Unsung Navy Air Heroes of Guadalcanal

Herb reported "lost"Veterans’ Day inspired me to increase my efforts to search out the lost facts about my Uncle Herbert Hopp and his short-lived but glorious days in the air over Guadalcanal in World War II. I searched around for quite a while on the new Fold3.com site, where they have been posting more and more old records from the war. Sure enough, tucked away there was more information than I’ve been able to deal with, but let me pass along a couple of new discoveries.

Click the image to see the Action Report from that day’s fighting. I’ve already posted about some things I’d learned from my father’s old war stories about his older brother Herb. I’d learned that Herb’s Grumman Avenger plane and aircrew were transferred from the small aircraft carrier, USS Copahee, on January 31, 1943, to Cactus Air Force on Guadalcanal, just one day before the Japanese Imperial Fleet sent the first of three flotillas against the beleaguered island.

Now, I’ve found a first-hand account of the engagement four days later in which Herb’s plane was shot down, his pilot and bombardier where mortally wounded, and he was blasted full of metal fragments and bullet holes. I’m both delighted to have the report, and not-too-surprisingly disappointed by it. You see, it’s a report by the fighter pilots who were supposed to protect Herb and his mates as they went in to torpedo the Japanese ships. While the fighter report goes into great detail about its own planes and pilots, it has little to say about the Avenger torpedo bombers. One line haunts me:

“The torpedo planes became separated and were lost.”

That’s a bit vague for me, especially when the exploits of individual fighter pilots were listed in detail. Where were the guys covering my Uncle’s valiant attack on the Japanese destroyers? According to my father, Herb said his plane went in so low and dropped their torpedo so close to the destroyer, that they almost couldn’t gain enough altitude to make it over the decks. Then they were blasted full of flack from the ship’s guns and Herb took a ricochetted Zero fighter slug right into his breastbone. Where was the fighter cover then?

What is meant by “became separated?” Separated from whom? Each other? Or from the US fighters? According to Herb, there were plenty of Japanese fighters around.

Admittedly, the fighters sound like they were too busy with their own fight to help Herb, but that only says the US fighter cover was too thin. Anyway, it will take a lot more digging to get right into the bottom crevice of this story. It continues to look like Herb was abandoned at the height of the fight. Maybe I’ll find some more information as I continue digging. Right now, I’m reminded that we don’t just honor great exploits on Veterans’ Day. We honor great sacrifice and suffering too.

And, I think I’ll dust off that manuscript, “Herb Short’s Story” that got me some favorable reviews.

[Note added October 10, 2013: The notion of Herb’s “abandonment” seems too harsh in light of additional details my research has uncovered. The air was thick with Japanese Zero fighter planes that day, and Herb’s fighter cover was indeed overwhelmed by a numerically superior enemy. To our fighter pilots’ great credit, one was awarded a posthumous medal for trying to help the torpedo bombers–at the cost of his own life.]

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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