John Francis Humphrey was born October 10, 1919 to Loretta Anna (Withey) Humphrey and John Wilfred Humphrey, the first of three sons. John recalled fondly his youth with warm and caring parents, and many happy times on driving trips with his father in particular. From early childhood with his father until 2011 he greatly enjoyed hiking and driving adventures, especially with family.
While attending Northeastern University (NEU) in Boston, John participated in a cadet program that led to him getting flight instruction as the U.S. began preparations for possible entry into WWII. He loved the flying and did quite well at it.
He enlisted as a naval aviator, and got more advanced training in fast new planes like the SNJ-3 in Pensacola, FL.
There he received further training that included multi-engine and seaplanes. His very favorite flying memory was of skimming along a glassy smooth Pensacola Bay in a PBY Catalina flying boat, just barely touching the water.
After completing tactical battle training in sunny Florida he was promoted and assigned to a PBY Catalina flying boat squadron in the frigid North Atlantic.
Before he arrived on station, the attack on Pearl Harbor led to his immediate return to the Washington DC area, to await new orders. His re-assignment was to Kaneohe, Hawaii flying PBYs for patrol and rescue in the VP-71 squadron. There he was acknowledged for outstanding service, including a particularly dangerous May 23, 1943 rescue mission to help a PB2Y Coronado forced down in the open sea by mechanical problems.
He had volunteered to join the new VPB-104 squadron of larger PB4Y Liberator (B-24) four-engine land-based bombers flying dangerous long-range patrol missions far from land. He began training for the Liberator in Hawaii the day after his noted rescue mission on May 24th, then came to Miramar Field in San Diego, California in June for more advanced PB4Y training and practice, forming a new 11-man crew, to help introduce other pilots to that new type of plane, and to ferry one to Hawaii. On July 5 1943 he piloted his newly assigned Liberator with a reduced crew of 6 aboard, from North Island (San Diego) in a 14-hour dark and stormy flight across the Pacific. Only the primitive navigational aids of that era were available, but with his leadership they landed successfully in Kaneohe Hawaii.
As the war progressed and the Allies fought their way closer to Japan, John continued to fly PB4Y bombers on patrols and missions from bases in the Solomons and other islands in the South Pacific.
November 4, 1943 he located and attacked a ship near the enemy base at the tiny island of Kapingamarangi, destroying at least one ship and damaging several of the eight fighter planes that attacked him. His log notes that Owens and Hunt were wounded, and the aircraft (#32080) was so badly damaged by 8 attacking fighter planes that they were forced to land at Munda. The earlier photo above was in front of aircraft #32076, destroyed on the ground at Guadalcanal’s Carney Field in an enemy night bombing raid September 20, 1943.
He is also credited with the first PB4Y downing of an enemy “Betty” G4M fast attack light bomber, previously thought impossible with his type of heavy bomber. He used the technique he’d developed to accomplish this 9/29/43 feat several more times, including an incident referred to as the “bouncing Betty” by his squadron. They too adopted the method and helped clear the air of that threat to shipping and ground forces.
He and his crew distinguished themselves with so many such courageous and creative missions that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and helped earn his crew the Air Medal, and his squadron an unequaled two Presidential Unit Citations. This remarkable crew was (in the #32076 photo above): Crew Commander Lt. J. F. Humphrey; First Pilot Lt. (jg) W. H. Heider; Co-Pilot Lt. (jg) A. M. Lodato; with R. M. Weston, AM2c (AB), Bombardier; J. E. Ready, ACMM, Plane Captain; D. L. Robinson, ARM1c, First Radioman; Claude W. Hawkins, AMM2c, Bow Gunner; J. Laming, ARM1c, Top Gunner; O. L. Owens, AMM2c and B. Lofton, AOM2c, Waist Gunners; C. E. Hunt, AMM2c, Belly Gunner; and J. P. Devine, AMM1c, Tail Gunner. For more details see the VPB-104 website and the VPB-104 wiki project page.
His overseas missions completed, his next tour was back in the U.S. as a test and training pilot in Patuxent River, MD, during which time he went on to marry and start a family. Within a couple of months after the war ended he left active duty, though he continued to serve in the Naval Reserves for the next 20 years, retiring as a Commander.
The family lived in Norwalk, Connecticut where John contracted and helped build a lovely home on an acre of wooded land while developing sales and managerial skills at the Northam Warren Company in Stamford. He had an entrepreneurial spirit and experimented with side businesses as well.
His courage and creativity continued to shine as he took a leap in 1959, buying a tiny single-employee San Diego packaging company and moving his wife and young family of four girls across the country from Connecticut. Before long, his Custom Box & Packaging Corp. had grown into the premiere company in San Diego producing specialized commercial and military packaging for major companies such as Convair (General Dynamics) and Rohr, Inc. (Goodrich Corporation). He next expanded the company to also build cabinets for Sony televisions.
In 1963 he even developed and produced the first patented skateboard design, the innovative “Humco Surfer” (featured on Regis Philbin’s San Diego TV show) that won him induction into the Skateboard Hall of Fame and a May 2012 IASC “Icon” award.
He was a loving and devoted husband and father who cherished his daughters Anne, Terry, Fran and Dori, his sons-in-law John, Lee and Jim, and his grandchildren Erin, Laura and Scott.
John passed quietly at 7:47 pm April 15th, 2012 with family by his side. He will be dearly missed by his family and everyone who had the good fortune to know him.
We encourage you to share your memories of John Humphrey in the Comment box at the bottom of this page.