Richard Tregaskis Reported from "The Road to Tokyo"Historians/History
tags: military history, World War 2, Pacific Theater, Naval Aviation, Combat Journalism, Richard Tregaskis
Ray E. Boomhower is senior editor at the Indiana Historical Society Press, where he edits the popular history magazine Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. A former newspaper reporter, Boomhower has written extensively on World War II media history, including biographies of such noted war correspondents as Scripps-Howard columnist Ernie Pyle and Time magazine reporter Robert L. Sherrod. His book Richard Tregaskis: Reporting under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam was published in 2021 by High Road Books/University of New Mexico Press.
Saturday Evening Post Reporter Richard Tregaskis (r) discusses preflight instructions with a Navy torpedo bomber crew aboard USS Ticonderoga, 1945.
Richard Tregaskis Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY
The evening before the USS Ticonderoga’s July 24, 1945 strike mission against the ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Kure Naval Arsenal on the island of Honshu, one of the men scheduled to fly aboard a Grumman TBM torpedo bomber with Torpedo Squadron 87 had a visitor in his cabin. The squadron’s safety officer, Lieutenant Algie Stuart Jr., regaled the crewman with unsettling stories about pilots who had been shot down, had ditched their planes in the Pacific, and had been imprisoned by the Japanese.
The two men agreed that fundamentally there were two possibilities facing those making the flight the next morning—either they would be back aboard the carrier tomorrow afternoon, or they would not. The Avenger crewman thought about the risks he faced and went to sleep with surprising ease in his stuffy cabin. “But I woke up at regular intervals during the night, automatically, to check the luminous dial of my watch, to be sure I wasn’t oversleeping,” he recalled.
One unusual aspect of the mission was that the crewman had not been carefully selected and trained for the task ahead. He was, in fact, a civilian war correspondent, Richard Tregaskis, who was covering the final days of action in the Pacific for his “Road to Tokyo” series for the Saturday Evening Post. The reporter, best known to readers for his best-selling book Guadalcanal Diary, had returned to the Pacific after witnessing the breakout from the Normandy Beachhead in Europe, and experiencing brutal street fighting with the U.S. Army’s First Division in Aachen, Germany.
Before joining the Ticonderoga, Tregaskis had flown five missions on a B-29 Superfortress bomber based on Guam—missions that had included strikes against the Japanese homeland. Back onboard a carrier at sea and reviewing his notes in his hot cabin located just under the flight deck, Tregaskis could hear a “Stravinskian concert of sound,” including the “periodic, melancholy roaring of the planes taking off from the deck just over my head, one after another—the hornet-like drone of the fighters, the deeper toned bass of the dive-bombers and torpedo planes; rough blobs of sound strung like beads of an abacus on the background of the whirring of fans.”
Tregaskis aboard USS Ticonderoga. Richard Tregaskis Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY
Tregaskis had observed a few changes in the naval air war since the last time he had been on a carrier, observing the Battle of Midway from the deck of the USS Hornet. Some of the obvious changes included larger, more powerful aircraft; small tractors called “mules” used to haul the planes around the flight deck, “replacing the muscular effort expended in the old days by deck crewmen who manhandled the planes into position”; and improvements in the ship’s navigational techniques and radar equipment.
Lieutenant Commander Walt Haas, an early navy ace now second in command of the ship’s air group, also pointed out to the reporter that there existed a basic change in the whole feeling of the war, with the situation being less "nerve-wracking." In the early days, he added, U.S. forces were sometimes exceeded in numbers and skill by the enemy, but now the Americans overwhelmed the Japanese both in quantity and quality.
The Ticonderoga was one of the carriers, along with the Essex, Randolph, Monterey, and Bataan, that made up Task Force 38.3, which also included the battleships North Carolina and Alabama and several screening destroyers. On his fourth day aboard the Ticonderoga, Tregaskis took his first flight, a warm-up to get the feeling of flying from a carrier, onboard a Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bomber, the largest of the carrier aircraft. It proved to be quite different from what he had experienced with the bomber crew in the Marianas. “I learned how small and relatively slow the carrier planes are; learned the feeling of insecurity that comes from operating from a moveable airfield, with only water, elsewhere, to land in,” he recalled.
Tregaskis and Ensign Paul R. Stephens go over details of the Kure mission in the pilot's ready room on the USS Ticonderoga.
