William E. Davis III was a senior in college when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he vowed to get revenge.
The Santa Barbara resident and Navy ace, who died last week at age 91, eventually did just that, dropping his own bomb on the Zuikaku, the last Japanese aircraft carrier remaining from the Imperial Fleet that attacked Hawaii and forced the U.S. entry into World War II.
Davis was credited with sinking the vessel on Oct. 25, 1944. In all, nearly 850 Japanese sailors went down with the ship.
“I think it’s really a loss for all of us,” said John Blankenship, a Vietnam War-era Navy pilot who knew Davis well. “I felt privileged and honored to be called a friend.
“He was the backbone of the naval fighter squadron,” Blankenship added, “one of the stalwarts the guys could count on. He did everything that was expected of him.
“He was aggressive, as fighter pilots are. When he saw that carrier, he put the nose of his plane down and went right for it.”
Davis’ story is a compelling one, and is captured in the book he wrote about his war experiences: Sinking the Rising Sun: Dog Fighting & Dive Bombing in World War II.
Davis, a lieutenant who piloted a Grumman F6F Hellcat, was part of a carrier-based squadron that reportedly shot down 155 enemy planes, while losing only two of their own, during World War II.
On Oct. 25, 1944, Davis was flying with his squadron when they encountered a group of enemy ships. It was to be an epic and fateful day for Davis.
The U.S. Navy Memorial website gave this account of the experience, based on a roundtable discussion with Davis on Dec. 8, 2010:
“You could see the entire Jap fleet on the horizon,” Davis recalled. “We circled for a minute. Our air group commander was target coordinator, so he held us off until he was satisfied and gave us the word to go.” And go he did. Flying “high cover” at 20,000 feet, he put his Hellcat F6F into a dive with other planes, but realized right away that the speed of the dive would end up with him being too fast and too flat to hit the carrier. At 12,000 feet, he pulled out of the group and kept flying until he was directly over the Zuikaku.
“I stalled the airplane and it went straight down, which is somewhat hazardous in a fighter plane because you pick up too much speed,” Davis said. “With a dive bomber, you have the big dive breaks that keep you slow. But I didn’t care about that.
“The thing that astounded me was the amount of anti-aircraft fire. There were two clouds forming, one at 10,000 feet and one at about 4,000 feet, of continuously exploding shells. And I knew there was no chance to fly through that and come out the other end. But I still didn’t care. I was going to get my hit.”
With the plane at a low level, he pulled the bomb release. His hit was credited with the sinking of the carrier.
Davis’ death comes just over a month after he and two fellow World War II-era fighter pilots — Gen. F. Michael Rogers and Col. Hugh D. Dow — were honored at a ceremony in Santa Barbara. The event — “70 Years On — A Tribute to Three of Santa Barbara’s Most Highly Decorated Fighter Pilots 1942-1945” — was sponsored by the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Museum & Library and the Channel City Club.
Funeral arrangements for Davis are pending at Welch-Ryce-Haider Funeral Chapels.
There are several Memorial Day ceremonies planned for Monday as South Coast officials and residents pay tribute to those who sacrificed their lives in defense of America.
Army Sgt. Maj. Bob Forties, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division at Normandy in World War II and in the Korean War, will be the featured speaker at a 9 a.m. ceremony Monday at Santa Barbara Cemetery, 900 Channel Drive.
The ceremony at the Carpinteria Cemetery, 1501 Cravens Lane, will get under way at 10 a.m. Monday, and will feature Marine Col. J.J. Sega as the guest speaker.
At 11 a.m. Monday, a ceremony will begin at the Santa Barbara Veterans Memorial Building, 112 W. Cabrillo Blvd.
A barbecue will follow for all who attend. The meal, prepared and served by the Santa Barbara Elks Lodge, is free, but participants are encouraged to make a donation to support the Veterans Memorial Building.