Capt. Tom Liggett

 

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As part of my research on VMF-512 I started to look for veterans a few years ago.  I first made contact with Tom Liggett in 2003.  We've conversed and traded correspondence since then and I want to write down something about him here on my web site.   I've used Robert Sherrod's History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II to put Tom's remembrances of his tour on Guadalcanal into a historical context.  All pictures are thumbnails... just click on it to see it full size.

Thomas Liggett graduated with a B.S. from New York University in 1941 and had just enlisted in the Navy pilot program.  After earning his wings he chose to join the Marine Corps.  Tom checked out in the SBD Dauntless and as a young 2nd lieutenant was sent to Guadalcanal.  He was assigned to VMSB-141, arriving in October 1942.  Those were the hardest days on the 'Canal.  The Japanese navy owned the night and its cruisers regularly shelled the area around Henderson Field.  Just the day before Lt. Liggett arrived, shelling by cruisers took a heavy toll, killing 41 Americans.  One of the big dugouts for VMSB-141 was hit killing four of the squadron's senior officers along with the CO Maj. Gordon Bell.  1st Lt. W. Ashcroft took command of 141 but was himself killed November 8 just before the big Japanese push.

The exploits and courage of the Cactus Air Force have been well documented.  A collection of Army, Navy and Marine fliers, they flew under the most appalling conditions against a determined, numerically superior enemy.  At times you could count on one hand the number of SBDs in flying condition.  On October 14 Lt. Commander Ray Davis led a flight of 8 SBDs from VB-6 off the Enterprise into Henderson to augment the field's dwindling resources.  Tom Liggett remembers they had a 500 pound bomb and that he was the only Marine pilot in that flight. He recalls "when the flight ended, the experienced Navy guys high-tailed it to the landing strip and left me wondering exactly where to drop on that dim day.  I flew across the island until I felt sure I had no chance of hitting anything U.S. on the ground." 

2nd Lt. Liggett flew his SBD into Henderson Oct 14 thus becoming a part of Gen. Geiger's Cactus Air Force.  Once on the ground he was told of the losses from the shelling the night before.  Tom had already met Maj. Bell and was in fact scheduled to fly with him into Henderson a few days before.  Maj. Bell thought the dive flaps on the new SBDs opened too slowly and as a result he scrubbed the flight.  Lt Liggett had to wait for another opportunity to get to Henderson.

As the most junior pilot in the squadron, Tom found himself having to stand up and take more initiative... but this was Guadalcanal, where such was expected.  Lt. Liggett's responsibilities included night time harassment missions.  His job was to keep the Japanese soldiers awake, annoyed, and tired.  He also flew scout and attack missions, and is credited with a direct hit on an enemy transport trying to unload in the daylight.  Lt. Liggett carried Marine Raiders on aerial reconnaissance, and struck up an acquaintance with Joe Foss who Tom describes as a nice guy.

There's a famous incident where Maj. Jack Cram strapped torpedoes under the wings of his PBY-5A flying boat the "Blue Goose" to attack transports.  At the time there were no US torpedo planes at Henderson... all were destroyed by Japanese shelling.  Here's a link to Cram's narrative account http://www.daveswarbirds.com/cactus/jackcram.htm and if you enter Jack Cram PBY in Google you'll get many hits, including some paintings of the attack.  The connection to Tom is his own rear seat gunner, Harvey Peterson, went on this mission with Maj. Cram.  Peterson shot down a Zero.

Throughout October the fighting and shelling were intensified as the Japanese made a push to retake the airfield.  The fliers workload was heavy.  Attrition and exhaustion affected all elements of the Cactus Air Force.  VMSB-141 had lost many crews and, finally, was transferred to Samoa in mid-November.  A newspaper account Tom sent me from 1943 reported 80 men were assigned to the flight crews of 141 and only 13 made it out unscathed, one being Tom Liggett.  The others were killed, wounded, or struck by disease.

