Captain Cook Cleland was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1916. Upon graduation from the University of Missouri in 1940, he joined the Navy and received the gold wings of a naval aviator shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served in his first wartime assignment aboard the aircraft carrier Wasp and flew the Vought SB2U-2 Vindicator dive-bomber. After Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, the Wasp and a full complement of Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers were dispatched to the Pacific Theater near Guadalcanal. In the initial landing operation, Cook Cleland provided close air support to the marines as they hit the beaches of Guadalcanal.
In September 1942, he and hundreds of others spent 4 1/2 hours in shark-infested waters after enemy torpedoes sank the Wasp. Upon his rescue and return to the United States, he was assigned to the new aircraft carrier Lexington and became a "plank owner " as a member of the Lexington's first operational crew. During action in the Pacific, Captain Cleland was credited with five aerial victories against enemy aircraft--an amazing feat for the pilot of a dive-bomber. He and his wingman were also credited with severely crippling the enemy carrier Junyo during the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1943. For his valor in action, he received the Navy Cross and many other commendations.
He returned to civilian life following World War II and flew in four Thompson Trophy races between 1946 and 1949 and won the races in 1947 and 1949, a record matched by only one other aviator. In February 1951, he returned to active duty as commanding officer of carrier-based Fighting Squadron 653 and flew the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair in 67 combat missions over North Korea. In May 1952, he was shot down by enemy ground fire during an interdiction mission in North Korea and was rescued later the same day. He held numerous staff positions after the Korean War and played a key role in establishing the Defense Intelligence Agency. He retired from the Navy in 1967.
The Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bomber was the United States Navy's standard carrier-borne reconnaissance/dive-bomber during World War II. The Dauntless served in every key Pacific engagement and is credited with severely crippling the Japanese Fleet prior to being phased out after the Philippine Campaign in 1944. The painting depicts Captain Cook Cleland's Dauntless just before he won the Navy Cross in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, 19-20 June 1944.