Empire Ford of New Bedford Blog Posts

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During the month of December, the 4th Lights for Peace flag to fly at the Fort Taber - Fort Rodman Military Museum honors the memory of Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class, Joseph G. “Roma” Dussault, a plane captain, serving in the United States Navy during WWII.

Dussault enlisted in the U.S. Navy on June 19, 1943 at the age of 17. According to Dussault’s journal, a friend, Ralph Taylor, said he wanted to enlist with him and would meet him at the enlistment center. He never showed up, but Roma did enlist. He went to Boston the following week and then onto the Newport Naval Training Center.

After bootcamp, he was assigned to sea duty aboard the USS Bunker Hill. He had never seen an aircraft carrier before and was amazed at how large the vessel was. He was thrilled because he “loved boats and planes,” so he was excited about his assignment. They set off for Norfolk, VA. Dussault stated in his journal that he got very seasick on their way to Norfolk, but after that, he never got sick again.  

Sailors aboard the USS Bunker Hill were “from all walks of life.” According to The Bunker Hill Story, by Irv Udoff, they were “from every corner of the USA. From the small towns. The big bustling cities. By far, they were young, in their prime. Many had never traveled more than a few miles from their families and homes.”

Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, author of Danger’s Hour, explained that “Few Bunker Hill crewmen had been aboard a ship before they joined the Navy. Most did not know how to swim. Many had not seen the ocean.”

Dussault recounted the first casualty aboard the USS Bunker Hill when a sailor was killed by a propeller on the hanger deck, come to find out, he was a schoolmate of his wife’s, back in New Bedford. An only child “a true tragedy.”

Kennedy went on to explain, “The ship left Norfolk, heading to the Caribbean island of Trinidad and onto Hawaii and Pearl Harbor. Then, on November 11, 1943, the USS Bunker Hill made her first assault which was against Rabaul, Japan’s most powerful base in the South Pacific. The ship remained under constant aerial assault for 52 minutes, the longest time under enemy fire, then, of the war. The Bunker Hill, though, escaped unscathed and earned her first Battle Star. The Japanese lost 150 aircraft in the fight.”

Dussault recalled this attack in his journal: “Our planes struck the largest enemy naval base in the South Pacific. It was like stirring up a hornet’s nest and the enemy came after us tooth and nail. It was estimated that 155 enemy planes attacked us. There were enemy planes over us, I couldn’t believe my eyes. While our F6F Hellcat fighter planes were off on attack, our old squadron, the F4U Corsairs came to cover our ship. We experienced two near misses with enemy bombs blanketing our ship on both the starboard and port side. We had survived the attack.”

Kennedy explained in his book that “In addition to the Hellcat, a second impressive aircraft came into service: the improved F4U Corsair. The gull-winged Corsair is perhaps the most recognizable fighter of WWII. The Bunker Hill was one of the few ships utilizing the improved Corsair as a carrier-based fighter plane in 1945.”

Roma talked about how he started his training to become a torpedo plane Captain. “The first time I flew, they were asking for volunteers to fly in a turret of a TBF Avenger (torpedo bomber). I raised my hand and got the job! I was assigned to a TBF Avenger for a few months and eventually to a F6F Hellcat fighter and then we got the Corsairs back.”

Dussault’s position as a Plane Captain was vital to the mission. According to the official Marines website, “A plane captain is responsible for conducting a final examination of the aircraft and guiding the pilots toward the runway. Plane captains possess extensive knowledge of their designated aircraft and can determine if there are any last-minute discrepancies that should ground the aircraft. Constant communication is maintained between the plane captains and the aircraft crew through a variety of complex hand and arm signals.”

Roma explain that one of the things that he learned when he first got on the ship was the “flight deck, especially during flight operations, was to always keep an eye on the plane that is in the land circle. Even when you are busy with the pilot. Stop whatever you are doing and watch the plane that is landing until he catches the arresting hook. Then and only then do you continue with what you were doing.”

He recalled one of the most difficult days on the ship was when his pilot’s plane got shot down by ground fire. The pilot survived but he was assigned to the ordinance dept. – 7 decks down to the bottom of the ship, among all the bombs and rockets. “We were ordered to secure all the water tight hatches, all the way to the mess hall on the 3rd deck.” He was used to being on the deck of the ship and did not like being 7 decks down with no sunlight.

Kennedy’s book, Danger’s Hour, recounts the day of the deadly attack on the USS Bunker Hill.  “On the morning of May 11, 1945, days after the Nazi surrender, the USS Bunker Hill, a magnificent vessel that held thousands of crewmen and the most sophisticated naval technology available, was hold at the Pacific Theater, 70 miles off the coast of Okinawa.

