What Happened to Butch?

By Steve Ewing and John B. Lundstrom

Subsequent to his postbattle meeting with the admiral, Phillips talked with his crewmen, Rand and Kernan, who provided details of the fight that he had not personally witnessed. Rand dismissed the speculation that Butch had fallen to friendly fire, later stating, "[It] has always seemed to me that Kernan would have had to [have] shot off the tail of our torpedo bomber to have shot Butch." Consequently, on the morning of the 27th Phillips advised Radford that now he "was not so sure" whether his gunner had had anything to do with Butch's loss…

Kernan and others have theorized that on the evening of 26 November a lone [Japanese] Betty trailed the two F6Fs to the rendezvous with Phillips—an interpretation strongly supported by the evidence. It now appears that this intruder had already completed its torpedo attack against Task Group-50.2 and was seeking its mates in the rendezvous area north of the target. Drawn at first by the engine exhaust flares of the two Hellcats, the Betty's crew were startled by the recognition lights on the American planes, for the 752 Air Group report noted that the enemy night fighters ("three or more") had turned on their "formation" lights. That only occurred during the actual Black Panther rendezvous.

Rand and Kernan clearly saw the Betty direct tracers against the F6F, flying to starboard behind their TBF. That Hellcat then accelerated ahead off to port and out of sight. For his own part, Skon had observed a short burst of tracers suddenly emanate from the blackness ahead and pass between Butch and himself, but he saw neither the TBF in front (the one that had fired) nor the Betty behind all of them. He thought it odd that Butch would suddenly pull away and attack without alerting him by radio, especially because both pilots well knew how futile night intercepts were without benefit of the TBF's radar. Reflecting on the way the CAG [carrier air group commander] F6F flew, its engine still running and the plane well trimmed, Skon later decided that Butch himself must have been hit instantly.

Skon's surmise would seem to be correct. Butch fell to his old familiar adversary, a Betty. Most likely he died from, or was immediately disabled by, a lucky shot from the forward observer crouched in the rikko 's narrow glassed-in nose. That crewman had swiveled his antiquated-looking Type 92 7.7-mm machine gun (Lewis design, with a 100-round drum on the top) to point low to his right toward the nearest enemy plane and triggered just a few short bursts. Not seeing the target flame as a result of their brief fire, the Betty's crew probably shrugged off the fleeting encounter and submitted no claim for an aircraft destroyed. However, the nose gunner's 7.7-mm slugs very likely penetrated Butch's cockpit from above on the port side and ahead of the F6F's armor plate…

Beginning the night of 26 November on the Enterprise and lasting to this day, general opinion among aviation officers in the fleet has tended to follow the hasty first impressions formed immediately after the action: that the improvised rendezvous precipitated an accidental shootdown by the TBF gunner, who misidentified Butch's F6F as an enemy plane…

The most influential and oft-cited published account of the night action also pointed to the TBF gunner as the likeliest culprit in Butch's loss. Commander Edward P. Stafford's beautifully written 1962 history, The Big E , relied primarily on the ship and squadron action reports and recollections of some former Enterprise personnel not including, however, any of the living participants. Rather inexplicably, Stafford also played down the intensity of the night torpedo attacks on TG-50.2 and consequently the true importance of Butch's hastily improvised night-fighter defense. Through Stafford and other accounts based largely on the action reports, Butch has wrongly become known as one of America's most famous "friendly fire" casualties.

Conversely, Radford's confidential judgment of the mission blamed the initial separation of the F6Fs from the TBF as the source of most of the trouble. In 1951 he stated, "If the young Fighter Director in the Enterprise had not interfered with the planned operation, I believe that all three planes would have returned." This is as unfair to [Fighter Director] George Givens as the commonly held supposition of friendly fire has been to Alvin Kernan. Prior to Butch's last mission, Givens had spent eight nerve-racking days in the cramped Enterprise CIC [combat information center] … The enemy's ultra-low-altitude search tactics initiated on 25 November especially frustrated him. If in this instance Givens erred in judgment, it was on the side of aggressiveness …

The just verdict is that the death of Butch O'Hare was a freak occurrence on a highly dangerous mission that employed experimental tactics. He was the first of seven carrier-based night-fighter pilots lost in combat, during which time the carrier night fighters flew 164 sorties, engaged the enemy on 95 occasions, and scored 103 victories.

