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The Dan Haywood Fowler Story
by Nina Sue Cresap Higgins
Dan Haywood Fowler was born February 4, 1917, at Vaughan, Yazoo County, Mississippi. He enlisted in the United States Navy in Jackson, Mississippi on October 9, 1940. Four days later he reported to officials in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was retained at the Chalmette Hotel to await orders to the U. S. Naval Training Station in San Diego, California. Haywood was subsequently assigned to the 4th Division of the USS SARATOGA. Along the way, he left letters documenting this long, fateful journey--far from the old home place.
It soon became obvious as I studied the letters and other documents kept by his mother, Perry Lee Brister Fowler, that Haywood, as the family fondly called him, had his sights set on becoming a Navy aviator.
The letter that he wrote to the Naval Air Station at Pensacola in the summer of 1940 underscores his aspirations. Unfortunately, four years of college education was a prerequisite for such a venture, and neither time nor funds were on his side. Although the reply from the recruiting offices at Pensacola shattered his dream of entering the field of aviation, Haywood had a back-up plan?to enlist in the Navy before the draft board could call him into a less desirable situation "that of the 'foot soldier'".
A picture taken of Haywood's Company 86 at the San Diego Naval Training Station shows Haywood fourth row back and center?wearing his brand new uniform. This, along with Haywood?s typical smile, seems to bear out the fact that he had adapted well to his new lot in life. And, as letters, photographs, and the story unfolds, we can see the confidence and pride that Haywood would carry into battle.
Although Haywood's reticent and reserved personality were never to change, we see a gradual evolvement of new and bolder expressions in the words of his letters. We also see a sometimes fun-loving character, accompanied by an unwavering patriotism as he carried out the duties required of him by country and commanding officers.
Haywood made rank from Seaman Third, to Seaman Second, and then to Seaman 1/C during his first year at sea.
His first experience took him to many points in the Pacific Theater: Midway, Fiji Islands, Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, Bougainville, Rabaul, Tarawa, Gilbert Islands, and numerous other sites that sustained troop movements and aircraft maneuvers executing enemy sorties off the USS SARATOGA. Letters, maps, and stories Haywood related when he came home on leave in November, 1941, offered the family testimony to his fondness for the 'SARA'.
Haywood took shore liberty at Pearl Harbor when the 'SARA' refueled there on December 11th, 1941. The vessel, having just entered San Diego after an interim drydocking at Bremerton, Washington, barely escaped the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.
Haywood sent home several photos of himself with a couple of Navy buddies dubbed in photo albums as "Haywood and Pal's", this somewhat vague notation was written in Grandma Fowler's handwriting.
Grandma Fowler kept meticulous records of everything pertaining to Haywood, from the time he first left home for a job in the Mississippi Delta. (Although we do not know the names of the sailors in some of the pictures in our family albums, Haywood's USS HANCOCK shipmates would later write letters to Grandma, expressing their sentiment and friendship.)
Pressures, and the war, mounted. The SARATOGA was hit by a torpedo on the 11th of January, 1942-- 500 miles south of Oahu. Six men were killed and three firerooms were flooded. The ship 'limped' back to Oahu, its 8 inch guns, useless against enemy aircraft, were removed for shore defense. After returning to Bremerton for repairs and installation of modern anti-aircraft battery, the SARA returned to San Diego for air group training, and returned to Pearl in June, 1942. Many landing rehearsals ensued--then early on the 7th of April, the SARA opened the Guadalcanal assault. Next, she steamed off to protect the sea lanes of the Solomon Islands.
The counter attack by the Japanese began the 23rd of August, 1942. And, one week later, the SARA was struck by another torpedo! This time, after repairs at Pearl, for the next 12 months the SARA and her air fleet neutralized Japanese airfields--including those when the Marines stormed Bougainville on November 1, 1942. After that came Rabaul, where the SARA's aircraft disabled most of the Japanese cruisers, and the Gilbert Islands, where she carried garrison troops to Makin and Tarawa in late November.
