In 1939 I reported to Fighting Squadron Three, based at North Island near San Diego. I progressed from gunnery officer to operations officer, and when Lieutenant Commander Sid Harvey took command of the squadron, I was made executive officer. About that time the war was on in Europe, and he was temporarily detached to go over to England as an observer. He died on the way, and I was given command of the squadron in 1940, although I was only lieutenant.
We proved a number of things time and time again in VF-3. One of these was that with two aircraft of the same type and equal in performance, if one of them had altitude advantage over the other, the pilot generally could get on the other's tail and ride him right on down to the ground or anywhere the fellow proposed to go. In other words, the fighter with initial altitude advantage couldn't be shaken off and should win the dogfight, assuming that he made no mistakes. Of course, mistakes are easy to make under those circumstances, but with the group that we had when I was commanding officer, it was evident that the experienced ones could do this every time.
On the other hand, in the case of new or inexperienced pilots who'd just come from the training command or maybe from some other type of squadron, the experienced ones could give away altitude advantage and still turn the tables on them and lick them every time.
As part of our training, we established what we called the Humiliation Team. It was composed of myself, my executive officer, Don Lovelace, Noel Gayler, and my gunnery officer (Rollo Lemon). We would take the newcomers to the squadron up and give them all the altitude advantage they wanted. Then we'd fly toward each other and see if they could come down and get on our tails and stay there long enough to shoot. A pilot who has just achieved the wonderful accomplishment of getting his wings is usually rather full of himself and sometimes a little cocky. This was a good exercise to let them know that they didn't know everything right off the bat and to show them that they had a lot of work to do. We could even eat an apple or read a newspaper and lick these kids.
This was true with one exception: Butch O'Hare, fresh out of the training command. The first time I took him up and gave him altitude advantage, he didn't make any mistakes and I did everything I could to fool him and shake him. He came right in on me and stuck there, and he could have shot me right out of the air. So I came down and I got hold of Rollo Lemon and I said, "Well, I've had one of these new youngsters up, but I want each member of the Humiliation Team to go up with him and give him a chance. He's pretty good, and I'll just wager a little bet that he'll get on your tail the first time and stay there."
"Oh," Rollo said, "they never do."
I said, "I know that."
"Well," he said, "where is he?" Up they went and, sure enough, Butch did it again. It wasn't long after that, that we made him a member of the Humiliation Team, because he had passed the graduation test so quickly.
Butch O'Hare was a good athlete. He had a sense of timing and relative motion that he may have been born with, but also he had that competitive spirit. When he got into any kind of a fight like this, he didn't want to lose. He really was dedicated to winning, and he probably had worked a lot of this out in his own mind, then read as much as he could. When he first got to the squadron he studied all the documents that we had on aerial combat, and he just picked it up much faster than anyone else I've ever seen. He got the most out of his airplane. He didn't try to horse it around.
He learned a thing that a lot of youngsters don't learn: namely, that when you're in a dogfight with somebody, it isn't how hard you pull back on the stick to make a tight turn to get inside of him, it's how smoothly you fly the plane and whether you pull back with just enough turn on your aircraft so that it remains efficient and isn't squashing all through the air causing more drag, which defeats the purpose of what you're after. Butch learned how to get around in the shortest time, to make the tightest turn consistent with not losing ground because of rough handling or working the controls in such a way that they cause a drag on the forward motion of the aircraft.
In the spring of 1941 we received an intelligence report of great Significance. It came out of China when the Japanese and Chinese were having aerial combat in connection with the war there. It described a new Japanese aircraft, a fighter, whose performance was far superior to anything we had. It had more than a 5,000-feet-per-minute climb, very high speed, and could turn inside of any other aircraft. When I realized that this airplane—it was the Zero—had us beat in all three categories, it was pretty discouraging. But I believed we had one advantage, if we could ever get into a position to use it. We had good guns and could shoot and hit even if we had onlya fleeting second or two to take aim. Therefore, we must do something to entice the opponent into giving us that one all-important opportunity.
