Fighters over the Pacific I

The Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters of Air Group 15 were refuelling on the carrier USS Essex when the alert sounded, sending the deck crews scattering and the pilots racing for their aircraft. It was 24 October 1944, and the Essex was one of seventeen American aircraft carriers forming the backbone of the U.S Pacific’s Fast Carrier Task Force, designated TF 38 and commanded by Vice-Admiral M. A. Mitscher. Their job was to cover the American landings on Leyte, in the Philippines

Seven Hellcats, their tanks just over half full, roared away from the Essex and climbed hard towards Luzon island, where twenty Japanese dive-bombers and a strong fighter escort had been reported heading for the American fleet. The enemy attack had to be broken up at all costs, and it was up to the Hellcats of Air Group 15 to do it.

The Hellcats were led by Air Group 15’s CO, Lieutenant-Commander David S. McCampbell. Below his fighter’s cockpit, twenty-one stencilled Japanese flags proclaimed the number of enemy aircraft he had destroyed so far.

McCampbell saw the enemy formation almost at the same instant as his wingman, Lieutenant Roy Rushing, and both pilots were momentarily taken aback. Spread out across the sky above the dive-bombers were no fewer than forty Zeros. It was clear that the Japanese meant to fight their way through, no matter what the cost, to the big American flat-tops, their decks crammed with aircraft.

While five of the Hellcats dived on the bombers, McCampbell and Rushing sped towards the Zeros, which were several thousand feet higher up. Amazingly, the Japanese fighter pilots made no attempt to break formation and swarm down on the heavily outnumbered Americans. Still on the climb, McCampbell and Rushing each selected a target and opened fire; two Zeros tore apart, their blazing debris spinning down towards the sea.

Turning for another pass, McCampbell could hardly believe his eyes. Leaving the dive-bombers to their fate, the Zero pilots were forming a defensive circle. The two Americans climbed and orbited overhead, knowing full well that their chance would come when the Zeros ran short of fuel and individual pilots broke the circle to head for home. The merry-go-round went on for ten minutes, with McCampbell and Rushing patiently biding their time. Then, suddenly, the enemy circle split up and the Zeros straggled away towards Manila in ones and twos. The two Hellcats went after them, and what followed was one of the strangest combats in the history of air warfare. In a running fight lasting just over an hour, McCampbell shot down no fewer than eight of the enemy fighters and Rushing claimed four. Very few of the Japanese had enough fuel left to engage in combat; one or two did turn to face the Americans, but they were easily overcome. Apart from that, it was a case of sitting behind the stragglers and shooting one after the other down into the sea.

McCampbells victory underlined the dramatic change in the course of the Pacific air war. Japan’s fighter pilots, in the closing month of 1944, were of a far different calibre to those who had swept victoriously to the gates of India and Australia two and a half years earlier. Most of the Japanese aces were gone, swallowed up in the cauldron of the Pacific sky, outnumbered and out-flown by men whose growing skill matched only their determination to avenge the savage defeat of Pearl Harbor. A few remained, wily, experienced pilots who were still capable of getting the best out of their ageing equipment and coming out on top, but most went into action with only the bare amount of necessary training and were massacred in their hundreds. It was not without justification that American fighter pilots, in 1944, termed the Pacific Theatre the ‘Happy Hunting Ground’.

The tide of the Pacific war had already begun to turn in May 1942, when a large Japanese troop convoy, supported by a strong carrier task force, sailed for Port Moresby in eastern New Guinea. The plan was to capture Port Moresby and use it as a springboard for the envelopment of northern and eastern Australia, but it never materialized. On 4 May, the Japanese were met in the Coral Sea by an American task force of roughly equal strength. The opposing fleets never came within sight or gunshot range of each other; the action was fought entirely by naval aircraft. It ended with one aircraft carrier sunk and one damaged on the American side and two damaged on the Japanese side; but despite the latter’s technical victory, the troop convoy turned back and the seaborne invasion of Port Moresby was abandoned.

