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Calendar >  Hellcat Brothers -Thomas Calabrese

Hellcat Brothers -Thomas Calabrese

By   /  October 2, 2022  /  14 Comments

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A Heavenly Commander

Thomas Calabrese — Edward and Henry McTalon were identical twins born on July 3, 1921 in Arcadia, California. Their father, Frank was one of only 38 Americans who served with the legendary Lafayette Escadrille in World War I. He flew Newport 28 and Spad XIII bi-planes and shot down 18 German planes and 3 balloons, second only to Eddie Rickenbacker who had 22 planes and four balloons.

After returning from the war, Frank could never go back to working a mundane job so he obtained employment as a stunt flyer for the movie industry. When that wasn’t happening, he did some barnstorming which was a term used for performing in aerial circuses with some other World War I pilots. Frank’s steady job was flying the Huff-Daland Duster, nicknamed the ‘Puffer’, the first agricultural airplane, specifically designed for crop dusting and worked for farmers throughout the Southern California region.

By the time his two sons were old enough to walk, they were hanging around the airfield helping their father work on various aircraft and listening to his instructions on how to be a pilot. Their mother, Lily maintained a stable home environment so that her family had some semblance of normalcy. Despite the ongoing temptation of following their adventurous father, Lily was adamant that her two young boys attend school and get a formal education. By the time Eddie and Henry were 14 years-old, they were earning money on weekends and during the summer months flying with their father. During their senior year in high school, their mother caught a virus and quickly passed away. Frank did his best to deal with the tragedy, but he lost his focus while dealing with his grief. He was killed while working on the 1938 film Test Pilot when he failed to pull out of a dive in time. The movie was being directed by Victor Fleming and starred Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. Renowned movie stunt pilot Paul Mantz and close friend of Frank McTalon was the second unit director in charge of the flying sequences.

Eddie McTalon volunteered, “My brother and I can finish the flying for you.”

Paul was hesitant, “It’s too dangerous, besides you need time to mourn your father.”

            “Our dad taught us everything he knew, we can handle this.” Henry promised, “We’ll have enough time to grieve when this movie is done.”

            “I don’t know…you’re too young,” Paul said.

            “Dad was already flying with the Escadrille when he was our age.” Eddie reminded Paul.

Henry added, “The McTalon motto has always been finish the job. You don’t want to be the guy that breaks our family tradition, do you?”

Paul sighed, “I don’t want to hold up production by looking for other pilots, but I will if I think you can’t handle it…understood?

Both brothers responded in unison, “Understood.”

Eddie and Henry did not disappoint. While watching them go through intricate aerial maneuvers in their aircrafts, Paul commented to the cameraman, “They are good, that’s for sure.”

For the next three years, Eddie and Henry continued to polish their aeronautical skills. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the brothers quickly enlisted in the Navy.

 It would have been a waste of time to send Eddie and Henry McTalon to flight training. They had already had thousands of flight hours and were much more proficient than the instructors. They went down to North Island Air Station in San Diego. Frank McTalon was a legend in aviation so when Admiral Tom Holston met Eddie and Henry at the airfield, “I am a great admirer of your father, I was sorry to hear about his death, but these are desperate times and I can’t waste time with sentiment and talking about the good old days. Let’s see what you can do.”

The two brothers started off with the Grumman Avenger then switched to the Curtis Helldiver and finished off with the Douglas Dauntless. They flew all three aircraft with expertise and skill.

Admiral Holston commented, “Excellent, I’m sending you out to the Saratoga. Good luck, gentleman.”

Eddie and Henry were assigned to Fighter Squadron Three and familiarized themselves with the Grumman F3F and Brewster F2A Buffalo once they were aboard ship. The Grumman was a bi-plane and the Brewster was one of the first U.S. monoplanes equipped with an arrestor hook and other modifications for aircraft carriers. While assigned to this squadron Eddie and Henry helped Lieutenant John Thach develop the Thach Weave, an aerial combat tactic. While assigned to the Saratoga the two brothers got their call signs. Henry was called the Hawk and Eddie was the Eagle.

