US NAVY FM-2 WILDCAT
Lieutenant Junior Grade Vassileios C. Giftos was born on December 20, 1922, the son of Constantine "Costi" Sarantos Giftos from Agios Petros, Αrcadia, and Helen Zee from Sparta. Constantine had lost his first wife, Helen Panesis from Agios Petros in Kilkis from flu during 1919, and remarried Helen Zee later. He was one of the five sons the couple had. According to his brother Peter, his father was appreciative to become a U.S. citizen and used to say, 'Don't you ever let me hear you say anything bad about this country,' He was proud of America." This however didn't stop him to teach his sons about Greece, the Greek language, and Orthodox beliefs something that is very clear in the application papers of Vassileios Officer Military File
Vassileios graduated from Pittsfield Highschool in 1940 and probably like many other Greek Americans motivated by the infamous Pearl Harbor raid and the gallant fight of Greece against the Axis and enlisted in the US Navy. He joined the Aviation Cadet V-5 training program on December 8, 1942, in NACSB (Naval Aviation Cadet Selection Board) New York, while attending Amherst College in Amherst MA, hoping to be a Naval Aviator. He was called to attend the NPFS (Navy Pre-Flight School) in Chapel Hill, NC on June 3, 1943, which included physical condition, athletics, military drill, instruction in the essentials of naval service, and ground school subjects. On August 25, 1943, he transferred to NAS Bunker Hill, Ind. for Primary Flight Training and after three months on November 23, 1943, he moved for the Intermediate Flight Training in NATC (Naval Air Training Center) Pensacola, Fla.
On May 1, 1944, he accepted his appointment as an Ensign USNR and he was wearing the coveted gold wings of a Naval Aviator. From this point onwards there isn't much data regarding his further training. It is certain that he passed the carrier qualification, most probably in NAS Glenview, Illinois or Nas Norfolk, Virginia and later he was sent for operational training in a fighter squadron. From photographic evidence, it was FIGHTING 37 the squadron in which fellow Greek American Frank Sarris excelled 1944 onboard USS Sangamon CVE-26 (for details regarding Frank Sarris check Volume C of Greeks in Foreign Cockpits). According to the squadron history from March till June 1944, the unit was at the shore, in NAS Daytona Fl., training for combat. There is a big chance that both Greek American naval aviators met during the training phase based on the fact that Sarris posted in VF-37 on May 17, 1944, however, Giftos transferred for duty in Composite Squadron 86 (VC-86), probably after May.
From February 1944 to July 1944, VC-86 trained hard to be able for combat duty onboard an escort carrier. Initially equipped with FM-1 Wildcats the squadron updated to the latest FM-2s during June 9 1944 and also began intensive night training. The training continued until the end of August. During this time the pilots were informed that their squadron would operate aboard USS Bismarck Sea CVE-95 in which they embarked on September 5, 1944, from NAS San Diego. Giftos and his squadron mates kept their training from the carrier deck and on October 16, CVE-95 sailed with her escorts for Pearl Harbor. Nine days later they left for Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands to report for duty, arriving on November 1, 1944. There USS Bismarck was attached to Task Group 12.2 and the next day along with the ships of the Group headed for Ulithi where they arrived on November 4.
The carrier and her air group's first mission was the escort of convoys to Mindanao. Both FM-2s and TBF Avengers flew hundreds of Combat Air Patrol and Anti-Submarine Patrol sorties covering the allied shipping. On November 21 CVE-95 was attacked and strafed unsuccessfully by a Ki-45 Nick twin-engine fighter-bomber which managed to evade CAP. Eight days later VC-86 catapulted its nine FM-2s and nine TBFs to Pityilu airfield in Admiral Islands for land base duty till December 15 when it got back with reinforcements, a total of 16 FM-2s and 12 TBFs, a prelude of the Operations ahead. CVE-95 joined Task Group (TG) 77.4 during the ensuing month, conducted frequent flight exercises and gunnery practices east of Huon Gulf, New Guinea. Tasked with air support for the 6th Army's landing at Lingayen Gulf, TG 77.4 sailed for the Palau Islands on 27 December on the first leg of its approach for the invasion of Luzon.
