Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

'The most fabulous thing'

Excerpts from conversation with Gordon Firebaugh, former Naval Aircraft Pilot with VF-2, later Captain USN (date: 1-17-83) -- Jim Maas

Q: What was your perception of the Brewster?

GF: (It was) the most fabulous thing to step into, considering what you had stepped out of...

Q: The F2F?

GF: Right, the Grumman. The F2A was a real dinger.

Q: What was your first experience, your first recollection?

GF: Back in, I think, October '40, we flew the F2F's to Pensacola. We got orders to go in civilian clothes to pick up a 'secret airplane' around 16 October (and were) flown by transport to Anacostia. We were checked out on the F2A-2's, the checkout wasn't as complicated as it is nowadays, and proceeded to San Diego....

Q: In formation?

GF: No, we went singly after check-out - I test flew the ship for two hours, just because I liked it...We got back to San Diego in, still, October. Then they took our F2A's away from us and gave us another squadron's aircraft.

Q: Still Brewsters?

GF: The same thing. Nobody knew why. Now, while I was with the Chiefs (VF-2) I flew simulated dogfights and whipped F4F's, probably the F4F-3 with no folding wing, but I could also outfly the F2A when in an F4F as well - it all depended on who was in the pilot's seat. I flew the F4F after we got switched around [when the VF-2 NAP's were spread around with other squadrons -jm] in early 1942. I got shot down over Santa Isabel [7 August 1942 during the Guadalcanal operation -jm]...and I've often thought that, I wish, I'd been better off in a Brewster. I think it would have matched the [Mitsubishi] Zero - the F4F was heavier and didn't have the turning radius. During that fight, I met up with five Zeros, shot down three before I got shot down. I spent a long time in the water, until I got to land and met one of the [Australian] coastwatchers...

Q: You felt the F2A was a better aircraft than the F4F?

GF: Well, remember, I'm thinking of the F2A-2. We had the F2A-3 for a couple of months, that was a different aircraft. It had too much fuel. I remember we could fly five hour patrols....

Q: Did you ever get an explanation for the extra tankage in the F2A-3?

GF: They had put in a wet wing - you were able to purge it with CO2 into the main tank, but it meant extra weight. That was maybe the reason we had strut failures - these wheels, the landing gear, landed pretty hard, negative 3 G's. The struts had a tendency to move forward. When you retracted the gear on the next flight, the box strut scraped on the wheel well. You couldn't have that happen, the gear not retracting, so the mechanics would file some off and get closer to the rivets...

Q: And if you did that enough times...

GF: Exactly, you have a gear failure. I loved the F2A-2, and wasn't as impressed with the -3 and the F4F. Now you know, VF-3 got the first batch and then we got more.

Q: Do you remember any camouflage experiments [the Barclay dazzle paint schemes] by VF-3, actually the Saratoga air group, around September 1940?

GF: Around then, we were being sent to the East Coast to get our F2A-2's. I don't remember (any camouflage trials). Starting in 1941 until November, operating either from Saratoga or Lexington, we operated making quite a number of landings. About Fepuary (1942) we took our F2A-3's and gave them to the Marines. Ramsey took most of the squadron on the Lexington to the (Battle of the) Coral Sea. About twelve of us were assigned to the Saratoga after she was hit - we were put on F4F-3A's for CAP (Carrier Air Patrol) between Pearl Harbor and Bremerton Navy Yard in Washington. I spent May of 1942 in San Diego doing ferry detail to New York and Anacostia, then went on the Saratoga with F4F's back to Pearl, but we were too late for the Battle of Midway. Around the first of June I was transferred to VF-6 on the Enterprise....

Q: What was the Brewster like to fly?

GF: We used to dive those things, the Brewster could pick up speed in a hurry. Now when I joined the squadron in 1938, VF-2 was filled with old-time Chiefs (Chief Petty Officers). I was the youngest NAP (Naval Aircraft Pilot, a non-commissioned rank) and one of the old Chiefs grabbed my log books and said "hey fellows, we've got a recruit, he's only got 1600 hours!" Now the squadron was coming up on gunnery practice, the competitions, so they'd keep me up in the air for four or five hours. I was probably 28 at the time...

Q: The Brewster had a reputation for bad landings...

GF: We didn't have too much trouble. For example, I never hear about anyone who could ground-loop a Brewster. We did have one problem, the first couple of months, we had about 8-10 engine failures, due to a faulty main bearing. I remember Bauer had his engine go out north of San Diego - I remember flying his lunch to him while they fixed it. The problem was also in VF-3 but they got all of them down okay. The first engines were 950 hp then 1200 hp on the F2A-3. The other trouble with the F2A-3's landing on the carrier deck, the landing gear struts would twist, move because of the extra gas on board.

Q: Do you remember the early wartime January 1942 operations of VF-2?

GF: They put us on search missions, because the SBD pilots were wearing themselves out. There was one (submarine) sighting, we figured out the course and went out again that afternoon, but the attack was at too low an altitude, so they didn't get a hit on it. We thought the Japanese had radar - they wouldn't let us use electric razors on ship because they thought the Japanese would get a fix on us.

Q: Did you talk to any of the cadets out of Miami?

GF: I talked to some who had trained on F2A's, but the word was that the Brewsters were pretty tired by then. Now another thing about the landing gear, it just occured to me, we were on the Lexington in January '42. There was an F2A parked up in front of the pidge and the gear wasn't locked. All of a sudden the left wing went down, and then the other gear went out and it just sort of settled. I wish I'd had a picture of that, it just kind of sat down!

Q: Going back to the October 1940 pick-up, why did you have to wear civilian clothes?

GF: The Navy was getting concerned about security, so they ordered us to wear civilian clothes. I flew to Chicago and left the plane at Midway (Airport) and, since I had lived nearby, spent the night at home. The next morning, as I taxied out on the runway there were cars along the road with people taking photos. I called the tower and they sent security out to confiscate the film.

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