Bearskin – from “Big Chief” to Head Chief

By Elbert L. Watson, Times Publisher

Checking bombing results from their first mission. Seen with Lt. Bearskin (third from right) are Lt. Greenhouse, Lt. Cmdr. Rogers, BG Raney, Lt. Levine, and Lt. Thompson. The crew was out about 12 hours in poor weather.

Leaford Bearskin of Wyandotte, Oklahoma is on his third career, this time as Chief of the 3,100 member Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma. Though no salary comes with this honor, he works harder than ever before to achieve some benefits to his people.

There’s always been a lot of tenacity associated with Chief Bearskin. He entered the Army Air Corps immediately after graduation from high school in 1939, making it a lifetime career. He was sergeant first class stationed at Elmendorf Field, Alaska when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Bearskin wanted a piece of the action. He applied for pilot training and graduated from Advanced Flying School in January 1943 at Williams Field, Arizona. He qualified to fly one of the great American planes of World War 11, the B‑24 Liberator Heavy Bomber.

Atop the “Big Chief.” Leaford Bearskin (right front) and crew.

Assigned to the 90th Bombardment Group (Heavy), 5th Air Force (the famous “Jolly Rogers”), Bearskin found himself at Port Moresby, New Guinea by May 1943. In all, Bearskin and his crew flew 46 combat missions against the Japanese in New Guinea and other places in the Southwest Pacific. Wewak, along the northern coast of New Guinea, was a favorite target because it maintained several enemy airfields and troop deployments.

Bearskin’s plane was appropriately named “Big Chief.”

Returning to the States in 1944 as captain, Bearskin became a squadron commander and spent seven years in that capacity. Transferred to Europe, he flew 29 missions with the Berlin Airlift in 1948.

Later, as deputy commander of a fighter base in Georgia, he participated in the first flight of jet fighter aircraft across the Pacific. He was assigned to a Squadron Commander’s position during the Korean War.

Retiring from the Air Force active duty in 1960, Bearskin entered federal civil service and worked at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. There he supervised the use and maintenance of equipment for monitoring, testing, and analyzing ground equipment for the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman missile weapons systems.

One of Chief Bearskin’s favorite war stories reveals the humorous side of the conflict: “Our group was going on a bombing mission out of Port Moresby one day, and my crew was assigned duty as ‘spare.’ This meant that we flew a short way with the group to fill in if someone turned back because of plane trouble.

“Nobody turned back so I asked the Group Commander if I could tack on and bomb. He answered affirmatively.

“We were supposed to pick up a top cover of fighters prior to reaching the target, but they didn’t show up. After dropping our bombs, we proceeded on and the GC radioed asking if anyone had seen our fighter cover. No one had so I radioed back that I would fly top cover.

“I climbed up above the group and started “S”‑ing back and forth over the formation like good fighter cover does. Looking down from my cockpit I saw 24 big bombers in perfect formation flying along as though they were on a lazy Sunday afternoon lark.

“The temptation was too great. I stuck the nose down and came roaring down on the formation from the rear. Custer would not have had a chance. I buzzed them pretty good, then pulled up and back to my original position. Now I could see B‑24’s all over the sky.

“When we got back to Port Moresby my Squadron Commander called a pilot’s meeting and asked who broke up the formation. I confessed and my crew was grounded for a week.

“But the ‘punishment’ didn’t last very long. Because we were short of crews, we were back in the air in three days.”

Chief Bearskin gained many honors during his Air Force career. Included: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Asiatic Pacific Campaign, Medal for Humane Action, Occupation Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and the Air Force Longevity Service Award (three bronze Oak Leaf Clusters).

Watson, Elbert L. “Bearskin – from “Big Chief” to Head Chief.” World War II Times Feb.-Mar. 1988: 13+. Print.

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