Development of Naval Night Fighters in World War II

By Commander James Seton Gray, Jr., U.S. Navy

It might be submitted that an enormous amount of night military flying took place prior to 1940. This is true, but aside from a handful of military pilots trained to parity with civil airline pilots using conventional radio aids and standard flight instruments, there were few, indeed, able to fly without visual reference to the ground. Experiments were conducted with flares and searchlights, but little was gained of military value at this time. Naval planes sent to dive-bomb the Utah at night invariably were assisted in target location by the display of lights aboard the target ship. By any standards, our night combat effectiveness was about nil.

A night attack was reported on Pearl Harbor on the night of December 7, 1941. Actually, this "attack" consisted of six fighters from the Enterprise, low on fuel, returning to Ford Island with lights burning and prepared to land. In the first joint anti-aircraft action of the war, the Navy shot down three, and the Army got one of our Wildcats. The dud shells landing in Honolulu were the so-called "bombs."

Our first "night fighters" consisted of P-36 and P-40 aircraft manned by regular Army fighter pilots assigned night duty in Hawaii and in the Philippines. Enemy night activity was constant in the Philippines, but due to the poor performance characteristics of the planes available and our failure to profit by the experience of the British, we were helpless to intercede. A Japanese seaplane, refueled from a submarine at sea, did raid Hawaii in March, 1942. Our anti-aircraft guns were silent due to the presence of friendly fighters who were unable to reach their target although it was held in searchlights during most of its bombing run. Four bombs from this plane dropped harmlessly in an open area.

The enemy's night activity spurred the Army and Navy to feverish efforts to provide a counter measure. Admiral Halsey learned to his disgust that while the enemy remained constantly on our radar screens at night when he was close aboard enemy airfields, our carrier-based fighters were powerless to do anything about it. The Navy started its Project Affirm at Quonset in April, 1942. Here, through the combined efforts of the Navy, the Sperry Company, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the equipment and pilots necessary to gain command of the night sky were developed.

Six "night fighters" were flown to Hawaii in September, 1942. These were Douglas havocs which had been painted black and in which a British type airborne interception radar had been installed—a set which required ground control to place the plane within the short A-I range of the target. Unfortunately, the ceiling of this plane was too low to permit its effective use against the Japanese. Five of these P-70's reached Guadalcanal in February, 1943, but as suitable radar for their control was not available, they were not used at this time. The air force officer responsible for night defense requested permission to use standard P-38 aircraft in conjunction with searchlights, but in spite of annoyance of the Japanese night raids, this was not forthcoming from the Marine commander having cognizance, possibly due to a very laudable desire to maintain a complete blackout.

Late in March a radar set suitable for controlling interceptions was delivered from New Zealand, it having been developed by a physics professor at the University of Wellington. It was not until April 18, 1943, that Captain Bennett of the Army Air Force's Sixth Night Fighter Squadron made the first night shoot-down by a U. S. plane. This was the only victory to be recorded by the P-70 unit.

At the direction of Vice-Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch, Lieutenant Colonel A. W. Tyer, U.S.A.A.F., proceeded with his attempts to intercept Japanese intruders, using the P-38 searchlight combination. In the week following Capt. Bennett's victory, First Lieutenant Wilham Smith of the Air Force shot down one of two attacking Japanese in this manner. It is interesting to note that the British had conducted similar operations successfully three years earlier. By September of 1943, ten enemy aircraft had been destroyed by this method and the tempo of Japanese night activity reduced considerably as a consequence of the appearance of opposition.

Meanwhile, the Japanese had found daytime operations against our task forces too expensive, and had adopted night torpedo plane attacks as an alternative. Those at sea during the offensive of late 1943 can recall a substantial loss of sleep as a result of these tactics. The relative ineffectiveness of our anti-aircraft guns against this form of attack, together with successive days and nights at general quarters stations experienced by our ship's companies, resulted in an improvisation which produced the world's first carrier-based night fighters.

The Commander of U. S. Navy Task Group 50.2 was determined to eliminate the nightly appearances of Japanese attackers from Mille and Jaluit which were costing our men at sea and ashore on Tarawa much of the little sleep they might have had. Lieutenant Commander John Phillips and Lieutenant Commander Edward O'Hare, group commander and fighter commander of the Enterprise Air Group respectively, were given permission to attempt night airborne interceptions by forming a team of the Hellcat and the Avenger, using the anti-submarine radar of the latter to locate their target. On November 24, 1943, two Avengers attempted unsuccessfully to intercept a raid on Tarawa. With their recovery, the first night fighter mission ever to be flown from a carrier was completed. Two nights later a Hell-cat Avenger team, in which Lieutenant Commander O'Hare flew the fighter, was successful in destroying a Japanese twin-engine bomber. A second team led by Lieutenant Commander Phillips destroyed two. O'Hare was shot down in the exchange of fire which occurred when an unrecognized plane attempted to join Lieutenant Commander Phillips' formation. He was last seen going down after the Avenger turret gunner had opened fire. As a result of this activity, a large Japanese raid was dispersed without damage to our ships.

In October, 1943, a Marine night fighter squadron (VMF(N)531), equipped with Lockheed Venturas, and a unit of VF(N)75, the first squadron trained by Project Affirm, equipped with Corsairs, reported to Commander Air Solomons for duty. These aircraft carried Sperry A-I radar, a considerable improvement over the British A-I, and, more important, their units included the trained fighter directors and necessary ground control radar and gear necessary for successful night operations. On October 31st, the first Navy pilot to score a night victory shot down a Japanese bomber southeast of Shortland. On November 13th, 1943, a Marine flyer made the first ship-directed kill by a radar-equipped plane at night. These two Navy and Marine squadrons made 19 kills prior to their relief. A noticeable reduction in enemy night activity followed the arrival of these units in the Solomons.