Word soon spread among the other carrier task groups of the tactics used by Butch's Black Panthers to counter the ubiquitous snoopers and menacing night attackers. Rear Admiral Baldy Pownall applauded the Enterprise 's night-fighting effort and recommended "special commendations to those instrumental in its development and to those who participated in this initial venture." He noted the demand for night-fighter teams to be "almost unanimous."

Following the Enterprise 's lead, most of the other big carriers in Task Force-50 had by the end of November formed their own night-fighter sections, each with one radar-equipped TBF and two F6Fs. They became known unofficially as "BAT teams." For example, Captain Joseph J. "Jocko" Clark on the Yorktown [CV-10] immediately called for volunteers from Air Group Five and organized two teams. Having pulled back temporarily to safer waters, they took the opportunity beginning 30 November to practice late afternoons and evenings while directed by the Yorktown CIC [combat information center].

The evening of 4 December, following day strikes on Kwajalein, TF-SO was severely beset by Bettys from the 752 Air Group and the newly arrived 751. The Lexington [CV-16] took a torpedo in the stern, and only after gallant efforts at damage control did she reach tamer waters. Pownall did not allow the carriers to commit their BAT teams, "as under the conditions it was doubtful if safe recovery of the teams could be obtained." Although Pownall was concerned about the lack of a friendly land base, like Tarawa, where the night fighters could take refuge if need be, certainly the mysterious loss of Butch on a similar mission also weighed on his mind.

Most of the carrier air groups returned on 9 December to Hawaii. Air Group Six left the Enterprise for Naval Air Station Barbers Point on Oahu. Four days later VF-2 returned to Air Group Two and was replaced by a reunited VF-6. Ironically, Air Group Six never again operated from the Enterprise . Because of more night-flying training, Air Group Ten resumed its accustomed place on the Big E . However, in January 1944, Lieutenant Commander [John] Phillips and his aviators found a new home on the Essex [CV-9]-class carrier Intrepid (CV-11), just arrived from the States.

Experience during Operation Galvanic completely supported [Admiral] Radford's efforts to promote night fighters. On 29 November Vice Admiral John Towers informed Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, of the immediate need for teams of four night fighters on each big carrier not exactly news to Admiral [Chester] Nimitz. The question became how quickly these radar-equipped Corsairs and Hellcats could deploy to the fleet…

On 16 December, Radford, the new AirPac [Air Warfare, Pacific] chief of staff, ordered Air Groups One, Two, Five, Six, Eight, Nine, Twelve, and Sixteen to form at least two night-fighter teams with TBFs and F6Fs and transfer them temporarily to Naval Air Station Puunene on Maui. There John Phillips, newly appointed as commander, Night Aircraft Training Unit, Pacific Fleet, tested doctrine and supervised their training. They served as a stopgap to ensure a carrier night-fighter force for Flintlock should the deployment of the F4U-2s and F6F-3Es be delayed. One Air Group Six night-fighter pilot was Alex Vraciu, who volunteered because of his high regard for Butch. Like his beloved Commanding Officer, he flew wing on Phillips.

The night-fighter teams worked with Lieutenant (junior grade) Alexander Wilding, Jr., a Yorktown flight director officer who went ashore to operate from the Argus radar units on Maui. The idea was to use a TBF as the bogey and send a three-plane BAT team to find it. Hearkening to the circumstances that led to Butch's loss, Radford stressed that the teams "must remain in close formation, that is, in sight contact at all times." If the fighters got separated from the TBF, they were to proceed immediately to a preestablished rendezvous and wait for it there. "This procedure is to insure that only enemy planes are attacked." However, Phillips did not actually employ the fighters so inflexibly. The BAT teams preferred to detach one F6F to make the intercept, keeping the other with the TBF. Radford had also directed that special efforts be made in perfecting the night-rendezvous technique the crucial danger of this tactic. On the night of 7 January, for example, Lieutenant (junior grade) Milton W. Norling, a VF-2 veteran, was killed when his Hellcat climbed into the belly of a VT-2 TBF while trying to rendezvous at 1,800. The F6F exploded in flames and dropped into the water.

