Lt. Col. William R. Duncan – 1st Landing Signal Officer in the United States Marine Corps

Bill “ Paddles” Duncan on board the Vella Gulf Summer 1945

I first met Lt. Colonel William R. Duncan at the dedication of “Lady Ace 09” in April 2010. He was one of several commanding officers, both past and present, of HMM-165 that attended the event. It was at this dedication I learned that Lt. Col. Duncan had not only been the second commanding officer of HMM-165 but was also the first Landing Signal Officer in the Marine Corps.

Born and raised in Good Hope, Illinois (population 365 at the time), Lt. Colonel Duncan, known as “Dunk” or “Lil Dunk” obtained his teaching certificate and began his working life as a 6-7-8 grade teacher.

Bill was a 20 year old middle school teacher when the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred. He tried to join the United States Navy or what he called the “black shoe navy” as an aviator, but was too short. Bill then tried to join the Marine Corps; however, they required their aviators to be at least 5’4”. On his first visit to the USMC recruiter, he measured just shy of the required height. Undeterred, Bill went back to his hotel and hung from his hands in the doorway for an hour. He returned to the USMC recruiter who measured him at 5’4”. Bill was on his way to becoming a Marine Corps aviator.

Naval Cadet Duncan, Pensacola, Florida - Fall 1942.

Naval Cadet Duncan before a training flight in October 1942.

Fellow flight school classmate Red Boice with “Dunk” Pensacola, Florida – Barin Field early 1943.

It was May 1943 when Bill completed his flight training. Bill was glad to be a Marine Corps aviator, not only for all the USMC tradition, but because they served on land bases or so he thought.

Bill’s first flight in a modern fighter (FA-2 Brewster Buffalo) took place in July 1943. Before the flight, he asked for the aircraft manuals (due to his lack of experience with this type of aircraft). Bill was laughed at when he made this request and was told by a ranking officer “it has a stick and a throttle, so what else do you need.” Before his first, and last, Buffalo flight, he was told that it had just returned from the battle at Wake Island! Bill believed this 100% when, upon closer examination, he found bullet holes throughout the aircraft.

Like any Marine Corps pilot, Bill had a “can do/will do” attitude. With that attitude, Bill cranked up the Buffalo and took off. Shortly after taking off, the motor stopped! Second Lieutenant Duncan was about to make his first emergency landing. His landing area – The Everglades!  As a young, low time pilot, Bill attempted his landing with the landing gear down, not retracted where it should have been. When he landed, the Buffalo flipped over and for a short period of time, Bill was trapped in the cockpit. He managed to dig his way out and free himself from the wreckage. As Dunk waited for a rescue team to arrive, he saw his plane had crushed a water moccasin during the crash. Bill joked that when he spoke with the accident investigators he told them that had it not been for the water moccasin, he wouldn’t have landed upside down!

In the summer of 1943, Bill had heard of a new position in USMC aviation – Landing Signal Officer (LSO).  Bill told me that he always sought jobs he thought no one else would want to do. His rational was that there would be less competition for a job no one wanted to do! During this era, everyone wanted to be fighter pilots.  No one wanted to be an LSO!

The purpose of a Landing Signal Officer is to provide assistance (glide slope, angle of attack, whether or not the aircraft’s wheels and/or tail hook is down) to pilots landing aboard an aircraft carrier. The first generation of LSOs used paddles, later colored paddles for improved visibility for pilots. As an aircraft was landing, the Landing Signal Officer would raise and/or lower his paddles which signal to the pilot a change to their glide slope was needed in order for a successful landing. This is where the LSO nickname “Paddles” came from.

Dunk recalls that he could land an aircraft from just the sound of the engine! Bill also remembers another aid that helped him bring aircraft aboard – the “Prism Light.” Bill described this prism light as a small light located in the middle of the left wing root.  Based upon its relative position to the aircraft carrier, an LSO could tell if an aircraft was a proper glide slope. It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that more the modern optical landing system made its way to the fleet.

In September 1943, Second Lieutenant William R. Duncan completed the challenging 3 month United States Navy LSO course in Jacksonville, Florida and was certified as the first United States Marine Corps Landing Signal Officer.

