U.S. Navy pilot almost Japanese hero in WWII – Capt. ‘Slim’ Russell flew off USS Saratoga at Guadalcanal

“Slim” Russell is pictured standing on the wing of an F6F Grumman Hellcat Navy fighter he flew shortly after World War II. Photo provided

“At Guadalcanal, I was almost a war hero to the Japanese,” Allard Guy “Slim” Russell of Sarasota, Fla. said with a smile. “I dropped my first 500-pound bomb on the 75-mile long, 25-mile-wide enemy-held South Pacific island.

“I came down in my (Douglas Dauntless) SBD dive bomber in a screaming, 70-degree dive from 12,000 feet at 230 knots and let my bomb go. I missed the whole damn island, and that’s a true story.

“My radio man told me as we were flying away, ‘Sir, your bomb was 200 yards off the beach in the water.’ I couldn’t have cared less. They were shooting at us, and I was just glad to have survived the attack.”

The 84-year-old retired Navy captain comes from a long line of warriors. His father, 2nd Lt. Arthur R. Russell, Company M, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division, received the Silver Star for valor while fighting in the trenches in Western Europe during World War I. He joined the service as an 18-year-old private. By war’s end, after participating in seven major battles on the Western Front, he was discharged as a 2nd lieutenant.

Slim Russell holds a painting of Squadron Commander Henrich Russell, who flew a Fokker for the Kaiser until he was shot down over Belgium in 1917 during World War I. He is Slim’s father’s first cousin. Sun photo by Don Moore

A painting on the wall of Russell’s den shows a stern-looking man in the gray uniform of a WWI German flying officer. Henrich Russell, commander of a German flying squadron in the First War, is the man in the painting. He is Slim’s father’s first cousin.

The information on the back of the painting notes that the German aviator was born in 1888. He was shot down in his Fokker over Belgium in 1917. He survived the air battle and went on to become the German scientist who developed the incendiary bomb, used by both sides to devastate many cities in Europe and Asia during WWII.

“My closest German relative was Lt. Fritz Brandi, awarded the Iron Cross for valor during World War II for his part in a battle on July 9, 1943 at Kerc, Crimea,” Russell added. “He actually received two Iron Crosses during that period.”

Russell’s naval career began in 1940.

“I always loved aviation. In 1940, I quit school at the University of Washington and joined the Navy,” he said. “I went down to Pensacola before the war and graduated from there and went on to fly dive bombers off the carrier Saratoga. I was in San Diego when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

“The admiral in command got us all together after the attack and said, ‘I was naval attaché at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo and I know those Japanese pilots … they can’t hit a bull in the ass with a baseball bat. Take my word for it, the war will be over in four to six months.’

“A week later we sailed into Pearl Harbor aboard the Saratoga and saw all our battleships the Japanese sunk and the destroyed airplanes on the field nearby,” Russell said. “We couldn’t wait to go down and buy a pair of those big, thick glasses like the admiral told us the enemy wore when they attacked Pearl Harbor.”

A few days later, Russell and the Saratoga sailed off to Johnson Island, 500 miles southwest of Oahu. They weren’t there long when their ship was torpedoed by a Japanese sub.

“Six of our engine room guys were killed when the torpedo hit. We returned to the shipyard in Bremerton, Wash. for extensive repairs,” he said.

Shortly before the Battle of Midway, in June 1942, the Saratoga and Lt. Russell returned to the South Pacific. Neither the lieutenant nor the ship took part in the most pivotal battle of World War II in the Pacific Theatre of Operations.

It was at Midway that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s gigantic fleet of 190 capital ships took on Adm. Chester Nimitz’s much smaller fleet of 76 primary ships off Midway and lost. At the conclusion of the three-day battle, four of Japan’s first-line carriers had been sent to the bottom. The American fleet lost the carrier USS Yorktown to a Japanese submarine after the ship had been badly damaged by Japanese planes and was under tow at the conclusion of the engagement.

At Midway, the Japanese offensive was stopped. From that point on the enemy retreated island by island, back toward their home islands. Eventually, the emperor of Japan threw in the towel, shortly after Col. Paul Tibbets dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima from a B-29 “Super Fortress” called the Enola Gay, on Aug. 6, 1945.

