Anti-aircraft shells explode in black puffs around George Walsh as he flies his Helldiver around the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in February of 1945. Below him, thousands of U.S. Marines disembark from landing crafts to face an enemy 18,000-strong in a campaign to capture this strategic location from Japanese forces.
Fighter planes strafe the mountainous terrain and bombers drop napalm on the beach, igniting the territory in a devastating inferno. But Lt. Cmdr. Walsh has no intention of joining the fight — at least not this time. “We flew up and down that landing area of Iwo Jima, filming the attack,” remembers Walsh, now 90.
In the gunner position of his plane, a photographer captures the carnage on celluloid for the U.S. Navy archives while Walsh avoids being shot. “Any pictures you see of action and that battle were taken from my plane,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in photography, I still am.”
On Memorial Day, Walsh will speak in Washington, D.C., about the role that dive bombers played during World War II, a subject that captivates his attention. The nonagenarian produced a DVD about the Battle of Midway and the lack of official recognition given the dive bombers by the U.S. armed forces.
The Kiso’s demise
Walsh was a dive bomber pilot with Air Group 80 aboard the carrier Ticonderoga, part of Task Force 38.3. His artistic leanings as a photographer contrast with his toughness in battle. He received the Navy’s Distinguished Flying Cross after dive-bombing and sinking the Kiso — a Japanese light cruiser — off the coast of Manila in 1944.
The Kiso came into sight as Walsh led two other Helldivers over a small hole in an overcast sky. “The Japanese could hear us coming,” he remembered. “They had focused their guns on that hole.”
Determined to make an attack, Walsh leads his team through the onslaught of artillery fire. He tilts his plane vertical and descends at full speed. In his sights, the Kiso grows bigger until it fills his windshield. Two seconds before impact, he releases his 1,000-pound bomb onto the Kiso’s deck, then pulls up and away from the explosion, skirting just 50 feet above the water at 150-plus mph.
“You don’t have time to have fear,” he said. “You’re too busy to think. I didn’t look back to see what happened with the bomb. I got the report from my gunner.” His fellow bombers followed suit, scoring direct hits and sending the Kiso to Davy Jones’ Locker.
The Kiso was the last of five light cruisers built by the Japanese Imperial Navy. Many of the crewmen on board survived the attack, and the Kiso’s demise was a stern psychological blow to an otherwise dangerous Japanese fleet.
Walsh estimated that he flew roughly 90 missions while serving in the Pacific Theater during the war. Of those, he reckoned he made 25 dive bomb attacks on Japanese war craft.
Into the cockpit
Growing up in Brooklyn during the depression, Walsh learned to fly before he learned to drive. Like many young men at the time, Walsh was inspired by Eddie Rickenbacker and the flying aces of World War I. And after seeing pictures of his cousins in trenches at the western front, his desire to be in the sky solidified. “If I’m gonna die in battle, I want it to be clean and quick in an airplane,” he said.
Death was never far away during his training. “There were casualties every step of the way,” he remembered. The enemies a pilot faced during training included accidents, equipment malfunctions and simple mistakes. There was only one difference between flying in combat and training, according to Walsh.
“The fact that somebody’s shooting at you is different, but you do the same thing anyway,” he said. “It’s a question of following the leader and doing what you were trained to do.”
The truth about Midway
Now retired after 50 years as an advertising executive and 15 years as an investment consultant, Walsh focuses on educating the public on the often misunderstood role that dive bombers played in the war to end all wars.
He contends that torpedo bombers and war craft vessels received most of the recognition by historians, but dive bombers sank four Japanese carriers at Battle of Midway — a turning point at the Pacific front.
Previous attacks on Midway failed, leaving the U.S. fleet crippled by Japanese counter-attack. The dive bombers represented the last chance for U.S. to gain control. Led by Wade McClusky and Max Leslie, the dive bombers went past the point of no return, knowing that it was “kill or be killed.”
