October 1942 was a month of decision in World War II. In Egypt, British and Axis forces clashed at the Second Battle of El Alamein. The Soviet Union and Germany were locked in a bitter struggle at Stalingrad. Meanwhile, a large U.S. armada left East Coast ports bound for the invasion of French Morocco.
More immediate for the U.S. Navy, a land-sea-air campaign at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands was well into its third month. The naval Battle of Cape Esperance on 11 October was a rare U.S. victory.
Meanwhile, across the international date line at Naval Air Station (NAS) San Diego, a new command was being established. Carrier Air Group (CVG) 11 was unusual in receiving a number rather than a ship name because the United States was running out of prewar flight decks: Three of the six Pacific Fleet flattops had been lost in six months.
Squadrons and Leaders
Most of the air group’s senior officers were U.S. Naval Academy men. The group commander (CAG-11) was Commander Paul Ramsey, who had graduated near the top of the class of 1927. A highly respected commanding officer (CO) of the famous Fighting Squadron (VF) 2 “Flying Chiefs” on board the USS Lexington (CV-2), he had survived her sinking at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May. Ramsey led four squadrons, the norm for fleet carrier air groups at the time. Two flew the vaunted Douglas SBD Dauntless scout-bomber.
Bombing Squadron (VB) 11 was formed around five veterans of VB-2, also displaced from the Lexington. Bombing Two’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander Weldon Hamilton, a year behind Ramsey at the Academy, had lateraled to lead VB-11, taking VB-2’s Pegasus identity with him. According to a contemporary account, “He was a 4.0 skipper.” Lieutenant Commander Hoyt D. Mann was the junior CO, hailing from the class of ’36. His Scouting Squadron (VS) 11 also had SBDs, usually flying the same missions as the bombing squadron.
Torpedo Squadron (VT) 11 received Grumman TBF-1 Avengers, the newest carrier aircraft. Bigger, faster, and longer ranged than the Douglas TBD-1 Devastator, the Avenger had a three-man crew of pilot, radioman, and turret gunner. The squadron’s CO, Lieutenant Commander F. L. Ashworth, had graduated in the Annapolis class of 1933.
The fighter skipper was well experienced. Lieutenant Commander Charles R. Fenton (class of ’29) had led VF-42 from the USS Yorktown (CV-5) at Coral Sea. Fighting 11 benefited from three other combat-experienced pilots, including the flight officer, Lieutenant William N. Leonard, with victories at Coral Sea and Midway.
Air Group 11 was slated to board the USS Hornet (CV-8), famous for launching the Doolittle Raid against Japan in April 1942. But the plan was short-lived: The Hornet was sunk at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October, leaving the air group without a potential ship while the Enterprise (CV-6) remained the only operational big-deck carrier.
Ramsey and company deployed to the Pacific late that month. In Hawaii, the squadrons flew from Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, then from newly expanded NAS Barbers Point. Paul Ramsey rolled out in February 1943, succeeded by Weldon Hamilton as CAG.
While in Hawaii, VF-11 established its identity—the “Sun Downers,” for both the mission of downing Japanese “suns” and the old nautical term for a hard worker. Over the ensuing decades the name became Sundowners. Robert “Boy” von Tempsky and his sister, Alexa, extended rare hospitality to the Sun Downers, who enjoyed the family’s Maui ranch on the slopes of Mount Haleakala. The family flew an “all clear” flag for visiting aviators to buzz the house, with Alexa and her brother sharing the title “ComWolfPack.”
Flying from ‘The ’Canal’
After further training in the Fijis, the air group set out for Guadalcanal, arriving on 26 April. The SBDs and TBFs landed at Henderson Field, while VF-11’s F4F Wildcats settled at the fighter strip west of Henderson. Shortly before arriving, the fighting squadron’s skipper, Charles Fenton, was recalled to Washington, replaced by his executive officer (exec), Lieutenant Commander Clarence M. White Jr., class of ’33.
In March, Scouting 11 had been redesignated Bombing 21 in a Navy-wide policy of folding carrier scout squadrons into the dive bombers. When the air group moved to Guadalcanal, the four squadrons totaled 88 aircraft: 35 F4F-4 Wildcats, 35 SBD-3 Dauntlesses in two squadrons, and 18 TBF-1 Avengers.
