Hellcats Apogee I

The 15 fast carriers of Task Force 58 brought some 475 Hellcats to the Marianas in the second week of June 1944. Another 66 F6Fs were aboard three of the five escort carriers assigned to support the invasion beachheads in Operation Forager. It was by far the largest Hellcat gathering to date; nearly 550 of them embarked in 18 CVs, CVLs, and CVEs. To naval historians the forthcoming confrontation would be the First Battle of the Philippine Sea. To Hellcat pilots and nearly everyone else, it would always be the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.”

D-Day in Normandy had come and gone by the time Admiral Mitscher’s seven CVs and eight CVLs were in position to open Forager. But D-Day for Saipan wasn’t until the 15th, allowing the Hellcats four days to gain air supremacy over the Marianas, the last of the major Central Pacific island groups to be captured before the Philippines. As it turned out, two days would be sufficient.

Mitscher’s staff was aware that by now the Japanese were accustomed to dawn fighter sweeps as the forerunner to amphibious invasion, and they devised a new schedule to throw the enemy off guard. Ordinarily the first sweep would have been launched on the morning of 12 June, but instead it was advanced to early afternoon of the 11th. And it was none too soon, for a Japanese snooper spotted the task force that morning. Four intruders were downed during the noon hour by the CAP.

Then at 1300 the fast carriers, steaming into a 14-knot wind, began launching 208 Hellcats. The large flattops each sent off four divisions; the Independence-class ships sent three divisions each, in a fairly complex plan. The Hornet, Yorktown, Belleau Wood, and Bataan of Rear Admiral Jocko Clark’s TG-58.1 were assigned targets at Guam. Rear Admiral Alfred Montgomery’s 58.2 and Rear Admiral J. W. Reeves’s 58.3 took Saipan and Tinian, while the smallest task group, Rear Admiral W. K. Harrill’s 58.4, with the Essex, Langley, and Cowpens, shared Tinian and had Pagan to themselves. The Marianas lie nearly north-south, and the distance from Saipan to Guam is almost 150 miles. Pagan to Guam is even farther. It meant the Hellcats were launched 180 to 240 miles from their targets.

In the widespread dogfights that resulted, claims were made for over 70 aerial victories. About half the day’s total was contributed by the Hornet’s VF-2, reunited with its air group since March. The skipper, Commander Bill Dean, led his troops over Guam and attacked airfields there, but his attention was diverted when Lieutenant (jg) Howard B. Duff was shot down by AA fire. Cruising at about 1,000 feet, attempting to guide SB2Cs to Duff so they could drop life rafts, Dean was alerted by Lieutenant (jg) J. T. Wolf’s “Heads up.”

Nearly 30 bandits jumped VF-2 below the 2,000-foot overcast. A pair of Zekes came down behind the lead division, but Dean and his wingman Lieutenant (jg) Davy Park did simultaneous right and left chandelles into the attack and set both assailants on fire. Dean also chased a Tojo in a climb, catching up by using water injection, and burned it. He then bagged another Zeke for a total of five and one-half kills since November. Wolf claimed three Zekes, and the squadron tally for this battle was 21 Zekes and two Tojos.

But VF-2 wasn’t finished for the day. The Hornet’s CAP picked off three Bettys above a picket destroyer, and a second sweep-strike to Guam netted seven Zekes, two Tojos, and an Irving without a loss. Another Irving late that afternoon boosted Fighting Two’s total claims for the 11th to 37, the only loss being Duff’s Hellcat.

Three VF-31 divisions flew top cover under Lieutenant Doug Mulcahy, the only Cabot pilot on the sweep with a previous score. The 12 Hellcats claimed 13 and two probables destroyed in the air—with three pilots scoring doubles—and four wrecked on the ground. The only loss was Ensign R. G. Whitworth’s plane. The young flier was fished out of the ocean three days later.