On Sunday evening, January 11, 1942, Eddie and Henry and the other pilots were eating dinner in the wardroom when the Saratoga was badly damaged by a Japanese torpedo while it was patrolling southwest of Hawaii. The pilots were transferred to the USS Lexington on January 31st, 1942.

On February 20, 1942, Eddie. Henry, Butch O’Hare and John Thach took off to intercept a wave of Japanese bombers. While in route to engage the enemy aircraft, the American pilots received a radio transmission about another group of bombers.

            “The Eagle and me will take the second group,” Henry said.

Butch responded, “Roger that, see you when I see you.”

Eddie and Henry flew eastward at an altitude of 1500 feet and saw sixteen enemy bombers up ahead. Their Wildcat aircraft were equipped with four 50-caliber guns with 450 rounds per gun. That gave them 10 three-second bursts.

Eddie reminded his brother, “Don’t waste ammo. We’ve got a lot of targets.”

            “I was going to tell you the same thing,” Henry radioed back.

Both brothers positioned themselves for a high-side diving attack from the starboard side. They would run out of ammunition if they weren’t careful so they decided it was better to disable as many of the aircraft as possible rather than shooting down a few. By the time they disengaged, eleven of the Japanese bombers had one or more engines destroyed and were forced to turn back.

With their ammunition expended and their fuel running low, Eddie and Henry returned to the Lexington. A nervous anti-aircraft gunner accidentally fired at them. The bullet went through Henry’s canopy, missing his head by mere inches. As his plane pulled to a stop on the carrier deck, the embarrassed anti-gunner ran over to apologize, “I’m very sorry, sir.”

Before Henry could speak, Eddie came up behind the young sailor who was very nervous and put his hand on his shoulder, “My dad used to tell us that any mistake that you can walk away from or learn from isn’t so bad.”

            “Did you learn anything?” Henry inquired.

            “Yes sir,” The young gunner replied, “I’ll keep my finger off the trigger when our planes are landing from now on!”

Eddie joked, “Speaking for the other pilots in the squadron, we’d appreciate it if you would leave it to the Japanese to shoot at us.”

Butch O’Hare received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions against the other bomber group. On May 8th, 1942, the Lexington was sunk during the Battle of Coral Sea. Eddie and Henry were transferred to USS Yorktown and on June 4th, 1942, the American fleet engaged the Japanese in the Battle of Midway. The six Yorktown Wildcats were the only fighters that saw any combat over the Japanese fleet and VF-3 was the only fighter squadron in the Battle of Midway that engaged in aerial combat later in defense of our carriers. Eddie and Henry each shot down four Mitsubishi A6M2 Zeros.

The McTalon brothers had two major advantages over Japanese pilots, one was their years of experience and the other was that they instinctively knew how their twin would react in every situation. They made split second decisions while performing intricate maneuvers and sometimes their planes would only miss each other by inches during aerial combat.

Hawk and Eagle were flying cover for Lt. Dick Best and his squadron of Douglas SBD dive bombers during the Battle of Midway when Best saw the Japanese fleet and radioed, “This is payback for Pearl!” and went into a steep dive. He was only three hundred feet from the deck of the carrier Akagi when he released his 1000 pound anti-armor bomb. It proved to be a fatal blow as it struck the edge of the mid-ship elevator and penetrated the upper hangar deck. It exploded among the armed and fueled aircraft. There was a massive explosion and flames and black smoke belched into the sky. The flight deck was twisted in grotesque configurations.

Henry radioed, “Anybody want to buy a few hundred thousand tons of scrap metal?”

            “Nice shot, you break it, you bought it,” Eddie joked.

The two brothers provided fighter cover for Dick Best and his dive bombers until they reached the USS Enterprise then went back to the Yorktown.

