Avenger Pilot Found!

Torpedo's Away!As I’ve posted here before, I’ve been researching the exploits of my uncle Herbert Albert Hopp during World War II, when he flew as the turret gunner in a Navy Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber. His plane was shot down while attacking a Japanese convoy in the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific in 1943.

I’d already identified his unit, Scouting Squadron VGS-12, out of Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle. However, I could find little to help me sort through the long list of names, several hundred men, to identify Herb’s two flight crew mates, who both perished from injuries suffered when the Avenger crashed in the jungles of New Georgia Island. What was needed was a stroke of luck to help me pare down the names until Herb’s unfortunate buddies where found. For the pilot, that day has come. His name was Ensign Richard N. Yeager of Longview Washington.

Here’s how I found him: while googling around for information, I stumbled upon a new listing for Herb that I hadn’t seen before, on a new website, Footnote.com. After sniffing around the site I decided it was worthwhile to pay their subscription fee and then download whatever records included Herb. In particular, something potentially useful turned up in some old, streaky, and dark microfiche pages Footnote obtained from the National Archives: a listing of all wounded soldiers and sailors taken aboard the USS Solace hospital ship on February 28, 1943, a date I knew from Herb’s medical records. He’d been transferred that day from Guadalcanal’s “Cactus” field hospital #3 to the Solace.

Sure enough, there was Herb’s name annotated with the comment, “VGS-12 T Sqd via Naval Base Hosp. #3.” In a listing of 348 injured men taken aboard that day (the battle for Guadalcanal was raging in its last throes then) I realized Herb’s pilot, who was rescued by Herb with the help of island natives but died after returning to the States, ought to be listed. I scanned through the long list and incredibly, only one other man was listed on that day for VGS-12. That was Ensign Yeager.

New Georgia Island greeting committee
Left: A friendly island native of the kind who canoed Herb and Richard Yeager back to safety in 1943 (okay, so this one doesn’t look too friendly — they were cannibals and headhunters, but dined on Japanese more than Americans in those days).

Finding Herb’s pilot is pretty big news because the more I learn about Herb and his crewmates, the more I am convinced they are war heroes and their story ought to make a good book or movie. Next steps include getting more information on Yeager to flesh out his life and the circumstances of his death. Several very interesting story elements are already in hand. I found a wedding announcement in the Seattle Times stating that he had married a Seattle girl, Kathleen Martha Finn, just days before he shipped out of San Diego for his fatal adventure. Then, oddly, an announcement of the birth of their daughter Susan Kathleen Yeager more than a year later in May of 1944! This strongly suggested that my old family story was in error about his death. However, when I googled after combat deaths in World War II, I found Yeager listed among the honored war dead for Cowlitz County, Washington, his home county.

It will take more research to get this all sorted out, but a blockbuster story is definitely in the offing. If you know of a handy Hollywood agent, maybe we should talk.

[Note added October 10, 2013: Well…..it wasn’t Yeager. He’s listed, not among war-dead, but among deceased veterans. He came home from the war and lived a long life. His presence on the evacuation ship on the same day as Herb was just a coincidence. So he’s the wrong guy. That’s the breaks in researching old information. On the other hand, I have finally identified Herb’s real crew-mates. They were pilot Joe Riddle, who died in the crash, and radioman Bill Owen, who survived the crash but didn’t make it home. More in future posts.]

About Tom Hopp

Thomas P Hopp is a scientist and author living in Seattle. He writes Peyton McKean mystery stories and the Dinosaur Wars science fiction series.
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One Response to Avenger Pilot Found!

  1. Tom Hopp says:

    Well, just when I thought I had it figured out, I got a call from a relative of Ensign Yeager the other day and, no, he didn’t die in World War II. Lived long after it. So he couldn’t have been Herb’s mortally wounded pilot. The birth announcement makes sense, anyway. The datapoint that got me going is the coincidence of both Uncle Herb and Ensign Yeager being transferred from Guadalcanal to the U.S.S. Solace on the same day. That does not, of course, mean they were injured on the same day. What it also means is that my search for Herb’s pilot must continue. At least the field of possible choices among the men of VGS-12 has narrowed by one.

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