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Remembering V-J Day and the pilots who flew in the Pacific

August 15, 2005
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
Enterprise staff writer

Today marks the 60th anniversary of V–J Day, the day that Japan surrendered to the Allies after almost six years of war.

Over the past three years, I have been lucky enough to meet several World War II veterans who flew with my late father, Lt. Frank J. Sherwin. These men were Marine night-fighter pilots stationed on Okinawa in 1945.

One of my most valuable resources has been Maj. Bob McEldowney, the radio-radar officer for the squadron, VMF(N)543. McEldowney is the unofficial squadron historian who also took many now treasured photos during the war.

McEldowney lives in Naples, Fla., not far from a squadron pilot, Tom Wagner. Wagner and his wife, Mickey, got married during the war. My father was one of several pilot buddies in attendance at the wedding. Also living within striking distance in southern Florida are two other squadron pilots – Bob Warren and Al Schutter.

El Macero resident Gale Cook has a connection to this squadron, too.

“My cousin, Lt. Bruce Bonner, was a member of that night fighter squadron and I’m sure he knew your father,” Cook told me a few years ago. “I was communications officer of the LSM Group 7, a landing ship squadron, and we made the landing at Okinawa on Easter Sunday, 1945.”

After a couple of weeks, Cook hitched a jeep ride up to the Kadena airstrip to track down his cousin.

“When I asked for him the pilots I was talking to got very quiet and told me that he had been killed in a crash landing on the airstrip. They showed me where he was buried and I took a picture of the grave marker with his name on it.”

In sickness and health

In May I went to Florida to meet the Wagners, McEldowney and Warren. I talked to Schutter on the phone. It was a wonderful experience.

The men that I met married women they loved, raised families, worked hard and stayed married. I’m sure it wasn’t always easy. Now that they are seniors, health concerns are paramount. Each couple -- Tom and Mickey, Bob and Millie, Bob and Mary – impressed me with the love and support they showed each other and their friends in sickness and in health.

VMF(N)543 in Okinawa, circa May 1945Of course, we talked about the pilots who didn’t make it – those that were killed or lost in the war and those, like my father, who found civilian/domestic life difficult and died young.

One of the pilots that I was curious about was my dad’s best friend. My father’s WWII photos included many shots of a young guy from New Jersey named Clarke Thornton. After the war, he was the best man at my parents’ wedding. In the few letters Dad wrote from Okinawa, he mentioned Thornton several times.

He and Dad also were among the six pilots that went from Okinawa to China at the end of the war. But after my father’s wedding in 1947, Thornton disappeared. None of the other pilots in Florida knew what happened to him, not even our unofficial historian McEldowney. But I considered myself lucky to have met several of Dad’s friends and gave up on Thornton.

An email surprise

Too soon, as it turned out. Just a few weeks ago I received an e-mail message from Thornton’s son, Chip. He found an article I’d written in 2002, posted on the Internet, about a bravado WWII training mishap in Vero Beach, Fla., involving my father, his father, and Tom Wagner.

Lt Frank Sherwin with Lt Clarke Thorton.“Clarke Thornton was my father,” wrote Chip. “He lived in Plainfield, N.J., before the war. This is the first time I've seen a reference to him in any history. I remember him telling me the (Vero Beach) story, though. He died in 2003 from complications from prostate cancer.

“How strange it would be if you had pictures of my dad and I had pictures of your dad,” Chip continued. “There are two scrapbooks, or there were, at my dad's house when he died. I've seen them many times and I'm almost certain your dad's in there somewhere.”

Chip, who lives outside Baltimore, got in touch with me just a few days before he was to leave on his first trip to the West Coast. He included Davis as a last-minute addition and last week we were able to sit on my sofa and go through photos together.

Lt Frank Sherwin, photographced by Clarke Thornton.I’m sorry I never got to meet his father, but meeting Chip was the next best thing. He brought me a framed black and white photo of my dad, a picture I’d never seen before. In the photo, Dad’s wearing his leather flight jacket with the “night hawk” insignia (drawn by Milton Caniff of the “Steve Canyon” comic strip fame). It looks like he has his hands on his hips as he grins into the camera. The photo was taken on a windy day. He looks young, brave and to me, looking back on all the sad years he was to live through after the war, very vulnerable.

I in turn was able to give Chip photos he’d never seen before of his father as a young man with a drop-dead grin and an infectious love of flying.

In one of his letters home in December of 1944, when the pilots were still in training at El Centro, Dad wrote: “Clarke (Thornton) and I got up early this morning and went to the 0900 Mass instead of the usual 1100.”

Wheels-up landing

It’s probably a good thing Dad went to Mass that morning, for a few hours later he was forced to make a crash landing when the wheels on his aircraft jammed halfway up.

He circled the El Centro field for about 45 minutes, trying the emergency hydraulic hand pump and various aerobatic maneuvers to force the wheels down, but nothing worked.

“I flew out to the rocket range and fired the rockets so that they wouldn’t explode when I landed,” he wrote. “And then I came back to the field, starting a long glide for the runway. I cut all my switches and made a crash landing. It was very uneventful and nothing happened to me at all. I managed to roll the ship in gently on the tail wheel before letting the prop hit the deck…and the plane was only slightly damaged.”

Chip’s father and my father were good pilots. They loved to fly and they loved being Marines. That they had problems later -- both men got divorced and were seduced at one time or another by get-rich-quick schemes – didn’t matter to us.

We decided to go to Mass on Sunday morning here in Davis. Our fathers could well have gone to Mass together on Okinawa 60 years ago to the day. It seemed like the right thing to do.

--Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org

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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.

Follow this link to theMay 29, 2004 feature in the Davis Enterprise and part of PRINTED MATTER ON THE WEB for more about these Marine Aviators.

Caption by G. Richard Yamagata

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

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