1st Fighter



Introduction

The 1st Fighter Control Squadron was activated at Selfridge Field, Michigan on January 13th, 1942 as the 1st Interceptor Control Squadron. It was comprised of volunteers primarily from Iowa, Oklahoma, Michigan, Ohio and Texas.

After basic training they arrived via train in Riverside, California on February 14th, 1942, and then were trucked to Los Angeles where they were attached to the local air defense wing. Over the course of the year the unit continued to expand and groups of men were occasionally detached and sent to specialized training centers around the country to learn about cutting edge radio and radar equipment.

On May 20th, 1942 they were re-designated as the 1st Fighter Control Squadron.

The squadron’s mission was to provide highly mobile forward air control in support of amphibious landings as we island hopped our way north to Japan. These men landed with the first assault waves and quickly set up state of the art radio, cryptographic, and radar connections between allied land, air and sea forces to provide more efficient coordination of offensive actions, as well as early warning and defensive coordination against Japanese counter-strikes.


On October 23rd they packed up and boarded a train for San Francisco. On the evening of October 27th they embarked on the Cape San Juan, and sailed the following day, October 28th. They held traditional ‘crossing the li
ne’ ceremonies on November 6th when they crossed the equator.

Commanding Officer of the 1st at the time of the Cape San Juan sinking was Captain Irwin C. McBride. This was their first overseas deployment, and they were assigned to the 5th Air Force.


Casualties

The squadron lost ten men in the sinking, including:

No. Last Name First Name,  M.I. Rank State
1 BARGER WILBUR A CPL OR
2 CANNON EDMUND A SGT MN
3 CLOWDUS JAMES O SGT AL
4 DARSEY WILLIAM L CPL CA
5 HERGENROTHER RICHARD P CPL PA
6 KEEN BENJAMIN PFC MI
7 MCDONALD STANLEY O 2LT TX
8 MINER CHARLES E PFC CT
9 MOCCIARO ROSARIO A PFC NY
10 WILKANS  MAX F CPL IL

This list was compiled by Chester Driest and most of the men appear on the Honolulu Memorial (with the exception of Clowdus). It is believed that the list is complete and that there were no other 1st Fighter Control men lost in the sinking.

Second Lieutenant Stanley McDonald appears to be the only known officer that was lost. T/Sgt Arthur Berkey was in a lifeboat and remembers; “A man swam by our boat and shouted “I saw a man out there and I’m going to get him.” We never saw him again. I’ve always wondered if this was Lt. McDonald, as he was a good swimmer and the type of person who would have risked his life for others.

Berkey also noted; “After our lifeboat capsized, Charles Miner took on a lot of water and oil, and became unable to keep his head out of the water. Don Wolverton held him up almost the entire time we were in the ocean and encouraged him to hang on, assuring him that we would be rescued. He did this with great risk to his own life. Although Miner later died, after being rescued by the Meredith, Don Wolverton should have received commendation for his efforts.

Other than Charles Miner who was picked up with others by the Edwin T. Meredith and later buried at sea on the way to Noumea, and James Clowdus who was found floating dead in the water by the USS McCalla and taken to Suva for burial, all other 1st Fighter men were never found. It is believed that Clowdus was initially buried at the Old Military Cemetery outside Viti Levu, Fiji, and that his remains along with about 136 other American’s buried there (from Tarawa and other conflicts in the vicinity) were exhumed and relocated to stateside cemetery’s possibly as early as 1946. Families were typically given the option of using a veteran’s cemetery or a local family plot. It is possible that other Cape San Juan victims remains were handled this way as well and I continue to investigate to see if I can identify all of them. Again, the fate of most victims was lost at sea, but there is some evidence that some of the rescue ships took bodies and even partial remains back to Fiji for burial.

Survivors

Tech Sergeant James L. Cox was recommended for citation and officer candidate school for his leadership of the raft on which he and 60 men spent 27 hours. The report from an officer on his rescue ship read in part: “As this ship came into position to affect a rescue the presence of a strong leader was apparent. There was no scrambling or disorder. The other survivors had strong praise for his leadership and stated that he was responsible for the preservation of the group. It is worthy of note, that the mental condition of Cox’s group was by far the best of any group recovered. After supervising the unloading of his raft, Cox came aboard and at once turned to assisting ship’s company in caring for the rescued. Although obviously weak and suffering from exposure and inflamed eyes, he continued working throughout the remainder of the recovery operation. On the thirty-three hour trip to port his presence was invaluable in spreading comfort and cheer to the other soldiers. He cooperated to the fullest extent with the ship’s officer in administering to the group’s needs.