Before all that transpired, Russell had more fighting to do. After his misadventure flying his SBD at Guadalcanal and missing the whole island on his initial bombing run, the Saratoga and her bomber squadrons sailed to Espiritu Santo, about 100 miles away. For the second time, his carrier was hit by an enemy torpedo.

As a result of the battle damage to the carrier, he and his unit were relocated to the former Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal that the Marines had just taken away from the enemy.

Lt. jg. “Slim” Russell flew a Douglas Dauntless (SDB) like this off the carrier USS Saratoga at Guadalcanal in August 1942.

“I became part of the ‘Cactus Air Force’ at Guadalcanal. We were attached to the 1st Marine Division at the Canal,” Russell said. “I’m so proud of the 1st Marine Division I can hardly stand it. I have a plaque on the wall from the Secretary of Navy commending me for being part of the ‘1st Marine Division Reinforced.'”

Unfortunately for Russell, his WWII adventures were about to come to an end after 90 days on Guadalcanal. During an attack by Japanese Zero fighters on the American base, he was hit in the left knee by a bullet from one of the enemy planes and put out of commission for several months.

“I was sent to a French hospital on the Efate Islands in the New Hebrides, and spent about a month there recuperating. Then I came back to the States and became one of the first instructors at Daytona Beach Naval Air Station,” he said. “My next assignment was assistant air officer aboard the USS Card, a jeep carrier, in the North Atlantic.”

Jeep carriers were mini-aircraft carriers. Many were produced by Kaiser Aluminum Co.

“Of all the flying I ever saw in my life, there was nothing more dangerous than landing on a jeep carrier at night in the North Atlantic in winter time,” Russell recalled.

Shortly after the end of World War II, he was appointed executive officer of Fighter Squadron 52 back aboard the Saratoga. It wasn’t long after that Russell was offered the job of squadron commander of Torpedo Squadron VA-55. At 25, he was one of the youngest squadron commanders in the Navy.

“For the next two years we were flying TBMs torpedo bombers,” he said. “Our squadron went to the South Pacific and Australia and we flew a lot of air shows all along the West Coast of the United States. It was one hell of a good job.”

Tomorrow: Russell is shot down in his F4U5N Corsair night fighter over Wonsan Harbor during the Korean War.

Capt. Russell ditched his F4U5N Corsair in Wonsan Harbor in N Korea

“They were waiting for us when we arrived,” “Slim” Russell recalled. “It was March 31, 1952, and I was leading a squadron of night fighters over a big enemy transportation complex at Yangdok, North Korea, when the whole mountainside exploded with anti-aircraft fire.

“My plane was riddled with ack-ack (anti-aircraft artillery). Part of the plexiglass canopy in my F4U5N (Corsair) blew up in my face.”

Lt. Comdr. “Slim” Russell is pictured in his flying suit shortly after he was almost shot down in his Corsair night fighter over enemy territory during the Korean War. Photo provided

His squadron had flown off the carrier USS Philippine Sea 100 miles off Wonsan Harbor in the Sea of Japan around midnight on a raid to knock out the North Korean rail center. The area was crawling with scores of enemy supply trucks. Yangdok was a juicy target for carrier pilots.

“We were to attack with napalm, rockets and 20 mm (shells),” said Russell, an 84-year-old retired Navy captain now living in Sarasota. “I was the first one down. When the rest of the guys saw what happened to me, they decided to call off the attack.”

Russell said he was tempted to bail out the moment he was hit by ground fire, but he was flying over enemy territory. He decided to tough it out in his fighter/bomber.

“My engine was hit, but I was able to limp along for another 75 miles. I set her down in Wonsan Harbor. I was floating around in a rubber suit for 45 minutes in 34-degree water when the Brinkley Bass (DD-887), one of our destroyers, picked me up.

“I had a mirror with me when I went down. It was spotted by the Bass’ search lights from five miles away. They were able to zero in on me,” Russell said. “I was lucky to come out of that one alive.”

After the Korean War, Russell attended the Naval War College. The college is a choice assignment for up-and-coming officers. Upon graduation, he was appointed head of the Navy’s all-weather flying program at the Pentagon.

It was a great job, he said. It gave him the opportunity to fly the Navy’s newest airplanes. Before he completed his naval career, Russell had flown some 135 different military and civilian planes. He has logged 9,800 hours of flying time, mostly in military aircraft.

