On the unusually spring-like day of 1 March 1945, Rhoda Cutler Cahoon was working on a window display at Auerbach’s Department Store in Salt Lake City and chatting with co-workers. The mood had been cheerful when, out of nowhere, a “dark feeling” came over her, and she felt that something was wrong. After a few moments the feeling left, and she went about her work.
On that same day, halfway around the world, the log of the USS Essex (CV-9) noted: “Operating in TG 58.3 about 75 miles SE of Okinawa Jima, launching strikes against enemy installations on Okinawa Jima.” During World War II, the U.S. pre-invasion of Okinawa began with a total of 670 aircraft making several bombing sweeps over the island throughout 1 March. These missions knocked out airfields and destroyed Japanese ships in the area and acquired much-needed photographs for those planning the main invasion. Reports noted that antiaircraft fire in some parts of the island was so light that the planes’ first pass was “strictly on the house.”
The tactical organization of one specific strike included Lieutenant (junior grade) Douglas Raymond Cahoon. The strike group approached Okinawa from the south, with a final approach made toward Naha Airfield from the east at 0836. Following the bombing and rocket attacks, 16 fighters made three strafing attacks on aircraft, buildings, openly parked planes, and antiaircraft emplacements. The attacks ignited two aircraft in revetments, which resulted in their destruction. Two groups of aircraft parked near the east-central part of the airfield were strafed heavily, and the pilots thought that at least six of the planes were damaged severely.
A fellow pilot described the conditions:
The sky over Naha seemed to have equal proportions of air and lead. It was far worse than Tokyo itself, which we had repeatedly hit only a few days before. My plane was hit several times, and a very few of our aircraft escaped without receiving additional ventilation.
It was the last strafing run of the day for VF-4, and ironically, it was to have been the squadron’s final combat mission before returning home to the United States. When the group rendezvoused west of the airfield over the sea, Cahoon did not show. The strike group returned to the Essex at 1030, and a special search was organized and expedited. But all was in vain. VF-4 had lost another seasoned veteran; the world had lost a talented artist.
On his 13th birthday, in the midst of the Great Depression, Doug Cahoon received an inexpensive set of oil paints that changed his life. He began painting immediately and later took art classes in junior and senior high school. In fall 1939, he entered the University of Utah, where he attended three terms. In 1941, despite the realities and implications of the Selective Training and Service Act, Doug enrolled in the renowned Los Angeles Art Center School in California. Bolstered by support from his parents, who cashed in an insurance policy to help clear the financial hurdle, he took night classes and worked during the day as a movie theater usher. Upon his return home, Doug put his recently acquired knowledge to work as a commercial artist for the Theatre Display Company.
The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reduced the draft law minimum age quickly to 20 years old, and Doug decided it was time to make a decision. In May 1942, at age 20, he enlisted for four years in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He met all V-5 qualifications to enter Naval Aviation Flight Training, and in less than a month, on 25 June, he began the naval aviation pre-flight school at St. Mary’s College, California.
Upon completion of pre-flight, Doug was transferred to Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Oakland, California, for primary flight training. Within two weeks, he was flying solo. He also put his artistic skills to work as art director for a Navy journal. By 19 December, he completed primary flight training three weeks ahead of schedule and noted that his commander “seemed to be rather proud.” As a result, Doug received notification of his transfer to the Intermediate Training Center at Corpus Christi, Texas. By 13 April 1943 Cahoon had become an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
He then went on to Jacksonville, Florida, where he trained in dive-bombing and later became an instructor of dive-bomber pilots. In June 1943, he left for carrier qualification training in Glenview, Illinois, where he practiced landings on the USS Wolverine (IX-31), a converted paddle steamer on Lake Michigan. Following a busy week of training, he rushed home to be with family and friends.
There, Doug began dating Rhoda Cutler, and a long-distance relationship was born. Late in August 1943, Doug proposed marriage to Rhoda over the telephone. Rhoda agreed to consider his proposal and told him she would let him know as soon as she had made up her mind. The next day, she recorded in her diary, “so excited, hardly slept all night.” That night, Doug wrote:
I believe we could be so very happy together. They say, the first year is the hardest. But, we’d make the first wonderful, and every year after better, and maybe someday we could start a football team. Now I’ll slowly go crazy waiting for you to call, my fingernails are going to take a beating. . . .