After leaving Guadalcanal he made the transition to F4F fighters and eventually got into the Corsair.  Then in February 1944 he and several other vets formed part of the original cadre of VMF-512.  Sometime in mid-1944 their training objective became focused on attacking the German V-1 sites along the coast of the English Channel.  They were going to fly Corsairs off CVE escort carriers in the North Sea and attack German launch sites with the new Tiny Tim rocket.  Their gear was sent to Norfolk and packed aboard transports for the journey to England.  But the squadron was abruptly ordered to California.  It was not until I sent the USMC description of Project Danny to Capt. Liggett in 2003 that he knew why the squadron was sent west.  Once informed, Tom reflected on his feelings during those days in 1944 as the Marines of VMF-512 geared up to sail to Europe.  Here's what he wrote in Dec 2003 on his web site WorldPeaceNews.org (WPN) which I quote with his permission.  The following paragraphs in bold face are Tom's.

Project Danny had warships-for-Europe loaded with the gear of four marine pseudo-kamikaze squadrons.   A total of more than 100 pilots would fly to glory. They would destroy German V1 or V2 [depending on which reports you credit]. The fighter pilots would dive on V1 or V2 rocket launch emplacements in Europe, diving in F4U’s with unguided, immense Tiny-Tim-rockets.

Gen. Marshall said NO!
       
Not one U.S. F4U pilot in the four VMF squadrons had opted out of Project Danny.   All 100+ had been ordered to get ready to dive with the immense unguided Tiny Tim rocket against German V-1 rocket launchers.
       Not venturing to make the assessment of pilot solidarity above, a USMC History Office rundown forwarded to WPN by Adam Lewis, a marine aviation history buff, doesn’t venture to affirm the pilot’s unquestioning acceptance as noted above.
       But it does reveal U.S. Army General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, as the categorical, emphatic nixer-out-of-hand-and-on-the-spot of the V-1 diverocketing plan for VMFs 511, 512, 513 and 514.
       What Marshall did in vetoing Danny fits in nicely with an NYT op-ed Dec.11 singing General Marshall’s masterful, caring, sensitive, unhortatory and brilliant overseeing of U.S. WWII military affairs in Europe and beyond.

       The NYT op-ed by General Andrew J. Goodpaster quotes words remembered from Chief of Staff Marshall’s rejection of the Danny Project.
       Marshall is the General Marshall who later saw his name fixed to The Marshall Plan that helped put Europe back on its feet after WWII.
       The following is from what the U.S. Marine Corps History Office sent in November 2003 to Adam Lewis, the part time historian gathering facts concerning VMF512, which had been stationed at the Marine air base at Goleta near Santa Barbara, California.  Lewis, a technical professional, lives there now.
       The writer here, then a VMF 512 pilot with a home owned in Santa Barbara, had understood that the plan for F4U’s had been to dive on V-2 launch sites along the coast of France.
       After half a century of wondering how Danny was called off and by whom and why, the report forwarded by Lewis came as a big, many-aspects enlightenment to the publisher of World Peace News - a World Government Report, worldpeacenews.org.
       We of WPN had been there with 512 as a pilot.   We were one of what had been three captains and a major, training second lieutenants wearing new wings. On various exercises, navigation, gunnery, keeping order, communications, etc., we’d flown out, from a field outlying the Marine base at Cherry Point, over the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles dozens of times.   Two of the captains were killed in flight accidents, one later in a dive with a tiny practice bomb aimed at a small target craft in West Coast Pacific waters.
       After General Marshall scrubbed Danny, VMF 512 was posted to Mojave first and then to the Goleta marine base where it waited before being stationed aboard the brand-new U.S.S. Gilbert Islands.
       (Returning to Santa Barbara after six or so months of sporadic shooting up in the South Pacific off the Gilbert Islands CVE, I, Capt. Thomas Liggett, 011691, was posted to duty as what was said then to be the last CO of the Marine air base at Goleta.   That’s what I understood about my tenure in helping to close the base from which VMF 512 sprang into the Pacific.)
       But we stick here with the story about how Army General Marshall made a bunch of pseudo-kamikazes-to-be the happiest ever to be relieved by the scrubbing of the Danny Project.   It would have been to dive with the biggest-combat-rockets hinged on below F4Us.   Here’s what the U.S. Marine Corps History Office sent to Adam Lewis in November on Lewis’s request for information:

