The Big E?s Impatient Virgins

By Randolph Bartlett

Richard E. "Chick" Harmer was a pioneer in naval night-fighter aviation in the Pacific during World War II. Flying from the Enterprise in 1944, he successfully demonstrated the potential of night-fighter technology and techniques to the Navy. How he did so is a little-known story of significant historic accomplishment.

Harmer, a veteran combat pilot of the 1942 Solomons fighting, was credited with several kills while flying an F4F Wildcat against Japanese bombers and Zeros. During one mission, he was wounded in the legs and nearly shot down, but he lost his attacker in clouds and crash-landed his F4F back on the Saratoga (CV-3). While in the South Pacific, Harmer received orders assigning him to top-secret Project Affirm; he was to report for duty at Quonset Point Naval Air Station, Rhode Island, in early 1943.

Harmer was astounded to learn that his new job was to "help develop night fighter tactics and the CICs [combat information centers] aboard carriers and everything else necessary to handle, control and develop night fighters themselves." Reminiscing many years later, he admitted: "We got no instrument training at all at Pensacola-when the weather was bad they cancelled the flights. We graduated without an instrument ticket. . . . Yet I was supposed to be able to fly in all types of weather at night, land on carriers at night-I never did any of that stuff!"

During the project, Harmer helped solve practical aeronautical engineering problems and performed innovative experimental flying at night. Initially, his main concern was overcoming his deficiencies in instrument flying, which he accomplished by learning to rely on the needle and ball, gyrocompass, and level horizon. "You could do anything in the world-anything you wanted, any maneuver," he remembered, "and those instruments would bring you right back to level flight. That's when I really learned to fly at night."

In the spring of 1943, his unit was commissioned VF(N)-75, under the command of Lieutenant Commander William J. "Gus" Widhelm. In August, however, the squadron was divided. The Navy sent Widhelm and five other experienced pilots along with new radar-equipped F4U-2s to operate from land bases in the Pacific; Harmer was given command of the rest, 13 "pretty green ensigns fresh from Pensacola." While waiting for replacement F4U-2s, they practiced flying and gunnery in F4U-1s. Although each man accumulated 125 to 150 hours of flight time, the training included only six practice radar interceptions and ten hours of night flying.

The night-fighter Corsairs they were waiting for were specialized versions of the F4U-1, highly modified to accommodate experimental radar interceptor equipment. Perhaps most significant, the planes' armament had to be reduced: The outer starboard .50-caliber machine gun was replaced by a radar scanner, and the number of rounds for the remaining five guns was reduced from 450 to 250. Initially, tracer ammunition was not recommended; however, after two sorties Harmer would find that one inboard gun loaded with one tracer every 15 rounds "helped considerably in correcting point of aim." Flame dampers were added to the F4U-2's engine, and considerable changes in cockpit instrumentation were made to accommodate the radar scope, control panel, scanner selector, and associated switches. Radio gear was repositioned underneath the pilot's seat.

The Navy was skeptical of the Corsair's suitability for carrier operations, owing mainly to poor forward visibility from the cockpit because of the F4U's long nose and the plane's dangerous bounciness when landing. As it turned out, Commander Harmer and his pilots would be the guinea pigs. In December, the unit received ten F4U-2s and orders to report to Hawaii for deployment on aircraft carriers. Except for the commander, however, none of the pilots was prepared for night carrier landings, and Harmer was worried.

By the time the unit reached Hawaii, it was down to eight planes: One crash-landed en route; the other was damaged while being unloaded at Pearl Harbor. Commissioned VF(N)-101 on 1 January 1944, the squadron practiced day and night landings at Barbers Point Naval Air Station for two weeks, and each pilot had ten day landings on the Enterprise followed by two night landings on the USS Essex (CV-9). That was all the preparation the squadron received for what lay ahead.

