TBF AVENGER GUNNER
VGS-27 / VT-27
John Boosalis was one of the seven children of Gus and Mary (Prokovakis) Boosalis and he was born on March 14, 1919. The couple had immigrated in the early 1900s from Niata village which is located southeast of Sparta, Greece, and were involved in the restaurant business. They managed to obtain their own, named Olympia, which they operated along with their children. They were both very proud of their new country and they passed their patriotic feeling to their children. There was no better proof of that, than the fact that all their sons served the armed forces during WW2, and their youngest one, Theodore, applied for the USN but was rejected due to his age. He was only 8 years old when WW2 broke out. The couple overcame the difficulties of the war with the help of their two daughters and were blessed to see all their sons returning safely back to their house. It must be noted that during an interview in Faribault Daily News the reporter asked her if she had any regrets about having five sons serving in harm's way. She replied:
"My only regret I have is I wish I had five more sons to give to the service of my country."
John Boosalis enlisted in the Navy in November 1941. He was in boot camp when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Following basic training and radio school, he joined Torpedo Bomb Squadron 27, coded then as VGS-27, as an air gunner in a Grumman TBF Avenger Torpedo Bomber. On December 4, 1942, VGS-27 and her sister Squadron VGF-27 embarked their personnel, with John among them, and loaded 15 TBFs and 18 F4F-4s aboard the USS Suwannee in Oceana, Virginia, and began her trip for the South Pacific passing the Panama Canal on December 11. One month later the carrier moored to Havannah Harbor, in Efate, New Hebrides. All this time her Squadrons flew regularly aircraft exercises and many anti-submarine patrols. On January 27 the carrier joined Task Group 18.2 and departed for patrol and returned back to Efate on February 11. Nine days later departed again for another patrol and after its completion, the carrier left for February 27, 1943, for a patrol of the Havannah Harbor as an Anti-Submarine screen. Boosalis had flown only a few anti-submarine patrols when he took off Feb. 27, 1943, from the flight deck in the TBF Avenger BuNo.00530 for one more. Two and a half hours into the mission, the engine sputtered and died. The pilot, Ensign Benton Skuda, prepared Boosalis and the third crewman, Radioman Lawrence O’Neal, to ditch in the ocean. According to the Pilots statement:
"About 1500, 27 February 1943, my TBF airplane was launched from our carrier and contained as crew Gunner John G. Boosalis, ARM2C and Radioman Lawrence T. O'Neal, for a scheduled anti-submarine patrol flight. Prior to the patrol and for a períod of one hours duration, we made simulated Jap bombing and torpedo attacks on the Task Force. At 16:00 we flew past the bow of our carrier to check in and then proceeded on our sector patrol. During the first part of the second hour, we stayed within the limits of the sector but soon left this to search around rain squalls and low visibility areas that were outside the sector. We were supposed to check in again with our carrier at 1700 and asked Radioman O'Neal for a time-check, I was given the time at 1725. By my navigation chart board, it was calculated that I was about 45 miles distant from the carrier, and was to fly a course of about 175°to Intercept it. I returned to the 1000-foot level to fly on the known winds, and just as the plane was being turned to the intercept heading, the engine failed. I checked all cockpit controls thoroughly in an effort to start the engine, but having no success I Jettisoned the bombs, and all hands prepared for a forced landing at sea. The bombs dropped from about 500feet and exploded well clear. I closed the bomb bay doors and put down my flaps. The wind was about 10 knots and the landing was affected comfortably. On landing, we launched our rubber life raft and procured sundry articles from the plane before it sank."
"It was a very boresome, tiresome flight, those anti-sub patrols because you had to keep a lookout. But then the pilot came on the intercom that we were going to go down. So we landed at sea. A lot of people have the impression that landing on water is kind of a soft landing. However, this is not true. It’s like hitting a brick wall.”
The aircraft splashed down about 45 miles from the carrier. The crew salvaged a rubber lifeboat, cans of food and water, two parachutes, a pistol, and medical supplies. The airplane sank in less than two minutes. They were in the middle of the South Pacific but could see an island about 20 miles away. So they started rowing.
"Trying to help things along, the pilot and I got into the water and tried to push the raft and that was all well and good until we saw some shark dorsals. We got back in the raft in a quick hurry.”