From there, Russell was posted to the Norfolk Naval Air Station as the Air Group commander. It was during this period, in 1959, that he was asked to fly the first Navy jets across the Atlantic. He took four F8U Crusaders and four F3H Demon fighters from the States to the Azores Islands and on to Case Blanca in North Africa.

“Now they do it all the time, but in those days it was a big deal,” he said.

His next billet was chief of staff of the Jacksonville Naval Air Station, a job he held for two years. Then he returned to the Pentagon as director of Fleet Training for the Navy.

He decided it was time to retire. He went to work as an adviser to Bell Aircraft Company and doubled his salary. He helped develop the first automatic system for landing planes on an aircraft carrier.

“It was a fantastic system that brought a pilot right into the carrier’s deck automatically,” he said. “I spent the next five years as director of Flight Testing with Bell Aircraft.”

Russell left Bell and went to work for Hughes Aircraft Co. in Washington, D.C., for four years before joining a little-known branch of the Peace Corps for another four years. He was in charge of a Peace Corps program that used old military equipment for civilian purposes.

“Through this program I helped build some schools in North Carolina and Virginia for minority students,” he said. “Then in the early 1970s, we used a junk Navy barge in South America to barge a bunch of American doctors and their equipment to out-of-the-way places down there.”

Thanks to a friend, Russell wound up in Vietnam during the final year of the ill-fated war.

“A friend of mine was deputy chief of the Navy division under our ambassador in Saigon,” he said. “He was retiring and asked me to replace him. ”

For the next nine months, Russell ran a supply operation on the Mekong Delta that supplied the South Vietnamese Army with rice and ammunition.

“I got out of there the day before South Vietnam fell, thank God,” he said.

When he returned to the States he rejoined the Navy as head of the Iranian-Mideast sales program in the late 1970s. It was his job to mother hen the sale of $4.5 billion worth of F-14 fighter/bombers to the Shah of Iran’s air force.

“I spent a lot of time over there going back and forth on the airplane deal as the interface between the Shah’s government and the Navy,” Russell said. “All but one of the 81 jets reached Iran. The 81st plane is still sitting out in the Arizona desert where we store airplanes. It’s brand new and was only flown one time.

“It belongs to the Iranian government, but it didn’t make it over there before the Shah’s government fell.”

By the 1980s, Russell went to work for Boeing as head of the firm’s AWAC program. These are specially-equipped jet transport planes equipped with sophisticated radar used for military purposes. After two years as head of the $4 billion program he officially retired again. By then, Russell had 29 years in the Navy.

He and his wife moved to Sarasota, where his daughter and her husband live. That was more than 20 years ago. Since then, Russell has been involved with many retired military organizations.

Probably the thing he is most proud of since retiring from the Navy is his election to the Golden Eagles. This is an exclusive organization of retired Navy and Marine aviators. All are at least 60 years old with impeccable aviation pedigrees. There are only 200 of these rare birds alive. Each has to be selected by his peers to be a member, and that only happens when one of the clan passes on.

Russell is also a founding member of the 1st Marine Division Association of Venice and a past commander of the Golden Pelican Squadron. The Pelican Squadron is also a group of retired Navy and Marine pilots who live in Southwest Florida and meet monthly.

Slim Russell is pictured with one hand on the prop of one of the British Swordfish torpedo bombers that crippled the German battleship Bismark in May 1941. A squadron of these ancient biplanes damaged the enemy ship’s rudders so that HMS King George V and HMS Rodney caught her 300 miles off the French coast and sent the battleship to the bottom. Photo provided

As he sat in the den of his south Sarasota home looking at a picture of himself hanging onto the prop of an ancient English Swordfish torpedo bomber that played a key part in sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941 off the coast of France by the British Royal Navy, he began to spin another war story.

A squadron of Swordfish torpedo bombers that flew barely 100 mph attacked the state-of-the-art German battleship Bismarck. One of the squadron’s planes damaged the leviathan’s steering mechanism in the torpedo attack. As a consequence, the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney caught up to the damaged Bismarck and sent her to the bottom.

Pilots from the Swordfish squadron who helped do in the fabled German battleship arrived at Jacksonville Naval Air Station in 1943. The British aviators were to be trained to fly American Douglas Dauntless SBD dive bombers.

“A buddy of mine was their instructor. Those English aviators were a wild bunch of guys,” Russell said.

