Corsair crew chief kept fighters in battle over Okinawa

Paul Gailey sits on the wing of a Corsair. He was a crew chief in Marine Air Group 31 during the Pacific war. It was his responsibility: Keep the fighters flying. Photo provided by Paul Gailey

Paul Gailey, of Burnt Store Marina, Fla., was a crew chief in Marine Air Group 31, Squadron VMF-441, during the Battle of Okinawa, the last major island battle in the Pacific in World War II. As a sergeant, it was his job to keep his squadron of F4U Corsair fighters airborne.

This is Gailey’s story, written in his own words:

“Prior to the actual invasion of the big island of Okinawa on Easter Sunday morning, April 1, 1945, several small, rugged tactical islands were stormed and attacked and secured. These islands called the Keramas cost the lives of 531 (Japanese) and 121 captured at a cost of 31 of our soldiers killed and 81 wounded.

“The islands were a godsend. They furnished a naval base throughout the Okinawa campaign, a seaplane anchorage, a place to rearm and refuel ships as well as a fix-it shop for ships that had been hit by kamikazes.

“Seven days before we were to arrive at Okinawa, the big guns of Admiral (William) Blandy’s Task Force 52 and the plans of Admiral (Marc A.) Mitscher’s 58th Task Force pounded the island. During this week, 13,000 tons of shells were blasted into Okinawa.

“The island was hammered again by planes from the fast carriers and escort carriers. Those squadrons flew a total of 3,095 sorties over this area delivering .50-caliber slugs, rockets and bombs.

“Then it was our turn to go ashore. It was the 7th of April and the crew was nervous and so was everybody on board. The kamikazes had already wiped out several ships, including two escort carriers.

“We were awakened at 0430 hours (4:30 a.m.) when all the lights in our compartment came on with our section leader sounding off as loud as he could yell, ‘OK you prima donnas … grab your socks, this pleasure cruise is over! This is where we get off, hit the deck right now! We haven’t got all day, Don’t you know there’s a war on?’

“The … grousing and mumbling began immediately. Our LST (Landing Ship Tank) was anchored among a group of ships about 1,000 yards off the beach at Okinawa. When we came topside and fell into the chow line, it was still dark.

“Something very odd was not happening. We were on the seventh day of a major invasion on a cool, damp, overcast day and there was not one sound of battle. There was no gunfire, no sound of weapons of any kinds. It was eerie.

“Someone in line said he heard one of the crewmen say the troops who went in on the first wave never fired a shot and met very little or no resistance whatsoever. If this was an invasion, it had to be the quietest one on record.

“In addition to our steel helmet, cartridge belt with bayonet, canteen and first-aid kit, each of us was loaded with a full pack, bedroll, poncho, M-1 rifle and two bandoliers holding 20 clips of .30-caliber ammo. We were going to have to board the landing craft using rope boarding ladders, which none of us had ever used.

“When using the rope ladder to board, the secret was to never, ever place your hands on the horizontal rope rungs, but to use only the vertical strands for holding on. It didn’t take long for one of our guys to have both of his hands stepped on while hanging onto the horizontal rungs. He dropped like a cannonball into the water, just missing the landing craft by a whisker. He went straight to the bottom.

Gailey is in front of an eight-man tent in the Marshall Islands in 1945 near the end of the war. Photo provided by Paul Gailey

“A staff sergeant by the name of Stone quickly doffed his gear and dove into the water to find him. In a matter of seconds ‘Stoney’ had him up sputtering, minus all his gear. Four or five guys grabbed hold of him and hauled him aboard. ‘Stoney’ earned a medal for that venture.

“When we hit the beach we trudged along the soft, red mud of the road to a place five or six miles inland toward Yontan Airfield. It was a Japanese field that had survived our initial attack.

“Our Corsairs had already arrived. They were widely scattered along the landing strip to keep from being damaged in one group if they were attacked by the Japanese.

“We were lucky. After the second day, we had a mess tent and two hot meals a day. In 10 days, we had 40 tents sleeping eight men each.

“The fighting business went on. While the Army and Marine infantry and mechanized units were doing their jobs, we were doing ours and so were the Japanese. Most of the Japanese destruction efforts took place on our ships patrolling off-shore.