Greek American newly appointed USN Ensign and Naval Aviator, Vasileios C. Giftos smiles for the camera. In the photo on the top of the article, Giftos flies his N4 Wildcat in formation with other FM-2s from VC-86 (Dean Giftos Archive)
Bill or William Giftos as he was later known, standing far left, in a group photo of Fighting 37 pilots in NAS Daytona, during his operational training, most probably during May 1944, few weeks before he was transferred for duty in Composite Squadron 86. (Dean Giftos Archive)
Group photo of Composite Squadron 86 officers onboard USS Bismarck Sea. Giftos kneeling first from the left. However what is most interesting is that in the same row, kneeling second from the right side is the fellow Greek American pilot John Papadakis. Papadakis flew an Avenger Torpedo-Bomber and flew many sorties with Giftos protecting his wing. (Gregg Easterbrook Archive)
On 4 January 1945, the task group suffered intermittent attacks by Japanese land-based airpower. The only enemy surface forces encountered were the destroyers Hinoki and Sugi that her lookouts sighted on 5 January near Luzon. Bismarck Sea sent out four torpedo planes and four fighters to join other naval air units in a strike on the two enemy warships. Together, they seriously damaged both destroyers. Although subjected to many enemy air attacks, one of which claimed Ommaney Bay (CVE-79) and wreaked other less fatal damage, TG 77.4 arrived off Luzon and launched daily support and search missions from dawn to dusk until 17 January when the task group headed for the Carolines. Giftos flew 15 combat missions, bombing and strafing barracks, trenches, storage houses, command posts, barges, landing crafts, and ships. In the USS Bismarck Sea war diary, it is mentioned that Giftos and his fellow VF pilots were fatigued from the non-stop missions, and each pilot logged an average of seven combat hours per day, conducting at least one combat sortie of 3.3 hours duration.
Meanwhile, at Ulithi, preparations for the assault and occupation of Iwo Jima were underway. Once again, the USS Bismarck Sea operated as part of the escort carrier support force. The so-called "baby flattops" of TG 52.2 departed Ulithi on February 10, moved toward Iwo Jima, and arrived at station on 16 February. USS Bismarck Sea operated about 50 miles south of the island providing anti-aircraft and anti-submarine patrols for the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers engaged in a bombardment. At 0900 on 19 February, the first assault wave landed. The escort carriers then supplied observation and spotting planes, photographic flights, combat air patrol over the beaches, anti-submarine patrols, and strike missions for direct support of the troops. The Greek American pilot flew many ground support missions, strafed Japanese pillboxes, trenches, troop concentrations, and anti-aircraft and other gun emplacements in the Iwo Jima invasion beaches. Until February 18, Giftos had 15 more combat missions for a total of 30 during the two campaigns so far. Along with the Air Medals and the Gold Stars for every 5 missions he got, he was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, for the successful completion of 20 combat missions over Japanese-held territory.
"For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Fighter Plane in Composite Squadron EIGHTY-SIX, attached to the USS BISMARCK SEA, in action against enemy Japanese forces in the Philippine Islands from January 12, to 14, 1945. Completing his twentieth combat mission during this period, Lieutenant Junior Grade, (then Ensign) Giftos, contributed materially to the success of his squadron. His courage and devotion to duty in the face of anti-aircraft fire were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
On the evening of 21 February, the USS Bismarck Sea had just recovered her aircraft from a strike when a swarm of Japanese planes appeared. The escort carrier splashed one bomber, but another one crashed into the ship abeam of the aft elevator. The crash knocked four torpedoes onto the hangar deck, parted the elevator cables, and damaged the aft-fire main. The fire appeared controllable until its glow attracted a second Japanese plane which also crashed her just forward of the elevator well, killing or mortally wounding the entire fire-fighting party. This explosion buckled bulkheads and collapsed the decks in the ammunition clipping rooms, adding fuel to the fire. The planes on the hangar deck added gasoline to the holocaust. Soon, the flames raged out of control and a variety of ordnance began to explode, so the captain ordered the USS Bismarck Sea abandoned. In less than 30 minutes, her entire crew made it into the water. After many explosions and two hours of burning, the ship rolled over and sank. Rough seas, cold water, and Japanese strafing cost the lives of many members of the escort carrier's crew. Three destroyers and three destroyer escorts spent 12 hours picking up survivors, but 318 gallant sailors were lost.
Giftos was one of those VF pilots who had just returned from a mission when the two kamikaze fighters smashed into the carrier within two minutes of each other. The vessel was transformed into a fireball. Giftos was knocked unconscious. When he came to, he began looking for a way off the doomed vessel. He was wearing a life jacket but soon came across a raft.
"Another guy came up and wanted the raft. I had my Mae West and I asked him if he knew how to operate the raft, which had to be inflated. He said 'no' so I said I'd show him."
