TBF                         PBM                           PBY                        SB2C                      SBD            

LeRoy R. Engberg, USN (Ret.), Petty Officer 1st Class - Veteran Combat Aerial Gunner, Aviation Ordnance Expert, WWII, Korea, Vietnam.



“It seems like a lot of funny things have happened to me in my life.”


Lee’s introduction to the U. S. Navy is definitely one of those funny things. When he enlisted in San Francisco, he says he was sworn in with his fellow recruits, while a bus waited outside. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon.


“I hadn’t had anything to eat all day. There was a little restaurant across the way from the recruiting station. I went over there to get something to eat, and the bus pulled out without me. So, I guess I’m AWOL the first time I ever joined the Navy.”


But for Lee, in the end, things usually turn out right. He says that when the bus left him behind, he got out on Highway 101 and hitchhiked to San Diego, beating the bus into town. Engberg waited while the other recruits were getting off the bus. They were finally followed by the old Chief Petty Officer who was in charge, and who ‘knew’

Engberg was not among the recruits who had ridden the bus.


Lee says he walked around the bus and up to the Chief, and: “He turned around… and that’s the first time I’ve seen a Chief Petty Officer that didn’t know what to say.”


Born May 18, 1921 in Atchison, Kansas, Engberg did most of his growing up in Boone, Iowa. When he came of age, Lee joined the National Guard, but in July of 1941, he chose to enlist in the Navy.


Engberg says he had a good time in boot camp.

Next, he went through training in "AO", Aviation Ordnance. This training would serve him well throughout his career, but in the meantime, he was needed as an aerial gunner on SBD dive-bombers and, later TBF torpedo planes.


In the former aircraft, the gunner faced toward the plane’s tail in an open cockpit, manning a pair of .30 caliber machine guns on a ring-mount.

In the latter plane, the gunner was in an electrically operated, plexi-glass turret mounting a single .50-caliber machine gun. The TBF carried a pair of 250-round cans of .50-caliber ammunition for its rear turret. Both gun arrangements were sighted through a ring sight and, “whenever the wings filled a certain part of that ring,” says Lee, “then, you opened fire.”


Fortunately, Engberg had developed marksmanship while growing up on the farm. ”With my old .22, I could hit anything that moved,” he says, and that included hunting quail, with their erratic flying patterns.


Lee says it was common practice on his Avenger for radioman and gunner to switch positions on a mission, as it was dreadfully boring for a radioman to sit down below in the fuselage where he couldn’t see much of what was going on.


“Mr. Brookshire used to call back every so often and ask ‘Which one’s where?’


In March, 1942, Engberg was aboard the carrier USS Lexington (CV-2), when it left Long Beach, California en route to the Pacific War, but soon transferred to its sister ship, USS Saratoga (CV-3), in VT-12. When the Saratoga docked in San Diego, VT-12’s crews were brought by bus back to the Bay area.


“We got here and found out the pilots had flown the planes into San Diego, where we had just left.”


Bussed back to San Diego, Lee says he was among the gunners standing along the runway while the squadron’s pilots practiced landings. The gunners, yet to be paired with pilots, were sizing up the men who would be flying them into battle.


“Some of them came in and made nice landings. But here came one in - - hit, bounced, bounced - - took off again and went around. He did the same thing the second time.”


According to Lee, all 18 gunners watching said, in unison, “Engberg, that’s gotta be your pilot.”


The pilot’s name, William Brookshire (Lt., USNR) would become a household name for the Engberg family in years to come. Lt. Brookshire, not much older than Engberg, hailed from Meridian, Mississippi He had a heavy Southern accent, of which Lee recalls, ”When I first flew with him I couldn’t understand a damn thing he said.”


Lt. Brookshire was always telling the younger gunner what to do, and what not to do. Lee really liked him, and later on when he was going across the country during his Navy career, Lee would stop to see him.


Bomber and torpedo crewmen were kept separate from their pilots, and Engberg says that was to prevent them from getting to know each other too well. Lee told a story of his unique communication with Mr. Brookshire on one anti-submarine patrol:


“We were going out to relieve the guy who was doing the figure-eight (over the carrier). I didn’t know whether Mr. Brookshire had had any booze or not, but he just didn’t seem normal that day.”


Engberg suspected something was amiss when Mr.

Brookshire failed to properly relieve the other TBF that had been flying patrol. Then his suspicion was confirmed.


“Can you believe that within about nine minutes from take-off, that man was sound asleep? The radioman tried to wake him up, I tried to get him…”


“So, my gun was on my left side, facing aft. I turned the turret all the way around, put it alongside him and fired about ten rounds. He came to.”


Lee says that during their time together, Mr.

Brookshire took very good care of his crew, bringing them each a bottle of whiskey when they all went on R&R. However, the Lieutenant was quoted once as saying, “If I had to choose a crew all over again… I’ve got my doubts (about you two).”


Engberg remembers well the day he was heading back to sea after a week’s liberty at Espiritu Santo. He was bringing aboard a watermelon, though it was not exactly an ordinary, garden-variety melon. Lee had lopped off one end and hollowed out the melon to hold a bottle of whiskey Mr. Brookshire had given him. Toothpicks held the melon end in place.


“By the time we got in the liberty boat and back to the ship to go up the gangway, it was too rough. They were sending a guy down with a line to put around you to haul you up. An ensign, as Duty Officer, was ordering me to throw my watermelon away and I wouldn’t do it. I had captain’s mast two days later, got 180 hours of extra duty at one hour a day. That means you don’t go ashore until the 180 hours is completed.”


“Four days later, we’re on the same carrier getting transferred to the Saratoga, which had come alongside. We’re flying planes off the little jeep carrier. I had my 180 hours assigned to that carrier. Two days later it was sunk, so that cancelled my 180 hours of extra duty.”


Engberg’s first aerial combat came in the Battle of Santa Cruz. He recalls that some of the early missions involved attacking Japanese targets in one location and returning to the carrier, which then would steam at twenty knots for a full day before launching planes to attack another target.

During a three-week period in 1942, the Navy’s South Pacific carrier fleet was reduced to only the Saratoga and the Enterprise.


“We didn’t want to do a lot of damage; we just wanted to scare the hell out of them, that’s all.

We hit Surabaya, Java, Sumatra, and Borneo. And one time, we started from around Sumatra for a run to the lower part of the Philippines, but that never did happen.”


“I never, ever visualized I’d do the things that happened in aerial combat. A lot of people think aerial combat is something that lasts a long time. It doesn’t. You fly into the target, you come around in a torpedo plane… and it feels like you’re actually in a car. It’s because the pilot is getting the plane set, rpm’s and everything else. When he starts his run, he doesn’t want to be doing anything except for adjusting the throttle and the stick.”


Engberg graphically emphasized the need for a torpedo plane to fly absolutely level, as close to the water as possible, for the last 3,000 yards to a target. Deviating from a flat, low course would cause a torpedo, when it hit the water, to put it on too deep a path toward an enemy ship.


When VT-12 flew missions in the Bonin Islands and the Solomons, and the first mission against the Japanese naval stronghold at Rabaul, Engberg was sitting in the turret behind Mr. Brookshire, guarding against enemy aircraft bouncing them.


“We went in against one hundred Japanese Zeros.

We had 24 F6F fighters, 36 dive-bombers and 18 torpedo planes. That was the day fighter tactics changed. The fighters used to go down with us, but that day they stayed above us. They engaged the Zeros, which gave us very clear runs except when you came out. Then they were there to greet you.”


Engberg says that for he and his shipmates, there was frequent amazement some Navy planes ever made it back to the carrier. The VT-12 Squadron lost 8 crewmen in 2 days.


“I came back one day and was way away from my airplane, going down to my quarters, when someone came and got me and wanted to know if I was all right.


“I said, ‘yeah, I’m all right.’”


“He said, ‘Well, come back and look at your airplane.’ ”


“There was bullet-proof glass in the turret, and five 7.7s (7.7 caliber bullets) in it. I knew it.

I guess I was just too scared or something to know if I had been hit or not.”


Of the randomness of destruction and death in naval aviation, Engberg remembers one TBF that came back with a single bullet hole in between the pilot and gunner, the projectile that made it having fatally pierced a photographer between the eyes. And there was another plane that had been riddled with more than 200 hits. Remarkably, its crew was unscathed.


Another of Lee’s close brushes with an accident happened in a TBF taking-off, just as the carrier got a submarine alert. Engberg says a carrier skipper gave any other activity low priority when the ship was under potential threat by an enemy submarine.


“We had just got the tail up and the ship started a hard starboard turn. It takes a little while for that old rudder to get started, but when it does… well, all of a sudden we just started bouncing, as we headed toward a 5-inch gun mount on the port bow. We blew one tire, I guess, when it twisted, we hit the gun mount.”


Engberg says his TBF did some severe crabbing as it clawed its way into the air.


Yet, according to Engberg, that event took a back seat to another weird incident on the Saratoga involving a Dauntless dive-bomber taking off.


“You could land planes on the carrier on the stern or on the bow. The carrier had arresting gear on both ends of the deck. This SBD had gotten just to the end of the runway on takeoff and his tail hook dropped. He got up in the air and he had enough speed that it pulled the tail section right off.”


Fortunately, both the pilot and the gunner were rescued from the water after the plane dived into the drink. Yet the only record made of the incident was some tiny writing in a bottom corner of a page in the ship’s log. Engberg says the next time the Saratoga went into port, the arresting gear on the bow - - a holdover from the days when biplanes, with lower weights and speeds, could more easily land on the carrier - - was promptly removed.


