Kingfisher Pilot Returns to Battleship on Naval Aviation Centennial
2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Naval Aviation, and one of the Battleship North Carolina’s Kingfisher plane pilots, Commander Almon P. Oliver, U.S. Navy (Retired), came back to the veteran vessel on April 26, 2011, to reflect. This is the account of the only rescue of a downed U.S. aviator from the Japanese homeland.
In 1937, the U.S. Navy issued a call for a rugged and dependable observation/scout plane for use by battleships and cruisers. The aircraft would provide “eyes in the sky” to search for enemy ships and submarines.
The new aircraft would have to be able to withstand the rigors of ocean operations and ship catapult launches. After one year of testing, the Vought-Sikorsky XOS2U-1 monoplane became the standard observation/scout plane for the Navy. In 1941, the OS2U received the name “Kingfisher” from Secretary of the Navy Ernest J. King.
World War II saw the emergence of Naval Aviation as a significant element in the war at sea. The Battleship North Carolina (BB-55) initially carried three OS2U-2 Kingfisher planes. The number of planes dropped to two with the addition of 20-millimeter guns and 40-millimeter gun mounts on her fantail. The battleship is now home to only one of six Kingfishers left in existence.
Commander Oliver remembers August 10, 1945, as the first rescue of an American from Japanese homeland.
“We were up to the north of Honshu operating in the area of Hokkaido and the northern tip of Honshu,” says Commander Oliver. “Weather was again bad: rain, fog, low ceilings, and poor visibility. Some 11 pilots had been shot down in the area of Ominato. We had the rescue duty and were prepared for a long flight into the area in the late afternoon, but it was canceled due to darkness.
Very early the next morning, we were launched to pick up pilots in the area of Ominato Bay which had an Army base on the southern part, an airfield and naval base to the north. We had escorts of four F6Fs and four F4Us, and upon arrival in the area, one of the fighters spotted a pilot on the beach waving madly. By this time, the destroyers at the naval base and anti-aircraft fire from the airfield and Army bases opened up with a fury. There was a strong wind blowing into the beach and the surf was quite high. Lieutenant Jacobs landed to pick up the pilot while I tried to dodge anti-aircraft fire.
“From my vantage point it appeared that the pilot was having difficulty getting through the surf, and the Japanese were firing what appeared to be 5-inch shells all around the plane on the water. After some time the plane started a takeoff run, but soon it was porpoising badly and unable to get airborne. I then flew alongside and discovered no pilot. What had happened was that the pilot on the beach could not get through the surf to board the plane, so Lieutenant Jacobs was standing with one foot in the cockpit and one on the wing attempting to get a line to the pilot to pull him through the surf. Jacobs lost his balance and fell into the water and in the process knocked the throttle full open.
“Now both pilots were wildly waving from the beach. I landed, taxied to the beach, blipped the engine, and with full flaps, backed through the surf onto the beach. I told Jacobs to help the other pilot into the plane and I would send help for him. This idea didn’t sit well, and I soon had two very large and very wet people crammed into the backseat. How they managed to get into the cockpit, I’ll never know, but the alternative was unacceptable at the moment.
“Recognizing that I would have difficulty with navigation, weather, and fuel with the unbalanced load I was carrying, I intended to land at sea near the rescue sub. However, after some deliberate thought, I decided to try to make it back to some ship in the fleet. Fortunately we picked up the ZB signal and made it back to the ship with no fuel left aboard. So on August 10, 1945, I picked up the first and only downed pilot from within Japan proper, not one but two.
“The war was over a few days later, and I returned home. That recovery was my last flight in an OS2U Kingfisher.”
Dave Rawlins, a renowned artist, has captured the essence of the Kingfisher and the BB-55 in his rendition painting. In May 2011, the representation was shown by members of the American Society of Aviation Artists, which held its annual meeting at the National Naval Aviation Museum during celebrations for the Centennial of Naval Aviation.
David graduated in 1989 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and then put away his old paints. Almost exactly 20 years later, he started painting again and found that his oil paints from 1989 were still quite usable. Between 1989 and now, he has done a lot of scenic painting for several theaters in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.The Battleship North Carolina is self-supporting, not tax supported, and relies primarily on admissions to tour the ship, sales in the ship’s store, donations to the Friends of the Battleship North Carolina, and investments. No funds for its administration and operation come from appropriations from governmental entities at the local, state, or federal levels. The battleship is located at the junction of Highways 17/74/76/421 on the Cape Fear River. Visit www.BattleshipNC.com or follow us on Facebook.com/battleshipnc and Twitter.com/battleshipnc for more information.