The Belleau Wood’s VF-24 made only one kill near Guam, but it was encouraging anyway. A four-plane division sighted a lone Zeke north of the island and gave chase, spotting the bandit a three-mile head start. The F6 pilots poured on 55 inches of manifold pressure and 2,700 RPM, indicating 240 knots. After an eight-mile low-level tailchase, the Hellcats hauled into gun range, even though three kept their drop tanks and the Zeke jettisoned its own. The Zeke outmaneuvered individual Hellcats at 200 knots airspeed, but was boxed in and Lieutenant (jg) R. H. Thelen made the kill. It was further proof that the F6F was considerably faster than its primary opponent.

Another single victory during the day was notable, but for a different reason. Farther north, near Saipan, the CAG of the Essex’s new Air Group 15 saw a lone Zeke drop out of the cloud cover. Commander David McCampbell, a former intercollegiate diving champion from the Annapolis class of ’33, instantly turned towards the Mitsubishi and fired three bursts. The Zeke went down streaming smoke, the first in what would become a long, long string for the CAG.

McCampbell’s initial success in aerial combat was met with a professional’s cool detachment: “I knew I could shoot him down, and I did. That’s all there was to it.” It was something of an understatement, for like all squadron commanders and CAGs, Dave McCampbell had had extensive practice. A naval aviator since 1938, he had assumed command of VF-15 in September 1943 and moved up to air group commander while in training aboard the new Hornet in February. McCampbell had some 2,000 hours of total flight time, including 800 in F6Fs, when he led Air Group 15 on its first combat mission against Marcus Island on 19 May. During that strike his Hellcat was so badly shot up it was pushed overboard upon landing.

Eleven F6Fs were lost on 11 June, though three pilots were recovered. Lieutenant Commander Robert H. Price suffered two weeks of drifting, scorching tedium in a raft before he was finally rescued. His F6F had gone down while leading a Cowpens attack upon a Japanese convoy northwest of Saipan. But enemy air power in the Marianas was so depleted that Mitscher’s fighters claimed only a dozen victories the next day. By the 13th, D-Minus Two, the Hellcats owned the sky over the islands. The Japanese had no recourse but to attempt funneling aircraft into the Marianas via Iwo Jima to the north and the Carolines to the south.

The former possibility had been anticipated, as Iwo Jima and the Bonins were almost exactly halfway between the Marianas and Japan—an excellent staging area. Task Groups 58.1 and 58.4 were ordered northward to strike these bases on the 15th and 16th, despite the forecast of poor weather over the targets.

The meteorological pessimists proved accurate. When launch position was reached in the early afternoon of the 15th, low ceilings and limited visibility greeted the fliers, who also had to contend with a fairly rough sea. But launch commenced 135 miles east of Iwo Jima, and 44 Hellcats in three formations set out to bomb and strafe Iwo’s two fields before the SB2Cs and TBMs arrived.

About 100 Japanese aircraft were based on Iwo, but only 38 were scrambled in time to intercept the unexpected Hellcats, so the odds were nearly even. The combat wasn’t. Fighting One, newly arrived aboard the Yorktown, and Fighting Two from the Hornet had things almost entirely to themselves, destroying nearly all the airborne Zekes.

First over the target was VF-1, in its first large combat. The CO, “Smoke” Strean, led his division down from 10,000 feet in a 50° dive, dropping fragmentation bombs and strafing revetted fighters. Strean himself caught a Zeke taking off and dropped it from 300 feet, then two of his four divisions tangled with the late-reacting enemy fighters.

Lieutenant Paul M. Henderson’s three-plane division claimed half of VF-1’s total of 20 kills. Henderson and Lieutenant (jg) J. R. Meharg were both credited with four Zekes, but Henderson was lost from sight after shooting the last one off the tail of his number three, Ensign A. P. Morner. Morner claimed a double and returned to the Yorktown with Meharg but Pablo Henderson never showed up. Another Fighting One Hellcat was lost to antiaircraft fire.

