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US NAVY

HELLDIVER PILOT

BOMBING SQUADRON NINETEEN (VB-19)
USS LEXINGTON (CV-16)

 

ENTER USN

John Kantjas was born in Deary, Idaho, on August 29, 1919, and was the son of Nicolas J. Kantjas, a Greek emigrant, and his wife Winnifred Grace Taylor. Nicolas's origin was probably from Mainalo, a small Greek village in Tripoli, in the Peloponesse area, and his original name was Nikolaos Kantzavelos. When he arrived in Ellis Island in 1905 at the age of 22 years old he shortened it to be easier to pronounce in English. Nicolas wasn't the only one from his family to immigrate. His brother Napoleon came also and lived in Chicago, Illinois according to John’s recollections. Unfortunately, Nicolas died when John was only 13 years old. Because he had a younger brother and a sister and because his sister was mentally ill, his mother sent him to live on a friend's ranch in Idaho. He loved that place - always talked about it. He was an avid outdoorsman - loved to hunt, fish, and camp. After high school he worked his way through college by working as a lumberjack and afterward he attended the University of Idaho, studying logistics, to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). According to his daughter Linda:

"I heard that while he was on the Lexington Carrier he used to study hard for the CPA exam instead of goofing around with the others."

Probably while at the university, World War II broke out and he decided to enlist in the US Navy and he was chosen for a naval aviator. His preflight training took place at St.Mary’s College in California. On February 27, 1942, Navy Secretary Frank Knox sent a telegram to Saint Mary’s College stating that the campus had been selected to host one of the pre-flight establishments. Roughly six months later, the population at Saint Mary’s exponentially increased and the campus was a fully functioning military training site. John was at St.Mary’s College sometime during early 1943. Later he proceeded for Flight Training in NAS Corpus Christi and graduated on October 9, 1943, proudly wearing the Naval Aviators Gold Wings. He continued his Operational Training in NAS Jacksonville in Florida probably flying with BOMBING SQUADRON ONE. He then proceeded to Chicago Illinois in order to be carrier qualified before transferring to an active squadron. After successfully completing his qualification from the decks of USS Wolverine or USS Samble he was sent to Fleet Replacement Squadron VB-100. After further training, he was ordered for duty to the Pacific serving with Bombing Squadron 19. However, before joining VB-19 he took his in theater training in Bombing Squadron 99 which was based in Majuro. Soon after he reported for duty in the USS Lexington probably from 10 to 29 August 1944 while the carrier moored to Eniwetok for refueling and rearming. On August 30, VB-19 and CV-16 sailed for Palau. The next three months he would face fierce combat against the Japanese Navy fleet and ground installations.


BAPTISM OF FIRE

The first taste of combat for John Kantjas came during the first days of September, during the pre-invasion strikes on Peleliu Island. On September 7, 1944, fourteen SB2C-3 Helldivers took off for a strike, carrying one 1.000-pound bomb and two smaller 250-pound bombs. The dive bombers approached Peleliu Island from the South using the large cumulus clouds as cover. Their strike was successful hitting guns and radio installations as well as a power plant. The Greek American pilot flew with the section which targeted the radio station. According to the After Action Report:

"Lieutenant Everett Earl Newman, Lt Webster Page Wodell, and Ensign John Kantjas dived upon a radio station at grid position 129B. Their bombing was good but the type of bombs used did not pierce the strangely reinforced concrete covering."   

Two days later eighteen Helldivers struck Surigao and Bilaa Point airfields as well as shipping in the same area. The dive bombers were armed with 1.000 and two 250 pound general-purpose bombs. The strike was very successful and VB-19 destroyed a freighter and damaged two more, sunk three sampans, destroyed an oil tank and a  warehouse. The last one was the target for the Kantjas section.

