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GUNNER WAS `TOO YOUNG TO BE AFRAID’ DURING GREAT MARIANAS TURKEY SHOOT

SHARE GUNNER WAS `TOO YOUNG TO BE AFRAID’ DURING GREAT MARIANAS TURKEY SHOOT

In March 1944, the aircraft carrier USS Cabot was briefly in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii - the spot where the war all began. Young U.S. Navy enlistee Jack Keith Woolsey of Salt Lake City was on shore at least long enough to buy an engagement ring for Ginger, his girl back home.

Then the Cabot and Woolsey headed back to the South Pacific and the continuation of almost a year of intense action against the Japanese, including the heralded "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.""We started in January 1944 and were there until October. We were part of every major engagement in the Pacific," said Woolsey, now a Taylorsville resident who boasts of more than 40 years total active and reserve service to his country. The names of islands that became part of World War II history fall easily from his tongue: Truk, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Pagan, Eniwetok, Iwo Jima, the Carolines, the Philippines.

These were tense times for the Americans. After months of heart-rending defeat in the Pacific, the tide began to turn with the Battle of the Coral Sea. By now, Japan was suffering from a loss of pilots and was sending planes out with fliers barely past training.

The United States staged a steady northward push into the Central Pacific, intent on getting closer to Japan.

The struggle for the Marianas became crucial, Woolsey said. From Saipan, Guam or Tinian, the largest of the Marianas, the ultimate target - Japan itself - was within reach. In briefings with his crew, he learned the critical nature of the coming action. "We knew they were trying to get bases close enough to bomb Japan."

The battle began the night of June 20. The U.S. Fifth Fleet, including the Cabot and 14 other carriers, became a sea-going launching base for planes that devastated the Japanese air potential in fierce fighting. At the end of the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot - so dubbed by USS Lexington Commander Paul D. Buie - Japan had lost 395 planes, about three-fourths of its naval air arm. The U.S. combat-related loss was 20 planes.

"Our plane was one of four that went after the Japanese fleet. We got direct hits on a carrier and a battleship. We got credit for putting them out of action," Woolsey said.

The turkey shoot initiated intense island-hopping battles that ultimately settled American forces in the Central Pacific within easy reach of Japan.

For the 19-year-old Woolsey, a gunner tucked in the turret of a TBM, a torpedo bomber, the intensity of the turkey shoot left little room for fear.

The job of the airborne torpedo gunners required precision. The wrong angle could send torpedos skipping across the surface of the ocean or straight to the bottom without hitting the ships at which they were aimed.

At 50 feet off the ocean and within easy range of enemy ships anxious to dispose of them, it was touchy for the American naval fliers - too touchy to spend much time ruminating on how thin a thread held them to life, Woolsey recalled.

"I was too young to be afraid. To me it was just exciting. I loved to fly."

That general rule didn't apply, however, when his plane was dive-bombing Truk.

"They were sending up phosphorus shells that would explode and send out fingers of phosphorus that would eat the planes if they landed, or set them on fire. One of them broke right above us and I could see those fingers coming. It only took us three seconds, probably, to move out of range, but it seemed like a lifetime."

Woolsey had enlisted in the Navy hoping to become a pilot but failed a critical eye exam. In retrospect, said Woolsey, who passed numerous eye tests before and after the crucial one with no problem, failing to reach pilot status may have saved his life. "Someone was looking out for me."

On one occasion during the Pacific action, he looked up to find himself staring virtually into the face of a Japanese pilot close on the tail of the TBM. Another American fighter plane crippled the Japanese plane and sent it plummeting into the ocean.

If the battle was fierce, getting back onto the postage-stamp deck of a heaving aircraft carrier in the middle of an ocean was a challenge of a different sort, Woolsey said.

In the flight log he keeps as a souvenir, Woolsey can count 95 carrier landings and 95 takeoffs, including 66 "catapult" starts into the air over the ocean. The force of the catapult threw him "8 inches off my seat and up against the glass of the turret." Three times, his plane crashed into the shipboard barriers when tail hooks failed to stop the plane.

The morning after the intense fighting of June 20, the job shifted from seeking and sinking Japanese ships to scanning the ocean for American survivors. "We found four crews in the water and helped a destroyer to locate them and pick them up." Woolsey's plane returned to the carrier "with just enough gas to get us on board."

With several of the Marianas islands secured and Japan within reach of U.S. bombers, the USS Cabot moved further north, where Woolsey participated in the liberation of the Philippines islands. The invasion of Okinawa had just begun when he was sent back to the United States.

Medals and service bars related to the Pacific battles and to additional service in Air and Army National Guard units now fill a frame that decorates a wall in the Woolsey home. A sweatshirt sporting a Teddy Bear holding a torpedo - the emblem of his unit - keeps him warm on unusually cool June days. And occasional reunions all over the country with others who were there when it happened keep the memory of the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot alive.Fifty years ago, the United States became embroiled in another world war. In a yearlong series of weekly articles, the Deseret News is looking back on the major events of World War II with insight from Utahns who participated in them. If you have "war stories" you'd like to share, call Chuck Gates, Deseret News assignments editor, 237-2100.