John Lally's TBM Avenger
This page is about a Marine Corps squadron serving on a tiny escort carrier. This project almost never got started but after all is said and done I'm pleased with the result and have put it here for you to see. Please note all photos on this page are thumbnails...click on one to see the full size image.
My 1/48th Accurate Miniatures kit was begging to be built and I started looking for the markings of VMTB-143 for the modeling project. (Why I picked this unit is another long story best left for later.) In 1945 they were stationed on the USS Gilbert Islands, CVE 107. In volume 2 of John M. Elliott's The Official Monogram US Navy & Marine Corps Aircraft Color Guide you can find a chart of escort carrier markings (pp. 120 -1). These weren't detailed enough for a model and I wrote to Mr. Elliott seeking more information. He wrote a nice letter back telling me, essentially, the unit paint schemes on the CVEs weren't well documented. What I saw in the book was the best he could offer.
I set out to find the markings on the web. Searches for the USS Gilbert Islands and VMTB-143 turned up several hits for reunion organizations and contacts. Letters went out to all and responses were prompt and friendly. But there were no matches to this voyage of the Gilbert Is (Korea vets responded) nor to this era of the squadron (responders were based on Munda or New Georgia Is.). By this time I was 6 months into the research with no real leads.
Then a miracle happened. One of the reunion people I had written to sent me the name of a squadron pilot from the right era. This turned out to be Capt. John 'Jack' Lally USMC (ret). A letter to Captain Lally explaining my search for markings was answered with..."not only was I one of the pilots, but I was the photographic officer too". Holy Moley! Capt Lally sent me copies of some of his photos and I'm pleased to show them on this site. To my knowledge these are the only ones you can find on this unit during the 1945 cruise. They show several features that are surprising. Each plane has a large formation number on the side. And there was nose art...I think that's quite unusual for Avengers. Now I had everything needed to make an accurate paint scheme.
click here to see Capt Lally's VMTB-143 photos ...that's Jack's good buddy Fritz Liebich in P84. And here's Lt Thomas Faull in the cockpit. The patch under his canopy sill is the squadron's early "Devildog Avengers" . (This patch and the Flash Gordon patch (see below) were kindly donated by VMTB-143 pilot Lt Dean Brundage.)
Along the way I pieced together a few facts about the squadron and Capt Lally's service. John Lally was trained in Avengers at the MCAS Goleta - now the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport. Their barracks have since morphed into the University of California at Santa Barbara. It's right on the ocean....a beautiful place. (In "Flying Leathernecks" John Wayne tells his wife they're being transferred to Goleta. Judging by her reaction one would think Goleta was in the desert, 100 miles from anywhere you'd want to be.) John and his buddy George 'Fritz' Liebich had already flown Kingfishers and Dauntlesses in the Caribbean hunting for U-boats in VMS-3. There's a famous photograph of this unit in those attractive anti-sub patrol markings. John remembers his plane's call sign was Sugar-3 (S-3).
In late '44 John and George were sent to Goleta to learn to fly ground attack missions in the Avenger. Training lasted a few months before they were shipped off to the Pacific in 1945 on the Gilbert Islands. It was a new ship and this was to be her maiden combat voyage. A tiny escort carrier, there was room for the Corsair squadron VMF-512 and the Avengers of VMTB-143.
An interesting side note...Alex Raymond, creator of the comic strip "Flash Gordon", enlisted in the Marine Corps and was aboard the ship as the combat artist. At John's request he designed a squadron patch which reflected their new ground attack assignment. This stunning patch is sometimes called the Flash Gordon patch for obvious reasons. In my opinion it's one of the most artistic patches to emerge from WW2.
The squadron adopted the name Rocket Raiders. Here's Alex (left) being made an honorary member of VMTB-143 by its CO Capt. Worlund. After the war Raymond started the new comic strip "Rip Kirby" which became quite popular. Rip was a dashing private eye who in the comic strip was a USMC Captain during the war. The model was none other than Capt John Worland, the CO of VMTB-143 on the Gilbert Islands. Rip's companion is modeled after Lt Robert L Cox, the squadron's intelligence officer. And so the men of VMTB-143 have a relationship to Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby, Alex Raymond and the history of the best of the comic book art form. Alex Raymond died in a car accident in 1956, a legendary figure in his field.
While on the Gilbert Islands the squadron earned 3 battle stars for supporting the marines on Okinawa, air support for the Australian landings at Balikpapan, Borneo, and for operations off the coast of Japan. You can just make these out on Capt Lally's uniform.
The model itself is a straightforward build of the beautiful "Okinawa Avenger' version of the Accurate Miniatures kit. Capt Lally didn't have pictures of his own plane, P82 GiGi. He worked up a few sketches for me and he agreed the end result is a faithful representation of his bird. Capt Lally advised that his standard war load was 4 - 500 pounders in the bay and 8 'Holy Moses' 5 inch rockets under the wings.
The markings came from several sources. The P82, GiGi and small 82s on the cowl ring were done with an ALPS printer. The tiny stencils are from Woody Vondracek's magnificent Archer Dry Transfers sheet of 1/48th Avenger data stencils. The national insignia came from a third sheet.
It's impossible for me to know what it was like to take off and land on those postage-stamp-sized flight decks and fly over the front lines to deliver ordinance just ahead of the Marines on the ground. I can only stand in awe of the men who did this. In closing here's a picture of Captain Lally and his flight crew, Sgts. Jesse Garrett and Lloyd Reed. And here's a photo of the officers - all are named on the page VMTB 143 1945/2003. Please visit it and the related page USS Gilbert Islands 1945. I hope you can take the time to look at these men and give them a salute for a job well done.
Thank you Capt Lally for giving me the raw material to tell this story.
This site was last updated 11/26/07