Gen. George Clifton Axtell
World War II Flying Ace
George C. Axtell, Jr.
USMC file photo - used in both Collier's and the 1945 Axtell Genealogy
From Collier's, August 18, 1945, page 8.
[Webkeeper's note: Japan surrendered on Aug 14, 1945, 5 days after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. This article was written before then, while Japan was still seen as a threat to the USA. Clearly, this is wartime writing and not intended to be an unbiased report.]
OKINAWA;- Somehow, by great good luck, or sharper eyesight, or a fraction better gunnery, or a certain eagerness which they derive from their skipper, the Marine fighter pilots in Major George C. Axtell's Death Rattlers squadron found Okinawa a hunting ground so flush with bogies they rolled up a total of 124 1/2 Jap planes in less than two months without losing one of their own in aerial combat, to set a new record for Marine land-based outfits in the Pacific.
There is nothing much about them to set them apart. They are cut from the same pattern as all the other fighter pilots out here in the Pacific. They are tall and short, thin and stout, quiet and boisterous, easy-going and moody, like all the rest.
Like Captain JoJo MacPhail of Tyler, Texas, who, when he flames a Jap, gets so excited he cannot talk, but goes "yup, yup, yup," into his radio; and later does a war dance on the ground, making with his hands this way and that, like planes in flight, as he explains how the deed was done. And Lieutenant Harold Tonnessen, the tall Norwegian from Brooklyn, whose musings on the fragile curtain that separates life from death in the air have stirred in him two desires--one to paint some day the splendor of sky and sea and sun in which he daily works, and to unravel, from study of the Bible, why, in theses incredible machines, amid all this beauty, men should destroy one another.
Or Lieutenant Mindy Muse, of Wakefield, Massachusetts, who leaps from his sack in wild alarm when the bombers come over at night and the guns open up, diving into his foxhole for fear he will be struck on the skull by falling flak. But who sends his Corsair roaring right into the teeth of this flak in the daytime, when he is on the tail of a bogey that is diving for a ship.
And Lieutenant Smoky Tover, of Hamburg Arkansas, who looks like a little boy in the cockpit of the Corsair and can be heard at all times complaining bitterly on the air that in his position as Tail-end Charley of his division he always comes roaring in with throttle jammed to the fire wall just as the last bogey goes smoking into the sea.
Or Lieutenant Moose Martin, of Walla Walla, Washington, who chose for his first kill a Tojo fighter which was shepherding a covey of Val dive bombers and later was unhappy that it took him so long to down this tough, canny Nip fighter because his division mates, Lieutenants Harry Crawley of Seattle and Big Ed Keeley of Monterey, California, knocked off all the Vals, eight in number, before he could get his share.
Or Lieutenant Dewey Durnford, of Columbus, Ohio, who, once upon a busy afternoon splashed two Jap Betty twin-engine bombers, and saw, when his guns raked the flanks of one of them, a small stub-winged robot rocket plane, containing an unhappy Kamikaze pilot, drop from her belly. Which startled him so that he shouted into his microphone: "Look you guys, that Betty was carrying a papoose."
Then there are the aces, the boys who hit it lucky and got there when the shooting was good to knock down their five planes, some in the space of a half-hour's fighting. Tall, quick-smiling Jerry O'Keefe, of Biloxi, Mississippi, who never has much to say, even when there are bogies everywhere and the pack is in full cry, but who splashed seven of them to lead the Second Wing in planes shot down during the first month of fighting.
Tousle-haired, smiling Major Jeff Dorah, of Hood River, Oregon, the squadron operations officer, known as The Whip, a god enough Joe when all goes well, but with a tongue that cuts like a knife when he is displeased about something, like a sloppy landing or a fouled-up bombing run. He got his six in twenty-five minutes during on magnificent turkey shoot.