“When they graduated from dive bomber school, they put on a final demonstration to show their expertise. They brought a British admiral in from England and the American admiral from Jacksonville to witness the event,” he said. “The demonstration was conducted at Lake George near Jacksonville.

“The two admirals were on the target boat. The English aviators were to drop small practice bombs as close to the target boat as possible,” he said. “The dive bombers were supposed to come in vertically and drop their bombs. But they came in horizontally and skipped them into the side of the target boat. It sank in 6 feet of water with both admirals aboard. Everyone who witnessed the demonstration went into hysterics.”

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, Jan. 18, 2004 and part two on the following day and is republished with permission.

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June 27, 1920 – May 17, 2009

Captain Allard Guy “Slim” Russell, US Navy (Retired) and honorary Marine, 88, of Sarasota, died May 17, 2009 at Doctors Hospital, Sarasota, FL.

Survivors include his wife, Edith Russell of Sarasota; son, Ron Russell and his wife, Paristo of Sterling, VA; daughter, Joan Veselka and her husband, John of Houston, TX; daughter and loving caregiver, Dr. Diane Warren of Sarasota and daughter, Donna Russell Martin and her husband, Rob of Culpeper, VA. He is also survived by his grandchildren, Kimberly Thaxton of Cornelius NC; Christopher Russell of Sterling, VA; William Veselka of Houston, TX; Marc Veselka of Colorado Springs, Co and Jason Veselka of Norfolk, VA; Elizabeth “Holly” Martin of Cornelius NC and Margaret “Maggie” Martin of Culpeper, VA. In addition, he left 5 great grandchildren.

He was born in Williston, ND and was truly one of the “Greatest Generation”. Slim joined the Navy, out of the University of Washington, in 1940. He became a carrier pilot, flying in combat during World War II and the Korean War; including dive-bomber support for the First Marine Division during the battle of Guadalcanal, flying off the USS Saratoga.

When the ship was torpedoed, he was moved to an airstrip on Guadalcanal, living with the Marines and flying air cover missions. He proudly identified himself as both a Naval Aviator and a Marine. As a Naval test pilot he flew 125 different types of airplanes, specializing in night flight operations.

During his career he amassed some 6500 military flight hours and 3000 civilian flight hours. His combat awards include two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 5 Air Medals and the Presidential Unit Citation. In 1957 he was a leading pioneer in the All-weather Carrier Landing System and made the first aircraft carrier landing completely by computer. He planned and led the first flight of combat jets across the Atlantic to support the Lebanon crisis in 1958.

He was the first licensed hydro skimmer pilot and flew exchange duty with the British Royal Navy. Upon his Naval retirement in 1962 he worked for Bell Aircraft, as Director of flight research, participating in the development of early air cushioned vehicles.

Later Slim worked for Hughes Aircraft as head of military programs. He served in the White House Action Agency and in the State Department as Deputy Chief, Navy Division, Vietnam. Later he joined Boeing Aircraft as the coordinator for the AWACS flight radar system on behalf of the Air Force and NATO during the early 1980s.

He was nominated and inducted into the Early and Pioneer Naval Aviation Association, known as the Golden Eagles, which functions as a living memorial to those early Naval Aviators who pioneered and provided leadership for military aviation force.

He remained an active member of the Association of Naval Aviators, the Naval Aviation Foundation”s Golden Pelican Squadron, the lst Marine Division Association of SW Florida, the Navy League and was a lifetime member of the Distinguished Flying Cross Society and the USS Saratoga Association. Slim and Edie moved to Sarasota upon his retirement from the Boeing/NATO program in 1983. He was a charter member and first chapter President of the Angel Flight Southeast, Sarasota Squadron, arranging free air transport for charitable and medical needs.

He flew many mercy missions almost up until the time of his death. An avid golfer he continually shot his age or better, despite hip and shoulder fractures in 2007. He will be remembered as a loving husband of more than 67 years, supportive father, grandfather and great grandfather and a gregarious, generous and loyal friend.

A memorial service will be held Aug. 8, 2009, Sarasota. Burial will be at Arlington National Cemetery Oct. 30, 2009. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to Angel Flight Southeast,Inc., 8864 Airport Blvd, Leesburg, FL 34788 (352-326-0761). Arrangements are being handled by the National Cremation Society, Sarasota.

Published in The Washington Post on May 24, 2009

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