United States Navy
World War II
Robert (Bob) Cropper, the son of Harry and Harriet Hickman Cropper, was born and raised in Ocean City, MD. Bob’s father operated the local hardware store.
Bob dropped out Princeton University in January, 1941 (his junior year) to join the U.S. Navy. He became a pilot and flew torpedo bombers from the deck of the USS SARATOGA (CV-3) in the South Pacific. During the course of the war, he was credited with sinking a Japanese heavy cruiser, a light cruiser, and a munitions ship. Bob served in four different theaters of World War II.
Bob was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey. He also received two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, and other awards.
On May 22, 1995, 50 years after the end of World War II, Joseph G. Harrison, Jr., attorney-at-law, interviewed Bob regarding his role in the war. Mr. Harrison was himself a Navy aviator having served during the Vietnam War aboard the USS CORAL SEA (CVA-34).
The transcript of the original interview runs to twenty pages. The version that follows has been edited by George M. Hurley, the husband of Bob’s second cousin, Suzanne B. Hurley. Both Bob and Mr. Harrison gave permission for the interview to be shared, and Mr. Harrison gave permission for it to be substantially edited particularly in length.
Harrison: Did you start off in a particular specialty?
Cropper: …the aviation cadets training program in Anacostia [Washington, DC]
Harrison: Was that for training purposes?
Cropper: Yes, an elimination base. We learned to solo in those old “Yellow Perils” [bi-wing Steermans]. I next went to Jacksonville, FL.
Harrison: When was that?
Cropper: We started training July 1, 1941.
Harrison: At that time, what was your primary aircraft?
Cropper: We started off in the Steermans…the Yellow Perils…30 hours of flight and you learned to solo…also you learned a bit of formation flying. [After training] I was assigned to seaplanes [and was taught] to fly off of battleships. I was about to graduate when Pearl Harbor came along. I was sitting in the cadet bar on that Sunday when our commander came in and told us [about the attack on Pearl Harbor], and [he] closed the bar. I was assigned to the battleship, USS WASHINGTON, [which I joined in Iceland.] We went to Scapa Flow [northern Scotland] to join the British fleet. At that time, a German battleship was [threatening] from Norway. The British needed our ship to match [the German] gun power. [Our job was to protect the merchant convoys crossing the North Atlantic bound for Russia.]
Harrison: Do you remember the name of the German battleship?
Cropper: It was the Tirpitz. I had Fourth of July dinner off of Spitzbergen, Norway.
Harrison: Were you assigned to fly at that time. . . off of the WASHINGTON?
Cropper: Yes. [We flew what] was called the OS-2U, a Kingfisher. [This plane was launched by catapult from the ship. It was recovered by landing on the water and being lifted aboard.] We flew submarine patrols ahead of the fleet.
Harrison: Did you ever encounter any submarines?
Cropper: No. I almost joined the Order of Royal Whale Bangers. [Once] I was about to release a bomb when I saw the tail of the “sub” move. [To qualify for membership in the Royal Order of Whale Bangers, you must have been on board a ship when she fired at a whale, mistaking it for a submarine.]
Harrison: Was that the extent of the combat that you faced in the Atlantic?
Cropper: Yes. The WASHINGTON was ordered back to New York. I was assigned to carrier duty in the Pacific [which meant] I had to go through a rush transfer [to learn how] to land carrier planes again in Florida. I was then sent to San Diego to join [a new] squadron: Torpedo 12. It was made up [of] a few of the Torpedo 2 boys who were on the LEXINGTON when it was sunk in the Coral Sea. Upon arriving in Hawaii, we were in training when we were sent aboard the old ENTERPRISE. We were sent to Attu in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska because they thought the Japanese were coming there. We only had summer flying gear, but it was a short trip there and [then] back. [Our squadron] was next sent to French New Caledonia. We were on an Army base. Our squadron left there to join the carrier USS SARATOGA (CV-3) at sea.
Harrison: What aircraft were you flying at that point?