The bogey-busting twins, who have flown together since flight school, Lieutenants Bucko Wade of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and L. W. "Gruesome" Ruhsam, of Albert Lea, Minnesota, who fly in the same division now and fight as a team. They've got 13 between them, 6 1/2 apiece.
And Wild Bill Hood, of Benton Harbor, Michigan, a chubby character with 5 1/2 planes to his credit who loves so well to kick a Corsair around, whether there are any bogies about or not, that he'd fly on every combat patrol if the flight officer would let him. And Joe Dillard, of Midland, Texas, with 5 1/2, who can take your eyeteeth in a poker game, and Lieutenant "Hots" Terrill, of Puyallup, Washington, who looks half asleep all the time, but who has splashed 5 1/2 suiciders with gunnery as precise as his putting used to be back in the days when he was an amateur golf champion.
And last the Skipper himself, 24-year-old George C. Axtell, Jr., of Baden, Pennsylvania, with 6 planes, a pilot of magnificent precision, and a disciplinarian as cold, tough and impersonal, when necessary, as an old-line company major, despite his youth.
And it may be in the temperament and the personality of their skipper, whom the boys call the "Big Ax," that the secret of their success can be found.
For it was he who took them, nearly two years ago, a jumbled collection of dive-bomber, patrol and scout-plane pilots, and checked them out in the Corsair and made them fly it the way he wanted it flown, which was with his own beautiful mechanical precision in routine flight and with the headlong dash of a startled comet in combat.
It was not an easy job for any of them, for the process was painful and long and grueling, and the days of training ran from 7 in the morning until 10 at night. But they learned all the whims and tricks of the huge, long-nosed, humpbacked, stub-tailed, crooked-winged, spraddled-legged Corsair, which could kill a man quick who didn’t know how to handle it. And they learned gunnery, in long, long hours of practice at it, which is standing them in good stead now when somebody yells “Tallyho” and the sky is full of bogies everywhere you look. They learned navigation in long cross-country flights that left their posteriors paralyzed. They became experts in instrument flying, a subject that the “Big Ax” taught for months at Pensacola. So now they wander around in dense soup that reaches from 2,000 feet to 25,000, flying straight and level.
George Axtell was young, as young as they, and he knew that to do his job, he had somehow to make them forget his age. So he built up a wall between them and himself, and was reserved and impersonal and always “The Major,” even to the senior officers, the captains and majors among them.
He was tough, and he had no patience with errors while in training. He gave them ten days unofficial arrest for such misfortunes as getting lost on a navigation hop. A joyous slow roll in a join-up cost them five days. Flathatting, a manifestation of exuberant animal spirits consisting of swooping down low on the ground and frightening agriculturists out of their wits, cost them five days and a terrific chewing. I f they wanted acrobatics they could get plenty, during prescribed periods. He sent them down on the line to work with the mechs, so they would know their planes inside and out. He flew them day and night, in every kind of weather. Flight discipline was iron fisted, and ground discipline was the discipline of a Marine line company.
He knew what was gong on in every department and, by sitting up at night studying every phase of combat aviation, he kept abreast of all new things in engineering, radio, ordnance, gunnery, tactics. He made his department heads read these publications too, and if they didn’t, there was hell to pay. He even broke the mess officer, Lieutenant sol Mayer, a wonderful provider, but no bookkeeper, of the habit of keeping his records in his pants picket and then throwing the pants away.
He kept them wound up tight as an eight-day clock, so long as they were in training, stateside. Then, when they were ready, hot and eager and masters of their trade, he brought them overseas. At Espiritu, Manus and Peleliu, where they fretted and chafed to go into action, he relaxed the iron hand a little, flying them just enough to keep them sharp.
Then they came into Okinawa, where the bogies were thick as flies, and the Kamikazes started dropping, like ducks in a shooting gallery, into the China Sea. They have now returned home for a well-earned rest.Lieutenant Harold H. Martin, USMC
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Page last revised 11 May 2003 by Dan Axtell