Photos by AMANDA COWAN/The Columbian Author and Gulf War veteran Jeff Dacus thumbs through his 2020 book “The Fighting Corsairs” at his home in east Vancouver.
A history kind of guy
Retired Vancouver teacher, warrior turns to writing books
By TOM VOGT for The Columbian

Jeff Dacus taught history in local schools for 34 years.

He could be described as a product of history. His grandparents moved from Arkansas to Vancouver to work in the Kaiser Shipyard in 1942, a pivotal period for the city.

But Dacus’ connections to history extend far beyond Clark County.

The retired Marine master sergeant has preserved history, collecting the accounts of World War II fighter pilots in the Pacific. It was an aerial battlefield where two bookends of aviation history — Charles Lindbergh and John Glenn — also flew combat missions against Japanese forces.

In 1991, the Vancouver resident helped make U.S. Marine Corps history as part of an epic tank battle during Operation Desert Storm.

And he takes part in living history. During the Labor Day weekend, Dacus portrayed George Washington in the Northwest Colonial Festival in Sequim.

His activities are all reflected in another section of his résumé: author. His first book, “The Fighting Corsairs: The Men of Marine Fighting Squadron 215 in the Pacific During WWII” was published in 2020.

“Desert Storm Marines” was released this week. It’s an inside-theturret view of the Marine Corps’ biggest tank battle. Thirteen Abrams tanks manned by Yakima-based Marine reservists destroyed a column of enemy tanks before most of the Iraqis literally knew what hit them.

“Basically, in 90 seconds they were gone,” Dacus said. “Most of the tank crews were vaporized.”

In addition to vivid accounts of armored combat, Dacus can talk about desert duty in what he called a 68-ton Winnebago.

Dacus’ current book project is “Perceptions of Battle: Washington’s Victory at Monmouth.” He just submitted his manuscript for initial editing.

This Revolutionary War book represents a different research approach for Dacus. He is still in touch with many of his fellow Desert Storm veterans; about 40 attended a May reunion. Before writing “Corsairs,” he personally interviewed about 20 of the World War II fighter pilots and was invited to a squadron reunion.

Although the Continental army has not held a reunion for a couple of centuries, “I know one of the guys who was there,” Dacus said.

The 69-year-old educator gestured toward a bookcase in his east Vancouver home office that holds 76 volumes of George Washington’s correspondence.

“I have looked at every page, and have read most of them,” Dacus said.

Other shelves in his bookcases look like staging areas for miniature armored assaults, with columns of model tanks representing a world of armies and a century of wars.

Gulf War tank combat

Two dummy shells stand next to his desk. The shells won’t explode, but they aren’t toys. They are the same length (about 3 feet) and weight as the live 120 mm rounds. The high-explosive anti-tank round weighs 50 pounds and the spike-tipped armor-piercer is about 41 pounds.

“You have to load three in 10 seconds,” Dacus said. That’s whether you are commander, gunner, driver or loader.

“Desert Storm Marines” tells how his reserve unit was part of the American response after Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. Dacus, then 37, took a leave of absence from his job as a history teacher at McLoughlin Middle School to report to the Yakima Reserve Center on Dec. 13, along with 108 other members of Bravo Company, Fourth Tank Battalion.

Back then, Dacus was a staff sergeant with four years of active duty and about 15 years in the reserves. He commanded one of Bravo Company’s 14 tanks. His crewmen were Lance Cpl. Rick Freier, driver; Cpl. James Brackett, gunner; and Lance Cpl. Sean Edler, loader.

After two months of training, travel and preparation, Bravo Company crossed into Kuwait on Feb. 24, 1991, as part of the 2nd Marine Division. It was also their first day of combat. The battle became known as the Candy Cane Engagement, named after nearby power-line towers painted in red and white spirals.

Iraqi soldiers surrendered by the score, walking up to the U.S. tank formation while the Marines were trading fire with other Iraqis. As night fell, some Iraqis thought they could escape by racing away in pickups or Land Rovers. They didn’t realize that the Marine gunners were tracking them with thermal sights, which revealed their heat images on a screen and made them easy targets. Some of the Iraqi soldiers ran from the burning vehicles with their clothes in flames.

“The torches soon stumbled and fell,” Dacus recounts in his book. “The Marines watched the shapes lying on the ground glowing in their sights as they died. Scanning the terrain after a few minutes, the bodies began to fade. As life left the bodies and the coolness of the early evening enveloped them, they faded in appearance from white-hot figures to just odd shapes on the battlefield.”

A few hours later, at about 5:30 a.m., an unsuspecting Iraqi armored column rumbled and clanked toward the Marines’ defensive formation. In what became known as the Reveille Engagement, Bravo Company’s 13 Abrams tanks (the other had hit a mine earlier) destroyed 34 Soviet-built tanks, as well as trucks and armored personnel carriers.

The most serious Marine tank casualty was a crewman whose kneecap was fractured by his turret gun’s recoil.