So, every night when I came home to our little rented house in Coronado, California, I used to work on this problem. I used a box of kitchen matches and put them on the dining room table and let each one represent an airplane. Usually I worked until about midnight. My wife was worried about my health, and so about 2355 each night she would come to the table and say, "Jimmy, you know you are going to fly tomorrow. Don't you think it's time you got some sleep?" She was right. I lost track of time fiddling with those matches. So I'd put them away until the next night.
For years when I was flying in a fighter squadron, one thing that sort of irked me was the kind of formation we flew: three-plane sections with a leader and two wing men. If you were going to fight and do radical turns, this was an unwieldy formation, because if the leader made a tight turn, say, to the left—if it was as quick and tight as he might want to turn—then he would cause the inside man to slide over and probably right into the other wing man, especially if the inside man was trying to get his sights on something at the same time the leader was.
So, in order to fight in a three-plane section staying in that formation, I decided that we had to have three sets of eyes: one to look at the leader, one to sight through the gun sights to hit anything, and the third to keep an eye on that other wing man so you didn't run into him. Starting with that premise, it was obvious that if we were going to be able to do something sudden to fool an enemy, we ought to throwaway one of those planes and just have a two-plane section, which is what I did. At that time, everybody was flying around in three-plane sections, both in our country and Europe.
I decided what would happen if, say, we just had two-plane sections, and we had a four-plane division, or combat unit, and when you're in the air and you see an enemy aircraft and you know either you want to get him or you want to avoid getting shot down yourself, you don't run away from him unless you're sure you've got a head start, assuming that he has a greater speed, so you have to turn toward him. If you're afraid of him you turn toward him and hope that he won't get a good shot and that you will. So, assuming that you've got enemy aircraft out here and they're going to come in to attack you—say, they're off to the side you turn toward them.
Well, they've got to pick out some target, so they pick out one of the airplanes and, in that case, if we split a little wider apart, into a sort of wide formation, he'll have to take on one section or the other, and if he goes after the one on the right, the one on the left, presumably, might have a chance to shoot him in a cross fire. So, I thought, let's try that. We tried it, but it became apparent—I'd work on these things every night, then the next morning we'd try them in the air—that there wasn't any use in flying these four planes very close together, you might as well start them out split. That way you could separate them far enough so that if an enemy came after either one—either from ahead or astern or above—you might be able to confuse him by doing something that he didn't.
Then I decided that we would have a standard distance equal to the tactical diameter of the aircraft. The tactical diameter of anything—ship turn or aircraft—is the diameter of the tightest circle it can make, or half-circle. Being in that position, if an enemy plane or planes came in from ahead, why, the one they were coming after could have a head-on shot at them. The one that they weren't attacking could also have a shot at them.
I thought, Well, if we're really going to fool the enemy, we won't use any signals. We'll have to wait until he's almost within lethal firing range, and then the one who's watching him makes a sharp turn toward the one being attacked, and that's the signal that somebody is right within firing range on his tail. If he is the one on the left, he turns right. What does this do? The attacking aircraft, if he's diving in on you, has to take a lead. If he takes a lead (an extension of your flight line as he sees it), and you suddenly turn after he's committed himself, it throws his lead off. He's not going to hit. And if he tries to follow on around, to get back his aim, he's got to do at least two maneuvers: put his wing down, then pull his nose back up again. That takes time. It brings him right in the sights of the right-hand section of aircraft, which should have a good shot at him either head-on, if he continues to follow his target, or from a side approach, if he pulls out.
I wrote this all up and then presented it to the squadron. We discussed it, and I said, "Well, we've got to practice this, but who's going to be the Zeros and how are we going to find the airplanes? We don't have airplanes that are that fast and that high performance. I'll tell you what we'll do." I told Butch O'Hare to take four aircraft and use full power, and I would take four and never advance the throttle—we put a little mark on the throttle quadrant—more than halfway. That gave him at least a superior performance. Maybe double, maybe not, but somewhat.
