Remembering Wilhelm George “Bill” Esders


On My Forgotten Hobby III, one story always leads to another, and then to another.

© John Greaves Art (with the permission of Janet Greaves)

All the images of John Leonard Greaves’ paintings were uploaded from his Website where the background stories were written. His Website does not exist anymore. The only clue I have for his background stories are the image filenames.


This is a link to Wilhelm George “Bill” Esders’ story:

And this is the full biography courtesy of Gerry Lawton. More about Gerry Lawton later.

William was the son of John Henry and Mary Christine Schaber Esders who married in St Joseph, Buchanan, MO on 29 Oct 1912. Wilhelm’s sibling, Helen Anna Christine Esders, never married. His father, John Henry, was one of the first motorcycle police officers in St Joseph, MO (1911). After he resigned from the police force John owned a very large truck farm where he raised tomatoes. He earned a law degree and was a Republican candidate for a judgeship, Sheriff, and other public offices many times over the years. There is no evidence that he was ever elected, but he was persistent. He was a candidate for office yet again when he died in 1950 at the age of 67. John and Mary Esders rest in Oakland Cemetery, Saint Joseph, Buchanan, MO.

Wilhelm or William, as he was also known, was an R.O.T.C. captain, past president of the Young People’s League of the Zion Evangelical Church and a member of Veteran Scout Troop No. 20 while attending high school. He graduated with 300 other Central high school seniors at a combined commencement with Benton and Lafayette high schools held on the evening of 02 Jun 1932 at Central in St Joseph, MO. After high school Wilhelm and his parents discussed the topic of his enlisting in the US Navy. He was interested in radio and thought the Navy was a good opportunity to get more training in radio that might lead to a career field, as well as, provide added income for the family while the Great Depression roared on. Eventually he won them over.

Wilhelm George Esders began the navy enlistment application process at the St Joseph, MO navy recruiting station in the late summer of 1934. Compiling over the course of a month a plethora of documents and a medical exam; school transcripts, character references, a birth certificate, providing finger prints, police background check, and, most importantly, obtaining his father’s written permission to enlist, Wilhelm was accepted for enlistment. He traveled the 50 or so miles to Kansas City, MO where he enlisted in the US Navy (NSN: 341-90-83) as a Apprentice Seaman on Wednesday, 17 Oct 1934. Also enlisting with him was another Central high school student, 17 year old Norman Spencer Coyle.

Wilhelm and Norman left later that day on the train for 9 weeks of basic training at the Naval Training Station (NTS) San Diego, CA. After he completed recruit training, Esders attended the 20 week Radioman Class “A” Service School at NTS, San Diego. During the schooling he was advanced in rate to Seaman Second Class (S2c). His first sea duty tour as a radioman striker was on board the four-stack destroyer, USS Breckenridge (DD-148). That was followed by a tour of duty on board the battleship USS Wyoming (BB-32). It was on board the Wyoming in 1936 that he was encouraged to enter naval aviation. Esders applied for Navy flight school and, while he was enroute on the Wyoming to Europe, he was ordered to report to New York for a flight physical. He was one of two men, out of 42 examined, who was accepted for aviation training.

In 1937, RM3 Esders transferred to Naval Air Station, Pensacola, FL as a student pilot under instruction. On 21 Jan 1938, he was designated a naval aviation pilot (NAP) and received his wings from Bull Halsey, later to become Admiral. Halsey was also a member of Esders’ class, taking the course so he would qualify for later promotion to carrier skipper. During Esders’ training at Pensacola he met Miss Lillie Louise Cary of Pensacola. After flight school, Esders transferred to Torpedo Squadron Three (VT-3) attached to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in San Diego. It was in San Diego that Wilhelm and Lillie married on 9 July 1938 at the Navy Chapel. During the next three years at North Island, Esders was advanced in rate to Radioman Second Class (RM2) and then Radioman First Class (RM1).