Eddie and Henry were on the hangar deck. Eddie was using his parachute as a pillow and Henry was eating a bowl of ice cream as flight crews refueled and rearmed their Wildcats. Captain Elliot Buckmaster, Commanding Officer of the Yorktown walked over and saw the McTalon brothers. When Eddie started to stand up, Captain Buckmaster said “As you were.”

Henry asked, “Do you want me to wake up my brother, sir?”

            “Let him sleep. How many times have you been up?”

            “Two or three, sir,” Henry lied.

Crew Chief David Nelson held up eight fingers. Captain Buckmaster offered, “You guys have done enough, stand down.”

Eddie commented from his horizontal position, “Not to contradict you, sir, but we’ll stand down when the mission is completed, sir.”

            “I thought you were sleeping?” Captain Buckmaster said.

Eddie sat up, “I was just resting my eyes,” then took the bowl of ice cream from his brother and finished it.

Captain Buckmaster watched the two brothers take off then commented to his executive officer, Tony Santini, “It’s men like Henry and Eddie McTalon, Dick Best, Wade McClusky and Max Leslie that are just a few of the reasons why America is going to win this damn war!”

The battle of Guadalcanal took place from August 7, 1942 to February 9, 1943 and the McTalon brothers flew three hundred sorties in support of the Marines. Once the Leathernecks secured Henderson Field, Eddie and Henry would occasionally land there rather than go back to the carrier for refueling and rearming. The Marines were happy to extend their hospitality to the Navy pilots who gave them much needed air support. They were socializing with John Basilone and some Marines at the airfield when Japanese planes dropped bombs on their location.

Eddie and Henry ran to their planes and were airborne in less than a minute. They quickly engaged the Zeroes and shot down four enemy planes, the remaining three made a hasty retreat. Eddie and Henry flew low over the airfield to let the Marines know that this particular threat was neutralized.

Replacement pilots were pushed through an abbreviated training regimen in order to meet the needs of the fleet. This led to a sharp decline in the quality of the aviators produced. These inexperienced pilots were fed into front-line units, while the veterans who remained after Midway and the Solomons campaign were forced to share an increased workload as conditions grew more desperate, with few being given a chance to rest in rear areas or in the home islands.

This was war and it wasn’t supposed to be easy. Eddie and Henry accepted the harsh reality that they could only do so much to help the young pilots. It was tough on them because they knew that many of these boys would be dead before they ever got the skills to survive. War wasn’t supposed to be fair either.

In 1943, the greatly improved F6F Hellcat began to replace the Wildcat on the Navy’s large carriers, while the Vought F4U Corsair replaced it in land-based Marine squadrons. Eddie and Henry McTalon were among the first to get them.

Powered by a 2,000 horsepower Pratt &Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp, 18 cylinder radial engine, the F6F Hellcat was an entirely new design, but it still resembled the Wildcat in many ways. Some military pilots tagged the Hellcat as the ‘Wildcat’s big brother.’ The Hellcat was designed to take damage and get the pilot safely back to base. A bullet-resistant windshield was used and a total of 212 pounds of armor was added around the cockpit, oil tank and oil cooler. A 250 US gallon self-sealing fuel tank was fitted in the fuselage and the standard armament on the Hellcat consisted of six .50 caliber air-cooled machine guns with 400 rounds per gun and a total bomb load of 2,000 pounds.

 Lieutenant Commander Butch O’Hare, Eddie and Henry’s fellow Navy pilot who was now back in the states helped Grumman Aircraft engineers develop the Hellcat by analyzing the  shortcomings of the Wildcat against the Mitsubishi A6M Zero in aerial combat. The engineers made the necessary improvements.

After the Yorktown was sunk, the McTalons were assigned to USS Enterprise and were putting the Hellcat through a series of aerial maneuvers. Afterwards, Eddie made the following evaluation to Commander Joe Ashby. “It is an outstanding fighter plane. It performs well, is easy to fly, has a stable gun platform and the mechanics tell me that it is easy to maintain. I look forward to flying it in combat.”