As they got closer to the island, they realized they were being pulled back out to sea. Running low on supplies, they knew getting to the island was a life-or-death proposition.
"We started rowing, I would say a little before midnight. It would be one man on each oar and one man sitting steering it. We rowed steadily from that midnight to afternoon the next day because we were being pushed out to sea again.”
But the following day, a hot, dead calm forced them to expend energy rowing toward the island. The brutal sun left them blistered and dehydrated. Finally, they made it to shore and later found out they had landed on Erromango, an island about 30 miles long and 20 miles wide. They had to navigate a rugged shoreline, with sharp coral and lava rock before they found a place to settle down. They were sunburned, exhausted, and thirsty. Dreams of cold spring water had sustained them, but at first, they found only some tepid puddles. Lava rocks sliced their shoes and hurt their blistered feet. Salt in their clothes irritated their sunburned skin. The sailors tried to explore the island, but they were hampered by cliffs and dense jungle. They had to watch constantly for poisonous coral snakes. Finding fresh water proved difficult, but it drove them.
"The first thing we did was look for water and a short ways back from the shoreline, there was this lava rock and there was some water in it that didn’t have saltwater. We got some of that and we just rested. We just flopped down and regained our strength before we started walking.”
They wandered along the shoreline for four days, sometimes sleeping in a cave. They had a few Hershey bars, a can of SPAM, and some crackers, but that didn’t last long. They needed more.
"We’d catch these little sand crabs, build a fire and we’d roast them. The meat in a sand crab is about the size of, probably smaller than a toothpick. And we ate those, as many as we could find.”
After surviving from the ditch of his plane in the Pacific and completing his tour of duty as a gunner in TBFs, John Boosalis applied and accepted for training as a pilot. He completed his training when the war finished and soon decommisioned from service and returned back to his civilian life. (Nicholas & Metra Kootsikas Archive)
Boosalis family stands proud for a group photo after WW2 with most of her members fighting for freedom against the Axis forces. Back row left to right: George Boosalis (Naval Aviator - Gunner), Dr Michael Boosalis (Army Air Force Bombardier), John Boosalis (Naval Aviator - Gunner & Pilot), Dr Nick Boosalis (Airborne Medical Doctor), Bill Boosalis (Naval Aviator - Radioman). Middle Row: Elaine (Smith) and Georgia (Kootsikas). Front Row: Gus and Mary Boosalis with Ted Boosalis (Nicholas & Metra Kootsikas Archive)
After operating for six months as an oiler with the Atlantic Fleet, USS Suwannee converted to a Sangamon-class escort carrier. On 20 August, she was redesignated an auxiliary carrier, ACV-27, and was recommissioned as such on 24 September 1942. She took part in Operation Torch during November 1942 The auxiliary carrier transited the Panama Canal on 11–12 December and arrived at New Caledoniaon 4 January 1943. For the next seven months, she provided air escort for transports and supply ships replenishing and bolstering the marines on Guadalcanal, as well as for the forces occupying other islands in the Solomons group. During that span of time, she visited Guadalcanal, Efate and Espiritu Santo in addition to New Caledonia. After heading back to the US she returned back to the Pacific and took part in most of the major Campaigns. During the Battle of the Leyte Gulf was hit by two Kamikaze. The resulting fire burned for several hours, but was finally brought under control. The casualties for 25–26 October were 107 dead and 160 wounded. After repairs she continued fighting till the end of the war. For her actions she was awarded with 13 Battle Stars. Suwannee remained in reserve at Boston for the next 12 years. She was re-designated an escort helicopter aircraft carrier, CVHE-27, on 12 June 1955. Her name was struck from the Navy Liston 1 March 1959. She was finally scrapped in Bilbao, Spain, in June 1962. (NS0302718 via http://www.navsource.org, further info via Wikipedia)
Both these photos cover an accident that according to the source happened in April 1943. However, in the VT-27 War Diary, there is no such incident during April. The only incident that matches the photos is the one described in the war diary on January 24, 1943. "Conducted exercises - 7 TBFs launched at 0915. Planes made glide bombing and torpedo runs on ship. TBF #13 Lieutenant J. C. Huddleston pilot, and W. T. Jones, ARM1c, R. Luce, ARM2c flight crew had forced landing in water due to engine failure. Personnel picked up by USS Conway. Bruises and lacerations. Returned to ship when anchored at 1730 in Havannah harbor. Plane not recovered." (US Navy via Jim Laurier, further info from VT-27 War Diary)
TBF Avenger BuNo.00530, #6, was the torpedo plane in which Greek American John Boosalis ditched in the Pacific on February 27, 1943. The Grumman TBF Avenger (designated TBM for aircraft manufactured by General Motors) was a torpedo bomber developed initially for the United States Navy and Marine Corps, and eventually used by several air and naval aviation services around the world. The Avenger entered U.S. service in 1942 and first saw action during the Battle of Midway. Despite the loss of five of the six Avengers on its combat debut, it survived in service to become the most effective and widely-used torpedo bomber of World War II, sharing credit for sinking the super-battleships Yamato and Musashi and being credited for sinking 30 submarines. Greatly modified after the war, it remained in use until the 1960s. (Copyright Jim Laurier, further info by Wikipedia)
Boosalis’ feet had swollen from sunburn and saltwater and he had to cut open his shoes to be able to put them on. The men had come across an old fishing camp along the shoreline, the first sign of civilization on the island. They also found oranges, limes, and papaya about a half-mile inland. On the fifth day, they saw an island native out looking for a lost pig.
"We hailed him in our language and he answered back in pigeon English and we came to find out that other Navy personnel had crashed up there."
The native took the men back to his village, where bananas, pineapples, and oranges grew in the gardens.
"I can still recall the sweetness of those pineapples", Boosalis said.
That evening the natives held a feast in their honor. The airmen learned they had reached Erromango, an island in a British-French island chain then called New Hebrides and now known as Vanuatu. Their hosts told them an Australian rancher named S.O. Martin lived on the far side of the island. They spent two happy days in Anlewag’s village before their hosts took them to Martin’s ranch. All of the native women wept when they left. Martin was pleased to see them, and not really surprised. Other aircrews had washed up on Erromango earlier in the war.
"When he saw us, he started to laugh and it kind of bothered us a little bit. But then he told us his hobby was collecting American airmen because there were others who had crashed up there before we did."
Martin fed them steaks and took them horseback riding. They smoked King Edward cigars. The three men regained their health, although Boosalis contracted malaria during his stay. The rancher had a supply of quinine and nursed him back to health over the next three weeks. He would deal with bouts of fever for several years afterward. Boosalis celebrated his 24th birthday on the island, passing his time reading the books the rancher had in his library. The nearest radio was on nearby Tanna Island, and a supply ship that delivered goods to Erromango told the residents on that island that Boosalis and the other two had survived their crash and were waiting to be rescued. Within a couple of days, seaplanes landed and took the men back to their ship. They had spent an entire month on the island.
"The will to survive is very strong, very strong", Boosalis said.
Their rescuers were from Scouting Squadron 58 and later submitted the following report:
"Two squadron airplanes were assigned March 27, to fly from Havana Harbor, Efate Island, the New Hebrides, to nearby Eromanga Island, to investigate a report that three airmen had been found on the island. Lieutenant Walter M. Sessums, A-V(N), U.S.N,R., and Ensign J.B. Rodgers, A-V(N), U.S.N,R., were the pilots. The airplanes departed at 1345 LWT (0245 GCT), reached the destination, and found that an Ensign and two radiomen, missing since February 27, when their TBF was compelled to land in the sea, had reached the island and survived. The three were: Ensign B. J. Skuda, A-V(N). U.S.N.R., J.G. Boosalis, ARM2c, and L.T. O’Neal, ARM2c, of VGS-27, a squadron attached to the USS SUWANNEE, then in port at Havana Harbor. Ensign Skuda reported that his TBF had been forced down by engine trouble, that all three, in escaping from the sinkíng airplane, had sufficient time to break out the rubber life raft and all provisions, the time of the forced landing, the airplane was within sight of Eromanga Island but the three were unable to reach land for 48 hours because of adverse winds and tide and were able to do so only by rowing for 20 hours without letup. Ensign Skuda related that the three existed for a few days on what rations they had brought ashore and by drinking rainwater that had accumulated in coral rock. Natives, điscovering the three, reported that event to an Australian named Martin, the only white resident on Eromanga. He caused the survivors to be brought to his house where Mr, Skuda, Boosalis, and O'Neal recovered from the rigors of their ordeal. Word of their discovery was sent via a native to a nearby island where a coast watcher relayed the message by radio to Efate. From this point, the rescue detail by VS-58 was effected, On the return of the two airplanes to the squadron base on the afternoon of March 27, O'Neal was brought in and he reached the SUWANNEE that same evening. The following đay, March 23, Lieutenant Sessums and Lieutenant R. H. Mitchell A-V(N), U.S.N.R., commanding officer, departed at 0940 LWT (2240 GCT) for Eromanga and returned to base at 1400 LWT (0245 GCT) with Ensign Skuda and Boosalis, both of whom reached the SUWANNEE that same afternoon, the 29th day after their forced landing at sea."