A few days later, after no word from Rhoda, Doug wrote, “I have just finished my fingernails off and am starting on my hair now. If I don’t hear from you soon I’ll be bald.” Included with the letter was a self-portrait as a “bald” man. Finally, Rhoda wrote that she hadn’t “decided definitely, but almost tho!” which amused him.
By April 1944, Doug was again at home in Salt Lake City for a few days, and he saw Rhoda almost daily. She confided in her diary, “he looks wonderful, he’s neat, really had fun, he is going to make me a charter member of his family, he’s wonderful, mad about him today.”
Following his short leave, Cahoon flew back to Jacksonville and was given a new assignment to join Bombing Squadron Four (VB-4), also known as the “Tophatters.” He then traveled to Rhode Island just long enough to pick up a plane and head to Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Officials in Washington had learned that Fort Devens airfield was too small for Army pilots to land and sent naval aviators to keep the field in use. Doug wrote to Rhoda: “We’re flying the newest dive-bombers and they are really nice.” By 9 May 1944, Rhoda had received yet another letter from Doug, which included the usual prodding for marriage. That night, Rhoda talked with her parents and made the decision to marry. After a sleepless night, she tried the next day to call Doug, but she did not manage to reach him until two days later. They decided to marry. Doug was elated, after spending well more than a year begging for her hand.
On 5 June 1944, Doug and Rhoda were married at Fort Devens. Following their honeymoon, on 23 June Doug received orders to report to Naval Air Station, San Diego, California. On 8 July Doug left Salt Lake City—for the last time. After learning that he would be in San Diego for a few days, Doug called Rhoda and asked her to join him. She flew out early the next morning and spent every moment possible with her husband. Later, Doug reflected in a letter to Rhoda his perspective on their separation:
I sure wasn’t feeling so very happy. I never hated to leave anybody so bad in my life. I’ll always remember you there in the room, and me waiting until the very last minute to say goodbye. Leaving you was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do! It’s a good thing I left when I did or your big navy pilot would have been shedding a few tears!
Upon leaving California, Cahoon boarded the USS Barnes (CVE-20) enroute to Hawaii. In Hilo, he flew almost every day and many times twice a day. William Weldon, a VF-4 pilot, remembered Doug because he was “not only a nice guy, but instead of going over to the bar and getting drunk, he stayed in his room to sketch.”
Cahoon set a goal of completing 50 “sketches” before his tour of duty was over and was determined to “knock out” as many as possible. Toward the end of July 1944, he received a disheartening letter informing him that Dave Bishop, one of his closest friends from training days, was missing in action. Less than a month later, he learned also that his best friend in high school, Lieutenant Elwin “Moose” Vogeler, had been added to the ever-growing list of MIAs. Doug expressed to Rhoda that the news, “sure was a kick in the wrong place. He was gone for such a short while. I can’t understand why it is happening to all my friends.” But he assured his new bride:
If I turn up missing, Darling, don’t you for a minute worry about me! I’ll be back soon! Darling, if it should ever happen that I turn up missing sometime I want you to remember that if I’m missing, I’m alive and thinking of you. And I’ll turn-up eventually and we can work out our plans for the future as usual! If there are times when you don’t hear from me for awhile. Don’t get worried at all, cause I’m still in good shape and missing you all the more.
Also at Hilo, Cahoon was moved from VB-4 to the VF- 4 squadron, known as the “Red Rippers,” one of the oldest fighter squadrons in the Navy. He always had dreamed of being a fighter pilot and considered it an honor. He also believed that the transfer gave him a better chance of returning home alive.
