Oct 26

Gus Widhelm and the Battle of Santa Cruz, October 1942

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 12:01 AM


Hornet’s initial strike group of fifteen VS-8 and VB-8 SBD dive bombers, led by Lieutenant Commander William J. “Gus” Widhelm, had been in the air about a hour and fifteen minutes on the morning of 26 October 1942, searching for the Japanese carrier task force, when Widhelm turned the group north to avoid several Japanese Zeros he could see attacking Hornet’s escorting fighters. Five minutes later, after passing through a cloud bank, he spotted some ship wakes and billowing smoke to his left, about twenty-five miles off. He had sighted the Japanese carrier Shōkaku and its still-burning companion, the light carrier Zuihō.

As Widhelm and his SBDs were overtaking the larger carrier from astern, a Zero from the carrier Zuikaku, that was flying combat air patrol, made an overhead firing pass that punctured the leader’s aircraft in the left wing, the tail, and the engine. Even as Widhelm attempted to keep formation, his now overheated engine seized up, and he was forced to drop away. He successfully ditched the aircraft, and he and his rear gunner ARM1c George D. Stokely were able to get into their life raft before the plane sank. But it was a close call. As he later told an audience of workers at the Brewster Aircraft plant, “My plane sank 15 seconds after it hit the water but the rear gunner and I got out on a life raft. The entire Jap force steamed right by us. One time we had to paddle with our hands to avoid being run down by a destroyer.” Nevertheless, the two men had a front row seat to see several of the planes of his strike group put three thousand-pound bombs into Shōkaku’s flight deck, setting off fires that crippled her ability to handle flight operations.

Three days later, Gus Widhelm and George Stokely were rescued by a PBY patrol plane. For his courageous leadership at the Battle of Santa Cruz, Widhelm was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Navy Cross. A 1932 graduate of the Naval Academy, Gus Widhelm went on later in the war to command the first Navy night-fighting squadron in the South Pacific and to serve as Operations Officer for Carrier Task Force One during campaigns in the Central Pacific.

  • Barrett Tillman

    Gus Widhelm was a bigger than life character: a superb aviator and staunch friend. Upon returning to the fleet after a stint instructing at Pensacola he announced his intention to requalify in carrier landings, bombing and gunnery in the same day. Reportedly his CO said that had never been done before to which Gus replied, “Sir, you are talking to Widhelm.” And he proceeded to do what he intended. (There’s an undocumented account of a dead-stick carrier landing in an SB2U but I cannot confirm it.)

    c. 1946 Gus learned that a fellow test pilot was due to roll out of Pax River but lacked the means of moving his family’s furniture in one trip. Gus asked, “Would it help if I could get you a B29?”

    We don’t make ’em like that anymore.

  • Robert Logsdon

    My father, Clarence Moore “Bob” Logsdon served on Hornet with Commander Widhelm. Dad said, he was one of the pilots that he did get to know a bit, and described him as quite a character. Dad was “Chief” of the Lookouts on Hornet and is depicted in one of WWII’s most famous pics, that of Doolittle’s plane leaving the deck of Hornet 18 April 1942 as he watched from the signal bridge.