Sunday, July 10, 2011


Aviation Hall of Fame Induction Address for Wendell V. Twelves
Hill Air Force Base, Ogden, Utah May 30, 2011
Notes and Artifacts: gathered by his son Wenell Van Twelvesw
1)       Rearview mirror from Hellcat with 20mm canon hole
2)       Aluminum fuselage panel from Hellcat with .30 caliber holes
3)       Joe Rosenthal pictures
4)       Joe Rosenthal letter
5)       Navy Cross Citation
6)       Aircraft Loss Statistical Record Extract
7)       VF-15 Squadron Photo
8)       Gun camera sequential stills of the McCampbell Zero
9)       Grayed out text is back-up material

Lieutenant Wendell Van Twelves USN Induction into the Utah Aviation Hall of Fame

Tribute by his son, Van Twelves

It’s good to be here.  In fact, it’s REALLY good to be here.  My family and I are delighted and thrilled to see Dad honored by this induction into the Utah Aviation Hall of Fame.  We thank each of you for making the effort to be here.  On behalf of our family I express our deep appreciation to the American Fighter Aces Association, the Daedalian organization, the Hill Air Force Base Museum, Admiral Taylor, and Major Gilmore for making this day possible.

Brief Bio of Dad
Dad was born at home in Spanish Fork, Utah on June 7th, 1921 to Walter and Sarah Twelves.  He had three brothers and two sisters.  His father worked in the construction business.  As a teenager, he worked for local farmers, played on his high school football team, played the drums in a dance band, and wanted to learn to fly.  His first airplane ride was in an Eaglerock biplane.  When a barnstormer landed in a field near his home, Dad and his best friend, Joel Thorvaldson, ran to see the airplane.  The pilot made them a deal.  In exchange for keeping the cows away from the take-off and landing area he would give them a ride at the end of the day.  That flight was every bit as good as a ride in a flying saucer.  Dad and his friend were totally hooked.  Even today, the Eaglerock is a terrific airplane.  Biplanes have a special kind of magic.  The breed is getting kind of thin, but according FAA records three Eaglerocks are still flying. 

How Dad Joined the Navy
Dad originally planned on joining the Army Air Corps, but it didn’t work out.  He went up to Fort Douglas for an induction physical three different times, but he was so excited about joining up that he always got a bad case of white coat syndrome and they kept rejecting him for high blood pressure.  After the third time he was pretty frustrated and he happened to walk by a Navy recruiter on his college campus who called out to him and said, “How about you?  Do you have what it takes to fly off a carrier?”  Dad told him he was going to join the Army Air Corp.  The recruiter was no dummy.  He knew exactly the right buttons to push.  He smiled condescendingly and kind of sneered and said, “Well, that’s good.  That will probably work out just fine.  You probably couldn’t cut it in the Navy anyway.”  Dad’s fate was sealed.  If you have ever seen a movie called Back to the Future, that was just like Biff asking Marty McFly if he was a chicken.

There is, of course, only one possible response to a comment like that and Dad knew exactly what to say.  He said, “Oh, yeah?”   That was a savvy recruiter.  He signed Dad up on the spot. 

Oops!  Stitching Dave McCampbell's Airplane
Anytime you get a bunch of young, highly motivated and highly competitive guys together, give each of them a 2000 hp fighter with six fifty caliber machine guns and some bad guys to blow away, score keeping gets to be a pretty big deal.  I can remember Dad telling me about one particular Zero he shot down that was a little more involved than most because in the process of getting it he almost shot down Dave McCampbell, the Air Group Commander of VF-15.  Shooting down the boss is never a very good idea, and the fact that he was a lowly ensign at the time didn’t make it any better. 

The Air Group was en route to a strike when they ran into a number of Zeros.  Things turned into a fur ball so quickly that no one had time to release their drop tanks.  Dad said that he slipped in behind a Zero coming out of a turn and opened up with all six guns.  He was getting good hits on the Zero when another Hellcat that was trying to get lined up on the same Zero came between them.  Dad got off the trigger as soon as he saw what was happening.  These things happen in just a matter of moments. 

