A Redhawk Midway Connection

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Terrence G. Popravak, Jr. (ret)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing Historian (Volunteer)

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the epic Battle of Midway, Jun 3 – 7 1942, in which the US Navy achieved an “incredible victory” over a superior Imperial Japanese naval force.  It was a pivotal battle, essentially negating the early war advantages the Imperial Japanese Navy had in the war in the Pacific.


As the anniversary passes, we find there is a Redhawk connection to the battle, and there may be more we yet don’t know about.  One of the great combat leaders of the 371st Fighter Group in World War II (the 142nd Fighter Wing’s previous designation) was Lt Col John W. Leonard.  The son of an Army colonel and a military family, he graduated from the US Military Academy in 1942 and by the end of that year earned his pilot wings.  He later became a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter pilot in the 371st Fighter Group and deployed with the unit for combat overseas in Northwest Europe, initially to England, and later after D-Day, to France.  But he wasn’t the first Leonard to fly and fight in World War II. 


Enter his older brother William “Bill” N. Leonard, who graduated from the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1938 and became a naval aviator.  When Japan attached in the Pacific in December, 1941, Bill was a F4F Wildcat fighter pilot assigned to Fighting Squadron Forty-Two (VF-42), a Navy fighter squadron that deployed to the Pacific aboard aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5). 


From the decks of this famous warship Bill participated in the early battles of the Pacific War.  He flew on combat air patrol (CAP) for Yorktown during her raid on Jaluit and Mili in the Marshall Islands and Makin in the Gilbert Islands on February 1, 1942.  On March 10 he flew as escort for strike aircraft in a raid against the Japanese landings at Lae and Salamaua in New Guinea.  On May 4, Bill achieved two aerial victories against a new type of Japanese navy seaplane encountered during the attacks against the Japanese landings at Tulagi, near the infamous island of Guadalcanal.  He even made a highly accurate sketch of the Mitsubishi F3M aircraft he fought with, a kind of hot rod of single-engine seaplanes, later known by the code name “PETE.”


At the Battle of the Coral Sea he escorted Yorktown’s torpedo planes in their May 8 attack against the Shokaku, one of the six Japanese carriers involved in the Pearl Harbor attack.  His division of four Wildcats tangled with defending enemy Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters from two Japanese carriers and successfully kept them away from the lumbering TBD Devastator torpedo planes, his team downing two Zeroes and damaging a third in the process.  On the way back to Yorktown, he spotted a lone Japanese Aichi D3A dive bomber returning to its carrier after the Japanese attack on US carriers and shot it down – this was probably the senior aviator and commander of the carrier Shokaku’s air group.  He received the Navy Cross for his actions at Tulagi and Coral Sea; by the time of Midway he was a seasoned fighter pilot.


After an unfortunate accident enroute to Midway, Bill became the executive officer of Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3) which had replaced VF-42 aboard Yorktown as she received hasty repairs at Pearl Harbor in between the battles at Coral Sea and Midway.  VF-3 was a blend of VF-42 and VF-3 pilots and all VF-42 ground crews and thus benefitted from the experience accrued in these early battles.


On the day of principal actions at Midway, the big carrier battle of June 4, Bill Leonard flew three combat sorties in F4F-4 Wildcat Bureau Number 5244.  His first mission was on an uneventful CAP of 2.8 hours duration over Task Force 17, centered on Yorktown, as American carrier aircraft made their devastating attacks on the Japanese fleet knocking out three Japanese carriers, Akagi, Kaga and Soryu.  He was out of the cockpit back aboard Yorktown when shortly thereafter the Japanese made their first counterattack with dive bombers at 1210 hours; with the rest of the crew he had to endure being on the receiving end of three bomb hits as the carrier fought off her attackers. 


Bill soon joined seven other pilots who were to augment the CAP over the damaged flattop.  His aircraft had not yet been serviced after his earlier mission due to the dive bomber attack and battle damage actions and had maybe only 30 gallons of gas.  In fact, the next attack, by Japanese torpedo planes, was inbound at 1440 hours as Bill and the others hastily launched from Yorktown as the carrier and her escort ships opened fire with their anti-aircraft guns on the attackers.  He had barely taken off when he achieved an attack position against an incoming, low and fast Nakajima B5N torpedo plane amidst the defending anti-aircraft fire and hammered it, forcing the crew to drop their torpedo too early to be successful against Yorktown in a vain effort to survive – he pursued it through the exploding shells and fired again - the Nakajima flamed and crashed into the sea. 