After graduating from LSO School, Dunk was assigned to Marine Corps Air Station – El Toro, California.  There, Bill qualified literally every pilot in the Marine Corp. Over his career, Bill estimates that he “flagged” every USMC aviator during World War II and the Korean War.

Bill’s first combat experience was during World War II while assigned to Carrier Air Support – 3 (CAS -3) in support of Admiral Halsey’s supply fleet. During this assignment, Bill flew F4U Corsairs, TBM Avengers, as well as served as a LSO on the escort carrier Vella Gulf (CVE-111).

Marine Corps aviator Bill Duncan in front of his Corsair on board the Vella Gulf.

LSO Duncan landing a Corsair on the Vella Gulf in the summer of 1945.

Another memory from World War II, Bill remembers, was losing his first, and only, aircraft as a Landing Signal Officer. In July 1945, while his carrier group was resupplying in Honolulu, Hawaii, Bill recalls his skipper wanted to do some night carrier qualifications on the airfield. It was during these “night quals” that Bill was “flagging” a F4U Corsair. As the pilot approached, Bill saw that the Corsair was approaching too slowly and Bill gave him a “wave off.” The Corsair pilot saw the wave off and applied “max power”. The sudden change in power caused the Corsair to over torque and roll. Bill saw that the F4U was going to crash and ran to avoid the aircraft debris. Bill remembers seeing the Corsair roll almost 270 degrees and the first thing to impact the ground was the right wingtip. The plane slid to a stop, rescuers pulled the pilot from the wreckage, and transported him to the base hospital. Bill, concerned about the condition of the pilot, went to the hospital. Due to a shortage in the pilot’s blood type and Bill being of the same blood type as the pilot, Dunk donated 2 pints of blood. Despite all medical efforts, the pilot later died.

In December 1945, Bill left the Marine Corps for a career as a civilian flight instructor in Monmouth, Illinois. In short order, Bill got bored in the world of civilian aviation and in March 1946 returned to the Marine Corps.

Upon his return to the Marine Corps, Captain Duncan was assigned to a night fighter squadron at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. Bill resumed his LSO duties and soon “night qualified” the entire wing.

In 1950, a new aircraft was being introduced into military aviation – the helicopter! Using the same attitude as when he applied to Landing Signal Officers School, Bill applied for helicopter flight training.  In 1951 “Lil Dunk” graduated from Naval Helicopter Flight School and became the 691st helicopter pilot in military history. As a new helicopter pilot, Bill was assigned to ferry the new Sikorsky HRS-2 from the Sikorsky factory in Connecticut to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California. These ferry flights took four days to complete and allowed Bill to build considerable flight time and experience in this revolutionary rotary wing aircraft.

Bill went to Korea in September 1950. In actuality, he was sent to Itami Air Force Base in Itami, Japan where he was assigned to “carrier qualify” Marine Corps pilots who were coming into the Korean Theater of Operations.

In June 1951, Bill was a member of VMO-6 (Marine Observation Squadron 6) flying the OY-2. The OY-2 was the Navy/Marine Corp version of the light observation plane-Stinson L-5 Sentinel. On the 5th of June, Bill was tasked with finding an elusive mobile artillery unit that had been lobbing shells into the base near an area called “the punch bowl.” Bill took off in his trusty Sentinel (max speed 125mph and that’s going downhill!) with a combat photographer in the backseat – searching for the enemy threat.  Armed only with a “Speed Graphic” camera, Bill and his backseater found the artillery unit. Not wanting to capture “blurry” photos, Bill had to fly over the suspected target area straight, level, and at slow speeds while being fired at from anti-aircraft guns. After returning to base, Bill later discovered numerous bullet holes in the tail of his aircraft. Dunk joked that they would have shot us down – they just didn’t lead us enough! When the photographs were developed, they showed the location of the mobile enemy artillery, which were destroyed in a subsequent artillery strike. Bill was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his extraordinary achievement while flying a combat mission over enemy territory.

Lt. Col. Bill Duncan holding his DFC at his home in Dana Point, California in 2010.

After the Korean War, Bill served as the Informational Services Officer (ISO) for various commands, including the First Marine Aircraft Wing in Japan. When Bill returned to the United States, he got his first command – HMH-462.