Exactly a month later, a massive Japanese naval force bore down on the fortified atoll of Midway, protecting the approaches to the Hawaiian Islands. The enemy force was led by four aircraft carriers, supported by heavy units of the First Fleet. It was met by a greatly outnumbered United States carrier force composed of Task Force 17 with the USS Yorktown and Task Force 17 with the USS Hornet and uss Enterprise, supported by Navy, Marine Corps and Army air units based on Midway.

There were twenty-seven American fighters on the island. At dawn on 4 June, twenty-five of them — eighteen obsolescent Brewster Buffaloes and seven Grumman Wildcats — took off to intercept seventy-two Japanese dive-bombers, escorted by thirty-six Zero fighters. The Americans met the enemy formation thirty miles out to sea and gallantly attacked it, but the Zeros swarmed all over them and they suffered appalling losses. Every one of the Buffaloes was either destroyed or badly damaged, while three Wildcats were shot down and two damaged. Soon afterwards, four Army B-26s and six Navy Grumman Avenger torpedo-bombers tried to attack the Japanese task force; two B-26s and one Avenger were shot down, and no hits were registered on the enemy vessels.

The Japanese, concentrating on the destruction of the air units on Midway, were caught unprepared for the American carrier air attacks, which began at 09.30 with a heroic but unsuccessful effort by the fifteen Douglas Devastators of the uss Hornet’s Torpedo Squadron 8. They ran into forty-eight Zeros, freshly launched to provide air cover for the Japanese strike aircraft which had just returned from the Midway attacks, and were massacred. Within minutes, everyone had been shot into the sea, the majority before they had a chance to release their torpedoes.

Then, at 10.15, it was the uss Yorktown’s turn. Twelve Devastators under Lieutenant-Commander Lance E. Massey and seventeen Dauntless dive-bombers, led by Lieutenant-Commander Maxwell F. Leslie, located the enemy carriers and launched their attack, escorted by six Wildcats. Massey’s pilots began their torpedo runs and the Wildcats strove hard to protect them, but they were hopelessly outnumbered and ten of the Devastators went flaming into the sea. All their torpedoes missed.

At 10.20, the Japanese were ready to launch a second wave of strike aircraft. As the carriers turned into wind the Zeros orbited them, low on fuel, waiting their turn to land as soon as the bombers had taken off. At that moment, the sky was split by the howl of diving aircraft as Leslie’s Dauntless plummeted down on the enemy force, followed by fourteen more Dauntless from the uss Enterprise under Lieutenant-Commander Clarence W. McClusky.

Leslie, attacking from the east, selected the big Japanese carrier Kaga as his main target. In less than a minute, four direct hits from his squadron had reduced her to a flaming wreck. McClusky, coming in from the south-west, directed his pilots to attack the carriers Akagi and Soryu. The Akagi received two direct hits and the Soryu three; both ships were torn apart by fire and explosion, sinking later that day.

The sole remaining Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, soon showed her ability to strike back hard. Even as American bombs reduced her sister ships to rubble, she launched a strike of eighteen dive-bombers, escorted by six Zeros. Following the Yorktowris returning aircraft they droned towards the American carrier, but radar picked them up when they were still fifty miles away and they were intercepted by Wildcats. Ten dive-bombers were shot down, but the remainder pressed on through the flak and the fighters and three scored direct hits on the carrier. She was patched up and in action again by mid-afternoon.

Her ordeal, however, was only just beginning. Soon afterwards, a second strike of Japanese torpedo-bombers — all the remaining aircraft the Hiryu could muster — swept down on her. Five were shot down, but the rest put two torpedoes into her port side. As she was hopelessly damaged and listing badly, her crew abandoned her and she was left to die. She was later boarded again and taken in tow, only to be sunk by the Japanese submarine 1-168.