Hawaii’s unpredictable weather and several night flights provided Cahoon with excellent training. Like many others, the closer Cahoon came to combat, the more interested in his faith he became. His religious beliefs made an impression on many of his fellow pilots. One observed: “With Doug, I feel religion may have been the dominating factor. Doug was unassuming; thereby, didn’t leave a train of escapades, etc. This is to his credit.” Another fellow pilot remembered:
Doug never joined in any of the wild parties some of the pilots threw when ashore, nor did he participate in the gambling sessions that went on in the wardroom. He just quietly painted. He and I were quite close probably due to a seldom discussed religious understanding. I’ve often thought that his ‘inner strength’ I spoke of came from his Mormon background. Aboard Bunker Hill [CV-17] and Essex, I think it was probably this close encounter of religious beliefs that was responsible for the closeness of the friendship Doug and 1 enjoyed. He and I often discussed human values when the other pilots were carousing or gaming, but never once did he try to ‘recruit’ me, nor I him. I think we touched hands over two sides of the same fence.
Cahoon eventually left for Saipan, where he boarded the Bunker Hill for Ulithi. On Sunday, 5 November 1944, the carrier log states that it was “underway for the Philippines.” Doug was not assigned to fly on the first strike, but soon he participated in his share of combat missions. He had written to his parents, expressing his abhorrence at the thought of killing another human being, and that if he had to shoot, which he knew was unavoidable, he would aim for the fuel tank.
After almost three weeks on the Bunker Hill, he transferred to the Essex. Overall, Cahoon complained that the food was terrible, and wrote that when he returned home he never wanted to see tongue or Spam at his dinner table. He was happy, though, to be assigned to room with his good friend, “Dusty” Rhodes.
As Cahoon became better- known for his artwork, the Navy used his talent whenever needed. He spent one day “doing a lot of lettering with yellow paint for the Ready Room Boards,” while he also spent time painting the squadron insignia on F6F Hellcats.
In November 1944 air attacks were supporting Army General Douglas MacArthur’s recapture of the Philippines. More specifically, they were to prevent the Japanese from building any additional fortifications on the island. On 25 November, the Essex was about 100 miles east of Luzon. Doug and Lieutenant “Windy” Shields left the Essex at 0630, assigned to fly over the Subic Bay area of Luzon.
The morning was sunny with clear skies and visibility at 40 miles. After an uneventful morning of patrol over Clark Field, Doug and Windy finally were relieved. At 0900, they headed back to the Essex. They were at about 10,000 feet when Doug sighted a bogey at 8,000 feet, heading in the opposite direction. Windy had not yet sighted the plane and told Doug to investigate; he (Shields) would follow. While descending to 8,000 feet, Windy sighted six Japanese Tonys above them on an opposite course at 13,000 feet. Windy immediately told Doug of the Tonys located above them, but Doug did not receive the transmission and had just engaged the bogey, taking pursuit. As the Tony moved into position at 7 o’clock above him, Doug fired his machine guns, hitting the Tony just behind the cockpit on the undercarriage.
In the meantime, three Tonys dived down from above, toward Doug and Windy. One flew past Windy and was firing on Doug’s tail. The other two enemy fighters stayed astern of Windy and fired on him. Windy pursued the Tony on Doug’s tail and fired, causing it to break off. As it attempted to get away, Windy destroyed it with bursts of gunfire. Doug and Windy began the fighter weave as they climbed to 13,000 feet and headed toward their ship. They were “harassed” by the two Tonys until they reached the east coast of Luzon, at which point the enemy planes broke off and disappeared. Doug and Windy landed safely back on the Essex at 1045, 1,635 rounds of ammunition lighter.
Doug’s letter to his wife on 25 November was understandably short. Censors would not allow him to tell of the flight he had just experienced and how he felt after his encounter with the enemy. His spirits definitely were low, as he told Rhoda: “One month from today will be X-mas. It doesn’t mean a heck of a lot to me this year, while it should mean everything. Days are just parts of time that someday will lead to you.”
About two hours after Doug landed, two kamikazes dived on the Essex. Gunners shot one down, but the ship was hit by the another. Of this disaster, the official Essex log recorded: “1256—Essex hit on port edge of the flight deck at frames 69- 70 by a Japanese suicide torpedo aircraft [Judy]. 1326—Flight operations were resumed.” In the attack, 8 men were killed, 44 wounded or injured, and 6 others listed as missing. The fire caused by the Judy burned Admiral Frederick Sherman’s cabin and destroyed a Grumman Avenger (TBF). The Essex’s five-inch guns also damaged several Curtiss Hell- divers (SB2Cs). Even with all this disruption, the crew still was able to continue flight operations within 30 minutes.