HMH-462 flew the CH-37 Mojave (heavy lift helicopters) and was based in Marine Corps Air Station Santa Ana (renamed in the 1970s to Marine Corp Air Station Tustin or commonly known as Tustin LTA (Lighter Than Air)). Lt. Col. Duncan served as the Commanding Officer of    HMH- 462 from May 1963 through April 1964.

While serving as CO of HMH-462, Dunk and his squadron was tasked with a humanitarian mission. That mission was to aid the Havasupai Tribe, located in the Grand Canyon National Park. Without the heavy lift helicopters of HMH-462, it would have taken the tribe several months to transport their supplies using pack mules. During a deployment of ten days, the men of HMH-462 transported building and educational supplies from the top of the canyon to the bottom. Five CH-37s, in 22 trips, transported 25 tons of material in approximately four hours. For their efforts, HMH-462 was made honorary members of the Havasupai Tribe.

HMH-462’s CH-37 Mojave

Havasupai tribe members help off load supplies from one of HMH-462s CH-37.

Lt. Col. Duncan shows a young Havasupai tribe member the cockpit of his Mojave heavy lift helicopter.

Bill remembers his tour of duty as the CO of HMH-462 as his favorite command, because it was his first.  He describes the CH-37(c) as having the flight characteristics of a “semi truck.” According to Dunk, it was not a fun aircraft to fly and was prone to electrical failures that caused many “unscheduled landings.”

Dunk returned to the Far East in early 1965 where he served as the officer in charge of the Command Information Bureau for the III Marine Amphibious Force in Da Nang, Vietnam. Bill’s collateral assignment during this tour was serving as the officer in charge for the Dan Nang Press Center. Lt. Col. Duncan was the sole releasing authority for all military news in the I Corps operational area.

Returning to the United States in July 1965, Bill assumed command of HMM-165 White Knights (Marine Medium Helicopter), in September 1965. The White Knights were flying the new Boeing-Vertol CH-46.  Bill also had the honor of being the second Commanding Officer since the squadron was commissioned in July 1, 1965.  Lt. Co. Duncan served as the CO of HMM-165 until February 1966.

HMM-165 (The White Knights) CH-46 Sea Knight hovering at LTA, Tustin, California during the summer of 1965.

Local Orange County, California newspaper-The Daily Pilot, interviewing Lt. Col. Duncan at the end of his tour as skipper of HMM-165 in February 1966.

Lt. Col William R. Duncan (ret.) in front of a newly restored HMM-165 CH-46 at a dedication ceremony MCAS Miramar April 2010.

White Knight statue presented to “Lil Dunk” by squadron members when he rotated out of HMM-165 in February 1966.

Lt. Col. Duncan’s final command was HMT-301(Marine Training Helicopter). HMT-301 flew UH-34s and provided advanced training for aircrews heading to the air war in Vietnam. Lil Dunk was the CO of HMT- 301 until August 5, 1966. This was also the date of his last flight (flying a UH-34) as a Marine Corps pilot.

Lt. Col. Duncan boarding one of his UH-34s in his final command HMT-301 1966.

“Dunks” final flight as a Marine Corps aviator in his squadrons UH-34 – August 5, 1966.

Lt. Col. Duncan’s flight suit from HMT-301.

On October 1, 1966 Lt. Col William R. Duncan honorably retired from the United States Marine Corps after 24 ½ years of service. Over his 24½ year career as a Marine Corps aviator, Lt. Col. William R. Duncan flew 20 different types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft totaling 3,251 logged flight hours. As the Marine Corps first Landing Signal Officer, Bill estimates that he has “flagged” thousands of Marine Corps aviators. Lastly, although not written in the history of Marine Corp aviation, Lil Dunk owns the bragging rights of being the shortest Marine Corp aviator of his era, perhaps in Marine Corp history!

At home, Bill Duncan reminiscing over his log books that span almost 25 years, three wars, 20 different aircraft types, and 3,200+ hours of logged flight time.

Phil Myers

Phil Myers, a military aviation photojournalist with a passion for telling stories and documenting the history of military aviation. In addition to his website publications, Phil’s articles and photographs have been published in several magazines. Phil resides in Southern California.

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