Here's What You Need To Remember: Ted Crosby remained in the Navy after the war and retired with the rank of commander. Although he had a long and distinguished naval career, the memories of his days aboard Bunker Hill and Hornet remain fresh, even after the passage of 65 years.
Lieutenant (j.g.) John “Ted” Crosby banked his Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat around, observing the life-and-death drama that was unfolding below him. The Yamato, then the world’s largest battleship and the pride of Japan, was entering its death throes. It was a few minutes after 2 o’clock on the afternoon of April 7, 1945, and aircraft from the Task Group 58.4 carriers Yorktown (CV-10), Intrepid (CV-11), and Langley (CVL-27) were moving in for the kill.
Crosby had seen his share of action and would soon become a fighter ace, but today his mission was more pacific. He was piloting a photo plane, there to document the unfolding drama. As an observer, he had a ringside seat to the last major sortie of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
By this time Yamato was a floating, flaming wreck, her antiaircraft crews decimated by Hellcat strafing runs, her upper works torn into twisted pieces of metal by 1,000-pound bomb hits. Three bombs hit Yamato amidships, followed by several torpedoes. The ship began to list heavily to port, the movement becoming a pronounced roll.
As Ted Crosby watched, Yamato’s giant, 18-inch guns hit the water, their enormous weight probably helping the battleship capsize. Suddenly, Yamato’s No. 1 magazine exploded, sending up a huge coil of smoke and flame that could be seen for over 100 miles. It was a strange foretaste of the atomic mushroom clouds that would envelope Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few months later.
Watching from above, Crosby had no feeling of elation. “I was thinking of the Japanese crew,” he said in a 2011 interview. “Three thousand lives lost.” As a former fighter pilot and Navy man, he could appreciate what it meant to go down fighting with his comrades.
During his World War II career, Ted Crosby served aboard two Essex-class carriers, Bunker Hill (CV 17) and Hornet (CV 12). There were 24 Essex-class carriers built during the war, and they soon became the backbone of America’s naval offensive in the Pacific. The efforts of pilots like Crosby not only turned defeat into victory, but also changed the course of naval warfare forever.
Turning Point at Midway
In the 1930s, battleships were considered to be the most important vessels in any fleet. Essentially huge gun platforms, they were supposed to trade salvos with the enemy until the foe was battered into submission. It was a long tradition, dating back to the age of sail and men such as Nelson and Drake. Pearl Harbor changed all that. It is ironic that the Japanese, having blazed a trail with airplanes against capital ships, turned back and followed the traditional road by commissioning vessels like Yamato.
By June 1942, most of Japan’s strategic objectives had been realized. The U.S. Pacific Fleet had been neutralized, at least temporarily, and the Philippines and much of resource-rich Southeast Asia overrun. Japan seized a number of far-flung islands, establishing them as a defensive barrier to protect the home islands. Flush with success, the Japanese began believing their own propaganda that America was a weak-willed, “soft” nation.
The Battle of Midway was the high-water mark of Japanese conquest in the Pacific. Japan lost four carriers, the Americans one. Thereafter, the Japanese would be largely on the defensive. By 1943, new American carriers were being commissioned, including the Bunker Hill and Hornet. It is here that John Theodore Crosby, known to his friends as “Ted,” enters the story.
“I wanted to go Navy”
Ted Crosby was born in Eureka, California, on July 30, 1920. When his family moved to the San Francisco Bay area, Ted would visit ships when the fleet came into port. But as he matured, his initial goal was to be a pilot in commercial aviation. He had an older brother who got priority, at least when it came to a college education.
“My mother could only afford to send one of us to college,” Ted explained. “My brother was much better in math than I was—in high school, he was even doing great in calculus. There was a family meeting about it, and he ended up in the University of California, Berkeley.”
