The most notable fighter ace in Navy history was the late Captain David McCampbell, who was credited with 34 victories against Japanese aircraft during World War II. He and Lieutenant Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare were among the few pilots awarded Medals of Honor for aerial combat. McCampbell’s came as the result of shooting down nine aircraft during one mission in the October 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf.
In his retirement, McCampbell seldom gave interviews, preferring to let his accomplishments speak. However, through the urging of fellow Navy veteran Jim Gregory, McCampbell agreed to a series of oral history interviews with the U.S. Naval Institute. The interviews trace his entire life and naval career, including his time as a midshipman, flight training, service as landing signal officer in the carrier Wasp (CV-7) in World War II, and his notable command of Air Group 15 in the Essex (CV-9) in 1944. Later he had an interesting tour as naval adviser to the Argentine Navy, served on the Sixth Fleet staff, and commanded the fleet oiler Severn (AO-61) and carrier Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31).
His candid recollections of his service and of the individuals with whom he served are available in his oral history, newly released by the Naval Institute’s Heritage Division.
Paul Stillwell: I believe you want to start today, Captain McCampbell, by making the point about your record in combat and not being shot down or forced down.
Captain McCampbell: Yes, that’s true. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was never shot down by the enemy in air-to-air combat or by antiaircraft. I came very close to it once on my second combat mission. It was over Marcus Island, and my plane was shot up pretty badly with antiaircraft fire.1 I’d had a fire in my belly tank. My wingman called and told me, and I dropped that, but then I was able to get back to the ship, which was about 160 miles away. When I got back to the ship and prepared for landing, I found that I couldn’t lower my wheels in the normal manner; I had to lower them down by an emergency method we had. I couldn’t get the tailhook down in the normal manner; I had to crank it down. I had one of the flaps shot up pretty badly. I had a little difficulty in landing aboard, but I did get back to my ship. After I landed, one of the enterprising young mechanics took the good Hamilton standard clock out of the plane, and then they pushed it over the side.
I never had to parachute, fortunately. I missed a good opportunity on that particular flight that I just described, but I decided to stay with the plane, and we got back safely. Except for that situation, I never really had a forced landing. I always got back to the ship. Except one occasion, I was low on gas. My ship couldn’t take me, but I was able to land on the Langley [CVL-27].
Stillwell: And that was on the 24th of October 1944, which we’ll get to during the course of today’s discussion.
Stillwell: I think a point to be made in addition is that that reflects a considerable amount of skill on your part that you were able to avoid the antiaircraft.
McCampbell: No, I would rather describe it as luck.
Stillwell: What was it about the F6F that made it such a good plane?
McCampbell: I can’t say enough good things about the Grumman Hellcat F6F. We first had the F6F-3, and then later we got the F6F-5, with the rocket rails, so we were able to carry rockets. When we got the 5s, I either carried four rockets or a 500-pound bomb hung on the wing, because we always used the belly tanks.
[The F6F] had vastly improved capabilities over the previous fighter planes that had been in action, the F4F and the Buffalo.2 The latter were only used by the Marines in the Battle of Midway. The Hellcat could climb faster, it was more maneuverable, slightly more maneuverable, it provided an excellent gun platform for the six .50-caliber machine guns. We had self-sealing gas tanks. I think the later models of the F4F did too. And we had armor plate behind the pilot. It was faster, equal at some altitudes with the Japanese Zero, or Zeke, and better at higher altitudes performance-wise.
The biggest advantage, I think, that it provided—over the Japanese, anyway—was the self-sealing gas tanks. It had tremendous firepower. You could shoot up 400 rounds per gun in 40 seconds if you held the trigger down. Of course, you’d burn out the barrels of the guns if you did. We were taught early on to shoot in short bursts, like three to four seconds, ease up on the trigger, and then let go another short burst, or repeated ones. I burnt out guns once there at the Marianas Turkey Shoot, my first flight, and it was graphically displayed to me that the thing to do was not to hold the trigger down too long, so I never burnt out a barrel after that.
Stillwell: When you held down that trigger, did that fire all six simultaneously?
McCampbell: Yes. You could shut off a couple if you wanted. Some of the Marines down at Guadalcanal used to shut off two guns, they said, to come home on, but I always trained my people to fire all of them. If they wanted to save up a little ammunition, why, just stop shooting.
Stillwell: Did you always use tracers?
McCampbell: Yes. One tracer every third bullet. We had the incendiary, the ball bullet, and the tracer. We used that one-in-three combination all through combat.
