Sgt. Howell Orrin Thompson
United States Marine Corps
Flight 19 Gunner on FT-36
Howell Orrin "Whitey" Thompson was born 1925 in Chicago, Illinois. He became a Marine Corps Staff Sergeant. According to correspondence with his family, one of Howell's tours of duty placed him in May of 1944 working as a mechanic at NAS San Diego. Then on March 19, 1945, we find him aboard the USS Franklin CV-13 "Big Ben" doing Ordnance (a service of the military charged with the procuring, distributing, and safekeeping of tools & equipment), when it was attacked by a Japanese dive bomber dropping two semi-armor-piercing bombs. The Franklin lost over 800 of her crew, becoming the most heavily damaged United States carrier to survive the war.
In July of 45, he was sent to Miami's Naval Air Gunner's School. There he became a turret gunner for the TBM/TBF Avenger torpedo bombers. By October, he was training on the Avengers one hour per day, and performed his first hop with radar navigation. In November 20th, he was transferred to NAS Fort Lauderdale to continue with further training.
In one of his letters home, he stated that his training would be finished within the next four weeks and would hopefully be home for Christmas before his next assignment. The niece of Howell Thompson, Joan Peitrucha, shared with this Museum several of over three hundred letters that Howell wrote to his family. The following is an excerpt from Howell's last letter, written on 4 Dec 1945 and postmarked 5 Dec 1945, the day the flight was pronounced missing:
“We aren't doing anything nowadays as we are only needed if any pilots need crewmen for their flights. They're behind in their schedule. Tomorrow we're supposed to make a three-hour hop with them: navigation, low level bombing, and strafing. This hop will give us enough time to draw flight pay for this month.”
On the fateful day of 5 December 1945 at NAS Fort Lauderdale, Howell (along with 13 other crewmen), was assigned to a training squadron of 5 Avenger aircraft that would be known as Flight 19. The squadron was to perform a routine navigation exercise, and mock bombing run over the Hen and Chickens shoals in the Bahamas, and then return to the NAS Fort Lauderdale. The planes never returned. Neither did a PBM Mariner rescue seaplane with 13 crewmen aboard, that was dispatched to search for their lost colleagues. In total, 6 aircraft and 27 men disappeared that afternoon. A massive search was organized, and nothing was found. Their disappearance launched one of the largest air and sea searches in history, and began the legend of the Bermuda Triangle. To this date, Flight 19 remains one of the great aviation mysteries.
Sgt. Howell O. Thompson was Gunner on FT-36. The Pilot was Capt. Edward Joseph Powers, USMC. Radioman was Sgt. George R. Paonessa, USMCR. The Aircraft was a TBM-1C with BuNo 46094. Sgt. Howell O. Thompson was 20 yrs old.
Howell's letter to family (undated)
Peoples, that was really swell of you sending me that check as you did. I can tell you that I put it to very good use. By sending you that film I expected no payment for it, but it did come in handy. Thank you ever so much.
Yours truly is now stationed 50 miles from L.A. at a small army base which they call the Oxnard Flight Strip. We are renting the field from the [“Doggies”] for our squadron to operate from, and for other Marine and Navy planes to practice carrier landings. At a glance at the field, you'd think it was just an emergency landing field. There are still about 30 army personnel on the base, to care for any army planes that come in. Right now there is a flying fortress parked near the runway. Parked at the nose hanger is a cargo glider. There is no regular hangar. Word has it, that they are soon going to operate them from our one and only landing strip. In between the barracks and buildings, and out in the fields, grows alfalfa which some farmer comes in and cuts and gets $30.00 a ton for it at the market. I imagine that the army C.O. gets a cut out of it.
There's absolutely nothing to do on the base but go to the small depot and drink beer which I haven't done yet. The base is about 15 miles from Ventura and about 7 miles from Oxnard. Last night I rode into Ventura with a couple of buddies. There doesn't seem to be a heck of a lot more to do, than at Santa Barbara, but I think I'll like it. There are a lot of “Swabbies” (sailors) from a Navy base near the town. We are the only Marines.
Guess I didn't tell you peoples yet that I'm going to buy a car this week as soon as dad sends me some of my money. I'm getting it from a fellow I work with in Ordnance. It's a '33 Chevrolet Coupe, a pretty nice little car. As soon as I can take a picture of it I will send you one. I've still a great deal of work to do in getting squared away with my gear, so I'll sign off here. So long for now.
P.S. My address is the same as it always has been.
Our mail is flown here by plane from the Santa Barbara base.
Howell's letter for Father while at NAS Fort Lauderdae (undated)
As you can see by my return address we are now stationed at another Naval Air Station (Fort Lauderdale). It is just 25 miles north of Miami. We arrived here last Friday and are to start school again next Monday. We are supposed to take up where we left off at Miami. The Miami field is to be made into a fighter operations base. According to the gossip we get here, every one of us will be through within the next four weeks. Our flight was in its eleventh week of training at Miami. The Navy also says we will be given a leave upon completion of our schooling, but whether the Marine Corps will O.K. it or not is another thing.
This base is quite small compared to the Miami Station but it is really a good deal. We're here with the Marine Guard detachment officer in charge of us, and he appears to be a good chap. On the whole, I think we're going to like it here. Until we start school, liberty commences at 12:00 noon and ends at 7:30 the next morning. Over the weekends we have off from Friday noon until Monday morning.
This Florida weather sure is beautiful. While your temperature is around 40 degrees at home we have an average of 70 degrees down here. This weather is a heck of a lot better than California's. Florida is my vacation spot.
There is still no news as to when points are going down, or even if they are going down, so we are still standing by on that matter. That's about all for now peoples.
So long and -----
Flight 19 Project Research by Matthew J. Bloom,
Curated by Benjamin Walter-Range & Minerva Bloom
Curated by Benjamin Walter-Range & Minerva Bloom