Ironically, it was a reconnaissance aircraft from the Yorktown, launched just before the strike that crippled her, that located the Hiryu and led twenty-four dive-bombers from the u s s Enterprise to her. They scored four hits on her flight deck, setting her ablaze from end to end. With uncontrollable fires raging throughout her hull, she was abandoned and sunk by Japanese destroyers early on 5 June. So perished the last of Admiral Ghuichi Nagumo’s fast carrier force, which had dealt such a blow to American pride only seven months earlier; and with her perished Japan’s hopes of further expansion in the Pacific. In addition to the carriers, the Japanese had lost one heavy cruiser and 258 aircraft, together with a large percentage of their most experienced naval pilots. It was a decisive defeat from which the Japanese were never to recover.

For America, the long fight back across the Pacific began on 7 August 1942, when a division of United States Marines stormed ashore on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. One of the primary objectives was an airfield the Japanese had built; the Marines moved in and took it, and the land battle subsequently centred on this vital jungle airstrip, renamed Henderson Field by the Americans. The Marines hung on desperately in one of the most tenacious and heroic actions of the Pacific war, and by 20 August the strip had been made secure enough for the first American fighters to fly in.

They were the Wildcats of Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-223, led by Major John L. Smith, and they were followed by Major Robert E. Galer’s VMF-224 a few days later. The day after their arrival, VMF-223 intercepted six Zeros at 14,000 feet; Smith shot down one of them, drawing first blood for the squadron. The following afternoon the Japanese came again, this time with fifteen bombers escorted by twelve Zeros. All of VMF-223’s serviceable Wildcats rose to intercept the enemy, and in the course of a savage air battle over the island they destroyed sixteen Japanese aircraft for the loss of three Wildcats. John Smith and one of his flight commanders, Captain Marion E. Carl, each shot down three.

Day after day, while the ground forces strove desperately to hold the thin perimeter around Henderson Field, the Marine pilots went into action against the enemy squadrons that made determined attempts to wipe out the primitive airstrip, Japanese warships shelled the base every night, and individual enemy aircraft carried out nuisance raids to ensure that the American pilots got little rest. As the weeks went by, malaria, dysentery and fatigue began to have a telling effect, yet the Americans, flying to the limits of their physical endurance, somehow managed to retain air superiority. By the time VMF-223 was relieved in October, the pilots had destroyed 110 enemy aircraft; John Smith’s score was nineteen, while his close rival Marion Carl had shot down sixteen. Major Robert E. Galer, of VMF-224, had chalked up thirteen victories; both he and Smith were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour.

The replacement squadrons on Guadalcanal were VMF-121 and VMF-212. One of the former’s pilots was Captain Joe Foss, a farm boy from South Dakota whose marksmanship — thanks to his father’s tuition with rifle and shotgun — was superb. Foss had his first joyride while working his way through Sioux Falls College, and from that moment on his one goal was to be a pilot. He spent every dollar on flying lessons, and on graduating from the University of South Dakota he was accepted for pilot training by the us Marine Corps.

Over Guadalcanal, Foss rose to fame with incredible speed. By the middle of October he was averaging one victory a day, and by the end of the month three a day. His two most hectic days were the twenty-third and twenty-fifth, during which he destroyed a total of nine enemy aircraft, all of them Zeros. On the first day, he shot a Zero off the tail of a Wildcat, then knocked out a second as it rolled across his nose. A third Zero pulled up in a loop ahead of him; Foss caught it at the top of the manoeuvre and his bullets found its fuel tank, tearing it apart. Two more fighters came at him head-on, breaking in opposite directions at the last moment. Foss went after the right-hand one and got it with a deflection shot as it turned. His first victim on the twenty-fifth was a Zero which pulled straight up in front of him; his bullets tore it in half and the pilot baled out. He shot down a second fighter minutes later, followed by three more in the afternoon. His final victim had just destroyed a Wildcat and was indulging in a victory roll, an unforgiveable manoeuvre in air combat. Foss caught him right in the middle of it and blew him apart.

