|A Toast to Capt. Chuck S. Downey|
Charles S. Downey was born August 2, 1924 in Bridgeport, Conn. His love affair with aviation began almost immediately. At age three he remembers Lindbergh’s dramatic flight. Chuck picks up the story:
“I vividly recall the family dining room where my parents and their friends held vigil, sipping homemade elderberry wine, ears tuned to the staticky, smelly, battery [powered] Atwater-Kent radio, waiting and waiting for news of the famous flyer. For me, at age 3... the excitement was as great as that of the adults.”
At age 7 Chuck was enthralled by the Sikorsky Flying Boats that regularly flew over their summer cottage on their way to and from the nearby factory at Stratford.
By age 13 he was making flying models and by 16 had won several trophies as a champion junior model builder.
His first flight came in 1934.
“Though not qualified for OX-5 membership by current rules,” Chuck says, “my first flight in 1934, against my father’s wish, but huddled against mother in a cold, drafty front cockpit, circling Hartford, Conn. out of Brainard Field [was] in an OX-5 powered Waco 10.”
“My aviation love affair continued, as did the gathering winds of war, resulting in the early wedding, at age 18, with Naval Aviation and a glorious honeymoon in the N2S Stearman, SNV Vultee Vibrator, SNJ Texan, SBC Curtis Helldiver (two winger version), BT Northrup Dive Bomber, OS2U Kingfisher Scout, SB2C Helldiver (one winger), F4U Corsair, F6F Hellcat, TBM Avenger, AM-1 Mauler, AD-4 Sky Raider, F9f Cougar jet, T-34 Mentor, SNB Bugsmasher, C-54 Skymaster, P2V Neptune and S2F Tracker.
“There were many exciting moments flying the various aircraft listed, especially operating against the Japanese in the Western Pacific from the Attack Carriers Ticonderoga and Hancock. Dive bombing strikes were only considered easy when you caught the #2 wire and unwound in the ready room sipping Old Overholt (WW2 approved medicinal booze).”
Let’s stop right there and pick up on a few things. Chuck entered the Navy in October, 1942. He did his initial training in Memphis, Tn., then to Pensacola, Fl. When Chuck was commissioned as Ensign AV-N serial number 291132 on July 16, 1943 at NAS Pensacola, he was 18 years, 11 months and 14 days. This made him the youngest Naval aviator in the U.S. Navy during WW2.
Then it was off to Glenview in September of ’43 for carrier qualifications.
The Navy had built two makeshift carriers out of two coal burning sidewheeler luxury excursion ships. They were named the Wolverine and the Sable. They were only used for carrier landing qualification as they plied the waters of Lake Michigan.
The decks were only 550 feet long, or about 2/3 the length of the real thing, and the ships could only make about 20 knots. Unless there was a stiff wind blowing to aid the approaches and the take-offs, training stopped. They were also only 27 feet above the water as opposed to 80 feet for an attack carrier. Today there are over 150 Navy aircraft at the bottom of Lake Michigan as a testament to the intensity and difficulty of the training.
On his first trip from Glenview, out to the Sable, for his first landing, he was leading a flight. He knew, as leader, it would look pretty bad if he couldn’t find the ship. He found it OK but it looked like a postage stamp. Then he thought “You mean I have to land on that thing.” He did, he qualified and his combat career was about to begin.
He saw combat duty on both the U.S.S. Ticonderoga and the U.S.S. Hancock flying the SB2C Helldiver. The Helldiver was an airplane that was so big and, some say so ugly, that it was known as The Beast. But this 18 year old from Bridgeport could fly it.
On 13 November, 1944, at Manila Bay, Downey helped sink a Japanese light Cruiser. In the course of that action, his plane was hit by shrapnel from the explosion of the bomb from his flight leader. The damage nearly ended the mission but Chuck was able to get the plane back to a carrier. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for this action.