Richard Tregaskis Collection, COLL/566, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico, VA
Lieutenant Commander Bill Miles, the skipper of the torpedo squadron, made sure the correspondent flew with a competent pilot, assigning him to his wingman, Ensign Paul R. Stephens of Topeka, Kansas, known as Steve to his friends on the ship. Tregaskis would be taking the place of one of the three-man crew; the enlisted man onboard had to do double duty with both radio and gunnery. Aviation Radioman Third Class Eugene Egumnoff, age twenty-one, from Vineland, New Jersey, joined Tregaskis on the Avenger, while its other usual crew member, Bob Pierpaoli, only nineteen, who had been in school before the war in Yuma, Arizona, flew with another Avenger pilot for the Kure attack.
“He was always attentive in the pre-mission briefings,” Tregaskis said of Stephens, “sitting in one of the first few rows of the overstuffed airline chairs in the ready room where instruction sessions were held; always paying attention and making careful notes.”
The twenty-four-year-old pilot with thinning hair was so conscientious about his duties that he passed up participating in card games—practically the sole source of amusement among the young pilots—in favor of getting a good night’s rest. The carrier’s air group were “eager beavers,” Tregaskis remembered. They were new to war, coming out from Hawaii three months before. Since then they had flown only a few missions, including practice strikes against Japanese bases in the Marshall Islands and supporting ground operations in the final stages of the Battle of Okinawa.
Although single-minded and determined when it came to combat, Tregaskis found Stephens to be pleasant company off duty. The pilot possessed a “pleasant voice and modest way of speaking, with his head held rather low. He had a winning way of giving you all of his attention while you were talking; while he looked at you with level, wide-spaced light blue eyes. He also smiled easily—an ingenuous, sidewise smile.”
Before launching from the Ticonderoga’s flight deck for his mission with Stephens and Egumnoff, Tregaskis remembered that the squadron had its main target changed three times. “Almost always, in my experience, there seem to be such last-minute changes in a military or naval operation; especially in a job as big as the one they were planning for us,” he noted. Rumors abounded that the squadron would be attacking antiaircraft positions, then came reports that they would be hitting Japanese ships, but with torpedoes. The last mission sounded to Tregaskis like “a fairly efficient way to commit suicide; skimming in a slow-speed, cumbersome torpedo plane through a land-locked harbor with all the guns of Japan’s great naval arsenal shooting at you.”
Gallows humor abounded among the pilots. When one very young-looking ensign said he did not mind getting hit by enemy fire, but did not want to be shot down, one of his friends joked: “Hell, they [the Japanese] only cut your head off—that’s a quick way to die.” Finally, the squadron learned that it would be carrying four 500-pound bombs instead of torpedoes, and their target would be the battleship Hyūga, which had been adapted for use as an aircraft carrier with the addition of a flight deck to its stern. The enemy ship was berthed off the island of Nasake Shima, just outside the harbor, in shallow water. To Tregaskis, the changes meant that the chances for his survival seemed far better than they had been just a few days before.
Tregaskis awoke for the July 24 mission at 5:00 a.m. and went to the wardroom for an early breakfast of eggs, bacon, oranges, apples, toast, and coffee. He found himself thinking as he ate, as he always did on such occasions: “The condemned man ate a hearty meal.” Egumnoff suggested that he and Tregaskis go up on deck and get into their plane. They ducked through the carrier’s low hatches, climbed onto the flight deck and into the morning sunlight, and, after some investigation among the close-packed aircraft, found the Avenger they had been assigned for their day’s work.
A few minutes later, Stephens arrived from the ready room and climbed into the pilot’s cockpit. “He seemed harassed and serious,” Tregaskis remembered, “apparently his usual mental attitude before a flight.” The reporter swiveled, twisted, and shoved his elbows, knees, shoulders, and feet into the cramped position in the rear turret, where he would sit during the Avenger’s approach to the target. When the plane began its descent before making its final dive on its target, Egumnoff would leave his radio position, in the lower section (the bilge), and take Tregaskis’s place in the turret in case any enemy fighters jumped them. “And as we lost altitude and ran in to drop our missles [sic] on the Hyuga, I’d climb up into the middle cockpit, whence a good view of the target and our drop on it, would be afforded,” Tregaskis noted. He felt lucky that there was always a need for making such mechanical arrangements before an attack, as it “helped to keep one’s imagination from working too hard.”
USS Ticonderoga at Ulithi Fleet Anchorage, December 8, 1944. Photo National Archives.
