The Carrier War Remembered

Compiled by Barrett Tillman

At 0820 I passed Barber's Point to seaward and at this time I noticed approximately a squadron of planes circling Ewa Field in column. Believing them to be U.S. Army pursuit planes, I gave them a wide berth, decreasing my altitude to about 800 feet and continued on toward Ford Island Field.

At a point mid-way between Ewa Field and Ford Island I noticed considerable AA fire ahead. At almost the same instant I was attacked by Japanese planes from the rear without warning. Recognizing the insignia of one plane that had completed a dive on me, I immediately dove toward the ground zig-zagging. My passenger did not have sufficient time to man the free gun. My fixed guns were loaded and charged but I had no opportunity to use them.

The planes that attacked me appeared to be low-wing monoplane fighters with retractable landing gear. My wingman was attacked at the same time but was not hit and stayed with me, circling low over a cane field to the north of Pearl City. It was immediately evident that I was under AA fire regardless of which direction I went. I did not have sufficient fuel to return to the ship had I been able to get away from the island. Hoping that I would be recognized as friendly, I decided to make a low approach to Ford Island Field and land—I had no alternative it seemed.

From this point on until I had landed, I was subjected to heavy AA fire from ships and shore batteries in spite of making recognition maneuvers and the fact that my wheels and flaps were down for landing. My wingman turned away just prior to landing. I could not communicate with the Ford Island Field control tower. I estimate my time of landing to have been about 0835. Inspection of the plane revealed several bullet holes through the wings but no serious damage. 1

Others were not so fortunate. Eight American fliers were killed, and six SBDs were lost. The Enterprise and the U.S. Navy faced a long, uncertain war.

Surviving Midway

Six months after Pearl Harbor, three Pacific Fleet carriers clashed with four Japanese flattops threatening Midway Atoll. The historic U.S. victory ended Tokyo's strategic initiative in the Pacific, but success was achieved at a terrible cost, especially among the TBD Devastator torpedo bombers and their crews. Ten of Torpedo Squadron Three's TBDs were shot down while attacking the Japanese carriers, leaving only Chief Aviation Pilot Wilhelm Esders' plane and another Devastator still flying.

Esders later recalled:

Four Zeros chased me 20 to 25 miles. . . . The last [one] flew alongside about ten feet off my wingtip. The pilot . . . raised his right hand . . . apparently executing a half salute. What he intended to mean I will never know. Possibly "good show," "well done," or perhaps "let me get some more ammunition." Whatever it was, he joined the other three and headed for their fleet.

Soon I was joined by Machinist Harry Corl with his gunner ARM3/c Lloyd Childers, and we headed for Yorktown . We were both forced to ditch and were later rescued.

Radiomen-gunners were just as dedicated to fulfilling their mission as the pilots. They were not only well trained, but highly motivated, and would shoot their guns [until] they were incapable of carrying out their assignment. This happened to my gunner, [Aviation Radioman Second Class] Mike Brazier. He was hit at least seven times with 7.7-mm ammo and twice with 20-mm explosive projectiles. As if the small-caliber wounds were not enough, the 20-mms exploded, blowing away all the flesh on his legs between the knees and ankles. However, despite his enormous wounds, Mike somehow managed to change the coils in the radio receiver and helped me steer closer to the task force, where we ditched.

When I removed Mike from the aircraft I could see the large bones in each leg as I got him into the rubber raft. Of course, he bled to death. Yet this young man was still able to talk to me in the raft, expressing how badly he felt that he wasn't able to perform better or longer.

This was the kind of men we had in Torpedo Three. 2

Action off Guadalcanal

Victory at Midway permitted America to take the offensive at Guadalcanal. However, despite her upgraded antiaircraft battery, the Enterprise still took significant damage at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on 24 August. Lieutenant Commander Elias B. Mott, a gunnery officer on board "The Big E," described the Japanese carrier-plane attack against the flattop:

We were absolutely unable to see the planes due to the fact that they were so high and small, and that it was late in the afternoon and the sky was considerably bluer than it would have been earlier. . . . About 1712 the first Jap dive bomber commenced its attack.

One of our forward 20-mm gunners opened up on him when he was at 10,000 feet, and this was the signal for the formation. Everybody opened up with five-inch and with automatic weapons. The attack lasted five or six minutes, and during that time they came down one after another starting from the port bow and working around to the starboard quarter. At one time I remember seeing five Japanese dive bombers in line all the way from about 2,000 feet to 12,000 . . . .