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Naval Aviator, John N. Kantjas poses for the camera in an official photo most probably after the war. John was one of the most successful Greek American pilots who flew the infamous SB2C Helldiver, having a hit on the Japanese carrier IJN Zuikaku, during the Battle for Leyte Gulf, and specifically the Battle off Cape Engaño on October 25, 1944  (Linda Kantjas Archive)
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A formation of four SB2C Helldivers of Bombing Squadron 19 from USS Lexington CV-16, during the Second Battle of Guam - July 1944. (LIFE Magazine Archives - J R Eyerman Photographer).
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Group photo of new naval aviators who graduated from NAS Corpus Christi on October 9, 1943. Kantjas is on the front row, fourth from the right. (USN)  

"Lieutenant E.E.Newman, Ensign R.W. Doyle, and Ensign J. Kantjas dived on a large warehouse which was part of the dock facilities, destroying the same and setting off a tremendous explosion followed by white smoke and thus believed to be a large ammunition dump. All three planes strafed shipping in the harbor and set two sampans on fire themselves and shared a third, which was strafed jointly by pilots of this section and pilots of the fighter squadron." 

It is believed that more damage was done which was not observed in the mess of the attack upon shipping and dock facilities. A total of 14 burning ships were counted by three different people on this flight and it's quite possible that the damage inflicted by the VB-19 bombers was underestimated. Also according to the squadron reports the strikes in the Mindanao area during September 9 and 10, proved the value of the 20mm gun as a lethal weapon against shipping, something also proven by Kantjas section during their sortie. However, this sortie wasn't uneventful for the Greek American pilot. That day he flew with Nickens as his gunner. Years later Nickens wrote in “THE VOICES OF BOMBING NINETEEN” compiled by Bill and Kathy Emerson.

"On one strike in the Philippines, the engine of our plane did not develop full power on the takeoff. Immediately on clearing the flight deck, the plane dipped down near the water, with the engine running very roughly.  We were low enough that I felt as if I could reach down and touch the tops of the waves.  This went on for a while, but my pilot, John Kantjas, finally was able to gain enough altitude to join our group.  All the time we were over Mindanao, the engine continued to run very badly.  The plane should never have been allowed to fly in that condition.  Mindanao appeared to be one big jungle, and there would have been no place to land if it had become necessary to land.  If we bailed out, we would probably land in unfriendly territory.  Finally, we finished our attack and headed home to the ship.  Upon reaching the ocean, I breathed a sigh of relief because I knew that if we had to land in the water, there was a good chance that we would be picked up by one of our own subs or destroyers.  But we did not have to face that situation as we soon landed safely on the Lex.  I was never so happy to be "home"."

For the next few days, USS Lexington Carrier Air Group shifted its attention to the Visayans Islands and specifically to the Cebu area. On September 12 the Squadron struck the airfield and airfield facilities as well as shipping in that area. Fourteen SB2C-3 took off, one aborted shortly after, and approached their targets from the northeast direction. The Helldivers dive-bombed the targets above and destroyed nine airplanes, one oiler, and a medium freighter. Katja's sections struck harbor installations. According to the After Action Report: 

"Lieutenant P.R. Stradley and Ensign John Kantjas dived on oil tanks of the Asiatic Oil Refinery on Shell Island in Cabu harbor. One fire was going before they dropped and they set off two large tanks and it is believed that Lt. Stradley bomb obtained a direct hit upon a large storage tank starting a large and intense fire."   

The Greek American pilot kept flying in numerous missions through September and during the last days of the month VB-19 struck targets in the Manila and Luzon areas. On the 21st fourteen Helldivers heavily armed with one 1.000 and one, 500-pound bombs took off in order to attack the Manila airfield. Once more they were successful, destroying six enemy planes on the ground and several buildings.  

"Lieutenant W.A.Wright and Ensign J. Kantjas dived upon buildings to the north of the runway intersection and the extent of further damage inflicted by their bombs is not ascertained."

Those missions revealed that most of the damage inflicted to the dive bombers came from small-caliber weapons that's why Cdr. McGowan suggested that in area bombing the release should be at 4.000 ft and then execute a high-speed climb out of the range of those guns.  The pilots of the squadron kept flying strike missions however they had not engaged major enemy fleet units. This was about to change soon.