Seven Hornet F6Fs were next on the scene, led by Lieutenant Lloyd G. Barnard. Commander Bill Dean had democratically sent only pilots without victories to Iwo for a chance to catch up. They made the most of the opportunity. In the next 25 minutes, Barnard exploded three Zekes and shot two more into the water. Lieutenant (jg) Myrvin E. Noble and Lieutenant (jg) Charles H. Carroll both claimed three apiece, and the other four pilots accounted for six more. Barnard remembered Zeros “blowing up all over the place,” but only two of his F6Fs received minor battle damage. The one loss was Noble’s Hellcat, irreparably damaged in landing aboard in heavy seas.

By the time Fighting 15 arrived, there were only three Zekes available and the Essex pilots got them all. Thus, the claims were 40 “confirmed” kills—an obvious exaggeration—but even so the Japanese recorded the loss of nearly all their airborne fighters. During the rest of the day Hellcats, Avengers, and Helldivers concentrated on destroying parked aircraft.

Poor weather prevented air operations all morning of the 16th. Shortly after noon, however, strikes were resumed on facilities at Iwo and Chichi Jima. Flak brought total U.S. aircraft losses to 12, but Japanese air strength in the Bonins-Jimas was annihilated. The bomb-cratered runways would be quickly repaired, but no aircraft from Iwo would get to the Marianas in time to contest the invasion. Rear Admirals Clark and Harrill took their task groups back south for the main event.

Things had been relatively quiet in their absence. One of the few squadrons to find combat over the Marianas on the 15th was VF-51 off the San Jacinto, “Flagship of the Texas Navy.” Commander Charles L. Moore’s pilots accounted for seven confirmed and a probable. Three were Tonys downed by the unit’s top scorer, Lieutenant W. R. Maxwell, whose division had splashed a pair of snoopers on the 11th. It was a welcome change of fortune for Bob Maxwell, whose first combat tour had been cut short on his fifth mission from Guadalcanal one year earlier. His VF-11 Wildcat lost its tail in a mid-air collision, and he spent two weeks making his way to safety from Japanese-controlled waters. The Marianas campaign was to be equally significant to the San Jacinto fighters, for during June VF-51 would gain 21 of its total 29 victories.

Aerial opposition remained skimpy even after D-Day, but that didn’t lessen the risk. The Enterprise CAG, W. R. “Killer” Kane, discovered that the hard way on the 16th. As the day’s first target coordinator, Kane arrived over the landing force west of Saipan with a wingman at 0540, before daylight. Suddenly Kane’s F6F was jarred violently by an AA shell which exploded just under his port wing. Gasoline and smoke spewed from the Hellcat as more shells burst all around. The two fighters were 25 miles offshore, under fire from American ships.

Kane’s first instinct was to bail out. But when he determined his engine was still running, he decided to dive out of range. Too late. Another AA barrage cut him off, and with zero oil pressure he plunked his riddled Hellcat down into the waves with a jarring deceleration which knocked his head forward into the gunsight.

Despite a nasty gash on the forehead, Kane scrambled into his rubber raft and watched his F6 sink as the sun rose. He was rescued 30 minutes later, unmollified by the knowledge that American gunners could knock down a plane with their first round. What was worse, Kane would be off flight status for three days, recovering from his injury. It had been a full three months since his first three kills as CO of VF-10 at Truk, and now with a fleet engagement in sight, he was grounded.

Admiral Spruance, in overall command of Forager, knew from submarine reports that a large Japanese task force was approaching the Marianas to contest the landings. There was little activity on Sunday the 18th, except that eight Belleau Wood Hellcats over Guam were bounced by about 15 Zekes, seven of which were downed by VF-24, including three to Lieutenant (jg) Bob Thelen. But it seemed fairly certain that the next day would see the war’s fifth carrier battle, and Mitscher’s people fumed at the orders which kept the task force tied down within 100 miles of the islands, guarding the beaches.