When it came to liberty, Engberg can confirm that most stories of wild sailor activity generally held kernels of truth. Occasionally, sailors even missed the boat heading back to the Saratoga when their leave had ended.


“Everybody did their job right. But when you had the time off, you didn’t know whether you were coming back, what you were going to do or anything. There wasn’t anybody to tell you what to do or what not to do when on liberty.


In his fifty-four combat missions, Engberg had to bail out of an airplane on two occasions.


“The first time was coming back to the ship. We were about 3,000 feet up and we weren’t sure what hit us. It tore a hole in the SBD. We already had our chutes on and weren’t far from the task force.”


A Navy destroyer spotted the pilot AP (it wasn’t Lt. Brookshire on the SBD) and Engberg bailing out and left the fleet to scoop them from the ocean.


The second time Lee had to bail out was on a special night mission. Engberg was in the turret of his TBF and his pilot and radioman were at their respective positions. The TBF was at about

18,000 feet when its engine seized. Sporadic antiaircraft fire might have been the culprit, but Lee believes the engine just stopped working.


Engberg says he always practiced getting out of his turret - - his first drill of clipping on his parachute, exiting the turret and slipping out the starboard aft door of the Avenger took him more than one minute. Through practice, he chopped down his exit time to twelve seconds. He not only checked to make sure his survival kit in the life raft was fully equipped, be he also had painted his parachute hardware bright silver, so that in the moonlight he’d be able to see to quickly clip it on.


On the pitch-black night the TBF’s engine seized, Lee says he coolly went for his parachute:


“I just snapped it on, didn’t bother about anybody, went for the door and went out. Both the pilot and radioman went out later than I did. I caught a wind current one way and they caught one the other way.”


“They were picked up three days later, or maybe sooner, I don’t remember. I was in the water in my life raft from six to eight days. And believe it or not I only lost four pounds.”


Engberg lived by eating small fish he was able to grab while sitting in his life raft. No fishing hook was needed to bring those fish on board.


“I’d cut ‘em up and get the guts out of them.

Then I put them in my parachute and beat the hell out of them and wring them, and drink the juice.

I got sick the first four or five times. But if you’re bound and determined you’re going to live, you’ve got to do it.”


During the days alone in the life raft, Engberg saw many ships on the horizon and a few planes high in the sky. None of them saw him. He says he carried a prayer his mother had written for him, a prayer asking God to look out for Lee, from above, below and on each side. It’s a prayer Engberg still carries with him today.


His rescue came in rather a surprising manner, by the crew of a British submarine.


“I didn’t know if it was British, Japanese or what. But I could smell the diesel fuel. It was getting dark, so I waited until it got darker and then paddled my little one-man life raft around to the opposite side they (the submariners) were sitting on. Well, when you hear a Limey speak, you know what it is.”


Lee describes the British sailors as being very calm…guessing they must have expected him in the life raft to make the end-run on them. He says that though the submarine’s galley was filthy and cockroach-ridden, he was treated like royalty while he was aboard.


Engberg’s experience in aviation ordnance ended up extending far beyond maintaining and firing the machines guns of dive- and torpedo-bombers.

He worked with bombs, rockets, torpedoes and underwater mines.


“To make things safe, you’ve got to really watch the people you’re working with.


I had an experience where I was working on a mine one day, when an ‘officer-in-charge’ came over to tell me what I was doing wrong. I responded by telling him the mine hadn’t gone off yet”.


“He wanted me to go over and work on someone else’s mine that they were putting together, and I said no.”


The officer insisted Engberg go, telling him it was a direct order.


Engberg stood firm, responding, “Even if it was God Almighty giving me the order, I’m not working on that mine, until he tears it all down and I start all over. Because, I don’t know whether he’s done it right, or not.”


During his two combat tours in the Pacific, Engberg hit two Japanese Zero fighter planes. The battle was so furious, who knows what happened!

The pilot of an F6F said he hit them also!

Presidential Unit and Individual Citations were given to Lee for his mission at Rabaul Harbor.

Lee spent the final year of the war in Florida, training aerial gunners, which brought its own fair share of interesting adventures.


Among those was a “mass evacuation” of SBD gunners, an accident that seems hilarious in retrospect. As he tells it, he was riding as an observer in a TBF on a training flight, while stationed with a squadron in Pearl Harbor.


“They’d been practicing gunnery, when this one plane caught fire. He told his crewman to bail out. What he didn’t realize was he was on the air when he told his gunner to bail out. The other 11 crewmen also went out.”


Engberg says that because the pilot had used the radio instead of the intercom to only his plane, all the gunners in the squadron heard the call to jump and reacted.


Long antisubmarine patrols in PBY Catalinas and PBM Mariners conjure many later memories for Engberg. Since his squadron (based at Norfolk) was responsible for patrolling the East coast from Newfoundland to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, these missions frequently lasted a full day. He says some months he flew as many as 110 hours.