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Colorized photo of a smiling John most probably after his graduation and promotion to Ensign of US Navy. (Linda Kantjas Archive)
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An SB2C-3 Helldiver of Bombing Squadron (VB) 19 pictured on the flight deck of the carrier Lexington (CV 16) after returning from a combat mission in the Pacific on August 20, 1944. Note that the pilot is folding the wings so that the aircraft can be spotted forward. (National Museum of Naval Aviation)
SB2C-3 Helldiver 75 was one of those flown by VB-19 pilots during the Battle of Cape Engano, and probably also flown by the Greek American Naval aviator. More than 880 changes had to be incorporated into the SB2C’s design before the Navy was satisfied. Many of the alterations were demanded in response to combat experience over Europe, such as self-sealing fuel tanks and additional armor protection. The Navy also wanted the twin fuselage-mounted machine guns replaced by a pair of wing-mounted 20mm cannons. That alteration, in turn, dictated the relocation of some of the fuel tanks and other internal equipment. The majority of the design changes, however, sought to alleviate the airplane’s unsatisfactory handling characteristics. In that effort, Blaylock and his staff were never completely successful. One reason for the plane’s instability was that the fuselage was not long enough, due to the Navy’s requirement that the SB2C fit on existing aircraft carrier lifts. The one potentially dangerous result of the plane’s instability was that if the pilot had to abort a landing, gunning the engine could cause the plane’s nose to pitch up so much that he might lose control or even stall over the carrier deck. In order to solve the problem, the tail section was progressively enlarged, to such an extent that it was later said that the SB2C’s rudder was big enough to steer a battleship. (Copyright Bertrand Brown aka Gaetan Marie, further info by Robert Guttman)

DIVE BOMBING ZUIKAKU

On October 10, 1944, BOMBING NINETEEN had its first chance to strike large enemy combatant ships, North of Nago Wan and Southeast of Sesoko Island. Fourteen Helldivers armed with one 1000 pound two 250 pound general-purpose bombs attacked a convoy consisting of a sub-tender, a large AK (freighter), a medium AK (freighter), and a transport. The formation of Lieutenant D. P. Heln, Ensign R. W. Doyle, and Ensign John Karntjas dropped upon a 3000 ton Fox Tare Charlie AK, and it is believed that this ship was damaged and it was the same ship shown damaged by photographs taken about two hours later. The VB-19 bombers sunk the sub-tender and the large AK and heavily damaged the medium AK. The transport was left unscathed. However, this was a prelude to things to come. 

During the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 24 and 25th of October, the Squadron and Kantjas himself had their greatest moments while attacking the Japanese fleet in one of the separate battles, known as the Battle of Cape Engano. On October 25, the first strike, a group of 20 Helldivers armed with one 1000 pound armored piercing bomb each, took off and orbited at 12,000 feet, fifty miles toward the Japanese fleet. The search planes made their contact report and the group pressed the attack. The squadron concentrated on one Japanese Carrier and it was left in a sinking condition after obtaining eleven direct hits. As this strike was orbiting the base waiting to land the target coordinator reported it sunk. Damage was also inflicted on an Ise BB/XCV. Repeated attacks were made throughout the day on the remaining carriers and their escorts. The total damage for this date far exceeded their fondest hopes. The second strike sank the Shokaku (VT-19 also attacked) and damaged a third carrier. The third strike again attacked a third carrier (IJN Zuihō ) and it was sunk. The fourth strike seriously damaged a battleship with nine hits. The anti-aircraft fire thrown up by the Japanese was a brilliant display of fireworks, but inaccurate. According to the after-action report regarding the first strike in which the Greek American pilot took part.

"Twelve planes dived upon aiming point No. 1, which has been identified by photographic evidence as a Shokaku class carrier and is believed to be the Zuikaku. Interrogation indicates nine hits upon this carrier. The exact number obtained cannot be verified by photographic evidence, but there is one photograph taken a short time after our attack which has been enlarged and shows what is believed to be eleven hits. The carrier was bombed, however, by other squadrons. The results of the interrogation are listed below. Lieutenant P. R. Stradley obtained a hit almost midway between the port and starboard sides, approximately even with the island. Lt.(JG) A. Jancar obtained a hit on the starboard side approximately two-thirds of the way aft. Lt.(JG) S. B. Crapser hit about as near the middle of the ship, both lengthwise and crosswise, as possible. Lt.(JG) G. . Bowen hit approximately one-half way between the bow and the island near the center of the ship. Lt.(Js) J. B. Wilton hit a few feet forward of the aft end of the flight deck. Ensign R.W. Doyle hit about amidships and slightly on the port side. Lieutenant D.F. Helm hit about three-fourths of the way aft near the port side of the flight deck. The results of Ensign A. Adlmans bomb drop are not known, but his bomb đid drop. EnsignJ. Kantjas probably hit slightly toward the island on the starboard side. Lt. (Jg) J. H. Crocker, Jr. hit on the starboard side about halfway between the island and the fantail. The results of Lt.(JG) C. F. Fisher's drop is not known, but his bomb is believed to be one of only two bombs known to hit in the water. Lt.(JG) J. W. Evatt obtained a very close near miss on the starboard side about two-thirds of the way aft of the ship. The carrier later sank and it is believed that this squadron made a substantial contribution to the sinking of this large enemy carrier claiming five to nine direct hits."