On 15 January, VF(N)-101 became the Navy's first Corsair squadron embarked on an aircraft carrier, as well as one of the service's first carrier-based night-fighter squadrons.1 That day, Harmer took a detachment of six ensigns and four Corsairs on board the Enterprise.2 The rest of the squadron, led by Lieutenant Cecil "Swede" Kullberg, went on board the Intrepid (CV-11). Technicians were divided between the two detachments, but Ensign Frank Burgess, the principal radar controller, stayed with Harmer. The next day, the Enterprise joined Task Group 58.1 to begin a six-month cruise that would include strikes against Japanese forces in the Truk, Palau, Marshall, and Mariana islands.

Frustration on the Enterprise

Once at sea, Harmer quickly discovered that his enthusiasm for night fighters was not shared by many officers outside VF(N)-101. In fact, the squadron was less than welcomed by the Enterprise's flight operations staff. At his first briefing, the air group commander, Commander Roscoe L. Newman, stated that night fighters, if used at all, would fly routine day strikes. Harmer was horrified. As he wrote in his diary: "Our planes are so much more vulnerable than normal F4Us and the kids just aren't ready for day action. I believe I was sincere in recommending against it on the grounds that we may be too valuable to waste in day actions for which we are not well suited."

The Enterprise's air officer, Commander Thomas J. Hamilton, also had his own ideas about if and/or when VF(N)-101 would fly, and he refused to allow Harmer's planes off his flight deck. Communication between the two men collapsed. "The air department had about an 18-hour day," Harmer remembered, "and if they had to launch night fighters it turned out to be a 24-hour day. They hated us. The air officer on the Enterprise couldn't stand the sight of me. He would sneak into a corner and get physically ill when he saw me approaching. So I had a miserable first half of the tour."

Daily, Harmer volunteered for combat air patrol (CAP) or rescue escort duty-anything that would get his planes airborne. In his view, the extreme hazards involved in night flying required "the greatest of flying skill and ceaseless practice." To be proficient in making night interceptions, his pilots not only had to be good in their normal carrier aviation abilities but also had to possess "a definite desire and liking for this type of work."

Eventually, Harmer secured some daytime rescue and CAP duties for his squadron. On one occasion during a strike against Guam, Harmer took off to fly a rescue combat air patrol for two OS2U Kingfishers that were picking up downed pilots. Arriving over them, he ended up "right in the middle" of a flight of Zeros returning from attacking the American fleet. While Harmer chased them away from one of the seaplanes, his inexperienced wingman, flying an F6F Hellcat, broke off to follow a Zero that was heading for the other OS2U on the water several miles away. Two Zeros pounced on the Hellcat, shooting it down, but Harmer and the OS2U he was protecting got back to the fleet safely.

Despite the daytime flights Harmer was getting in, his frustration at being barred from night operations finally compelled him to approach the task group's commander, Rear Admiral John W. "Black Jack" Reeves Jr. "I've got to be launched at night in order to prove this gear," he told Reeves, who replied, "We've got night fighters-we'll use 'em." Harmer recalled the admiral said:

He wouldn't have any confidence in us unless he saw us work. And that's what made the cruise for me. . . . When the Intrepid had the night duty and a bogey appeared on the radar screen, Reeves would call on the TBS and ask if they were going to launch and the answer was always "No," so he would say "OK, I'll launch mine." So that's how we got used.

Subsequently, Harmer got more cooperation from Commander Hamilton, and VF(N)-101 passed another milestone: night practice. Typically, one Corsair would launch around 0430, before day operations commenced. Night landings were a constant worry for Harmer, and his pilots who did not become competent at it were returned to Pearl Harbor. Those who remained, three pilots in addition to their commander, became adept at launching and landing with few reference lights.

The air officer, however, routinely overlit the flight deck. As Harmer recounted:

Too many lights rather than not enough was our problem on landing. By that I mean it was felt we needed some types of lights when we actually didn't. When the carrier and several other ships were showing lights the danger to the fleet was increased, but our landings were not made easier. After we had convinced the fleet that we could land with a minimum of lights, we became of greater value because we could be used under more conditions without endangering the fleet.