The Imperial Japanese Navy mustered nine flattops—five CVs and four CVLs—in three carrier divisions under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa. They embarked nearly 450 aircraft, of which half were Zekes: 145 fighters and 80 modified for dive-bombing. Thus, except for some Japanese Army Air Force planes which flew up to Guam from the Carolines, it would be a classic Zero-versus-Hellcat fighter battle. The Japanese 601st, 652nd, and 653rd Air Groups also included 99 Judy dive bombers, 87 Jill torpedo planes, and 39 of the familiar Vals and Kates.

No Hellcats or Helldivers had ever flown against enemy carriers, but almost 60 percent of the Japanese formations were composed of the same aircraft types which had begun the war at Pearl Harbor. Though large numbers of Japanese land-based aircraft brought the total air strength on both sides to about parity, Japanese coordination was poor; the Americans would deal with the seaborne and land-based threats separately. And at sea, the fast carriers stocked fully as many Hellcats as Ozawa’s total strength.

In addition to these advantages, the F6F pilots possessed a less tangible but even more crucial edge. Though six fighter squadrons (VF-1, VF-14, VF-15, VF-27, VF-28, and VF-51) were relatively new to combat, the Hellcat pilots had had extensive, thorough training. Not so their adversaries. Excluding a smattering of veteran fliers, the Japanese squadrons were composed of aviators who could take off and land aboard carriers and fly formation. The tactical aspects of their training had been necessarily brief, and this would show up in the results they obtained. In the Marianas the Imperial Navy would pay for its catastrophic personnel losses at Midway and the Solomons.

Still, the enemy air groups were to be reckoned with. Launched in sufficient strength, large formations stood a chance of penetrating the American CAP by sheer force of numbers. The full force of Hellcats could never be committed at any one time, nor even a majority of them. Ample reserves waiting on deck and those being refueled and rearmed would necessarily amount to at least two-thirds of the available F6Fs. As things developed, intercepting Hellcats would invariably be outnumbered. The equalizing factors were advance radar warning, superior pilot and aircraft performance, and carefully cultivated air discipline.

Daylight on the 19th brought beautiful flying weather. It was a bright, warm morning with a 10-knot easterly breeze. Ceiling and visibility were unlimited—perfect conditions for defending fighter pilots who, even with radar guidance, had to eyeball their targets as soon as possible. The few scattered low clouds would be no help to large formations seeking cover in them, and telltale contrails would form as low as 20,000 feet.

In so complex a military art as carrier warfare, the importance of communications was impossible to overestimate, and the upcoming battle had caught the U.S. carriers at an inopportune time. Only two fighter-direction channels were common to all four task groups, because radio equipment was being updated in the task force. The situation would demand that pilots suppress their radio chatter if tactical information were to be relayed.

Even more responsibility was borne by the four junior officers who were responsible for fighter direction of each task group. The force FDO was Lieutenant Joseph R. Eggert aboard the Lexington. A young reservist like the other FDOs, Eggert had been a New York stockbroker in civilian life. On this day his management skills would be fully tested. The experience, skill, and judgment of these young men was all-important, for they would actually be in tactical control of the largest carrier duel in history.

While Avenger search planes were out hunting the Japanese carriers, the day’s first contact occurred. At about 0530 the task force radar picked up a blip west of the southernmost group, Montgomery’s 58.2. A division of VF-28 from the light carrier Monterey was already airborne on Vector CAP and was sent out to have a look. The division leader, Lieutenant (jg) W. T. Fitzpatrick, sighted two Judys in tight step-down echelon only 30 miles west of the Monterey, probably land-based recon planes from Guam. Fitzpatrick and his wingman attacked from a 500-foot altitude advantage, diving from starboard in a 30° high side run.

Fitzpatrick fired and hit the lead Judy forward of the cockpit, continuing his dive below and to port. The second section of Hellcats saw the Judy pull up, roll inverted, and spin into the water. Immediately, the second Judy split-essed into some convenient clouds at 4,000 feet and was lost from sight, and after having drawn first blood the F6Fs were recalled to base.

