|World War II Navy Aces in Action||Mar '09|
|By Larry W. Bledsoe|
The Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, the Marianas Turkey Shoot, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf were three significant naval battles during World War II in which U.S. Navy pilots played a crucial role. The latest Southern California Friends symposium held on December 7th, hosted four aces who participated in one or more of those historic battles and hearing their first hand experiences made this part of our history come to life. |
The moderator for the symposium was SCF president Dennis "Scott" Thomas, who noted that this was the thirty-ninth SCF symposium since it was organized in 1993. He went on to say that the next SCF symposium will be held on March 8, 2009 and will feature Korean War aces.
The United States took the offensive for the first time in World War II on August 7, 1942 when the U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the remote Solomon Islands. The campaign, which lasted more than a year, was the first time Japanese advances in the Pacific had been stopped. Guadalcanal was crucial because the outcome determined whether Japan, which had not previously been stopped before in their drive to take total control of the Pacific and cut the U.S.-Australia life line, would either succeed or not.
Several sea battles took place around Guadalcanal and horrific land battles took place on the island as the Japanese tried again and again to retake the island. On October 26, 1942, in still another attempt to regain control of the area around Guadalcanal, the Japanese engaged an American naval force in the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands.
The U.S. task force, which included the carriers Enterprise and Hornet, was pitted against four Japanese carriers, eight heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and twenty-eight destroyers.
Captain but at that time Ensign Donald "Flash" Gordon was a Wildcat pilot with VF-10 aboard the Enterprise when the battle took place. In answer to a question often asked him, Gordon said that when he was going through flight training in San Diego in 1941 he was asked if he had a nickname. He said sometimes they called him "curly." Since that wouldn't be a good call-sign to use over the radio, he decided to use "Flash" and that has stuck with him ever since.
Gordon said that on October 4, 1942 they shipped out of Hawaii for carrier qualifications which consisted of four days and one night landing aboard the carrier on their way to the South Pacific. By the end of the month they were East of Guadalcanal looking for Japanese carriers. The first searches were fruitless. Then on October 26th the enemy was spotted and they launched an attack and encountered enemy fighters en route. The Japanese fighters and bombers were on their way to attack the American task force.
During the ensuing battle Gordon found himself down on the deck by himself. He started climbing and spotted an enemy plane and gave chase. As he closed in he pulled the trigger – to his frustration only one round fired. It only took about thirteen seconds to fire all of the Wildcat's ammo but he had used most of his ammo supply in his previous attacks on enemy planes. Frustrated, he broke off the attack and returned aboard ship about 7:30 to refuel and rearm his plane.
Gordon was credited with downing two Japanese torpedo bombers and possibly a third one that day. While they took a heavy toll on Japanese aircraft, Gordon sadly reported that they had lost three planes.
When the battle was over the U.S. carrier Hornet and destroyer Porter were sunk, but the outcome gave the U.S. more time to reinforce Guadalcanal. The Japanese lost over 100 aircraft, which further weakened their defenses. It was the last time carrier-based aircraft were used by the Japanese in the Guadalcanal campaign.
The Battle of the Philippine Sea, also known as the Marianas Turkey Shoot, was fought on June 19-20, 1944. It was another decisive battle that determined the future course of the Pacific war. It was fought in a giant clash of aircraft, surface ships, and submarines. Japan had planned to destroy the U.S. fleet operating in the Marianas by attacking with carrier aircraft. Two Japanese carriers, Shokaku and Taiho, were sunk by U.S. submarines before the battle began, which deprived the Japanese strike force of crucial air power they needed and left the success of the operation in serious doubt.
American planes were able to take the offensive instead, first attacking and sinking the carrier, Hiyo. Two U.S. battleships, two carriers, and a heavy cruiser were damaged, but the effect was negligible compared to Japanese losses, especially of aircraft. In two days of fighting, 476 Japanese planes were destroyed (some on suicide missions).
One of the VF-15 pilots from the Essex, Lt. Cdr. at that time Ensign James E. Duffy served aboard the carrier from May to November 1944. He participated in both the Marianas Turkey Shoot and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. He said that when he joined VF-15, only two of the thirty-five pilots had any combat experience. That soon changed.
On June 18, 1944, Duffy was escorting dive bombers when he spotted a Japanese float plane ducking in and out of the clouds. He gave chase and the Jill became his first victory. The next day he was escorting dive bombers attacking Orote Field on Guam and got his second victory, a Zeke.
A couple of months later during the battle of Leyte Gulf his squadron was part of Halsey's Task Force that attacked the Japanese Northern Force. During the attack, he saw a Japanese torpedo bomber going after the Essex. While in pursuit of the enemy plane, the carrier opened fire and Duffy found himself dodging friendly fire.
During the Battle of the Philippine Sea, a total of 130 U.S. aircraft were lost – 80 percent of them because they ran out of fuel or could not find the carriers in the dark. The Japanese fleet suffered heavy losses, but more importantly the loss of most of its combat experienced aviators was something they never recovered from. After the battle the Japanese fleet returned to Okinawa, a shadow of its previous might.
On October 20, 1944, the U.S. Sixth Army Landed on the east coast of Leyte, fulfilling Mac Arthur's promise to return to the Philippines. Admiral Halsey's Task Force was responsible for providing naval support.