Gradually, Harmer slipped Burgess into the Enterprise's CIC for practice interceptions. This was usually brief, because when the carrier's radar operators arrived they "chased Frank away from the scope and used it to work the day fighters." As Harmer recorded in his journal, "Day fighters still come first on this ship (as perhaps they should), but I don't think they know what they have in these night fighters."

Corsair Night Fighters vs. Japanese Bombers

Harmer's first night contact, much to his dismay, resulted in only a "probable." The 19 February encounter could have been a "kill," except that everything went wrong. For starters, Burgess brought Harmer's Corsair in above the bogey, a Betty medium bomber, and he overshot the target. Eventually, he made visual contact and fired a short burst into the enemy plane's right engine, which began to burn. Although the Betty was going down in a steep spiral, Harmer lost sight of it and was unable to confirm that it had crashed.

In early April off Truk, Harmer was in the ready room at sunset when he got a call that a downed pilot was off the southern end of the islands. It was turning dark, and Hamilton reluctantly scrambled two F4U-2s. "They didn't want to launch us," Harmer remembered, "but they did. We got lucky and found his life raft-I happened to fly right over him, and he shot a Verey pistol [flare] up at me. I circled until a submarine picked him up."

On 20 June during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Harmer would again fly a night rescue mission, this time to help guide home planes returning in the dark from Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitscher's famous late-afternoon strike against the Japanese fleet. The U.S. warships "turned the lights on for them," Harmer recalled. "It was just like a daylight landing for those who didn't run out of fuel [and] crash land in the sea."

On the night of 24 April, Harmer shot down his first bogey and narrowly missed becoming the Navy's first night-fighter ace-all in one evening. That night, he was catapulted to intercept a "snooper." After several radical vector changes, he established contact with the enemy plane on his cockpit radar screen at a range of two miles. The commander quickly closed and visually identified the intruder as a Betty. At 250 yards, the bomber's gunners opened fire. Harmer executed an S turn to reduce speed, closed to 150 yards, and fired a long burst. By then the Japanese plane was flying at an altitude of less than 100 feet, with Harmer's Corsair close behind. "He was flying so low," Harmer remembered, "that his prop wash foamed the water. Consequently I had to depress my nose in order to hit the target. Anyhow, he finally went down after I had used 950 rounds."

A few minutes later, he "ran into the chance of a lifetime"-five Japanese bombers flying in formation. Because he was low on ammunition, however, his guns started to jam. Harmer frantically managed to get off only a few rounds, which did no damage. The lead bomber apparently mistook the American plane for one of its own. As Harmer reported:

Recollections of a Corsair Radar Officer on Board the Intrepid

By Frank J. Martin

In December 1942, I graduated in engineering from Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after having joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as an ensign. I was called to active duty on February 1, 1943, and assigned to electronic training in Boston, Massachusetts. After a month of Navy indoctrination at Harvard University, I attended a three-month course in basic electronics, antenna design, etc., which had been put together by Harvard on its campus.

Next came a special three-month course developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on basic radar equipment-both shipborne and airborne This was the most demanding and intensive bit of study I have ever done. As far as I know, no one failed this course; we were merely told that if we didn't learn the material we would take the course over again until we did. The pressures of the course made that a real incentive to succeed and get out of there.

In December 1943, I was sent to Hawaii and joined VF(N)-101 as radar maintenance officer. I recall that Lieutenant Commander "Chick" Harmer was the commanding officer. I had no chance to know him, as VF(N)-101 was split into two groups in Hawaii and Commander Harmer and half of the group went aboard the carrier Enterprise along with four F4U-2s. I was sent to the other half, led by Lieutenant Cecil "Swede" Kullberg, and put on the Intrepid with the other four night-fighter aircraft. Our unit consisted of 11 officers (eight were pilots) and about 12 enlisted men. We sailed from Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, on January 16, 1944, with a large group of ships-destroyers, cruisers, heavy battleships, and some Essex-class carriers. VF(N)-101 was not part of the normal air group on the carrier, and in a sense we were guests on the ship. Our task was to protect the fleet during a night attack, as the regular training of that time did not qualify pilots for night operations.