How's about I split it with you?
Well, Dad was not happy.  That was his Zero.  As he pulled away he recognized the CAG tail marking on the other Hellcat.  After they landed Dad told his division leader, a gentleman named George Duncan, that the CAG had taken his Zero.  George Duncan knew how to take care of his wingman.  He got a meeting with Dave McCampbell, who was of course, reluctant to give a Zero away, but he agreed to review the gun camera footage with them.  The footage confirmed Dad's story.  Dave McCampbell was still a little reluctant.  It is never easy to give up a touch down.  He looked at Dad and said, "How's about I split it with you?"  Dad looked at Dave said, "No!"Dave said, "Yeah...okay.  It's Yours."

I share this story with you for several reasons.  One is that I want to salute Dave McCampbell.  He treated a young ensign fairly when he could have used his rank for his own benefit.  I think it’s fair to say that he understood that giving up his claim to that Zero meant that the word would get around.  Having his pilots know that he ran a fair command and that he would take care of his own would strengthen the unity in his air group.  He was a wise leader and a good man.  He was there when our country needed him. 

Another reason I share this story is that it illustrates how hard everyone was pressing the attack.  I am reminded of W. B. "Spider" Webb's famous radio call when he said, "Any American fighter near Orote Peninsula, I have 40 Japanese planes surrounded and need a little help."  He was alone at the time, but he didn't wait one second for help to arrive.  He tore into the enemy airplanes, shot down six confirmed and got two probables before he ran out of ammunition.  He made it back to his carrier, but his Hellcat was shot up so badly that the deck crew just pushed it over the side into ocean.  That kind of courage and aggressiveness is a big part of why we won WW II.      
Valerie Twelves Gillen remarks:     about her Father

The Wendell Twelves you’ve heard about today was a very young man.  My brothers and I grew up on the sea stories of that young man. We watched all of the reels of Victory at Sea, and saw all the World War II movies about the war in the Pacific.   We heard about the exploits of Red Rader, Blood Donor, Dirty White, Spider Webb, and of course, Duz Twelves.  But when you are a little kid, your parents are nice people who love you, but they are old.  I had to grow up before I could appreciate who those brave young pilots were, and that Dad had done something very special.
Dad was 21 years old when that Navy recruiter snagged him.    He was 23 when he flew with VF-15 aboard the Essex.  As an adult, I read my father’s flight log of those seven months.  I’d always known that 40 of the original 100 pilots in Air Group-15 made it through the war, but reading the day to day experience, understanding that even if your wingman was shot down yesterday, or even if you crash-landed without a tailhook, you kept climbing back in the cockpit to fly the next day.  I asked Dad “How did you keep doing it?”  And he said in the most matter of fact way imaginable, “It was my job, and I was good at it.”  I suspect that if you ask any combat pilot that question, you’ll get the same answer.   How else would you keep climbing into the cockpit, taking off, and flying into the next battle?

If you grow up like we did, you never miss a chance to visit an aircraft carrier.  I’ve felt a little piece of my dad on the Hornet, in San Francisco Bay.  Air Group-15 flew their planes aboard the Hornet in January 1944, shortly after she was commissioned in Newport News, Virginia.   The Hornet carried them to the Pacific, where they transferred to the Essex. 

I also felt a piece of him on the Yorktown, in Charleston, South Carolina, where the movie Fighting Lady plays for visitors, and every day people get to see his barrier crash.  And aboard the USS McCampbell, a guided missile destroyer named for the Navy’s leading ace, the commander of Air Group-15.  The surviving members and families of Air Group-15 were invited to the commissioning ceremony in San Francisco in 2002.  We saw the picture of the pilots which hangs in a place of honor aboard that destroyer.  Dave McCampbell and Air Group-15 were the most lethal air weapon the Navy had against Japan in 1944.  Today his namesake destroyer is stationed in Japan, and has been providing humanitarian aid after the recent disaster.  I think that’s a wonderful kind of cosmic irony which Dad would have appreciated. 