For his actions, John Kantjas was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

"For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as a Pilot in Bombing Squadron Nineteen, attached to USS LEXINGTON, in operations against enemy Japanese forces during the Battle for Leyte Gulf, on October 25, 1944. A skilled and daring airman, Lieutenant Junior Grade, Kantjas materially assisted in establishing air superiority by pressing his dive-bombing attack upon an enemy aircraft carrier to extremely close range in spite of heavy air opposition and unusually intense anti-aircraft fire. Lieutenant Junior Grade, Kantjas' skilled airmanship, courageous disregard for his own safety, and steadfast devotion to the fulfillment of hazardous missions contributed essentially to the success of his squadron's operations in a period of intense and vital aerial activity and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

After the success of the VB-19 during the Battle of Leyte the operations shifted once again to the Luzon Area with numerous strikes during November 5 and 6, 1944. One Japanese heavy cruiser was sunk in the Manila harbor after taking 10 direct hits from the Squadrons Helldivers. On November 6, 1944, five SB2C-3s armed each with two 500 pounds and two 250 pound general-purpose bombs took off for a shipping strike mission west of Luzon. After Action Report 95 writes:

"This flight of five planes was directed by the target coordinator to attack shippíng in the first cover north of Subio Bay. From photographic evidence, it is believed that the ship attacked was a landing ship, which is quoted in available recognition material as 1.500 tons. The results of the interrogation are as follows. Lieutenant P. R. Stradley obtained a near miss on the port side about amidships. Lt. (JG) G.H.Bowen obtained a hit amidships. Ensign John Kantjas missed, dropping slightly forward of the bow. Lieutenant L.R. Swanson obtained a hit or very near miss at the aft end of the ship. Lt.(JG) J. B. Wilton obtained a hit about three-fourths of the way aft on the ship, which set off a large explosion, leaving the ship burning fiercely, with smoke billowing to an altitude of between 3000 and 6000 feet. The ship was in a sinking condition when our planes retired from the target area, and the fact that it sunk was verified by VF-19 pilots."

On November 23 the Air Group 20 relieved Air Group 19 and the latter embarked on the USS Enterprise for Pearl Harbor. On reaching they boarded USS Long Island and sailed for the United States. Now Kantjas would rejoin his family dreaming of the “White Christmas” as the Squadrons War Diary referred to. For his actions in these three months, the Greek American pilot was also awarded two Air Medals. According to the citation of one of those: 

"For meritorious achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Dive Bomber in Bombing Squadron Nineteen, attached to USS LEXINGTON, in action against enemy Japanese forces in Formosa and Palaus, Philippines and Ryukyus from September 7 to November 6, 1944. Participating in numerous combat missions during this period, Lieutenant Junior Grade (then Ensign), Kantjas contributed to the success of his squadron in the infliction of damage and destruction on enemy grounded and airborne aircraft, military installations, harbor areas, and shipping. His devotion to duty in the face of anti-aircraft fire was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