Apparently VF(N)-101 was a last-minute addition to the Intrepid, and the ship had not expected to provide quarters for us. Some of us were assigned to the admiral's quarters, located just below the flight deck, while the balance who were pilots were quartered in the regular ship's officer territory. I'm told that every carrier had admiral's quarters, but there was no admiral on the Intrepid for this trip. Swede Kullberg had the admiral's double bed and a meeting/dining room; the engineering officer and I had cots in the chief of staff's conference room; our executive officer had the chief of staff's cabin.

VF(N)-101 had no shipboard duties (standing watch, etc.). This was just as well since none of us knew anything about running a carrier. The air group had a squadron of F6F fighter aircraft along with TBF torpedo-bombers and some SBD dive-bombers.

The fleet went southwest across the equator, and when we were in equatorial waters, the ocean temperature was too hot for the ship's desalinization equipment to supply the usual quantity of fresh water. Fresh water became limited to drinking water, and the ship's showers were converted to salt water-except for the admiral's quarters! The ship designers had never expected an admiral to shower in salt water, and there was no practical way for the ship's plumbers to change the water piping. Our group got a request from the ship to limit our showers to short ones, which we thought was reasonable under the circumstances.

I spent part of each day in the radar maintenance shop and was blessed with an experienced and qualified chief petty officer running the shop and my crew of about six maintenance men. The chief knew more than I did about some of the maintenance details of our radar equipment, since he had been responsible for its maintenance while the squadron was in training at Quonset Point Naval Air Station. Our radar was the first Navy airborne radar for fighters and was made by Sperry Corporation on Long Island, New York.

Hugh Gray, a civilian representative of Sperry was on board for this trip. As a designer of our radar equipment, he was to assist in troubleshooting and radar-repair work. But he had difficulty understanding that our job was to keep the planes flying; it was not the time or the place to design new electronic circuits. The proper place for laboratory experiments was back home in the laboratory. He spent most of his time staying out of our way, which was a satisfactory arrangement.

Our pilots went up on daytime flights to maintain their competence in carrier operations. They had done night flying when the group was ashore, but at sea the carrier's captain didn't want to have any lights on at night. The carrier was equipped with flight-deck lights, which were shielded so that they could only be seen by an approaching airplane, not by a Japanese submarine, but that was not secure enough to satisfy the carrier's skipper. Our pilots, airplanes, and electronic equipment did get regular exercise, and equipment maintenance was routine, even though we were then only in transit and not in enemy contact.

A bit of trivia: We had a small gasoline-powered electric generator on wheels that we used to furnish electric power to an airplane when we wanted to run the radar equipment for repair purposes but didn't want to have to run up a big aircraft engine. I kept this lashed down out on the flight deck and wanted a cover to protect it from the weather. I was surprised when I was directed to the sail makers to have them make a cover. Sail makers on a 900-foot-long aircraft carrier? Yes. I went forward and down a hatch in the hangar deck, down a ladder about five decks-opening and relocking a hatch at each deck-and found the sail makers' shop deep in the bow, well below the water line. About four sail makers were there in a space about eight feet square with sewing machines, rolls of canvas, and other fabrics. They were most cooperative, and we would have the needed cover in a few days. The shop was no place for claustrophobia, and I was glad to get back up and see the sky again.

Our first operation was the invasion of Kwajalein Atoll's Roi and Namur islands. The carrier's planes bombed the islands heavily, and then battleships stood offshore and lobbed large shells onto them. Finally, Marines went ashore and secured the islands.

