Hellcats over Truk

By Barrett Tillman

However, it was evident that because of its disposition, Truk was largely invulnerable to surface shelling. The atoll's six main islands lay inside a 30-mile reef; "a drowned mountain range inside a coral ring" was the way historian Samuel Eliot Morison described it. Only air power could deal Truk a knockout blow, and that was what Mitscher's carriers were assigned to do.

The need for such a raid was obvious with one quick look at the map. Truk was southwest of the Marshalls and north of the Solomons-New Guinea area. If Truk remained intact, the enemy could disrupt seaborne communications in the Western Pacific with powerful warships and hundreds of aircraft, simultaneously funneling supplies to the northern Solomons. In mid-February, Japanese air strength was estimated at 185 aircraft, but in reality Truk's three airfields held 365 planes, including transients bound for the Solomons.

An attack on Truk boded well for no one, especially Navy fliers who wondered how the Japanese could help but know the carriers were on the way. Many of the aviators were veterans of the Gilberts, Marshalls, and Rabaul strikes and knew how intense the opposition could be in range of land-based air power. Truk was the enemy's main base beyond home waters; it could be another matter entirely. Task Force 58 was well at sea before the staff officers told anyone where they were bound. Air group commanders flew to Mitscher's flagship, the USS Yorktown (CV-10), for a conference and returned to their respective carriers to pass the word. When Air Group Nine's skipper, Lieutenant Commander Phillip H. Torrey, heard the announcement, he admitted his first instinct was to jump overboard.

Admiral Raymond Spruance, flying his flag in the battleship New Jersey (BB-62), was in overall command of the operation and planned a two-day raid on Truk. If things went well, the Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters, in combat since August 1943, would gain air superiority during the first day. During the second day, dive-bombers and torpedo planes would deal with Japanese warships found in the vicinity and would receive whatever aid was required from Spruance's battleships and cruisers. Submarines stood by to provide rescue services for downed fliers.

The operation was considered risky by many planners; they expected the biggest battle to date in the Pacific War. Spruance came prepared accordingly: six battleships, ten cruisers, and nearly 30 destroyers escorting nine aircraft carriers deployed in three task groups. As the apprehension gradually wore off, the F6F pilots realized they were sure to find good hunting. Fighting Five's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Edward M. Owen, recalled that, "by D-Day I think everyone was a tiger."

Arriving at the launch point, 90 miles east of Truk Atoll, nearly two hours before dawn on 17 February (local time), five carriers made ready to launch 70 Hellcats. The pilots were quite simply gunning for a fight.

The first Hellcats lifted off their flight decks at 0640, well before dawn, and began to form up by sections and divisions. Fighting 18 from the Bunker Hill contributed the most planes to the day's first fighter sweep, with 22 F6Fs at 20,000 feet led by Lieutenant Commander Sam L. Silber in "what we thought was the choice role of top cover." Commander Roland H. Dale, the Bunker Hill's air group commander, was also launched in an F6F to coordinate the sweep and subsequent strike. A dozen Hellcats each were put up by VF-10 from the Enterprise (CV-6) and the Intrepid's (CV-11) VF-6, while the Yorktown's Fighting Five also contributed 12, and VF-9launched 11 from the Essex (CV-9).

The fighter squadrons of the four light carriers, Belleau Wood (CVL-24), Cowpens (CVL-25), Monterey (CVL-26), and Cabot (CVL-28), all remained with the task force to provide combat air patrol and to act as a reserve. This was to become a rather normal practice, and it was something of a sore point with the CVL pilots who resented the more senior air and staff officers of the large carriers habitually assigning the juicier missions to their own pilots.