And now there’s a piece of that young pilot here, in his home state. Dad loved to fly, and he was so proud to be a Naval aviator.  He would be so honored to become a member of the Hall of Fame. 

 LaRhea Nielsen Twelves  remarks: about her husband
and her rat-a-tat-tat

Admiral Taylor, Major Gilmore, and Daedalian members: LaRhea began

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the honor you have bestowed on my husband.  I also wish to say thanks to the American Fighter Aces Association for nominating Wendell to be a candidate.

I’m thrilled to see so many dear family members and friends here, and I thank each of you for coming to share this special event with my family.

I’d like to end this ceremony with just one more experience that happened 46 years after the war ended.  I have condensed it.
Sadamu Kamachi Japanese War Ace

In one of the Zeros that attacked Pearl Harbor there was a pilot named Sadamu Kamachi. As the war progressed he became one of Japan’s top Aces.  He shot down a total of 18 American planes, many of them bombers with large crews.

In 1975, he asked Henry Sakaida, a Japanese-American friend and a World War II Researcher to “Please help me find the American pilot who shot me down.  I‘m looking for the pilot of the F6F -- but not to pay off old scores!  If he survived that severe battle, and is still well and alive, I’d like to hug him heartily and congratulate him.” 

Henry Sakaida’s 15 year search revealed that Wendell was the pilot who shot him down. 

It was determined that Kamachi was in the 2nd plane that Wendell shot down that day.

In one letter Kamachi wrote in graphic detail how his plane was shot up, his main fuel tank was hit, and how his face, hands, and legs were severely burned, but he managed to get out of the plane before it sank into the sea.  He spent many months in the hospital in total darkness due to a full head bandage. 

(He said the Japanese pilot was sitting on his rack in his skivvies looking very relieved just to be alive.  When he looked up and saw the crowd of people outside his cell, he got a little nervous until he saw the wings on their shirts.  Then he grinned and pointed to their wings and to himself to say that he was a pilot too. 

He laughed and held up his hands like this and said, “Grumman,” to indicate a Hellcat, and “Mitsubishi” for a Zero.  He put the Zero behind the Hellcat and said, “Rat-a-tat-tat, Rat-a-tat-tat, Rat-a-tat-tat.”  Nothing happened.  Then he put the Hellcat behind the Zero and said, “Bang!” and the Zero was promptly shot down.) 

LaRhea acted this out, so I moved it from his story to her story.

Wendell handed me the letter.  I read silently, and asked him what his feelings were at that moment.  He said, “Well, I’m really glad he survived.  I’m sorry he was injured so severely, but I’m also glad I shot him down because I took him out of combat that day.  He had already done too much damage to our planes and fleet.  Besides, if I hadn’t shot him down, he would have shot me down.”
Japanese Zero

Both Wendell and Kamachi expressed a desire to meet.  Kamachi spoke no English, but our son, Van, served a 2 ½ year mission in Japan, and Wendell looked forward to their meeting with Van along as interpreter.  But it wasn’t meant to be.  His health was failing and he died Nov. 21, 1991 of complications following heart surgery.
Three months later at a symposium at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, talking about Wendell, Kamachi said, “Now after so many years, I can still say that his fighting spirit and unrivaled technique, making the attack upward from an altitude of below 100 feet, on an airfield of the enemy, furthermore doing a reverse turn to fight, should only be admired.  So you can understand why I wanted to meet him.”
We think that’s pretty neat to have such a tribute to him from a former enemy pilot.

           Both Wendell and Kamachi were doing what their countries had called them to do. When the war was over, both were able to find forgiveness, understanding, and respect for each other in their hearts and I witnessed the healing power brought by the miracle of forgiveness.

I’m sure that Wendell and our son, David, are smiling down on us today.  Dave has just given his dad a “high five”.  I know Wendell is proud to be honored in this way for his service to our country, and I also know that he is humbled by all of the attention. 

