Poplar Grove resident Chuck Downey earned his wings as a U.S. Naval pilot when he was 18 years old, and decades later discovered he was the youngest of the war, despite a claim by President George H.W. Bush.
Chuck Downey, of Poplar Grove, Ill., lived through 17 bombing missions, two kamikaze attacks and the sight of several friends being shot down by the enemy – all as the youngest Naval Aviator of World War II.
For years, former President George H.W. Bush, a TBM Avenger Torpedo Bomber pilot, thought he was the youngest Naval Aviator of the war. But Downey has the President beat by 11 days, a fact the President has since acknowledged. Today, Downey is nearly 89 and still going strong.
Downey was born Aug. 2, 1924, in Bridgeport, Conn., and loved aviation from the start. “I can remember, at three years old, listening with my parents to our radio in our family’s dining room for word of Charles Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic,” he says. “I was just as excited as they were.”
By age 7, he was making airplane models out of balsa wood; by age 16, he was a champion model builder. This was good preparation for his first flight, in 1934, out of Brainard Field, circling Hartford, Conn. “It was against my father’s wishes, but I went up with my mother in the drafty, cold, front cockpit of an OX-powered Waco 10,” he recalls.
By the late 1930s, Japan had invaded China, Germany had invaded Poland, and the U.S. was forced onto the threshold of World War II. After the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in a surprise air raid, Downey was eager to join the country’s armed forces. He wanted to sign up before his 18th birthday, but needed signatures from both parents, and his father wouldn’t sign. After turning 18, he joined the Navy in October, 1942. Surprisingly, he wasn’t hoping to become a pilot; he wanted to enlist as an aviation mechanic.
“But they [the Navy] said I had different skill levels and I was a good candidate to be a Naval Aviator,” he recalls.
Off he went for training in Memphis, Tenn., before heading to Pensacola, Fla., for flight school, where he was commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy on July 16, 1943. Downey was the tender age of 18 years, 11 months and 14 days when he earned his wings.
In September 1943, Ensign Downey headed to Glenview Naval Air Station, near Chicago. The Navy had transformed two coal-burning luxury excursion ships into makeshift carriers that plowed the waters of Lake Michigan, in order for new pilots to earn carrier landing qualifications. The ‘carrier’ decks were only 550 feet long, much shorter than those of actual carriers that saw duty in the Pacific. Learning to land on them was very difficult, which is why more than 150 Navy aircraft now lie on the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Downey couldn’t believe his eyes the first time he approached a practice carrier.
“You mean I have to land on that thing?” he thought, as he viewed the tiny deck. But land he did, qualifying himself to see action in the Pacific.
In June 1944, Downey first saw combat duty as a dive bomber pilot aboard the newly commissioned aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga. He flew the SB2C Helldiver, a plane so difficult to fly that some pilots dubbed it “Beast.” It had just replaced the beloved Dauntless dive bomber, which had a proven record of success, including the sinking of four Japanese aircraft carriers in the pivotal battle of Midway. But Downey wasn’t intimidated by the Helldiver.
“I’ve flown better airplanes … it was not a graceful airplane … it didn’t dive as well as the Dauntless. It did its job … you flew the Beast because that’s what you had to fly and you’d better fly it!”
One of his most successful – and most dangerous – combat missions took place on Nov. 13, 1944, at Manila Bay in the Philippine Islands. As a LT. J.G. at the time, Downey was part of an air group that sank the Japanese light cruiser Kiso, a mission that taught him just how quickly one’s life can end in combat.
“We were part of a group of 16 airplanes attacking shipping all over the bay,” he recalls. As the pilots began diving, antiaircraft fire from the Japanese ships found the range of the dive bombers. “All of a sudden, geez, there was a huge flash. I think I’m going to hit debris. Everything blew up in my face about 400 feet in front of me … the whole thing just blew.”
The Helldiver in front of Downey had exploded, hit by antiaircraft fire. It had been flown by Johnny Manchester, a relatively new pilot nicknamed “School Boy.”
“There was nothing there, no airplane, bomb, pilot, gunner, load of gas,” Downey recalls. “It was all just gone, no smoke, no nothing. The whole thing just blew … and I just kept diving through it. I hardly knew him [Manchester]. He had just joined the squadron. Johnny was a trumpet player, he was a great guy. ”
Downey continued his bombing run and managed to hit the light cruiser despite flying through debris. “I got the Distinguished Flying Cross for getting a hit and helping cause it to sink.”
Perhaps Downey’s closest encounter with death came during a bombing run against a Japanese destroyer on Jan. 12, 1945. It took place at the mouth of the Saigon River in Indochina, a country now called Vietnam.
He was flying low, to increase the chances of his bomb hitting the target. “Destroyers are kind of skinny – only about 35 feet wide,” he explains. “I went down to about 800 feet.” The standard bombing altitude was about 1,200 to 1,500 feet.
“My division leader, I was right behind him. His bomb hits about the time I released mine. His bomb bursts and pieces of that destroyer came up and hit my plane and caused my engine to smoke, which meant I was losing oil. I had to throttle way back because we learned from a chief, way back in training, that if you ever get hit and you’re losing oil, throttle back, and keep the engine turning at the least RPM. So I throttled back at 1,600 RPM. Oil was the problem. That was the longest flight … no one is waiting around for you because your plane is hit and can’t keep up. My gunner and I ran out of cigarettes. It was a two-hour flight, at least.”
Despite losing oil, Downey did make it back to his secondary ship, the aircraft carrier USS Essex. After being waived off the first time he approached, he eventually landed without incident.