Stillwell: Well, along with its other attributes, the Hellcat was a rugged plane.
McCampbell: Very rugged.
19 June 1944—Great Marianas Turkey Shoot
Stillwell: Everybody has had an interest in the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, so please tell me your memories of that day.
McCampbell: Well, a few basic facts. I led the second group of fighters to take off from the Essex. Now, the fighter squadron commander led the first group from the Essex, and they did quite well. There were two in that first flight that shot down five planes. Charlie Brewer, the skipper, was one, and Ensign [Claude] Plant was another one.
Then as I said, I led the second strike. The enemy had been picked up about 120 miles away, which indicated to me that those early-warning radars were better than we had in the later part of the war, when they changed the surface ships’ radar type, the carriers, anyway. But they picked them up, a nice, clear day, about 120 miles away. So we had plenty of time to launch our flight to go out and attack them. I guess we must have hit that second strike out about 60 miles, maybe more, maybe a little less. And we simply tore into them. They had Zeros, and they had Jills, torpedo plane, and Judys.3 The Judy was a beautiful little bomber, not a heavy bomber, but a good-looking little bomber. For some reason, I missed the fighters. I never saw them.
I picked up first the Judys, so then I concentrated all my attention on them. Fortunately, the last division that was with me, of four planes, picked up the fighters and had a good time up there with them. But I led the rest of my people down on the Judys, and I had so much altitude advantage, that when I dove down, I would estimate we were maybe 20,000 feet above, and they were probably about 15,000 or 16,000. I dove down on them, and I had so much speed, I couldn’t hit the leader, but I did hit one of the tail-end Charlies. I attacked him, thinking that I would knock him off, and then go under him, and go to the other side and come back with altitude advantage and hit them from the other side. But the Judy that I first went down on blew up in my face, and I pulled up above him to avoid the debris.
So then I went across on top, and I remember thinking at the time, “Gosh, will I ever get across this formation?” Because I figured they were all shooting at me, see. There was no one out there waving binoculars or a sword at me, but I had that feeling. I went across the other side and made an attack on another plane, and I worked my way up, and finally got the leader with just the one gun firing. I’d burned out the barrels on five of them. I still had one gun that fired, and with that, I dropped down to the flight of Jills, the torpedo planes below, and I shot a plane down. I shot at a plane, the leader, down there with the Jills, but I didn’t claim him. I think I claimed him as a probable, because I knew he didn’t blow up in my face. Then I went on back to the ship.
Now, this is all on June 19, the Marianas Turkey Shoot. Then I got new gun barrels first off, and I didn’t go out again until the fourth flight of Japs coming in. There were five flights in all, and I hit number two and number four. They had gotten over near Guam by the time I got into them, and that was quite a melee. They were scattered somewhat preparatory to landing, and we blasted into them. I managed to get two planes out of that group, and, I guess, all in all, we only had seven planes on this flight. I was seventh. I don’t remember, but I’d say we got about eight planes out of that bunch over Guam or very near Guam.
Then, as I was coming home, I saw this American seaplane down on the water that was trying to recover, pick up one of the downed pilots, and a couple of Japs were strafing him. So my wingman and I went down and ran them off. We didn’t claim either one, but ran them off anyway. We circled a little bit, and then I ran into one of my pilots, Ensign Ray Nall, whose plane had been damaged. He couldn’t make anywhere near full speed, and there was at least one Jap attacking him. I ran him off, and that was one of the few occasions that I ever used the weave.4 I was weaving with him, trying to protect him from this Jap or two, and got him back to the ship, and then we landed. But as I was in the landing circle coming back to the ship, Charlie Brewer, the fighter squadron commander, had just taken off, and I heard him call in to the ship. He said to the fighter director, “Is this all the planes I get for this flight?”
The fighter direction officer said, “Yeah, that’s all we got.”
So I called Charlie, and I said, “Charlie, there’s lots of Japs over Guam, so when you go in, you’d better go in high and fast and stay that way.” He acknowledged.
Stillwell: How many did he have with him? You say it was a few.
McCampbell: Six with him.
Stillwell: That was the same number you had on yours.
McCampbell: Yes. And so he went in, and the result, he and his wingman both got shot down.