In the spring of 1941, Esders was bombing instructor at NAS, North Island, San Diego where Warner Bros., was producing the movie “Dive Bomber.” The Navy Department had granted permission for the movie company to use the naval base as “location” for the picture and provided many props including more than a score of bombers. The navy was acting as technical advisor for the film. RM1 Esders was assigned as pilot of one of the bombers during the filming. He told his mother in a letter that he had been working with actors in the movie who included Fred MacMurray (sic), Errol Flynn, Ralph Bellamy, Robert Armstrong, Regis Toomey and Allen Jenkins. He said the actors were just like anyone else and were a congenial bunch to work with. The aircraft he was flying in the movie was 3-T-14, a Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber. Later that year he was promoted to Chief Radio Electrician and was designated Chief Aviation Pilot (CAP). In March 1942, he was commissioned a Radio Electrician Warrant Officer. Several months later he received a commission as an Ensign on 15 Aug 1942

Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, USS Saratoga (CV-3) was the flagship of the unsuccessful American effort to relieve Wake Island. A few weeks later Saratoga was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. She returned to the West Coast shipyard at Bremerton for more extensive repairs. During the yard period Saratoga’s embarked squadrons were transferred elsewhere. VT-3 was assigned to NAS Kaneohe Bay on Hawaii.

On 28 May 1942, the squadron was temporarily reassigned to the aircraft carrier, USS Yorktown (CV-5). Aviation squadrons from Air Group Three and Five flew on board Yorktown shortly after she got underway from Pearl Harbor in company with the USS Hornet (CV-8) and USS Enterprise (CV-6). They steamed to a point on the navigation chart nicknamed “Point Luck” to await the arrival of the Japanese Striking Force which was steaming from Japan to attack Midway Island.

About a week later on 4 June 1942 Chief Aviation Pilot Esders and his gunner ARM2 Robert Boyd Brazier launched from the flight deck of USS Yorktown (CV-5) with other elements of the Yorktown air group to attack the Japanese Striking Forces approaching Midway. Although they had some friendly fighter protection enroute to their targets VT-3 had to thread their way through a gauntlet of swarming enemy fighters and a hail of anti-aircraft fire. His was only one of two VT-3 aircraft to survive the torpedo attack on the Japanese carrier Striking Force on 4 Jun 1942. The other torpedo plane was piloted by MACH Harry Lee Corl and his gunner, ARM3 Lloyd F. Childers. Ten planes did not return. Esder’s gunner/radioman, Robert Byrd Brazier was seriously wounded during their attack on the Japanese fleet. The two planes found their way back to the Yorktown only to find that she was under attack. Corl and Esders were directed to the Enterprise. On their way to Enterprise both planes ran out of fuel and were forced to land in the sea. It was after Ensign Esders got the wounded Petty Officer Brazier into their life raft that he realized the severity of Brazier’s wounds. He died not long after getting into the life-raft. Brazier was buried at sea. Meanwhile a Japanese dive bomber was preparing to attack the raft containing Ens. Esders and Petty Officer Brazier. Fortunately, an American fighter intervened and shot down the enemy plane. That pilot was Ltjg Arthur James Brassfield.

Esders was rescued by the destroyer USS Hammann (DD-412) and the next day was transferred to the heavy cruiser USS Portland (CA-33). Esders life was probably saved again when he was quickly transferred to the Portland. Two days later on 6 June, the Hammann was alongside the wounded Yorktown providing damage control parties. Crews were trying to rescue Yorktown after she had been hit by bombs on 4 June. A Japanese sub penetrated the surface screen around Yorktown and fired four torpedoes at her. One hit the Hammann. She sank within four minutes taking most of her crew down with her.

On 07 July 1942, VT-8 transferred to the Saratoga where some of VT-3’s remaining pilots, including Ens. Esders, were transferred to VT-8 to reconstitute her deplete cadre of pilots. The following day Saratoga and her escorts departed Pearl Harbor enroute to the invasion of Guadalcanal. Twelve July saw Saratoga and her vast number of pollywogs cross the equator and enter in the Realm of King Neptune. On 24 July, Saratoga rendezvoused with aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) near Tongataup, one thousand miles southeast of Guadalcanal. Several days later the two carriers joined the USS Enterprise and her escorts. The Guadalcanal invasion force was 80 plus ships strong.

