A NEW ROLE - VPB 144 -The Feather Merchants Over Eniwetok 1945
When VP-41 was rotated out towards the end of 1942. I was temporarily assigned duty with the US Army's Special Services Forces to "invade and retake" Kiska Island. After that I was sent to the Naval Air Station Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island Washington. "At Whidbey Island there was Ault Field and a squadron of PV-1's (twin engined Lockheed medium bombers)that were training for re-deployment. I was assigned to it as Commanding Officer.
At age 26, I was the youngest officer ever to be assigned as C.O. of any naval aircraft squadron. Before we deployed to the Central Pacific, we switched to the PV-2, a much improved version of the PV-1.
VPB 144 was one of the navys new squadrons what follows is a brief history.
1944 The new squadron, unofficially known as the "Feather merchants," began immediate preparation for deployment. Flying Lockheed PV-1 Ventura's, VB-144 completed its training in October 1943, then embarked in USS Copahee (CVE-12) for transportation to NAS Kaneohe Bay, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Brief detachments to Midway and Johnston Islands were followed in December by the squadron's combat deployment to Tarawa. In March 1944, the squadron followed the U. S. Advance westward and flew patrols from Roi Island and Kwajelein until it was relieved in September by VB-133. Following its post-combat stand down, VB-144 re-formed at NAS Whidbey Island and was redesignated VPB-144 under Commander Bill Theis. It began making ready for its second combat deployment, this time with PV-2 Harpoons. On 4 April 1944, VPB-144 loaded aboard USS Kadashan Bay (CVE-76), staging through NAS Kaneohe Bay, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, before deploying to Eniwetok on 27 June. The final strike of the war for the Feathermerchants was flown against Wake Island 13 August 1945. After moving to Tinian, VPB-144 began demobilization while still deployed and effectively was a nonoperational squadron by the end of the year, when remaining personnel returned to the United States.
Snuffy Smith by Fred Lasswell is the character on Bills VB-144 Harpoon. For those who do not know who he is Bill explains.
I could not find the actual one like in the sketch I sent you but
it is Snuffy: When Barney Google's adventures took him deep into the Kentucky hills to escape the law, he met Snuffy Smith, a bodacious hillbilly who soon eclipsed him in popularity. At one time the premier moonshiner of Hootin' Holler mountain, this card-playin', hammock-swayin', shotgun-sprayin' varmint made the headlines when he vowed to give up his still forever. We'll just see about that.
PV2-Harpoons and Redeployment to the Eniwetok
We had to put the squadron on an aircraft carrier to get it to the Hawaian Islands because we didn't have the range to fly there. That was April of 1945 because I vividly remember that President Roosevelt died
during that voyage.
Eniwetok had been built into a major staging area after the capture of the the island group in 1944. It served as a rear anchorage and repair base and kept tabs on the by-passed island bases of the Japanese in the area. Bill's unit was primarily involved in ASW (Anti Submarine Warfare) patrols and periodic recon and harrassment missions on the Japanese. It was at Eniwetok that the war came very close to ending again for Bill in the waning days of the conflict. I was surprised when he described his missions on the by-passed Japanese bases. That the Navy would have sent crews out on such raids so close to the wars end, with out escorts or supporting rescue aircraft was surprising. The possibility of any action coming from those islands was nil, and our ability to read all Japanese code traffic (ULTRA) would have tipped the military off to any pending action.
The PV-2 was derived from the PV-1 Ventura. The Ventura was originaly built for the British to replace the Lockheed Hudson. It was, at 313 mph, a fast, well armed aircraft for it's type. The PV-2 was an improved version structurally. It was a twin engined, 282 mph, aircraft with 9 machine guns, a greater range of 1790 miles and capable of carrying 3000 pounds of bombs. The crew varied from 4-5 depending on the mission. It was well suited to its role of maritime reconnaissance. Says Bill of the PV-1 & 2. "I appreciated the speed and maneuverability of the PV's I always wanted to be a fighter pilot and that was as close as I ever came."