24 October 1944—Battle of Leyte Gulf
McCampbell: The admiral called me up and specifically told me after June 19th, that he didn’t want me taking part in any more scrambles or purely fighter-type missions.5 He wanted me to lead the deck loads of fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes on missions. So I didn’t get in on that [early 24 October] fighter sweep. But then, a couple of hours later, we got notification by radar that this flight was coming in on us. We were right off Luzon. We only had seven planes left flyable. We thought we had eight, mine being one of them, but one of the guys couldn’t take off for some reason. I never found out why, a malfunction of the engine or something. And we got notification of this raid coming in, and so we scrambled all the fighters we had left. The Lexington [CV-16] was short too. In reading Hugh Winters’ book, those were all loaded and prepared to make a strike, as we were, I’d say, in the middle of our loading bombing and torpedo planes for a strike.6 But this raid was right on us, and the first vector I got was like 290 degrees, 22 miles. That was just after I got in the air.
Stillwell: Well, even before that, you were halted from getting into the air, weren’t you?
McCampbell: Yes. I got to the fighter ready room. I put on my parachute harness and my life jacket and my pistol, which I always carried but never used. It was mainly in case I got shot down over land or something. I was in the fighter ready room when I heard this announcement of a raid coming in, and I called to the air officer and asked him if he wanted me to take part in this flight or not, knowing that there were only seven planes ready to go, mine included, and he said, “Yes, the group commander is to go.” Then I buckled up, was getting all set to go, and the next word came down shortly, “The group commander is not to go on this flight.”
Stillwell: Now, was that by telephone that that came?
McCampbell: Loudspeaker. Intercom. So then I started taking off my flight gear, and then shortly afterwards, word came down and said, “The group commander is to go.” I guess he found out by then that there were very few fighters left.
Stillwell: It was Admiral [Frederick] Sherman who had found that out?
McCampbell: Well, I thought [the air officer had] probably gone to Admiral Sherman, but it turned out he didn’t.
Stillwell: Captain [Carlos] Wieber.7
McCampbell: He must have gone to Captain Wieber. So then, in the meantime, I first told my plane captain to get my plane on the catapult. He had to bring it up from the hangar deck. And then word came I was not to go. I got in touch with him. I’ve forgotten how, but I told him, “No, I’m not to fly.” So this was a delay. Then when I got the word to go, the plane captain had to get the plane on the elevator and get it topside. So when we were told to man our planes, my plane was on the catapult, ready to go, except it wasn’t full of gas. We’d always degas it when we’d put it below, in case of bomb attack and fire hazard. So they were gassing it when I went out and manned my plane. Pretty soon word came down, “If the group commander’s plane’s not ready to go, send him below.” I looked at my gauges and saw that my main tanks were only half full.
What they had done was gas the belly tank full. Of course, the first thing you do when you get in combat is drop that belly tank. Well, anyway, I waved the gasoline detail away, and I told them I was ready to go. So they launched me, and the other six planes followed, and we made a running rendezvous, and, as I said, shortly after I got off, the first fighter director direction was that the enemy was 22 miles away at 14,000 feet. The bearing, I believe, was 290. It later was changed to more like 298. And we intercepted them. I intended that second division to go down on the bombers and keep my division topside for the fighters. It turned out that the number-three man in the bomber group was the second division leader. My second section leader couldn’t take off.
Anyway, I called back to this guy, thinking it was the second division leader, and told him to go down and attack the bombers. Now, to this day, I don’t remember who that was, but, anyway, he was only the third man in the rendezvous, and I thought he would be the fifth man. So five of the fighters went down and attacked the bombers, and that left my wingman, Roy Rushing, and me topside. So that’s how we got into this action. We first made a couple of attacks on the fighters. We’d gotten the altitude advantage, and they quickly went into a Lufbery circle, and I guess that’s when they made a couple of attacks.8
Then we saw that was not very fruitful, although I think we did get a couple of planes, and they went into a Lufbery. So Roy and I just preserved our altitude, got up about 3,000 feet above them, and circled, figuring that some were apt to come out of this Lufbery circle, and then we could go to work on them. So we had a cigarette apiece, and in about, I don’t know, 10 to 15 minutes—it’s kind of hard to judge time, but it was enough for me to smoke one cigarette, so at least eight to ten minutes. And then they broke out of this circle, and then headed for Manila. I don’t think they ever sighted our task group at all. They headed for Manila and got strung out, and later formed up in a nice, neat formation, real tight, and that’s when we went to work on them.
So we had the altitude advantage all the time we attacked the Japanese. We zoomed down, would shoot a plane or two. Roy and I each would take one, and I’d tell him which one I was going to take, if it was to the right or to the left, which one it was. By telling him this, that allowed him to know which way I was going to dive, and then allowed him to pull out after we attacked, which gave me freedom to go either way I wanted. This worked very successfully, and he got the news. I’d pick out my plane, then he’d pick out his. We’d make an attack, pull up, keep our altitude advantage, speed, and go down again. We repeated this over and over. We made about 20 coordinated attacks.
