Don Fowler was born in Arcadia, Florida in 1925.
“I was going to graduate from DeSoto County High School in 1943, but I joined the Navy to see the world that March,” Fowler, who lives in Rotonda, Fla. said more than six decades later.
Within months, the 17-year-old country boy was serving as an armorer aboard the new Essex-class carrier USS Bennington (CV-20).
“We were commissioned in the latter part of 1944 and went through the Panama Canal,” the 81-year-old former sailor said. “The Bennington was so big we knocked all the lights off the Panama Canal.”
The carrier and its escort sailed for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and from there to the war zone, which by this time was the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. Allied forces were getting ready to assault an island called Iwo Jima.
“I was in aviation ordinance, part of Air Group 82 aboard the Bennington. We loaded the rockets, bombs and machine-gun bullets into the airplanes,” Fowler said.
“We hit the island of Chichi Jima first. We lost three torpedo planes at Chichi Jima,” he said. “A guy named Grady York, who was part of our air group, got shot down. He was captured by the Japanese, and he got his head cut off.”
This is also where former President George Bush was shot down. However, he was luckier — Bush was rescued by an American submarine prowling the waters off the island’s coast.
From there the task force sailed for Iwo Jima, one of the major battles in the Pacific war. This is where 6,800 U.S. servicemen lost their lives and another 12,000 were wounded in 36 days. The Japanese lost 21,000 soldiers on this 8-square-mile volcanic island who fought to the death.
“We didn’t have any problems with Kamikazes attacking the Bennington at Iwo Jima. However, the carrier Saratoga had a bunch of its planes in a flight-pattern landing one night. The L.S.O. (signal officer) was bringing in planes when he realized the next plane was a (Japanese) ‘Zero.’ He gave him a wave-off and the enemy pilot took the wave-off. He must have been a former carrier pilot,” Fowler said with a smile.
“I don’t know how true that story is, but that’s the way it goes,” he added.
“The next five ‘Zeros’ crashed into the Saratoga. She was so badly damaged she had to be brought back to the States for repair.”
Okinawa was the Bennington’s next battle. It was the largest and most costly battle in the Pacific during World War II. It was also the high-water mark for Kamikazes.
“There were Kamikazes everywhere all night long and all day long,” he said. “We had enemy planes coming in from all directions.
“The sky was full of flak. The Bennington shot down six Kamikazes at Okinawa. There were only two carriers at Okinawa that weren’t hit by Kamikazes, us and our sister carrier, USS Hornet. A Kamikaze missed us by a foot.
“After Okinawa we were one of the first carriers off the coast of Japan. I don’t remember having any more Kamikaze problems. By then we had superior air power,” he said.
The Bennington’s planes attacked targets on the Japanese main islands.
On Aug. 6, 1945, Fowler and his carrier group must have been in the vicinity of Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb was dropped.
“That day there was a blast of air on our flight deck that would knock you almost down on your knees,” he said. “The only thing I can say is that it was probably from the atomic bomb going off over Hiroshima.”
A few days later the Bennington sailed into Tokyo Bay to take part in the surrender ceremony on Sept. 2, 1945, aboard the battleship USS Missouri.
“We pulled into Tokyo Bay and I got ashore aboard a Higgins boat before the surrender,” Fowler said. “The people in Tokyo closed their doors when we walked by like they were scared of us.
“My most vivid recollection of Tokyo was seeing this civilian pedaling his bicycle down the street with his wife running behind him on a rope tied around her neck he was holding. She was carrying all of their earthly belongings on her back and head,” he said.
Fowler swapped a civilian a couple of K-rations for a signed, silk Japanese battle flag. The flag hangs in a place of honor in his gun cabinet. The most interesting gun in the cabinet is a 7.7-millimeter Japanese army rifle of World War II vintage Fowler acquired while in Tokyo Bay aboard the Bennington.
“A general called our admiral and told him, ‘I’ve got a warehouse full of brand-new Japanese rifles. Would your boys like a souvenir?’
“‘I’m sending a Higgins boat over right now to get ’em,’ the admiral replied.
“There were 3,500 of us on our carrier, and every one of us was issued a Japanese rifle. I ended up carrying it all the way across the United States and back home with me to Arcadia.”
On the butt of his rifle Fowler stamped: “Aug. 1945, USS Bennington, Tokyo Bay.”
