Sting of the Wasp

HELL­CATS POUND THE EM­PIRE

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Cmdr. Robert H. Tur­nell, USN(R), Ret., as told to & writ­ten by James P. Busha

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.

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...

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)

Pratt & Whit­ney R-2800 air­craft en­gine. (Photo cour­tesy of Wikipedia Com­mons)

En­sign Robert Tur­nell, USS Wasp, De­cem­ber 1944. (Photo cour­tesy of James Busha)

F6F-5s are parked for­ward af­ter land­ing on USS Es­sex. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

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....

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)

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