“Corsair Pilot: My First Kill”
Working in a civilian aircraft plant in 1942, Missouri farm boy Glen Wallace fell in love twice - with a co-worker who became his future wife and with the idea of flying in the Navy.
Wallace grew up on a 40 acre farm in Southeast Missouri back during the Great Depression. After graduating from high school, Wallace worked in a civilian aircraft factory for one year, delivering aircraft parts for the workers before joining the Navy as a Naval Aviation Cadet in 1942. It was at the civilian aircraft factory that Wallace met his future bride, Bonnie. “There was one station where a pretty girl sat a desk, inspecting the parts for flaws,” recalls Wallace. “I made it a point to keep her well-supplied with parts to inspect so that I could get to know her and ask her on a date. And I finally got that date by letting her drive my 1939 Plymouth.”
At the time, the war was not going well and the Navy was pitching hard for pilots. Recruiters promised Wallace and his friends that if they would sign up, they would be assigned to the famous “Black Hawk Squadron.” “That never happened,” Wallace states, “because it was recruiter ‘BS’.” The officer who administered the oath to swear Wallace in shared all kinds of horror stories about war and asked him what had administered him to enlist. “The aircraft carrier Lexington had just been sunk and big banners were strung across the streets of Chicago with a not-so-subtle message that read ‘AVENGE THE LEX.’ I told the officer that I wanted to become an aviator to avenge the Lex!” Wallace remembers.
After signing up in the Navy, Glen and Bonnie were married in St Louis, Missouri. The judge who married the couple asked Wallace to put the ring on his bride’s finger. When Wallace told him that he didn’t have a ring, the judge took a piece of string from his desk and Wallace used that as a wedding ring by tying it on her finger. Since Navy pilots in training were prohibited from being married, the Wallaces had to keep their marriage a secret until Glen Wallace received his wings of gold and a commission as an officer in the US Navy. After being assigned to various training bases, Wallace had to leave his pregnant wife Bonnie and go off to fight the war.
Wallace was assigned to Navy squadron VBF-83 and sent to duty aboard the USS Essex, CV-9, where he and his squadron buddies flew Navy Hell Cat Fighters and F4U Corsair fighters from her deck. Wallace and his fellow pilots were a cocky bunch with a penchant for practical jokes. That confidence would serve them well through many harrowing missions over Japan in the final months of the war. He lost many buddies, some of them just before VJ Day.
Wallace roomed with 3 other pilots and flew as a squadron in combat against the Japanese. Wallace shot down 4 Japanese planes but could only claim 3 “kills” because one of them did not have a witness to verify the “kill” – the witness was Wallace’s Division Leader who was killed on their first combat flight on March 18, 1945.
On March 18, Wallace launched from the USS Essex in an F4U Corsair along with eleven others. Lt. J.J. Stevens led the division of four planes and Wallace was his wingman. The number 3 slot was filled by LtJg. Ed Pappert with Vern Coumbe on his wing. Their mission was to bomb and strafe two airfields on the island of Kyusha, Japan, and return to the ship. They were to be the second group to hit Kyushu and they anticipated that the Japanese were “stirred up and waiting.” As they approached the beach at Kyushu, Wallace realized that he was looking at enemy territory. “I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” Wallace remembers. As they crossed the shoreline, he saw two planes below him, heading in the opposite direction. Upon closer inspection, Wallace identified them as Japanese torpedo bombers.
The American pilots were on radio silence, so Wallace made hand signals to Stevens. The formation of Corsairs made a diving turn and leveled off, only to discover a Japanese plane squarely in Wallace’s sights. His training kicked in and Wallace squeezed the trigger and six fifty caliber gun literally tore the Japanese plane apart. It burst into flames and fell from the sky while the other Japanese plane retreated. The group proceeded to two target airfields, bombing and strafing parked airplanes, hangers and runways at the first target with no little resistance. Wallace encountered some anti-aircraft gunfire from the ground. The group headed for the second target, giving it the same treatment with the same results.