Bill smiling for the camera inside the cockpit of a VC-86 FM-2 Wildcat onboard the USS Bismarck Sea. (Dean Giftos Archive)
The U.S. Navy escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea (CVE-95) underway at sea on 24 June 1944. ( NARA 80-G-240135)
Large explosion on board Bismarck Sea (CVE-95), after she was hit by a kamikaze during the night of 21-22 February 1945, while she was taking part in the Iwo Jima operation. She sank as a result of her damage. Photographed from Saginaw Bay (CVE-82). (NARA 80-G-335103)
N37 was one of the VC-86 FM-2 Wildcats, flown by the Greek American pilot from the deck of the USS Bismarck Sea The FM-2 was the most numerous and best-performing Wildcat with 1,350 horsepower, bigger vertical tail surfaces, and more fuel capacity, earning the name the "Wilder Wildcat". The FM-2 had four wing guns versus six in the Grumman F4F-4. Eastern knew that removing those two guns allowed the plane to carry more ammunition to the fight. The Grumman Wildcat carried 1,440 rounds for six guns, while the Eastern FM series carried 1,720 rounds for its four guns, allowing more firing time and endurance. The FM-2 covered the Philippine campaign with distinction. Jeep carriers supplied close air support and combat air patrol over all of the invasion beaches, as well as directly against the surface fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Battle of Samar. The FM-2, having been built in huge numbers, was expected to guard sectors of the Japanese coast and cover the amphibious landings. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed everything, and the portly but deadly dogfighting Wildcat was now without a fight. Larger multi-role aircraft like the Corsair, Hellcat, and Skyraider were becoming available. Well beyond the initial F4F’s vision when she was designed in 1936, the sturdy Hellcat and Corsair were capable of not only being fighters but with their large engines, capable of being Fighter Bombers. The smaller Hellcat seemed to be of little use to the postwar nation, and hundreds of Lend-Lease Wildcats were simply dumped into the sea at the war’s end…discarded examples of a bygone type, the pure fighter. (Copyright Bertrand Brown aka Gaetan Marie, further info by https://www.americanheritagemuseum.org/)
Giftos urged the other sailor to climb down a knotted rope so they could reach a point where the raft could be safely inflated, but the man panicked halfway down, lost his grip, and fell and Giftos never saw him again. He spent the night being tossed on rough seas all alone. Then, a U.S. destroyer escort passed him and lowered a rope toward him.
"I missed the rope and they kept going. I realized that they couldn't stop because if they did they'd get hit by the Japanese subs."
Giftos was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with five Gold Stars and many campaign ribbons. He was discharged as a Lieutenant, Junior Grade, and returned to his native Pittsfield after the war. Mr. Giftos was president and director of the former Giftos Brothers Inc. from 1945 to 1982. He also married his sweetheart, also Greek American, Theodora Korontjis. When Giftos Brothers bought Kaufman Bros. Wholesale Candy in 1948, he launched the company's vending division, which he headed until his resignation on June 8, 1982. From 1983 to 1987 he served as district manager of Coca-Cola's foodservice division. He was a member of the National Automatic Vending/Merchandising Association, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, where he served as commander from 1997 to 1998, the Disabled American Veterans, the Lanesborough American Legion, the Mystic Lodge of Masons, the Country Club of Pittsfield and the Berkshire Hills Country Club. He was a Rotary Club member since 1968, serving as its president in 1975 and 1976, and receiving its Paul Harris fellowship award for exemplifying the spirit and ideals of Rotary. He served on the board of directors of the Pittsfield YMCA and on its building and property committees. He also served in the special gifts division of United Way and on the Lanesborough Police Commission. Bill has a son, Dr. Dean A. Giftos of Nashua, N.H., a daughter, Helen G. Hodgins of Nashua, and five grandchildren. He passed away at his home in 2005.
THE SINKING OF USS BISMARCK SEA CVE-95
EXCERPT FROM DAVID WRAGG'S, THE ESCORT CARRIER IN WWII - COMBUSTIBLE - VULNERABLE - EXPENDABLE
"USS Bismarck Sea had just recovered her planes when, at 1730, she was ordered to scramble them again to intercept incoming bogeys which later proved to be friendly. After once again recovering her own planes, she found it necessary to take on three additional planes from other carriers and had to send four of her fighters below to the hangar deck without degassing them. This would prove to be a serious problem in the coming minutes. At about this time incoming raids were reported and, at 1845, the enemy planes were spotted approaching the ships. In the poor visibility at dusk, it was difficult to see them until a Betty was spotted making a low altitude run on Lunga Point. Gunners on the USS Bismark Sea took it under fire and shot it down. Although gunners on the USS Bismarck Sea had shot down a plane headed for Lunga Point, they missed another plane heading directly for the starboard side of their own carrier. Hits were scored on the plane from the time it was 1,000 yards out, but it could not be shot down. Its low-level attack made it impossible for the ship’s guns to depress sufficiently, so the final part of its run was unimpeded. The ship’s action report reveals:
This plane struck the ship abeam of the after elevator. On entering the ship it knocked four torpedoes from the starboard rack and scattered them about the hangar deck. The elevator cables were parted and the elevator fell to the hangar deck. The after-fire main was damaged. The conflagration station turned on the water curtains and sprinklers. There was no supply to the after curtain and sprinklers. This fire appeared controllable until a second heavy explosion occurred about two minutes later just forward of the elevator which killed a large number of the firefighters. Eyewitnesses report that this explosion was caused by a second plane that came through the flight deck and exploded among the fighters parked at that spot. These planes were full of gasoline and the fire became intense and uncontrollable. This second explosion blew the entire rear of the hangar deck out and bulkheads on the gallery deck were blown in. The decks of the clipping rooms above were apparently ruptured and a quantity of 20 or 40 mm ammunition, or both, began exploding and made the area untenable.
