5/28/2012

On Memorial Day, Remembering a Wartime Tragedy

Lieutenant Harold Winecoff with other U.S. Navy fighter pilots during World War II. Winecoff is second from the right in the second row. The photo probably was made in Vero Beach, Florida in 1944.
 On September 27, 1944 U.S. Navy Lieutenant Harold Winecoff, a farm boy who grew up near Rockwell, North Carolina, climbed into the cockpit of his Grumman F6F-5 "Hellcat" fighter plane. He and three other pilots aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin were beginning their shift of combat air patrol, an airborne version of guard duty.

The Franklin was supporting the U.S. invasion of the Palau Islands east of the Philippines. Winecoff and the other pilots in his squadron had been in the thick of the fighting against Japanese forces since American troops had gone ashore on September 15. But the main enemy the pilots were likely to encounter on this mission was boredom. They would stay aloft for several hours patrolling the skies over the U.S. invasion force. Since all Japanese aircraft on the islands had been destroyed before the invasion, however, the likelihood of getting into a fight was low.

But something went terribly wrong for Winecoff that day. He did not return from the patrol. His death was one of those tragic ironies of war that happen simply because a serviceman has to follow orders.

I came across the odd story of Winecoff's death around 1970 when I was visiting Winecoff's nephew, who was living in his grandmother's house near Rockwell. It was the same house where Winecoff had grown up on a farm, and my friend's grandmother was Winecoff's mother. She had moved to Florida, and was allowing her grandson to live in the house while he attended nearby Pfeiffer College.

Winecoff's grief-stricken mother had kept boxes full of letters, photos, and other possessions belonging to her son that the Navy had sent to her after her son's death. My friend said I was welcome to look through them. I took home a couple boxes of the mementoes, and spent a few days looking through them. The boxes told the story of Harold Winecoff's life.

Harold Winecoff at his home near Rockwell, N.C.,
sometime before his death in September 1944.
After graduating from what was then Appalachian State Teacher's College in 1937, Winecoff had taught and coached basketball at Waco High School near Shelby. He enlisted in the Navy in November 1941 and earned his pilot's wings in 1942.
After being a flight instructor at Pensacola Naval Air Station for two years, he was assigned to the USS Franklin in May 1944.

The boxes also contained a letter, written in 1946 by Hubert Weidman, one of Winecoff's shipmates, to his sister, explaining how Winecoff had died.

While Winecoff and the other three pilots were on patrol, Weidman wrote, they were ordered to investigate an unidentified aircraft that had appeared on the Franklin's radar screen. Although all known Japanese planes had been destroyed, Navy commanders couldn't take the chance that this was an enemy plane that might discover the American task force. So Winecoff and the three other fighter pilots were ordered to climb and go after this airplane at top speed.

But a towering thundercloud lay between the Navy pilots and the suspicious airplane. Weidman, the leader of the group, knew it was dangerous to fly through the thunderhead because such clouds often contain powerful, turbulent wind and hail that could wreck the planes. But it would take time to fly around the cloud, and the delay would allow the unknown plane to get closer to the American fleet.

So Weidman decided that he and the other pilots would fly through the thunderhead. The four Hellcats disappeared into the big cloud. Only three emerged. Winecoff's plane was missing. But Weidman couldn't delay the mission to search for Winecoff. The Hellcats sped on to find the intruder.

The mystery airplane turned out to be an American B-24 bomber. After identifying the plane, Weidman and the two other pilots hastily returned to where Winecoff had disappeared.

Other planes from the Franklin joined the search. But no sign of Harold Winecoff or his plane were found, Weidman wrote.

I put aside the boxes of letters and mementoes with the intention of returning them to my friend in Rockwell. Not long after I brought the boxes home, however, my friend's house burned down.

I came across the boxes years later. By this time my friend had moved away and I'd lost touch with him. I took the stuff with me when my wife and I moved to Florida in late 1991. Soon after our move, I met a man who'd served aboard the USS Franklin. With his help, I contacted Ted Engdahl, who'd been a fighter pilot on the Franklin and was one of Harold Winecoff's best friends. Engdahl, a retired school teacher, was living near Winter Haven.

Engdahl had had the sad task of packing up Winecoff's belongings and sending them to his family in Rockwell. I visited Engdahl several times during the next couple years and interviewed him for a story that was published in the Salisbury Post in 1994 on the 50th anniversary of Winecoff's death.

Engdahl said Harold Winecoff was a quiet man with a dry wit and a "sneaky" sense of humor. He enjoyed smoking good cigars and reading, Engdahl said.

Engdahl played volleyball with Winecoff on the Franklin's hangar deck on that fateful day in 1944. Later, he'd watched when his friend took off from the Franklin on that ill-fated patrol mission.

With Engdahl's help, I contacted Vernon Osborne, who'd been one of the pilots flying with Winecoff the day he died. Osborne remembered flying into that thundercloud. The turbulent winds nearly destroyed all four Hellcats, he said.

"It almost threw all of us into the ocean," Osborne recalled. "You can't fly in those things. You can't see anything in there. It's like flying into a hurricane."

Engdahl thought that the turbulence had thrown Winecoff's plane into a spin. While the Hellcat was one of the best Navy fighter planes of World War II, Engdahl recalled that it could be a death trap if it went into a spin. "You get into a spin and you're probably done for," he said. "You're never going to come out of it."

If Winecoff's plane did go into an uncontrollable spin, it would have crashed into the ocean at 500 or 600 mph, killing Winecoff instantly.

The fact that Harold Winecoff died because of an unidentified American plane adds a cruel twist of irony to his death, but Engdahl said such events are part of war. There was no way to know if the plane was a friend or a foe, and it had to be identified, he said.

A final note: Harold Winecoff's brother, John, was still living near Rockwell and saw my story about his brother in the Salisbury Post on September 27, 1994. During the Thanksgiving holiday of 1994, I returned Harold Winecoff's possessions to his brother.