North Port man flew a Wildcat off USS Tulagi in WWII

During the Battle for the Philippines in World War II, Lt. j.g. Harley Cox of North Port, Fla. was catapulted off the deck of the carrier USS Tulagi (CVE-72) at the instant the engine of his Wildcat fighter died. He and his plane plunged into the sea in the path of his oncoming flattop.

“When I went into the sea in front of the carrier, the captain turned the carrier away from me. The wake of the ship pushed me away,” the 82-yar-old recalled. “My plane quickly went to the bottom, and I floated around in my life raft until I was picked up a few minutes later by a DE (Destroyer Escort) that trailed the carrier for this purpose.”

Cox wasn’t scratched during his unexpected “baptism,” he only got wet.

Flying off the deck of a mini carrier took especially agile pilots. In good weather it was hazardous, in foul weather or at night, landing on and taking off from one of these small carriers could be lethal.

Wildcat fighter plane pilots recall landing on the 512 foot deck of the USS Talagi was like landing on a postage stamp. Photo provided

Wildcat fighter plane pilots recall landing on the 512 foot deck of the USS Tulagi was like landing on a postage stamp. Photo provided

“It’s unfortunate how little publicity we got aboard the Tulagi and how much we did in squadron VC-92. We took part in three major invasions: the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa right in a row. We supported the Marines that hit the beaches in all three of these invasions,” he said.

Splashing his Wildcat into the sea wasn’t the only hazardous experience Cox had during the Philippine engagement. The 20-year-old aviator became the first American pilot to land on Luzon in the Philippine islands. He made an emergency landing just before Gen. Douglas MacArthur waded ashore and proclaimed to the world: “I have returned.”

“I was on a combat mission when a napalm bomb on one of my wings turned sideways. I did everything I could to get it loose, but nothing worked,” Cox said. “I was told I couldn’t land back on the carrier with the bomb twisted sideways like that. I had two choices: I could take my chances and land at an airport we had just taken away from the Japanese, or I could bail out of my Wildcat at sea and be rescued.

“I decided to take my chances and land on the potholed runway along the beach near where MacArthur came ashore. I missed some of those holes in the runway by inches. If my landing gear had gone in one of them, the napalm bomb might have fallen off and incinerated the plane,” he said.

The Wildcat Cox flew was no match for the Japanese Zero fighter. They lacked the speed and maneuverability of the enemy fighters.

“They could outrun us, but we could outturn them,” Cox said. “We were no competition in a dog fight with a Zero. In comparison to our Wildcats, the Zero was a better fighter and they knew it.”

His squadron had two principle duties: protect the fleet and provide air support for the Marines on the ground.

“We were in the air almost every day on combat air patrols where we would circle the fleet to protect it for kamikazes,” he said. “We’d spent eight hours in the air above the fleet or pounding ground targets for the Marines. We could stay aloft all day on one tank of gas if we leaned out our fuel mixture.

“The Marines had spotters on the ground who would tell us where the targets were. We’d make dummy runs on the target until we saw it. Then we’d hit it with rockets or napalm. The only thing that did any good against a concrete pill box was napalm,” the old aviator said.

His Wildcat was equipped with four .50-caliber Browning machine guns in the wings, two 250-pound bombs mounted on the wings or six 5-inch rockets. It’s maximum speed was 332 mph and it could climb to 28,800 feet.

“We dropped those napalm bombs by hand. We had two handles we pulled to release the bombs that were on our wings. What a Mickey Mouse operation, but it worked,” he said.

What Cox remembers best about his four years of service during the Second World War was flying off the Tulagi’s 512-foot flight deck at night or in bad weather.

“One of the worst experiences I had was being catapulted in the dark in the rain at 3 a.m. It was all timing. You can’t see anything and neither can the guy in front of you who just flew into the night,” Cox said. “The guy in front flies away from the carrier for so many minutes and then turns left. Then you follow him. That was scary.”

He and the other members of Squadron 92 did it on occasion. Just landing in daylight on the Tulagi’s pitching deck during a storm took nerves of steel. Other carrier pilots who landed on a 512-foot deck of a jeep carrier say it’s kind of like landing on a postage stamp.

“When you’re 19-years-old you’re cocky,” the old man said with a smile more than six decades later recalling his Naval career.

On Feb. 21, 1945, the USS Tulagi, Cox and the rest of the carrier’s crew were off the coast of Iwo Jima conducting air support for the fleet and antisubmarine patrols. They remained for about two weeks until their ship was reassigned to Ulithi Island to begin preparations for the invasion of Okinawa.

When the the Battle of Okinawa began on Easter Sunday morning, April 1, 1945, the USS Tulagi and her fighters and bombers were just off the coast. Again the carrier and its pilots provided submarine patrol and air support for the Marines involved in the biggest battle in the Pacific war fought by American forces.

About the time Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Lt. j.g. Harley Cox and the jeep carrier USS Tulagi were headed home to San Diego, Calif.

Like millions of other servicemen, Cox got married, spent the next 33 years working for Wards at stores around the country. He and Helen, his wife of 60 years, retired to North Port in 1986.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, April 8, 2007 and is republished with permission.

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Harley C Cox, Jr.

Harley C Cox Jr (1924 – 2007) was born on April 6, 1924.

He died on April 22, 2007 at age 83. Harley was buried in Ft. Logan National Cemetery Section 28 Site 182, 4400 West Kenyon Avenue, Denver, Co.



    • I was on the Tulagi from beginning to end of war as Petty Officer in charge of the flight deck & wrote about my life on the Tulagi & my Life in the Navy. I can email this to anyone interested

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