“If they didn’t destroy the (Japanese), the (Japanese) would turn around and launch planes and destroy our carriers,” Walsh said. “Once they committed to ambush the Japanese fleet, they were committed.”
Walsh also challenges the official claim that Admiral Chester Nimitz was responsible for the successful attack on Midway — a small Pacific island that was a key strategic location for offensive maneuvering. “Nimitz was a submarine officer, he was not a Naval aviator,” Walsh said. “He would never have conceived this plan.”
It was the perseverance of McClusky — an Annapolis graduate who was 41 at the time — that saved the day for Nimitz, Walsh said. But history has largely ignored McClusky’s heroism, and it wasn’t until 10 years after his death in 1989 that the Navy named a frigate after him.
For the last 22 years Walsh has studied Naval history and worked to promote the memory of the World War II dive bombers — an airplane fleet responsible for sinking 173 Japanese war craft, compared with 39 for the entire surface Navy. He even writes several online blogs on the subject, making him the self-proclaimed “oldest blogger on the Internet.”
Orders from Gen. MacArthur
Wartime anecdotes emerge from Walsh’s memory with crisp clarity and unashamed honesty. His adventures of merging flight and photos didn’t end at Iwo Jima, either. Gen. Douglas MacArthur commissioned his division to map the city of Manila after landing at Leyte, Philippines. So Walsh gutted his SB2C Helldiver and replaced the bomb bay with a K-56 aerial camera and his gunner was told to shoot photos instead of bullets.
The day was overcast, and the roar of his engine a mere hum in his ears after hundreds of training flights and numerous missions. Two fighters covered him, but as he descended through the clouds to begin taking pictures, the fighters didn’t follow. “So here I am, all alone flying at 2,000 feet over Manila,” he recalled. “I could see the Japanese on the roofs of the buildings shooting at me, but they were small-caliber weapons. Then, after a while, they unloaded with the heavy anti-aircraft.”
The attack forced Walsh to alter his straight flight path to a zig-zag pattern. “I had to take evasive actions,” he said. “Then, as we turned to go south, the photographer in the back yelled out, ‘Mr. Walsh, there’s a fighter on our tail!'”
Walsh looked back and a Japanese Oscar was creeping towards the vulnerable filmmakers. “That was the end of my photo activities,” he quipped. “I advanced the throttle to get a little speed and pulled up into the overcast. I made a turn to the east that managed to throw the fighter off.”
He later learned that the Oscar performed the same evasive action against the U.S. fighters that had covered him as he photographed Manila. When the Oscar chased Walsh, the U.S. fighters engaged the Oscar. “He avoided them by flying into the clouds,” Walsh said with a laugh.
He and his late wife, Anne, have four children and seven grandchildren. As he celebrates another Memorial Day to remember those who have fallen in service to their country, Walsh is reflective. When asked what Memorial Day means to him, Walsh pauses to allow room for something meaningful to surface.
He scratches his chin, breathes deep through his nose. Outside his house in Darien, several birds chirp and a few wild turkeys wobble up to the glass door that opens onto a patio encased in flora. His eyes pierce forward, perhaps searching for the right words in a sea of cliché sentiments. Finally he speaks.
“The fact that there is a Memorial Day,” he says with certainty. “It’s nice to know the people of this country appreciate the veterans and those who’ve been killed.”
Satisfied with keeping his comment poignantly simple, he rises from his chair and meanders past a wall of service memories. A library of World War II history books lurks in the corner. While his service to his country is a noble memory, his contribution to separating historical fact from fiction may prove his most lasting effect.
Fellow World War II dive bomber Capt. Chuck Downey testified to Walsh’s ability to ignite the torch and then carry it. Walsh’s “pursuit of accuracy and thoroughness through years of painstaking study provided this final testimony,” Downey writes, regarding Walsh’s DVD about the Battle of Midway dive bombers. “You can be very proud and deserve all salutes received.”
Originally published in The Darien Times