At this point, Wallace remembers, the pilots were “pretty cocky, thinking this business was so easy and fun, too. We opened up on the radio – a big mistake – and our leader said, ‘What the hell, let’s hit another target on the way back.’ That was a big mistake, too.” Tomitaka Airfield wasn’t too far off the course, so they decided to “work it over” as well. “What we didn’t know,” Wallace recalls, “Is that there were 20 Zeros sitting up at twenty thousand feet, waiting for us.” As the Americans made their approach to the airfield, they got rid of all hanging ordinance. As they pulled up, the air was suddenly full of ‘Meat Balls’ and a wild dogfight ensued.
“Our usual fighter tactics would not work. We were caught off guard and were at a low altitude, “ Wallace stated. “It quickly evolved in a wild melee of tail chases – a Zero chasing a Corsair with another Corsair on a Zero’s tail. While our leader was shooting one, I as busy knocking another one off his tail. As I flamed a Zero, someone hollered that one was one my tail. Sure enough, I saw tracers whizzing by on both sides so I pulled up into a full power, straight up climb until my plane stalled out and went into a spin.” Wallace recovered control of the airplane only to find himself right back in the middle of the dog fight. He noticed Stevens plane was smoking and heading out to sea in a shallow dive. Wallace followed to keep the remaining Zeros off Stevens’ back until he ditched and got out of the plane. Stevens did ditch the plane and was in the water, but unfortunately, he died that day along with two other of Wallace’s fellow pilots who were killed that day –Garner and Sigman. Wallace does not know how many Zeros their group shot down that day, but he vividly recalls his first “kill,” which could not be recorded because his only witness, Stevens, was killed and could not verify it for Wallace. “If we appeared to take death lightly,” Wallace states, “It was because we had to in order to keep from going crazy. When seeing our shipmates getting killed day after day, we tried to build up an immunity to it, sort of a defensive shell.”
Wallace’s other WWII memories include being witness to history on two pivotal occasions during the war in the Pacific. Wallace watched as the biggest battleship in the world at the time, the Yamato, was bombed and sunk off the coast of Okinawa. The Yamato was the pride of the Imperialist Japanese Army, touted as the largest, heaviest, and most powerful battleship ever constructed. The ship held special significance for World War II Japan as symbol of the nation's naval power, and its relatively effortless sinking by US aircraft in the final days of the war during the suicide Operation Ten-Go is sometimes considered symbolic of Japan's defeat itself.
Wallace also flew over the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, witnessing the official end of the war as the Empire of Japan surrendered and signed the peace treaty ending World War II aboard the deck of the battleship. High-ranking military officials of all the Allied Powers were received on board, including Free French General Leclerc, Republic of China General Hsu Yung-Ch'ang, Soviet Lieutenant-General Kuzma Nikolaevich Derevyanko, Australian General Sir Thomas Blamey, Canadian Colonel Lawrence Moore Cosgrave, Netherlands Vice Admiral Conrad Emil Lambert Helfrich, and New Zealand Air Vice Marshal Leonard M. Isitt. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz boarded shortly after 8 a.m., followed by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allies. The Japanese representatives were headed by Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu. General MacArthur stepped before a battery of microphones and the 23 minute surrender ceremony was broadcast to the waiting world – while Glen Wallace witnessed from his cockpit in the skies above.
During his military service in WWII, Glen kept a daily diary of his Navy activities, where he flew fighters from the aircraft carrier USS Essex. The old diary lay on his desk for over 50 years when some friends suggested that he turn the diary into a book. Wallace had no desire to write a book about a war that had been fought decades before, which he felt that no one would be interested in reading. Finally Wallace’s friend Sheila Davidson took the diary home and transcribed on her computer. She urged Wallace to provide his thoughts and comments on the entries he had made about his combat experiences. Another friend of Wallace’s, Mike Danger, who is blind, printed the book using his computer that “talks” and his printer that reminds him when he is low on ink. “Well, if you are interested in a day-by-day account of a long-ago war in the Pacific, then this book is for you,” smiles Glen Wallace.
Wallace says with a smile, “Well, as the saying goes, I was going to make a career of the Navy, but after 30 years, I gave up.” Wallace retired from the Navy as a Captain after a distinguished career of 30 years.