The entire aft end of the ship was on fire and the crew had little ability to extinguish the flames. It was obvious that she was doomed. Her CO, Capt. J. L. Pratt gave the order to abandon ship in 1905. Men went into the dark water, but it was not a good night for picking up survivors. Rough seas hampered recovery and Japanese planes strafed the men in the water. As the CO prepared to leave the ship it was rocked by a huge explosion, which may have been torpedoes cooking off. The stern section of the Bismarck Sea disappeared in the blast and the ship took a heavy list to starboard. She rolled over and sank at 2115. Her casualties included 119 dead and ninety-nine wounded."
The five Giftos brothers, Peter, John, William, Arthur, and Sarantos pose together, probably after the war ended. At some point during the war, the four brothers, except Peter, were listed as missing or deceased, but all miraculously survived and returned home. Peter was the youngest of five brothers and enlisted in the military during World War II. At just 17 years, he never saw combat but was trained in mechanized infantry however being the youngest of five brothers and with the four of them engaged in combat he was not called for action. His story was too similar to that of the Sullivan brothers; five brothers who worked on the same navel vessel and in 1942 were all lost when a torpedo sunk their ship. There wasn’t a chance for the government to permit him to fight while his brothers were in danger. John was a Navy medic with the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga. It was crippled severely by torpedoes and Kamikaze planes with hundreds of crew members instantly lost. He developed "a nervous condition," and hardly talked about the war. All he would remember was that he saw pieces of his friends everywhere. John was honored for helping many men survive, but later in life, he would have nightmares. William served as a pilot of Composite Squadron 86 onboard the USS Bismarck Sea and saw heavy action in the Pacific and he was awarded the DFC and Air Medals. Arthur was an Army veteran of World War II, and he served from January 11, 1945, to June 24, 1946, with the 40th Division in the South Pacific and Korea. He was discharged as a sergeant. Sarantos Charles served in the US Army. On one particularly tragic incident with German troops in France, Charlie, an Army lieutenant, was listed as missing in action. Eventually, Charlie emerged and was able to rejoin his fellow troops and help others in the process, which earned him a Bronze Star. (Dean Giftos Archive)
THE DANGERS OF CARRIER OPERATIONS ON THE USS BISMARCK SEA
Although we couldn't find any reference regarding the accident above the sequence of the following photos are representative of the dangers faced by the pilots and sailors on the decks of the USN Carriers. USS Bismarck Sea (CVE-95) flight deck photos were taken on 19 December 1944. An FM-2 Wildcat aircraft N27, coming in for a landing, either missed or broke an arresting hook and crashed into planes parked on the bow. Here N27 piloted by Ensign Francis Goedert has crashed into N33 with Robert G. Broadbent, pushing it over the bow. N27 also went over the bow. Both pilots lost, Broadbent either jumped or was thrown away from the flight deck. Neither body was ever found. Also, Ensign Woods is seen lying on the deck amid the flying wreckage of planes. (National Archives Collection)
Special thankings to Dean Giftos, son of Vasileios C. Giftos, and to Gregg Easterbrook for his help.
1. George Chalkiadopoulos correspondence with Dean Giftos.
2. Vasileios C. Giftos Enlisted Officer Military Personnel File
3. Vasileios C. Giftos FOIA Enlisted Officer Military Personnel File
4. USS Bismarck Sea War Diary 5/20/44 to 6/30/44
5. USS Bismarck Sea War Diary 7/1-31/44
6. USS Bismarck Sea War Diary, 8/1-31/44
7. USS Bismarck Sea War Diary, 9/1-30/44
8. USS Bismarck Sea War Diary, 10/1-31/44
9. USS Bismarck Sea War Diary, 11/1-30/44
10. USS Bismarck Sea War Diary, 12/1-31/44
11. Action Report USS Bismarck Sea off Iwo Zima, 21 February 1945, including circumstances of the resultant sinking of the ship.
12. Report of Air Operations in support of the assault in the Lingayen Gulf, Luzon Philippines, 1/6/45 - 1/17/45.
13. The Berkshire County Eagle, Wed., Sep. 1, 1943 issue
14. The Berkshire County Eagle, Wed., May 24, 1944 issue
15. Naval History and Heritage Command Ship History, Bismarck Sea
16. Escort Carrier of the Second World War: Combustible, Vulnerable and Expendable, David Wragg, Pen and Sword Maritime; Illustrated edition (September 19, 2005), ISBN-13: 978-1844152209.