After a couple of weeks at Ulithi, the Essex joined two other Task Groups that formed Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s powerful Third Fleet. The Essex log for Sunday, 17 December 1944 reads: “set course to westward to escape an approaching typhoon.” By mid-afternoon most of the crewmen were convinced that they were within the path of a developing tropical storm. The Essex log recorded on the morning of 18 December: “riding out a second typhoon, which appeared 250 miles to the SE in area about 250 miles E of the Central Philippines.”
The entire task force felt the brunt of this typhoon. Its 70-foot waves smashed the ships from all sides; the damage was devastating. Three destroyers were lost, and three light carriers, two escort carriers, three other destroyers, and one cruiser received major structural damage. Either damaged or lost were 146 airplanes.
Following the typhoon, a search was launched for straggling ships and survivors of ships that had foundered during the storm. Cahoon spent several hours in flight looking for signs of life in the sea. Out of nearly 900 men lost in the storm, only 98 were recovered. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz summed up the great loss by stating it was “a more crippling blow to the Third Fleet than might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action.”
In January 1945, Doug started another sketch but told Rhoda that he was not pleased with it: “it wasn’t so good! Guess I’d better stick to just flying, and loving you.” Not everyone agreed with Doug’s assessment of his paintings. One fellow pilot recalled, “his paintings expressed vividly many of the encounters we experienced.”
At the beginning of 1945, Admiral Halsey finally received permission to move the task force into the South China Sea. After dark on 9 January, TF-38 moved into the South China Sea, an extremely high-risk move. He was searching for a major part of the Japanese fleet that had survived Leyte Gulf, especially the converted battleships Ise and Hyuga.
On 12 January the Task Force launched a naval air strike against French Indo-China, later known as South Vietnam. The combined effect of the attacks was devastating. When the Essex’s planes retired, all ships had been sunk or beached. But with all the success, they still did not locate the Japanese battleships that Halsey had hoped to find and destroy.
By mid January 1945, Cahoon was feeling a bit homesick and tired of the war. He wrote to his sweetheart:
Gosh Darling, I miss you so very much. I wish this Damn war would end. I want to be with you every minute forever. We sure are going to have lots of fun together. We’ll probably have lots of kids too. Hope we have a couple of boys and one cute little blonde girl.
In another letter he wrote: “I’m getting pretty tired of this war!” One night, Doug was on the flight deck looking at the moon and wrote:
I’m so thankful that we did get married cause I could never love anyone else as much as I love you. . . . These last six and a half months have been a lot easier than I thought they would be. Your letters and pictures have kept you close to me. I was just wondering if I had changed any. A person has an awful tendency to get hard towards things that don’t directly pertain to the war. Now and then I find my thoughts being selfish and sometimes rebellious towards that, that I should know is right. Being married to you has helped me a lot. Life is a lot more stable with something so tangible as our future. ... I pray every night that we will he together soon.
In his logbook for 16 February, Cahoon penned one word: “Tokyo.” The previous night he had written to Rhoda: “Any prayers that you might have said are going to come in plenty handy tomorrow. Honey, I’m gonna say an extra one tonight. The next two days are going to be pretty rough. But I don’t think you need to worry.” The following morning, Cahoon left the Essex at 1030 and returned by 1430. Later that day, Cahoon’s closest friend, “Dusty” Rhodes, was listed as missing in action.
Following the surprise strike on Tokyo, orders were given to head south to offer support for I wo Jima. Cahoon mentioned that the Japanese had harassed them a little at night, and many times he went out on the forecastle to watch the “fireworks.” He also simply and sadly wrote home, “Sure is hard to take sometimes. If they don’t relieve us pretty soon I’m liable to be losing some marbles along with the rest of them!”
His 1945 New Year’s Resolution— which Doug recorded for Rhoda— was: “I promise to be a good, faithful, and not too boring husband. I’ve also resolved to come back to you in one healthy piece. Hope the Japs will oblige.” Tragically, circumstances did not oblige. In the last letter to his wife, he wrote:
Well Honey, can’t think of any more news to tell you. I miss you so much, but I know that isn’t going to get me home any sooner, so I’m just waiting and loving you more each day. Good night Angel. Forever yours, Doug.