Death At Chichi
The fact that a fighter pilot lost his life off Jap held Chichi Jima on the 3 July 1945 has long since been quietly absorbed into operational statistics.
But the Mustang pilots who saw it happen will remember this about the death of Lt. Richard H. Schroeppel: for five hours the war stood still while scores of his fellow pilots sweated and worked and risked their lives to save him. And as long as hope remained, nothing was more important than the life of one man.
Schroeppel's buddies ran aerial cover for him after he bailed out into Futami Harbor on a routine strafing run. Hour after hour they dived and strafed and wheeled to hold down the Jap shore batteries that remorselessly blazed away at the solitary human target. But for a cruel fluke of nature, Schroeppel might have won his battle. His squadron saw him fighting his way toward the mouth of the harbor in his tiny individual life raft. He battled gamely and was a quarter mile out in the open sea when a strong current suddenly seized the liferaft and swung it back toward the Jap island. Shroeppel battled like a madman and, for just a moment, held his own against the ocean. Then the raft spun northward around Eboshi Rock, pushed toward shore south of Hocarano(?) point. A little later, covering pilots saw him crouching on the rocks under Chichi's cliffs.
The fight for Schroeppel !s life began when his squadron nosed down into Futami Harbor on a strafing run. His plane was seen to waver, then fall out of formation. Pilots are not sure whether he was hit by flak or forced over the side by engine failure, but they agree he handled himself expertly in the bail-out and through the whole rescue attempt. His parachute drifted down inside the harbor and an accompanying plane carrying a rescue kit, followed him down. Schroeppel hit the water, freed himself from his chute and calmly inflated his raft. The pilot with the rescue kit, Lt. Charles Heil, made a low sweep over the man in the water to drop a large life raft, offering himself a perfect target to the Jap shore batteries. But Schroeppel wisely just waved a thank you and stuck to his one-man raft—it made better time.
Thus began the long, drawn-out, agonizing drama which left Iwo's fighter pilots in a cold rage. While Schroeppel paddled furiously toward open sea, Mustangs flew cover for him -- diving on Jap gun positions from which they could relay radio messages back to Island command.
Lt. Schroeppel had bailed out at 1006. About 30 minutes later, when Schroeppel's squadron mates reported themselves running low on gas, a decision was made on Iwo. En route to an undisclosed target was another Mustang squadron, and into their mission had gone all the work and planning and anticipation that goes into every mission. The weather had been right, the mission had been briefed, armed, loaded with bombs, their takeoff had been sweated out the way every takeoff is on Iwo. Now, finally they were airborne and well on their way to the target. But they were contacted in flight, ordered to jettison their bombs and relieve the squadron flying cover over a single pilot downed in Futami Harbor. They arrived as Schroeppel was being swept back onto the beach under Chichi's cliffs.
Again, the agonizing battle began and the planes went into string formation, relentlessly strafing machine gun and mortar positions rimming Chichi's cliffs. They could do nothing but hold down the Jap batteries and wait out an Army Flying Dutchman, piloted by Lt. Claude L. Bodin Jr., which had been standing out to sea. Bodin wheeled the Dutchman in toward Chichi and a Mustang drew up alongside his wing. Together they made the run along the wall of the cliff, with the Mustang throttled back to hold a position between the Dutchman and the Jap guns. The first attempt was unsuccessful; Bodin could not see the pilot on the rocks below.
At 1223, a little over two hours after he bailed out, Schroepell managed to release dye-marker from a rock close to shore. Mustang pilots who saw him said that he moved as though very tired but he was calm and still game. Bodin brought his Dutchman back for another run.
Somehow, the Mustang pilots flying cover and the crew of Bodin's converted B-17 sensed that this was their last chance. The Mustangs broke into extroadinary diversionary maneuvers, diving and wheeling furiously at Jap gun positions along the cliffs while Bodin moved into his boat run. At 1240, the boat was away. It fell 100 yards offshore, almost directly in front of Schroepell and as close inshore as outlying reefs allowed.
For a few minutes, nothing could be seen below, only the boat riding empty in the surf, anchored by it's waterlogged parachutes. Then the relief squadron saw Schroepell sitting on a rock at the edge of the water. They continued to orbit the cliffs while he shucked off his clothes down to an athletic supporter. Tired as he must have been, Schroepell moved off the rock into the water and began swimming for his life. He made it out through the surf, fighting his way around the edges of outlying reefs. He made it to the lifeboat and this, apparently was what the Japs on Chichi's cliffs had been waiting for. They zeroed in mortars, machine guns, small arms; the fire was murderous.
There was still one chance. It was a slim one and pure suicide but an Army Dumbo, which had been standing out to sea, decided to take the chance. A flight of Mustangs would escort him in. On board the Dumbo pilot, Capt. Robert B. Richardson, asked permission of base command to try for a landing. He was told to land at his own discretion. The waters were lined with treacherous reef; ten foot swells were running and it would be necessary to glide right into the spot on which Jap weapons were already zeroed. The Dumbo crew made thir decision.
This was it. Covering P-51's went into coordinated strafing and rocketing attack on the northwest coast of Chichi. The flight surgeon took up position in an exposed blister while Richardson hedge-hopped the Dumbo in over the reefs toward the lifeboat, still at anchor 100 yards off the Jap shore. Richardson's first attempt failed and he went around again, this time skimming the reefs and working the controls to force the Dumbo down near the lifeboat. The Dumbo settled between the swells, while the Mustangs poured new fury into their attacks. Richardson taxied slowly to the lifeboat, engines idling so slowly that the flight engineer, T-sgt John P. Mai Toy, had to work the hand-wobble pump to maintain gas pressure. It was impossible to halt the Dumbo so Richardson taxied back and forth twice scraping the side of the lifeboat.
Schroeppel lay dead in the bottom of the boat. The flight surgeon, leaning from the exposed blister, saw the terrible wounds in the pilots head and chest as well as a wound on his leg. It was impossible to save his body.
Richardson got out, but he doesn't quite know how. Mortar shells kicked up such a spray against the windshield that neither pilot or co-pilot could see during the takeoff. But they got out and pancaked at home base--almost out of gas. The grim battle was over, except for one more thing. The Mustangs hovered over the lifeboat, reluctant to leave their fallen comrade's body to the Japs. Their decision was spontaneous; they "closed their eyes" and strafed the lifeboat. Finally a pilot fired a rocket into the boat and it went slowly out of sight.
"It was better that way," said Lt. Jerome Yellin, who was Schroeppel's flight leader on the fatal mission. Those fellows were Dick's best friends -- they didn't want his body washed ashore with those sons of bitches."
Arrival time: 2/21/2024 at: 7:10:17 PM
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