Harry E. Sears, 91, a retired Navy Vice Admiral, aviator and highly decorated World War II veteran who pioneered wartime low-level bombing tactics against Japanese targets in the South Pacific, died January 29, 1998 at the Bethesda Naval Hospital after a stroke.
Admiral Sears flew 65 combat missions. As commander of VB-104, a patrol bombing squadron of B-24 “Liberator” aircraft based on Guadalcanal in 1943 and 1944, he led masthead-height bombing attacks on enemy ships. In this process, he was instrumental in changing what until that point in the war had been mostly passive and defensive search flights into offensive combat missions.
He was awarded a Navy Cross, the service's highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor. He also received a Legion of Merit with a combat “V,” a Distinguished Flying Cross with Gold Star and the Air Medal.
“He did more bombing, more strafing, more low-level combat in his four-engine bomber than anyone had done before him,” recalled Henry J. Thompson, a retired University of California biology professor who served with Admiral Sears during the war.
In a history of his squadron, “The Buccaneers of Harry Sears,” Thompson wrote that Admiral Sears “built on the operations of two earlier squadrons . . . raising his patrol-bombing squadron to a new level — patrolling and attacking with unprecedented aggression.”
A veteran of 30 years in the Navy, Admiral Sears helped organize the Naval Air Reserve Training Command after the war. He was the Navy's director of public relations, commander of the escort carrier Siboney and director of aviation training in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations.
In 1954, he was named commander of the attack carrier Coral Sea, operating with the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. Later, he commanded a carrier division and then served as deputy chief to the commander in chief of Allied Forces in Southern Europe, a NATO command based in Naples. He retired from the Navy in 1958.
After that, Admiral Sears became executive vice president of the Armed Forces Management Institute for three years. He then was chairman of the board of an industry-government relations consulting firm, Hughes, Sears & Shriver Inc. He was co-founder and chairman of the board of Government Services Savings & Loan in Bethesda, which later merged with Chevy Chase Savings & Loan.
He was a resident of Chevy Chase, off and on, for more than 60 years.
Admiral Sears was born in Beverly, Mass., and graduated 12th in his class from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1928. He became a Naval aviator upon completing flight training at Pensacola, Florida, in 1930.
The Navy formed the B-24 squadrons because the aircraft could fly vast distances over the Pacific to seek out enemy activity, and at the same time defend itself against Japanese fighters. Many of these new units were based on land, sometimes operating from coral runways, and they were jokingly referred to as the “Coconut Navy.”
In the summer of 1943, the unit commanded by Admiral Sears arrived at Guadalcanal, which had been wrested from the Japanese by U.S. forces during months of bloody fighting. “During the rainy season, their clothes mildewed overnight, and while they staggered through the mud, they could gaze upwards and watch the palm trees creak as the gentle tradewinds all but tore their roots from the sodden earth. There was the nauseating stench of rotting breadfruit, and as the ground around the foxholes and slit trenches dried, the odor of decomposing bodies would rise up and embrace them,” wrote Steve Birdsall in a 1973 book, “Log of the Liberators: An Illustrated History of the B-24.”
From this base of operations, Admiral Sears led his aircraft forth on regular search patrols, which shortly became attack missions. On one such mission, wrote Birdsall, “Sears caught six Japanese ships running supplies from Truk to their besieged garrisons. Roaring in at masthead level, he sank four and probably five, and badly damaged the sixth, getting an engine shot out along the way.”
In the award of the Navy Cross, Admiral Sears was cited for “organizing and leading an eight plane strike against a hostile task force. . . . [H]e daringly attacked the leader of the destroyers, scoring a direct hit. . . . [D]uring two routine search missions within a 700-mile radius of his base, he intercepted and shot down an enemy twin-engined bomber and located, bombed and sank a Japanese vessel . . . personally attacking an enemy submarine.”
While assigned in the Solomons, Admiral Sears was selected by Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey to fly Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president, on the last leg of her flight to and from the South Pacific combat zone. At other times during his career, he was a personal pilot for James V. Forrestal, the first secretary of defense; Adm. Harold Stark, the wartime commander of the Pacific fleet; and Adm. Ernest J. King, the wartime Chief of Naval Operations.
He was a former president of the Army and Navy Club and the Landon School Fathers' Club, and he was a member of the Chevy Chase Club.
His marriage to Gladys Mase Sears ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 29 years, Helen Melrose Sears of Chevy Chase; four children from his first marriage, G. Joseph Sears of Potomac and Mary Jane Sears Parks, H. Edward Sears Jr. and John W. Sears, all of Chevy Chase; nine grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
He was buried with full military honors in Section 8 of Arlington National Cemetery on February 11, 1998.
SEARS, HARRRY E.
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Harrry E. Sears, Commander, U.S. Navy, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Commander of a Navy Patrol Bombing Plane in Bombing Squadron ONE HUNDRED FOUR (VB-104), in action against the enemy from 26 August 1943 through 4 November 1943, in the Solomon Islands.
In addition to leading several squadron attacks, Commander Sears and his crew are credited, during separate actions, with the destruction of one enemy twin-engine bomber, damage to two enemy fighters, sinking one Japanese combination oiler and ammunition ship, damaging another, and damaging one enemy submarine.
Commander Sears' outstanding courage and determined skill were at all times inspiring and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard