STRATFORD - The climax of every combat flight for Herman Larson involved plunging down through the sky at an extremely steep angle over a Japanese-held island, unleashing bombs and bullets and then soaring away as fast as the plane would go.
''We were always jolted by the bombs going off and I could see lots of stuff flying in the air,'' the former Marine Corps aviator wrote in an account of his World War II service. ''We seldom missed our target.''
The 94-year-old Stratford man was a radio operator and gunner on a dive bomber called an SBD Dauntless who received the Air Medal for his efforts on missions over the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
-Messenger photo by Bill Shea
Herman Larson, of Stratford, uses a model of a Dauntless dive bomber to show where he used to ride in that kind of plane during World War II. The former radio operator and gunner has a model of that kind of plane hanging from the light above his dining room table.
Larson didn't know the Marine Corps had any airplanes until he started the training that ultimately resulted in him flying 64 missions.
He was working on his parents' 360-acre farm near Boxholm when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
''I knew I would be drafted soon, so I went and entered the Marine Corps,'' he said during an interview.
He said he had been looking at the Marine Corps because he believed the United States would soon be in a war.
''We knew we were going to be getting in trouble,'' he said of the world situation in 1941.
However, he had to get some dental work done before the Marine Corps would accept him. He entered the service in April 1942 and was sent to San Diego, Calif., for basic training.
''It was tough,'' he said of boot camp. ''I learned discipline and I never forgot that.''
After completing basic training, he was assigned to Marine Corps Air Station North Island in California. That's when he learned that the Marines had planes. He was quickly shipped off to a clerical school in Toledo, Ohio. After 12 weeks there, he returned to North Island and volunteered for radio operator and gunner training. That course, completed in El Centro, Calif., also took 12 weeks.
His training completed, Larson sailed into the Pacific Ocean aboard an old Dutch freighter. His first stop was an island called New Caledonia in the South Pacifc not far from Australia. He was quickly moved to a new American base at an island called Espiritu Santo. There he was paired with a pilot, Capt. Dan Cummings, and assigned to fly in the SBD Dauntless, a single engine plane that could carry 1,200 pounds of bombs and also had machine guns. Cummings was the first of two pilots Larson flew with.
On July 1, 1943, Larson and Cummings went to Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands.
''That's where they started pushing the Japanese back,'' he said.
Larson recalled that the Marines were still clearing Japanese troops from Guadalcanal when he arrived. He said he flew missions to support the Marines on the ground. He also flew bombing missions to Munda, another island in the Solomons chain.
The Marines caputured Munda, and Larson's dive bomber squadron started operating from there on Sept. 29, 1943. From there, the aviators bombed the island of Bougainville. After Bougainville was captured, Larson flew from an air base there.
He next flew 12 missions to bomb the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul on the island of New Britain.
On a typical mission, he said, the planes would cruise at 16,000 feet until they got near the target. When they were about five minutes from the target, he said, the planes would drop down to 11,000 feet. When the plane was over the target, it dove toward the ground at a nearly vertical angle.
''Right away, we'd see black flak clouds floating around and we could see flashes on the ground, like big camera flashes,'' Larson wrote in his account of his flying days. ''But they were not cameras but anti-aircraft guns firing at us.''
When the plane was about 1,500 feet above the ground, the pilot would release the bombs and pull the plane out of its dive.
''The G-force was so strong that we blacked out for a moment,'' Larson wrote. ''As soon as I could move, I'd get the twin .30 caliber machine guns out and strafed until we were over water and down to 50 to 100 feet.''
In March 1944, Larson was sent back to the United States, where he finished his military career at a succession of Marine Corps bases. He married his wife, Mary, on May 5, 1944, in Des Moines. He was discharged from the military in October 1945.
Upon returning to civilian life, Larson first worked for the credit reporting firm Dunn & Bradstreet. He then worked for Union Trust and Savings Bank in Lehigh for 35 years.