On 7 January, Radford summarized Phillips's recommendations for the fleet. Echoing the feelings of Enterprise FDO George Givens, he stressed that "every effort should be made toward the early destruction of [the snooper]." The "mere presence of interceptor aircraft," along with a few shoot-downs and Japanese planes burning on the water, would disrupt the "preconceived enemy plan." The next day Towers assigned "air group nightcombat teams" to every large carrier for the invasion of the Marshalls.

Although raring to fight, the BAT teams of TBFs and F6Fs never got into combat because sufficient numbers of radar-equipped Corsairs and Hellcats became available. As of 16 January four-plane night-fighter detachments from VF(N)-101 and VF(N)-76 went on board the Enterprise , Intrepid , Bunker Hill (CV-17), Yorktown , and Essex . These night-fighter pilots made no attempt to fly formation or operate together at all. Guided by his own radar, each fought as a lone wolf, carefully separated from the others so that everyone could be reasonably certain that any nearby plane was a foe and that no friendly aircraft would be mistaken for the enemy.

In late January and early February 1944, during the landings on Kwajalein and other atolls in the Marshalls, Japanese night air attacks proved nonexistent. That happy result occurred because prior to the invasions, Mitscher's mighty TF-58 rampaged throughout the Marshalls, a privilege not accorded Pownall and TF-50 in November 1943. In one day, 29 January, Mitscher's aviators destroyed Japanese air power in the region. Subsequently, as [Samuel Eliot] Morison boasted of the Marshalls invasions, "not one United States naval vessel was attacked by an enemy plane during the entire operation."

On 16 February 1944 Air Group Six on the Intrepid joined the rest of Mitscher's flattops in an epic assault against the long-feared Japanese fleet base at Truk. The raid proved a tremendous success, but at a grievous cost to the group. While flying a Hellcat, John Phillips, the group commander, failed to return from overseeing strikes against ships trying to escape Truk. Evidently the defending Zekes ambushed him and his VF-6 wingman, Ensign John Ogg. On another mission Lieutenant George Bullard, executive officer of VF-6, was shot down by cruiser antiaircraft artillery and taken prisoner. Despite brutal captivity, he survived the war.

After dark Mitscher rather disregarded both the threat of Japanese night torpedo assault and what the Black Panthers had achieved from the Big E . Content to depend on antiaircraft artillery fire and evasive maneuvering to deter night attackers, he launched only one of his fancy new night fighters, not enough to protect the fleet. Shortly after midnight on 17 February a technical glitch in that F6F3E's radar allowed one night attacker to slip through. The unlucky Intrepid paid the price. A torpedo in her starboard quarter jammed the rudder hard to port and knocked her out of the war until September. At this point she assumed the moniker Evil I, a nickname taken over from the Independence (CV-22) (now the Mighty I ). Air Group Six was disbanded after returning to Pearl Harbor and reformed only in April 1944.

After Truk, American carrier night fighters ruled the skies over their flattops, but Butch O'Hare's Black Panthers had showed the way. When night fighters were not present or not used properly, the carriers suffered. The Black Panthers made the difference in November 1943 against the gravest threat to arise against the Pacific Fleet's flattops between the great carrier battles of 1942 and the advent of the suicide kamikazes in October 1944.

Dr. Ewing is senior curator at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, South Carolina. Mr. Lundstrom is curator of U.S. and military history at the Milwaukee Public Museum and wrote the Naval Institute Press books The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (1984) and The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November 1942 (1994). 

 

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