The fleet retired to Majuro Atoll. Its circular reef was large enough to hold all our ships and had only one entrance. It seemed quite safe from Japanese submarines. For medicinal purposes, the ship's surgeon issued a two-ounce bottle of Navy brandy to each man on the carrier. This was much appreciated by all hands.

When we left Majuro, someone pointed out a battleship I had not noticed before. It was flying an admiral's flag, and the scuttlebutt was that Admiral Raymond Spruance was now in charge. We were headed for the Truk Islands. Some B-24 reconnaissance planes had recently flown over Truk, but it was cloud covered, and they could not get usable photos of this important Japanese naval base. Thus, our pilots had no recent photos to use for planning. The air group from the Intrepid and planes from the other carriers attacked Truk during the day.

At sunset we put one of our F4U night fighters onto the catapult on the Intrepid; the engineering officer (Herb Wade) ran up the engine, and I tested the Corsair's radar and radio. All checked out okay, and one of the pilots strapped himself into the seat. The ship's radar had picked up several planes coming from Truk. This was the event we were trained for, and we were anxious to get our pilot into the air. However, we were told that Admiral Spruance's permission was needed to launch aircraft. Rumor had it that he was at dinner and could not be disturbed. I always considered that unlikely, but in any event, we did not get permission. And the Japanese planes got closer and closer and closer.

Herb checked out the plane's engine again, and I checked out its radar and radio, and the pilot, still strapped into the seat, got more and more anxious. Finally the enemy planes reached us. Our ships started firing at them, and they dropped torpedoes. Our carrier was hit in the stern while in a hard turn to port. Our rudder was jammed and couldn't be moved. I think about 30 men were lost who had been at antiaircraft guns outboard of the flight deck, near the stern. Some imperfect steering could be done by running the port engines at full sped and idling the starboard engines.

Our night-fighter Corsair was still on the catapult when we were hit; we never did get permission to take off. Could this have been a case of the battleship Navy not believing in the merits of the carrier Navy?

The Intrepid could not conduct flight operations because of the steering problems, and she limped back to Pearl Harbor. She then was sent to San Francisco for repairs. When we got back to Hawaii, our part of VF(N)-101 was put ashore and sent to the Naval Air Station at Barbers Point on the southwest corner of Oahu. This was about March 1944. We became an experimental and training squadron and Captain Jack Griffin, a Naval Academy graduate and a flier, became our commanding officer.

Mr. Martin writes from Asheville, North Carolina.

The plane I fired at dropped his left wing and flashed a row of vari-colored lights along the upper surface of each wing. The other two planes followed suit. I got one gun working but as soon as I had fired three rounds it stopped. The plane I fired on turned on his vari-colored lights and the whole formation again followed suit. I never did figure out what those lights were for unless they thought I was a friendly plane trying to join up on them and they were trying to identify themselves. I believe that the plane I knocked down was their "snooper," and they thought I was he trying to return to the formation.

Nearly two more months passed before VF(N)-101 got another opportunity to demonstrate its skills. Responding to a radar contact, an F4U-2 piloted by Lieutenant (junior grade) Robert F. Holden was catapulted from the Enterprise. Holden established visual contact with a Japanese bomber at 10,000 feet and then shot it down. The flaming plane crashed in the midst of the fleet. "That put us back in the good graces of everyone and set the stage for the next night, when we had a record evening," Harmer recalled. Again, Holden was sent up. He found a Betty three miles away at 1,000 feet and closed until he made a visual 200 feet astern of it. When he fired a short burst into the starboard wing, the bomber blew up. The Corsair flew right through the ball of heat, flames, and debris. Shortly thereafter, Holden shot down another low-flying bogey.

Night-Fighting Lessons Learned

More action followed, and as VF(N)-101 got increased exposure to Japanese tactics, its pilots honed their skills. A Betty bomber shadowing the fleet often preceded an enemy raid. Harmer learned that the safest and most efficient direction to approach the bomber was from directly astern. Because of the F4U's superior speed, overrunning the target was a frequent problem. He solved it by using his dive brakes when behind the slower aircraft.