Leading the dawn sweep was Lieutenant Commander William R. "Killer" Kane of the Enterprise, whose 12 fighters joined those from the Intrepid. These 24 planes, flying in six four-plane divisions, were in the vanguard and, having effected rendezvous at 1,500 feet, swung around to a course which would take them north of the atoll for the final run-in. The two dozen Grummans maintained an altitude of about 1,000 feet halfway to the target before they began climbing. At 6,000 feet the 30-mile diameter of the lagoon became visible, and Kane led his pilots into a circle, gaining more height before proceeding. While spiraling upward, Kane saw VF-5 approach well below, while the 22 Bunker Hill fighters were almost out of sight above. There was no sign of enemy activity, though the Hellcats apparently registered on enemy radar at this point, as radio monitors back in the task force heard Truk's transmitter go off the air at 0714. The Japanese knew an attack was imminent, but apparently there was a communications breakdown. In any event, relatively few of Truk's islands got the word that 70 American planes were 45 minutes away.

The sun wasn't quite up yet when Kane's formation, heading southwest, was over the atoll at 0805, 13,000 feet above the big lagoon. The Hellcats circled Moen Island briefly before attacking, drawing quite a bit of antiaircraft fire which was accurate in altitude but wide in deflection. Fighting six pilots caught sight of two twin-engine Betty bombers taking off just as Killer Kane led his "Grim Reapers" down to strafe the field.

Ten VF-6 planes had followed Kane's formation, and the last two were just about to peel off when the section leader called out bandits about 2,500 feet above and to port. He was Lieutenant (junior grade) Alex Vraciu—former wingman to Lieutenant Commander Edward H. "Butch" O'Hare—who had been well taught always to look around before diving to a strafing attack. But his tallyho went unheeded by the rest of Fighting Six. They were following Kane in a steep spiral through the flak to get at the parked planes on the airfield.

Identifying the enemy fighters as Zekes, Vraciu led Ensign Lou Little in a break into the Japanese attack, forcing the enemy leader to abandon his run on the two Hellcats and dive below them. But Vraciu and Little were quickly surrounded by more Zekes, and the donnybrook was on. Vraciu led Little into a steep chandelle and then came down on a Zeke which had been on their tails. The Zeke stalled out of its climbing turn and quickly found a pair of Hellcats rolling hard behind it. The two Americans remained in their dives to elude the Zekes above and behind them, then began a series of scissors to fend off other attacks from both sides. Eventually, working with an unknown Hellcat pilot, Vraciu and Little got the Zekes down to their own level and went on the offensive.

When cornered in this manner, the Japanese fighters invariably rolled over and dived for the water or made for the nearest cloud. It was a fatal error, for the big Hellcats easily reeled in the Zekes during any prolonged dive. Vraciu splashed two Zekes and a Rufe floatplane this way, all within the confines of Truk lagoon. Lou Little also got a Zeke.

Regaining altitude, Vraciu spotted another Zeke near a cloud and made a run on him. The Mitsubishi darted toward a thick cumulus, and Vraciu gave chase in and out of the clouds. After several minutes, he decided to outfox his opponent and climbed up sun where he would be hidden in the glare. When the elusive Zero next appeared, its pilot surmised the persistent American had at last given up. Vraciu dropped down on the unsuspecting Japanese and closed in from behind and a little to starboard. "He never knew what hit him,I'm sure," Vraciu said. The four kills raised his personal score to nine, in what he still considers "the wildest action I participated in, Turkey Shoot included." (Vraciu shot down six planes in one mission of 19 June 1944 and finished as the Navy's fourth-ranked fighter ace with a total 19 victories.)

Multiple victories were the order of the day, for the dawn fighter sweep erupted into the largest dogfight most of the Americans had been in. With the sun tinting the clouds reddish-white and scores of planes suddenly engaged in combat, the air over Truk reminded Fighting Five's skipper Ed Owen of "a Hollywood war." As he later recalled it, "Jap airplanes were burning and falling from every quarter, and many were crashing on takeoff as a result of strafing them on the ground. Ground installations were exploding and burning, and all this in the early golden glow of dawn. At times it might have been staged for the movies."