Less than an hour later, a VF-24 division was dispatched to Orote airfield to investigate a suspicious radar contact. The four Hellcats encountered numerous airborne Zekes—evidence that the Japanese were sending aircraft north from Truk and Yap. The Belleau Wood pilots hollered for help and attacked, claiming ten shot down for one F6F damaged. This combat began a series of strung-out scraps which involved 33 more Hellcats until 0930. During the hour or so of on-again, off-again dogfights over and around Guam, these fighters claimed 30 Zekes and five bombers. But the F6 pilots reported more bandits taking off and many more still on the ground. Mitscher concluded that his force was “probably due for a working over by both land-based and carrier-based planes,” and shortly before 1000 the fighters over Guam were recalled to the task force by the radioed phrase, “Hey Rube,” first used by the old Lexington in early 1942.

At almost the same time, radar picked up enemy aircraft orbiting at 20,000 feet about 100 miles to the west. The general alarm was sounded at 1004, and 140 additional Hellcats were scrambled in 15 minutes to join the nearly 60 on CAP.

The battleship Alabama’s radar had estimated the strength of this first strike at about 50 aircraft, bearing 265° True. Actually, there were over 60: 14 Zeke fighters escorting 43 Zeke fighter-bombers and seven speedy Jill torpedo planes. Commander Charles W. Brewer, skipper of VF-15, was first on the spot, about 55 miles out. He called the tally-ho at 1035. The hostiles were flying at 18,000 feet, and from 6,000 feet above them Brewer maneuvered his two divisions for the attack. Three minutes after the tally-ho, Brewer rolled into a dive and in a few short minutes shot down three Zekes and a “Judy.” His wingman Ensign Richard E. Fowler got separated while meeting an attack from port but shifted for himself, claiming four Zekes. Five of VF-15’s other 12 kills were made by Lieutenant (jg) George R. Carr, who, like Brewer, identified the Jills as Judy dive bombers.

In the next 25 minutes, 54 more Hellcats from seven squadrons piled in. To say the affair was one-sided is to understate the matter considerably. Only three minutes after VF-15 struck, Commander Bill Dean and seven other VF-2 pilots dropped down from 27,000 feet. They picked off nine Zekes and three of the Jills which split away from the main formation. The surviving Jills poked their round noses down and outdistanced the F6F-3s, though eight Cowpens fighters chased after them.

The “Rippers” of VF-2 frankly considered this batch of Zekes “the best we’ve met.” Back aboard the Hornet, Dean told his air intelligence officer, “I was fighting for my life for almost an hour out there.”

The larger formation was harried and chopped to pieces by F6Fs from VF-25, VF-27, VF-28, and VF-31 for about 20 miles. Aboard the Cabot, Lieutenant Commander Bob Winston won a footrace with two of his ensigns for the last available Hellcat and was nearly hit by two falling Japanese planes as he launched. He had not scored since the end of March and was nearly wild with frustration, intensified when he was only able to find a formation of SBDs circling clear of the fight.

The remnants were picked over by VF-8, VF-10, and VF-51. Only a few Japanese pressed on, and even then their efforts were wasted on the battleship task group. The South Dakota took a hit which did little harm. Twenty Zekes and two Jills survived.

In exchange for 42 enemy aircraft destroyed, three Hellcats and their pilots were lost, one from VF-25 and two from the Princeton’s VF-27. The latter formation was led by the CAG, Lieutenant Commander Ernest W. Wood, a gifted pianist fond of playing “Claire de Lune.” Wood went into a vertical dive on an enemy formation and began a rolling pullout when his horizontal stabilizers sheared off under the exceptional stress. His Annapolis classmate, Fred Bardshar, exec of VF-27, took over.

Raid Two got considerably closer before it was intercepted. But again it was VF-15, this time led by CAG Dave McCampbell, that made first contact. At 1140 McCampbell’s 11 Hellcats bounced 109 Zekes, Jills, and shark-mouthed Judys only 40 miles west of Task Group 58.7, the battle-wagons. The Essex fighters mauled the big formation for six minutes before 43 more Hellcats arrived.