A complete accounting of how all men were rescued is not known, other than:

  • 18 officers and 47 enlisted men were rescued by the Edwin T. Meredith
  • 20 men rescued by the PBM, including Tom Hartley, Bernard J. Bettaso, and Ernest W. Miller, the last man pulled aboard.

As mentioned previously, 65 men from the 1st arrived in Noumea aboard the Edwin T. Meredith on November 16th. The balance of the survivors were first taken to Suva, Fiji, then taken to Noumea on November 28th aboard a transport (with the exception of 8 men still too injured to move). The reunited squadron embarked December 2nd on the USAT Willard A. Holbrook, sailed December 4th, and arrived safely in Brisbane, Australia on December 7th. They spent several months in Brisbane getting reorganized, replacements and re-equipped (all their specialized equipment was lost in the sinking).

The squadron would go on to serve in the following actions/campaigns:

  • Hollandia
  • Wakde
  • Gusap
  • Leyte
  • Mindoro
  • Lingayen
  • Lao

Chester Driest

Of course no discussion of the 1st Fighter Control Squadron would be complete without mentioning Chester Driest. Driest was a 23-year-old Sergeant in the 1st Fighter at the time of the attack. He was eventually rescued by the YMS-241 about 36 hours after abandoning ship. Most of this time was spent alone with nothing but his life jacket for support. He described his rescue as follows: “As this vessel came near me and I looked up at the bow, there stood two U.S. Navy sailors with their rifles – shooting into the water at the sharks that were swimming around me. At this same moment two other sailors dove into the water beside me, swam over to me with a rope. They placed it under my arms and told me to hang on and others on deck would pull me up.

The day before, Driest was less than a half mile from the PBM and had tried to get their attention. He had a front row seat to their scary take off. He would later write to Bill Moss: “I want you to know that the heroic and excellent flying under those impossible conditions will long be remembered. I shall always remember the sick feeling in my stomach when I saw you almost crash as the plane struck the wave during one of the take-off attempts. Even though I was there all alone; not too far from death’s door, just seeing your plane lift into the air with some of our men on board, gave me a sense of happiness knowing that somehow-someway I would be rescued.

He spent many years after the war painstakingly and relentlessly collecting information about the attack. He was not only the most active in research, but organizing reunions, and keeping people connected. He found Moss through his son’s father-in-law who was a pilot for Pan Am as well. Coincidentally, Driest worked for a company called Gable’s Engineering as Quality Control Director, and they developed and manufactured many of the radio control panels and equipment used by Boeing and Pan American.

Driest would eventually compile over 250 pages of this information into a book of sorts (never formally published) in 1995, which he titled: “FROM L.A. TO LUZON – with a slight pause off Fiji, The story of the First Fighter Control Squadron in World War II, as told by official military records.” He distributed this book to all the men and families of his unit that he could locate.

The information he compiled was not only invaluable to telling the story of the 1st Fighter Control Squadron, but the story of the Cape San Juan’s loss itself.

If you are a former member of the 1st Fighter Control Squadron, a family member of one, or just interested in this particular unit, I highly recommend you get a copy of Chester's work. It is much more comprehensive than I am able to go into on this website and offers many photos of the men who served. It is large format (8-1/2" x 11") and about an inch thick. His daughter Edie copies and assembles them one by one, on-demand and charges a fee of $50.00 (at the time of this update). If you reach out to me through the contacts link in the upper left menu, I will pass along your contact info to Edie so she can complete the transaction.

Also recommended is Tom Gauthier's 'THE SAGA OF THE 1ST FIGHTER CONTROL SQUADRON - Memories of Our History' (2015 ToMar Associates Publishing, ISBN-13: 9780692432709, ISBN-10: 0692432701). The book summarizes all the 1st Fighter Control Squadron information contained in Driest's book in a more compact paperbook format. The book may be purchased through Amazon, or other major book sellers.

Chester Driest passed away in 1999 in Florida at the age of 78.


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Sources

Most of the information on the Cape San Juan itself came from Chester Driest via Tom Gauthier initially, and then from the Driest family directly.

  • Interview of Chester W. Driest, 1st Fighter Control Squadron, US Army, rescued by YMS-241. Date unknown.
  • Interview conducted by Robin Sellers, Ph.D., with James J. Reed and Chet Driest, April 30, 1998. Reichelt Oral History Program, World War II collection, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida.

Finally, there were a few sources I found that provided some additional info:

  • American Battle Monuments Commission website for information on Cape San Juan casualties.
  • Driest, Barbara and Edie for information and photos of Chester Driest.
  • Wikipedia free on-line encyclopedia for summaries on miscellaneous topics related to this story.
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