Fighters over the Pacific II

It was during these early months of 1944 that the United States Navy started to bring the war home to the enemy with a vengeance, striking hard at the Japanese bases in the Pacific island chain. At the end of January, Task Force 58, composed of six heavy and six light carriers under Rear-Admiral Mitscher, opened the campaign to recapture the Marshall Islands with a series of heavy air attacks on Maloelap, Kwajalein and Wotje atolls. With these objectives taken, the carrier aircraft hammered the Japanese naval base at Truk, flying 1,250 combat sorties in two days, and late in February they hit Saipan, Tinian, Rota and Guam, destroying sixty-seven enemy aircraft in the air and over a hundred on the ground. The attacks continued throughout the spring, with heavy raids on targets in the Western Carolines and further strikes against Truk, Rabaul and other key objectives.

David McCampbell arrived in the Pacific at this juncture. At the age of thirty-four he was already a good ten years older than most other fighter pilots, and his naval career so far could hardly be described as adventurous. In fact, it had almost never started. Graduating from the Annapolis Naval Academy in the middle of the great depression, he had learned that the lower half of his class — himself included — was not to be commissioned in order to cut expenses. Desperately keen to fly, McCampbell had applied to the Army Air Corps for pilot training, only to be told that his vision was below the required standard. A year later, commissioned into the Navy at last, he went to sea on the heavy cruiser uss Portland, and in 1936 he once more applied for pilot training. To his bitter disappointment, the Navy also rejected him on the grounds of defective eyesight.

Determined not to be beaten, the young man from Alabama went to a civilian doctor, who submitted him to searching tests and told him that there was nothing wrong with his eyes at all. Reassured, he went back to the Navy doctors, and six months later he was finally accepted for flight training. Lieutenant McCampbell was awarded his pilot’s wings on 23 April 1938. Any aspirations he might have had to become a top combat pilot, however, were quickly dispelled. In the late 1930s American naval air power was far from being the mighty weapon that would be forged after Pearl Harbor; there was only a limited requirement for first-line naval pilots, and this, together with McCampbell’s medical record — which dogged him stubbornly for most of his Service career — confined him to the role of Deck Landing Officer.

McCampbell’s big chance did not come until the spring of 1944, when he was promoted to command Air Group 15 on board the uss Essex, flying Hellcats. His first action came on 19 May, when he led his group on a dawn fighter sweep over Marcus Island. Even now bad luck seemed to follow him, for his Hellcat was hit by a Japanese anti-aircraft shell, setting the fighter’s belly tank on fire. He jettisoned it in the nick of time, and despite extensive damage to his aircraft he remained over the target, directing his group’s attacks on enemy installations. The flight back to the carrier was a nightmare, and the fact that the Hellcat remained airborne at all was a tribute to the sturdy little fighter’s handling qualities. He landed on the Essex with his tanks almost dry, but the Hellcat was judged beyond repair and shovelled unceremoniously over the side.

McCampbell scored his first victory on 11 June, while aircraft of Task Force 58 were pounding objectives in the Marianas Islands in preparation for the American landings. Over Pagan Island, flying under a cloud layer, McCampbell sighted a speck far ahead of him. He opened the throttle and gradually overhauled it, identifying it as a Zero. He closed right in and fired a long burst, and the Japanese fighter fell in flames. Its pilot, apparently taken completely by surprise, had made no attempt to take evasive action.

A week later, on 19 June, carrier fighters of Task Force 58 took part in the greatest and most concentrated air battle of all time. In a day-long action that was to go down in history as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’, American fighters and antiaircraft fire destroyed no fewer than four hundred Japanese aircraft as the enemy made frantic and suicidal attempts to attack the US invasion fleet in the Philippine Sea. That morning, David McCampbell led eight Hellcats from the USS Essex to intercept a formation of forty bombers, escorted by twenty Zeros. Leaving five of the Hellcats to tackle the enemy fighters, McCampbell dived on the bombers with his wingman and another pilot, personally shooting down four of them while trying to get at the Japanese leader. He finally worked his way through to the front of the enemy formation and shot down the leader too, despite the fact that his guns kept jamming. The air battle lasted just fifteen minutes, and when it ended the Japanese formation was scattered all over the sky. Altogether, the eight Hellcat pilots had claimed twenty-one victories for the loss of one of their own number.

That afternoon, McCampbell shot down two more Zeros which attempted to attack a pair of air-sea rescue seaplanes in the middle of picking up some Navy pilots who had been forced to ditch. That brought his score for the day to seven, and the overall tally for the pilots of Air Group 15 was sixty-eight.