With an overwhelming edge in training, leadership and equipment, the U.S. and its allies wrapped up combat operations in four days. Dacus’ tank — dubbed “Rockin’ Reaper” for a crewman’s tattoo — finished Desert Storm with five kill rings on its 120 mm gun barrel.

Although it was a quick victory, Dacus spent about five months away from his wife, Mary.

“I was teaching at Hockinson Middle School, and had things to do to keep busy,” Mary Dacus said.

She sent her husband treats, including Jiffy Pop he could share with his crewmates. They had an unusual method for preparing the foil packets of popcorn.

“You’d take an empty .50-caliber ammo can, fill it with sand and pour in fuel,” Jeff Dacus said. “Then you’d light it up and shake (the foil-wrapped container) like over a stove.”

Dacus did some writing after the Gulf War, including pieces for militarythemed magazines. Eventually, “I thought maybe there was a book in this. Guys started to send me their journals.”

WWII aerial combat

Dacus retired from teaching in 2017, giving him a lot more time to write. That enabled him to go back to work — after a four-decade hiatus— on his history of Marine Fighting Squadron 215.

“The Fighting Corsairs” was based on interviews and correspondence from the 1980s, after Dacus read about F4U Corsair pilot Bob Hanson. A posthumous Medal of Honor recipient, Hanson shot down 25 Japanese planes before he was killed by anti-aircraft fire on Feb. 3, 1944. Dacus began reaching out to Hanson’s brothers in arms.

“I contacted a guy, who said to call this guy,” Dacus recalled. After five or six exchanges like that, a pilot got back to Dacus with an update: “You got us thinking, and we’re going to have a reunion.”

Dacus was invited. He talked with 19 Corsair pilots at the 1983 reunion, and supplemented those conversations with telephone interviews, as well as correspondence via letters and audiotapes.

Marine archives supplied details about combat operations. But it was the pilots’ day-to-day memories of life in a Pacific war zone that personalized the book. Those are things a combat veteran never forgets, Dacus said.

He wrote how pilots prepared for their missions. Bob Hanson, the ace who inspired Dacus’ book, usually ate fruit and salad before taking off. A health nut? Not so much. Hanson also chain-smoked during combat missions.

Some men, like Jack Jordan, carried good-luck charms; he died in a takeoff crash. After the flight surgeon pulled the pilot’s badly burned remains from the wreckage, he found baby booties tied to Jordan’s gun sight. Another pilot vowed that he would never fly with a personal keepsake in his cockpit.

Dacus heard of a pilot in another squadron who literally ran away and hid. He would fly with the formation toward the target, then drop out, circle alone until the other aircraft returned, and rejoin them on the way back to their base. He was sent home.

The Corsair pilots also corrected some misconceptions, Dacus said. Some aviators could decorate their warplanes with whimsical nose art, or the names of wives or girlfriends, and display their kills with tiny enemy flags painted below their cockpit canopies.

The men of Marine Fighting Squadron 215 didn’t personalize their aircraft because fighter planes were assigned for each flight.

“I rarely flew the same plane twice,” Executive Officer Bob Owens told Dacus.

When “hero photos” were taken for the folks back home, the cameraman would often use just one Corsair, chalking a woman’s name on the nose, then wiping it off and chalking on another name when the next pilot climbed into the cockpit. One pilot did that for five different girls, Dacus said.

Unlike the movie portrayals of aerial combat, “there were very few dogfights. Most fatalities were by surprise attacks,” Dacus said.

The favored tactic was to gain an altitude advantage and scream down on an unsuspecting target. (The Japanese called the Corsair “whistling death.”) In another reality check, mechanical failures killed more Corsair pilots than enemy action.

Legendary pilots

Two Corsair pilots who flew with other Marine squadrons became aerospace living legends. John Glenn was the first American to complete an orbit around the Earth in 1962. As a member of Marine Fighting Squadron 155, Glenn flew 59 combat missions in the South Pacific.

Charles Lindbergh piloted the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. At age 42, he was a civilian consultant with the F4U Corsair manufacturer when he visited a Marine fighter squadron on Guadalcanal.

“He taught them how to get more performance out of their planes and extend their range,” Dacus said.

According to Charles-, he also flew 14 combat missions, strafing and dive-bombing Japanese targets. In one attack, Lindbergh took off with a bomb load of 4,000 pounds, at that time the heaviest load ever carried by a single-engine fighter. Then Lindbergh moved on to an Army air base, flying at least two combat missions with P-38 Lightning pilots.

Again, there was a long span between the WWII book’s inspiration and its publication. Dacus cited forces that also back-burnered his Desert Storm book. You make plans, he said, “then life interferes.”

When “The Fighting Corsairs” published, Dacus hoped to get back in touch with the pilots he interviewed for the book. Then death interfered.

“I tried to find them and kept running into one word: obituary. It’s really sad,” Dacus said. “I wasn’t able to give them their due.”