VT-8 participated in offensive operations during the opening week of the invasion. However, on 31 Aug Saratoga was torpedoed and had to depart the battle area for repairs. VT-8 was transferred ashore to Henderson Field and became part of the Cactus Air Force from Aug – Dec 1942. Living conditions at Henderson Field were primitive at best. Consequently, only the required minimum essential squadron personnel lived at Henderson Field. The remainder of the squadron personnel constructed a base of operations at Espiritu Santo. It is believed that Ensign Esders was there on duty until he arrived at Henderson Field on 03 Oct 1942. Ensign Esders and two other pilots, Ens. John Taurman, and CAP B.J. “Red” Doggett, flew in replacement Avengers. VT-8 had more pilots than planes to fly them however. Later that day three Avengers found a Japanese heavy cruiser and two destroyers about 150 miles away northwest of Russell Island. They attacked and left the cruiser smoking and listing in the water. The following day, Esders, Bruce Harwood, Taurman and Doggett went in search of the “wounded” heavy cruiser. Although the weather was poor, they found the cruiser had not gone far. At least three of the four torpedoes fired at the cruiser were hits. Esders was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in this action. It was presented in Oct 1943 by Capt. Arthur Gavin, Commandant of NAS, Jacksonville.

Records indicate that Esders flew a mission on 06 Oct with the same two pilots who brought the replacement planes to Henderson Field several days earlier. The three Avengers left Henderson Field for the 20 mile flight to Cape Esperance after dark at the behest of Marine Corps Gen. Geiger. Enemy forces had been using the landing beach area around the Cape to bring in heavy artillery, troops and supplies. After the attack, which may have destroyed an ammunition dump, the three planes became separated on the way back to Henderson Field. Doggett became disoriented and slammed into the ocean killing all on board. Taurman likewise became lost although he maintained radio contact for sometime. Later, a member of his crew was found who had swum to a nearby island after his plane went into the water. Taurman stayed with an injured crew-man who couldn’t swim. They were never found. Esders made it back safely to Henderson Field. Contrary to published newspaper reports, Esders did not end up in the water.

Henderson Field came under constant attack from Japanese bombers and fighters during the day and from naval bombardment at night for many months. However, in preparation for a major thrust to recapture Guadalcanal by the Japanese, they unleashed a horrific night bombardment the centerpieces of which were the two Japanese battleships, Kongo and Haruna on 13 Oct. They hurled 973 14” shells into the Henderson Field area in a span of an hour and a half. That was followed by bombing attacks then heavy artillery attacks. Although the airfield remained in American hands much of the Cactus Air Force inventory of planes were either destroyed or severely damaged. Esders remained with VT-8 through the horrific bombardment that night, but because of the shortage of planes, he returned to Espiritu Santo on 16 Oct 1942 with four other VT-8 pilots leaving only five torpedo pilots at Henderson Field. VT-8 would not be relieved until December 1942. The squadron would have one plane remaining in its inventory – that plane was not fit to fly. However, the record left by Torpedo 8 would earn it the second Presidential Unit Citation for valor within six months (4 Jun 1942 being the first.). Esders would receive this award in 1943

Ensign Esders detached from VT-8 later that fall and by early December was home with his wife and daughter visiting with his parents in St. Joseph, MO. He had received orders to proceed to the Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville, FL for duty as a flight instructor. On 01 May 1943, Ensign Esders was promoted to Lieutenant, Junior Grade (Ltjg). After about a year tour at NAS Jax, Ltjg Esders detached and transferred to NAS Miami to provided specialized training for pilots who were to fly planes from aircraft carriers. On 01 July 1944, Esders was promoted to Lieutenant.

In early Oct 1944, Lt Esders detached from NAS Miami. He visited with his parents in Missouri for two weeks while enroute to his next assignment with Composite Spotting Squadron Two (VOC-2) attached to the escort carrier, USS Franshaw Bay (CVE-70). Lt Esders embarked on the transport USS Gen. R.E. Callan (AP-139) in Nov 1944 and arrived in Hawaii on 26 Nov 1944. He was reporting to COMAIRPAC as an interim assignment.