Five days later, this score was equalled by a single fighter squadron, VF-2 from the uss Hornet. At 06.00 that morning, the fifteen Hellcats of VF-2 formed part of a long-range fighter sweep, comprising forty-eight Hellcats in all, launched by Task Group 58.1 against Iwo Jima. South-east of the island, the Americans ran into about a hundred Zeros, and in the fierce air battle that followed the Hellcats of VF-2 destroyed no fewer than thirty-three enemy fighters. Three Zeros fell to the guns of Lieutenant Robert R. Butler, who was leading the squadron, while Lieutenants (jg) H. R. Davis, R. W. Shackford, M. W. Vineyard and E. C. Hargreaves shot down four each. The total for the fighter sweep as a whole was sixty-eight Zeros destroyed for the loss of only four Hellcats, one of them belonging to VF-2.

While the Hellcats were on their way back from Iwo, the Japanese launched a torpedo attack against the carrier task group. Eight Hellcats of VF-2 were flying combat air patrol over the Hornet, and they intercepted the low-flying Nakajima B5N2 and B6N1 Tenzan torpedo-bombers while the latter were still several miles short of their objectives. In less than five minutes the American pilots shot down eighteen of the enemy, Ensigns Paul A. Doherty and John W. Dear claiming three and the other pilots two apiece. The Japanese tried again later that day, this time with a strong fighter escort, but they fared no better. VF-2 tackled them again and sent sixteen flaming into the sea, several of the pilots who had been in action over Iwo that morning adding to their scores. That brought VF-2’s total number of confirmed victories in the day’s fighting to sixty-seven, a record for a Navy fighter squadron in a single day. The squadron lost only one Hellcat.

The battle for the Philippines saw the combat debut of the man who was to follow David McCampbell into second place in the US Navy’s list of aces: Cecil E. Harris. In the summer of 1941, Harris left his job as a teacher in Onaka, South Dakota, to become an aviation cadet. Three years later he was in the Pacific with Fighting Squadron VF-18 on the uss Intrepid, and on 13 September 1944 he opened a spectacular combat career when he shot down four out of a Japanese formation trying to attack the American ships. On 12 October he got four more while taking part in one of the early strikes on Formosa, and on the twenty-ninth of that month he repeated the exploit yet again. On this occasion, VF-18’s Hellcats were escorting the Intrepid’s torpedo-and dive-bombers in an attack on Clark Field, in the Philippines. The Japanese contested the raid bitterly, sending up dozens of fighters. Harris caught the first two flights of Zeros on the climb and shot one enemy fighter out of each flight, and in the course of the battle he shot another two Zeros off the tails of Hellcats. His eventual score was twenty-four aircraft.

During that same week, on 25 October, there came a new and terrifying development in the Pacific naval air war. At 10.53, nine Japanese aircraft swept down on us warships in Leyte Gulf; one plunged into the carrier St Lo, causing fearful explosions that ripped her apart and sank her twenty-one minutes later; others slammed into the carriers Kitkun Bay, Kalinin Bay and White Plains, causing extensive damage. Led by Lieutenant Seki, the enemy aircraft belonged to the newly formed Special Attack Corps of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The word Kamikaze had entered the vocabulary of warfare.

Two methods of attack had been evolved for the Kamikazes, and both gave the American combat air patrols a lot of headaches. The first method involved a high-altitude approach at about 20,000 feet; although this meant that the Japanese aircraft could be picked up at long range by American radar, it took time for defending fighters to climb to this level, and the long, shallow dive to the target which followed gave the attackers a certain speed advantage. The alternative low-level method meant that the attackers escaped radar detection until they were less than ten miles from the target, but even if they escaped the air patrols they had to run the gauntlet of a formidable curtain of light flak, and since evasive manoeuvres were out of the question because of the need for a straight run to the target, this was a suicidal undertaking. The ideal solution was to combine both high-and low-level attack methods, but the Japanese never had enough aircraft available to make this a serious proposition.

The Kamikaze attacks on US naval forces off the Philippines came as a profound shock to the Americans, and exacted a fearful toll in terms of men and material. Nevertheless, they cost the Japanese nearly three hundred aircraft, and this was a rate of attrition that could not be supported for long. The last attack in the Philippines came on 5 January 1945, when twenty-eight Kamikazes struck at American naval forces in Lingayen Gulf. Seven vessels were damaged, but when the attack was over enemy air resistance in the Philippines was at an end. Not even a single Zero remained.

The first weeks of 1945 saw a considerable expansion of Kamikaze operations, which were to become the main threat to the US task forces in their final drive towards Japan. The threat would have been even greater had not the Americans now been in a position to launch massive air strikes against the bases from which the Kamikazes operated. In three weeks of continual action during January, for example, Task Force 38, with eight heavy and four light carriers, struck Formosa, the Ryukus, Luzon, Okinawa, Hong Kong and the China Coast, destroying over six hundred enemy aircraft. These operations were a preliminary to the Marine Corps assault on Iwo Jima in February, which was covered by the eleven heavy and five light carriers of Task Force 58. During the Iwo Jima operation, aircraft of TF 58 hit airfields in the Tokyo area, the Ryukus and Okinawa, leaving behind 648 enemy aircraft destroyed.