I told Butch, "You attack from any direction you want to and keep a good eye out and see what it looks like. Does it look like it's any good? Is it giving you any trouble?" So, he made all sorts of attacks, quite a few of them from overhead and coming down, this way and that, and I figured it looked like a pretty good thing to me. We just kept weaving back and forth all the time these streams of aircraft were attacking. After we landed, Butch came over to me and he said, "Skipper, it really works. I couldn't make any attack without seeing the nose of one of your half-throttle airplanes pointed at me. So at least you were getting a shot, even though I might also have got a shot. It isn't one sided. Most of the time with that sudden turn, although I knew what you were going to do, I couldn't tell exactly when, and I didn't want to anticipate it. It always caught me a little bit by surprise because it seemed to be timed just right. When I was committed and about to squeeze the trigger, here you went and turned, and I didn't think you saw me."
Of course, I didn't. That was the beauty of this; you needed no communication. You were flying along watching the other two, and they suddenly made a turn. You knew there was somebody on your tail and you had to really turn in a hurry, and that's all there was to it. You didn't need any radio.
So we felt a little better about the situation. We had been proving, you might say all of our fighter lives, that an airplane with superior performance could knock you out of the air and that's it. No question about it. If you met him, he was going to get you, assuming he wasn't a stupid pilot, and you can't assume the enemy is not going to be experienced and able to shoot. But now we had something to work on, to keep us from being demoralized.
In December 1941, of course, the war started, and our squadron was put aboard the Lexington (CV-2). We had a plan to attack Rabaul on the northern tip of New Britain Island in the Solomon Islands group in February 1942. We had, I remember, little charts of the area and the location of Rabaul, and the plan was that the Lexington, with her few cruisers and destroyers, would steam in close enough for us to launch from the north, fly over New Ireland, and go in and attack Rabaul. We expected a number of heavy ships to be in the harbor and an unknown number of aircraft on the field. We realized that among them would be the famous Zero fighter, and we hoped to catch these airplanes on the field right at the crack of dawn and that they wouldn't have too many in the air. I was to lead the group—theattack group—and go in with thefighters and strafe the field and keep enemy fighters from taking off, while the dive-bombers and torpedo planes were doing their job of bombing and sinking any ships in the harbor.
Either the afternoon before we planned the attack or the previous day, I think we were probably about 400 miles from Rabaul. I was on combat air patrol with Butch O'Hare leading another two-plane section, and Bert Stanley a third. We'd been keeping radio silence. In fact, I hadn't even heard any conversation in the Navy between aircraft or aircraft and ship from the day the war started. This was real honest-to-goodness, no-fooling radio silence. No one dared open up because we figured if we did, they might get a bearing on us, either a submarine or something.
I almost jumped out of my seat when the loud voice of the Lexington's fighter director came on giving me a vector to course 2400 and saying there was apparently a snooper about 35 miles away. I started out after him, and Butch O'Hare started to follow me. I turned around and looked at him and motionedhim back. He didn't want to go back, but, inasmuch as I knew there couldn't be fighters in the area and it could only be large aircraft, I figured that my wing man and I could take care of anything like that. So I made him go back, and he went back like a good boy, back over the ship. I also calculated that since they obviously sent out searches on various sectors, there'd be one snooper on one side and another on the other side, so it was better to have the other four planes ready to be vectored out in case we found three snoopers. And, of course, it was important to get these planes and knock them out before they could report the location of the Lexington and her task group.
The snooper was an Emily, a large patrol plane. We'd never seen one. We had no intelligence that they had that kind of an airplane, but I knew it was huge, and also I could tell it had a cannon in it, because when the cannon was shooting it would make smoke rings and you could see the tracers coming at you from the cannon, whereas you couldn't see the tracers from the smaller caliber unless you looked back.
