Monday, January 28, 2013

Corsair pilot earned Navy Cross for battleship hit during WWII

U.S. Naval aviator Neil Swarthout — who flew F4U Corsair fighter bombers off the aircraft carrier USS Hancock during World War II — was awarded the Navy Cross, “for extraordinary heroism in combat,” during the battle at Japan’s Kure Naval Arsenal in July, 1945.

The Navy Cross is the second highest military decoration for valor — only the Medal of Honor is higher — that can be awarded to a member of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard.

Swarthout was just 19 and attending Oregon State College (now Oregon State University) when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

The draft age was 20, and Swarthout, in an effort to stay out of the “walking Army,” enlisted in the Volunteer Naval Reserve class V-5 Naval Aviation Cadet program. The program enlisted candidates to train as aviation cadets.

He began flight training in October, 1942 in Miles City, Mont., where he learned to pilot a Piper Cub.

After a short leave spent at home in Portland, in January, 1943, he boarded a train for a trip east.

From Portland, the men were sent to Iowa City, Iowa on a coal-burning train. Coal dust blew into the train, coating the men — who did not have a change of clothes — in soot.

“It took five days to get there,” he said. “When we arrived, it was six degrees below zero.”

His training days in Iowa City were split between academics and athletics.

“They were trying to build up our minds and our bodies,” he said.

After three months, he was sent to Hutchinson Naval Air Station in Kansas for primary training in a Stearman bi-plane. Three months later, he was off to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, where he received his pilot wings and was commissioned as an ensign on Nov. 6, 1943.

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