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Finding A Father: Father's Day Essay 2002

July 16, 2002
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
Enterprise staff writer

My father died in 1973 at age 51. Much of his life was a mystery to me and until fairly recently I was more or less content to keep it that way. In terms of our family lore, he was the bad guy: an unfaithful husband, an absentee father, a careless worker. My parents were divorced when I was 12 and I only saw him a few times after that.

But through the years a little voice in my head would occasionally pipe up and say: "He MUST have had SOME good qualities!"

I knew there was one period in his life that he was very proud of. That was during World War II when my dad, Lt. Frank J. Sherwin Jr., was a Marine night fighter pilot in the Pacific.

I remember a story he used to tell about his wartime experiences. He described how he was shot down one night, hitting the water hard. (Because of this, he had back problems for the rest of his life.) While he was floating in the water, a Navy LST came into the area. He could hear the sailors discussing whether they should pick him up, not knowing if he was American or Japanese. He began cussing a blue streak, letting the sailors know in no uncertain terms that they were dealing with a Marine. They picked him up.

As the years went by, I wanted to know more about his war, especially after I began to read stories in the newspapers about how WWII veterans were dying at a rate of hundreds a day. If I ever wanted to track down first-hand information about my father, I'd better hurry. So a year ago I began searching for men who might have known him.

My search began when my teen-age niece, who lives in Southern California, joined members of her high school class in giving a mock USO show. One of the speakers at the event was Col. R. Bruce Porter, a WWII veteran who wrote "Ace," a book about his wartime experiences as a Marine night fighter in the Pacific.

My brother wrote to Porter to ask if he by chance knew our father. Porter wrote back saying he didn't know Dad, but encouraging us to contact the Marine Night Fighters Association.

That's where I picked up the trail and sent letters to members of the association, looking for anyone who might have flown with my father. Unfortunately I didn't know his squadron number so after several false starts I had to backtrack and wrote to the military personnel archive in St. Louis, Mo., for his records.

After several months, I received the information I needed and found out which squadron he belonged to. At that point the night fighters' association was able to put me in touch with remaining members of the squadron. And earlier this year, I was lucky enough to find Maj. Bob McEldowney, Ret., USMCR, a meticulous man who kept records of his wartime experiences.

"I knew Frank very well," said McEldowney. "We served together in VMF(N)543, he as a first lieutenant F6F-5N pilot and me as the squadron radio-radar (non-flying) officer. We were together at Cherry Point, N.C., California, Hawaii, and during the battle of Okinawa. This was from April 1944 until he left 543 about June or July 1945."

And there was more. McEldowney had kept in touch with another pilot, Tom Wagner, who also was a friend of my father's. Both men, remarkably generous with their time and recollections, live in Florida and visit each other with their devoted wives several times a year.

"As was Bob McEldowney, I, too, served in VMF(N) 543, The Nighthawks, the entire time Frank was in that squadron," said Wagner. "In addition we were among the first 12 Marine pilots to fly into Peking, China, in September 1945.

"We were close friends during military duty," he added. "He loved to make a ridiculous comment to see our reaction.

"I first met Frank in March of 1944 at the Naval Air Station in Vero Beach, Fla.," said Wagner. "We were volunteers for a new concept in air warfare, night-fighter pilots, trained to fly and fight by instrument guided from the ground by a secret weapon, radar. In this day and age it's hard to think of it as a secret weapon, but it was then electronic flying in its infancy.

"In Vero Beach, we flew F6F Hellcats that had seen carrier duty in the North Atlantic," Wagner added. The planes were beat-up and probably somewhat expendable, perfect for the new training experiment.

Wagner recalled this incident: "Clark Thornton, Frank and I were flying a night-navigational flight from Vero to Jacksonville to Tampa and back to Vero. Clark was leading the flight. Shortly after midnight with five hours of fuel, a blanket ground fog settled over the land."

On the last leg of the flight, Thornton took a wrong heading on instruments. They were lost. With fuel gauges dropping fast, they descended to 400 feet, just below the fog level. They saw lights below, identified an airstrip, and landed on fumes at an Army Air Corps Base in Fort Myers.

Mortified that Marine pilots would have to confess to Army pilots that they were lost, the three made up a tale about their carrier being sunk in the Atlantic.

"With our beat up planes, our rumpled flight suits and our side arms and knives, they believed us," said Wagner.

The Hellcats were so old that they had to be started with a type of shotgun shell that, through explosion, spun the propeller to start the motor. Each pilot carried a spare shell.

"After refueling, we were asked why our planes had no red lines for acceleration and we boasted that they were so powerful that they did not need red lines to warn of burning out the engine," Wagner said.

"And then we felt we had to prove it," he added.

Thornton took off. Dad was next but his shell didn't fire. So Wagner took off, promising to send someone back with extra shotgun shells for Dad's plane.

"We kept our planes low, gaining speed and then did a chandelle, a steep turning climb. When Frank saw what we were doing, he couldn't watch what might have been a flaming disaster, so he turned and walked away. The Air Corps took that to mean that he was utterly casual about the feat.