Cropper: [The] TBF which preceded the TBM. [The TBF was a carrier-based bomber which carried a 2000 pound bomb or torpedo. It was called the Avenger.] We operated around Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. We had just bombed [Japanese ] bases on Bougainville Island, and were pulling back to refuel when we got rush orders [concerning] the proposed Marine invasion in Empress Augusta Bay on the south side of Bougainville. We had to steam all the way around the Solomon Islands, back around Guadalcanal and up because a [Japanese battle fleet] of cruisers had just come into Rabaul [harbor] and were going to sail down to wipe out the landing of the Marines. The Marines had no sea support other than a couple of destroyers, I think. So we launched [all our planes], and it was the longest launching way from the target the Navy had ever done at the time. After the launch, the SARATOGA was supposed to turn and run for her life. If we got out of Rabaul, we were supposed to try to land in the water at Empress August Bay, where the Marines were just making a landing and there was no airstrip yet. So we went [behind a weather front which helped to surprise the Japanese], into Rabaul to the [Japanese] fleet. That was our first strike on Rabaul. I got … a heavy cruiser.
Harrison: What class was that?
Cropper: [The one I hit was a Tone class, heavy cruiser.] I came around and my wing tip was almost lying on a volcanic mountain at the entrance to the Harbor. [The Japanese] fleet was steaming out, trying to get to sea so that they could maneuver. When I hit [the cruiser] and came over him, I passed over the bow of this cruiser after dropping my torpedo. Now this [Japanese] cruiser had four mounts of eight inch cannons going off, but I was right at bridge level off my wing tip. I could see the officers on the bridge as I passed over. I was being chewed up by a [Japanese fighter] sea plane, of all things, because they couldn’t go fast. A torpedo plane had no great speed [either], but…I managed to outrun him. But he chewed me up pretty bad, but we got back to the ship. Our captain had kept steaming ahead instead of obeying orders and turning to flee. So we came back and landed aboard, [and] went around the Solomons.
Harrison: Did you ever find the name of the cruiser that you sank?
Cropper: [Post war naval archive research shows it was the CHIKUMA. The Navy thought she sank, and, though severely damaged, the Japanese kept her afloat and later repaired her. She was sunk a year later with the loss of her entire crew in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.]
[A few days later], we launched another attack on Rabaul. [This] was another [Japanese] fleet that had come down, and we caught them in the New Britain Channel and peeled off against them. I was the leader of the tail end division of four planes… I saw a light cruiser and three destroyers fleeing into a rain storm. A heavy rainstorm! I went into the storm and flying down on them…without being able to see them until I came out at a thousand feet or less over the water. [I] came in and launched and sank him. The sinking was verified by an American submarine that was there. I [ended up being] the only plane on the strike on the four ships. [The storm had separated the planes.]
Harrison: When were these engagements taking place?
Cropper: 1943. From there, we went up and covered the landings at Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. We bombed that and that was an awful mess. I [was ordered] to make a message drop there, and the dead bodies stank at a thousand feet. Really! It reeked. We had to leave our fighter squadron ashore on Tarawa, the Fighting 12, because the Marine planes [were elsewhere]. Our medical department gave each fighter pilot several pints of Old Crow whiskey for them to trade with the Marines for mosquito nets, tents, etc. Then [the ship was ordered] back to San Francisco for repairs. We were to be detached. Our bags were packed on the flight deck when we got word we were going back to the Marshall Islands. We went back and covered the landings. We bombed many of the [Japanese] atolls including Bikini Atoll where our ship, SARATOGA, was eventually used as a target during atomic bomb testing after the war.
After the Marshall Islands were secured, our ship was detached with three destroyers and sent to Ceylon to join the British Far Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean. [The fleet] would go out from Trincomake in Ceylon, steam directly to our target, bomb it, and we would be back in Trincomake for tea on Friday afternoon. Our targets …were [Japanese] islands near Bangkok, Thailand. Once we were ordered to bomb the harbor at Surabaya on the island of Java, Indonesia. . . . this was a city of couple million people and big [Japanese] installations. There were not any real warships in the harbor, and I hit this [Japanese] munitions ship. The fighter planes that were supposed to be covering me, out ahead of me in the dive, I had outrun them. I dropped a 2000 pound skip bomb in the side of the ship. The fighters flew through my bomb blast and reported [Japanese] bodies at a thousand feet. My parents were notified to listen to the 6:00 p.m. radio news out of New York later to here news of their son.
Harrison: I’m sure you took a lot of casualties in Torpedo Squadron 12. How many of the fellows in your squadron, your original squadron, made it through the war?
Cropper: We had almost 100% replacement of pilots. We lost quite a few.
Harrison: Did you ever run across any of our local guys on your travels overseas?