VOC-2 staged at NAS Alameda CA on 10 Jan 1945 in preparation for overseas deployment and combat duty. The squadron personnel were passengers on board the USS Randolph steaming from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor 20-26 January 1945. Between 26 Jan – 28 Feb 1945 the squadron was based for training at NAS Puunene, Maui, Hawaii. Lt Esders reported for duty on 5 Feb 1945. His primary responsibility was as a torpedo plane pilot, but he was also the squadron’s operations officer.

On 28 Feb 1945, the squadron’s planes and personnel embarked on board the Fanshaw Bay at Ford Island, Oahu. On 28 Feb 1945, the squadron’s planes and personnel embarked on board the Fanshaw Bay at Ford Island, Oahu. She got underway on 2 March and arrived off Okinawa on 25 Mar and began combat operations in support of the impending invasion of Okinawa. Her planes supported the initial landings on 1 April, providing extensive close air support, and neutralizing Japanese positions. On 7 April, Rear Admiral Ernest Wheeler Litch took over command of Carrier Division 26. Fanshaw Bay remained on station off of Okinawa for sixty-nine consecutive days, and her air contingent flew 2,089 sorties in the battle, claiming five Japanese planes. The air contingent’s primary missions were spotting for naval and ground force gun fire targeting, anti-submarine operations and fighter suppression. Target spotting was very dangerous as the spotter became a primary target for enemy gunfire. Throughout the operation, she witnessed near constant kamikaze attacks, with some 1,465 Japanese kamikazes involved. Lt Esders flew 29 combat missions against Japanese targets during the 3 months the ship was in the waters near Okinawa.

Lt Esders detached from VOC-2 in August 1945 and was home with his family by early Sept 1945. By 12 Sep Lt Esders and his family were visiting his parents at their home in St. Joseph, MO. His next assignment was as executive officer of the basic instructors school at NAS Pensacola. In Apr 1946, Lt Esders received an Air Medal and three gold stars in lieu of second, third, and fourth Air Medals from Commodore I.T. Hundt, commander of the naval air training bases, Pensacola. The citations were given for a series of meritorious acts by the lieutenant while participating in aerial flights against the enemy in combat areas of the Pacific, while attached to carrier division 26, from March until June, 1945.

In early 1947, Lt Esders was assigned as the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) officer for the Naval Air Training Bases at Pensacola. In 1948, Lt Esders was detached from Pensacola in Sep 1948 and transferred to Utility Squadron 10 based at naval air station, Guantanamo Bay (GITMO), Cuba. He also served as the NAS administrative officer. In Oct 1948, Mrs Lillie Esders and their daughter, Mary Lou, flew to Cuba to join her husband. While at GITMO, Esders was promoted to Lieutenant Commander (Lcdr) on 10 May 1949. Lcdr Esters received orders in Sept 1950 to return to NAS Pensacola and assume his MWR duties there. Lcdr Estes detached from NAS Pensacola in the fall of 1952 and reported for duty as the executive officer, NAS Pearl Harbor in Nov 1952. Mrs Esders and daughter, Mary Lou, accompanied him. Their residence was Quarters “C” on Ford Island. Lcdr Estes detached from NAS Pearl Harbor in Oct 1954 with orders to proceed to NAS Pensacola for duty there.

Esders was promoted on 01 Jan 1955 to the rank of Commander (Cdr). Later that month, CDR Esders reported for duty at NAS, Pensacola. In June 1955, The Esders family and Mrs. Esders’ brother Ray Cary, took a three week vacation. They stopped in St. Joseph, MO to visit Cdr Esders’ mother and then continued on to Montana where they were the guests of Mr. and Mrs Palmer Anderson, Mrs. Esders’ brother-in-law and sister (Virginia) in Hogeland, Montana. They also spent time at Banff, and Lake Louise in Canada, and enroute home visited Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. During his current tour at NAS Pensacola served as the assistant operations officer at Sherman Field. Cdr Esders detached from NAS Pensacola in Feb and the first weekend in March 1958 flew to San Francisco where he caught another flight to his next duty station in Honolulu. Lillie and daughter, Mary Lou, remained in Pensacola until after Mary Lou graduated from Pensacola High School in June. After her graduation, they joined him in Hawaii. Cdr Esters was the Commanding Officer of a flight squadron. He detached from NAS Pearl Harbor in Jan 1960 and returned to Pensacola for retirement on 01 May 1960.