It was beautiful, it was fascinating, and it was vicious. Killer Kane and his wingman, Lieutenant (junior grade) Vern Ude, splashed five planes in five minutes before they could devote their attention to the original intent of strafing. The Japanese had just barely scrambled an estimated 40 to 50 interceptors when Kane led his two squadrons in the dive toward Moen field. The 47 low-altitude Hellcats were all embroiled in combat, with more enemy planes taking off all the time. For the next several minutes, it was estimated that not 30 seconds ticked away without at least one aircraft falling in flames somewhere over the atoll. Some F6F pilots swore they saw Japanese pilots parachuting in colorful pajamas, evidence that surprise had been achieved. The brutish Hellcats, delicately-proportioned Zekes, and some reported Tojos clawed at each other unceasingly as the Americans noted that most of the enemy fliers were both aggressive and competent. But in the heat of combat, the wrong targets sometimes got hit. Alex Vraciu saw one F6F shoot down another. "Whoever was hit bailed out quickly," Vraciu reported.

Lieutenant J. E. "Frenchy" Reulet of VF-10 flamed a Zeke after a short fight and then latched onto a Rufe which attempted to evade by looping. But the floatplane fighter wasn't so agile as the Zero from which it was developed, and Reulet pulled his F6F right up and over to keep the Rufe in his sights. In the fraction of a second before the Hellcat stalled, Reulet triggered a burst which slapped the floatplane burning into the water. After shopping around a bit,Reulet gunned down a Hamp, a clipped-wing Zeke, which was pursuing another Hellcat. Minutes later, Reulet's wingman, Ensign Walker, performed a similar service by blasting a Rufe off "Frenchy's" tail.

But the Rufes kept coming, and a few of them scored. Lieutenant Jack Farley,another of Killer Kane's pilots, shot one of the floatplanes out of a tight turn mere seconds before a 20-mm. shell exploded in his cockpit, shattering the instruments and slashing Farley's leg and hand. An avenging Rufe had sneaked up unseen to draw a bead on Farley and his wingman. Farley got away, but when he looked for his number two, Ensign Linton Cox, the sky was empty. The Rufe which clobbered Farley had probably gotten his wingman.

The Grim Reapers finally got through the fighters and flak to work over their target. They burned 17 planes on the ground to go with the 14 they shot out of the sky. But not everyone did so well. Sam Silber's VF-18S saw only 16 bandits during the three-hour mission and engaged half of them. Lieutenant Robert A. M. Dibb tangled with a Zeke which evaded with a tight turn, but he then latched onto the tail of a Hamp and splashed it. Lieutenant (junior grade) A. G. Munson's probable victory over a Zeke was the only other VF-18 claim. Silber's feelings about the fighter sweep were ambivalent: "Our fellow squadron commanders did a fantastic job of clearing the sky of the Japanese before they got over 15,000 feet, so there were almost none left for us at 20,000 to 25,000 feet!"

Fighting Nine had better luck, as the Essex Hellcats engaged large numbers of bandits. Lieutenant Commander Herb Houck and seven of his pilots accounted for 19 claimed victories in widely scattered fighting. Lieutenant (junior grade) Eugene A. Valencia got separated from his favorite partner, Lieutenant William Bonneau, and was set upon by a half dozen Zekes. The Japanese pursued Valencia miles out to sea, firing almost continuously, without doing any harm. The 22-year-old Californian decided "they couldn't hit an elephant if it was tied down for them" and aggressively racked hisHellcat around to meet the assailants head-on. He gunned down three in short order, and the others disengaged and disappeared rapidly toward the horizon. Valencia returned to the Essex and found that his missing companion, Bill Bonneau, had notched four victories during their separation.

Exultant after the mission which made him an ace, Gene Valencia bubbled over with praise for the Hellcat. His remarks, widely reported in the United States, pretty much summed up what most Navy fighter pilots felt about the F6F: "I love this airplane so much that if it could cook I'd marry it." A full year would pass before Valencia returned to combat, but he finished the war as the Navy's third-ranking fighter pilot with 23 kills.

