SB2C HELLDIVER PILOT
Bombing 83 (VB-83)
Thomas D. Samaras was born on January 29, 1921, the son of Demetrios Samaras from Koritsa in Northern Epirus and Anna Pappaiosif. He graduated from Garfield High School in January 1939, taking 5th place in the award for the 10 best students at his school. He continued his studies at the university of his city, Akron University, in science since mathematics, physics, and chemistry were subjects that the young Greek American loved. At the end of 1941 and with WWII in full scale, he made the big decision to become a pilot and chose to join navy ROTC, which was preparing future pilots for the Fleet. On July 17, 1942, he was presented at the NACSB Recruitment & Training Center in Detroit and on August 7, 1942, at his previous request, he was named Aviation Cadet (V-5). On December 15, 1942, Samaras was ordered to Atlanta, Georgia, for the start of his Pre-Flight Training and then to NAS Norman Air Station in Oklahoma for the Initial Flight Training which he successfully completed with high scores. His next transfer sent him to NAS Corpus Christi Air Station in Texas, for Basic Flight Training, which he completed in December 1943. In a glorious graduation ceremony, which took place on the 30th, U.S. Navy Air Force Cadet Officer Thomas Samaras with registration number 701-21-24 was promoted to Ensign and proudly wore the Golden Wings on the left of his uniform. Samaras and his colleagues began the first leg of their operational training at Cecil Field on February 6, flying for ten days familiarization flights with SBD-Dauntless bombers. The program did not lack strafing, as well as the learning of the techniques of dive-bombing. On February 16, he was ordered to present in Virginia's NAS Norfolk for the continuation of his training in dive-bombing. On March 15, 1944, Samaras received a temporary transfer to NAS Glenview in Illinois after successfully completing the second leg of operational training. Next was the third part of the operational training during which pilots would learn to perform take-offs and landings from aircraft carriers. Once again, the young pilot succeeded and was now waiting for his transfer to one of the Bomber Squadrons of the Fleet. On April 30, 1944, he was presented to NAS Wildwood in New Jersey, Samaras was fitted to the BOMBING 83 or VB-83 which was equipped with SB2C Helldiver. Thomas was delighted to discover that among the rest of his colleagues there was another aviator of Greek origin! It was about Ensign James C. Sakellariades with whom they began to hang out frequently. In December 1944, with the threat of the Kamikaze constantly growing, the need for greater protection of the ships increased. The VB-83 split in two with Samaras remaining in it and Sakellariades joining the VBF-83 which was equipped with an F4U Corsair. Soon both Squadrons would operate alongside sisters VF-83 and VT-83 Squadrons from the aircraft carrier USS Essex (CV-9).
Indeed, on March 14, 1945, the USS Essex sailed from Ulithi Island as a member of Task Force 58 for Okinawa and the Japanese coast. The aim was to launch preparatory strikes against strategic targets of the Japanese in view of the imminent landing of the Americans on the island (Operation Iceberg) and to support the friendly troops that would land on the coast. The Greek American aviator took part in all the operations of the Squadron hitting Japanese positions and ships of the Japanese fleet almost incessantly from April 18 to 4, winning the Air Medal and a Gold Star. As the fighting raged on the territory of the blood-soaked Okinawa a powerful Japanese naval force, led by the battleship IJN Yamato, was approaching the island. A few hours after the departure, as it was getting dark, the naval force was spotted by two American submarines which informed the Fleet. Soon the aircraft carriers of the TG 58.1 and the TG 58.3 (to which the USS Essex belonged) began to move north. At 10:10 in the morning, the CV-9 began to launch every available aircraft from the VT-83, VB-83, VBF-83, and VF-83. Dozens of Avengers torpedo planes, Helldivers bombers, Corsairs, and Hellcats fighters, were crossing circles over the aircraft carrier to complete the take-offs and get the Squadrons into formation. Samaras along with his machine gunner, Mike Levine (ARM2c), were members of a formation of 12 Helldivers of the VB-83. On this mission, they flew with the SB2C-4, BuNo.19767. By locating the Japanese Fleet and receiving the appropriate orders, Samaras attacked the Japanese super-battleship. The two 1,000-pound armor-piercing bombs unleashed by Samaras hit the deck at the bow of the IJN Yamato, just in front of and right of the No.1 tower of the 460mm triplets (18.1 in) guns, opening a huge hole. A terrifying explosion ensued that shook the ship and in the next moment dense black smoke seemed to rise like a mushroom in the sky from the crater that was created. Thomas heard on his headphones his machine gunner, Mike Levine, shouting excitedly that they had a bullseye. The blows inflicted by the Navy planes were crucial, turning the Yamato and their escort ships into an amorphous mass of metals. For his successful action, the Greek American pilot was honored with the highest reward of the U.S. Navy, the Navy Cross. According to the citation:
"For extraordinary heroism as Pilot of a Dive Bomber in Bombing Squadron EIGHTY-THREE, operating from the U.S.S. ESSEX, during action against enemy Japanese forces in the East China Sea, April 7, 1945. A superb and fearless pilot, participating in a daring attack against major units of the enemy Fleet, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Samaras boldly plunged in over the Japanese task force and, executing his run at perilously low altitude in the face of intense antiaircraft fire, succeeded in scoring direct hits upon an enemy battleship. By his brilliant airmanship, indomitable fighting spirit, and unswerving devotion to duty at grave personal risk, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Samaras contributed materially to the destruction of a powerful Japanese warship, and his courageous conduct reflects the highest credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service."
Between April 19 and 22, Samaras put four more missions to his credit, hitting troop concentrations and Japanese installations, while completing 15 missions on the 20th of the month he was awarded a second Gold Star on the Air Medal. On July 18, 1945, Thomas stood out once again. The VB-83 sent 13 Helldivers with a mission to bomb the heavy cruisers and battleships of the Japanese Navy that were moored at the Yokosuka naval base in the Gulf of Tokyo. Samaras, flying as a four-ship flight leader, attacked with self-sacrifice between the barrage of explosions and the orbitals of enemy anti-aircraft, releasing his bombs over the battleship IJN Nagato, which was the main target! The dense fire and the masterful camouflage of the boat made it difficult to aim. Although the ship did not sink, it nevertheless suffered material damage of unspecified extent from some nearby blows. For his achievements in this mission, the Greek American pilot was decorated with the third Gold Star on the Air Medal. Unfortunately, his luck would soon be over. At 07:30 on the morning of July 25, 1945, Lieutenant (I) Thomas D. Samaras, was sitting in the cockpit of the SB2C-4 Helldiver BuNo.20033 ready to carry out his 31st mission. A few weeks ago, the young Naval Aviator had become a father and the infant in two days would close a month of life. Unfortunately, Thomas was never meant to hold his newborn son in his arms. As soon as he received a signal for denunciation, he released the brakes, pushed forward the power lever, and speeded the distance to the edge of the deck. The next moment the plane found itself in the air taking height. A few seconds later the men on the deck of the aircraft carrier froze, and suddenly watched Samaras' Helldiver lean sharply left and crash forcefully into the sea, lifting a large column of water! The collision was so violent that the aircraft was cut in two at the height of the gunner's seat and sank in a matter of seconds! On the spot immediately rushed some floating boats and managed to retrieve from the sea the machine gunner Michael Levine visibly shocked but without any serious injury. Despite ongoing searches, Samaras was never found. He probably fainted from a blow to the head due to the severity of the collision, and the "Beast" lured him to his wet grave. Thomas Samaras was the third Greek American to be honored with the highest distinction of the Navy.
More details and testimonies about its action can be read in volume C of the series of books GREEKS IN FOREIGN COCKPIT.