A Rendezvous with History: Del Byler

Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Leonard Del Byler, a man with a bucket list. In January 2017, I had the great honor to assist in fulfilling a small part of this bucket list. Coming to Hawaii and visiting the USS Arizona Memorial and Pearl Harbor was on Del’s bucket list. Del flew during World War II and the Korean War as a US Naval Aviator, as a night fighter. Here are some excerpts from his oral history.

Del grew up in a small little town, Kalvesta, Kansas. He lived seven miles from downtown on a ranch, Pony Valley Ranch. He had to travel seven miles by horse to a one room schoolhouse up through the 8th grade. “We had this old schoolhouse and a barn for the horses if you rode a horse. The barn was about double the size of the school. Usually we had seven students and when it came time for high school, we didn’t have a high school where I lived, so I had to go all the way to Topeka, Kansas. My aunt and uncle took care of this little hay seed ranch boy. I went from seven students to about 200 students in one jump. It was quite a jump for me.”

What did you dream of becoming when you grew up? “Well as far as my profession goes, I was going to be a doctor. And my daddy encouraged me to do that. My mother died when I was six or seven years old of TB. And I had it when I was a little baby or a little boy. By the time I was big enough, we were at the ranch, all working. That was the ranch work ethic, and as I got older, I got rid of the TB.”

So what did you do in pursuit of becoming a doctor? “An overriding ambition for me was that when I retired, I wanted to be on my own. I did not want to be dependent on my children. It took me a long time but I did it. I wanted to be a medical doctor. That was a good profession but I dropped out of college, because of the dust storms in Kansas. The storms were pretty hard on Dad. He had a lot of cattle and a pretty big ranch.”

So you said you had to drop out of college. “Well I was in college taking premed. At the University of Kansas. I tried working and and doing my studies. And I guess, I wasn’t quite up to it. It was difficult to do premed and working pretty much all the time. So I dropped out of college and went to Chicago and that’s where I was when Pearl Harbor came along.”

So what got you interested in flying? “It kinda goes back to the work ethic we had on the ranch. I was working for the Permafrost Corporation. We made dynamic speakers of different kinds. And Larry Hidlemen, the owner, said I was a good worker and he moved me up and up, till I was working in the lab there. He had an airplane and he paid for my flying time, my instructor time, and I had my private license before the war.”

What were your reactions when you heard the news of December 7? “Well, first I had a very patriotic bed in me. My good friend in Permafrost, who was about my age and I, on December 8, a day after Pearl Harbor, went downtown to volunteer to be in the service. And of course I wanted to fly because I had done some flying and that’s what I wanted to do. My friend became a marine and he got himself killed. I didn’t become a pilot right away. I was in good physical condition and I had some college. I was a prime candidate, but I missed some of the color charts. I didn’t know I was color blind. I missed some of them but I was okay for everything else. So they swore me into the Air Corps that very day, the day after Pearl Harbor. I quit my job in Chicago and went home. I spent several weeks there and I never received orders. I wrote a letter to the Air Corps, said maybe you forgot me. Here I am and here’s my address awaiting orders. I wish I had saved that letter. It would be unique today. I got a letter signed personally from the Secretary of the Air Corps. Thanking me for my Patriotism and to report to your draft board. They gave us one day to enlist in the Naval Aviation. But I was five pounds underweight. They had these requirements for height and weight. And I only had one day to do this. I went to the streets of Chicago, went to a restaurant, ate a big breakfast, ate all the bananas I could, and reported back to the draft board headquarters. Took a big drink of water before I went on the scales. I gained five and half pounds in an hour. I was sworn in. I had a tough time getting in, but I was in.”

That’s fantastic, so is your passion for flying. Why specifically did you want to be a flier? “I have always had a strong want to be in control. You’re in control in the air, all my series planes were single seat airplanes where it’s just the pilot. I liked being in control and I love flying. I wanted to be in the service, but I wanted to be able to fly.”

So what happened? How did you become a night fighter pilot? “I was always in the upper five or ten percent so I got to pick all my bases. I went to Melbourne, Florida. I went through operational, which was a series ride and at that time the Navy needed night fighter pilots. They asked for volunteers for night flying. Only one guy in Melbourne volunteered for night fighting. We didn’t want to be night fighters. We were hot pilots. They took the upper ten percent of the class to be night fighters. I became a night fighter by decree and not by choice.”

Could you explain briefly what is a night fighter? “Well your primary mission is at night. We got specialized training where we learned how to use our peripheral vision the best we could. We would use our peripheral vision at night, so we could see better then looked directly at it. We had special gear. I went to Vero Beach, Florida to start my specialist training in night fighting. I did a lot of things as a night fighter pilot. During all of World War II, I was essentially a carrier based night fighter pilot. During World War II, I was flying Hellcats F6Fs. I was flying the F6F5Ns. The five meaning the latest Hellcat and the N means night fighter. We had a radar in one wing and a search light in the other.”

You got married on June 9, 1945, after you got married had a very short honeymoon with Genni, what did you do? “We got married during World War II. Immediately after that I was sent overseas. Genni went to Detroit and I came to California. Then I went over to Hawaii. I was off of Barbers Point right here in Hawaii. And my ship at that time was the Enterprise. The Enterprise was a night fighting ship. I was aboard the Enterprise during the year of the invasion of Japan. The two atomic bombs were dropped. I was on the right ship at the right time. I was on the most celebrated ship in the navy. That was Admiral Sherman’s flagship. We were at the center of this armada. I mean it literally stretched from horizon to horizon. I am not kidding you, it was the biggest armada I have ever seen. Maybe the biggest ever assembled. I don’t think any human could have stopped us. We would have lost a lot of men and the Japanese would have lost a lot of people. But we were going in period.”

So after World War II ended, what did you do? “Well that’s kind of a grim time. We started a family, I didn’t have enough money. I was discharged from the navy. I did several things during that time. I was a private detective for a while. These hands have done a lot of things. From radios to flying airplanes, to a private detective. I joined an active duty training station for pilots. So I joined there, eventually I got onto a paid status there. I had to make some money, so I worked day and night as much as I could and all of a sudden Korea came along. I had been flying military planes and training for everything. I was involuntarily recalled.”

You did thirteen years of actual flying. In your two decades of military service. Is there anything you would like to share with the younger generation? “Well, yes there is. We were all pretty patriotic. We were fighting for the U.S. I was fighting for my new bride! One thing, don't rush into a marriage too fast. We were together for five years. Before we got married, I waited till she graduated from college. As soon as she graduated from college, I scooped her right up!”

And it’s the love of country and your patriotism. We really thank you for your service. For everything that you’ve done, through your whole career. “Thank you for saying that dear. But anyways, there's a lot of men who have done a lot more than I have. I have done a lot of flying. But there are a lot of men who go in on invasions like France. They have done a lot more than I have. And I give them credit. More credit. I have done a lot of things along flying. I give credit to the men who have risked their lives more than I have.”

We were saddened to learn that Del, at the age of 99, passed on August 18, 2018. Thank you for your commitment and service to our very grateful nation Del.