Navy PBY & PBM Pilot
Pearl Harbor Survivor Cass Phillips and Dr. Charles Tucker Taxi For Takeoff During Veterans Flight 2015
Cass Phillips was born in the panhandle town of Pampa, Texas in 1920. In 1933 his father hitched a trailer loaded with all the family’s worldly possessions to a Model A Ford, and the family moved to Riverside, California. After Cass graduated from Riverside High School he enrolled in the local junior college while living at home. When his father took a new job and moved the family to Berkley, Cass couldn’t afford an apartment and enlisted in the Navy at age 18.
After completing recruit training at San Diego he was sent to radio school where he learned to operate Navy communication equipment and became proficient in Morse code. His first fleet assignment was the U.S.S. Argonne, a World War I ship that served as communications center for several commands on the west coast. In 1938 the Argonne sailed from California through the Panama Canal. It stopped first in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where it spent three months handling communications for Navy exercises in the Caribbean. It then sailed north to Norfolk, Virginia for a short stay before heading back through the Panama Canal and on to Hawaii, eventually docking at Dock 10-10 at Pearl Harbor.
Cass had always wanted to get into aviation and requested assignment to Ford Island. He got the assignment, but his communications skills were so good that he was kept in the communications office for the next five months. He finally got his wish when he was assigned to Patrol Squadron VP-11 at NAS Kaneohe Bay.
Cass was at Kaneohe the morning of Sunday 7 December 1941. He and several squadron mates had slept in and were walking to the exchange to get a late breakfast. The Army Air Corps had been conducting regular exercises, so Cass wasn’t surprised when a lot of planes flew over. He remembers seeing “meatballs” painted on the sides of the planes and saying to his friends, “They’re really making this look realistic - they’ve even painted the planes differently.” Until bombs began exploding, he thought the Japanese attack was just another training exercise.
Shortly after the planes flew overhead he saw smoke coming from the squadron’s hangar. He rushed to the hangar and begin helping move damaged airplanes. He was still at the hangar when the second wave of Japanese airplanes attacked. He and other sailors at the hangar had no access to any guns, so all they could do was take shelter and help the wounded until the attack ended.
One member of the squadron, chief ordinance man John William Finn, was able to set up and man a .50 caliber machine gun that he repeatedly fired at the attacking Japanese planes. In spite of suffering 21 wounds, Finn refused medical aid and continued to fire at the enemy until the attack was over. In recognition of his actions Finn received the Medal of Honor. Finn, who was one of 15 Navy men who received the Medal of Honor for their heroism during the attack, died at age 100 in 2010.
Three weeks after the attack Cass was notified that his request to attend flight school had been approved, and in February 1942 he was sent to NAS Pensacola to begin flight training. While at Pensacola he flew the N3N and N2S (Stearman) primary trainers, the SNV basic trainer, and the SNJ advanced and instrument trainers. Because of his communications skills he was the first member of his class to complete the syllabus. He received his wings and designation as a Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP) in July 1942.
His first assignment was to Patrol Squadron VP-61, which was a PBY squadron that was sent to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The squadron left California and, after a fuel stop in Sitka, proceeded to Dutch Harbor. Once in Dutch Harbor, the squadron moved further west into the Aleutian Islands chain in support of Army Air Corps P-38’s which were attacking Japanese who had occupied several islands. One of the PBY’s jobs was to quickly rescue shot down Army pilots who would survive little more than a minute in the frigid artic waters. Cass did two tours in the Aleutians, the second in PBY-5A’s that were equipped with retractable landing gear that allowed them to land on hard surfaces in addition to making water landings.
In 1944 Cass was assigned to VPB-20, a newly formed patrol bombing squadron equipped with Martin PBM’s. (The squadron’s executive officer was Lieutenant Maurice “Mickey” Weisner, who in 1973 was promoted to Admiral and became Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific fleet. Admiral Weisner retired to Pensacola, where he lived until his death in October 2006). After VPB-20 was formed at NAS Alameda, it proceeded to NAS Kaneohe. After a month of bombing training it moved to the New Guinea area. When they arrived, all the airplanes were repainted flat black and the squadron began flying night missions attacking Japanese freighters that were attempting to resupply Japanese ground troops on nearby islands. These night missions often lasted more than 12 hours. When Japanese ships were identified the PBM’s crew would use an intense search light to illuminate the ship and then attack it with bombs and machine guns.
Cass was still in VPB-20 when the war ended. His crew had rotated back to the United States and he was on leave at his parents’ home in Berkley. He was asleep at 2:00 a.m., when his sister burst into his room and told him, “The war is over!” Until that moment, he didn’t think the war was close to over and expected he would soon be heading back to the Pacific.
After the war ended he was assigned to the Ferry Command to bring airplanes back from the Pacific. He flew a variety of airplanes, including the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair. One of his more memorable flights was ferrying a Corsair from San Diego to Florida. This was the first time Cass had been in a Corsair. The other two planes in the flight were flown by Marines, one of whom gave Cass a brief cockpit checkout on how to start the Corsair. He told Cass that if he took off behind him, followed him and matched his speed, everything would be fine. Things were okay until the flight landed at Midland, Texas where Cass tested the Corsair’s landing gear by trying to land 30 feet above the runway. Fortunately, Corsairs were built to survive the Marines, so both Cass and the Corsair survived that landing and Cass delivered the airplane to Florida in one piece.
Cass was next assigned to Whiting Field where his primary job was to keep transient ferry pilots moving. The Navy recognized the attraction of the local beaches stalled many ferry pilots and airplanes were stacking up. The best part of his Whiting Field assignment was meeting an attractive young WAVE who in a short time became Mrs. Phillips.
Cass retired from the Navy in July 1960. He and Lydia were married for more than 70 years. They have two children, both of whom live in Colorado. Cass still drives, and played golf until recently when a hip problem made it too difficult. He works out three days a week in the gym at Corry Field and is looking forward to getting back in the air again in a Stearman during Veterans Flight - 2017.
Cass is planning to come back to Pensacola from New Mexico to fly with us again during Veterans Flight 2019. There also are rumors he has been taking recurrent flight training and wants to make an unassisted takeoff and landing in a Navy Stearman as he did in 1942. Stay tuned, as more will follow as this “adventure” develops.
Cass Phillips in the Front Cockpit of Dr. Charles Tucker's 450 Stearman During Veterans Flight 2015