In the meantime, a third pilot joined up on us, and he made, he said, two attacks, getting a plane on each one, and then he said he ran out of ammunition, and he went back to the ship. But the guy didn’t tell me he was going to leave us. It didn’t make any difference, really, except that he should have called me and told me he was going to return to the ship. He may have been one of those that when we shifted frequency at the fighter director’s instruction, that he didn’t get the word, or he didn’t get the right frequency, and he had no contact with me. I didn’t try to sort this out later.
But anyway, pretty soon, Roy called me. He said, “Skipper, I’m out of ammunition.”
I called back, and I said, “Well, Roy, I’ve got a little left. Do you want to go down with me for a couple more runs, or do you want to sit up here and watch the show?”
He said, “Oh, no, I’ll go down with you.” So he followed me down for a couple more attacks, and then I looked at my gas gauges, and I saw I’d emptied one main tank. I was about on the second one, and I was beginning to get low. By then I was out of ammunition, too, getting low on gas, so I called Roy and said, “Well, we’ll go back to the ship. I’m getting low on gas.” By now, having followed this flight away from the task group toward Manila, we had gotten pretty far away from the ship. I’d estimate maybe around 100 miles, give or take a few.
So we headed back to the ship, and when I first got the YE signal, and asked if they could take me as soon as I got back, they said, “Oh, yes, come on in.”10 So we kept heading for the ship, and when I got over the ship, I found they had a flight deck full of planes, and I knew that to launch all those planes would take a good 20 minutes, and I didn’t have that much gas left.
So I called the ship and told them that, and the admiral called the Langley and directed them to launch nine torpedo planes, so they could give me a clear deck to land aboard, which they did. When I saw the deck was clear, I came around and made a pass, but the LSO didn’t cut me on the first pass. They still hadn’t cleared the deck properly for landing. So I made a quick turnaround, came back again, and he gave me the cut, and I landed safely. But when I tried to come out of the landing gear, I gave it near full gun, and the engine conked out on me. So I ran out of gas on the deck. They had to push me out of the landing area. I found out from the mech who reammunitioned the guns that I had exactly six rounds left in the starboard outboard gun, and they were all jammed. But it worked out all right.
I went down to the fighter ready room. I remember the air group commander had just come back from a flight. I was in the ready room, having a sandwich and some milk, and he was all excited. I knew him. He said: “Dave, I just got five planes! How many did you get today?”
I was almost embarrassed to say. I said, “Well, I think I got 11, with a couple of probables thrown in there. You’ll have to wait and talk to Roy Rushing.” That took the wind out of his sails.
Shortly thereafter, the admiral had directed the Langley to launch me on a low combat air patrol, just by myself, no wingman, nothing, but we started getting a lot of low-flying torpedo planes, and so they sent me out about 20 miles from the ship at 3,000 feet, and I circled out there, doing left-hand turns for about an hour and a half or two hours before they would take me back aboard the Essex. So that completes the day for me.
1. This attack was on 18 May 1944, by which time Air Group 15, led by then-Commander McCampbell, was operating from the carrier Essex (CV-9). For details see Edwin P. Hoyt, McCampbell’s Heroes: The Story of the U.S. Navy’s Most Celebrated Carrier Fighters of the Pacific War (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983).
2. The Brewster F2A Buffalo was the first monoplane fighter to enter Navy operational squadrons, which it did in mid-1941.
3. “Judy” was the Allied code name for the Japanese Navy’s Yokosuka D4Y carrier-based dive-bomber. “Jill” was the code name for the Japanese Navy’s Nakajima B6N carrier-based torpedo-bomber.
4. “The weave” refers to the Thach Weave, developed by then-Lieutenant John S. “Jimmy” Thach, USN.
5. This was Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman, USN, Commander Task Group 38.3.
6. T. Hugh Winters, Skipper: Confessions of a Fighter Squadron Commander, 1943-1944 (Mesa, Arizona: Champlin Fighter Museum Press, 1986).
7. This was Captain Carlos W. Wieber, USN, commanding officer of the Essex.
8. The Lufbery circle is a defensive maneuver in which airplanes fly in a ring, each one protecting the tail of the plane ahead. It was named for Major Raoul Lufbery, a French-American fighter pilot in World War I.
10. YE is an aircraft homing system.