The following is a excerpt from the WW2 experiences of Daniel B. Rathbun as told by his son, Dan Rathbun. It is a personal account of the first Army Air Force P-40 squadron which was transported and launched off the escort carrier USS Chenango and subsequently landed at Port Lyautey. Following the account is a personal history of both Messrs. Rathbun, father & son.


My father, Lt. Col. Daniel B. Rathbun, was a fighter pilot in Army Air Corps in WW II. He left the Army in 1945 and rarely spoke of his experiences in World War II when I was growing up. Shortly before his 86th birthday, however, he finally agreed to write of some of his experiences. Following is the Port Lyautey excerpt and begins in October 1942 with his squadron being loaded aboard an escort carrier

“A little later, in mid-October,1942, in Norfolk, all eighty-seven planes in the group were hoisted aboard the carrier USS Chenango[1], and along with a total of 800 other ships from various ports on the East Coast, headed east. This carrier had started life as an Esso tanker launched in 1939. Naval leaders were increasingly concerned about Japanese truculence and by scraps of hard evidence that Japan was increasing naval power to levels beyond the limits prescribed by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1926, a development that led them to search for ways of augmenting U.S. naval power.

Tankers offered inviting targets: the hull and propulsion systems, while not up to those of fleet carriers of the day, could support a “jeep carrier” on which the aircraft of that time–e.g. F-4Fs and SBD’s–would be able to operate. And the tanker offered a quick way of augmenting U.S. naval power. Furthermore, authorization for the Navy to take over the tanker and convert it to a carrier had been provided under the guidance of the Navy-oriented president, FDR.

Accordingly, a hanger deck, a flight deck and provisions for additional personnel were grafted onto the tanker, and the Chenango was ready for service in the Pacific. However, before this could occur, Chenango would have to transport our Air Corps planes to a then-secret operation in the Atlantic, after which it would be free to join the Pacific Fleet.

So, with both flight and hanger decks jammed with eighty-seven P-40s, we headed east, surrounded by ships of all kinds as far as our eyes could see in all directions. Various naval vessels would come alongside at times for refueling. I recall a destroyer in rough weather rolling violently and crashing into the Chenango, damaging both ships. We seemed to be at the center of the armada, a feeling that was consistent with the sight of several large naval carriers in our vicinity. These “fleet carriers” were to support landing operations, including the bombing of runways to weaken aerial opposition by the unknown forces we were to invade.

My plane was on a catapult on the bow where it would be the first plane to be catapulted-off when we arrived at our unknown destination. In the meantime, we “stood watch” in our planes. I remember being chiefly interested in the sharp changes in the rate-of-climb indicator in the plane as the bow of the small carrier went up, up, up, and then down, down, down.

To the extent that the limited facilities on the carrier permitted, we were assigned to two-man rooms. I shared my quarters with a good friend, Lt. R.C. Hemphill. Without exception, the naval personnel on the carrier did all they could to make us welcome and comfortable. The captain, a man who had served as a naval attaché in France and North Africa, was especially gracious and attentive to our needs. On November 7, the night before we were to launch to participate in Operation Torch, the Allied landings in French Morocco and Algeria, the captain hosted a farewell dinner in the wardroom. He spoke at some length, wishing us well and apologizing for the crowded living conditions (which were entirely due to the eighty-seven planes and pilots aboard and the non-flying maintenance technicians who took care of the planes’ engines, armaments, etc.). Our Group CO then responded by saying that he “couldn’t wait to get ashore so that we could show the Navy how to fight.” Those under this man’s command were stunned and embarrassed. This man, Lt. Col. Spike Momeyer by name, later moved up to be a four-star general.

The next morning, the “fog of war” descended. We were about 100 miles offshore and ready to go but word had been received that the field in Port Lyautey had not been taken. Our Group CO, doubtless harking back to Tripoli and the war with the Barbary Pirates and to Mobile Bay in the Civil War, assumed a “damn the torpedoes” attitude and ordered, “Shoot Rathbun and his wingman off and we will see what the situation is.” So off we went on a heading of 85? degrees. There was no way of returning to the Chenango since we had no arresting gear and the flight deck was filled with other P-40s.

First Army P-40 taking off from USS Chenango [Naval Historical Center]

When we reached Port Lyautey, we could see cruisers, destroyers, amphibious-assault and merchant ships offshore, many sending small landing craft to the beaches. The sight that interested me the most involved several bomb craters on the concrete runway, all made by our Navy planes in an effort to immobilize French aircraft. There were grass fields on both sides of the North--South runway but they had been flooded and pools of water remained on the grass. While the craters were big and the debris field on the north end of the runway covered the entire width of the runway, I decided to try to land just beyond the first crater and then slip past the crater farther down the runway.

Craters aside, the runway was short–approximately 1,800-2,000 feet long–and landing just past the first crater left not more than 1,000 feet of runway. Therefore, I had to land at the lowest possible speed. Alas, the plane stalled just as I reached the first crater, dropping the wheels into the crater and “wiping off” the landing gear.

I came to rest out on the grass on the west side of the runway, shaken but not injured. My wingman, a bright young man by the name of Dowd, saw what happened so he decided to try the grass on the west side of the runway. He made a good landing, but the wheels sank into the muddy ground and he “nosed up,” damaging the propeller and knocking the engine out of line.