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross to Radio Electrician Wilhelm George Esders, United States Navy, for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight in the Solomon Islands on 4 – 5 October 1942. While serving in a Torpedo Bomber in an attack on a heavy cruiser, he assisted in making two hits and a probable third, despite poor visibility and very heavy gunfire from the cruiser and three accompanying destroyers. The next day he took part in the bombing of an ammunition dump at Cape Esperance, resulting in a terrific explosion.
General Orders: Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin No. 319 (October 1943) & 321 (December 1943)

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Wilhelm George Esders, Chief Aviation Pilot, United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane of Torpedo Squadron THREE, attached to the U.S.S. YORKTOWN, during the “Air Battle of Midway,” against enemy Japanese forces on 4 June 1942. During participation in a Torpedo Plane assault on Japanese naval units, Ensign Esders, observing his Squadron Commander crash in flames, gallantly took the lead of the squadron and pressed home the attack to a point where it became relatively certain that the successful accomplishment of his mission would entail a great loss of life. Nevertheless, by his courageous initiative and aggressive leadership, he enabled his squadron to reach its objective and score several hits on enemy aircraft carriers. His loyal devotion to duty and utter disregard of personal safety contributed materially to the success of our forces and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
General Orders: Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin No. 313 (April 1943)

Panama City News-Herald (Panama City, Florida) – 12 Oct 1943, Tue – Page 8
Floridians Win FDR Citation For Work On Japs
Two Pensacola Men Members of Torpedo Squadron Eight

Washington, Oct. 12 – (AP) –
Torpedo Squadron Eight, virtually wiped out in the battle of Midway, then reorganized to claim vengeance against the Japanese in the Solomon’s, again is back in service aboard an aircraft carrier.

The Navy revealed this today in announcing the squadron has become the first command in the Navy to receive two Presidential unit citations for valor.

The first citation came for the Midway battling. Then, under command of the late Lt.Comdr. John Waldron, Pensacola, Fla., the squadron went out from its carrier with orders to “intercept and attack.”

Those orders were carried out, although all pilots and plane crews realized their fuel supplies would be exhausted before they could return to the carrier. The enemy was stopped. But only three of the officers and men of Torpedo Eight survived – Lt. (jg) George Gay, Houston, Texas; Lt. (jg) Albert K.E. Arnest (sic), Richmond, Va., and Earnest’s gunner, Harry H. Ferrier, West Springfield, Mass.

Reorganized under Lt. Comdr. Harold H. “Swede” Larsen, Collingswood, N.J., the squadron went into the Solomons with the battle cry “Attack.” And Torpedo Eight did. It’s record shows 40 attack missions carried out there, with one battleship, five heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, one destroyer, one cargo ship and two aircraft carriers hit by the squadron’s torpedoes.

It’s Presidential citation for those actions came in a joint recognition for the entire First Marine Division which wrested positions in the Solomons from the Japanese. Other units of the division have not been identified.

The officers and men of Torpedo Squadron Eight, who served through the Solomons campaign, include: Lieut. (jg) Wilhelm G. Esders, Pensacola, Fla.; Lieut. (jg) Corwin F. Morgan, Gainesville, Fla.,; James Clyde Hammond, Aviation chief machinist’s mate, Pensacola, Fla.; Conrad Hugh Lawrence, aviation metalsmith, first class, Daytona Beach, Fla.; Edgar Lloyd Hawkins, aviation metalsmith, second class, West Palm Beach, Fla.; Edgar Fred Helzel, aviation metalsmith, second class, Orlando, Fla.

Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona) – 03 Apr 1944, Mon – Page 7
Flier, Rescuer Finally Meet
By E.V.W. Jones
Miami, Fla., Apr. 2 – (AP) –

In June, 1942, Lt. (JG) Wilhelm G. Esders, of St. Joseph, Mo., was a member of a torpedo squadron on the aircraft carrier Yorktown: Lt. Arthur J. Brassfield, of Browning, Mo., was a fighter pilot on the same ship. The two Missourians never met.

June 4, 1942, Esders and his squadron took off from the Yorktown for a point 150 miles away where a Japanese aircraft carrier was launching her dive-bombers for attacks on the Americans.
Esders scored a hit on the Nipponese ship, but intense anti-air craft fire mortally wounded his gunner [PO Robert B. Brazier] and punched countless holes in his plane. Gasoline streamed from his fuel tanks. Before he was halfway home, his gauges registered empty, and he radioed that he was alighting on the ocean.

His plane nosed down, the tail above the waves. Esders released his tiny lifeboat, got the dying gunner on it, and was ready to climb aboard himself when he heard the motor of a circling plane.

Above him was a Japanese dive bomber. It circled several times, then nosed down into a dive, aimed straight for him. He was fascinated. At that moment, an American fighter streaked out of nowhere, machine guns chattering. The Japanese jerked out of the dive and sought safety in flight. Esders watched the unknown fighter over-take the enemy and send him spinning to death.
Brassfield was busy, too, that June morning. A part of the fighter cover over the Yorktown, he sent his fighter among a swarm of enemy dive-bombers and shot down two. The Japanese formation broke and the angry growls and whines of dogfights spread over the sky.

Brassfield chased one enemy craft for miles and ripped it apart, then caught sight of another, circling. Brassfield had to look hard to see what interested the Japanese: the tail of a plane and the spot of orange of a life raft on the sea.

In an instant, the fighter pilot decided his course of action. He aimed his plane at the midway point of the enemy’s dive and slapped his throttle wide open as the enemy nosed down. Brassfield opened fire at 1,500 yards, much too great a distance for effective shooting. But the Japanese jerked out of the dive and tried to escape. Brassfield sped after him, sent him spinning to death.

Esders was picked up by a destroyer and eventually returned to duty. More than a year later, he was ordered to the Miami naval air station to serve as an instructor. There Lt. Stuart Ludlum interviewed him.

Brassfield, too, reported to the Miami naval station. He, too, was interviewed by Lieutenant Ludlum, who went back and read over his reports, compared them. Then Ludlum called both veterans of the battle of Midway together. “You don’t realize it, but you two know each other,” he told them.

The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Florida) – 03 Nov 1994, Thu – Page 20
Wilhelm G. Esders
Esders, the last surviving pilot of a doomed torpedo attack by three Navy squadrons at the famed World War II Battle of Midway, died Tuesday at his Pensacola home. He was 80. At Midway in June 1942, 39 of 41 pilots and all but one crewman of the U.S. torpedo planes perished. Their exploits became famous because of a 1942 Life magazine article. Esders participated in the Battle of Midway, Guadalcanal and the Battle of the Eastern Solomons.

The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) – 04 Nov 1994, Fri – Page 36

Cmdr. Wilhelm G. Esders, 80, last surviving pilot of a doomed torpedo attack by three Navy squadrons at the World War II Battle of Midway, died of a heart attack Tuesday in Pensacola, Fla. At Midway, 39 of 41 pilots and all but one crewman in the assault perished. Only Lloyd Childers, a radioman-gunner who later became a Marine Corps pilot, is still alive.

During his long and distinguished naval career, CDR Esders was presented with numerous awards. These are just a few of the more significant ones: Navy Cross, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, Purple Heart, Four Air Medals, and two Presidential Unit Citations, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal w/Fleet Clasp, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two bronze stars, World War II Victory Medal and the National Defense Medal.

Compiler’s note: According to his obituary of 3 Nov 1994 in the Pensacola News Journal, p.24, Cdr Esders was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses.

[bio compiled by G47]
Military Hall of Honor ID#318930

About Gerry Lawton? Click here.

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