            “The only issue I could find was that it doesn’t turn well at low speeds,” Henry commented.

Commander Ashby smiled, “That shouldn’t be a problem, I have never known either one of you to do anything at low speeds.”

“Like Wild Bill Hickok told Johnny Ringo, “There’s the quick and there’s the dead,” Henry said.

            “When God made combat pilots, he must have been thinking about you two,” Commander Ashby said.

On October 7, 1943, Rear Adm. Shigematsu Sakaibara, commander of the Japanese garrison on Wake Island, orders the execution of 96 Americans POWs, claiming they were trying to make radio contact with U.S. forces. When the Fleet found out about the atrocity, it outraged the men serving aboard the ships and they demanded revenge. The McTalon brothers approached Captain Samuel Ginder.

Henry said, “We need to deliver a message to the Japanese on Wake Island. They executed our men. It is one thing to die in combat, but killing our prisoners is a different situation. We can’t let that go unpunished.”

            “What do you have in mind?” Captain Ginder asked.

Henry explained, “A Marine patrol gave us the coordinates of Sakaibara’s headquarters. All we need is your permission to destroy it.”

            “I’ll run it by Admiral Halsey,” Captain Ginder said.

The McTalon brothers took off from the Enterprise just before sunrise and headed for Wake Island. They wanted it to be a surprise attack so they kept their altitude at 50 feet. When they reached the island, they could have easily shot up the anti-aircraft batteries, but decided to save their ammunition for their retreat.

When they found the Japanese command post, both brothers released their 2,000 pound bombload and obliterated every structure in the area. The element of surprise was over and with fully loaded guns, Eddie and Henry engaged a dozen Japanese zeroes.  Both brothers did a ’Lazy 8’ aerial maneuver which consisted of two 180 degree turns in opposite directions and a steep climb in a symmetrical pattern before shooting down six enemy aircraft.

The USS Enterprise was ordered to provide support for the Solomon Islands Campaign. It was while flying in the Battle of Vella Lavella that the McTalon brothers met Marine Corps Major Greg ‘Pappy’ Boyington and the Black Sheep Squadron. The two brothers and the Marines developed a friendship that was based on mutual respect. The brotherhood of aces was small and loyal. It was Pappy that first called the McTalons, ‘The Hellcat Brothers’.

During one particularly harrowing dogfight with Marine and Naval aviators fighting against two squadrons of Japanese zeroes the McTalon brothers did some unbelievable tactics in the air.   After landing, Pappy walked over to Eddie and Henry, “They call me a stone cold lunatic, but you two make me look like Andy Hardy at the school dance. You’re either the craziest or the bravest pilots I’ve ever seen.”

Eddie looked at Henry and both brothers responded at the same time, “Go with crazy.”

When pilots possess the phenomenal skill, daring and accomplishments of Eddie and Henry McTalon, even Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of US Pacific Fleet takes notice. He called the two brothers to his office, “I’m getting calls from Secretary of Navy Knox on when you’re going home. What should I tell him?”

Henry answered, “Tell him we are home.”

            “You boys are heroes, the country wants to give you a parade and put you on a bond tour,” Admiral Nimitz said.

            “Dick Best, Wade McClusky, Max Leslie, Butch O’Hare, Dave McCampbell, Dusty Kleiss, those are just a few of the guys that are the real heroes. My brother and I are just a couple of California boys who were born to fly and are just doing our jobs,” Eddie shrugged.

            “We’ve got blue skies and white clouds running through our veins,” Henry said, “If we’re on the ground too long we get low altitude sickness.”

The only things that rivaled the McTalons’ uncanny ability to fly anything with two wings and  an engine was their self-deprecating humor and skill at diverting praise to their fellow aviators.

Admiral Nimitz warned Eddie and Henry, “You’re pushing your luck. As good as you are, nobody is indestructible.”

            “Look at this way, the longer we’re around, the better chance that a bunch of young pilots with 75 hours of flight time are going to make it home, “Eddie reminded his superior officer.