"Later, Thornton flew back with a cartridge for him…and the three of us had many laughs telling of our escapade."

McEldowney recalled another event, which occurred when they were stationed at El Centro.

"I remember only one mishap," he said, "a successful wheels-up landing (by your father) on the grass alongside the paved runway. I watched his performance on this from the sidelines and marveled at his skill in making that difficult and dangerous landing. As I remember, Frank was unable, from the cockpit, to get the gear to come down for landing. It was a genuine emergency…accomplished with considerable skill."

The squadron, which received training in Florida and California, left the States for combat in January 1945. The first stop was Hawaii for more training. Fifteen planes and pilots went aboard a carrier headed for Okinawa where they were land-based until June when Okinawa was secured. Then they were sent to Pelelieu and Ulithi.

It was at Ulithi in late July that Wagner received word that his wife had given birth to their first child, a son who later became a jet fighter pilot who flew two tours in Vietnam.

"About two weeks later, the Japanese surrendered, relieving us from our scheduled invasion of Japan," Wagner said.

Wagner added that the primary objective of night-fighter pilots was to attack the enemy at night and protect ground forces, also at night, from enemy fire. Night-fighters did not shoot down as many enemy planes as day fighters, but according to McEldowney, the squadron was credited with shooting down 17 Japanese aircraft and destroying four ships.

"Most of our flying (consisted of) harassment missions to the surrounded Japanese-occupied islands since we were the junior night fighter squadron there," said Wagner. "We received lots of friendly fire. In fact, when we returned to base we could hear the Army anti-aircraft requesting condition yellow, which meant they could fire at will. We named ourselves Will."

VMF(N)543 in Okinawa, circa May 1945The original cadre of pilots at Okinawa was relieved from duty following two months of nightly combat operations. The 543 lost a total of nine pilots killed and three seriously wounded up to that time. The squadron area was shelled by Japanese artillery eight times and survived 53 air raids between April and June of 1945.

"Night fighter pilots received more complete and sophisticated training than did the day fighters; we all knew our pilots were the cream of the crop," McEldowney said. "Those pilots, while together, were like brothers, a necessarily tight group who depended on each other for their flying survival."

After the war, McEldowney and his wife, Mary, lived in New Jersey where he was a civil engineer. They retired to Florida in the 1980s. Wagner and his wife, Mickey, also retired to Florida after working for Sears, then in real estate, then in the travel business.

"(Your father) was a good friend for a short time, a valued and successful Marine pilot who was a credit to the squadron and the U.S. Marine Corps," said McEldowney. "His post-war history of family and personal failures…suggests a character 180 degrees out of sync with the useful and skilled pilot (I knew)," he added.

McEldowney sent me two black and white photographs of my father that I'd never seen before. In one, he's sitting at a table in the mess tent with a captain and five other lieutenant-pilots. In the other he's sitting shirtless outside a tent, grinning into the camera. at the photographer, McEldowney. The sight of this young, handsome Marine brought tears to my eyes.

After Okinawa, McEldowney and my Dad never saw each other again.

But Dad and Wagner were sent to Peking, China, and became the first U.S. military to arrive there.

"Our squadron was sent to Peking to furnish support for our occupying forces who were being harassed by the Chinese 'agrarians' otherwise called communists," Wagner said. But the pilots were homesick and lonely and finally received orders at the end of December 1945 to return to the States.

"The four of us traveled together to Hawaii where we separated," wrote Wagner. He never saw my father again.

In our exchange of emails, I finally remembered to tell Wagner about Dad's favorite war story. The one about crashing into the water at night and convincing the sailors he was an American.

When a reply came from Wagner, I could almost hear the slow intake of breath before he carefully chose his words: "Frank was a raconteur, an excellent pilot and well liked by the rest of the us. He loved to tell a story, not always factual, but good listening."

Uh-oh. I think I know where this is going.

"The event described by you actually happened to Lt. Charles Engman, our close friend," said Wagner. "At night, 100 feet above the water, he exploded a Japanese plane. Engman dipped his stick, realizing he was too close to the water, he flattened out but his propeller hit the water, the engine froze and he made a night water landing successfully. When he waded ashore he had to identify himself as an American to our troops, that's where the Marine vocabulary came in handy. I suspect (Frank) embellished the story to make it more interesting."

Dad, I love you anyway. I'm sorry that we never got to watch "Catch 22" or "M*A*S*H" together or argue about the Vietnam War. I'm sorry I never got to hear you talk about what it was like to fly at night or take aerial photos of the Great Wall. We probably would have disagreed about many things as time went on, but I think we would have been friends, too.

And, by the way, it's taken a while, but thanks for introducing me to your friends. They're swell guys. Just like you.

Semper fi.

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Photo of Lt Frank Sherwin 

Lt. Frank Sherwin, pilot with the VMF(N)543 serving his country from Okinawa in May 1945. A June 16, 2002 feature in the Davis Enterprise and part of PRINTED MATTER ON THE WEB

Caption by G. Richard Yamagata

Photo by Robert McEldowney, Jr. ©2002 All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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