The Fog of Battle – 65 Years Later
In this week of patriotic fervor, step back some 65 years to the deck of a battleship. The men on the ship, those who weren’t busy firing shell after shell, could see their little spotter plane circling over the beach. The plane had been up there for hours, directing fire of the battleship’s guns in support of the Marines on the beach below. Suddenly, at 10:50 a.m., the plane was seen to break in two and dive into the ocean. Thus it was reported in the log of the battleship U.S.S. Tennessee on Feb. 19, 1945, the first day of the epic battle for Iwo Jima.
Nobody escaped from that plane, and the Navy knew it right away, although for a year the two men aboard were officially listed as missing in action. One of them was my cousin, Lt. Thomas F. McCormick. I was not yet 9 when he died, but I remember him well. He had movie star looks and been home on leave at Christmas just a few weeks before. When I first read the log of the ship, some 25 years ago, I wondered what brought Tommy’s plane down. It seems there were no Japanese planes in the air that day. There was no explosion, no fire and smoke, which usually marks the death of a combat aircraft – just two pieces of a plane falling separately.
In gathering details of that day over the years, I wondered about friendly fire. It has killed men since war began. Imagine back when warriors used spears and arrows in close combat; they must have killed their own friends left and right. History has its famous victims. Stonewell Jackson at Chancellorsville, more recently NFL football player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan.
I thought of friendly fire because I trained in artillery. Fortunately for our nation, I was never called upon to do it in battle. But at Fort Sill our instruction included a ride in a chopper, looking down as shells landed on mock targets. The pilot warned of the danger of getting too low and getting hit by the very guns you were directing. A long shot, sure, but possible. An aerial spotter had to stay above the trajectory of the shells. The day Tommy McCormick went down, the Marines had landed on the beach almost unopposed, at least by artillery. The Japanese let men and equipment pile up at the water's edge before they opened up with artillery from caves on Mount Suribachi, whose summit was to be the scene of the iconic flag raising photo.
When the Japanese starting firing from the high ground, our ships immediately responded, elevating their guns from direct fire at the beach to lob shells much higher at a more distant target. Obviously, the aerial spotters would get orders to fly toward the new target. It was just about the time that fire direction was altered that something hit Tommy’s plane. Could he have been flying from a low altitude to higher and found himself in the path of large shells? Tommy’s plane, the OS2U Kingfisher, was a sturdy machine, designed to take hard pontoon landings on water. But a ship’s 14-inch guns could have gone through a small plane like tissue paper, not even exploding. It could easily knock the tail off a plane and never stop for apologies.
That scenario was mere conjecture on my part, until last month. I got a message from Paul Dawson, who runs the U.S.S. Tennessee Museum in Huntsville, Tenn. He sent me pictures a few years ago of my cousin, shots we never knew existed. His father had been the ship’s photographer, and he knew the handful of pilots and had identified them in volumes of photos he had saved. I was amazed to get this stuff, but not as amazed as I was by what Paul Dawson sent last month. He had been looking over documents from the Tennessee and found a post-Iwo Jima battle report – in which the ship’s commanders figured out what they did right and wrong.
At the end of the report comes a statement that it was “possible” the Tennessee’s spotter plane was hit by guns from fire sector 6 – which could have been one of the Tennessee’s big guns or any of the numerous ships which were firing at the same time. The report recommended that pilots be advised of minimum safety altitudes during such circumstances.
It is called the “fog of battle,” and it took 65 years for the fog to begin to lift over fire sector 6 and Mount Suribachi.