Undaunted, Ted worked at the Golden Gate International Exposition (World’s Fair) on Treasure Island and managed to save enough money to attend Marin College, just north of San Francisco. War interrupted his studies, though, and on the spur of the moment he and some friends went to Hamilton Field (later Hamilton Air Force Base) to see about joining the Army Air Forces.
Crosby passed the physical and was considered a prime candidate for flight school, but the 22-year-old started having second thoughts. “I said no, because I wanted to go Navy. I understood Navy, and felt it gave you the best training.”
Without any further ado, Crosby went down to San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. It was a long and painstaking process to create a carrier pilot, and Ted recalled that the Navy was in no hurry. “When I did sign up they told me to go back to Marin College, finish the semester, and they’d send me orders. I finally was told to report to [preflight school] at St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California.”
These initial stages were pretty easy since “I was in good shape. At St. Mary’s we were building muscles, running along railroad tracks, and taking ground school. After about a month and a half, I went to Livermore Naval Air Station.” Places like Livermore were sometimes called “E bases,” short for elimination bases. The failure or “wash-out” rate could be as high as 30 percent in some places.
Crosby was now an AvCad, or naval air cadet. If he passed, he would become an officer and bear the prestigious title of naval aviator trained on Stearman N2-S “Yellow Peril” biplanes before being transferred to Corpus Christi, Texas, to earn his wings.
The newly minted aviator traveled to Opa-Locka, Florida (near Miami) for carrier landing practice. After that, it was on to the freshwater carriers on the Great Lakes. “They had two old coal oilers that they had converted into small flattops,” Crosby recalled. “I practiced on the USS Wolverine.”
Joining With the VF-18
After his training, Crosby went on leave, then headed to San Diego four days before his liberty was to expire. Ted was anxious to be assigned to a large carrier. “That’s where the action was,” he explained. The assignment officer had other ideas, though, and assigned Crosby to an escort carrier. About one-half the length and one-third the displacement of their bigger sisters, escort carriers were sometimes called “baby flattops” or “jeep carriers.”
The assignment officer told Crosby in no uncertain terms that he was going to an escort carrier. “No,” Ted replied, “I’m not. I’ll be back tomorrow. I don’t want a jeep carrier. If I go in, I’m going to go in on one of the big guys.” It was a stubborn contest of wills—each day Crosby would return, and each day the assignment officer would offer an escort carrier.
Crosby received help from an unexpected quarter. Lieutenant James Bellows, a veteran of the Battle of Midway, was sitting at another desk and overheard the arguments. Bellows was in San Diego to form VF-18, a new fighter squadron of Hellcats. “He’s coming with the VF-18,” Bellows declared, whereupon the assignment officer had a fit. “He’s mine!” the assignment officer insisted, stating he had other plans for Crosby.
Bellows was undeterred. “I think I’ve changed those plans,” he said flatly. And so it was that Ted Crosby was assigned to VF-18 on the carrier Bunker Hill. In a sense, Crosby and Bunker Hill were both novices in the art of naval warfare. Bunker Hill was a new ship, commissioned in May 1943. By coincidence, Ted had also been commissioned that same month and year.
Ted Crosby’s First Battle
Bunker Hill reported to the Pacific in the fall of 1943. By this time Allied offensives on New Guinea were prospering, and Guadalcanal in the Solomons had been taken after a bloody six-month fight. As the Americans pushed forward in the South Pacific, the major Japanese base at Rabaul was a prime target.
Rabaul, located on the island of New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago, featured five airfields, a harbor full of shipping, and formidable antiaircraft defenses. When U.S. Marines landed on Bougainville, well within striking distance of the Japanese base at Rabaul, it was essential that the facility be neutralized.
An autumn raid on Rabaul was a major effort involving several American carriers. It was also Ted Crosby’s first taste of battle. The raid of November 11, 1943, involved dogfights on a massive scale. It was an aerial free-for-all, with the new F6F Hellcat generally gaining the upper hand over the vaunted Mitsubishi A6M Zero or “Zeke.”