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The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-16) after the repair of the torpedo damage sustained on 4 December 1943. The photo was probably taken on the day of the completion of her repairs, on 20 February 1944. (David Buell, USN via http://www.navsource.org)
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Official portrait photo of John N. Kantjas, probably after his promotion to a US Navy Lieutenant. (Linda Kantjas Archive)
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A VB-19 Helldiver from USS Lexington CV-16, flying over Guam in July 1944. (LIFE Magazine Archives - J R Eyerman Photographer).
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Loading drop tanks on SB2Cs aboard USS LEXINGTON (CV-16) before a search mission, on 25 October 1944. (NARA 80-G-284381)
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John Kantjas probably during an awards ceremony. The date is unknown. (Linda Kantjas Archive) 
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The Greek American Naval Aviator climbs to enter his jet cockpit while flying with the VF-902 in NAS Spokane in Washington. (Linda Kantjas Archives).
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Kantjas and a fellow squadronmate in front of a Grumman S-2 Tracker, probably while serving with VS-893 or VS-894 in NAS Seatle, Washington. (Linda Kantjas Archives) 

AFTER WAR

Kantjas remained in Reserve for the next few years. Initially, he kept serving in Air Group 19, but it is not known if he transferred from VB-19 to VBF-19 flying F4U Corsairs. Some years later he was part of VA-86 flying from NAS Spokane in Washington (1949) and VS-901 also from NAS Spokane (1951-1952).  He was called again in active service during the Korean War, specifically from January 7, 1953, till December 17, 1954. During those two years, he served with VS-20 onboard escort carrier USS Rendova flying Grumman AF-3S Guardian on anti-submarine missions during the Westpac Cruise. Prior to flying operationally with VS-20, he was attached to the Fleet Airborne Electronics Training Unit of the Pacific (February 1953). After the war, he returned back to NAS Spokane and joined again as a reserve, the VF-902 (1954-55) flying .. as a Lieutenant. Later he was promoted to LtCdr and joined VS-893 and VS-894 flying S-2 Trackers from NAS Seattle Washington as well as with FASRON 897 (1959). In 1960 he was posted for duty to Naval Air Training Center in Memphis Tennessee, and the next year he served in Naval Schools Command in Treasure Island, San Francisco, California. He retired from USN Reserves on November 1, 1963.  In his career he was awarded the World War II Victory Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Reserve Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, American Defense Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, Korean Service Medal. During his years as a reserve and after retiring from the Navy John worked as a Certified Public Accountant.  Kantjas was interested in his family history, went to Greece, and found his grandfather's rock hut in the hills as he was either a goat or a sheepherder/farmer. His daughter Linda remembers:

"I just remembered also that my Dad worked as a sort of counselor for the military guys just to help with personal problems or whatever. I am assuming this was during wartime as after the war he was only in the reserves. He had to fly his plane once a month - before it was against the law he loved to break the sound barrier above our friend's ranch in Idaho. Chickens and milk cows were not happy about it. Upon retirement, he and his wife flew military standby for free and they traveled the world every winter for a number of years. During that time is when they went to Greece and I know he found a cousin there who knew where his grandfather's rock hut in the hills was."

John Kantjas was married and blessed with five children and eight grandchildren. He passed away on November 22, 2002.

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On September 13, 1949, Lt (JG) John Kantjas made the 4.000 landing onboard USS Boxer CV-21, during training operations with Air Group 19. It is not known if Kantjas was part of VB-19 flying Helldivers or VBF-19 flying Corsairs. (USN via Matt Robins)
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Lt (JG) John Kantjas poses in the center of the photo along with sailors of AIRASRON 20, with a squadron Grumman AF-3S Guardian. (USN via Matt Robins)
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John's brother, William also served in the US Navy. According to his daughter, Carolyn: "My father's full name was William Robert Kantjas (1921-2001). He was a chief petty officer with the Navy from 1939 - 1964 retiring at NAS Whidbey Island, WN. His unit fabricated and packed parachutes almost for his entire career. If a pilot bailed out and survived, it was customary for them to send him a bottle of liquor. Many must have bailed out because he received many bottles during the war and since he did not drink, he re-gifted them which made him very popular with the sailors who worked for him. Of course, he did not hear from those whose parachutes did not open and I am sure there were some pilots who did not send the bottle but he was not one to hold grudges." (Carolyn  Kantjas Laub Archive)

JOHN N. KANTJAS MEMORABIGLIA
(Kindly provided by the University of Idaho)

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THE BATTLE OF CAPE ENGANO
(National Archive & Naval History and Heritage Command Archive)

