Sting of the Wasp
HELLCATS POUND THE EMPIRE
Hellcats Pound the Empire
I am a United States Navy flyer. My countrymen built the best airplane in the world and entrusted it to me. They trained me to fly it. I will use it to the absolute limit of my power. With my fellow pilots, air crews, and deck crews, my plane and I will do anything necessary to carry out our tremendous responsibilities. I will always remember we are part of an unbeatable combat team—the United States Navy. When the going is fast and rough, I will not falter. I will be uncompromising in every blow I strike. I will be humble in victory. I am a United States Navy flyer. I have dedicated myself to my country with its many millions of all races, colors, and creeds. They and their way of life are worthy of my greatest protective effort. I ask the help of God in making that effort great enough.—Navy Flyer’s Creed
Flying the Navy Way
When I graduated from high school in 1941, I was still 17 years old as I listened on the radio and read about a world war building all around us. When I received my draft card, it had a big “1A” on it, which meant I could be selected for any branch of the service. I really didn’t want to carry a rifle or live in a foxhole and thought that I might like to give flying a chance. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, I visited the first naval recruiter I could find in the state of Washington and enlisted, hoping I could earn my wings of gold.
The Navy sent me to a civilian pilot training program, where I cut my teeth on aviating in a 65hp Piper J-3 Cub. I quickly fell in love with flying, hoping this was my path to fighters, as I earned my private license after 35 hours of flight time.
In early 1943, I learned how to fly the Navy way as I progressed through N2S Stearmans and N3N “Yellow Perils,” and even had some stick time in the monoplane N2T Timm trainers. From there, it was on to the more powerful Vultee SNBs before being selected to proceed on to fighter training in Texas, flying the SNJ. After surviving the rigors of Navy pilot training, I earned the coveted wings of gold in October 1943 and was itching to join my fellow naval aviators over the skies of the Pacific theater.
When I got word that I would be shipped to Miami for advanced fighter training, I was ecstatic. That was until I arrived and learned that the Brewster Buffalos in which we were supposed to learn fighter tactics had all been damaged or crashed by previous students, so it was back in the SNJ to hone our skills. Two months later, my dream finally came true when I got checked out in the F4F Wildcat.
“AS FAR AS I WAS CONCERNED, THE HELLCAT NOT ONLY PLAYED A MAJOR ROLE IN THE PACIFIC BUT ALSO HAD A LONG-TERM EFFECT ON ME PERSONALLY: BECAUSE IT WAS SO TOUGH, IT KEPT ME ALIVE AND LET ME LEAD WHAT TURNED OUT TO BE A TERRIFIC LIFE.”
I really enjoyed the stubby-winged Grumman fighter. Although the cockpit was kind of cramped, it was maneuverable in the air and a delight to fly and fight with. Our instructors showed us tactics that had been learned in earlier combat against the Japanese by some of top guns of the Pacific, like Butch O’Hare and Jimmy Thach. The only thing I didn’t much care for while flying the Wildcat was the fact that you really had to be an athlete; the only way to lower or raise the gear was by use of the “Armstrong method” of cranking it up or down by hand!
After learning the tips and tricks of Wildcat flying and gunnery work, the Navy thought it was finally time for us to earn our keep and learn how to land our fighters aboard a carrier. In late January 1944, I left the warm Florida sun and headed to the frozen north for my first attempt at carrier traps. Arriving at Glenview Naval Air Station, just north of Chicago, Illinois, we were informed once again there was a shortage of fighters and would have to use SNJs.
After some field carrier landings at a nearby airfield, I was sent out over the icy cold waters of Lake Michigan to find my ship—the USS Wolverine. I had heard wild stories from several other pilots about guys going off the side and ditching in the water. But for me, it was a relatively uneventful process as I made my mandatory eight landings with no problems at all. With the final phase of my training complete, I was finally being sent to a fighter squadron.
Hellcat: Grumman’s Aerial Assassin
In March 1944, I joined a group of likeminded and equally trained Navy pilots in Atlantic City and became part of VF-81 “The Freelancers.” Our commander was Lt. Cmdr. Frank Upham, a Naval Academy graduate with no prior combat. Although
green to the combat world, he had one “old hand” serving under him: Exec. Lt. Cmdr. Tom Provost had five years of Navy flying to his credit, with a distinguished record in his F4F Wildcat at the battle of Midway. I not only met new squadron mates but also was introduced to (as far as I was concerned) the world’s best fighter: the Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat.
