Another operational accident that day was far more tragic to the men of the Gambier Bay. The carrier that day was responsible for two combat air patrol groups. Each patrol was carried out by four airplanes, who searched predetermined patterns above the carrier force, ready to be vectored, or dispatched to any point on the orders of the Combat Information Center. Lt. (jg) Dean Gilliatt was flying one of the planes of the second patrol. From the bullhorn on the bridge came the order, “Pilots man your planes,” and the four fighter pilots scrambled from the ready room to the flight deck and got into the cockpits. “Stand clear of propellers,” came the next order, and then “Start Engines.” The pilots engaged the starter mechanisms, the engines whined, coughed and started, and they were read to launch.
Since fighters were expected to be in the air for an extra-long time, they were hung with wing tanks. Normally, the wing tank was attached to the starboard wing of the Wildcat, and the pilot adjusted the controls before takeoff to compensate for the additional weight to the starboard side. But this day, the plane captain of Gilliatt’s fighter was unable to fix the tank to the starboard wing, so he moved it over to port. he forgot, and so did Lieutenant Gilliatt, that the plane was trimmed for extra weight to starboard, when actually the weight was on the other side.
Lieutenant Gilliatt began a free-run takeoff. The moment the plane began to move he knew he was in trouble, but the short and narrow deck of the Kaiser carrier give him no margin. As the wheels left the deck the port wing was dropping, and the plane nosed over to the left of centerline in spite of the pilot’s obvious frantic efforts to maintain the proper attitude for takeoff. For a moment it seemed that he might make it — the Wildcat needed only a foot more altitude to clear. But the landing gear caught in the top of the port side 40-mm gun mount just forward of the island, and sent the plane over the side, into the sea at a forty-five-degree angle. The plane went down, but came up and floated horizontally, as if flying on the surface of the sea.
The crash alarm sounded the moment it became apparent that Gilliatt was going to hit the gun. Commander Huxtable was in the ready room, and he rushed to the catwalk, and came outside just as the ship passed by the floating plane. He could see Gilliatt in the cockpit, his head slumped forward on his chest, unmoving. Either he had broken his neck on impact or he had been knocked out. The ship moved inexorably past the wreck, and men on the flight deck prayed that the pilot would come to and unsnap the safety belts. But they went past, and the plane sank, and when the escort came up, the sea was empty.
Lieutenant Harders, Gilliatt’s best friend aboard the Gambier Bay, stood on the catwalk outside the Aerology office, watching with Lieutenant Odum. Tears began streaming down Harder’s cheeks. “Oh, why couldn’t it have been me instead of Gil? He had so much to live for,” sobbed the flyer. Gilliatt had married in these frantic war years, and he had learned just before they left for war that his wife was about to have a baby. So much said, there was no more to say. The call came from the bullhorn for another pilot; the combat air patrol required four planes and only three were in the air. In a moment another fighter pilot was manning his plane, and in a minute he was off the deck, taking the place of Lieutenant Gilliatt. The demands of the war left no place for personal sorrow.
Dean Gilliatt was KIA – June 19, 1944
Excerpt from The Men of the Gambier Bay: by Edwin Palmer Hoyt