Harmer and his pilots also took advantage of the moon: "If the moon's phase and position were of possible assistance, we preferred an approach out to the side so as to get the bogey directly up-moon from us." That gave the fighter the advantage of making a visual before being spotted, allowing a positive identification and the time to drop behind and below the bomber before opening fire. Harmer's men found that the Corsair's canopy reduced visibility, so for interceptions it was important to open it, regardless of wind and noise. That permitted a clear view of the enemy plane's engines, which had excellent flame dampeners and were tricky to focus fire on.

One night Harmer joined Holden to practice some radar interceptions, which went smoothly. As the two fliers were returning to the Enterprise, Ensign Burgess, manning radar equipment in the carrier's CIC, informed them that an extra plane was in their formation. Assisted by Burgess, Harmer closed on the bogey. "I descended to 500 feet," he reminisced, "and side slipped to the down-moon side of the target." At 400 feet the commander made visual contact: "After slowing down, I pulled up to the target and sent a half- to one-second burst into the port wing root. The plane exploded immediately and hit the water."

Only once did Harmer encounter bombers with fighter escorts. It happened "just at dusk after the day CAP had been landed," and it didn't go well. Harmer and Holden ran into "12 to 15 bombers, Bettys, or possibly Francises, escorted by Tojo fighters." As the Corsairs made a pass at the enemy formation, they "were jumped by four Tojos." Holden, Harmer recalled, "knocked one off my tail and it disappeared from view at 1500 feet, headed down in a tight spin. It was rated as another probable. We were lucky to have some clouds around in which to hide, particularly after a 20-mm [round] shorted my formation lights and I couldn't get them to turn off." The bombers reached the fleet, and antiaircraft fire shot down eight of them.

And so, the "Impatient Virgins" got to fly, after all. By the time the Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor in July, VF(N)-101 had demonstrated to Navy skeptics that night fighters had a place on aircraft carriers. The squadron recorded five kills, two probables, and two damaged. Harmer earned the respect of his men, a grudging air operations officer, and the farsighted Admiral Reeves. "While we did not shoot down all of our opportunities," he stated in his final report to the Navy, "we are very proud of the fact that no ship under our protection was damaged in a night raid."

Chick Harmer finished his tour convinced of the bright future of Navy night fighters. He foresaw a need for all pilots to be skilled in night operations and able to perform a variety of missions against air, sea, or land targets. In his report he recommended two-seater night fighters armed with air-to-air rockets, and predicted the future use of radar-equipped airborne command planes that would eventually control multiple night-fighter interceptions. It would take many years for technology to catch up to Harmer's ideas, but by the time this visionary officer retired in the late 1960s as a captain, they would all be standard operating procedure for naval aviation.

1VF(N)-76, flying radar-equipped F6F Hellcats, embarked on carriers about this same time.back to article

2Airborne night fighting was not altogether new to the "Big E." In late 1943, teams of two F6Fs and one radar-equipped TBF flying from her deck had experimented with intercepting enemy aircraft at night. On 23 November during one of the missions, LCdr Edward "Butch" O'Hare, the Navy's first fighter ace, was shot down and killed.back to article

Sources:

LCdr Richard E. Harmer, Combat diary 1944, possession of Harmer family.

Capt Richard E. Harmer, U.S. Navy (Retired). Interview by author, October 1996.

Barrett Tillman, Corsair: The F4U in World War II and Korea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979).

Barrett Tillman, Vought F4U Corsair, Warbird Tech Series Volume 4 (North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 1996, 2001).

Edward P. Stafford, The Big E: The Story of the USS Enterprise (New York: Random House, 1962).

U.S. Navy, "Interview of Commander R. E. Harmer, U.S.N. formerly C.O. VF(N) 101," [1944],

possession of Harmer family.

Dr. Bartlett is a retired professor of history at Cape Cod Community College.

 

Dr. Bartlett is a retired professor of history at Cape Cod Community College.

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