By now, Haywood, along with multitudes of others, needed a much deserved R & R. The only way Haywood could be awarded a leave was to ask for a transfer. After steaming well over a year without repairs, the SARA was finally detached on 3 November, 1943 to return to the United States. She was overhauled at San Francisco, from 9 December 1943 to 3 January, 1944. Haywood received a transfer in late 1943, and debarked when the USS SARATOGA came in to be overhauled. Soon, valued mementos again took their rightful place in Grandma's scrapbook.
Haywood came home for thirty days one last time, in January, 1944.
He had always been timid, genteel, and family members circulate the testimony that he would never purposefully harm anything--not even a bumble bee. When one got into the house one summer, he begged his Papa not to kill the bee--but to merely open the door and let it fly back outside!
But he knew that his country needed him to answer the 'call.' He also knew how difficult this moment had become for the family. Some of my Grandmother's late 1945 letters to a young lady Uncle Haywood was to meet in Massachusetts reveal a distressing evening for the Fowlers that January evening.
I was not quite 7 years of age, and yet, I seemed to understand the dark mood and the intensity of the times. I was not willing to let him go and I am now astonished to learn that I behaved rather poorly. I would not look at him, nor would I say'?goodbye' to him, Grandma said, but instead merely hung my head in despair. He patted me on the head, Grandma reported, and told me not to worry, that he would 'come back soon'.
He departed home for the Navy training station at Newport, Rhode Island the next day--January 24th, 1944.
We never saw him again.
Haywood had risen in the ranks and had been promoted to Coxswain in March of 1943. This meant that he handled or was responsible for the maintenance of the ship's boats and their crews, among other duties.
His shipmates called him Dan, or 'Danny', as did the lovely young lady he met while in Boston at a USO function. Her name was Irene Connolly, of Leominster, Massachusetts. She was 26 years of age; Haywood was also 26. For Irene and Haywood, it seems to have been love at first sight!
Irene recently sent me pictures taken in 1944 of herself with Danny, in front of her parents' home in Leominster. Her parents thought the world of 'Danny', and made him feel right at home. Her father bought melons, because he had heard that southerners liked melons! Irene served Danny iced tea, for even though in his shyness and humility he frequently refused to eat, she could finally get him to accept a glass of tea.
They listened to music and talked. They talked of marriage but decided they must wait until Danny returned from the war, as the waiting--and the unkown--was not fair to Irene, nor to the sanctity of the marriage vows. Haywood could only hope that
Irene would wait for him and wait she did. Unknowingly at the time, her wait would be in vain.
Haywood spent his last leave in Massachusetts--it was a brief respite from war, as he was soon to board the newly constructed ship, the USS HANCOCK, for its 'shakedown cruise'. This meant 'fitting out', testing the valves and bunks, testing the engines and cook stoves, loading stores and supplies, and filling the magazines with ammunition.
This cruise took the crew and its commanders from Boston to Norfolk, Virginia; they spent a few weeks in Chesapeake Bay, where the air group landed aboard. Then on June 12, it was on to the Gulf of Paria, Trinidad, and finally, back to Boston Navy Yard for those last shore leaves. On July 31, 1944, the HANCOCK left for her long trip down the East Coast, through the West Indies, the Caribbean, to Panama. After a brief liberty, the HANCOCK departed through the Gulf of Panama into the Pacific, and up to San Diego. After one week at North Island, the crew said goodbye to the United States on August 23. The ship sailed for Pearl Harbor, where it and its crew underwent more training, and thirteen days later, on September 24th, she shoved off for points west, as it turned out, to its new 'home port', a remote atoll by the name of Ulithi. As the HANCOCK berthed near the other Essex-class carriers, she felt like a full-fledged member of Admiral Bull Halsey's famed Third Fleet.