The Hellcats had things almost entirely their own way in the air, but it wasn't that simple for the strafers. Fighting Six's executive officer, Lieutenant George C. Bullard, thoroughly shot up Moen's bomber field with his division but detoured en route to the Intrepid to strafe a light cruiser. The return fire was accurate, badly damaging Bullard's aircraft, and he ditched outside the reef. Before a rescue floatplane could reach him, the Japanese sent out a boat and took him prisoner. He was in good company. That same day, a VIP prisoner arrived at Truk from the Solomons. Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, the top Marine fighter ace, had been shot down and captured six weeks before. The transport plane he was riding had landed at Truk to refuel on its way to Japan. Boyington provides a lively description of the raid in his autobiography.

By the time the smoke had subsided and airplanes quit falling into the lagoon, some 30 Japanese planes had gone down, and as many as 40 more were shot up on Moen, Eten, and Param Islands. The most spectacular fighter battle of the Pacific War to date had ended in an overwhelming American victory, with the loss of but four F6Fs. However, there were still plenty of targets waiting for Hellcats escorting the incoming strike groups.

During the early afternoon, Mitscher decided the best course was to eliminate enemy access to undamaged runways. Consequently, Fighting Ten launched five F6Fs, each armed with a 1,000-pound delayed action bomb. Their target was Moen's bomber field, while other air groups struck at remaining airdromes which also posed a threat. The five Hellcats all put their bombs on Moen's single runway and were followed by 14 bombers. Additional Hellcats concluded the strike with a freewheeling strafing party which left 11 single-engine planes burning in addition to the dozen bombers destroyed by SBDs.

Many pilots flew two or even three sorties during the day. Lieutenant Commander Silber of VF-18 logged over five hours in two hops, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Vraciu off the Intrepid put in eight and a half hours during the course of three flights. But Lieutenant (junior grade) Wal ter Harman of VF-10 was one of the few to SCOFe on two different missions. In the morning, he claimed two Zekes and a Rufe. During the Enterprise's afternoon strike against Moen, an odds-even dogfight developed when four Zekes jumped Harman's division as it completed a strafing run. For the next quarter-hour, Harman and a Zeke engaged in a rare one-on-one combat as both pilots were so evenly matched that neither could gain the upper hand. At last Harman got off a burst which connected with the Zeke's cockpit, and his opponent crashed into a mountain.

Harman jumped back into the hassle and saw a Zeke taking a Hellcat to pieces. He just barely drove off the Mitsubishi before it was too late, because the F6F pilot, Lieutenant (junior grade) Larry Richardson, found his plane falling apart around him. Part of his windscreen was shot away, his engine had been hit, there were two large cannon holes in one wing and another in the fuselage. A portion of his rudder was gone, and the hydraulic system was out. The rugged Grumman stayed in the air long enough for Richardson to ditch alongside a destroyer.

Though it hardly seemed possible, Woody Hampton of Harman's division had even bigger troubles than Richardson. Hit during the scuffle with the Zekes, Hampton started back toward the Enterprise but encountered three Japanese fighters evidently on the prowl for lone stragglers or cripples. Hampton definitely fit that description, for there were no other Hellcats to be seen. The Mitsubishi trio composed of a Zeke, a Hamp, and a Rufe went after the damaged Grumman. Hampton shoved everything to the firewall and made a run for it, trusting that the Japanese were poor shots. They weren't. The Hellcat was riddled but kept going.

Then the Hamp got careless and passed close to port and a little above, climbing for another try. Hampton pulled up, bore-sighted his target, and fired. The Hamp expelled a large cloud of smoke and disappeared toward the water. With two fighters still on his tail, Hampton astutely flicked off his IFF (identification, friend or foe) transponder, knowing a division would be vectored out from the task force to investigate. But before help arrived, the Zeke elected an overhead, nose-to-nose pass. It was a fatal mistake, for Hampton flamed him with only three of his six guns still firing.

