Three WWII veterans recalled wartime experiences for oral history

Pilot John Mayhew in the forward most plane flies in a squadron of Grumman F4F Wildcats on patrol over Iwo Jima. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regularly appearing series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

Originally organized in 1865 by freed slaves to honor Union Civil War dead in Charleston, South Carolina, First Decoration Day evolved into Memorial Day, a federal holiday to honor Americans who died in all wars while serving in the armed forces. Today on Memorial Day we take the time to remember and celebrate men and women who have given their talents, their time and, too often, their lives to serve their country

During World War II, the entire Vineyard community mobilized to support the War effort, both on the home front and overseas. At the Martha’s Vineyard Museum the personal stories of Vineyard people who survived the war years are a part of the Museum’s oral history collections. These stories bring alive the horror and confusion of battle, the exhilaration of victory and the shared sacrifice and anxiety experienced by those on the home front.

Gathered here are a few short excerpts from three Vineyarders’ oral histories on their WWII experiences. The full stories of their War experiences from these and 16 other Vineyarders can be read in Those Who Serve – Martha’s Vineyard and WWII, available at the Museum.

John Mayhew (1920 – 2012) of West Tisbury served as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot in the Pacific:

The War started and I signed up in the Navy and told them I wanted to be a fighter pilot. A heckuva lot of the guys wanted to be fighter pilots, so you couldn’t always get to be one. It just happened that I could shoot fairly well. I had done a little duck and goose shooting here on the Vineyard, so I did know a little bit about how you have to lead at a moving target.

In training they tested us. When you finally got into a plane that had guns in, you shot at a sleeve, like a target, towed by another plane. If you get quite a few hits in the sleeve you were in. And I almost always had the most. So that’s how I lucked out and got to be a fighter pilot. So it helped, I’m sure, that I had some experience with shotguns here on the Vineyard.

They sent me to the Pacific. We went out on a small carrier and I had the lead of a four-plane division. We covered the landings at Iwo Jima, and we also went down into the South China Sea and down through the Philippines. Every single night we’d get a combat air patrol.

One day, we were getting back to the carrier and it was getting around towards dusk, and they called me up and they said, “What state ammo and what state fuel?” And I said, “Ammo, zero.” We’d shot everything up strafing, didn’t have any ammo on board, and very, very little fuel. I figured maybe 15 minutes of fuel. So they said, “Okay. ‘Prep Charlie,'” which means “prepare to land,” and then a few minutes later they brought us all in.

And no sooner than we got in, every gunner on the carrier opened up, and I thought, jeez, what the devil is that? It turned out that a bunch of kamikazes had come in not far behind us. The reason they asked what our fuel was, they thought if we had any fuel and ammo maybe we could get a crack at them. But we couldn’t, we were just about empty. And darn if they didn’t sink the carrier right beside ours; kamikazes flew right into it. It was just about dark, and I watched the whole thing blow up, all the ammo and all the aviation gasoline and torpedoes and everything on board. They lost about six hundred people.

Anne Lesnikowski (b. 1921) of Tisbury joined the Women Air Force Service Patrol (WASP) during the War:

I was a ferry pilot moving airplanes back and forth across the United States. After a delivery you had to bum a ride back to your base, on other military aircraft. You’d have to ask the pilots that are in the mess hall, or somewhere, “Anybody going to Long Beach?”

At first, I flew a primary trainer, a PT-19, which was an open cockpit, two positions. Cold, but it was a good plane. I liked that a lot. Then I flew a basic trainer. A basic trainer was a training plane for instrument flying. And then an AT-6 which was a 650 horsepower. That was an advanced trainer. That was the one that was used to train fighter pilots a lot. And I co-piloted on the multi-engines. PT-17, B-27, B-24, C-47. That was a very good one, two engines. The 17 and the 24 had four engines. That was about it.

I liked to fly the C-47. The old cargo plane. It was easy to fly. It was very durable. It took a beating: I mean, you could land it pretty hard and it didn’t fall apart. It was a comfortable plane to fly.

When we got out we didn’t have any benefits. It was during Jimmy Carter’s reign as president that we finally received benefits and recognition. So now I’m a military veteran. But it took 37 years.

I’m proud of the fact that the WASPs made a real contribution to the war effort. But I am most proud of the fact that the WASPs broke the glass ceiling in aviation for women. Women do everything now, flying. They’re on commercial airlines. They run their own business flying. They’re in all forms of the military now, commissioned, and are flying. I’m very proud of that.

James McLaurin (1923-2010) of Oak Bluffs flew with the Tuskegee Airmen in the European Theater:

I wanted to be a pilot, so after basic training they sent us to Tuskegee, because that was the only place we could go for flight training. In basic training the instructors had been black, but at Tuskegee they were white because, see, there were no black pilots in the Air Corps at that time.

The training was very tough. You had to take some abuse from some of the flight instructors. The instructors would use the N word sometimes, to try to get you upset. And some of the fellows would wash out because their tempers flared up. And some dropped out, some were killed, their planes crashed.

After we’d been cadets for about two months, General Davis came and met with us. He was the first black general in the Army Air Corps. He gave us a real inspiring talk, and he pointed out that we had to set our priorities and we had to use persistence to achieve our goals. And he said, “To hell with the white people that discriminate; you want to fly. Flying is your priority. You learn to fly the Army way and you take your frustrations out on the enemy.”

When we first got overseas, they weren’t letting us do any escort missions due to the fact that they claimed we couldn’t do it. But then when they really needed escort pilots, they finally let us show what we could do.

My first escort mission was into Belgium. They gave us the P-51 Mustangs and we started escorting bomber groups from different places. We didn’t know them and they didn’t know us. And it wasn’t until later that they found out that we were black. There was a good feeling knowing that we were accepted by a lot of the bomber groups. There were a lot of requests for us, sometimes more than we could fulfill. Link to audio clips from Vineyarders’ WWII Stories and also to a film of Dr. Maurice and Nettie Vanderpol of Edgartown speaking of their time during the War in hiding in Amsterdam and in Terezin Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia.

Linsey Lee is the Curator of Oral History at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and has been collecting oral histories from Vineyarders for more than 25 years. The Museum is open Monday through Saturday. Go to or call 508-627-4441.