McCampbell took the Judys which were stacked above the Jills, and his other eight planes handled the Zeke top cover. Actually, the CAG never did see the enemy fighters; he was too busy shooting down five Judys. The first one “exploded practically in my face,” he reported. The force of the Essex fighters’ attack was spectacular. When he had time to look around, McCampbell saw the unforgettable sight of a line of splashes in the water where Japanese airplanes had crashed, and varicolored parachutes floating on the surface.

Then the reinforcements arrived. The largest contingent was 23 of the Lexington’s VF-16, backed up by three divisions of VF-14 off the Wasp and two divisions of VF-27 from the Princeton. Lieutenant Commander Paul Buie led most of his Airdales in a high-power cruise which left five of his pilots in its wake with various mechanical difficulties. One was Alex Vraciu, who found his supercharger would not shift into high blower. He reported to the FDO and was vectored onto a strung-out line of Judy dive bombers. In a fast eight minutes the Indiana ace caught up with and shot down six, chasing the last two right into task force AA fire. Vraciu’s squadron mates splashed 16 more in the 25 minutes before noon.

Fred Bardshar had been sunbathing after an uneventful CAP when another scramble was ordered aboard the Princeton. He launched with two divisions in such a hurry that he was climbing through 10,000 feet before he got around to fastening his parachute pack to his harness. When a head-on interception occurred at 14,000 feet, the Princeton pilots noted that the top-cover Zekes were strangely inactive. Bardshar quickly shot down one bomber, then was drawn out of the fight by a diving bandit which he flamed at about 7,000 feet. By the time he regrouped, it was all over. The running battle had progressed farther east. Fighting 27’s current top scorer, Lieutenant Dick Stambook, had downed two Zekes and a pair of Judys.

Again the enemy’s remnants split their forces, attempting a forked attack on the battleships and two of the carrier groups. This phase of Raid Two was dominated by 21 Yorktown Hellcats in three formations. CAG-1, Commander J. M. Peters, took six F6Fs with him, while the fighter skipper, Smoke Strean, sailed in with ten more. A five-plane division rounded things out for VF-1. In an up-and-down combat, Peters’s and Strean’s pilots chased vectors from 30,000 feet down to 5,000 and back up again, claiming 32 of the 35 Zekes encountered. Lieutenant R. T. Eastmond splashed four Zekes and four other VF-1 pilots claimed three apiece. Strean got a double.

Though small attacks were made on four individual carriers, no significant damage was done. Again, barely 20 enemy aircraft returned to their ships in exchange for four Hellcats shot down and three pilots killed. Fighting 1, 14, and 15 all lost a plane and pilot while a VF-8 pilot bailed out. Additionally, VF-1 had to jettison a second Hellcat with extensive battle damage and another F6 ditched but the pilot was rescued. Ninety-four Japanese planes were claimed from Raid Two.

At 1230 the radarscopes were clear and most airborne fighters were instructed to land and refuel. But 12 minutes later a bogey showed up, and some VF-10 fighters were given a vector less than 40 miles out. First on the scene, however, was Lieutenant William B. Lamb, the new VF-27 exec, flying by himself after bagging two torpedo planes early in the raid. The Californian paced the 12 Jills, keeping out of gun range while reporting their position and asking for help. Then, often with only one gun firing, he made repeated runs on the formation and sent three spinning towards the ocean. To Fred Bardshar it was “a bit like Sergeant York’s shooting up the WW I German patrol—one at a time, like turkeys, from the rear!” The rest of the Judys, which had been behind and below the main enemy formation, were broken up by other Hellcats.

Raid Three actually failed to develop as such. The strike’s 27 bombers failed to find the U.S. carriers, but its 20 escorting Zekes were reported by Yorktown radar at about 1245. As the VF-1 CAP was now patrolling well to the west, the Hornet’s controller took over and vectored three divisions to intercept. The 17 Hellcats claimed 14 kills, and though Japanese records indicated the actual loss was half as many, the enemy were dispersed. The only harm suffered by the F6Fs was slight 20-mm damage to a VF-2 plane.

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