TFH 7/6: LCDR Bruce A. Van Voorhis, USN

Bruce Avery Van Voorhis was born on January 29, 1908 in Aberdeen, Washington and spent his childhood years in Nevada. He was appointed to the United States Naval Academy in 1925, and graduated with the class of 1929. His first assignment was to the USS Mississippi (BB-41), but he only spent about one year with the battleship before reporting to Naval Air Station Pensacola for training as a Naval Aviator.

After earning his “Wings of Gold” on September 3, 1931, Van Voorhis flew a variety of carrier-based and other aircraft, and served aboard and flew off off the USS Saratoga (CV-3), USS Ranger (CV-4), USS Yorktown (CV-5), and USS Enterprise (CV-6) before the United States entered World War II.

In December 1942, then Lieutenant Commander Van Voorhis took command of Patrol Squadron 14 (VP-14) in the Pacific. The squadron was equipped with the Consolidated PBY Catalina but switched to the Consolidated PB4Y-1 Liberator early in 1943 with the squadron’s redesignation as Bombing Squadron 102 (VB-102). Van Voorhis and his squadron flew their Naval versions of the Army Air Force’s B-24 to Guadalcanal and began executing scouting and bombing missions against the Japanese.

On July 6, 1943, Van Voorhis and the nine other men on his crew departed Guadalcanal for a 700-mile overwater flight to Kapingamarangi Atoll (also known as Greenwich Island) to determine what the enemy presence there was and attack what was found in the hopes of staving off Japanese counterattacks against the Allies’ northern flank as they advanced through the Solomon Islands. Over their target, the Navy fliers faced intense enemy opposition, but Van Voorhis and crew pressed their attack.

They succeeded in destroying the island’s radio station, antiaircraft gun emplacements, and multiple enemy aircraft. Because they had to fly so low to escape enemy fires, the plane couldn’t escape the blast of its own dropped bombs and plunged into the atoll’s lagoon, killing her crew. All the men aboard the PB4Y-1 received posthumous decorations. Eight of the ten crew members were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The co-pilot was awarded the Navy Cross. Van Voorhis, for his incredible tenacity in the attack and fighting spirit against insurmountable odds, received the Medal of Honor.

From Medal of Honor Citations from World War II (T-Z):

Medal of Honor ribbon (foreground); World War II Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon (background)
Medal of Honor ribbon (foreground); World War II Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon (background)

*VAN VOORHIS, BRUCE AVERY

Rank and organization: Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy. Born: 29 January 1908, Aberdeen, Wash. Appointed from: Nevada. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Squadron Commander of Bombing Squadron 102 and as Plane Commander of a PB4Y-1 Patrol Bomber operating against the enemy on Japanese-held Greenwich Island during the battle of the Solomon Islands, 6 July 1943. Fully aware of the limited chance of surviving an urgent mission, voluntarily undertaken to prevent a surprise Japanese attack against our forces, Lt. Comdr. Van Voorhis took off in total darkness on a perilous 700-mile flight without escort or support. Successful in reaching his objective despite treacherous and varying winds, low visibility and difficult terrain, he fought a lone but relentless battle under fierce antiaircraft fire and overwhelming aerial opposition. Forced lower and lower by pursuing planes, he coolly persisted in his mission of destruction. Abandoning all chance of a safe return he executed 6 bold ground-level attacks to demolish the enemy’s vital radio station, installations, antiaircraft guns and crews with bombs and machinegun fire, and to destroy 1 fighter plane in the air and 3 on the water. Caught in his own bomb blast, Lt. Comdr. Van Voorhis crashed into the lagoon off the beach, sacrificing himself in a single-handed fight against almost insuperable odds, to make a distinctive contribution to our continued offensive in driving the Japanese from the Solomons and, by his superb daring, courage and resoluteness of purpose, enhanced the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Van Voorhis and his crew received the decorations they deserved because of witness reports from natives on the island and Australian coast watchers in the vicinity. Without that information, the heroic crew’s actions would have been lost with the men and their plane. In addition to the Medal of Honor, Van Voorhis was also posthumously promoted to Commander.

After the war, the remains of the plane and the brave men who flew it were recovered and repatriated. AOM2 Donald B. Clogston rests at Golden Gate National Cemetery, ARM3 Richard W. Roscoe was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, AMM1 George C. Stephens lies in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and LTJG Jack O. Traub was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

The remains of the five other crew – AMM3 Frederick C. Barker, ACOM Charles D. Linzmeyer, AMM2 Charles A. Martinelli, LTJG Herschel A. Oelhert, ACRM John Renner – lie with that of their commanding officer and aircraft commander, CDR Bruce A. Van Voorhis, at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.

A cenotaph for Commander Van Voorhis also can be found at Arlington. On April 22, 1957, the United States Navy accepted into commission the Dealey-class destroyer escort USS Van Voorhis (DE-1028) at Philadelphia. Bruce Van Voorhis’ widow Kathryn was the ship’s sponsor. The Van Voorhis served our Navy until decommissioning on July 1, 1972. She was scrapped the following year.

CORRECTION/ADDITION, 9:00AM EDT 7/6/2013: I just found another source on this story that shows eleven crew members aboard the plane, not ten. The eleventh man was AOM2 Donald B. Clogston. His name doesn’t appear in burial records, so I can only assume his remains were never recovered or identified.

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