World War II pilot tells his story

PERKINS TWP. Fighter pilot and dive bomber Richard Launder's World War II story is a tale of everything but romance. "
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

PERKINS TWP.

Fighter pilot and dive bomber Richard Launder's World War II story is a tale of everything but romance.

"I suppose for the women it would be complete if I said I fell in love during the war," Launder said. "But that never happened."

Launder may be the youngest pilot from World War II still alive. He received his wings right when he turned 21, the minimum age to be a pilot.

During the war he logged more than 200 combat flight hours -- garnering a Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross for his skill, heroism and luck.

Launder, now 86, has lived through his eagle vision eyes betraying him with macular degeneration and his hearing is poor, but his storytelling voice is as clear and booming as ever -- an audible history of firsts during the war.

Leaving safe harbors

At 7 a.m., a week before Pearl Harbor was bombed, Launder and about 50 other pilots left the harbor heading to the Philippines.

Or so they thought.

"Supposedly, we were headed to the Philippines, but we were headed due south." he said. "All of us being fliers were navigators so we knew they knew something."

Eventually docking in Pago Pago, an Island in the Samoas, the pilots were joined by a portion of Australia's 1st Airborne who escorted them into Australia as the first American troops in the country.

Their barracks were horse track bleachers.

Behind the Silver Star

Days later on the flight line of an airstrip in Brisbane, Launder got his orders.

He and 12 others were to fly to Java and bomb Japanese ships invading Bali.

Launder was shot down over the Indian Ocean while at the same time sinking a Japanese cruiser.

He walked to an Allied Powers base disguised as a tribe member to hide his identity from the enemy.

"For that little adventure I earned the Silver Star," he said of the second highest military honor bestowed on a serviceman.

For 19 months, Launder and other pilots "Poured death on Foe in Pacific," according to a Los Angeles Times story he has kept for all of these years.

The story he rarely tells

"I'm not proud of this," Launder said. "It doesn't suit me, but sometimes in war you do things you can't be proud of."

He told the story once when he was begged to tell a war story.

But he hasn't told it since.

In March, on orders, he "patrolled" the waters of the Bismarck Sea, sometimes called the Huon Gulf.

For three days, they sunk 22 Japanese transport ships by raining bullets from 50-caliber machine guns mounted on planes.

"I flew back and forth over the gulf shooting these guys in the water, literally hundreds of them in lifeboats and rowboats, coastal steamers," he said.

The force of the bullets would explode the boats into thousands of splinters and sprays of red.

"It was necessary to do; they were armed troops we had to get rid of and so we did," he said. " I realized the necessity of it, but it was a such distasteful job."

Daring dives at Normandy

On D-Day he flew to Plymouth, England, to await word that a makeshift runaway had been assembled to land the first planes.

Several days later, he landed the first plane beyond the beach head.

He made three successful trips.

The belly tanks were full of intelligence, as in photos of the beach, he now surmises.

Later Launder and flight buddies were taken into Paris on a flower cart.

"But Paris is another story," he says of French cuisine; absinthe, now an illegal liquor in the United States; a murder in a bar; and chaos in the streets.

While Launder was enjoying the Parisian freedom, the war was advancing.

Flying maps

After his sabbatical, Launder and fellow men dropped maps to the troops headed toward the Battle of the Bulge.

He was promoted to a commanding officer.

The colonel called me in the day before Christmas, Launder recalled.

"He said I want you guys to go back to the squadron and pick men to go to France, Launder said.

"What he meant was they needed warm bodies."

Launder went through what he would say six times.

The men never went.

Coming home

Launder came home on an ocean liner with 15,000 other troops.

On a train somewhere in Kansas he learned the atomic bomb had been dropped.

He pulled into Fort MacArthur in California and was given a ruptured duck pin -- a gift denoting the end of military service.

"And that's the end of the story," Launder said.