Haywood spoke in his letters home of the "rough" six-week shakedown cruise, but little did Haywood know of what horrors lay ahead. Haywood also wrote words to his mother, something akin to an apology, for not coming 'home' during his Boston leave. But there would not have been enough time, he had merely a few days to say his goodbyes to the Connollys. The war with Japan was accelerating in the Pacific. It was about this time that his letters home first began to dramatically change in tone and mood. And, for the most part, his letters became more scarce.
Haywood had told his mother, as stated in one letter she later wrote to Irene, that no one really WANTED to go and fight this war, and anyone that said they did was not telling the truth... he said that he must go because it was his 'duty'.
I believe that many thoughts about war--and post-war plans for a joyful future when families would at last be reunited--were shared the night before he left home that final time. Grandma stated that she, Haywood and Perrye Louise, Haywood's youngest sister, had stayed up very late at fireside in her bedroom, 'just talking'.
Now, back in Newport, assignments were finally in place and the USS HANCOCK--under the command of Captain Fred C. Dickey--was battle ready. Haywood, assigned to Division 3, found his quarters then settled in with his Navy gear and a few scant personal effects?which included a small photograph of Grandma Fowler tucked away in a small notebook. He had also now added a snapshot of Irene, standing alongside him in the Connolly's yard in Leominster.
Surely by now Haywood felt that some of the old allure was lacking. He missed his family. He had found Irene?and a new meaning to life.
But, always dedicated, still the proud seaman, Haywood reported on board for the commissioning ceremonies on April 15, 1944, and soon enough, the HANCOCK set its course for the Pacific Theater.
Haywood, I have been told by more than one shipmate with whom I have become acquainted, was assigned duty as the 'Captain' of the Captain's Gig. As one fellow shipmate on the USS HANCOCK, Lewis Hefke of Aurora, Illinois, confides, this bestowed honor 'placed Dan a cut above the rest of us'. Haywood kept the Captain's boat in perfect order, well-oiled and polished, and saw to it that the ship?s commander was safely transported to meetings from ship to shore, or from ship to ship.
Operation One began on the 6th of October, 1944, up the Nansei Shoto Islands, Okinawa and Amami O Shima, Formosa, Luzon, and back to Ulithi.
On October 12, 13, and 14, heavy strikes again were launched, this time against Eastern and Northern Formosa. On the nights of October 12 and 13, the HANCOCK saw it first heavy raids from about 90-100 Japanese airplanes. The crew stayed at their battle stations from the beginning of sunset about 1720 until four-thirty five the next morning?the excitement ran so high the men thought only a couple of hours had passed rather than the seven and a half hours of battle!
This heavy fighting continued--the HANCOCK now under the command of Admiral Robert F. Hickey-- until Christmas. Operations were numbered 'One' through 'Nine'. The second, third and fourth operations had seen action in the Philippines (Leyte Gulf), Manila and Luzon, Mindoro. Christmas was spent in Ulithi, and then it was on to "Operation Five" daring forays into the South China Sea, Formosa, Camranh Bay and Saigon, and--again--China, Iwo Jima, and other enemy infested waters, and then, on January 21, 1945, a tragedy occurred.
A returning carrier strike plane landed, taxied, and then suddenly its 500-pound bomb exploded, killing many shipmates both on the hangar deck and, in the ensuing fires that raged, many men below deck also died. Exhausted and gallant fire crews had the fires extinguished in 38 minutes. Then, after emergency repairs by flight deck crews, the HANCOCK was able to receive its returning air fleet within two hours.
The month of February saw the air group out to destroy as many enemy aircraft as possible, in preparation for the impending Iwo Jima amphibious operations. On February 16, the air group set a new record by destroying 71 enemy planes in the air. This record was not equaled during the remainder of the war. But the Japanese had not yet thrown in the towel.
