Henry Clarendon Simmons, Jr., born in Rockland, raised in Union, a veteran who gave his life for his country
On this Veterans Day, I'd like to tell you about my cousin, Henry Clarendon Simmons, Jr., who was born in Rockland and raised in Union. His story is almost as much about the plane he flew in during World War II as it is about himself.
I knew him only slightly as a youngster, but I am very proud of his service to our country and I hope that, after reading his too short life story, you will come to be as proud of him, too.
Henry Clarendon Simmons, Jr., was born in Rockland, Knox County, Maine, on 19 May 1919, the first child and son of Henry Clarendon Simmons and Addie L. (Pease) Simmons who had married probably in Union or Appleton on 29 May 1918, where they had grown up.
Henry, Jr., grew up in Rockland, where his father was an electrician, until he was about eleven years old around 1930 when the family moved back to Union and he attended Union High School, graduating in 1937 (200 YEARS IN UNION, Union, Maine: Union Historical Society, 1974).
After graduating from high school Henry moved at some time to New Hampshire from which during World War II he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. It is likely that he received basic and technical training at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. After training he flew as an Aviation Radioman, eventually reaching First Class, in Consolidated PBY Catalina aircraft and served mostly in the Pacific theater of operations during the war.
The Consolidated PBY Catalina became the Navy’s most successful flying boat, highly adept at both rescuing downed fliers and at bombing Japanese submarines and surface ships. The lumbering PBY had a maximum speed of only 180 mph and a cruising speed of only 117 mph, but it could carry bombs or depth charges for anti-submarine patrols to a range of close to 3000 miles. The Catalina did its job well. Ultimately it was responsible for destroying “a tenth of all of the Japanese shipping blasted into oblivion during the forty-four months of fighting in the Pacific.” (Creed: PBY, p. 181.)
Robert Hayes, the historian of Henry’s squadron VPB-34, writes of the Catalina’s capacity and handling as an aircraft of war:
“Our night patrols would take off at sunset and return at dawn, and the take-offs were exciting, to say the least. With 1,450 gallons of gasoline and 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of bombs, the planes would carry a gross weight of 37,000 pounds, nearly 20 tons, including the crew. The Cat was durable; it was built like a brick outhouse. But it handled like a truck. We would often see a heavily laden Cat disappear over the horizon, still slamming into the ocean swells, trying to get airborne. Once in a while one would come taxiing back, unable to get off at all. The takeoff technique was to apply full power, haul back on the control yoke and, when some speed was generated, push the yoke forward and get ‘on the step’ (the stepped-forward portion of the boat hull). Then we’d muscle the controls as the plane slammed into the waves and ocean swells, and then, maybe, we would get enough air speed to slam off one more time and hold the Cat inches off the water, until she finally grabbed some flying speed.
“It was said that the PBY climbed, cruised and stalled out at 90 knots.” (Hayes: BLESS ’EM ALL, p. 7-8)
Henry’s patrol squadron VP-34 was formed in Norfolk, Virginia, in July, 1942. It moved on to Coco Solo, Canal Zone, and from there to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where it flew its first patrols for three months. It was then transferred to Perth, Western Australia, in September, 1943, and on December 26, 1943, the squadron transferred to Samarai on the most Eastern point of New Guinea. His squadron was assigned air-sea-rescue duties during which time it saved seventy-seven men, but on 17 July 1944 those duties were changed to search and attack and the squadron transferred to Biok Island just northwest of New Guinea and closer to the Philippines. His squadron VPB-34, as it then became known, was part of several squadrons of black-painted PBY Catalina flying boats that operated mainly at night, which were known as the “Black Cats.” Their service, heroism, and dedication to duty and country wrote a proud chapter in the history of U. S. Naval aviation.
On the evening of 23 July 1944 Henry Simmons’ Black Cat Catalina patrol plane number 70 left on patrol and never returned. Its crew was declared lost at sea, missing in action, on 24 July 1944, and Henry was officially declared dead on 4 February 1946, five months after the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945. The Crew of plane number 70 on that fateful patrol (as best it can be compiled to date) was:
Lt. (j.g.) Richard W. Ball, pilot
Lt. (j.g.) Robert P. Federico, co-pilot (I believe)
Ens. Robert H. Hicks
AMM 1/c Earl C. Gray
AMM 1/c Louis H. Fairbrother
AMM 2/c Vernon B. Peterson
ARM 1/c Henry C. Simmons, Jr.
ARM 2/c Staton J. Kele
AOM 1/c Junior L. Wells
The loss of Henry’s plane and crewmates is recounted briefly on pages 173-4 of Roscoe Creed’s definitive book on the aircraft, PBY; THE CATALINA FLYING BOAT (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1985):
“A Cat flown by Lieutenant (j.g.) Richard Ball was lost early in the tour. During the night of 23 July  he radioed that he had found a target at Halmahera Island and was beginning his attack. The plane never returned to the tender.”
Richard Knott in his definitive book on Black Cat operations, BLACK CAT RAIDERS OF WORLD WAR II, tells of the loss thusly (pp. 161-2):
“This tour of search-and-attack missions started, unfortunately, on a sour note. On the night of July 23, Lieutenant (j.g.) Richard W. Ball sent a contact report to base, advising that he had found a target in Kaoe Bay at enemy-held Halmahera Island and was commencing an attack. Base radio heard nothing more from Ball’s aircraft but another Cat operating in the area received weak and garbled transmissions from his plane as much as an hour and fifteen minutes later. Then all transmissions ceased. The plane did not return to base.”