Bill and his crew were assigned to make several raids during this period. "We made one raid on Ponapei (Pohnpei)for 'general destruction'. We were alone, no escort. (Note: there was an airstrip on the island and you could never be absolutely sure there would be no air opposition. The rule was make one pass and get the hell out.) As I was making a high speed run on a water tower (we had twin 50 caliber machine guns in the nose) the structure blazed with 40mm anti aircraft fire. The 40mm that opened up on us had more range than our 50's, and we pulled out before our 50's were in range.
When we banked away, the top skin of the right wing started to peel off. We jettissoned everything that wasn't welded down and lukily made it back to Eniwetok. The Japanese never sent any return raids, it was just a week before the A-bomb was dropped and they had nothing left. There was still a small ground force on Wake and we made a couple of raids on them. The strikes went in single file with a mile separation between aircraft."
Neither Bill or any of his crew were wounded during all of his missions in the war. He admits to "just some dirty underware!" Considering that they were often sent into the midst of the most intense anti-aircraft and fighter resistance, concentrated into a small area, in addition to the most adverse of weather conditions found on any front Americans served, it is a testament to his skill as a pilot and that of his crew. He says that the PBY was and is still his favorite aircraft because of its dependable Pratt and Whitney R-1830 engines. "I wouldn't fly anything that had a bum reputation so can't allude to a least favorite aircraft."
At wars end Bill and his unit were sent to Tinian. Bill tells the story of the dissolution of his unit as follows.
" I was still on Eniwetok when the war ended. We then went to Tinian where the squadron was decomissioned and ordered to push all 15 PV-2's over a 100 foot cliff into the ocean! This was done by revving up the engines, taxing to the edge of the cliff and jumping out!
Having grown up watching TV shows like McHales Navy and seeing movies like Mr. Roberts, I had hear the term torpedo juice in references to brews concocted by the ships crews. Here is a story about that from Bill:
"All torpedoes for the Navy and AAF planes were stored and loaded at Umnak. There was a Navy Chief Torpedo man in charge. The "fish" in those days ran on ethyl alcohol. The Alcohol was spiked with "pink lady" so that if anyone drank it, they would get diarrhea. This enterprising Chief drained all the torpedoes, built a 'still' to remove the pink lady, recovered and sold the pure alcohol! His court martial punishment was a reduction in rank to Seaman 2nd class and "banishment" to stateside!!! (Big Deal!!!)" When asked if the Chief's liquor business ever caused our pilots to unwittingly go on missions with bad ordanance he responded, "Absolutely - often everyone that was dropped by the Army Air Corp aircraft and the Navy PBY's did not run. There were a couple of Army crews and Navy crews that actually found the Japanese carriers and made torpedo runs. Goes without saying "substance abuse" undoubtedly changed history."
After the war Bill continued on with the Navy. Between 1945 and 1959 his career was varied. He flew as a PV2 pilot in one of the Navys Atomic bomb squadrons and then served in Naval Intelligence. He was not assigned to any ships until 1952 when he was made as XO of USS Jupiter AVS-8 (Aviation supply ship) furnishing aeronautical logistical support to the 7th Fleet operating in sea of Japan during Korean war (3 year tour). Then, while he never had carrier duty, while XO of Barin Field Foley, Alabama (near Pensacola) in 1957, a student carrier qualification school, he qualified for carrier landings in an SNJ. He flew some of the early navy jets. Per Bill "I can't remember designation, but they were tandom twin cockpit" Bill retired from the Navy in January of 1959. His last assignment was with NATO based out of Norfolk, VA. with anti-submarine warfare group . During his career he was awarded the Navy Cross, 2DFC's & 6 air medals
See the end of the page for copies of Bill's Citations and the awarding of the Gold Star for multiple DFC awards and Air medals. This is similar to the British DFC and Bar for multiple awards of the same decoration, but the first I had ever seen of it's mention, included is his certificate from the Navy's only atomic bomb carrying squadron in 1949.