There were many close calls during the month of March. The men of the "FIGHTING HANNAH" watched many ships of the Third Fleet sunk or crippled. The 'HANNAH' herself escaped a few close calls as her crew tangled with Japanese suicide bombers.
Also in the month of March, 1945, the Okinawa Campaign began.
By this time, Dan had earned numerous awards of merit. He had seen battle in all these places, with about 2,000 of his shipmates. But the worst was yet to come.
When Haywood boarded the HANCOCK he was assigned to battle station Frame 40, Gun Mount 6A, port side of the hangar deck--by the forward elevator.
He was serving as 'Gun Captain' of these 40mm gun quads on the morning of April 7, 1945. The Japanese had stepped up their campaign against the American Naval fleet. in particular the carriers, which supported the Fighting Tigers that were bombing their facilities on shore. The battle of Okinawa proved one of the fiercest to date, as hundreds of brazen kamikaze pilots took to the air, determined to wreak havoc on the Americans.
Just past noon (at 1212 hours) on Saturday, April 7th, a Japanese dive bomber known as a 'Judy' came out of the clouds 5,000 yards from the Hancock, which was cruising south of Kyushu, Japan. The 'Judy' banked, swooped low, and dived straight for the Hancock, dropping its 500 pound bomb from a 50 feet altitude onto the flight deck.
The bomb exploded, penetrated the forward elevator, and the 'Judy' cartwheeled across the deck, destroying portions of the flight and hangar decks, including 16 aircraft. The explosion and fire obliterated Gun mount 6A. According to later reports from the ship's commanders, the ship's chaplains, and at least two of his shipmates, Dan Haywood, along with his crew--was killed instantaneously.
Casualties ran high that day, 29 men were killed outright; 75 others were wounded, some of whom later died of their burns and injuries; 36 men were blown overboard and reported missing. This attack proved to be a devastating blow to the HANCOCK, but the war continued for the crew, until two days later when the ship set its course for permanent repairs at Ulithi.
Three hours out of Okinawa, Haywood, along with his 28 shipmates, was buried at sea with full military honors at 1530 on the afternoon of Monday, April 9, 1945.
According to one letter received by Irene, her brother, Francis Connolly witnessed the incident from his battle station aboard the light cruiser USS PASADENA, which was just behind and to the left of the HANCOCK. Francis stated that his ship came alongside and picked up a few of the HANCOCK survivors.
Francis felt so devastated, not to mention the harried moments he himself had to endure, that he did not write to Irene until many months later to tell her that he had witnessed the attack and that he 'supposed he knew that Danny was killed'. Francis seemed to have had no direct knowledge of this fact, but he just 'knew'.
When the war ended just under two months later, the HANCOCK's air squadron had destroyed 732 enemy planes, 32 merchant ships, and 9 warships in the final ten months of the war. Ten planes were knocked down by anti-aircraft fire, the gun crews.
Later, after relentless applications and persistence by Grandma Fowler, Uncle Haywood eventually received all due awards, posthumously.
Among those citations are: World War II Victory Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon, Gold Star Lapel Button, Philippine Liberation Ribbon and Bronze Star, Presidential Unit Citation (Philippines). Certificate of Military Merit, and the Purple Heart.
On Saturday, November 9 at 11: a. m., 1991, at the Yazoo City, Mississippi Courthouse, a memorial was dedicated to Yazoo County servicemen killed in action in all wars or conflicts. This memorial forever commemorates the name of Dan Haywood Fowler. A tombstone standing in Ellison Methodist Cemetery at Vaughan is inscribed with his name and the date of his death. Dan Haywood Fowler gave the ultimate sacrifice for love of family and country. Irene Connolly, his faithful sweetheart, recently said to me: "Danny was a wonderful person."
She still misses him. We all miss him.
We will always remember 'Uncle Haywood'.
(A closing note: Sadly, Irene Connolly of Leominster, MA passed away in 2019. She will be loved and missed by the Fowler/Cresap families for all eternity.)