This oral history is notable in that it contains the candid recollections of the U.S. Navy's all-time top fighter ace; McCampbell had 34 kills. He earned the Medal of Honor for his exploits during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. He was one of the few pilots to receive the nation's top award for actions during aerial combat. He was a 1933 graduate of the Naval Academy; his commissioning was delayed by a year because of limited opportunities during the Great Depression. Following initial service as an officer in the heavy cruiser USS Portland (CA-33), he underwent flight training and received his wings in 1938. From 1938 to 1940 served with Fighting Squadron Four (VF-4), based on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-4), and from 1940 to 1942 was landing signal officer of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7). He survived the Wasp's sinking in 1942 during the Guadalcanal campaign. After serving at the landing signal officer school in Melbourne, Florida, he was briefly the commanding officer of Fighting Squadron 15 (VF-15) in 1943-44 and then commanded Air Group 15 in 1944 during that ship's successful combat tour on board the carrier USS Essex (CV-9). In early 1945 received the Medal of Honor from President Franklin Roosevelt. After the war, McCampbell served at Oceana Naval Air Station and in 1946-48 was a student and later a staff member at the Armed Forces Staff College. Subsequent duties were from 1948 to 1951 as senior aviation advisor to the Argentine Navy; executive officer of the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB-42) in 1951-52; and in 1952-53 on the staff of Commander Aircraft Atlantic. He commanded the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Jacksonville, 1953-54, and from 1954 to 1956 served as flight test coordinator at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland. He served 1956-58 as operations officer on the staff of Commander Sixth Fleet; commanded the fleet oiler USS Severn (AO-61), 1958-59; and commanded the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31), 1959-60. He served 1960-62 in the plans division of the Joint Staff and in his final tour of active duty, 1962-64, was on the staff of the North American Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs.
Based on five interviews conducted by Paul Stillwell in July 1987. The volume contains 369 pages of interview transcript plus a comprehensive index. The transcript is copyright 2010 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.
In this selection from his third interview with Paul Stillwell at his home in Lake Worth, Florida on 16 July 1987, Captain McCampbell describes flying above some 40 enemy planes in an F6F Hellcat with his wingman, Ensign Roy Rushing, and then going in for the kill in the October 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Captain McCampbell: So we had the altitude advantage all the time we attacked the Japanese. We zoomed down, would shoot a plane or two. Roy and I each would take one, and I'd tell him which one I was going to take, if it was to the right or to the left, which one it was. By telling him this, that allowed him to know which way I was going to dive, and then allowed him to pull out after we attacked, which gave me freedom to go either way I wanted. Thiis worked very successfully, and he got the news. And I'd pick out my plane, then he'd pick out his. We'd make an attack, pull up, keep our altitude advantage, speed, and go down again. We repeated this over and over. We made about 20 coordinated attacks.
In the meantime, a third pilot joined up on us, and he made, he said, two attacks, getting a plane on each one, and then he said he ran out of ammunition, and he went back to the ship. But the guy didn't tell me he was going to leave us. It didn't make any difference, really, except that he should have called me and told me he was going to return to the ship. He may have been one of those that when we shifted frequency at the fighter director's instruction, that he didn't get the word, or he didn't get the right frequency, and he had no contact with me. I didn't try to sort this out later.
But anyway, pretty soon, Roy called me. He says, "Skipper, I'm out of ammunition."
And I called back, and I said, "Well, Roy, I've got a little left. Do you want to go down with me for a couple more runs, or do you want to sit up here and watch the show?"
He said, "Oh, no, I'll go down with you." So he followed me down for a couple more attacks, and then I looked at my gas gauges, and I saw I'd emptied one main tank, and I was about on the second one, and I was running pretty low, and I was beginning to get low. By then I was out of ammunition, too, getting low on gas, so I called Roy and and said, "Well, we'll go back to the ship. I'm getting low on gas." And by now, having followed this flight away from the task group towards Manila, we had gotten pretty far away. I'd estimate maybe around 100 miles, give or take a few.
So we headed back to the ship, and when I picked up by YE on my ZB system, I was out about 6,000 or 8,000 feet in altitude. But I figured I was about 65 miles away, which turned out was about right, based on the the length of time it took us to get back to the ship. I called the ship, when I first got the YE signal, and asked if they could take me as soon as I got back. They said, "Oh, yes, come on in." So we kept heading for the ship, and when I got over the ship, I found they had a flight deck full of planes, and I knew that to launch all those planes would take a good 20 minutes, and I didn't have that much gas left.
So I called the ship and told them that, and the admiral called the Langley and directed them to launch nine torpedo planes, so they could give me a clear deck to land aboard, which they did. When I saw the deck was clear, I came around and made a pass, but the LSO didn't cut me on the first pass. They still hadn't cleared the deck properly for landing. So I made a quick turnaround, came back again, and he gave me the cut, and I landed safely. But when I tried to come out of the landing gear, I gave it near full gun, and the engine conked out on me. So I ran out of gas on the deck. They had to push me out of the landing gear area. I found out the mech that reammunitioned the guns that I had exactly six rounds left in the starboard outboard gun, and they were all jammed. But it worked out all right.