Tregaskis heard his Avenger’s engine roaring full blast and the plane was rolling down the deck. “I braced against the headrest of the gunner’s seat, saw the busy figures of the deck crews slide by, and in a second knew that we were off the deck, away from the ship,” he remembered. “The floating island which had been our home and base became a ridiculous toy, with increasing distance—a model ploughing a white, high bow wave in the clear blue water.” As his Avenger gained altitude, he could look out on a score of warships that were part of the task force, strung out to the horizon, as well as numerous dots of planes rising everywhere from the many carriers. The Avengers led the Ticonderoga air group, with the Helldiver dive-bombers and the Hellcat fighters (“our guardian angels,” noted Tregaskis) that would escort them into the target falling in behind.
Approaching Japan, Tregaskis could hear garbled voices in his headphones, with reports about American bombers making their runs. He heard something about enemy airfields being open and presenting themselves as good targets, and another voice, clearly stating, “I don’t know what it is, but I hit it.” Looking down he spied through a rift in the clouds a group of rock islands—Japan. Over the intercom came Egumnoff’s tenor voice: “In about five minutes we can attack, Mr. Stephens. We’re about nine minutes from our target.”
Passing over a large city, heading for the Inland Sea, Tregaskis imagined the panic below as the Japanese spotted the American planes and knew they were about to be attacked. “Once I had sat under Japanese bombers, on Guadalcanal, and watched them line up for a deliberate run in bright sunlight,” Tregaskis noted. “The wheel had turned full circle, now. And I wrote, impetuously, in my notebook: They know by now they’re under attack, by God.” Switching positions with Egumnoff, the correspondent saw smoke rising from the surrounding rugged land, possibly from antiaircraft positions that had been hit.
As Tregaskis’s plane neared its target, bursts of flak smudged the sky around them, and he could see the “flashes of the guns on the ground, blinking like lights.” A plane next to them discharged silvery sheets of some material from a side port, “strings of something like Christmas tree rain,” he noted, which was chaff, thin pieces of aluminum scattered in the sky to confuse Japanese radar.
As his Avenger flew through the spent bursts of antiaircraft fire, Tregaskis felt the aircraft diving, rushing headlong toward the water below, causing him to gasp for air as the g-forces built up. The experience was overwhelming. He later wrote:
I couldn’t get enough air; my mouth reached out wide for air, as if I were shouting and couldn’t shout, and the force of the dive pushed me forward until my forehead was pressed against the back of the pilot’s headrest. Things were going too fast. I couldn’t think. Were we under control? Was this right? Would I know if we were hit? Whatever we were going to get, whatever was going to happen, this was it. Then I saw the ship down there, the width and the great bulk, the gray color of it. It seemed smooth on top—the flight deck? The Hyuga? I saw a tall geyser of a bomb splash in the same instant, a tall column springing from the water, close to the ship. Beyond it, a shorter, smallish splash, a green geyser. I tried to shout and get air; couldn’t. Our dive went on. Down and down. Too long? Was Steve alive? Had he been hit?
Then we were pulling out of our dive, turning sharply. I saw the enemy ship behind us over a wingtip; saw one, two, three, four bombs spring geysers, the green water, straddling the gray hull, sandwiching it. Violent single columns of water were striking around it, explosive fingers stabbing towards the sky. Another brace of four violent fingers, four bombs, smashed from the water around the ship, the innermost fingers striking her sharply at her edge, turning up smoke, churning the shallow water green and brown. They were braces of bombs from the planes of our squadron: four bombs for each plane. Another brace struck the water, one in the water, the second a blast of quick fire, a direct hit, that glared in the middle of the steel hull; the others, over, splashing on the other side. And then we had turned so far, and were jinking, vacillating, turning so sharply that I could see no more of the target.
The squadron rendezvoused farther out into the bay for the return to the Ticonderoga. One by one, the Avengers, Helldivers, and Hellcats joined up, while Tregaskis nervously scanned the surrounding land masses and harbors straining to see if enemy fighters would appear seeking vengeance. Finally, after about fifteen minutes, the group set off for home, with the fighters weaving back and forth over the Avengers’ tails to offer protection.
Scrambling down into the bilge to talk to Egumnoff, Tregaskis heard him shout over the roar of the engine that he had seen a couple of “good hits” on the Hyūga. As they neared the Ticonderoga, the weather worsened. A low, gray rain squall grew so thick that “we lost sight of our ship each time we swung in a landing circle. I saw Steve slide his canopy back so that he could see better through the driving rain, felt the drops whipping through the small openings between his cockpit and mine,” Tregaskis wrote.