Within a few days, the three were back aboard the Suwannee. His squadron obviously had not expected to see him again. Boosalis recalled.
"They had my locker cleaned out, and my gear ready to ship back to the States."
Reading his mail, Boosalis learned his family had held a funeral after receiving a War Department telegram that he was missing and presumed dead. He even read his own obituary. It had been a tough month for the Boosalises. The same week John disappeared, George Boosalis — who was training to be a Navy aviation radioman, like his brother — was injured in a plane crash in Rhode Island. Three weeks after holding John’s funeral, his astounded family learned from another official telegram that he had been found, after all, safe. They found out the details only weeks later, in a lengthy letter he wrote that was reprinted in full in the local newspaper. The article described Gus and Mary Boosalis as "the happiest parents in Faribault".
The three airmen returned to duty. Boosalis flew frequently with Skuda and they flew many missions from Guadalcanal, operating from the Henderson field from June 28 to August 4, 1943. The Squadron participated in the occupation of New Georgia island and the capture of Munda Point Airfield flying many strikes against ground and shipping targets around Muda, particularly in Bairoko Harbor, Enogai Inlet, Rekata Bay, Vila, and Kahili. Usually, they flew in formation with Marine TBF Squadrons but on several occasions, they coordinated their attacks with USAAF B-24s, B-17s, and B-25s. One type of mission that the Squadron and Boosalis flew was liaison support of the ground forces. Those missions although not attack missions provided an invaluable contribution to Munda operations. So far we manage to trace 16 combat missions from VT-27 records in which the Greek American airman took part.
Radioman L.T. O'Neal, pilot B.J. Skuda and gunner John Boosalis after being rescued. (John Boosalis via https://nebraskapublicmedia.org)
John Boosalis wearing his flying leather helmet and googles many years after being rescued from his uneventful sortie in the Pacific. (via Omaha World-Herald)
The shoes John Boosalis had to cut open on the island of Erromango in 1943. (Jack Williams, NET news via https://nebraskapublicmedia.org)
John Boosalis while holding his Naval Aviator uniform with the rank of the Ensign of the US Navy. (via Omaha World-Herald)
A few months after his adventure, Boosalis got to go home on leave. He visited his aunt in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She urged him to call up a young local woman, named Catherine Christopulos, who shared his Greek heritage and Greek Orthodox faith.
"I called and asked her for a date to the picture show. Twenty minutes after I met her, I asked her to marry me."
Catherine thought about it overnight before she said yes. He returned to Faribault and emptied his savings account to buy a ring, then hitchhiked back to Sioux Falls to give it to her. Soon after, Boosalis received orders for officer training. He was commissioned as a Navy Ensign and continued on to flight school in Pensacola, Florida. Pilot trainees at the time weren’t allowed to marry, but he traveled home in February 1945 to marry Catherine. She moved to Pensacola, but they pretended they were only engaged until he earned his aviator’s wings that June. The war ended just a few weeks later. He accepted a discharge in September and returned to Faribault to help manage the family restaurant — breaking a pledge to Catherine that he would go to college.
"I promised her I wouldn’t go back into the restaurant business, but I did."