Admiral Nimitz sighed, “If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

            “Permission to speak freely, Admiral?” Eddie said.

            “Permission granted.”

Eddie said, “You’re staying to the end of the war.”

            “Aren’t you?” Henry added. The two brother were so connected that they often finished each other’s sentences.

            “I serve at the pleasure of the President.” Admiral Nimitz responded.

            “And we serve at your pleasure,” Eddie said.

Henry added, “As long we keep doing our jobs, we get to keep them…right?”

Admiral Nimitz thought for a moment, “Thanks for coming in, gentleman, you’re dismissed.”

After the McTalon brothers left, Admiral Nimitz turned to his aide, Lt. Robert Collins, “I am continuously amazed by the courage of the men that I am honored to command.”

On June 19, 1944, Eddie and Henry participated in the ‘Marianas Turkey Shoot’ where carrier based fighters shot down 220 Japanese planes while only 20 American planes were lost then participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a decisive U.S. victory on October 23,1944.

Eddie and Henry rarely talked about emotional things because they already knew what the other was feeling. They were sitting in their quarters aboard the Enterprise when Henry asked, “You know what?”

            “We weren’t meant to survive this war?” Eddie answered.

Henry said, “Roger that…let’s go get some chow.”

These were the McTalon brothers, they accepted the inevitability of their destiny and went about their business without missing a step. Henry and Eddie were flying missions in support of Marines during the Battle of Iwo Jima on February 22nd, 1945. Henry’s Hellcat sustained damage to the tail section of his Hellcat from Japanese anti-aircraft fire and it affected his ability to control it.

Eddie stayed with his brother by flying next to him, “I’ll get you back to the ship.”

Before they could get back to the Enterprise, ten Japanese Zeroes intercepted them. Eddie did his best to protect his brother, but Henry was an easy target and his plane was badly shot up. Eddie shot down six Zeroes before they disengaged. Nobody could figure out how Henry landed his mangled Hellcat on the deck. Eddie landed moments later and rushed over to his brother’s plane. Henry was riddled with bullets, bleeding profusely from a dozen holes in his body and trapped inside the cockpit.

The Corpsman shook his head and turned to Eddie, “We can’t get him out…he’s dying, sir.”

Eddie responded, “I know…give me a few minutes alone.”

Eddie held the hand of his brother and felt the last remnants of his life leaving his body. Henry whispered, “Finish it,” and died. Eddie took his brother’s dogtags and slipped them over his neck.

The Chaplain gave Henry ‘Hawk’ McTalon the last rites and Eddie stepped into the seat of the small tractor and pushed his brother’s plane off the fantail and watched it sink in to the Pacific Ocean. The ship’s crew were seasoned veterans and hardened to the brutal reality of war and the horrors of combat, but to a man they were emotionally devastated by this tragic and horrific event.

Their powers of comprehension refused to process the fact that the legendary and seemingly invincible Hawk McTalon was dead. Their very breath had been sucked from their chest and they stood frozen in place, grasping for any sliver of hope to ease their tormented souls. They found the strength to carry on when the Eagle ordered his flight crew, “Refuel and rearm me, I’m going back up.”

The Battle of Okinawa was the last major battle of World War II and one of the bloodiest. It took place between April 1, 1945 and June 22, 1945. Eddie was flying air cover for the Marines. He was low on ammunition and had just dropped his bombload. A platoon of leathernecks were surrounded on Hacksaw Ridge and were about to be overrun. Eddie did a strafing run and killed a group of Japanese soldiers, but now he was out of ammunition. The wise thing to do would be to return to Enterprise, but if he did the Marines would be killed.

Other aircraft were too far away to offer assistance. Eddie saw the Japanese get within 100 feet of the Marines. There was no time to waste. The main group of the enemy consisted of about 40 men. Eddie heard his brother’s voice in his mind, “You can’t leave them.”