The Navy’s brief listing of the loss of the plane was the following:
“ --- 24 JUL 44 A/C: PBY-5 [pby] Location: SW Pac Strike: Yes BUNO: 08137 Cause: Failed to return from a night search after attacking a target in Kaoe Bay, Northern Halmaheras and are missing in action. Crew: Lt. R. W. Ball, Lt (jg) Robert Federico, Ens Robert H. Hicks, and 2/MIA” [One of the Missing In Action was Henry Simmons, Jr.]
from website http://www.vpnavy.com/vp34_mishap.html (a website devoted to the history of US Navy patrol squadrons)
The target contact report to base that Henry’s plane made that night was later found to be noted in the personal Aviator’s Flightlog of another radioman in Henry’s squadron, Art Berkovitz (later Berkell), who wrote that the contact report said the target they were attacking was a Japanese transport and three destroyers. The anti-aircraft fire that three Japanese destroyers could send against a slow PBY attempting to bomb them must have been withering, indeed. Berkovitz continued in the back of his Aviator’s Flightlog to make this short but moving entry about the missing aircraft and his buddies:
“Lt. Ball & Crew took off for a nite bombing mission to the same place as we were the nite before—They sent in a contact report on sighting a transport & 3 destroyers in the same harbour at Helmahera Island. That was the last heard of them—one more crew missing in action.... There can be no better tribute paid to the...men—they were swell friends and buddies.... Wherever they be—God be with them.”
The war campaign in which Henry and his crewmates were participating had as its objective to take the small Japanese-held island of Morotai (Lat 2° 19' 60N Long 128° 25' 0E) in the Northern Halmaheras Islands northwest of New Guinea. Morotai had a large airfield on it. Once he took that island, General Douglas MacArthur knew he would have a strategic base from which to launch operations against the Philippine Islands, only 400 miles away—to which MacArthur had said “I shall return!”—and thus eventually shorten the war. Henry Simmons, Jr., and all the crew of the PBY in which he served, gave their lives for that cause. Morotai was the final island invasion in Dutch New Guinea before the liberation of the Philippines.
Just two months after Henry and his crewmates died American troops invaded Morotai on September 15, 1944, completely surprising and dispersing an enemy force of 1,000 men. Airstrips were immediately built to accommodate the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers of the Thirteenth Air Force and the Philippine Islands were subsequently taken. The conquest of this small Pacific island, for which Henry and his crewmates gave their lives, brought significant U.S. air power to bear on the Japanese and shortened the war, undoubtedly saving many hundreds, and very possibly, thousands of lives.
Interestingly and coincidentally, on October 23, 1944, a flight of ten Black Cats from Henry’s squadron VPB-34 and from squadron VPB-33 became the first American aircraft to officially land in the Philippines since the Japanese invasion. (Hayes: BLESS ’EM ALL, p. 56)
On 1 January 1945 Lieutenant Commander V. V. Utgoff, USN, Commanding Officer of Patrol Bombing Squadron 34, submitted the following concise summary of operations of his squadron:
“Subject: Squadron operations
1. The final results of all squadron operations of war during its Pacific war cruise are as follows: approximately 1000 combat sorties flown, comprising about 10,000 combat hours, during which 120,500 tons of enemy shipping were damaged, of which 98,000 tons were
sunk or destroyed; 4 destroyers and 2 escort vessels damaged, 75 to 125 luggers, barges and other small craft damaged or destroyed, and 281 Allied personnel rescued, 153 more evacuated from or flown to front line areas, and 3 Japanese prisoners taken.
2. For this unsurpassed record: ‘Well done.’
AWARDS: Squadron Presidential Unit Citation
1 Congressional Medal of Honor
5 Navy Crosses
12 Silver Stars
8 Distinguished Flying Crosses
17 Air Medals
4 Purple Hearts
(These were Navy decorations; many more were awarded by the Army.)
LOSSES: Sadly, two full crews lost on night missions, and one pilot killed by a single enemy bullet.”
At the end of the war the Black Cats came home, a very difficult and deadly job well done. The accomplishment of the Cats is summed up superbly on the last page (184) of Richard Knott’s BLACK CAT RAIDERS OF WORLD WAR II:
“Slowly, during the last months of 1944 and into the first months of 1945, the Black Cats began wending their way home across the Pacific. They were a sorry sight, dented and pockmarked, with black paint peeling from their battered hulls. Some wore crude patches and others still carried bullet holes that had not yet been plugged. But these were warriors’ scars, earned in battle and worn with dignity. And justly so. Never in history has an aircraft so ill-designed for combat wreaked so much havoc on such a dangerous and merciless adversary. Not since David and his slingshot had men gone forth with more courage than those who flew out into the darkness at 95 knots, in search of Japanese Goliaths!”
Henry Simmons’ gravestone in the Union Common Cemetery, Union, Maine, carries the correct date of his death, 24 July 1944, but it is commemorative only as his body was never found, lost at sea with his crewmates. The gravestone carries the legend:
“He gave his life in the service of his country.”
His name, along with those of his crewmates, is inscribed on the 192 Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial at Fort Bonifacio, Manila, Republic of the Philippines. On these tablets are inscribed the names and particulars of 36,282 U.S. servicemen and women who gave their lives during World War II in the service of their country in the Pacific theater of operations and whose remains have not been identified, or they were buried or lost at sea, as were Henry and his crewmates. On the wall facing the Tablets of the Missing are these inscriptions:
HERE ARE RECORDED THE NAMES OF AMERICANS WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY AND WHO SLEEP IN UNKNOWN GRAVES, 1941–1945.
SOME THERE BE WHICH HAVE NO SEPULCHRE. THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE.
GRANT UNTO THEM O LORD ETERNAL REST WHO SLEEP IN UNKNOWN GRAVES.