Long hours of patrol combined with the weather to aggravate and threaten Engberg’s crew on more than on occasion.


One experience came when an anchor buoy broke loose during a rainstorm. On a nighttime flight, Engberg says, the Mariner had landed with a bad engine.


“The PBM is not hard to maneuver with one engine.

We broke loose from the buoy, and I sat in front of the cockpit and behind the forward turret with an Aldis lamp. The chief was on the flight engineer’s panel. I think it was the chief radioman operating one sea anchor and another crewman on the other sea anchor.”


“To help turn the plane, you’d drop the port sea anchor out and it fills with water, turning the plane to the left, or you drop the starboard sea anchor and it turns it to the right. But if you’ve got a dead engine and you try to turn- - like, the port engine was live and the starboard was dead - - it’s hard to turn into a live engine. You’ve got to cut the live one back to make the turn.


“If they had stopped and done what they should have done… they should have put the propeller into reverse pitch. That could have tuned it to starboard, or backwards, really fast. We later practiced doing that, and it really worked.”


Another East coast patrol proved a little more harrowing.


Lee says his PBM was the second aircraft in the pattern to return to Norfolk, Virginia NAS, when they were suddenly caught in a snowstorm. The tower waved off their landing, so Lee’s PBM pilot took the amphibian back up into the blue sky on a course for Cherry Point, North Carolina. Concern began to grow for how much fuel the plane still had, and Engberg checked the flight engineer’s panel to see what the tanks were reading.


“Only one tank was showing a white line. The rest of them were all showing red.”


The gauges would turn a lighter shade of red when fully empty. Engberg said the flight engineer told him to watch for that to happen and relay the message so the tanks could be switched. He estimated the plane had another forty minutes of flying time.


“We were 140 miles from Cherry Point, and a PBM flies at 140 miles an hour. So figure that one out. We came into Cherry Point, and at the other end of the runway you could see the snowstorm coming down. We hit the runway, rolled on, and just about 30 seconds after we hit the runway the starboard engine cut out.”


Retiring in 1969 with 28 + years duty in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, mostly on aircraft carriers, Engberg received the Navy Certificate, in 1971, for 30 years of active service! Following the Navy Lee worked 15 more years with the Fruehauf Trailer Corporation in Oakland with a pension from the Auto Mechanics Union. The Retirement Plaque given him in appreciation for his service at Fruehauf says, “To an A-1 Mechanic ... who always said: “If a Man Made It ­ I can Fix It!”


Asking Lee about the USS Saratoga, you’ll probably evoke the strongest show of pride a career navy man can ever show. He’ll tell you that CV-3 was never sunk by the enemy- - that it only met its end in summer of 1946, when the U.S.

government used it as part of the target fleet for the nuclear bomb test at Bikini atoll. And, he’ll add that the carrier today still sits upright under 140 feet of water in the atoll.


This year, Lee Engberg is honored by his induction into the prestigious ‘American Combat Airman Hall of Fame’, at the C.A.F Headquarters in Midland Texas!


LeRoy R. Engberg, USN (Ret.), Petty Officer 1st Class Veteran Combat Aerial Gunner, Aviation Ordnance Expert, WWII, KOREA & Vietnam


* Born 18 May 1921 in Atchisen, KA, but grew up in Boone, IA

* Enlisted in NAVY July 1941, after earlier time in National Guard

* Trained as an "AO", Aviation Ordnance, but selected as aerial gunner on SBD and TBF

* Left Long Beach, CA March 1942 aboard USS Lexington, enroute to Pacific War, but soon transfered to the USS Saratoga in VT-12 flying in SBDs and TBMs

* First aerial combat in Battle of Santa Cruz, added to Bonis Islands, Solomons, Rabaul, ...

* Shot-down two Japanese Zero fighter planes; completed fifty-four (54) combat missions

* Bailed-out twice; first time picked up by a destroyer; second time by a British submarine after many days alone (ten to eighteen days--records lost) floating in tiny raft

* After two combat tours in Pacific, spent last year in FL training aerial gunners

* Aircraft he flew-in included the SBD, TBF, SB2C, PBY, PBM

* Retired from NAVY in 1969; received Navy Certificate for 30 years of active service

* Served in WWII, KOREA and Vietnam and almost entirely on aircraft carriers

* Following Navy career, served 15 more years with Fruehauff Trailer Corp. in Oakland

* Elected in 2006 to the prestigious American Combat Airman Hall of Fame!


Lee Engberg, Navy Combat Veteran of Three Wars, Patriot, Valued Member of GGW-CAF!

Note: Lee last spoke to the GGW way back in October, 1993!


Courtesy of www.goldengatewing.org


Copyright Commemorative Air Force, Inc.