Halsey was expecting the Japanese to send a large naval force in response to our landings and was on the lookout for their ships. Initial intelligence reports indicated a large number of ships, the Japanese Northern Force, approaching from the north. On October 24, 1944, Halsey took all his carriers and supporting task force north, seeking to engage the Japanese ships before they got to the Leyte Gulf. He left behind sixteen escort "Jeep" carriers with their supporting destroyers, and destroyer escorts, to guard the eastern approaches to Leyte.
The Japanese's Center Force unexpectedly came through the San Bernardino Strait and headed for the American ships in Leyte Gulf. The enemy surface force reportedly consisted of 4 battleships, 7 cruisers, and 11 destroyers. The 5-inch guns on Admiral Sprague's destroyers were no match for the 14-inch and 16-inch guns on the Japanese battleships and cruisers but they attacked anyway.
Captain but at that time Ensign Joseph D. McGraw was a Wildcat fighter pilot with VC-10 aboard the Gambier Bay from June to October 1944, until she was sunk in the battle of Leyte Gulf on October 25. The Gambier Bay was an escort "Jeep" carrier with a four hundred foot flight deck. Due to its limited size the Jeep carriers used composite squadrons, hence the designation "VC" instead of the usual "VF" designation for Navy fighter squadrons. His composite squadron consisted of sixteen Wildcat fighters and nine TBMs.
On October 18th, a week before the battle of Leyte Gulf McGraw was on Combat Air Patrol. His flight encountered two Japanese Betty bombers approaching the fleet and he gave chase – one bomber started for the clouds and got away. The other bomber headed for the deck. It was so close to the water you could see the props wash kicking up a spray of water. The Betty bombers could carry a long-range torpedo, which, if it hit a Jeep carrier, could sink it. McGraw knew he had to stop it before it launched its deadly cargo.
McGraw talked about friendly fire. He said if the bomber got within a certain range of the carrier, the carrier and escorting destroyers would open up on the bomber without regard to any of our planes that might be in hot pursuit. As he was firing on the bomber McGraw found himself dodging fire from his own carrier and was hit when he pulled up to get out of the way. The hits damaged his flaps and control surfaces, so he couldn't slow the plane down enough to make a normal landing.
After several attempts McGraw, about out of fuel, knew he had to make this final landing attempt. He barely made it with the plane crashing into the barrier and half teetering off the side of the deck. The plane was totaled. His crew chief was first to reach him, exclaimed, "McGraw! What have you done to my airplane?"
A week later McGraw was below deck when the first salvo from a Japanese battleship straddled the Gambier Bay. He grabbed his helmet and headed for his plane. One of the rounds from the next salvo damaged the forward left side of the flight deck. He had to take off aiming for the forward right side of the flight deck and ended up taking off uphill, but was able to get airborne. He landed on the Manila Bay, and took off with a group of VC-80 FM-2s and shot down two aircraft, a Val and a Zeke. He was in the air about eleven hours that day. The day before, he was credited with two Lilys and probable for a third. The Gambier Bay was hit and sunk shortly after he took off. McGraw said he lost several good friends that day.
The October 23-26, 1944, Battle of Leyte Gulf was one of the greatest battles in the history of American naval warfare when a small force of U.S. ships and planes inflicted staggering losses on the Japanese. The Imperial Navy lost 34 ships, including 3 battleships, 4 carriers, 10 cruisers, 13 destroyers and 5 submarines. U.S. loses were the light carrier Princeton, 2 escort carriers, 2 destroyers, and a destroyer escort. Leyte Gulf was a significant setback to the Japanese navy's effectiveness as a fighting force.
The loss of the super battleship Musashi was particularly demoralizing for the Japanese. The supposedly indestructible dreadnought took 20 torpedoes and 17 bomb hits before rolling over, taking nearly half of her 2,200-man crew down with her.
Captain, then Lt(jg), Luther "Del" Prater was with VF-19 aboard the Lexington, which was part of Halsey's task force attacking the Japanese Northern Force during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. However, he instead talked about the three day sweep of Formosa that took place a few weeks before on October 12-14, 1944.
Prater said on the October 12th mission he was flying high cover at 20,000-ft with a 500 pound bomb attached to his Hellcat. The idea was that if they were not needed to help the fighters below, they could then hit targets of opportunity with the bombs after the lower planes had hit their targets. The lower group was down around 16,000-feet as they flew over the mountains.
His group of sixteen planes spotted a large formation of enemy planes, dropped their bombs, and went after them. Del shot down two. He said one minute the sky was filled with planes twisting and turning and the next it was empty except for parachutes. He spotted another Hellcat and joined up on him, and they went looking for targets of opportunity. Having found one, they dove on it, but his friend didn't pull out of the dive and crashed. Prater then encountered an enemy plane head on. He could see the plane firing at him and as they closed, he pulled his trigger and the Japanese plane exploded.
Prater then found another Hellcat pilot and joined up with him and they returned to their ship. His squadron shot down thirty enemy planes that day and only lost two of their own. However, another plane had to ditch, making it the third plane lost. Prater was credited with three victories plus one damaged during that mission. When he got back aboard ship his crew chief came and told him his plane had forty-five holes in it. During that three day sweep of Formosa, 280 Japanese planes were destroyed.
The Southern California Friends consider ourselves very fortunate to have the opportunity to listen to these aces with golden wings share their combat experiences. It's not everyday that you get to meet and listen to those who participated in some of the greatest aerial battles in history. It's one thing to read about their adventures and something else to meet them in person.
Larry W. Bledsoe is an avid aviation historian and writer. He can be contacted at 909-986-1103 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.bledsoesbooksandart.com.
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