USS Ticonderoga landing planes while USS Ault follows astern as plane guard, July 1945. Photo Naval History and Heritage Command
The Avenger circled the ship twice, finally making its approach on its third try and jolting to a stop. As they came even with the carrier’s island structure, the correspondent saw the “sad, sunken form of a Helldiver which had crashed on deck,” an obstacle that Stephens had just enough space to pass. Upon climbing out of his cockpit, Stephens, Tregaskis recalled, took a deep breath of air before commenting, “That was pretty rugged,” squatting down to fondly pat the wet boards of the flight deck. “We wouldn’t know the full story of the success or losses of our group until later when results were compiled, but at least we were certain of this: we, Steve, Gene and I, were home,” noted a relieved Tregaskis.
That evening, after supper, Lieutenant Bill Kummer, one of the ship’s flight surgeons, passed out “medicinal” whiskey to the pilots, jigger by jigger, with ice and water. Tregaskis sat with Stephens, who declined the alcohol, saying he did not feel like it and besides, he was scheduled to return to Kure the next day and wanted his head to be clear for the mission. Tregaskis decided not to accompany Stephens and Egumnoff, instead hoping to fly with them on a planned future sortie against airfields and other installations near Tokyo. After the Ticonderoga spent some time refueling and giving its crew a rest, the attack on the airfields was scrapped in favor of another go at Kure and the ships still afloat in the harbor; Tregaskis decided to remain behind.
The Ticonderoga had lost pilots and crewmen on the mission. As he had noticed when he was on the USS Hornet for the Battle of Midway, those who survived appeared to react to the death of their colleagues with little or no emotion, adjusting “without noticeable effort, when suddenly there were empty chairs at the table,” Tregaskis noted. Someone might comment about an absent aviator, saying he had been “a good guy,” and there would be a moment of soberness, but then the conversation would return to “where it had been before, and if there was humor in the conversation, that was not sacrilegious or disrespectful.” Deaths were expected in war and it was best, the correspondent pointed out, to “put the thing in the back of your mind, and not allow yourself to feel badly about it; at least, not to say so, for the sake of the morale of the others who were also still alive.”
For the return mission to Kure on July 28, Stephens flew with his regular crew, Egumnoff and Pierpaoli. Tregaskis watched them prepare for the mission in the ready room, with Stephens working industriously over his plotting board, as usual, while the others gathered their flight gear. In the back of the room, the correspondent saw a group of radiomen/gunners kidding each other about the danger they faced, as they had just heard over the speaker system from the combat intelligence center that the task force’s fighters, the first to reach the target, reported “plenty of bogies (enemy planes) in the air and some of them were being shot down.”
At lunch the officer who usually sat across the table from Tregaskis told him that he had heard that one of the torpedo bombers had spun in and crashed during the mission. The reporter asked what crew it had been, but the man said he did not know. After finishing his meal, Tregaskis wandered down to the torpedo squadron’s ready room. Most of the squadron’s members were being interrogated by the intelligence officer, Lieutenant Charlie Bartlett. Some had finished answering questions about the mission and were gathered in a pantry equipped with coffee, sandwiches, and ice cream. Tregaskis scanned their faces and could not find Stephens. “I wondered if he had been here, finished with his interrogation, and gone to his sack to rest,” he recalled.
Asking what had happened, Tregaskis learned from a shaken pilot, Lieutenant Dick Gale, that he had seen the Avenger with Stephens, Egumnoff, and Pierpaoli aboard crash into the sea. Apparently, while climbing through a thick overcast, both Stephens and Gale had lost their bearings, suffered vertigo, and fell into tight spins. Gale recovered from his spin; Stephens had not. After regaining control of his aircraft, Gale had seen Stephens, about two miles away, and watched as the other Avenger’s wing started to disintegrate. “Then it broke off,” Gale told Tregaskis. “The plane went straight in. I orbited the place and had my radioman look, but there were no survivors; only some smoke bombs and some dye marker. They must have broken loose when the plane broke up.”
Later that evening, Tregaskis sought solitude on the flight deck. His reverie was interrupted by one of the torpedo squadron’s radiomen, who said to him that he wanted the correspondent to know how badly they all felt about Stephens’s death. “Bob and Gene were good boys,” Tregaskis responded. “It’s a damn shame.” But he realized that there were no words he could utter that would “really make it better,” except that perhaps those who paid the ultimate price, by dying while engaged in combat overseas, became important, much more important to history, in fact, than “any individual would normally be if he lived and died normally: and that furthermore, that they died as any man should, with honor.”
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