“This was the period during the Okinawa campaign where the Japanese used one of the single most effective weapons in WWII — the kamikaze (suicide plane) against our ships.”

Bill Sholin’s book, “The Sacrificial Lambs,” about the U.S. Navy casualties and U.S. ships sunk at Okinawa notes: Some 3,500 kamikazes were shot down during the 82-day battle. However, Japanese suicide pilots damaged 232 U.S. ships during this battle. Of that number, 30 of them were sent to the bottom in these attacks. This last major island battle in the Pacific cost the lives of 12,350 American servicemen and an additional 36,361 were wounded. The Japanese suffered 109,629 killed, wounded and captured, according to the book.

“On the evening of March 24, 1945, I was working late on my F4U Corsair parked in a revetments about 100 yards from the runway,” Gailey writes. “It was just after 2000 hours (8 p.m.). I had completed some minor maintenance and was testing a belly fuel drop tank to make sure it would feed fuel to the engine when selected. I had just started the engine and was sitting there waiting for the temperatures and pressures to reach green lines on the gauges. Over the noise of the engine, I thought I heard the air raid siren but wasn’t sure. I didn’t hear any gunfire so I kept the engine running to try and finish the test so I could get the hell off the field.

Paul Gailey (right) stands in front of a Corsair F4U fighter, in Okinawa with two buddies, Surso and Masley, according to the notation on the back of the photograph. This is the day after the Japanese agreed to unconditional surrender, ending World War II. Photo provided by Paul Gailey

“At approximately 2025 hours (8:25 p.m.) I happened to be looking straight up in the air and coming directly over my position 200 feet above me was a Japanese bomber, a Sally. There was no sound, the pilot had cut the engines and its wheels were still retracted. I thought, sweet Jesus, don’t let him drop any bombs, I’m too young to die!

“No one ever saw anybody shut down, secure and jump out of an airplane so fast. I made it back to the tent area and plopped into a shelter. I was scared to death. I was the only one in the shelter. The rest of the guys in my group never got out of the sack.

“The next morning the entire complement of MAG-31 (his unit) went over to the tower to see the devastation brought about by the suicide occupants of several Sally bombers that landed at Yontan Airfield the night before. Just moments after I left the Corsair the previous night, three enemy bombers were shot down.

“Another enemy bomber attempting a belly-landing slammed into an anti-aircraft gun mount, burying eight Marines that resulted in two deaths from suffocation. The final bomber belly-landed and a dozen Japanese jumped out with grenades and demolition charges and began destroying parked airplanes. Before they were killed they demolished nine and seriously damaged 29 other planes and 70,000 gallons of fuel also went up in flames.

“Before the attack was quelled, three men, including the tower duty officer, died of wounds and 18 others were wounded. The last of the Japanese were killed a little after midnight. In all, 69 Japanese bodies were counted and buried by the Seabees.

Paul Gailey of Burnt Store Marina sits at his computer checking his nearly-completed book on Pan American World Airways for which he flew decades ago. He began his aviation career as a crew chief in Marine Air Group 31 during World War II. Sun photo by Don Moore

“A few weeks later, in August 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russia declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. Japan got the message and announced its unconditional surrender on Aug. 14. The surrender document was signed aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Very shortly thereafter, MAG-31 packed all its hardware and went home to Mamma.”

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, April 3, 2005 and is republished with permission.

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Paul J. Gailey, formerly of Punta Gorda, FL, passed away peacefully on Friday, April 12th, 2013 in Flower Mound, TX.

He was born on July 4th, 1926 in Cleveland, OH.

Paul was a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, and proudly served during WWII in Okinawa, Japan.

Paul later went on to work as an airline pilot for Eastern Airlines and Frontier Airlines. Paul was a wonderful husband and father, and will be missed by everybody who was lucky enough to know him.

He is survived by his loving wife Camilla, and daughter Paula. After retiring from Frontier, Paul actually started his own successful Toy Train restoration business, and was active in the Toy Train Operating Society and the Train Collectors Association. After finally settling into retirement, Paul wrote a yet to be published book
that is a historical fiction about the early years of Pan Am.

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