Cropper: There was a fellow named Jim Jester that I knew. His father and mother used to run the [fun house] on the Ocean City pier. Remember the laughing lady?
Harrison: Laughing Sal.
Cropper: Yes. His mom had been my third grade teacher. He was on a Sun Oil tanker that supplied us with fuel. He was first mate. He had me aboard his ship for dinner one night at an anchorage near New Caledonia. Our ship had a shoe shop so I had all of his crew’s shoes half-soled and fixed him up with a couple of [modern] navy life vests.
Harrison: Bob, what would you say would be the major memory that you brought back from World War II. Your combat experiences over there? Is there any particular one?
Cropper: No really, I was scared so much. You [flew] with field boots for shoes. [They] were filled with water from sweat. But, really, I was just scared as hell. And I don’t want anybody flying with me that’s not scared, [that is] flying wing on me.
From the editor, George M. Hurley:
“Uncle Bob” was especially interesting to our family in that he continued to do “different” things upon his return to civilian life. He started the first (privately owned) public bus system in Ocean City. I recall as a young man the buses were always broken down around town, and Bob’s pretty wife or Bob himself would be “under the hood” working while the passengers patiently waited. (Of course, the town only went to 15th Street then.)
Bob ran for mayor at least four times…and lost four times… even though his uncle (C. P. Cropper, 1941-44) and his cousin (Hugh T. Cropper, 1951-1959) were considered good mayors. Sometime, during the early sixties, he and his two brothers purchased all of the land from 94th Street to the Delaware line, ocean to bay, for $10,000. Needless to say, they all went to their Maker very comfortably.
I find it fitting to submit Uncle Bob’s story in my wife’s name in that she was family. Sue created a DVD a few years ago that included some of the above story entitled, Once Upon a Sand Dune. The Ocean City museum still sells many copies each year.
In editing Bob Cropper’s story for presentation on the website www.opvets.com, Mr. Hurley provided research materials on many of the events mentioned in the above account. It is presented here for your edification.
In his interview, Mr. Cropper refers to the American carrier raid on the heavily defended Japanese port of Rabaul on New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago. This surprise first raid occurred on November 5, 1943, under cover of a weather front. The American carriers involved were the USS SARATOGA (CV-3) and the USS PRINCETON (CVL-23).
According to all historical accounts, the raid disrupted a huge Japanese cruiser force which would have wreaked havoc on the allied beachhead on Bougainville. As a result countless lives were saved.
During the raid on Rabaul, six cruisers (some US Navy accounts indicate eight), as well as three destroyers, were damaged. According to post war US Navy accounting, no ships were sunk. At the time, however, the SARATOGA’s (SBD) scout bomber’s gun camera, and the ensuing intelligence reports, thought as much.
There were two ships in the Japanese Navy of the heavy cruiser Tone class. The first was the Tone, launched in 1938 and displacing 15,200 tons. Planes of the USS MONTEREY eventually sank her in the shallow waters of Hiroshima Bay in July of 1945. Her wreckage was salvaged in 1948.
The sister ship to the Tone was the Chikuma which was launched in 1939 and also displaced 15,200 tons. Mr. Cropper torpedoed this ship in 1943 apparently inflicting heavy damage, but not sinking it. During the battle of Leyte in October of 1944, the Chikuma assisted in sinking the carrier USS GAMBIER BAY. Chikuma was soon damaged by the destroyer USS HEERMANN and a number of torpedo planes. Immobilized and dead in the water, her crew (who all went aboard the Japanese destroyer Nowaki) scuttled the Chikuma. The Nowaki sank the same day with the loss of all on board except for one of the Chikuma’s crew.
The USS PRINCETON (originally laid out to be the heavy cruiser USS TALLAHASSEE) sank after a single Japanese 500-pound bomb exploded below her decks. The sinking occurred east of the Philippine Islands during the battle of Leyte.
The USS SARATOGA was designated as surplus following World War II and was assigned to the Bikini Atoll to test the effects of the atomic bomb on naval vessels. She survived the first aerial blast with only minor damage, but succumbed to the second blast that was detonated from a small vessel anchored 500 yards away. Seven hours later, on July 25, 1946, she slipped beneath the surface.
The USS SARATOGA received seven battle stars for her World War II service. At the time of her sinking, the SARATOGA held the record for the greatest number of aircraft landed on a carrier with a total of 98,549 landings in 17 years.