Jan 28

The Incredulous Adventure of Ensign George William Denby, USNR

Tuesday, January 28, 2020 10:07 AM

By

Every once and a blue moon, a piece of history crosses my desk that immediately drives me to tell its story to everyone and anyone who will listen. Which is what I did this Fall, when I told my fellow archivists, the photo historian upstairs, and my friends about this story from World War II. This story has still stuck in my brain, however, which is why I’m going to share it with you all right now. Here is the strange but true story of Ensign George William Denby, USNR:

 

Ensign George William Denby, USNR (of Van Nuys, California) was a pilot who served during World War II. While flying an F6F Hellcat on a war mission off Luzon in the Philippines, Denby suddenly realized he was under attack by Japanese Zeros when his left aileron was shot off, destroying his Hellcat’s maneuverability. Within moments the Zeros had also shot off the tail of his plane.

Reacting quickly, Denby released his safety belt and hurtled from the cockpit only to be pinned against the fuselage. In a panic Denby pulled his ripcord too quickly, and although he was pulled away from the body of the plane he blacked out from the sudden, violent halt to his fall. He came to seconds later, still airborne, to find himself handing upside-down in the chute rigging secured only by a single leg strap.

As Ensign Denby tried to pull himself upright, the Japanese began making strafing runs at him. Through bad aim and a bit of luck Denby was able to make it into the water alive. This luck was short lived, as he realized his life raft was lost and some of the bullets that hadn’t killed him had pierced his lifejacket. He also had wounds from when his plane was shot, as well as the pain in his abdomen from the sudden opening of his parachute. Despite his injuries, he was cogent enough to hold his dye marker aloft to keep it from staining the water and making him an easy target to the enemies overhead and began swimming one handed towards what he hoped was shore.

Then the sharks came.

One of them gnashed his leg. While this could have been the end for other pilots, Denby continued swimming, kicking out with his good leg when any of the sharks following him swam too close for comfort. At last, after eight hours of swimming and fending off predators, Denby sighted a U.S. Destroyer.

Only for it to fail to see him.

The ship came within six feet of the fallen pilot before he was spotted getting sucked under with the destroyer’s wash. Apparently though among his many other talents George William Denby had excellent lung capacity, as he was able to make his way back to the surface. Spotted quickly by the destroyer’s crewmen once he resurfaced, Ensign Denby’s trials were over, and he was picked up by the ship.

The still recovering Ensign George William Denby, USNR, poses in the cockpit of Hellcat, c. 1945. Official U.S. Navy Photograph

When I was inputting all of this data in for our digital database, every turn in the tale brought me closer and closer to complete incredulity. Denby’s ordeal just couldn’t seem to end! But the comment that truly pushed me perilously close to the edge was a quote from the man himself at the end, when he said he wanted to get back in the air to “even things up” with the Japanese. This man, who had survived a downed plane, a failing parachute, strafing gunfire, a lost life raft, a useless lifejacket, swimming one handed, a shark attack, and the undertow of a U.S. Destroyer, wanted to go back.

Perhaps experiencing all of that sapped the fear of what could happen in future battles from him. After all, he’d literally experienced it all. Maybe his sense of duty towards his country kept him from seeing his ordeal as something he had the right never to experience again (which in my opinion, after that string of events, he did). Maybe his desire to “even things up” outweighed everything else. Maybe he said what he thought the person interviewing him wanted to hear. Maybe he just loved to fly and couldn’t imagine anything to keep him out of the air. Whether it was all these things, none of them, or something in between, the fact remains that he did go back up. In my mind, that’s what makes this story even worthier of telling: Ensign Denby wasn’t just incredulously lucky; he was undeniably admirable.