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An Incredible Story From The Youngest Navy Pilot to Ever Earn Their Wings

On January 12, 1945 United States Task Force 38 eliminated 41 Japanese ships in the South China Sea. One of the many squadrons involved in the conflict was “Bombing Eighty” launching from the USS Ticonderoga. That day, U.S. Navy Capt. Charles S. “Chuck” Downey and Aviation Radioman 3rd Class Larry George were paired in manning a SB2C Helldiver. Often referred to as “the Beast” or “Son of a Bitch 2nd Class” the Helldiver was a late war dive bomber, sharing some similarities with its popular predecessor the SBD Dauntless. However, despite the Helldiver being more difficult to pilot than the Dauntless, the SB2C was significantly faster, and could carry a heavier payload while taking immense amounts of damage.

An advantage to which Capt. Charles S. “Chuck” Downey would soon credit his life.

During the battle, Downey and George engaged a Japanese destroyer (name unknown) at the inlet of the Saigon River. Following his leading plane, they quickly closed the distance to ensure an accurate attack. Downey released his bomb only to feel a sudden intense impact as the plane in front of him exploded.

“Small debris entered my engine cylinder area, causing oil to leak on the hot exhaust system, misting up the windshield and causing white vapor along the fuselage sides.” – U.S. Navy Capt. Charles S. “Chuck” Downey.

After a difficult pull-out in their badly damaged plane, Downey soon realized he would not be able to make the rescue route flight back to the Ticonderoga and would have to attempt to make his own way without the aid of allied rescue submarines awaiting crashed aircraft. After notifying George of their situation, Downey knew it would take a miracle for the two of them to make it back, and to make matters worse they’d both run out of cigarettes.

Unknown to either Downey or George at the time, their maintainer, Aviation Mechanics Mate 1st Class Charles “Chuck” Large, had found a way to fit nearly 20 gallons of oil into the plane’s 16 gallon oil tank after considering with other maintainers that a damaged Helldiver would leak oil in combat. A decision that most certainly saved the duo from a watery crash-landing.

Finally nearing the end of their 2.5 hour trek back to the Ticonderoga, Downey received word that the ship’s landing deck was crowded with spotter planes preparing for another attack and had to land aboard the USS Essex instead. Finally able to rest, both Downey and George looked at their tattered aircraft with admiration, thankful to have had the “Son of a Bitch 2nd Class” come through when it mattered most.

The youngest person ever to receive their Navy wings, Downey was also awarded the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross and completed his service in WWII flying Helldivers from the USS Hancock. He then served in the Naval Reserve until his retirement in 1975. He died in 2016.

All information in this article was incorporated from The Youngest Naval Aviator in WWII?? and The SB2C Helldiver Was a Tough Bird: Remembered First Hand.

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