 

At 10:02 am, a Japanese pilot, Kiyoshi Ogawa, hovered above the Bunker Hill, hidden in a mass of clouds, Kiyoshi spoke his last words: ‘Now, I am nose-diving into the ship.’ The attack killed 393 Americans and was the worst suicide attack against America until September 11.”

 

The Bunker Hill Story explained that the USS Bunker Hill had “58 days of continuous action” and “there was a slight lull.” Apparently “most of the ship’s crew (were) relaxing when two bomb-laden kamikazes penetrated the task force undetected until the very last moment. It was too late!”

Kennedy interviewed Roma Dussault about that harrowing day: “Roma Dussault was standing in his quarters deep inside the ship with a group of other plane captains when (the first) bomb penetrated the flight deck and exploded. No one knew what to do, but most of them decided to try to hurry forward through the lower decks and then up to the flight deck. Alone, Dussault headed aft. He planned to try to make his way to a large double hatch that would give him access to the hangar deck. He figured from there he could climb up to the flight deck.

 

After running hurriedly down darkened passageways, Dussault bumped into a friend, Douglas Balfour from CA. together they found their way up to the hangar deck. But when Dussault lifted the hatch to enter, the hangar deck already was filling with thick black smoke.”

 

Although they were terrified, they realized they would die if they didn’t continue. They were able to get to a four-inch fire hose which pumped seawater up from the Engineering compartment. “Balfour held the hose while Dussault spun open the valve. He turned it up to full blast immediately (they had not had training on how to use the hoses). The twisted, high-pressure hose kicked straight and threw Balfour across the deck. He slammed into a steel oil cart, which toppled over and pinned him. Balfour screamed for help, but Dussault had to shut the valve before he could move across the deck and pull Balfour out.

 

Despite his fear, he freed Balfour and together they managed to close down the corrugated steel hurricane roller curtains along the starboard side of the shop in order to cut off more oxygen from the interior fires They climbed outside one of the roller curtains onto a narrow weather deck above the sea and just beyond the flames.”

 

Dussault writes in his journal “I finally got to the ladder that went up to the hangar deck. I reached the hangar deck level with my eyes, even with the deck, and there were two bodies facing me. I stumbled out of the hatch and went right to the weather deck. I took a few long breaths of air and I thanked God I was OK.”

 

Kennedy explained, that Dussault came across a steel chain Jacob’s ladder that ran down the side of the ship from the weather deck. “Dussault moved away from the heat to the edge of the weather deck. Men pinned on the flight deck above him jumped or fell forced by heat and flames. The first bodies missed him by mere inches. The heat radiating out from the hangar deck across Dussaults’ little balcony became unbearable.

 

Dussault decided to climb down the ladder to escape the high temperature. But the bodies of men higher up on the ladder trying to escape the flight deck continued falling, barely missing him. Dassault climbed around to the inside of the ladder and held on to the metal rungs. Fires raged above and below him, but he had found a tiny place of safety clinging to the steel rungs of the chain ladder.”

 

The aircraft on the hangar deck above him began to melt and came down in gobs, landing on Dussault’s body, burning his skin but he continued to grip the ladder.

 

Roma explained in his journal about how the USS Wilks Barre came to their aid “without hesitation in the greatest tradition of naval heroism. I know the crew of the Bunker Hill has always been profoundly grateful.”

Dussault served a total of two years, seven months and 84 days in the United States Navy and earned the following medals: The WWII Victory Medal, the American Area Ribbon, the Asiatic Pacific Area Ribbon with 12 Bronze Stars and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with 2 Bronze Stars.

Upon his discharge from the military, Roma became a firefighter with the New Bedford Fire Department, which he continued to do for 35 years, until his retirement. For over 62 years he enjoyed volunteering as Santa at local kindergartens, daycare centers and Clasky Common Park. He was also a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Fairhaven and enjoyed sailing his sailboat to Martha’s Vineyard and around Buzzards Bay.

Survivors include his two sons, Atty. Thomas R. Dussault and his wife Mary Pyatte of FL and Atty. James P. Dussault and his wife Atty. Carrie Dussault of Westport; 2 grandchildren, Nathan and Keira; and several nieces and nephews. He was the brother of the late Norman Dussault and Claire Constantine.

 

Linda Ferreira, of Empire Ford of New Bedford, researches the life histories of area residents. American flags are provided by Empire Ford of New Bedford. Flags are raised by the staff at Fort Taber - Fort Rodman Military Museum. Those who would like to honor a local veteran in the future, can contact Ferreira at lferreira@buyempireautogroup.com.

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