I fired all six guns at once and hit him. He started burning; there were about six huge long bombs and they dropped in the water. A few minutes later his nose went down and in he went with a splash. It made a big cloud of smoke that they could see all the way to the Lexington.
On the way back I heard them take another section and send it out to the northwest, for Stanley and his section. They didn't pick Butch O'Hare. So they went out and they found another Emily. They went in on it on an overhead approach. They had plenty of altitude so they could turn over and, going in the opposite direction, turn over on their backs, run it down, and get a perfect shot at it. It didn't burn; it just splashed.
Well, those were the only snoopers, so by that time my patrol was up and we were relieved by another combat air patrol in my squadron and I landed aboard. Butch O'Hare was fit to be tied. Here, he tried to go out with me and I sent him back, and they didn't pick him to go out after the second snooper. He had a combat spirit; he wanted to get in quick. This was the first enemy airplane any of us had seen.
I remember February 20th, 1942. We landed aboard the Lexington to have lunch. That afternoon I was in the ready room, poring over these little charts we had and also the intelligence manual that didn't have an Emily in it—I didn't know what to call the thing—when the flight order sounded, "Fighter pilots, man your planes." I knew we had something coming, and I figured it must be an attack or else another snooper. I manned my plane and so did my wing man, but he was back in the pack somewhere, and they were trying to straighten the deck out so we could launch mine too. We didn't know how many attacks were coming.
I sat in the airplane watching these bombers in close formation headed for us. The enemy was at about 8,000 feet. Suddenly, the Lexington turned into the wind and decided to launch me. They got me and Butch O'Hare and his wing man and my wing man, but that's about all, because the bomber formation was getting pretty close and the skipper wanted to be able to maneuver.
We went on into Salamaua and Lae and, sure enough, there were the cruisers. We saw a lot of transports getting under way, pulling up the anchor chains. I took my fighters in. I left Butch back at the ship for combat air patrol. He didn't like that, either, but we didn't know whether we were going to run into some Zeros, and we wanted to go down and strafe just ahead of the torpedo planes, to give them some chance. Butch didn't say anything, but I think he was expecting that, maybe, I knew there was some action he was going to get. And, anyway, if I was going to leave anybody up there, I wanted to leave Butch up there. I figured that no matter how many planes there were coming in, he could give them a busy time before they got down to us.
Indeed, Butch saw a good deal of action. Nine land-based bomber-torpedo Bettys came in and Butch shot down six in as many minutes. He essentially saved the ship, earning a Medal of Honor and being promoted two grades.
As he was returning from that remarkable feat, he approached the carrier and was coming in for a landing. Now, at this time, the Lexington, as the other carriers had done, mounted .30- and .50-caliber machine guns on the catwalks. They were to assist against close-in attacks, in case enemy aircraft got past some of the large 5-inch, 3-inch, and 1.1-inch guns. Maybe the smaller caliber could get them if they came close enough.
After this battle with the new Japanese Bettys, some of the young machine gunners were a little trigger-happy, and when Butch was coming in for a landing in the groove with his wheels down, one of the gunners back on the port quarter opened up on him and fired a long burst before anybody could stop him. Butch saw where the fire was coming from, but he came on in and landed. Just to show you the kind of person he was, he got out of his plane and slowly walked back and stood on the flight deck and looked down at this young machine gunner and said, "Son, if you don't stop shooting at me when I've got my wheels down, I'm going to have to report you to the gunnery officer."
That's all he said! Of course, the young man was horribly embarrassed, in the first place, but somebody asked Butch about it later and he said, "I don't mind him shooting at me when I don't have my wheels down but it might make me have to take a wave-off and I don't like to take wave-offs."
He was quite a human being, quite a guy!
Excerpted from The Reminiscences of Admiral John S. Thach, U.S. Navy (Retired), in the U.S. Naval Institute's oral history collection.