The Hellcat came in so low that the wings hit some of Japanese soldiers. Eddie made three more low passes to keep the Japanese pinned down.  With his fuel gauge barely above empty and other American planes approaching to help, Eddie disengaged and headed back to the carrier. Just as he was about to land, he saw a kamikaze pilot diving for the deck of the Enterprise, Eddie aborted his landing, pulled back on the stick and used his last drop of fuel to crash into the Japanese plane moments before it could hit the carrier. The powerful mid-air collision diverted the Japanese Zero away from the ship. Both aircraft landed in the Pacific Ocean and quickly sank. The Enterprise was saved, but Eddie ‘the Eagle’s’ body was never recovered.

Overall, more than 400,000 Americans were killed between the war’s start and its official end in 1945. There were 286 instances in which families mourned at least two siblings who perished while serving their country. On one ship alone, 23 sets of brothers and a father and son were killed when the Japanese sunk the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Henry was waiting for his brother when he arrived in the hereafter. Standing behind him were all the brothers that were killed in action, including the Sullivan and Ryan brothers. Without saying a word, Henry led his twin to a hangar where two brand new Hellcats were waiting. Their call signs were glistening on the fuselage. The McTalons took off and executed impossible aerial maneuvers in perfect unison in that restricted airspace where the wild blue yonder meets infinity. A place where powerful aircraft engines create a mechanical symphony that is always in perfect harmony and the sound of warriors’ heartbeats inspire angels to break out in jubilant song.

Do not shed a tear or let your heart feel sadness for Eddie the Eagle and Henry the Hawk. The legendary Hellcat Brothers now serve at the pleasure of the Heavenly Commander.  The End

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

The Veterans Writing Group of San Diego County invites all writers to join us at our monthly meetings. Veterans and Non-Veterans are equally welcome For more information go to our website: www.veteranswritinggroup.org

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14 Comments

  1. Clyde says:

    A truly great story. Inspiring on every level. What a movie this would make!

  2. John michels says:

    Great history. Nice story Tom

  3. wolf says:

    The research Tom puts into his stories is amazing. I cannot tell fact from fiction. Most would be worthy of a Hollywood movie. I’d buy a ticket for this one.

  4. Robert says:

    Super story, very enjoyable.

  5. Steve says:

    A very enjoyable, interesting and poignant story. I was deeply moved.

  6. Jeremy says:

    The Greatest Generation is an understatement…no safe spaces for these men. Thanks for a great story.

  7. Josh says:

    I could visualize the story as I was reading it. Great tale of heroism!

  8. Tony says:

    It is almost unbelievable the stories that Mr. Thomas Calabrese chums out every week in the Vista Sunday Press edition for our reading enjoyment. What is even more unbelievable that these stories semi-fiction. In this Sunday story I happen to know some of the events are true but many of the names have been modified.
    What great Americans answered the call to arms from all walks of life. This type of spirit was not awakened again until 9/11 occurred.
    I am hoping that should this country be attacked by one of our enemies we will witness the same response as we saw on Dec. 07, 1941 and again on 9/11 when the Wold Trade Center was attacked.
    If America should see another attack with such magnitude as in the past I hope we will rise to the occasion and prevail. Great story and informative with events that are unequaled by some very heroic people.

  9. Guy says:

    These kind of stories don’t come around that often. It had action, history, humor, great characters and a great message. Fly high. Hellcat Brothers!!

  10. Tom says:

    .Awesome story.

  11. Joe says:

    The story however is certainly appreciated, and I’ll pass it along to the Old Bold Pilots. This Story is too good not to share it with them.

  12. Mike says:

    I cannot say enough good things about this story. I’m a big history buff and this tale of two brothers brought some of the greatest moments of our World War II to life. Tom humanized facts to perfection by showing us true courage and sacrifice.

  13. Marty says:

    Great story Tom. I don’t know how you can put together these great reading each week.

  14. Bart says:

    Great story for everyone and especially pilots. I will cc some.

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