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04-02-2017, 01:56 PM

A Time for Courage
6.5 x 10.5 in., graphite on toned paper
Collection of Steve Chapman

Naval Aviator Ensign Byron M. “By” Johnson drank in the sunshine as he and a few squadron mates circled high over the Task Force. The surface wind was strong but steady, making visible whitecaps in the beautiful but completely unforgiving Pacific Ocean below. Canopies locked back, the 160-knot slipstream howled around their cockpits and whipped at their sleeves. The feeling of being on top of the world was exhilarating ...

By dipped a wing and looked down at his aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. The mighty vessel, dubbed the "Big E" by her crews and destined to be the single most decorated of all American warships in World War II with 20 Battle Stars, was in her full battle dress of muted dark paint. A massive ship over 800 feet long, she seemed unusually small when viewed from altitude - knowing you're going to have to land your fighter plane on that deck always did seem to shrink it!

The young officer was indeed a world away from his hometown of Potter, Nebraska, but the Nebraska Wesleyan alum and his comrades had earned their place at the tip of the spear. A pilot with VF-2, the “Rippers,” flying the new Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat, Johnson and his squadron had proven themselves during recent exercises to none other than Enterprise's Air Group commander, Lieutenant Commander Edward H. 'Butch' O'Hare, the legendary ace who was later the namesake of O'Hare International airport. O'Hare was so impressed with the Rippers that he replaced his own fighter squadron with VF-2 for the Big E's support role in the coming US Army invasion of Makin Atoll.

The pilots were looking forward to combat soon, but today, Wednesday, November 10, 1943, Johnson was airborne over the Enterprise as part of the constant, almost boring, daylight Combat Air Patrol as the carrier and her task force steamed quickly towards the Gilberts operation.

Without warning, his F6F felt and sounded like it was about to come apart. The powerful 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine started surging and cutting out, and the throttle wasn’t responding properly. It was time to land, either on the carrier itself, hopefully, or in the water beside it to be picked up by one of the smaller ships in the armada — always a dangerous proposition at best.

Cleared for an emergency approach, Johnson’s engine “… was fluctuating so much that my carrier approach was bad and when I touched down [off-center and smashing his left wingtip into the deck], I caught the first wire, and it slung me over into the guns on the port side.”

When Johnson’s F6F came to an abrupt halt after impacting the gallery of 20mm defensive guns, the engine nearly tore itself from it’s mounts sitting in place vibrating violently as the propeller loudly slapped the deck and guns and bent itself into a crazy shape, sending sparks flying. The 150-gallon fuselage centerline “drop” tank had ruptured against the deck, spilling high octane aviation gasoline all around the Hellcat. Within seconds sparks from the propeller ignited the fuel in a huge “whoosh!” Fire was and is the worst nightmare in carrier operations, but one that is constantly trained for.

In the cockpit, Johnson was dazed but aware of his surroundings. A burning, pungent aroma quickly filled his nostrils. His training kicked in and every fiber of his being was screaming, “Get out - Now!”

But he was trapped!

It was standard carrier procedure at the time to always take off and land with the fighter’s sliding canopy back and locked in case the pilot needed to escape quickly. Johnson’s canopy was back for the landing per the checklist, but his fighter had hit the battery of guns so hard that the canopy “… slid forward and sheared off the safety pin, so I couldn't get out!”

Lieutenant Walter F. Chewning, Jr., a 1936 Cornell mechanical engineering graduate and the Enterprise’s new catapult officer, happened to be in the catwalk near the aft landing area when the crippled Hellcat approached the ship. He watched as it lurched over directly towards him and ducked as it literally rolled over his position in the catwalk before crashing into the guns just forward of where he was.

Before his mind could even process what he had just seen, Chewning found himself the closest person to a crashed Hellcat spilling fuel all over the place. He leapt out of the catwalk and onto the deck, giving the F6F a wide berth as he sprinted around behind the plane to see about the pilot. Good thing, because fuel from the ruptured drop tank ignited and exploded just as Chewning rounded the tail area, barely missing him with a spray of burning fuel. Scanning the cockpit area, Chewning noticed the canopy was closed and the pilot appeared to be struggling to get out.

With complete disregard for his own safety, Chewning ran around the right wing and stepped up on the burning fuel tank and then onto the wing. That moment was captured by an anonymous US Navy photographer and is the basis for this vignette drawing. Chewning forced the jammed canopy open and pulled Johnson to safety, without a doubt saving the pilot's life. The fire was quickly extinguished and the command decision was made to push the wreck over the side so that landing operations could continue as soon as possible. In fact, one of Johnson's fellow Hellcat pilots was forced to ditch close to the carrier due to fuel starvation while waiting for the deck to clear. The pilot was rescued.

Byron Johnson escaped with only minor injuries and went on to become an ace with eight aerial victories during a couple of 1944 campaigns. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals and other honors during his combat career. After the war, By Johnson became a prominent attorney and raised a family in Nebraska. He died in 2005. Walter Chewning was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal for his selfless act of courage that day. After the military he had a successful career in the aerospace industry and passed away in 1990.

The crash sequence was filmed, as are all carrier takeoffs and landings to this day. A screenshot from a YouTube video is below. LT Chewning is clearly visible at far left running around the right side of the aircraft …


04-02-2017, 03:32 PM
great story and a fine drawing. Smoke and flames caught well .

04-02-2017, 04:00 PM
Know the sequence well, first saw it in a training film.
Excellent drawing.

04-02-2017, 07:23 PM
That's very good :thumbsup:

04-03-2017, 12:28 PM
Nice action piece! I like the man in the foreground, looking back. It pulls you into the central part of the picture. Very nice work.

04-03-2017, 04:08 PM
Thumbs up for this piece. Didn't know the story behind it, and it is compelling.

04-04-2017, 05:37 AM
Lovely delicate work with the graphite! Very fine indeed.