       
PROJECT   DANNY
       
“Project Danny involved the four fighter squadrons of Marine Aircraft Group 51 (MAG-51) in the fall of 1944 to conduct an attack against the V-1 rocket launching sites in Europe.   VMF-511, -512, -513, and -514 were equipped with an assortment of F4U-1, FG-1A, and F3A-1 aircraft.   These were all basically F4U-1s but manufactured by different companies.
       The V-1 rockets being employed by the Germans lacked any controls to hit a specific target and had been wrecking havoc in England with their indiscriminate attacks.   Washington wanted the launching sites destroyed and the task was assigned to the NavAirLant Staff.   Working with the Marine Corps staff at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, the plan was developed to arm Marine Corps Corsairs with the 11.75” Tiny Tim aircraft rocket, load them aboard CVEs [escort aircraft carriers] and transport them to the North Sea where they would be launched against the targets.   At this time there were no Marine Corps squadrons aboard carriers, nor were any contemplated to be carrier based.   The Tiny Tim was the largest aircraft rocket with a warhead developed from a 500-pound semi-armor-piercing bomb.   The four newly formed squadrons commenced the special training for the mission at several of the outlying fields.
       Commander Moorer  (later Admiral Thomas H. Moorer) was the NacAirLant staff officer for the project who was sent to Washington to brief the top civilian and military authorities including General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff U.S. Army. The briefing commenced without the General who was quickly brought up to date, by one of his staff generals, upon his arrival. General Marshall listened, but on hearing that Marine aviators would make the planned attacks, raised his hand. Rising to his feet he moved towards the door and said something to the effect “that’s the end of this briefing.   As long as I’m in charge of our Armed Forces, there’ll never be a Marine in Europe.”   It can only be assumed that the Army did not want a repetition of the Marine publicity of World War I.
       The project was cancelled and the first three squadrons went on to become the first Marine Corps fighter squadrons to be assigned to carriers during WWII.”

            -
       Be it noted in passing that General Marshall has the reputation of having been chary with words.  That is borne out in the above.   So it might be accurate to guess that we’ll never know all of what this super-general-diplomat-governmentalist thought about Danny and many other situations.
       What’s certain, for the VMF 512 pilot writing this, is that the pilot believes that not a single F4U pilot in any of the four squadrons squawked much or at all against the plan for Marine pilots to dive on V-1 rocket launch sites.   (The conventional Marine thought had been that V-2 launch sites would be targets.  What is correct? We wonder now, after not wondering about that for half a century.)
       Firing Tiny Tims in practice at the Navy’s China Lake test range had clarified one point:   It was only marginally easier to hit a target with the 11+-foot-long, heavy rocket without any guidance system than it was with a bomb, aimed similarly by the altitude, etc., of the aircraft.
      A hit required “getting right down on the target.”   And the closer you got the more you became a sitting duck.   But, after all, that was only like chances for everyone in a helicopter flying too close, or in a head-on attack with fixed bayonets. Getting in close.   It was a chance you had to take if you wanted to be seen doing what the next guy was doing.   You knew that to start.   Peer pressure to get in close for a hit figured subconsciously.   That might make some guys queasy to remember.   We are included.   But we are now old.
       What has all that got to do about war when it becomes MAD for too many participants and, now, for everyone?   The question is, of course, whipped up and discarded daily in slipstreams galore.
       Unlike the media and considering all options, the guess here is that General Marshall would have been happy to see war outlawed.
       ––––12.12.03

Project Danny was to be an integral part of Operation Crossbow.  

After Danny was cancelled VMF-512 was sent to Mojave and then Goleta for training in close air support.  The primary weapon was the 5" high velocity aircraft rocket (HVAR) but they carried a 500 lb. bomb too.  The HVAR was known informally as the "Holy Moses" rocket after an unknown pilot's assessment on its explosive effect against a ground target.  VMF-512 was one of the few USMC squadrons assigned to the 4 all-Marine CVEs expressly for the purpose of providing close air support to Marines on the ground.  

