How I Got in the Navy

Prewar Naval Aviator

First Months of the War

Spotting the Japanese at Midway

The Battle of Midway

Assignments after Midway

Flying Search Patrols

We Were Lucky

It Was a Great Life

7 December 1941


Robert Swan joined the Navy to avoid the draft. He was flying in Missoula where was going to school. He only had a year and a half of schooling when he volunteered for the aviation program. He took the medical exam and passed but still needed another half a year of schooling before he could go into the Navy. He finished his second year but since he was not eligible nothing was done. Swan started out in the CPT or Civilian Pilot Training Program and already had his private pilot's license. He was raised right next to an airport and would go to the airport and polish airplanes. The guys would sometimes give him a ride and some gave him a little training. Once he started flying he could not get enough of it. He took the CPT number one. Then he took the second course which was aerobatics. After one more he got his commercial license. The Johnson Flying Service offered refresher courses under the CPT. One pilot would go out east and would buy old government planes at auction. He would then sell them to farmers and would give them about a 30 minute flight lesson. These farmers would fill their log books out showing that they had 250 hours or more and that would make them eligible to take the CPT refresher course. Swan worked as an instructor there and that is where he got most of his flying time. He also got his instructor's license. Swan was a Boy Scout in Boy Scout Troop 3 and became an Eagle Scout. He also received all of the palms. He had graduated high school in 1937. He learned that the National Guard was going for two weeks training. He enlisted for three years and became a buck private in a machine gun company, Company H, 163rd Infantry [Annotator's Note: Company H, 2nd Battalion, 163rd Infantry Regiment]. He and another private pulled their .30 caliber machine gun all across the country but never got to fire it. When it was time to fire the gun a corporal would do it. Before long, Swan made PFC. He was being paid one dollar per meeting. In 1940 his National Guard unit was called up for federal service. He did not want to go so he wrote his commander a letter telling him that he had joined the Navy. He got his discharge in the mail. Swan returned to Missoula and went back to flying for the Johnson Flying Service. Then he got drafted. He had worked at a hospital while he was in college and he knew the doctor his draft notice told him to report to. He reached out to the Navy and went to Butte to take a physical before reporting to the Army doctor. The Army doctor passed him but when he told Swan that he was now in the Army Swan showed him the letter showing that he was in the Navy. Swan was sent to Seattle to an E base or elimination base. He did not get to fly since he already had a commercial license. From there he was sent to Naval Air Station Pensacola. He went through Pensacola and graduated.


Robert Swan did not select going into patrol planes. Everybody asks for fighters when they go through flight school. Someone selected where they went. Swan had requested fighters too. His last three squadrons in the reserves were fighter squadrons. Swan was an instrument instructor. He had gone through instrument instructor school in 1945 when he came back from overseas. He was flying PV1 Vega Venturas [Annotator's Note: Lockheed PV-1 Ventura medium bomber] in VB-150 [Annotator's Note: Patrol Bomber Squadron 150] which was a bombing squadron. The PV-1 was a great airplane but he wanted to fly fighters. When he went into the reserves he had a choice and selected fighters. At first he was flying the Twin Beech [Annotator's Note: Beechcraft Model 18] because he was an instructor. Later on when they went into jets he was flying TV-2s, which is the Air Force T-33. He enjoyed that. Since Swan was an associate of the squadron he was only allowed three years in that billet. When that time was up he would be sent somewhere else. Swan was in fighter squadrons but he did not fly fighters. Swan enjoyed flying the PBYs [Annotator's Note: Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat] but some of their flights were long. When they flew from San Diego to Ford Island early in the war he was in the air for 21 and a half hours. He made the flight in a PBY-5A. The plane's wheels had been removed and fairings were placed over the openings where the wheels would have been but they were not waterproof and filled with water. They had to run about two miles before they could get the plane in the air because it was so heavy. They made this flight in March or April 1942. Swan was stationed with PBYs in VP-44 [Annotator's Note: Patrol Bomber Squadron 44] in San Diego. It was great duty. They only had six old planes in the squadron so they did not fly them much. They were off on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday afternoons. They all had cars. In flight school in Pensacola Swan bought a car with contract terms of 25 dollars a month for the first three months then 75 dollars a month after that. At the time they were making 105 dollars a month with 30 of it being taken out because they were cadets. After paying the 25 dollars it still left them with 50 dollars a month to spend foolishly. After graduating and becoming an ensign he was paid 205 per month and his car payment was 75 dollars a month. Swan does not recall ever having a shortage of money. They spent their weekends in LA [Annotator's Note: Los Angeles, California]. They went to the dance halls and clubs. On Wednesday afternoons they took the ferry to San Diego and went to the dance halls there. It was a great life until the roof fell in.


