View Full Version : Rescue pilot saves 15 GIs, wins ‘Distinguished Flying Cross'

12-20-05, 05:07 AM
Rescue pilot saves 15 GIs, wins ‘Distinguished Flying Cross'
By Chris Brooks/Special To The Record

Bill Leary Jr. had accepted an athletic football scholarship to Penn State and completed his first semester when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

He immediately tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps, but his father, a Navy chief, pulled him out of the swearing-in ceremony and repositioned him for a career in Naval aviation.

With only one semester of college credit, Leary passed the in-lieu Aviation Cadet Training Exam and became a V-5 Aviation Cadet.

Leary, who was born in Clementon, N.J., in October 1921 and reared in the South Jersey and Philadelphia areas, soon would become an air-sea rescue pilot picking up downed B29 crews between Japan and Saipan in the Western Pacific with a crew of at least nine in a seaplane armed with .45-caliber Thompson submachine guns.

Despite the weaponry, his seaplanes were highly vulnerable to attack from small Japanese gunboats. On more than one occasion, Leary and his crew would fight off the enemy while completing rescue-recovery missions.

The Navy provided him with additional course work in math and physics at Lehigh University, and while at Auburn University, he flew Piper Cubs. He spent four months flying Stearman N2S (nicknamed “Yellow Perils” for their high accident rates) and received preflight training at the U.S. Navy Preflight School in Athens, Georgia, while also playing some more football for the Navy. He flew N2S Biplanes in Kansas for three months then transferred to Texas for advanced seaplane (PBY) training.

At the Naval Air Station in Banana River, Fla., Bill completed his PBM twin-engine seaplane training and deployed to Saipan, one of the Marianna Islands in the central Pacific Ocean.

On April 1, 1945, Leary and his squadron skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Bill Bonvillian, landed their seaplane in Nagasuku Bay, later known as Buckner Bay, at Okinawa. Termed as L-Day (Landing Day at Okinawa), the U.S. Marines came ashore on one side of Okinawa while Leary and Bonvillian landed their seaplane, recovering Navy torpedo plane (TBFs) pilots on the opposite side of the island.

With Leary under attack from Japanese surface craft after landing, two U.S. Navy Carrier F-6 Hellcat aircraft came out of nowhere to save his crew by blasting the enemy craft with their wing cannons. One of Leary's crew, Robert Weaver, a combat artist, depicted this event in a realistic combat sketch.

Leary's flying exploits in World War II saved the lives of at least 15 Americans and garnered him a “Distinguished Flying Cross.” He compiled more than 2,400 hours of flight time in seaplanes.

He had the misfortune of being shot down by friendly fire at night while returning from a mission to Kyushu. The American fleet was off Okinawa, and the IFF (Identification-Friend-Foe) radar malfunctioned in Leary's plane while he was flying overhead. Hit by friendly fire, his plane landed in the dark in rough seas with 25-foot waves. Bouncing back into the air like a cork, the plane finally settled almost intact.

Fortunately, an approaching gunboat turned out to be American and shepherded the plane as it taxied on the water for 70 miles to Okinawa. Crossing the submarine nets at Kerama Rhetto, the plane set off alarms when it caught the cable just beneath the surface. Fortunately for Leary's crew, the swiveling anti-aircraft emplacements were able to discern the plane's silhouette with dawn just breaking, and they entered the harbor safely. Due to a broken wing spar, that plane never flew again.

On V-J Day, Sept. 2, 1945, Leary was on Saipan en route to the continental United States. He later returned to college at the University of Pennsylvania, studying for a degree in Naval Science. He acquired proficiency in flying helicopters, earning the distinction of being only the second pilot to fly a helicopter across the United States in 1948. After WWII, he served 11 months in the Korean War.

He later became one of the Navy's experimental test pilots at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Md., crossing career paths with astronauts Alan Shepherd and Jim Lovell during their training. He also attended the U.S. Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey after returning from Korea.

Leary married Teney Grandjean in 1945 in San Diego; the couple has a son, who is a dentist, and a daughter, who is an attorney, and two grandchildren.

After a military career that spanned several wars, he retired as a lieutenant commander in Jan. 1964, and commenced a second 20-year career with Martin Company, later to be known as Martin-Marietta Corporation. He is a past chairman of the Military Affairs Committee for the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce as well as a former Lompoc Rotarian.

Leary, whose interest in journalism led to his first published article in “Flying Magazine,” has a fascinating collection of scrapbook-memorabilia that tell the story of an authentic American hero.

If you are a World War II veteran living in Lompoc and would like to participate in the Voices of World War II Veterans History Project, please call Kathy Simas, Santa Barbara Foundation, 735-9022.

December 20, 2005