The next day he talked with the chief mechanic repairing his plane. “I wanted to know how much longer I could have continued to fly. The mechanic said I had about 10 minutes of oil left.”
Downey would take part in several other crucial combat missions during the final year of war in the Pacific, including the invasion of Iwo Jima, a Japanese island stronghold that saw one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. He flew his Helldiver in ground support missions for the Marines, slugging it out, especially near the towering inactive volcano Mt. Suribachi.
“We were outfitted with rockets, and we were also given napalm for Mt. Suribachi,” he says. “At Iwo Jima, we had to fly right into the mouth of the caves [before releasing napalm] to kill Japs on Suribachi.”
Later, in 1945, Downey was awarded the Air Medal for taking part in the first carrier-based dive bomber raid on mainland Japan. His bomb helped to destroy an airplane hangar near Tokyo. It was one of the bombing missions that stands out most in his mind.
“And we hit mainland Japan, the first time ever from carrier-based airplanes. So that was quite exciting.”
Carrier pilots serving in the Pacific were in great danger, whether or not they were flying combat missions in their airplanes. Their carrier ships were under constant threat of attack by Japanese suicide pilots, called kamikazes. Downey experienced such an attack on Jan. 20, 1945, when his ship, the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga, was hit by a kamikaze 80 miles off the coast of the island of Formosa, in the China Sea.
Downey was with fellow pilots in the carrier’s Ready Room, waiting to be briefed for the afternoon mission, when the kamikaze hit the carrier, about 50 feet from the Ready Room.
“When he hit, I ended up sprawled out, along with 14 other pilots … we were about in the middle of the ship. The bomb exploded in the deck below – the whole place was full of flames!”
Downey and his fellow pilots put on their gas masks in order to survive the intense smoke, which was blinding them. They made their way to safety by walking out single file, each man hanging on to one in front of him.
“Three kamikazes were shot down, but two managed to hit us,” Downey remembers. “We lost 236 men, killed in the first attack. With the second attack, the ship was still underway. He struck just in front of the island, [the ship’s superstructure] … the wreckage went right across the deck and killed about five men.”
Kamikaze attacks, bombing missions, close calls – Chuck Downey experienced all of this as a teenager, the youngest naval aviator of World War II, although he didn’t know it at the time.
“Nobody did, it didn’t matter,” Downey says. “That wasn’t even a thought at the time.”
For years it had been reported that former President George H.W. Bush was the youngest Naval Aviator of World War II. He had flown the TBM Avenger torpedo plane in the Pacific and was shot down during combat. But records show that he was six days shy of his 19th birthday when he got his wings, while Downey was 17 days shy of his 19th birthday, making Downey the youngest Naval Aviator by 11 days.
That fact wasn’t discovered until long after the war, when the editor of the naval magazine Golden Wings reached out to readers to see if there was anyone else who was a younger World War II Naval Aviator than Bush.
Downey says that when his record was discovered, then-Vice President Bush sent him a nice card acknowledging Downey’s status. Many years later, when they both turned 80, the former President sent Downey a letter wishing him a happy birthday.
“Of course I’m proud of it, oh yes. But you don’t walk around with it,” Downey says. “I think a lot of people attach more importance to it than I do.” He adds that he still hopes to meet the former President one day.
After the war, Downey enjoyed a distinguished career in the Naval Reserve and became a jet pilot. He once again set a benchmark in the Navy, becoming the youngest Captain in the regular or reserve Navy, at age 39, in 1963. There was no other Navy Captain who was younger, for a year and a half, he recalls. “That was a great honor.”
Downey retired from the Navy in 1975, at age 51, after holding several command positions. He then enjoyed a successful career in the world of commercial aviation, serving as an executive for American Airlines, Commuter Airlines, Butler Aviation and Midway Airlines.
Despite his military and civilian successes, Downey is proudest of his family. He married wife Lorna in 1951 and has five children. The couple had 45 wonderful years together before Lorna died in 1997. Downey loves spending time with his eight grandchildren.
“My family, I’m proud of every one of them,” says Downey. “I pray for them every day.”
Recently, after attaining more than 8,600 hours of flight time, Downey made the difficult decision to stop flying. “It wasn’t a snap decision,” he says. “Your body is asking you, ‘When are you going to give up flying?’ My daughter told me, ‘Dad, quit at the top of your game. You’ve done it all, so why do any more? The stubborn ones keep flying and they get into trouble.’”
Even though he won’t fly “solo” anymore, Downey still intends to fly as an observer or passenger.
“You can still be a great adviser,” he says. “You can still go as a safety pilot with others. I’ll fly forever.”
Today, Downey spends winters at his Florida condominium, and summers at his Poplar Grove home, which has a hangar and is on the flight line of a small airport. At both locations, he pursues his passion for restoring vintage aircraft. Some are from World War II; others are even older.
“I’m busy having fun,” he says. “There’s a lot of good therapy in preserving aviation, because I know how to do the woodwork.”
Downey has been hard at work restoring a Meyers OTW (Out to Win), a pre-World War II biplane trainer. He uses the same woodworking skills that he developed as a 7-year-old boy making model airplanes out of balsa wood.
“That’s a lost art, it’s a dying art,” he says. “Some of this knowledge goes back to World War I. This is what I like to do. Keep antiques flying.”
Editor’s Note: Bob Ryder is a former Marine sergeant who served in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and was awarded the Joint Service Achievement Medal for his service as a combat correspondent and broadcast journalist with the Armed Forces Desert Network. He’s an award-winning member of the Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association. Ryder also worked as senior reporter and substitute news anchor for WTVO, Rockford, for nearly 20 years. Today he’s a communications specialist at KMK Media Group, Rockford.