After getting out of the plane, I knew that I had to do what I could to stop the other planes. I ran to a destroyer (USS Dallas), tied up to a pier in the river, that formed the northern and eastern edges of the airfield, and asked that the ship send a message to the Chenango that further launches should be canceled. I don’t know how rapidly the message was transmitted; I do know that forty-five minutes later, more planes arrived, led by our group CO.

Before the planes arrived, two events took place. First, I saw an American tank on the field and thought that the tank could help us clear the runway. Having driven Caterpillar tractors for a living, I knew that by locking one track and wheeling, the tank could push debris back into the craters. I ran to the tank and asked the soldier in the turret if he could help me. He agreed and we proceeded to the first crater, where he tried to fill the crater, with very limited success. A good bit of debris was moved into the crater, but the tank had no way of tamping-down the chunks of concrete and dirt, an essential step if the runway were to be made serviceable. So much for runway repair.

While this was going on, an American cruiser offshore was firing twelve-inch shells at a fort east of the airfield. I was surprised and fascinated by the fact that I could both see and hear the shells as they passed over the airfield. I never did learn if the shells hit the target.

When the group CO appeared, he decided to land on the extreme northern end of the runway. Unfortunately for him, there was a sharp drop in terrain off the end of the runway, leaving the northern end of the runway exposed. Also, unfortunately for him, he came in slow and too low, possibly having lost some of his piloting skills in the eighteen days at sea. In any event, he was too low and his wheels hit the exposed end of the runway, wiping out the landing gear and skidding to, what would be to most pilots, an embarrassing stop.

I questioned then (and now) his assumption that he could stop his plane in the less than 1,000 feet before he would reach the first crater. Of course, given his wrecked plane, we will never know. I do know that he was unfazed by his poor judgment and performance, and I do know that approximately twenty of the planes following him proceed to tear themselves apart in the muddy grass east of the concrete runway. Oblivious to the chaos he had helped create by his foolhardy, too early, departure from the carrier, he strode up to me and delivered his obiter dictum: “Rathbun, if you had used your head, you could have prevented all of this.” In subsequent days, this man was to continue to take my breath away on numerous occasions.

That night, cold and without bedding, we raided the parachute room in the hangar, each of us taking a silk parachute which we opened and used as bedding. I recall settling down in the cockpit of an unoccupied P-40 and spending a very uncomfortable night in the seat, wrapped in silk.

On November 10, we moved approximately 80 miles to the south to Casablanca, leaving a score or more of damaged planes for the service group to worry about. Upon arrival in Casablanca, I took stock of my clothing and determined that I needed help if I were to maintain a soldierly bearing--eighteen days at sea plus the wear and tear at Port Lyautey had eliminated all traces of sartorial splendor. Consequently, I took everything to a laundry-cleaning establishment–and that was the last I saw of my wardrobe. Repeated trips to recover my clothing yielded nothing.”

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[1] From the “Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships,”
(1963) Vol. 2, pp.93-94.

AO-31
Displacement: 11,400 t.
Length: 553’
Beam: 75’
Extreme Width: 114’3”
Draft: 32’
Speed: 18 k.
Complement: 1,080
Armament: 2 5”
Class: CIMARRON

The second CHENANGO (CVE-28) was launched 1 April 1939 as ESSO NEW ORLEANS by Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., Chester, Pa.; sponsored by Mrs. Rathbone; acquired by the Navy 31 May 1941; and commissioned 20 June 1941 as AO-31, Commander W. H. Mays in command.

Assigned to the Naval Transportation Service, CHENANGO steamed in the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Pacific as far as Honolulu on tanker duty. CHENANGO was present at Aruba, N.W.I., 16 February 1942 when a German submarine shelled one of the island's refineries. She was decommissioned at New York 16 March 1942 for conversion to an escort carrier.

Her conversion complete, she was recommissioned as ACV-28, 19 September 1942. Carrying Army aircraft, CHENANGO sailed 23 October with the assault force bound for North Africa and, on 10 November, flew off her aircraft to newly won Port Lyautey, French Morocco. She put to Casablanca 13 November to refuel 21 destroyers before returning to Norfolk 30 November 1942, battling through a hurricane en route which caused extensive damage.

Mr. Dan Rathbun (son) has been a Foreign Service Officer with the US Agency for International Development for the past 23 years, most recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He also served in Egypt, Jamaica, South Africa, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Since September 2002 he has been living in Arlington, Virginia.

Mr. Daniel B. Rathbun (father) lives in Portland, Maine. He studied electrical engineering before World War II, then joined the Air Corps in mid-1941. He was a test pilot for the XP-47-before he went overseas as part of the invasion of North Africa. He flew P-40s in North Africa, then transitioned to the A-36 dive bomber (P-51 with dive brakes). He was CO of the 522nd Squadron in the 27th Group during the invasion of Sicily and later flew P-47s in France and Germany as Commanding Officer of the 314 Squadron, 12th Air Force. He retired from the military as a 28 year-old Lt. Col. having flown 168 combat missions.

After the war he went back to college and earned Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley. He served in a variety of academic posts, Federal government positions, including a stint in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the 1960s, before retiring as Vice President of the American Petroleum Association. The day after he retired he took his 37-foot sail boat on a solo winter cruise in which he almost froze to death. Undaunted, a few years later, at the age of 69 he sailed across the Atlantic from Annapolis, Maryland to Ireland, Portugal and back. In his 80s he transitioned to a more manageable craft—a Kevlar canoe.