Robert Swan and three other guys in his squadron [Annotator's Note: Patrol Squadron 44 (VP-44)] rented a house. Each had their own bedroom. One of his roommates was a guy named J.J. Lyons [Annotator's Note: unsure of spelling]. One Sunday morning [Annotator's Note: Sunday, 7 December 1941] they got a telephone call ordering the four of them to get to the squadron. They were not told why. The three younger guys got in their cars and headed to the base but Lyons refused. He was not going to work on a Sunday. He stayed in bed but finally got up because the squadron kept calling him. He was going to take the ferry over to San Diego but when he got there he was told what had happened and immediately went to his squadron. That was their introduction. On 7 December Swan was flying as a copilot. They could not locate all of the squadron members. He was flying with Pappy Cole who was a jg [Annotator's Note: Lieutenant junior grade] in the squadron. Cole is the pilot who picked up Ensign Gay [Annotator's Note: Ensign George H. Gay, Jr.]. They flew out and got word that a VOVS squadron [Annotator's Note: an observation and scouting squadron] was strafing a submarine. Cole called for the squadron to let him in because he had a bomb. It was the first bomb Swan had ever seen. They made a dive on the target then Cole pulled up without releasing the bomb and told Swan that those other pilots were going to kill that whale. He got on the radio and called for the guys to stop shooting at the whale. That night or the next day they flew up to Alameda where some new planes, 5As [Annotator's Note: Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina flying boat], were being built. They took off in the worst possible weather. They flew under the bridges almost every day. They did run into Japanese submarines off the coast. They dropped bombs on them but most of the bombs were duds. Swan is sure they hit one submarine right on the deck. They were dropping depth charges too. None of the submarines ever fired on them that Swan can recall. The submarines they bombed were travelling beneath the surface. A Japanese submarine shelled a place up in Oregon. When their planes were ready Swan, who was one of the junior ensigns in the squadron, was sent down to sign for them. The planes were 120,000 dollars each. Swan signed for five of them and they ended up with 15 of them in the squadron. They checked out flying them in Alameda and as soon as they were qualified to fly them they went back down to San Diego and shipped out to the Pacific from there. The 5s [Annotator's Note: PBY-5] were strictly water planes. The 5As were amphibians. They almost always operated off the land because those planes were terrible in the open ocean. When Pappy Cole picked up Ensign Gay he first asked all of his crewmen if they wanted to risk landing in the ocean. In the bays they were fine but they were not good for the open ocean. That is how Swan got in PBYs.


At Midway, Robert Swan was classified as a first pilot and navigator. The patrol plane commander was Jack Reid. Swan was senior to Reid but Reid was the more experienced pilot. They spent three and a half hours over the enemy [Annotator's Note: Swan was copilot and navigator of the PBY that first located the Japanese fleet at Midway]. Every time they tried to get around behind the Japanese fleet they ran into more ships. Every plane they had that was flyable was flying every day. On the third day a Japanese Mitsubishi Type 97 Nell aircraft ran into one of the planes from Swan's squadron [Annotator's Note: Patrol Squadron 44 (VP-44)]. The Nell was more maneuverable and faster than the American planes. The planes shot each other up then returned to base. The American planes were attacked almost every day. The Japanese knew where they would be most of the time. On 2 June [Annotator's Note: 2 June 1942] they got back and went into debriefing. They were told that their patrol route for the next day was straight toward Wake [Annotator's Note: Wake Island]. Swan was not happy about that. He went to have a beer at the officers club and there were some new B-17 [Annotator's Note: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers] crews who had just arrived on Midway that day. They started talking and Swan was telling them about his search sector and how he hoped the Japanese pilots would run out fuel or ammunition early so they would not have to fight them. The B-17 crewmen told him about some new blue tip explosive bullets for the .50 caliber guns. Swan bummed five of the shells from the bomber crew. He gave three of them to Chief Musser [Annotator's Note: Chief Aviation Radioman Francis Musser] and the other two went to another crewman. He explained to them that they were explosive and that they were to make sure that they would hit their target when they fired. They arrived on station and saw no planes. The general quarters alarm rang 20 minutes later. Swan rushed up to see what was happening. They had located 11 enemy ships. Reid dropped their plane right down to ocean level and swung around to the north and ran into seven more ships. They tried again to get behind the enemy fleet and this time ran into 17 more ships. They finally got behind them and stayed over them for more than three hours. Swan does not know how the Japanese did not spot them. They called in the contact. After more than three hours they headed back to base. On any other day they would not have had enough fuel to get back to base but on this day one of the married enlisted men had brought an extra 50 gallons of fuel each for his wife and two children. That gave Swan's plane an extra 150 gallons of fuel. On top of that, they had not flown the 150 mile cross leg so they had enough gas to get back. All Swan did at Midway was navigate because he had more experience. As soon as they returned, Reid went into debriefing and Swan was gathering his maps when a ground officer told him to get his things because he was going out on a torpedo hop. Swan told the officer that he had just returned from a flight so he did not end up having to go. At that time they had no knowledge that there were any friendly forces in the area. Swan believes that they expected the Japanese to take Midway. When Swan's plane sent back their sighting notice the American ships got into position. Prior to this, some American code breakers had gotten a lot of information about the attack. That is how they knew where the Japanese ships were.