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Too Close For Comfort, by Tom Freeman - Curtiss SB2C Helldiver attack during Battle of Cape Engano on Oct 25, 1944.  (Copyright Tom Freeman)
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Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku underway early in the action, while she was still capable of making good speed. Note camouflage pattern painted on her flight deck, and smoke coming from her stacks. (NH 95785)
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Japanese warships maneuvering under attack by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft, during the afternoon of 25 October. Bombs are falling near the light carrier Zuiho, in the lower left-center. The large carrier Zuikaku is burning and apparently dead in the water in the right-center distance. (NH 95786)
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Japanese aircraft carriers Zuikaku (left center) and (probably) Zuiho (right) under attack by U.S. Navy dive bombers during the Battle off Cape Engano. Note heavy concentration of anti-aircraft shell bursts in lower right and right, and a SB2C Helldiver diving in the lower left. (NARA 80-G-281767)
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Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku dead in the water, listing and afire (center), at about 1400 hrs., 25 October, following the day's third attack on the Japanese force. Ship maneuvering at right is the battleship Ise. (NH 95544)
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Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku and a Akizuki class destroyer underway during U.S. carrier plane attacks at about 1330 hrs. on 25 October. The light carrier Zuiho is in the right distance.(80-G-288100)
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Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku listing, following several hits by attacking U.S. Navy carrier aircraft on 25 October. A U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo plane is between the ship and the camera. (80-G-281769)
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Japanese ISE Class Battleship-Aircraft Carrier (Either ISE or HYUGA) in action during the Battle off Cape Engano, October 25, 1944. Note smoke from anti-aircraft guns.(NH 63440)
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Japanese aircraft carrier Zuiho under attack by planes from USS Enterprise during the Battle off Cape Engano, 25 October 1944. (NARA 80-G-281768)
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Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku under attack at about 1400 hrs. on 25 October, approximately at the end of the day's third attack on the Japanese force. (NH 95545)

Sources

 

Special thankings to Linda Kantjas, daughter of John N. Kantjas, and to Carolyn Kantjas Laub niece of the Greek American pilot, Matt Robins for his invaluable help and Mrs Amy Thompsom, M.Arch, CA, Archives Manager of Idaho University for their contribution.   

 

1. George Chalkiadopoulos correspondence with Linda Kantjas and Carolyn Kantjas Laub.

2. John N. Kantjas FOIA Officer Military Personnel File. 

3. COMAIRGR19 War History

4. ACA Reports of Air Operations Against the Palau & Philippine Is  9/6-24/44R

5. ACA Reports of Air Operations Against the Ryukyu Is, Formosa, Philippines & Jap Fleet, 10/10/44 - 11/6/44

6. ACA Reports of Air Operations Against Guam Island, Marianas - Period 7/18-21/44

7. USS Lexington on Reports of Air Strikes Against the Visayan Is, Philippines on 9/24/44

8. USS Lexington Reports of Air Operations Against the Jap Fleet in the Sibuyan Sea & East of Luzon Is, Philippines on 10/24 & 25/44, Including AA Acts on 10/24/44

9. USS Lexington Reports of Air Operations Against Luzon Is, Philippines on 11/5 & 6/44, Including AA Act & Being Crash-Dived by Jap Plane 11/5/44

10. USS Lexington Reports of Air Operations Against Formosa Is, 10/12-14/44, Including AA Acts on 10/12 & 14/44

11. Reports of Air Attacks on the Visayan Is, Philippines, 9/12-14/44, Including Rep of AA Act on 9/13/44Rep of Air Attacks on the Ryukyu Is on 10/10/44

12. Reports of Air Attacks on Mindanao Philippine Is, 9/9 & 10/44

13. Reports of Air Attacks on Luzon Is, Philippines, 9/21-22/44

14. Reports of Air Attacks Against the Visayas & Southern Luzon Os, Philippines on 10/21/44US Naval Aviation Training Center

15. USS Rendova (CVE-114) Cruise Book

16. https://www.historynet.com/curtiss-sb2c-helldiver-the-last-dive-bomber.htm

17. The Spokesman-Review, 17 October 1943 Issue.

18. www.newspapers.com

19. https://store.tomfreemanart.com/index.html