It was clear that for Leo, the memory remained fresh.  I looked around the cafeteria and wondered if anyone there had the slightest clue that here, in their murmuring, clanking midst, was a warrior who, in the old Native American vernacular, "counted coup."

Anyway, have a look at Leo's logbook below.  Find the column on the left with the "11"—that'd be December 11 and that was the day Leo nailed the freighter. Sixty nine years ago.  Man.  Was it that long ago?!

Istas logbook - source, Leo Istas

And, though getting a DFC is a pretty big deal, and sinking a ship single-handedly is definitely another pretty big deal, surely stuff like this happened a hundred, thousand...maybe a hundred thousand times in WW2.  What's so special about this one?

Well, this is probably the last WW2 airplane I get to do.  At least one that's the product of talking with the pilot, flipping through old log books together...you know; Leo is of a vanishing breed.

Yeah, yeah. I knew that, but only in the sense it would happen some day.   However, while doing this Corsair, Leo woke me up to a startling fact when he nodded to his Squadron Annual and said, "Most of'em are all in there.  But I think I'm the only one left.".

Istas Annual - source, Leo Istas

"The only one left."

Flipping through the Annual, the faces, the collegiate-style commentary, the brittle paper and hardened photographs, the only thought I could think was wondering what these guys would have thought if they knew that, a generation later, Leo would be the standard bearer and I'd be wondering what "Monk" meant and why "Ugly" felt he had to write his "wifey."

Here.  YOU can wonder too!

Pages from the VMF-313 Annual, source:  Leo Istas

It seems that many History teachers do a pretty lousy job of teaching the names, dates and places of our past.  The reason I know is because that's all they seem to teach and I can't remember them.  But there's hope if they can begin teaching the real reason to learn our History—that our circumstances are handed off to us, generation by generation and we have an absolute duty to continually improve.

Tom Brokaw called them "The Greatest Generation."  But I hope not.  If they are, we haven't done them the justice they deserve.

And Leo may truly end up, "The only one left."

Leo and I, source, Leo's daughter.

Salute, Leo.



*Bombers like the B-25, A-20 and even B-17 were used in skip-bombing attacks, too.