Capt. Liggett was made a flight leader with Maj. Blaine Baesler as the CO.  Tom's wingman was Jeff Justice who Tom describes as the best wing man one could ever hope for.  After reporting aboard the USS Gilbert Islands with VMTB-143 the carrier was sent to the Pacific war zone in April 1945.  While near Okinawa the Corsairs were usually assigned to CAP missions and Capt. Liggett's flight was up on May 31, 1945.  He was in FG-1D serial number 87853 when the CIC vectored him to a possible radar bogey hiding in the cloud cover.  As soon as the Japanese Dinah dropped down Capt. Liggett let loose a burst from maximum range that found its mark.  The Dinah crashed into the sea and thus Capt. Liggett was credited with the first and, as it turned out, only air-to-air kill for the entire 1945 cruise of the USS Gilbert Islands. 

What does a man feel on such an occasion?  I assumed those who scored an aerial victory were elated... it's the only kind of response I had seen in books and newsreels.  And certainly Tom was a hero onboard the carrier.  News of the shoot-down preceded his landing.  After he touched down the artist Alex Raymond asked if he could sketch Capt. Liggett in the Ready Room.  However Capt. Liggett was reflecting on what had become of the men in the Dinah.  He emphasized to me he was not remorseful and was proud to have done his duty but, as he told me, he was also "much pained by the way war often works for those who fight it".  Raymond asked Capt. Liggett to put his helmet and goggles back on and proceeded to capture this moment and, I think, the feelings of Capt. Liggett in his wonderful pencil sketch titled simply "Fighter Pilot". 

Capt. Liggett participated in the low-level strikes on Ishigaki in June, and Balikpapan Borneo in early July.  On Ishigaki, especially, the Japanese AA fire was surprisingly thick.  Several pilots told me these missions were particularly nasty that way.  Indeed, the USS Gilbert Islands lost a Corsair and 2 TBMs to this fire.  Eventually the ship had returned to San Pedro Bay, Leyte, P.I., for replenishment and to conduct training. On one such training flight July 25 Capt. Liggett crashed after takeoff about 1500 yards from the carrier.   His F4U had plowed into a wave and he was caught in the cockpit.  At first he didn't understand why he couldn't unlock the seat belt not realizing his right arm had become dislocated.  Finally, he got the seat belt unlocked but a strap on the parachute hung up, keeping him in the seat.  The plane along with Capt. Liggett was now underwater and sinking fast.  In those few moments between life and death Capt. Liggett somehow remembered to pull the toggles on his Mae West.  At last he sprang free of the wreckage and floated to the surface.  He was picked up by the USS Lee Fox (APD 45) early in the morning and returned aboard the Gilbert Islands mid-afternoon.  Soon he was in the able care of Dr. William Gist, the flight surgeon.  Capt. Liggett's injuries are listed as a "dislocation of right shoulder and lacerated and bruised contusions of the scalp" (ref: War Diary of the USS Gilbert Islands).  It was eventually determined that Capt. Liggett suffered from nerve damage which, except for a few flights out of Goleta, ended his flying career. 

Thomas Liggett earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and several Air Medals for his actions in World War 2.

After the war Mr. Tom Liggett held a number of journalism jobs including newspaper reporter and city editor, magazine writer and editor.  He taught writing courses and published the award-winning children's book Pigeon, Fly Home! (1956). The New York Times called it one of the best 100 new books for 1956.  You would think that would be a full life, but... no.  In 1970 he started the periodical "World Peace News", devoted to the notion that the United Nations should be the place where a true world government is formed with the authority to outlaw war.  As he told me, this was aligned to the original concept of the UN, as envisioned by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill.  Tom has published the World Peace News continuously since 1970.  The return address banner reads:
AMERICAN MOVEMENT FOR WORLD GOVERNMENT
WORLD PEACE NEWS

With the rise of the internet, Mr. Liggett now runs the web site http://www.worldpeacenews.org/  Its title page states "We advocate that all nations join to create a federal democracy able to outlaw war under binding law".  I admire his war time service and now devotion to the cause of World Peace.

Thomas Liggett was born in Jersey City NJ on Sept 7, 1918.  As I write this he just turned 86, and I received the latest issue of World Peace News in the mail.

Go to the next page to see some of Capt. Tom Liggett's wartime photos.

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