Excerpt from The Twilight Warriors
Alameda Naval Air Station, California
19 February, 1945
It was late, nearly ten o’clock, but the party was going strong. You could hear them singing a hundred yards down the street from the officers’ club.
I wanted wiiiings
‘til I got the goddamn things,
Now I don’t want ‘em anymoooore . . .
Getting plastered before deployment was a ritual in the wartime Navy, and the pilots of Bomber Fighting 10 were no exception. It was the night before their departure aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid. The entire squadron had suited up in their dress blues and mustered in the club for their farewell bash
The party began like most such occasions. Pronouncements were made, senior officers recognized, lost comrades toasted. The liquor flowed, and then came the singing. It was a form of therapy. For the new pilots, the booze and the bravado and the macho lyrics masked their anxieties about what lay ahead. For the veterans, the singing and the camaraderie brought reassurance. Most knew in their secret hearts that they’d been lucky. They’d lived through this much of the war. There were no guarantees they’d make it through the next round.
Leaning against the bar and clutching his drink, Ens. Roy “Eric” Erickson bellowed out the verses of the song. Erickson was a gangly 22‑year‑old from Lincoln, Nebraska. He was one of the new pilots in the squadron. They called themselves “Tail End Charlies.” They flew at the tail end of formations, stood at the tail end of chow lines, and now they were catching the tail end of the war. They’d spent the past year and a half training to be fighter pilots. Their greatest fear, they liked to boast, was that the war would be over before they got there.
The Tail End Charlies were seeing a new side to the squadron skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Wilmer Rawie. Rawie liked to drink, and now that he’d had a few he was leading his boys in his favorite drinking song, “I Wanted Wings.”
They taught me how to fly,
And they sent me here to die,
I’ve had a belly full of waaarrrr. . .
Rawie had gotten a brief tour of combat duty in 1942, flying off the Enterprise in the early Pacific skirmishes. But then he was relegated to two tedious years as an instructor back in Florida. Finally, in the twilight of the war, he’d gotten a squadron command. Now Will Rawie was playing catch up.
But I’ll take the dames,
While the rest go down in flames,
I’ve no desi‑ire to be buuurrrned . . .
Watching from across the room was the CAG—air group commander—Cmdr. Johnny Hyland. A dozen years older than most of his pilots, Hyland wore the bemused expression of a father chaperoning teenagers. The only one near his age was Rawie, who had begun his commissioned career after a stint as an enlisted man. Hyland had seen lots of these parties, and he had nothing against them. It was a tradition. Let the boys get shitfaced, herd them back to the ship, then get on with the war.
Though most of his pilots didn’t know it, Hyland was also playing catch up. When the war began, he was on a patrol wing staff in the Philippines. Since then he had served in a succession of Washington staff jobs. Now Johnny Hyland, who had never flown fighters in combat, was another twilight warrior.
The singing grew louder.
Air combat’s called romance,
But you take an awful chance,
I’m no fighter I have learrrned . . .
By the time they closed the bar a few minutes before midnight, the party had gotten rowdy. A drunk pilot had to be subdued after demonstrating how to smash the mirrors behind the bar. Another stuck his fist through a plaster wall. One of the junior officers nearly drowned when he passed out over the toilet. Several had to be hauled in comatose condition back to the ship and loaded aboard like cordwood. The Intrepid’s departure the next morning was a hazy, indistinct memory for most of the Tail End Charlies. As the ship entered the heaving ocean, the hangovers magnified to roiling bouts of barfing. Eric Erickson, who had never been aboard a vessel larger than a canoe, stayed sick for three days.
After a week of provisioning and training in Hawaii, Intrepid was underway for the west Pacific. In the low‑ceilinged ready room of Bomber Fighting Ten, the pilots learned for the first time where they were going. The intelligence officer stuck a map on the bulkhead. It was a chart of southern Japan and the Ryukyu island chain.
The Tail End Charlies stared at the map. They knew some of the place names—Shikoku, Kyushu, Okinawa. Until today that’s all they were, just names. Now reality was setting in. Those places on the map—the ones with the hard‑to‑pronounce names—were where they would see their first combat.
But there was more. What none of them yet knew—not the pilots or the intelligence officers or the flag officers planning the operation—was that the island in the middle of the chain, the one called Okinawa, was where the Imperial Japanese Navy would make its last stand.