The Japanese, however, still had the ability to hit back hard. On 21 February 1945, thirty-two Kamikazes drawn from Admiral Kimpei Teraoka’s Third Air Fleet took off from the shattered airfields near Tokyo, refuelled at Hachijo Jima, and then set course for their objective, the invasion fleet off Iwo.

The Kamikazes attacked at dusk and took the Americans by surprise, sinking the escort carrier Bismarck Sea, seriously damaging the Saratoga and slightly damaging the Lunga Point.

On 11 March, the Kamikazes tried for what might have been a spectacular success when a reconnaissance aircraft confirmed that the carriers of Task Force 58 were refuelling and replenishing in a deep water anchorage at Ulithi Atoll, in the Carolines. Twenty-four twin-engined Ginga (‘Frances’) bombers, each carrying a 2,000-lb bomb and piloted by a Kamikaze, took off from Kanoya, on Kyushu, and set off on the 1,500-mile one-way trip. Thirteen aircraft, dropped out en route for various reasons, but the eleven others arrived over Ulithi after a flight of almost twelve hours to find the American warships brightly lit. Since they were well outside the combat area, the Americans had taken no blackout precautions.

The Gingas dived on their targets, but only one hit its objective: the carrier uss Randolph. Most of the crew were watching a film when the Ginga smashed into the flight deck with a terrific explosion. The damage caused was serious enough, but the carrier was seaworthy again within a few days.

The fast carriers of Task Force 58 were back in action on 18 March, their aircraft carrying out a series of devastating strikes on Kyushu as a preliminary to the invasion of Okinawa. In reply, about fifty Kamikazes — including, for the first time, rocket-propelled Okha piloted bombs — struck at the us fleet and damaged the carriers Essex, Franklin, Wasp and Enterprise. Japanese air opposition over Okinawa intensified during April and continued through to June, during which period the u s Navy took the heaviest punishment in its history. Although Task Force 58 lost no ships during the Okinawa campaign, one light and eight heavy carriers were hit and damaged by Kamikazes. The Americans had now been joined by a British Task Force, built around four carriers and designated TF 57, and these too felt the weight of the Kamikaze attacks during the Okinawa landings. Although suicide aircraft struck all four British carriers, the latter had more heavily armoured decks than their American counterparts and in most cases the Kamikazes just bounced off into the sea.

It was during the Okinawa campaign that the us Navy’s third-ranking fighter ace, Lieutenant Eugene A. Valencia, scored his greatest successes. Valencia had already flown one combat tour, destroying seven enemy aircraft, and when he returned to the combat area with Fighting Squadron VF-9 in the spring of 1945 he had a thorough grasp of Japanese fighting tactics. He found three other pilots who were willing to practice his own tactics to perfection, and turned them into a formidable fighting team; their names were James E. French, Clinton L. Smith and Harris Mitchell. The team went into action together for the first time in February 1945 over Tokyo, and immediately proved its efficiency by shooting down six Japanese aircraft.

On the morning of 17 April, the four pilots set out to attack Japanese Kamikaze bases on Kyushu. They never arrived. En route, they ran into between twenty and thirty Japanese fighters. The Americans had the height advantage, and Valencia put his combat tactics into practice with dramatic results. The four Hellcats dived on the enemy in pairs, in line astern, making one brief firing pass and then climbing to repeat the process. In minutes, they sent fourteen Japanese aircraft flaming into the sea. Valencia himself claimed six, French knocked down four, Mitchell got three and Smith one. On 4 May, off Okinawa, the team claimed eleven more victories, followed by another ten on the eleventh. When the four pilots finally ended their combat tour, Valencia had a total of twenty-three kills, French eleven, Mitchell ten and Smith six.

After Okinawa, the full weight of the allied carrier task forces was turned against the Japanese home islands, with heavy air strikes on enemy airfields, installations and shipping. At 6.35 a.m. on 15 August, following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Admiral Halsey, commanding the US Third Fleet, ordered the cessation of all offensive air operations.

When the order reached the task forces off Japan, the first strike of the day was already hitting air bases near Tokyo. The rearmost wave consisted of the Grumman Avengers of No. 820 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, from the British carrier HMS Indefatigable, which were attacked by about fifteen Zeros in the target area. The Japanese fighters were immediately overwhelmed by the Avengers’ escort, the Seafires of Nos 887 and 894 Squadrons, who shot down eight of the enemy for the loss of one of their own number. As far as may be ascertained, this was the last time that fighters met in combat during World War Two.

And yet it was left to the Japanese to make the last, defiant gesture. The following day, thirty Kamikazes, mostly Zeros, led by the Chief of Staff of the 5 th Air Squadron, dived on the American base of Okinawa and smashed themselves to destruction. A second formation from the same unit flew out over the sea, into the sunrise, until the Japanese coast was far behind them. Then, one by one, they made their last, headlong plunge beneath the waves.

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