Saving Gunner Papazoglakis; A war story
Miles apart from one another, two men celebrated a single day in history as their defining moment.
One of the men, 1st Lt. Philip S. (Pots) Wilmot, of Glenwood Springs, remembers it as the most important thing he did during World War II.
The other man, Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis of Clifton Park, N.Y., was not alive that day in 1945, but he knows that without the help of two marine pilots his dad would never have made it back from the war, never married his mother and he would never have been born.
It all started when Pots, a Marine pilot and World War II veteran shared the story of when he helped escort a damaged Navy torpedo bomber to safety to author and friend Martin Irons.
Pots had always wondered what had happened to the crew of that aircraft. Irons, who met Pots while researching for a book project, decided to look into it for his story.
“This whole thing unfolded in about 44 hours,” Irons said. And on the 73th anniversary of the attack last March, he made contact with Rev. Papazoglakis, rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clifton Park.
Neither Pots nor Rev. Papazoglakis had ever shared their stories, or even been able to meet one another, until last Friday in Glenwood Springs.
The day was March 19, 1945.
“It was my best day and my worst day,” Pots told the Post Independent during his meeting with Rev. Papazoglakis at Pots’ daughter’s house.
Flying in a Vought F4U Corsair, Pots and his squadron were tasked with a mission to attack Kure Naval Base, one of four principal naval shipyards operated by the Imperial Japanese Navy, located on the island of Honshu.
Pots said he had no idea that it would be bad, but when they arrived over Honshu the sky was filled with flack.
“One went off right next to my wing, I closed my eyes thinking I was dead, but all it did was knock me around,” said Pots, remembering the attack with amazing detail right down to checking his oil pressure after the hit.
After dive bombing and hitting a carrier with three rockets, Pots was separated from his commander as he pulled up from his dive. In the chaos of the attack, Pots was able to locate fellow pilot 1st Lt. W.E. Brown, and slid up into formation with him for the return to their carrier.
As they flew under the clouds on their way back to the USS Bunker Hill, an Essex class aircraft carrier, Wilmot and Brown spotted a damaged Grumman Avenger TBM-3. The aircraft came out of the clouds smoking and losing altitude. Knowing the plane was not going make it back to its carrier and that the crew were sitting ducks, the two pilots began to escort the TBM-3 on its descent.
The TBM-3 was crewed by Navy Pilot Lt. Ray Plant and Gunner James Papazoglakis, Aviation Mechanist Mate 3rd Class.
“All my dad said was they were flying over their target and could barely see, as they navigated through the flack exploding around them,” Rev. Papazoglakis said. “All of a sudden they were hit, flack hit the tail and my dad hit his head on the turret.
“When he came to, they were flying over mountains and out to sea,” he said.
“Sure enough, a damn Frank, a code name for an Imperial Japanese Navy fighter plane, came right out of the clouds trying to finish off the avenger,” Pots added. Luckily, Lt. Brown was able to fire on the Japanese plane and bring it down before it made contact with the Navy plane.
“In the stories my dad always told, he never saw the Japanese plane, he was too busy watching the tail fall off the TBM-3,” Rev. Papazoglakis said.
The Avenger continued to lose altitude, looking for a place to ditch the aircraft. Off the coast of Honshu in the Pacific Ocean, the pilots stumbled upon the USS Bowfin, an American rescue submarine.
Pots watched as Lt. Plant maneuvered his damaged plane.
“They plopped into the water, scrambled out of their plane and onto the deck of the submarine.
“I couldn’t understand how we saved them, we never saved people, we just had to watch them go down,” Pots said. “Sometimes you cried, it was terrible out there, I was so happy they survived.”
“Thank you for doing it,” Rev. Papazoglakis said to Pots, acknowledging that moment long ago when his dad’s life was saved.
“I think that’s why I was put here, to save Rev. Tom’s dad; that’s my ultimate achievement,” Pots said.
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Visual Journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at 970-384-9108 or email@example.com