26JUN08 - I had the incredible honor of being the Escort Commander for the official funeral of Master Chief Tant today at Arlington Cemetary. I was also honored to present the flag to his wife June. I didn't know him before today, but I will spend the rest of my life in awe of his achievements. Please read the following article to learn more about this extraordinary man:
US Navy Ceremonial Guard
First on Iwo Jima
Schultz, Melvin Ray
The first American to set foot on Iwo Jima in WWII was neither a Marine nor a Sea Bee. He was Robert Buford Tant a radioman and combat aircrewman flying TBMs in VT-14 aboard USS Wasp (CV-18). He had enlisted at the age of 17.
On July 4th, 1944, while flying wing on the squadron CO for a predawn strike on Iwo Jima, his aircraft took a AAA hit two feet from Tant's battle station. Barely able to jettison the hatch because the Avenger was in a steep dive, he managed to get out at 2,500 feet, seconds before the plane crashed into the sea.
Descending in the chute he was shot at by Japanese troops on the ground. Once in the water he struggled to cut his shroud lines with his survival knife as a Zero approached. Tant, deflated his Mae West and submerged as the Zero expended all its ordnance in a failed effort to kill Tant. He was near the Iwo Jima shore line but swam out to sea, hoping for rescue from Navy ships or planes.
The TBM's wounded gunner and Tant's best friend, Warren Atlee Goodwin, had also bailed out. He set out with Tant to swim to the sea lane where U.S. support vessels were scheduled for shore bombardment later that day. Both men became exhausted just keeping afloat in their life vests which remained only partially inflated. They were attacked by dive bombers but a pair of F6Fs splashed this bandit. The Navy fighter pilot did not see the survivors.
In the morning, the men activated fluorescent dye, creating a 100-foot circle of color, but this also failed to attract searchers flying overhead so close the swimmers could see the pilots' helmet clasps. Well away in the distance they sighted their pilot, ENS Drake, but he had not spotted them. Drake was floating in a one-man raft. An OS2U spotted Drake and picked him up. The two aircrewmen had still not been sighted.
Their condition worsened in the next two days. They jettisoned flashlights, orange tarps, mirrors and Very pistols, retaining their .38 revolvers which, unfortunately, wouldn't fire due to the wet tracer rounds. Then came a shark which circled them before charging. Both men thrashed and yelled even though this was not a recommended procedure. The shark tore Tant's right shirtsleeve but he was otherwise unharmed.
The shark departed and the men decided to swim to shore, now about three miles away. Rip tides worked against them and shocked from exposure and fatigue, they floated in and out of consciousness, bobbing in the sea only to be awakened by slapping waves. Their shirtsleeves rubbed against developing sores on their biceps and their faces were cooked by the sun and abraded by salt water. Tant's mouth had become one massive canker sore.
By evening of the second day they were a mile from the shore. Goodwin was in desperate need of medical care so Tant decided to swim alone and gain assistance from someone to aid Goodwin. He reached a large rock as the sun was setting and clawed his way up it, his bare feet and hands badly lacerated by the barnacle-covered coral. Totally spent, he passed out.
At daybreak, Tant found several deserted houses and drank from pools of stagnant, larvae-filled rainwater to survive. He lashed his skivvy shirt to a bamboo pole and hoisted it. Two eternal days later he was spotted - but by a Japanese plane which dispatched a landing craft manned by 50 infrantrymen to the site. Tant was captured and beaten and became a POW for 14 horrible months but survived and is alive today.
Tragically, no trace of Goodwin was ever found.
(CAPT Schultz is a former Combat Aircrewman -ARM2C, Emeritus -, as he likes to say, and is a principal figure in the creation of the Enlisted Combat Aircrew Roll of Honor aboard USS Yorktown, Patriots Point Maritime Museum, South Carolina.)
Copyright Association of Naval Aviation Summer 1999
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