Unable to gain a position of advantage on the other swift attackers in the swirling battle with his relatively low airspeed after takeoff, he ascended through some clouds to patrol for any possible dive bomber threat.  Instead he encountered a lone A6M Zero fighter which seemed to be observing damaged Yorktown and pursued it.  But the enemy pilot fled the scene before Leonard could engage him, perhaps to bring word of the damage the torpedo attack had caused, hitting Yorktown twice and immobilizing her (the gallant carrier later succumbed to an enemy submarine attack).  For this action defending his carrier against the enemy torpedo plane attack Leonard received his second Navy Cross.


At the end of his 1.1 hour sortie, Leonard recovered aboard USS Enterprise and as the senior VF-3 pilot aboard, was rushed up to flag officer spaces to report personally to Rear Admiral Spruance, the Task Force 16 commander.  He flew his third sortie of the day from Enterprise, another quiet CAP of 2.3 hours duration over forlorn Yorktown.  Had a second American attack against the Japanese fleet that afternoon not disabled the last Japanese carrier in the area, Hiryu, which was near to launching a third attack, he may have again had opportunity to engage the enemy of this most remarkable day.


After Midway, Bill Leonard played a role in the test and evaluation of a captured A6M Zero fighter that shed much of the mystery about Japan’s frontline fighter plane.  He then flew a combat tour with VF-11 ashore at Guadalcanal in the Solomon’s campaign of 1943 and served on staff with Task Force 38 in the Western Pacific later in the war.  He was ultimately credited with six aerial victories in World War II. 


Leonard served postwar as one of the Navy’s first test pilots and commanded the supercarrier USS Ranger (CV-61); he flew everything in his career from the N3N biplane in 1940 to the F-4 Phantom in 1961 and eventually reached the rank of Rear Admiral before he retired in 1971. He passed away at age 89 in 2005 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with other members of his family.  Famous World War II aviation historian Barrett Tillman called Bill Leonard a “national treasure” because of his generosity “…with his time and knowledge, records, and photos."


We can speculate as to how much Bill’s example of courage in battle at Midway and the other early Pacific War battles inspired and influenced his younger brother John.  John reportedly wore a Navy leather flight jacket his brother had given him, which could be seen to demonstrate pride in his brother’s achievements.  But there is no doubt that both men showed incredible bravery in combat, and never waffled in doing their duty. 


Like his brother Bill, John Leonard distinguished himself in aerial combat.  He was an original member of the 371st Fighter Group’s 405th Fighter Squadron and eventually commanded the squadron from September 1944 to January, 1945.  He flew and led many combat missions in support of Allied ground forces, including General George S. Patton, Jr. and his Third Army’s dramatic sweep across France.  With his squadron, John developed renown for expertise in finding and destroying railroad locomotives, train busting, on interdiction missions.


John Leonard played an important role in the aerial resupply of the “Lost Battalion” (First Battalion, 14th Infantry, 36th Division) in the Vosges Mountains of France in October, 1944.  His leadership in these low-level resupply missions in terrible weather was vital to ensure the surrounded unit could hold out until relieved, even though he himself was shot down by “friendly” anti-aircraft guns.  He survived the low altitude bailout to have a chat with the gunners about aircraft recognition.


This lion of the air was lost in battle when he and his squadron engaged in a large aerial dogfight on January 15, 1945, his formation outnumbered at least 3 to 1 against a bevy of Luftwaffe Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters.  He shot down one and shared credit for another before he was hit and wounded, not surviving his bailout.  He was 24 years young.


A tribute by a 405th FS pilot Flight Officer Robert Marks, who was his wingman and also shot down on this mission says a lot about the kind of warrior John Leonard was:  “I might add one more word about our squadron commander—he was as honest and sincere as any man you would ever wish to meet. He never asked anything of any of us that he wouldn’t do himself.”


For his service and sacrifice, Lt Col John Leonard received the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster, Purple Heart (posthumously), the Air Medal with 21 oak leaf clusters and was awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Etoile de Vermeil from the French Government.  He is also buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


On this 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, we remember with pride John Leonard, and salute the accomplishments of his brother Bill, a brave air warrior who helped turn the tide of the war in the Pacific in that epic sea battle.