By the time VMF-121 left Guadalcanal in January 1943 its pilots had destroyed 123 Japanese aircraft for the loss of 14 Wildcats. Joe Foss’s personal score was twenty-six which made him the first American pilot to equal the score of Eddie Rickenbacker, the leading American ace of World War One. Foss’s exploit earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. He never flew in combat again, surviving the war to become Governor of South Dakota.

January 1943 saw the combat debut of a naval fighter which was to have a significant influence on the course of the Pacific air war: the Grumman F6F Hellcat. Destined to destroy more enemy aircraft than any other fighter type in the Pacific, the Hellcat went to sea with Fighter Squadron VF-9 on the uss Essex on 16 January, and despite a number of small early snags the type soon found favour with its pilots, proving superior to the Mitsubishi Zero on most counts and showing a remarkable degree of robustness. Often, during the next two and a half years, Hellcats were to stagger back to their carriers with battle damage that would have written finis to most other fighters. Another Hellcat squadron, VF-5, was formed on the uss Yorktown (the second carrier to bear that name) in the spring of 1943, and both units went into action at the end of August, when Task Force 15 carried out a series of air strikes against Japanese installations on Marcus Island.

The first of the new generation of us carrier fighters to enter combat in the Pacific, however, was not the Hellcat, but the heavy and powerful Chance Vought F4U Corsair, which entered service with Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-124 (the ‘Checkerboards’) at Camp Kearney, California, in September 1942. The following February, twelve of VMF-124’s Corsairs arrived at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, and flew their first mission on the thirteenth, escorting a formation of Liberator bombers in a raid on Bougainville. No enemy fighters were sighted on this occasion, but the Zeros were up in strength the following day when the operation was repeated. Over Kahili airfield, south of Bougainville, the American formation — which included USAAF P-38S and P-40s — was attacked by about fifty Japanese fighters, and in an air battle that lasted only a matter of minutes the Zeros shot down two Liberators, two Corsairs, two P-40s and four P-38s for the loss of four of their own number.

It was hardly an auspicious start to the Corsair’s combat career, but as the Marine pilots grew more used to their new aircraft the situation improved radically. During the next few weeks, VMF-124 destroyed sixty-eight Japanese aircraft for the loss of eleven Corsairs and only three pilots. One of the squadron’s most successful pilots was Lieutenant Ken Walsh, who shot down three Zeros on 1 April and three more on 13 May. A few days later he added a seventh Zero and two Val dive-bombers to his score. Walsh went on to run up a tally of twenty-one enemy aircraft and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for two gallant air actions over Vella Lavella island on 15 and 30 August 1943.

It was the Corsair, too, that brought fame and the Medal of Honour to the leading Marine Corps ace, ‘Pappy’ Boyington, who took his VMF-214 — the ‘Black Sheep’ — to the Russell Islands in September 1943. The squadron went into action immediately, fighting a big air battle on 16 September when the Corsairs, attacking enemy bombers over Ballale, were themselves attacked by fifty Zeros. In the scrap that followed the pilots of VMF-214 destroyed twelve enemy aircraft, Boyington claiming five. By Christmas, Boyington’s score had risen to twenty-four; he got his twenty-fifth in a big dogfight over Rabaul on 27 December, but oil from his victim smothered his windscreen and prevented him from increasing his score, even though he made several furious, half-blind passes at Zeros which flashed past him.

Boyington’s last battle took place on the morning of 3 January 1944, when his Corsairs encountered twelve Zeros over Rabaul. Boyington shot down one of them, then dived down through broken cloud with his wingman, Lieutenant Ashmun, to attack another enemy formation. This time, the odds were too great even for a man of Boyington’s calibre. In a brief and savage fight he destroyed two more Zeros, but he and Ashmun were both shot down in turn. Boyington managed to bale out and spent the rest of the war as a Japanese prisoner, but no other Marine Corps pilot was to equal his score.