We had the old 1.1s [antiaircraft guns] without power drive and about 32 20-mm and of course our 8 five-inch guns. Five-inch on local control did very well. They hit several planes on the nose . . . and the planes disintegrated. The tremendous number of 20-mms that we were able to bring to bear on each plane caused them either to miss or to drop in flames. . . . However, as they worked around toward the stern, where we had little firepower protection, when they came down, although we hit them, they were able to take aim, and we sustained three hits: one on five-inch Gun Group Number Three; one on the flight deck aft, which penetrated down three decks; and another one just abaft the island structure on the flight deck. This was an instantaneous bomb. The one that hit Gun Group Number Three wiped out the entire group of 39 men.

My impression of the battle was that if we had a little more firepower, it might have been different. It looked to me that if you had enough guns, the enemy planes would be in trouble, would have to swerve off, or . . . the pilot would be killed. However, in a dive-bombing attack, it's not just a case of getting 1 plane or 10 or even 15. You've got to get them all; you can't afford to get hit. 3

Hunting the U-Boats

While the Pacific war progressed into 1943, the Battle of the Atlantic reached its peak. Surfaced U-boat contacts were rare, but on 3 August a USS Card (CVE-11) hunter-killer team over the central Atlantic finally got a chance at a German submarine, U-66. Avenger pilot Lieutenant (junior grade) Richard L. "Zeke" Cormier recalled:

A tiny dark bump appeared on the horizon, and as we closed I could clearly discern a surfaced submarine. My heart just about jumped out of my flight suit. We had caught a U-boat cruising slowly eastward, the crew basking in the late-afternoon sun during a schnapps break. I called for Ensign Arnie Paulson's Wildcat to join up, saying we were going to General Quarters. I pointed out the target, placed all weapons on "armed and hot," tightened my straps, remembered to say a little prayer, and maneuvered to put the sun at our backs. By this time it was low on the horizon. We attacked toward the stern, Paulson leading the way with all guns blazing.

Despite German AA fire, Cormier made two runs, dropping bombs alongside the conning tower. He allowed, "I was very happy with my cool." But the German boat continued fighting back with heavy antiaircraft fire before calling it quits. "As I pulled off, I could see the crew gathering the wounded in the tower and buttoning up to dive. The damage was not readily discernable, but I knew we had hit them a rough blow. The boat continued in a wide arc, then suddenly submerged. I dropped my acoustic torpedo on the third pass, but obviously it missed the scent."

Nevertheless, making an attack provided a huge lift for antisubmarine pilots who seldom had such an opportunity. "I cannot overstate the morale boost it provided," Cormier said. "Antisubmarine work, above all types of hunting, requires patience. Finally to see your prey after hours, days and months of fruitless patrolling—well, that's how ASW folks spell relief!"

U-66 , which suffered three men killed and eight wounded in the attack, returned to France for a refit. She redeployed in 1944, but harried by planes from the USS Block Island (CVE- 21), was sunk by the destroyer escort Buckley (DE-51) on 6 May. Zeke Cormier also recycled, transitioning to fighters and earning ace status in the Pacific as a Hellcat pilot on board the Ticonderoga (CV-14). 4

The Radar War

Fighter director officers (FDOs) were specially selected for their vital task of using radar to coordinate and control their ships' fighters, as radar once ranked second in priority only to the U.S. Navy's contribution to the Manhattan Project. Former teachers and stockbrokers—men who could communicate clearly, assess priorities, and think on their feet—were preferred as prospective FDOs.

One such officer was Lieutenant John Monsarrat, who served on board the USS Langley (CVL-27) in the carrier's combat information center. Off Formosa on 21 January 1945, Monsarrat coped with the fast, dynamic world of radar combat.

We were taking a new plot on the raid every minute, and the radar operator and I double checked to confirm that these bogeys were not showing IFF. By 1151 they had closed to 55 miles, and we had already lost two minutes of precious intercept time. Suspecting that the Washington [BB-56] had confused the bogeys with our own returning strike planes a few miles away, I urgently reported the new bogey position to the flagship. . . .

At 1205 we got our first "merged plot" indicating that our fighters and the raiding planes were at the identical range and bearing, but not necessarily at the same altitude. Unfortunately our fighters were at 10,000 feet altitude, while the raid was high above them at 20,000 feet and ready to dive.

By the time the Hellcats came to grips with four kamikaze Zeros, it was too late. Before splashing close aboard the Langley, the first Mitsubishi dropped a bomb that blew a 14-foot hole in her flight deck.

