Sixty-nine years ago today my Uncle Herbert Hopp’s torpedo bomber went down in flames on New Georgia Island in the South Pacific. I thought I’d note the passing of this day, drink a toast to Herb, and try to imagine what he went through in defense of his home and country. His is a tale of heroic suffering, but also of triumph in a way, and a tremendous tale of survival.
I’ve been researching old war records and family mementoes and I’ve found much, but clearly there’s much more to be uncovered.
Herb was one of those young men who volunteered the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. He went to the Navy recruiters and requested training to become a fighter pilot, no doubt with dreams of shooting down those who had attacked our fleet. He’d built his own pylon racing plane and had a pilot’s license, so despite his lack of a high school diploma they let him into the program. However, because he wasn’t a college boy he was ineligible to train as a pilot and was offered the position of turret gunner, which he accepted, excelling in every aspect of his training in flight operations, physical combat, and gunnery. He was soon put to the test.
Stationed aboard one of the fleet’s smallest aircraft carriers, the USS Copahee, he shipped out for Pearl Harbor, where the picture was taken, and then quickly on to the South Pacific. There, he separated from his home squadron VGS-12 and joined one of the legendary Marine squadrons of Guadalcanal, probably the immediate predecessor squadron to the Black Sheep Squadron of TV fame.
Within days he was in the thick of the fighting, attacking Japanese warships as they approached Guadalcanal for what was to prove the final and decisive battle for its control. The US won that contest, and most of the war in the Pacific after that was a long withdrawal of Japanese forces, starting with the defeat Herb had helped to dish out.
But it wasn’t all glory. My research has turned up incredible facts about Herb’s personal trial by fire, and I’ve mentioned some of them in previous posts on this blog. One thing that has dawned on me recently is that, on this day sixty nine years ago, Herb’s flight of three torpedo bombers went up against not only a hail of fire from the anti-aircraft guns of twenty destroyers, but what may well have been the densest air cover of Japanese Zero fighters that any US squadron ever faced — thirty Zeros, according to the pilots of Herb’s own fighter cover.
On that fateful February 4, 1943, the three torpedo bombers attacked the destroyers and none of them made it home. All three were shot down either by fire from the Zeros or from the destroyers. Our fighters were either unable or unwilling to dive down into that maelstrom with the brave torpedomen. Herb’s plane crashed on New Georgia Island, an enemy-occupied jungle hell, where Herb pulled the pilot from the burning plane but found his radioman dead, having been thrown from the plane when it smashed into the giant banyan trees of the jungle.
The rest of his saga is too lengthy to tell here, including the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that Herb brought home with him, so I’ll leave off the telling for now. There will be a novel made out of this someday, once I’ve finished the prodigious digging necessary to gather all the facts. Meanwhile, check out the preliminary write-up I’ve published in my short piece, “Herbert Hopp’s Story.” It’s available in Kindle, Nook, Sony, iTunes, Kobo, Diesel, and a bunch of other formats at Smashwords.
In closing just let me say this, sixty-nine years later: Hail to the hero, Herbert Albert Hopp! You are not forgotten.
[Note added October 10, 2013: Sorry to say I have at least temporarily suspended publication of "Herbert Hopp's Story." My ongoing research has turned up enough errors in the factual details that it seems wrong to continue offering the story in its old form. In the future, I may release it again with errors corrected. Alternatively, I have begun writing a full-length novelization of the story with updated facts and much more research. The tale has only grown more impressive as I fill in the blanks in my knowledge and write down what I am learning.]