Dec 3

Navy Ace Bill Davis and The Last Ship

Friday, December 3, 2010 8:48 AM


Bill Davis in his F6F Hellcat. The washed out rectangles on the side are actually Japanese flags, one each for his seven aerial kills.

Naval History Blog is pleased to present a guest post by author Doug Keeney about his friend Bill Davis:

In October of 1944, a young Navy lieutenant nosed over his F6F Hellcat and began a dive towards a Japanese aircraft carrier below. “I screamed down on the carrier which now completely filled my gunsights,” the pilot wrote in his memoir Sinking The Rising Sun.

“I rested my finger on the bomb release button. I kept going.” And go he did. U.S. Navy fighter pilot William E. “Bill” Davis had no idea of it then but he was just seconds from taking his place among the many great Americans that have worn a Navy uniform. The ship filling his gunsights was no less than the Japanese carrier Zuikaku, the last of the fleet that had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Unlike today, back in 1941 no one sent out a fleet directive to hunt down those ships but every sailor had a mental list and as each ship was sunk, one name was checked off. Zuikaku was the last. With his F6F Hellcat insanely past the redline, Davis triggered the release, pulled back on his stick, and promptly slumped down into unconsciousness. No, he never saw his bomb but it squarely hit its mark, the beginning of the end for the Zuikaku, closure you might say, but Bill had little time to think about any of that. When his eyes fluttered open, his off-the-charts F6F was headed squarely into the side of the destroyer light cruiser Oyodo.

I met Bill Davis in 1972 at the Los Angeles Tennis Club and we became instant friends. Bill and I were of course avid tennis players but in the greatest of all coincidences we were both from the same very small suburb of Philadelphia and in fact had grown up just blocks apart, albeit with 40 years in between us. Bill had gone to the University of Pennsylvania as had my father and we were both pilots, too, but that’s where the comparisons ended. Bill was the recipient of the Navy Cross, a fighter ace in the Pacific with seven kills, the first in a gaggle of fighter pilots that would drop the bombs that would sink the last Japanese carrier that had attacked Pearl Harbor. Militarily at least, the final revenge for Pearl Harbor would come here.

Today, 69 years after Pearl Harbor, Bill’s bombing run may be the last untold story of Pearl Harbor. He managed to pull his F6F above the gunwales of the Oyodo and he flew through an impossibly small space between the forward gun turret and the bridge; he remembers the white uniform of a Japanese admiral and perhaps he saw his life flash before his eyes as he twisted his plane into a 500-mile-per-hour knife-edge pass and cleared the destroyer. Of course this is the stuff of the Navy’s highest honor but none of this had anything to do with why Bill nosed over into a hail of anti-aircraft fire and held steady until his bomb found its mark. Neither honor nor glory rode that Hellcat down to the deck, just duty. Bill did his duty and the reward he fought for was the reward men in World War II wanted more than any medal or ribbon. They wanted to go home. That Bill could do that and provide a measure of closure for the sailors that went down on December 7th was merely the added satisfaction of a job exceptionally well done.

Doug Keeney is a widely published author including his forthcoming book from St. Martin’s Press titled 15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation. Bill Davis, 90, received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Pennsylvania and his Masters in Aeronautical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology. Bill began to write during his successful thirty-year career in business. His first work was optioned by 20th Century Fox.

  • Total

    He was flying an F6F? I didn’t think that plane was a dive bomber.

  • doug keeney

    Hi. You’re correct. The F6F was not a dive bomber but it was used to drop bombs.

  • Eric J. Halvorson

    Great story Doug!

    Here is my story about my late grandfather, USN Lt. Arthur Van Haren, Jr.

    I just got word that he will be inducted into the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame, class of 2012. I submitted his application first of this year.

  • Robert J. Cressman

    A small correction to the type of ship in this blog: the OYODO was a light cruiser, not a destroyer.

  • Great catch Bob! Thanks!

  • CDR James Brown, USNR-Ret.

    I flew the Hellcat (F6F-3/3N/5/5N) off escort carriers in W.W.II and with a Marine night fighter squadronon on Saipan as we prepared for the invasion of Japan. Can I help?

  • Melinda Bie

    Doug: Wasn’t sure if you were aware, but Bill passed away on May 22nd at the age of 91. He had just taken part in a symposium sponsored by the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Museum and the Santa Barbara Channel City Club where 300 people were fortuante enough to hear his amazing story delivered oh so humbly by Bill. Memorial services will be held at El Montecito Presbyterian Church, 1455 E. Valley Rd., Montecito, 2 p.m. Saturday, August 11.

  • TheCalvinator

    My dad, JC Stires flew Corsairs and Hellcats off the Bon Homme Richard in the Western Pacific near the end of the War. He was awarded the DFC for single-handedly shooting down three Japanese bombers. These guys did amazing things for our freedom.