Grumman Aircraft
That brings me to the third reason I share this story with you: LeRoy Grumman and his team deserve a tip of the hat too.  LeRoy Grumman was the head of Grumman Aircraft, the contractor that built the Hellcat.  He put 212 pounds of armor plate around the pilot and the oil cooler, and self sealing fuel tanks in the wings.  Those features saved a lot of American pilots.  Dave McCampbell made it back to the carrier unharmed after flying through Dad’s stream of bullets.  I know of at least three occasions when Dad's airplane was shot up so badly that it would have brought a lesser plane down.  He made it back to the carrier every time.  Our family is deeply grateful to the Navy for specifying the armor and to LeRoy Grumman and his team for doing a careful job with how the armor was installed.  There is always a lot of pressure in the design phase of an airplane to minimize anything that creates a weight penalty.  I am certainly glad the armor and the self-sealing tanks survived all the design reviews.

Dad told me about at least one Japanese pilot who had a strong appreciation of the difference between a Zero and a Hellcat.  I can’t recall the engagement in which this occurred, but after the strike had been recovered and things had settled down, a single Zero that was seriously lost showed up over the fleet.  If you think about it, one little Zero against the whole Pacific fleet doesn’t make much sense.  As soon as it was identified, about 300 anti-aircraft guns opened up and shot it down.  The pilot managed to ditch the airplane and climb out of the cockpit.  A destroyer picked him up out of the water.  He was later transferred to the Essex on a chair hooked up to an underway replenishment cable.

 Hellcat, and Mitsubishi
Just about everybody in the squadron wanted to see what a Zero pilot looked like, so as soon as he was tucked away in the brig, Dad and a dozen other pilots all trooped down for a visit.  He said the Japanese pilot was sitting on his rack in his skivvies looking very relieved just to be alive.  When he looked up and saw the crowd of people outside his cell, he got a little nervous until he saw the wings on their shirts.  Then he grinned and pointed to their wings and to himself to say that he was a pilot too.  He laughed and held up his hands like this and said, “Grumman,” to indicated a Hellcat, and “Mitsubishi” for a Zero.  He put the Zero behind the Hellcat and said, “Rat-a-tat-tat, Rat-a-tat-tat, Rat-a-tat-tat.”  Nothing happened.  Then he put the Hellcat behind the Zero and said, “Bang!” and the Zero was promptly shot down. 

Bullet Holes
I have a couple of items here from one of those wake-up calls.  Dad was on a sweep over Nichols Field just out of Manila in the Philippines, when his squadron was jumped by some planes that came out of the clouds.  He had just pulled his left hand back from adjusting the mixture, when the throttle quadrant and the instrument panel literally exploded.  From ahead and above, a Zero was making a pass on him and bullets were tearing up the cockpit.  He said he doesn’t know how it happened, but he just seemed to be sitting between all the bullets.  The bullets tore up the instrument panel, hit between his legs, and punched some holes through the canopy.   As you can imagine, he got cut up from all the debris flying around, but fortunately the bullets missed him.  He instantly rolled the plane and dove away.  He had to fly back to the carrier using a little bent tang of sheet metal to operate the engine throttle because the handles were no longer there.  This is the rear view mirror that was located just above his head.  This is a piece of the fuselage Dad’s plane captain cut off and saved for him.  You don’t have to look very hard to see the bullet holes.  Dad said when he flew his first few combat missions it all just seemed like good fun.  It wasn’t until the first time he came back with a bunch of bullet holes in his airplane that the fact that the enemy was seriously trying to kill him really sank in.  

The navigation tools in WW II were good, but nothing like what we have today.  When the pilots left the carrier they used a compass, an airspeed indicator, a paper chart, and a clock for navigation.  Also, they often had to observe radio silence to protect the location of the fleet.  Radio silence could create awkward situations. 

It seems like all the strikes were launched at the limits of the range of the aircraft.  Dad told me that the air group always joined up and flew to the target in a well organized formation.  After the hitting the target and mixing it up with enemy airplanes, the trip back could be pretty disorganized.  If you could find someone to join up on that was good, but if not, you just headed back on your own.

and lived to fly another day
On one occasion after using up his ammunition and bomb load striking an airfield on an island, he looked around, but he couldn’t see anybody to join up with so he headed back solo.  A couple of hours later he arrived at the place where the fleet was supposed to be, but all he could see was a perfectly empty blue ocean in all directions.  Things like a submarine sighting or a warning about enemy aircraft often forced the fleet to change course while the air group was out on a strike.  The need for radio silence meant he couldn’t call the carrier and ask which way they went.  And, of course, the needles on the fuel gages were all getting close to empty. 