A subsequent unit of VF(N)75 reported to the fleet for duty with two other squadrons early in 1944. However, due to the reluctance of the task force commander to interfere with the sleep of carrier plane handling crews after extensive day operations in order to exercise an untried weapon, very few night missions were flown. With few exceptions, their missions were composed of patrols over lifeguard submarines, acting as pathfinders for day groups, and pre-dawn launches for practice and for pre-strike intruder work, none of which entailed a night landing. As a result of this policy, pilots who had trained to a high degree of perfection in a few short months, quickly lost their technique and their confidence, with the consequence that when they were used at night, operational losses were high. This latter result served to further increase the senior commanders' reluctance to use their night fighters. At this time it was not appreciated that in order to remain adept at the highly intricate business of flying to machine gun range at night, constant practice in this and in night landings was mandatory.

In June, 1944, the task force commander granted authority to task group commanders to "use own discretion in launching night fighters," and from this time until the war's end, the night sky was ours.

As the result of a spectacularly successful carrier night attack on shipping at Truk in February, 1944, the relief night fighter squadrons reporting for duty in August, 1944, were equipped with Avenger aircraft especially fitted for night operations. These were combined with a night fighter squadron to form the first night carrier air group.  The Independence became the first night carrier. Shortly thereafter all other night squadrons were decommissioned and made a part of the air group of the carrier to which they were assigned.

The story of this first night carrier air group is one of resourcefulness and courage which proved once and for all that command of the air on less than a twenty-four-hour basis is not acceptable in a military sense. This is one of the lessons which points so vividly to those air battles still to be fought at any time and in any weather our air power must be effective.

Space will permit but little of the story of the Independence night group. In addition to taking over all night air patrols, thus enabling crews of other carriers to enjoy full rest, these night pilots conducted night searches to extreme range, intruded during darkness over the Philippines, Formosa, Okinawa, the Bonins, and China, and made night, dawn and dusk attacks against all kinds of enemy objectives. During a Japanese night attack on Task Force 38 off Formosa on October 12, 1944, Independence planes shot down three enemy planes. Of fifteen contacts at night in the October actions, they shot down seven. Of the remainder, most were destroyed by planes from other carriers which shared a readiness duty in case there was too much trade for the night carrier to handle. On the night of October 24th-25th, Independence planes tracked the northern and central Japanese fleets through a good part of the night.

Upon approaching Luzon on December 14, an Independence plane had a Jap plane on fire seventeen minutes after the original contact, although our plane was on deck at the time contact was made. As Task Force 38 transited Bashi Channel en route to its famous sweep into the South China Sea, there was grave danger that enemy Philippine-Formosa air traffic would discover the fleet and reveal its position. Three enemy planes appeared and each was shot down promptly by an Independence night fighter, one crashing but a few hundred feet from the task force flagship, the Hancock.

Night fighters from the remaining carriers of the task force were now able to fill a previously defenseless gap which saw Japanese airfields unopposed at first dawn and after the departure of the last day fighters for their carriers at dusk. "Blanketing" operations, wherein our aircraft were maintained on station over enemy airfields throughout attack periods, were of no avail if the Japanese had access to their fields at first and last light. Our night fighters were assigned the task of covering these fields at these times, thus keeping many of the kamikazes grounded through the last nine months of the war. It became a common practice for two or four night fighters to relieve a dozen or more day fighters over the target so that the latter could be landed during daylight. Our ability to do this completely confounded the Japs, as was revealed by post-war interviews.

The records of the many units which were decommissioned late in 1944 are lost among the records of the regular groups to which they were assigned. That these planes and pilots were put to full use is evidenced by a tally of his various units made by one former night commander—his twelve planes had destroyed twenty-six enemy aircraft, of which seven had been accounted for at night. This was without an operational loss among his own planes.

As a result of the success of the units already mentioned, a night task group was formed using the Enterprise and Independence as night carriers. Subsequent carriers assigned this duty later in 1945 were the Saratoga and Bon Homme Richard. While the Saratoga was knocked out of action shortly afterward, this task group enjoyed outstanding success, as evidenced by Vice Admiral J. S. McCain's action report covering the operations against Japan: "No efforts were made by the Japanese to attack our forces at night even though our location was known, even though the Japanese had many planes within range, and even though they had many suicide-bound pilots wanting nothing more than to crash their planes into one of our major units. During the entire time that Task Force 38 operated off Japan, no Japanese attacked these forces at night."

The carrier-based night fighters kept the air over Okinawa clear until shore-based Marine squadrons were able to look to their own defense during darkness. The enemy losses at the hands of Naval and Marine planes in this operation established the Naval and Marine aviator with the world's finest, pilot for pilot. It is to be hoped that the detailed records of this fighting may some day be made public.

The weather factors in possible combat areas of the future are such that much thought must be given defense, and offense, at all times and in any weather. Major Alexander de Seversky was scarcely one war too soon in his prediction of all-weather aerial combat. With an eye on the weather factor, is it possible that an enemy could force us into the foul weather sky as Japan once led us into the night sky? Considering the time needed to properly train a pilot for this intricate business—and at present the pilot is not obsolete—the answer must be "no!"

 

Graduating from the Naval Academy in 1936, Commander Gray served first in the Salt Lake City, and then after flight training at Pensacola, served in the Enterprise's Fighting Squadron Six in the early months of the war. In early 1944 he commissioned one of the Navy's early night fighter squadrons on the Enterprise. His war experiences included the Marshall Gilbert attack, the Battle of Midway, air raids on Formosa, and the Battle for Leyte Gulf. After attending the Armed Forces Staff College, he is at present commanding a squadron of Privateers in the Pacific.

 

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