Fowler and his carrier sailed for San Francisco a short time later loaded with hundreds of American POWs the Japanese had been holding. When he got home after serving three years in the Navy, he wasn’t even 21.
“My folks didn’t know I was coming home. When I got off the train I marched right down Oak Street (Arcadia’s main drag) with my sea bag on one shoulder and my Japanese rifle on the other. I was about four blocks from home when Mrs. Beal, our next-door neighbor, stopped her car and yelled, ‘Donald, what are you doing there?’ She carried me home.”
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper on Sunday, April 30, 2006 and is republished with permission.
USS Bennington sailor recalls strife aboard ship during Cold War
Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Thursday, May 11, 2006
Got this e-mail from E. Sterling Tebay of Lake Suzy a few days ago:
I read your article in the newspaper about Don Fowler and his tour of duty on the aircraft carrier USS Bennington during World War II. I served on the Bennington while it was being prepared for recommissioning on Nov. 13, 1952.
It had been enlarged, as were most of the old Essex class carriers. I called Don and we had quite a chat. Between the two of us, we covered a great deal of the Ben’s history.
On our shakedown cruise to GTMO, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, we suffered a boiler explosion. Between that and aircraft accidents, we had 14 men killed, officers and enlisted men.
We spent the next three months in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
In August we went on a three-week midshipmen training cruise to Halifax, Nova Scotia. On the way back, we were ordered to come into Hurricane Barbara, from the back side, and send in weather reports.
The Navy was willing to let our ship be damaged in order to decide what was best for the ships at Norfolk. Should they stay in port or be put to sea? The hurricane center lists the maximum winds at 95 knots.
I recall the ship’s meteorologists saying they measured gusts up to 130 knots when the captain made them stop taking readings.
We were at times taking waves over the flight deck, 80 feet above the water line. Once again we were in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for repairs.
In September 1953, we embarked on Operation Mariner, at that time the
largest peacetime maneuver in Naval history. This was a joint operation with units from Britain, Canada and six other countries. We were defending the western European flank and protecting the NATO fleet in very bad weather conditions. We operated in extremely cold and rough weather near Iceland.
I have a Navy press release describing how fog closed in on the fleet while 32 airplanes were in the air. The Redfin submarine found a clear spot 100 miles from us.
Since we couldn’t get them down, the planes were all ordered to
ditch in the freezing water, near the sub. The fog in the area of the fleet thinned enough at the last minute that the planes were ordered back.
The Bennington and Wasp as well as the Canadian carrier Magnificent lined up side by side. It was getting dark and all planes were ordered to take any of the three decks that looked convenient. No Waveoffs. The last 10 planes were supposedly out of fuel when they landed.
This incident was dramatized on a TV program called “Navy Log.” This was at a time when the Navy was fighting to prove that aircraft carriers had a place in the nuclear age.
We went on to spend six or seven months with the sixth fleet in the Mediterranean Sea. After we returned, we were conducting operations off Rhode Island. The Bennington suffered three large explosions caused by fumes from hydraulic fluid that powered their catapults, igniting sparks from the electrical generators.
I have a Providence, R.I. newspaper that gives the details. It lists 91 killed. My hometown newspapers listed 100 killed and over 200 injured. My recollection is that the final total was 104 killed and nearly 230 injured.
There are many stories that came out of this, the second-worst Naval disaster in peacetime. One of the worst was the story of the sailors trapped in the magazines. A young seaman was on a sound-powered phone with the bridge for an hour and three quarters. He relayed the names of men as they died until he finally said, “This is my last breath.”
This disaster is why the Navy no longer uses hydraulic catapults.
I was a radioman second class, but because of the shortage of men during the Korean Police Action and the Cold War (I call WW III) my job classification was division chief.
We had no chiefs and only one first class radioman aboard. In boot camp, I was requested to take the college equivalency tests (four eight-hour tests). I
passed math and English and was told to take the other two at my next duty station and, if I passed them, I would be sent to Pensacola, Fla., to train as a pilot. A lieutenant in charge of the Radio School at Norfolk would not let me out of class to take the remaining tests.
You can see from the above why I didn’t take the tests aboard the carriers. With each accident and the semi-controlled crashes they call landings I decided to leave the Navy and go to college. In much of my career, I engaged in research for the Navy. I think that benefited them more than my flying from a carrier deck.