The Death of an Avenger
“The world is not pretty,” he said. “It's only the hard work of some people that makes it so. Remember that, Nellie."
~ James Michener, Tales of the South Pacific, 1947
|Emblem of the 5th Amphibious Corps of the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet, late 1944 or early 1945.|
Collection of the author.
|A TBM Avenger preparing to lower her wings and launch from the|
U.S.S. Rudyerd Bay (CVE-81), somewhere in the Pacific, 1945
Aboard each of the “Rudy's” Avengers was a crew of three flying sailors----a naval aviator and commissioned officer who piloted the airplane, and two enlisted men----a radioman, and a ball turret gunner. On this particular day each airplane also carried a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, observers of the 5th Amphibious Corps, riding along in improvised seats between pilot and the rearward facing turret gunner and whose jobs it would be to provide coordination between the Marines who would emerge from the sea to assault the island and the great flocks of U.S. Navy airplanes overhead who stood by ready to support them by bombing and strafing their enemy.
|TBM Avenger #22 of Composite Squadron Seventy Seven (VC-77) |
prepares to launch from the catapult of the U.S.S. Rudyerd Bay, 1945
|LCDR Frank J. Peterson, USN and CO of VC-77|
Sitting directly behind him in the improvised observers seat was Marine Corps Major Raymond Dollins of Virginia. Attached to the 5th Marine Division, Major Dollins was to serve as the Chief Aerial Observer of the invasion forces. He was twenty-eight years old, married and a graduate of the the Virginia Military Institute, having received his commission in the Marine Corps in 1939.
|United States Marine Corps Major Raymond Dollins|
Below Major Dollins within the fuselage belly of the Avenger and manning the radios was twenty-six year old Aviation Radioman 1st Class Merlan Emberson of Monrovia, California. Emberson had joined the Navy six months before war had come to American and had previously served with a torpedo squadron assigned to the U.S.S. Enterprise. He was married and on this day had a twenty-month old daughter who he had last seen when she was just six weeks old.
|Aviation Radioman 1st Class, USN|
And finally, tucked into the small, cramped glass ball at the rear of the airplane and whose job it was to guard the Avenger from an attack from behind with his .50 machine gun was twenty-five year old Aviation Ordinanceman 1st Class Lambertus “Bert” Stoffels of Hynes (now Paramount), California who was flying his very first combat mission that morning.
At exactly 8:59am----one minute ahead of schedule----the first Marines landed upon the steaming, black sulfuric beaches and as their numbers began to swell, Japanese defenders emerged from their deep fortifications within the bowels of Mt. Suribachi to rain down a typhoon of terrible and murderous artillery and gunfire upon the amphibious American infantrymen exposed on the beaches below.
|Iwo Jima in the distance from the U.S.S. Rudyerd Bay, February 1945---note Mt. Suribachi to the left.|
Taking all that was occurring below him in as the island's defenses suddenly roared to life to meet and oppose the Marines and as the terrible battlefield began to take shape, Major Dollins broke the awe and tension of the moment by singing over the radio.....
Oh, what a beautiful mornin'
Oh, what a beautiful day
the words of a hit song from the hit Broadway show Oklahoma! still very fresh in American consciousness.....
I've got a beautiful feeling,
Everything's coming my way
At this last improvised lyric the radios crackled with laughter of the men in the other Avengers and the airplanes above as they all beheld bursts of anti-aircraft gunfire coming their way . . .
And then the Avenger exploded into a great ball of fire. It tumbled out of the sky into the ocean below one hundred yards from the base of Mt. Suribachi. Just fourteen minutes into the invasion. There were no survivors.
Major Dollins' body was recovered by the Marines in the days that followed. Commander Peterson's and Radioman 1st Class Merlan Emberson's remains were eventually recovered, too, but nothing was ever found of ball turret gunner Bert Stoffels. His mother never received anything of him to bury; there is no grave or tombstone with his name upon it in his hometown or in the national cemeteries-----he is just missing, still and officially to this day, and forever more, from the U.S.S. Rudyerd Bay. At the Courts of The Missing in Honolulu his name is carved upon a marble tablet, otherwise his brief life is unknown to all but his family.
|A tablet at the Courts of The Missing, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii with|
the name of Lambertus Stoffels and 18,094 others who are still missing in action in the Pacific from WWII
These are the sacrifices that have been made for us, to make our world pretty.
The Avengers torpedo bombers and Wildcat fighter planes of squadron VC-77 flew a total of sixty-four strike sorties against the enemy on Iwo Jima on that day.
My grandfather, Tommy Kennard, a sailor aboard the U.S.S. Rudyerd Bay, was there.
Oh, what a beautiful day...
19 February 2020