Compared to the Wildcat that I had cut my teeth on, the Hellcat was leaps and bounds ahead. It was much heavier and more powerful, with its R-2800 engine that could crank out 2,200hp with its two-speed two-stage supercharger. With the added power came better climb and maneuverability. The Hellcat employed six .50-caliber machine guns—three in each wing— and a well-laid-out, pilot-friendly instrument panel inside a spacious cockpit. But what I liked most about the Hellcat was the fact that it came from the “Grumman Iron Works” and was built tank tough.
But the Hellcat also reminded me of my earlier Piper Cub days because it didn’t react like other fighters when you put it into a stall. While other fighters might snap over on a wing once they quit flying, the Hellcat had a gentle tendency, like that of a Cub; it was extremely stable, and I could see how this attribute could work in my favor against a tight-turning Zero.
As a fighter, air to air, the F6F could hold its own with the best of them—in fact, earning top honors with a 19-to-1 kill ratio. But when Grumman designed the airplane, they knew that it also needed to carry a load and strike the enemy with a one-two punch. Our later model F6F-5 could carry six 5-inch HVAR rockets on wing rails, two 500-lb. bombs, or one 1,000-lb. bomb on the centerline with 2,400 rounds of .50-caliberammunition.Atcloseto14,000pounds fully loaded, the Hellcat was the ultimate fighterbomber.
For the next several months, we were shown exactly how to employ the weapons, as we fired our guns and rockets and dropped practice bombs on targets up and down the East Coast. The trick with dive-bombing was to climb to about 18,000 feet, push the big nose over, and after releasing the bombs and pulling out around 3,500 feet, pulling as hard as you could on that stick while converting the rapidly building airspeed for altitude as you zoomed away from the target.
Our training was intense, and we flew almost every day—sometimes twice a day—as we sharpened our skills for our eventual move onto a carrier and into combat.
Joining the Fight aboard USS Wasp
Inching ever so closer to the combat zone, we continued our training in Hawaii before getting orders to shove off for Guam. Before doing so, however, we were required to make some night carrier landings to qualify. The USS Ranger (CV-4) was steaming nearby and invited us aboard; the Hellcat was a great airplane both in the air and when catching a wire, and I had no problems with the landings.
In early November, the Fighting 81 (VF-81) finally caught up with USS Wasp (CV-18) near
Guam. The new Wasp carried more than 72 aircraft, including fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes. When our squadron came aboard, we were replacing Air Group 14, which held its own in June 1944 as it joined the navy air armada in searching out and destroying the Japanese navy near the Marianas. From there, it continued on with the incredibly fierce fighting around the Philippines, Formosa, and Okinawa. When we arrived, we knew there were still a lot of tough battles ahead of us.
We barely had time to get acclimated to the ship before we began flying combat missions. My first one occurred on November 11 on a combat air patrol over Manila Bay. I was assigned to the skipper’s flight as the numberfour man, so our flight was always the first off the deck and out front of the rest of the pack of Hellcats. During one of those early missions, an attack of Cabanatuan and Tarlac airfields on central Luzon, there were 11 of us orbiting, looking for trouble, and it didn’t take long to find it. As if on a leisurely cross-country trip, the skipper spotted a lone Tony fighter, an inline single-engine airplane, cruising along at 3,000 feet below us.
It sure was a sight to see as 11 Hellcats pushed their noses over and jammed the throttles forward to see who could get this guy first.
By the time I got close, that Tony’s right wing
was already on fire as hundreds of .50-caliber rounds poured into him; he never knew what hit him. The Tony rolled over as his canopy came off and the guy bailed out.
Encountering other enemy air-planes was rare as we continued our aerial assaults on Japanese-held islands and shipping. But there were still lots of targets of opportunity. One of our tactics was to send the first wave of 12 Hellcats in to suppress antiaircraft fire around heavily defended targets, like airfields and other military installations. The enemy flak guns were easy to spot and silence: just look for the muzzle flashes, dive toward them, and fire your rockets and machine guns. Most of the time, they were suppressed quickly.
We seemed to roam all over the Pacific, as we hit targets on Formosa; oil storage tanks and refineries in Indochina near Saigon; and shipping in Hong Kong, Manila Bay, and off Okinawa. Whatever the target, the Hellcat could easily adapt and destroy with a mixture of weaponry. Some of my most memorable uses of the rockets occurred during the first strike on Tokyo and the invasion of Iwo Jima. About the only enemy the Hellcat could not defeat was a typhoon we encountered as we rode that storm out hoping to survive and see another day. We did, as we prepared to attack Japan.