They worked together for 16 years in Minnesota before they moved to Nebraska and raised four children. They gave the restaurant to their son George in 1984, and split time between homes in Lincoln and Scottsdale, Arizona, after that. Catherine passed away at 92. John Boosalis’ other four brothers were in harm's way during World War II. Nick (1915-2003) was a battlefield surgeon who volunteered to do an American Airborne parachute drop into Los Banos, Philippines. The famous Los Banos raid freed over 2,000 American POWs without losing a single American soldier during the firefight. Mike (1917-2016) survived 25 missions as a B-24 Bombardier in Europe including several long and harrowing attacks over Nazi oil refineries in Ploesti, Poland (Mike’s combat record will be covered in the near future on our website). George (1920-1995) as described earlier was infrared during an aircraft training mission. Bill (1924-2019) was a Naval radioman on torpedo aircraft assigned to the USS Hamlin and experienced several Kamikaze attacks during the battles of Okinawa, Iwo Jima, and Saipan. In retirement, John attended reunions of his old squadron until the unit stopped holding them a few years ago. Too few of his mates were alive and able to attend. He never saw Skuda or O’Neal after they all left the USS Suwannee in late 1943. O’Neal was killed in the war. Skuda moved to the East Coast and died in 1982. Boosalis kept a few of his war relics in boxes in his garage. These were his uniforms, his leather aviator helmet, his crackerjack Navy cap, and the battered shoes he wore on the island. He also had the grass skirts and a wooden comb given to him by his Erromangan hosts. He knew that an extraordinary string of good luck allowed him to survive being lost at sea, and to live to a ripe old age. He tried not to think about what might have happened if they hadn’t crashed relatively close to land, encountered friendly natives, and met an Australian who could get them home. John Boosalis died on December 18, 2019, at the age of 100 in Lincoln, Nebraska, and was buried with full military honors.
Two photos showing John Boosalis celebrating his centurion inside an N3N, like the one he flew during his training as a naval aviator, and holding his wartime awards. (Nicholas and Metra Kootsikas Archive)
JOHN BOOSALIS COMBAT MISSIONS
SERIAL & NOSEART
|1||30 - 06 -1943||TBF Avenger #27-9||03:15||Bomb Enemy Positions at Munda Point|
|2||04 - 07 -1943||TBF Avenger #27-9||03:00||Bomb Enemy Positions at Munda Point|
|3||06 - 07 -1943||TBF Avenger #27-9||03:16||Bomb Enemy Positions at Enogoi Inlet, New Georgia|
|4||08 - 07 -1943||TBF Avenger #27-2||05:17||Ship Search S. of Bougainville|
|5||10 - 07 -1943||TBF Avenger #27-9||04:14||Bomb Bivouac Areas at Villa and Recata Bay|
|6||12 - 07 -1943||TBF Avenger #27-9||03:09||Bomb Bivouac Areas at Villa and Recata Bay|
|7||16 - 07 -1943||TBF Avenger #27-9||02:50||Bomb Jap Positions at Kokohale, Kilivira & Kiaga Islands.|
|8||21 - 07 -1943||TBF Avenger #118||03:30||Bomb Jap Beachheads at Bairiki Harbor, New Georgia|
|9||22-07-1943||TBF Avenger #27-7||03:07||Bomb Gun Positions at Munda Airfield|
|10||24-07-1943||TBF Avenger #22||03:08||Bomb Enemy Positions at Bairoko Harbor|
|11||24-07-1943||TBF Avenger #27-8||03:02||Bomb Specified AA over Bibilo Hill at Munda|
|12||26-07-1943||TBF Avenger #27-9||02:30||Bomb Gun Positions at Munda|
|13||28-07-1943||TBF Avenger #27-9||03:07||Bomb Bibilo Hill at Munda|
|14||31-07-1943||TBF Avenger #27-11||02:52||Bomb Munda Airfield|
|15||31-07-1943||TBF Avenger #27-9||03:15||Bomb Bivouac Area and AA at Villa|
|16||01-08-1943||TBF Avenger #27-11||02:53||Bomb Gun Positions, Ammunition & Supply Dump at Munda|
1. Personal Correspondence of Dimitris Vassilopoulos with Nicholas Kootsikas, nephew of John Boosalis.
2. Torpedo Bomber 27 War Diary
3. USS Suwannee War Diary
4. Wings of Gold, The US Naval Air Campaign in World War II, Gerald Astor, Presidio Press, isbn:9780345472526, May 2005
7. https://nebraskapublicmedia.org/en/news/news-articles/castaways-navy-vet-from-lincoln-100 -recalls-month-on-remote-island/