The Rufe persisted in a single-minded effort to finish off this American who had whittled the odds from three-to-one down to even. As the floatplane bored in from dead astern, Hampton chopped his throttle, causing the battered Hellcat to abruptly slow up. The Rufe sailed past, hanging helplessly in from of Hampton's guns and beat a hasty retreat when the F6F's uneven recoil spoiled Hampton's aim. The dauntless pilot finally located a destroyer and ditched nearby but banged his head on the gun sight. Momentarily stunned, he was pulled out of the sinking Hellcat by swimmers from the ship.

Cigar-smoking Lieutenant Robert W. Duncan, who had a baby back in Illinois he'd never seen, grabbed top Fighting Five honors with four kills. Escorting the Yorktown's 1300 strike, Duncan's division was flying rear side cover when he sighted 10 to 15 Zekes attacking out of the sun at 20,000 feet. The Yorktown planes were 6,000 feet below the Japanese, so the Hellcats initiated a defensive weave.

One Zeke began a pass at Duncan's section from 10 o'clock high, rolling inverted prior to firing. Duncan and his wingman turned into the Zeke, preventing him from pulling deflection on the lead F6F, though the wingman's plane was hit behind the cockpit. As the Zeke passed overhead, Duncan turned back and flamed it with a long burst from starboard. A second Zeke suddenly appeared ahead of Duncan, who instinctively fired but missed. This bandit then turned to face the Hellcat, and Duncan fired once more as it passed, setting it ablaze.

Duncan's third victim was no pushover. Violently scissoring on each other, neither pilot could gain an advantage. The Zeke fired twice but was unable to pull enough lead to hit the Grumman. When the Japanese elected to break off, Duncan pursued in a dive and caught him at about 8,000 feet, watching him fall in flames.

With his port guns all jammed, the F6F pilot wanted more altitude. He had reached 8,000 feet again when a fourth Zeke initiated an overhead run about 300 feet above the Hellcat, slightly to starboard. At near-collision range, the Zeke rolled inverted and bored in. It looked like a suicide attempt. Duncan pulled up sharply after firing his starboard guns and banked hard around for another shot. But the Zeke was slowly spiraling down to crash into some hills on Dublon. Duncan assumed he'd killed the pilot in the head-on run, despite the uneven recoil of his guns. Bob Duncan had been the first Hellcat pilot to down a Zero when he splashed a pair of them during the Wake Island raid of early October 1943. Now his score included seven Zekes.

Four other VF-5 pilots accounted for another ten kills during the day, including the skipper, Ed Owen, who got two, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Tom McClelland who splashed three. Lieutenant (junior grade) Teddy Schofield knocked down two, the last of which paid an "extra dividend." Schofield stampeded the Japanese pilot into a hurried forced landing, but the Zeke caught the ground with one wing and cart-wheeled into a row of torpedo planes. Schofield's victim careened over three hills, setting them afire, and plunked to a halt only a few yards from a big four-engine aircraft at the end of the line.

The Yorktown's air group commander, Lieutenant Commander Edgar Stebbins, also got in some shooting during the day. While surveying his planes' work from his camera-equipped Hellcat, he was set upon by a lone Zeke. Air combat was nothing new to Stebbins, who had shot down three planes as an SBD pilot on board the old Hornet (CV-8) in 1942 and had splashed a Betty bomber off Kwajalein in December. The Zeke became the veteran Texas flier's fifth victory.

Fighting Nine was also escorting strike planes that afternoon, and Phil Torrey's division was the first Essex flight over the target. Torrey's section leader, Lieutenant Armistead B. "Chick" Smith, claimed three planes in this, his second combat, as he had downed two over Rabaul in the large battle of 11 November. But his Hellcat was badly damaged while fighting the three Zekes, and he ditched at sea en route back to the task force and was rescued by a destroyer.

One section led by Lieutenant Hamilton McWhorter was shepherding a flight of Essex SBDs when three bogeys appeared. From a distance of three miles they looked friendly, but as the Dauntlesses dived and the strangers turned toward him, McWhorter led his wingman in for closer examination. Not until the bogeys were 3,000 feet away were they confirmed as hostiles, three bizarre orange-and-black Zekes.