So, he had to take his best guess at which way the fleet went because he didn’t have enough fuel to fly an expanding search pattern.  As he banked his airplane to turn to a new heading he look back and he could see fifteen or twenty Hellcats strung out behind him for as far as he could see.  They all followed his lead and turned with him.  Dad said that was pretty sobering.  If he got it wrong a lot of people would have gone down with him.  Fortunately, he got it right.  They found the fleet, landed safely, and lived to fly another day.

70 airplanes went down on the ocean
That event must have made a strong impression on Dad too.  On June 20th, 1944, the day after the Mariana’s Turkey Shoot when over 300 enemy airplanes were shot down, a TBM from the Wasp located the enemy fleet at the range limit of the airplanes.  Our planes were launched late in the afternoon at 4:25 PM.  That meant they would be coming back after dark.  There was no moon that night.  It was pitch black.  In spite of the danger from submarines, Admiral Mark Mitscher ordered the entire fleet to turn on their lights to guide the pilots in.  This was a hard mission.  Many of the airplanes ran out of fuel or couldn’t get aboard a carrier and wound up in the water.  Dad made it back to the Essex that night, but more than 70 airplanes went down on the ocean.  He was up again at the crack of dawn to fly in the search for downed pilots.  He said he knew how hard it would be to find anybody, so he was absolutely delighted when he spotted two bomber crews from the Lexington who had ditched and lashed their rafts together.  He climbed up and circled until a destroyer got a radar fix on him.  He knew how lucky he was to find them and he wasn’t going to leave until the ship got close enough to actually see them.  He planned to ditch along side them if he had to.  By the time the destroyer showed up he was sweating bullets.  He made it back the carrier, but he said the fuel gages were awfully low.
Joe Rosenthal pictures and letter

Navy Cross Citation - 500 pound bomb through the flight deck of the Zuikaku.

I have a couple of photographs here of a Hellcat standing on its nose.  (Hold picture up)  Joe Rosenthal, the man who photographed the Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima, was aboard the Essex on October 24th, 1944.  The fighters had been launched on a strike against the enemy and when the time came to recover the planes, Joe was advised that one was coming in with heavy damage.  He got his camera and ran up to the flight deck because bad landings always make way better pictures than good landings.  Sure enough, it was Dad.  He was nursing a shot to shreds Hellcat back to the carrier.  He had had a busy day.  His log shows that he had shot down two Zeros and one Jill Torpedo Bomber.  His airplane had been hit numerous times during the combat.  He didn’t know it at the time, but in addition to all the holes he could see, the dash pot on his tail hook had been shot away.  Without the dash pot, when he landed, the tail hook bounced over all the cables, Dad stood on the brakes and slid into the barrier.  The airplane went up on its nose, the prop curled back around the cowl, and the deck crew ran out, hosed down the nose, helped Dad out of the cockpit, and pushed the Hellcat over the side into the ocean.  The plane was a strike and wasn’t worth trying to fix.  And incidentally, you can see that landing in a movie called The Fighting Lady, which was really about the Yorktown, not the Essex.  When it comes to airplane movies, Hollywood never was very good at getting things right.

Rear Admiral Jeremy Taylor, USN
Finished up the ceremony with a talk about the famous story about defending his city and loved ones from the great Roman Army.  “Horatio and who would stand beside me on this bridge”he asked.  A story of a few men trying to keep the Roman Army from crossing the river on a narrow bridge while the people were dismantling the bridge to save the town from being occupied and the people killed.  “WHO WILL STAND WITH ME” Horatio asked, I need two good men. These three men did hold the Roman Army back and the town was saved. 
The Admiral told us that Wendell Van Twelves was this kind of a man to stand with him and defended America as Horatio did. 

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