Just after the bomb hit, not more than 30 yards from one of the uprights in radar plot, I had my nose glued to the PPI [plan position indicator] scope . . . searching for the other planes. Looking up from the scope, I was appalled to see nearly everyone else down on the deck in a jumble of helmets and arms and legs. It is an instinctive reaction to hit the deck when confronted with an explosion, but it angered me to see our crew down there when we had work to do. With a roar I got them up in position, and none too soon. At 1210, two minutes after we were hit, the second Zero with its 550-pound bomb fused to impact deep inside a ship, plunged into the flight deck of the Ticonderoga . The carrier's planes, armed and gassed and spotted on the deck for takeoff . . . soon began to burn and explode.

Both the Langley and "Tico" survived their damage, but the action off Formosa affirmed the conventional wisdom: Defense against kamikazes, as well as dive bombers, had to be 100 percent effective. 5

Sinking Ozawa's Carriers

The world's last fleet engagement occurred in the Philippines during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Off Cape Engaño on 25 October 1944, Task Force 38 air groups pummeled Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa's decoy carriers, which had drawn attention from a powerful Japanese surface force transiting San Bernardino Strait. That morning Commander David McCampbell, the USS Essex 's (CV-9) air group leader, directed strikes that sank the light carrier Chitose . Commander Hugh Winters of the Lexington (CV-16) then relieved McCampbell as target coordinator, taking control of about 200 aircraft. He recalled: "There was no chance for surprise, as the Japs were already bleeding some, so we didn't have to shoot on sight, so to speak. We wanted all the carriers, with maybe a BB or CA for the cherry on top."

Directing his squadrons against the carriers Zuikaku and Zuiho and larger escorts, Winters noted:

The heavy haze of AA smoke trailing off the quarter gave good windage for our dive bombers as we pushed over. . . . The ships were using new anti-aircraft stuff with wires and burning phosphorous shells which put up all different-colored fire and smoke around our planes. But we had faced so much deadly AA for so many lousy targets that it didn't bother us too much, hunting this big game. The boys were as cool as any professionals working in a hospital or law office.

The Zuiho limped on, burning, but the Zuikaku stopped and started to die on one side. She needed no more, but hung in there for awhile, and her AA battery was nasty. In the excitement, I stayed down too low (not very professional), and got some holes in my left wing. I knew it would be a long afternoon, so I throttled back to almost stalling speed and leaned out the fuel to practically a back-firing mixture.

Winters assigned subsequent air groups according to his target priority and watched the Zuiho sink and then the Zuikaku capsize: "No big explosions, no steam from flooded firerooms, no fire and smoke—just a few huge bubbles. Quietly, and it seemed to me, with dignity." Thus perished the last survivor of the Pearl Harbor attackers. American cruisers later finished off the final Japanese carrier, the Chiyoda . Hugh Winters and wingman Ensign Barney Garbow had witnessed something unprecedented; they saw three aircraft carriers sink during one mission. 6



1. CDR H. L. Young, USS Enterprise action report, 15 December 1941, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereinafter referred to as NARA). Young later commanded the USS Ommaney Bay (CVE-79) and was promoted to rear admiral. He died in 1954 at age 53.

2. CDR Wilhelm Esders, USN (Ret.), "Torpedo Three and the Devastator," The Hook , August 1990, p. 36. Esders died in Pensacola in 1994 at age 80.

3. Interview with CDR E. B. Mott, Office of Naval Records and Library, 22 March 1944 and 5 March 1946, NARA. Promoted to captain, Mott later commanded the USS Tidewater (AD-31). He died at age 79 in 1988.

4. Richard L. Cormier, with Wally Schirra, Phil Wood and Barrett Tillman, Wildcats to Tomcats: The Tailhook Navy (St. Paul, MN: Phalanx Publishing, 1995), pp. 18-19. After his promotion to lieutenant commander, Cormier led the Blue Angels in the 1950s. He passed away in 2006 at age 81.

5. John Monsarrat, Angel on the Yardarm: The Beginning of Fleet Radar Defense (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1985), pp. 131-136. After the war Monsarrat pursued an advertising career. He died in 1995 at age 82.

6. CAPT T. Hugh Winters, USN (Ret). Skipper: Confessions of a Fighter Squadron Commander 1943-44 (Mesa, AZ: Champlin Museum Press, 1985), pp. 130-133. Promoted to captain, Winters helped establish the Blue Angels. He passed away at age 95 in 2008.

 

Mr. Tillman is the author of numerous books and articles on military aviation topics, including Clash of the Carriers: The True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II

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