The enemy leader had an excellent shot at McWhorter but inexplicably held his fire. McWhorter turned in behind one of the other two as his wingman, Lieutenant (junior grade) Bud Gehoe, positioned himself behind the leader. Gehoe triggered the first burst and knocked his target into the water. McWhorter needed but one burst to write off number two. The third Zeke slid into McWhorter's sights, and he exploded it instantly. All three Japanese fighters had gone down inside ten seconds.

Less than a mile away, another Zeke was fast approaching and, like the first, could have fired at McWhorter but didn't. Another of the Georgian's economical bursts set the Zeke afire, and the pilot bailed out. From this brief hassle, Ham "One Slug" McWhorter temporarily emerged as the top scorer for carrier fighter pilots with ten victories. He added two more kills in 1945 flying with VF-12 off the Randolph (CV-15).

Fighting Nine as a whole had claimed 36 confirmed victories from the day's combats. That was highest of the fighter squadron tallies. The pilots' claims were undoubtedly on the optimistic side, but that was not what really mattered. At dawn, there had been 365 Japanese aircraft at Truk. By 1400, the Hellcats had made a considerable dent in that number, with 204 thought destroyed in the air and on the ground. Nearly 130 had been claimed "on the wing," though available Japanese postwar records confirmed 70 shot down. But the important fact was that from early afternoon on, Hellcats owned the sky over Truk. Dauntlesses, Helldivers, and Avengers went about their chores without being hindered by enemy fighters.

U. S. aircraft losses were much lighter than had been anticipated: eight Hellcats, six Avengers, and three dive-bombers attributable to enemy action during the two-day raid. Most were lost to antiaircraft fire, though eight more carrier planes were lost to operational accidents. On the night of 17-18 February, a Japanese aircraft slipped a torpedo into the Intrepid, forcing her out of the area under close escort. Fighting Six may have groused at the prospect of missing the fat pickings which could be expected the next morning, but they needn't have worried. No Japanese aircraft were known to have taken off on the 18th. And since the warships had largely vacated Truk before Task Force 58 arrived, Admiral Mitscher's pilots had to be content with picking off merchantmen during the second day of the operation.

The Truk raid was a resounding success. It cost the Japanese 47 ships of all descriptions, amounting to some 200,000 tons sunk or damaged. About 270 aircraft were destroyed in the air and on the ground, leaving only six of the remainder still operational. Heavy damage was also inflicted upon air and naval support facilities. For the Hellcat pilots it was absolute proof, if proof was still required, that the F6F-3 gave them command of almost any tactical situation. Its speed and rate of climb enabled them to engage or disengage almost at will, particularly above 15,000 feet. By fighting in the vertical, Navy pilots largely deprived the more maneuverable Japanese fighters of their inherent advantage.

There were other raids on Truk in coming months, but none exceeded the first for prolonged intensity of aerial combat. As Commander Ed Owen summarized, "Up 'til that time the Truk raid was 'the greatest show in town,' and I wouldn't have missed it for anything."

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Captain Robert M. Duncan, Captain Edward M. Owen, Commander Sam L. Silber, Captain Armistead B. Smith, Jr., and Commander Alexander Vraciu for their assistance.

Mr. Tillman is a native Oregonian who learned to fly as a teenager. He has been a private pilot for 12 years and maintains a fully restored 1940 N3N-3 biplane trainer near his family's Athena, Oregon, wheat ranch. A prolific writer, he has contributed 50 articles, most on topics related to aviation, to some 15 different publications. He is a 1971 graduate of the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism, and was nominated in 1972 for the Outstanding Contributor Award of the American Aviation Historical Society, the youngest writer so honored. His first book, The Dauntless Dive Bomber of World War Two , was published last fall by the Naval Institute Press. He is now at work on a similar book about the F6F Hellcat.

 

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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