Robert Swan saw a carrier the first day [Annotator's Note: on 3 June 1942, the first day of the Battle of Midway] but he believes it was only a jeep carrier being used to transport aircraft. They [Annotator's Note: the Japanese] were going to take Midway. Fortunately, they got in a fight before that happened. Swan did not see the four large Japanese carriers which were further to the north. The next day, Swan took off before daylight again. They were not very far out when the Japanese launched their aircraft against Midway. The plane next to them, flown by Scotty Whitman [Annotator's Note: Lt (jg) Robert S. Whitman], was shot down. Lee McCleary [Annotator's Note: McCleary was the navigator aboard Whitman's aircraft] was one of the two or three survivors. They saw a lot of enemy ships the next day. Every time they went above the horizon there was a ship there shooting at them. Radar did not play a big role in their part of the battle although the next night Richards, their exec [Annotator's Note: executive officer or second in command], led out a four plane flight that torpedoed the Japanese ships. Swan thinks they got one torpedo hit. Swan does not know how they found the Japanese in the dark and assumes that they may have had radar. A guy named Sam Jackson, who was a reserve captain like Swan, told him that Admiral Nimitz said the message Swan's plane sent back when they located the enemy fleet was the most important radio message Nimitz had gotten in his life. The message simply stated "Main Body". They thought they had discovered the main body of the enemy fleet but that was not it. When they got back, Jack Reid [Annotator's Note: the pilot and patrol plane commander of the PBY Swan was assigned to] and Ensign Gay [Annotator's Note: Ensign George Gay], went around the United States selling war bonds. Swan was made a PPC [Annotator's Note: patrol plane commander] and he and the rest of the squadron were sent to the Solomon Islands. They did not get back to the United States until August 1943. There was another squadron up north where the carriers came in the next day. Swan does not recall being told anything specific about the Japanese in the area. They gave them about four different locations that the Japanese may attack. They were the Aleutians, Midway, the Hawaiian Islands and the West Coast of the United States. On 4 June when Swan went out, Don Gumm [Annotator's Note: unsure of spelling] was the PPC, Jack Reid was the first pilot, and Swan was the navigator. Every time they went above the horizon there was a Japanese ship shooting at them and they had no idea if there were any friendly forces in the area. Don Gumm said that there was no way that they were going to stop them from taking Midway so he called back and requested permission to land and pick up their ground forces. Permission was granted so he went back to Midway to get them. They could see Midway from 200 to 300 miles out because of the billowing black smoke. As soon as they got back, Gumm went to debriefing and Swan began plotting their course for Pearl Harbor. While Swan was waiting he was approached by a bunch of young guys who asked for a ride back to Pearl with them but he had to decline. At about the same time, Gumm came back out and told Swan that they were going back out because there were some friendly ships out there that needed their help. All of the fuel bunkers had been hit so they flew over to the Pan American strip to refuel then they took off. When they got back from this second flight the battle was nearly over. By that time the Japanese did not have many planes left. They landed in the water off Sand Island and taxied up onto it. They were asleep in a bunker when they were awoken and told that the island was being shelled by an enemy submarine. They just went back to sleep. They went out looking for downed airmen and would call the 5s [Annotator's Note: the Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina was better suited to landing in the open ocean than the PBY-5A] to go get them. Three or four days later they went out looking for Whitman's plane. When they finally spotted them, one of the 5s landed and got them. That is the story.