Striking the Homeland
On February 16, 1945, we were practically within spitting distance of Tokyo Bay. Positioned less than 100 miles from the Japanese Empire, our Hellcats were loaded for bear as we carried a combination of bombs and rockets. Although our target was an army airfield, this one was special because it was near the capital of Japan; it also was one of the first missions to strike the Empire.
More than 55 Hellcats launched from our task group, climbing to 18,000 feet, and I am sure we all thought about what was waiting up ahead for us on the relatively short flight inland. On this mission, I followed the first wave of Hellcats that had been sent ahead as flak suppressors. Nearing the target, there was still plenty of sporadic flak to welcome us as we pushed over and made our bomb and rocket runs on the airfield. I was somewhat dismayed that there was not a single enemy fighter up trying to protect the homeland. But that all changed after our bombs exploded and our rockets found their mark. For a few seconds, I was able to watch one of my 500-lb. bombs hit dead center on a hangar before pulling up.
But as I pulled off the target and climbed back to join the other Hellcats at our rendezvous point, we spotted “bandits” turning above us. There must have been eight Zeros circling above like angry bees. They definitely had the drop on us with their altitude advantage, and had this been back in 1943 or mid-1944, those Japanese pilots certainly would have given us a run for our money. But now things were different and the pilots much less experienced. For whatever reason, they came down on us one at a time. It was like shooting fish in a barrel as there were so many Hellcats and Corsairs, all loaded and cocked, swirling around on that mission as all eight enemy fighters were shot down, one by one.
Four days later, on February 20, I had a frontrow seat for the invasion of Iwo Jima. On that mission, we worked with ground controllers as they called out targets of opportunity for our orbiting flights. With grid maps in hand, the controllers gave us coordinates to the target. One controller came on the radio with the location of a Japanese tank. I checked in with him, and after confirming it was, in fact, enemy armor, I began my rocket run in on him. He was obviously moving much slower than I was as I lined him up and began unleashing the 5-inch HVAR rockets. As I pulled up, I could already see he was burning and received confirmation from the ground controller that he was dead in his tracks.
Our squadron continued to pound the enemy homeland with repeated trips to Tokyo, Iwo Jima, Chichijima, and Okinawa. On every one of those missions, I encountered flak or small-arms fire, but never once did my Hellcat miss a beat. By the time my tour was done, I had flown 38 missions off of USS Wasp and never received a nick in combat.
Our group departed Wasp in March 1945 as we were sent home to retrain in the F4U Corsair and then return to participate in the planned invasion of Japan. A week after we left, the Wasp took several 500-lb. bombs from Japanese divebombers and was knocked out of the war, limping back to Washington for repairs. By the time VF-81 was ready to return to the fight, two B-29s sealed the deal as the Japanese surrendered.
As far as I was concerned, the Hellcat not only played a major role in the Pacific but also had a long-term effect on me personally: Because it was so tough, it kept me alive and let me lead what turned out to be a terrific life.
As Lt. (j.g.) Robert Turnell and his shipmates on the Wasp closed in on Japan, Grumman was continuing to turn out F6F Hellcats at a prodigious rate, making it one of the hardest-hitting ordnance-delivery platforms in the Japanese homeland attacks. (Photo by John Dibbs/The Fighter Collection)
F6F-5s are parked forward after landing on USS Essex. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)
Pratt & Whitney R-2800 aircraft engine. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
Ensign Robert Turnell, USS Wasp, December 1944. (Photo courtesy of James Busha)
When LeRoy Grumman laid down the design requirements for the Hellcat, he specified that a wounded, scared 20-year-old should be able to land it on a pitching deck after combat. (Photo by John Dibbs/The Fighter Collection)
Cmdr. David McCampbell flew a series of Hellcats, dubbed Minsi, Minsi II, and Minsi III. He became the U.S. Navy’s highest-scoring ace with 34 confirmed kills and was twice ace-in-a-day. On one mission, he was credited with nine. (Photo by John Dibbs/planepicture.com)
A flight of F6F-5 Hellcats from NAS Sand Point, Washington. Flying the lead Hellcat is future test pilot Lt. Scott Crossfield with Lt. (j.g.) “Beads” Popp on his wing. (Photo courtesy of Jack Cook)