Of his post Navy career he states "I went to work to earn a living in glass and glazing; Office copy machines." These days Bill says he spends his time "Seeing how much trouble I can get into by tweaking my computer !And that's a lot!" He moved to Washington state from Carmel California in June of 1998 with his wife to be closer to their family. Daughter - Nola of Gig Harbor Washington and her 3 kids and their 3 kids. Bill's other daughter Laylon runs a successful art gallery in Cambria California.( Vault Gallery) Bill lost his wife Vivian to Alzheimer's in January of 1999 after a six year struggle with the illness. Says Bill 3 grand children and 4 great grandchildren "makes me a Great Grandfather (Ha)". He fishes for steelhead and helps his peers out with their PC's. At 91 as of this August 2007 update Bill has built his own PC.
Bills home in Washington ..and his favorite pastime.
You can e-mail Bill at(email@example.com) with any questions. or visit his web page at:
Bill will be appearing in a History Channel on the restoration of a PBY, He and his Navigator and Co-pilot Bob Larson will be featured. Bill spent a memorable and exciting day September 14th 2005 at the Skagit Regional airport,
near Burlington, WA., a 3 hour drive north from Gig Harbor where a PBY5A Catalina flying boat,
like he flew in WWII, was undergoing restoration.
A crew from the History Channel was there, filming the attachment of the wing panels.
During the day, the History Channel producer, Steve Thomas,( many may know from Public Televisions, This Old House Series) spent 4 hours filming
interviews with Bill, walking around, inside and sitting at the contols in the cockpit
of the airplane.
The film crew had just returned from a weeks trip to the Aleutian Islands where they filmed an 85 year old veteran of the infamous battle of Attu which involved recapturing the island from the Japanese.
The film, which will air sometime in March, 2006, will be titled, "Save Our History".
Steve Thomas said Bill's part in it will probably be about 8 to 10 minutes with the theme about how Bill was involved in the discovery of the Japanese Zero fighter aircraft, which changed the course of the air war in the Pacific theatre during the war. ( The aircraft was studied to develop tactics mentioned in the pervious part of the profile)
Below are some of the updated photos Bill recently sent as of September 30th 2005.
L to R - Meghan, the films chief of staff,
Steve Thomas, Producer
Andy the Director,
Bob Larson - his Navigator/Co-Pilot and
Brian, Bills Grandson
With the films camera crew.
The Deception Pass bridge on Whidbey Island that Bill flew under in a PBY in 1941
Most of us talk about the one that got away. Bill's on the other hand has state supported proof of one that did not!!!
Bill on Steelhead. "It has been my experience that
"Easteners" don't know what a steel head is. In case you don't know,
it is an anadromous seagoing rainbow trout (similar to the Atlantic Salmon, [Newfoundland habitat - but not a salmon] ) that reach sizes of over 20 pounds, but the average catch is in the range of 8 to 12.
A 20 pound catch is considered a "once in a lifetime" event, which it was my good fortune to experience. Length= 41" Weight=21 pounds !!!"
The latest Fishing trip April 2000
I asked Bill about his last trip out. Bill: Greatest steelhead fishing trip I ever had. It wore this old man out, but I kept up with all the younger guys ! Lost track of number but it was around 40 fish in 8 days of fishing from getting up at 5:00AM and quiting at 7:00
PM every day. 2 largest were 19 and 20 pounds (39"and 40"). Nothing under 10 to 13 pounds. Here are some pics:
The glaciers are Hubbard and Malaspina. I am 3rd from left in the pic with the airplane. They let me co-pilot !! Last fish trip - April 2005 which was my 4th trip to Yakutat, AK to fish the world class Situk River.
My 25 year old partner and I caught 152 summer run steelhead in 5 days of fishing drifting the river for 10 hours each day.