Robert Swan left the island [Annotator's Note: Midway Island] around 8 or 10 June [Annotator's Note: June 1942]. Even after he came back to the United States in 1943 to check out his new squadron, he had not realized how big the Battle of Midway had been. He had been in the Solomons since the battle. The battle in the Solomons was a continuing battle. They were fighting all the time. When Swan joined his new squadron he was flying the PV-1 [Annotator's Note: Lockheed PV-1 Ventura] and they learned to fire rockets. He was one of the squadron's senior PPCs [Annotator's Note: Patrol Plane Commander] and was a full lieutenant by that time. They deployed and went to Tarawa. The battle was over by that time. From there they went to Eniwetok and from there on to Tinian. They took off from Eniwetok. It was over 1,000 miles to Tinian and at their maximum range. When they got to Tinian they would have to land. When they got there the island still had not been secured and when they landed the Japanese soldiers holding one side of the airfield were shooting at them. They stayed on Tinian until after the airstrip for the B-29s [Annotator's Note: Boeing B-29 Superfortress very heavy bomber] was built. They were on the island for so long that Swan was able to grow tomato plants to maturity from seeds. He never got any tomatoes off of them though because the islands had been sprayed to kill all the bugs. With the mosquitoes and bees gone the plants were never fertilized. There were still Japanese on the island. One night a bunch of enemy soldiers came up and fired off the Seabees' dynamite dump. There was 120 tons of dynamite there that exploded all at once. Swan slept through the whole thing. Before they got to Eniwetok they got word not to land there. A guy slid off the line and took out 120 airplanes. That was what Swan heard anyway.


Robert Swan and the other officers in his squadron, Patrol Squadron 44 or VP-44, did everything underground while they were on Midway Island. They would take off a few hours before daylight and would land a few hours before dark so they could find the island before they blacked it out. Swan enjoyed his time on Midway. He liked watching the gooney birds. There were also moaning birds and a bird that appeared to fly backwards. On Sand Island there were Chinese Pheasants. The gooney birds were not afraid of the sailors. After chow they had to go stand by their airplanes. When Swan returned to Midway Island on 4 June [Annotator's Note: 4 June 1942] after the Japanese had attacked it there was fuel burning but that is about all he remembers of it. They left early and got back late. Swan was at Midway for about a week and a half before the battle. They had spent quite a while at Pearl Harbor before that. At Pearl Harbor they flew patrol missions and on one flight they went out to patrol the area through which the Hornet [Annotator's Note: USS Hornet (CV-8)] was taking Doolittle [Annotator's Note: General James H. Doolittle] out. They had been told to stay ten miles out of the area the Hornet was in but they went into it anyway. When they saw the Hornet something looked strange so they went in to take a look. When they got too close the ships opened fire on them. It was the first time Swan had been shot at during the war. When the Enterprise [Annotator's Note: USS Enterprise (CV-6)] and Hornet left to go to Midway Swan was already on the island. They left in April and Swan did not get out there until May. There were three islands. Vana Kora [Annotator's Note: unsure of spelling] was where the USS Thornton (DD-270) was docked. When Swan's group could not get back to Espirito Santo after a mission they would land there. A doctor named Atwood was part of the crew and he set up an officer's club ashore. Atwood charged 12 and a half cents for membership in the club. During the Battle of Santa Cruz, Swan was flying search operations and did not even know the battle had taken place.


[Annotator's Note: Robert Swan was a pilot and navigator in Navy Patrol Squadron 44 (VP-44). He was the navigator and copilot of the PBY patrol plane that discovered the Japanese fleet at Midway.] The war lasted a lot longer than Midway. They [Annotator's Note: the Japanese navy] lost four carriers but they still had a lot more. It did build morale on the mainland and among the troops. Swan's squadron flew the newest plane in the Pacific, the PBY-5As [Annotator's Note: Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina flying boat]. The Marines on Midway had the F-2A Brewster Buffalo and SB2U Vindicator dive bomber. Both of those were restricted to three miles from the island and the dive bomber was restricted to a 15 degree dive or less. It was typical outdated stuff. All of the new war material was going to Europe. When the Battle of Midway happened luck was on the side of the Americans. The Japanese outnumbered the American forces and they were more experienced. They could have taken Midway just like they had Wake. There was a lot of luck. It was luck that, instead of flying 700 miles, they flew 750 miles and it was lucky that it happened to be the day the Japanese chose to cross the 700 mile line. It was luck that the Japanese had made one attack on Midway and when the enemy flight leader returned he told his superiors that he thought another strike on the island was necessary. The decks of the Japanese carriers were full of aircraft loaded with torpedoes in case the American fleet was spotted. They were reloading those planes with bombs when the American squadrons arrived. It was luck that Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8) arrived early and attacked the Japanese carriers by itself. Unfortunately, only Ensign Gay survived that attack but that attack pulled the Japanese air cover down to sea level allowing the American dive bombers to carry out their bombing runs. It was luck that the Japanese search plane that was to cover the sector where the American fleet was hiding took off 45 minutes late. There were a lot of little things that made the difference and there was just a lot of luck.

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