By June, the air group had ballooned to 106 aircraft, largely because of an influx of fighters. Some thought VF-11 and two other fighting squadrons were to “use up” the remaining inventory of Wildcats. As Bill Leonard recalled: “Committed to the F4F, we would not let our minds dwell too much on its deficiencies. VF-11 felt sensitive flying an obviously outdated machine but we were loyal to the F4F.”
On Guadalcanal, the dangers were not limited to enemy action. When Weldon Hamilton was promoted to CAG, Lieutenant Commander Raymond Jacoby relieved him at the helm of VB-11, but his tenure was short-lived. Jacoby succumbed to a falling coconut, sustaining injuries that would bench him for the duration of the tour. He was briefly succeeded by Lieutenant C. A. Skinner before Lieutenant Commander Lloyd A. Smith (class of ’35) assumed command.
Triumphs and Losses
TBFs flew conventional missions and also delivered mines in Japanese-controlled waters. “Dick” Ashworth’s Distinguished Flying Cross citation included:
During the nights of 18, 20 and 23 May, Lieutenant Commander Ashworth led his squadron in mine laying missions in the Kahili-Shortland area, south Bougainville. It was necessary that level flight at one thousand feet, constant speed and steady course be maintained for up to one and one-half minutes approximately one thousand yards from heavily-fortified Japanese positions. His plane made the longest run on each mission and despite illumination by a concentration of enemy searchlights and heavy enemy anti-aircraft fire these extremely hazardous missions were carried out effectively.
Lieutenant (junior grade) Edwin M. Wilson was a VB-11 stalwart and arguably the best bomber in the squadron. “Big Ed,” who had dropped out of Duke University to enlist, got saltwater on his hands in a series of shipping strikes from Guadalcanal. He made a direct hit on a Japanese destroyer (probably the Kuroshio or Oyashio) in Blackett Strait on 8 May and scored on a large 17 July joint mission with Marines that claimed four destroyers and damaged a light cruiser at Buin Harbor, Bougainville. Actual results were a destroyer sunk plus damage to two more and a minesweeper.
CAG Weldon Hamilton, along with 16 pilots and aircrewmen from VT-11, died in a transport accident en route to Sydney on 8 June. Over the next 17 months, he was succeeded by two other Naval Academy alumni, Lieutenant Commander John Hulme (class of ’30) and Ray Jacoby—he of the falling coconut.
When the air group’s tour ended in August, the SBDs had logged more than 30 attack missions plus scouting and antisubmarine patrols. The Sun Downers left Guadalcanal with 55 rising suns painted on propeller blades before the squadron tent. Three pilots had made ace, including Lieutenant (junior grade) Vernon Graham, who turned the trick in one epic mission on 12 June. Among 16 Wildcats returning from a PBY escort near the Russell Islands, Graham led his wingman in assisting badly outnumbered Marine Corps Corsairs and gunned down five Zeros. But he ran out of fuel, sustaining injuries in a forced landing. Other Sun Downers accounted for nine more kills in exchange for three other Wildcats, with all VF-11 pilots safe.
Only four days later, the squadron beat its own record and then some. Repulsing the last major strike on Guadalcanal, Clarence White scrambled with 27 other Sun Downers to intercept 94 inbound Japanese. In widespread attacks, the Wildcats claimed 31 kills against three pilots lost, apparently all in collisions. Combined Navy, Marine Corps, and Army fighters destroyed nearly all the attackers, a heavy blow to Japanese air power. Rear Admiral Marc Mitscher, Commander Air Solomon Islands, sent two cases of whiskey to VF-11 for its major role in the mission.
The squadron’s other aces were Lieutenants (junior grade) Charles “Skull” Stimpson and James S. Swope. They formed a potent team: Between them the pair would account for 26 downed enemy aircraft during the squadron’s two tours.
Aircraft attrition in the Solomons fell heavily on the Sun Downers; of the 30 known CVG-11 planes lost, 18 were from VF-11. Back stateside, the squadrons absorbed new personnel and new aircraft, anticipating another deployment. The bombers exchanged SBDs for SB2C Helldivers, the Sun Downers traded their faithful Wildcats for F6F Hellcats, and VT-11 turned in their TBFs for TBM Avengers. Bombing 21 had already been disestablished in 1943, so the air group was reduced to three squadrons.
The Hornet at Last
Whether intended by the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, Air Group 11 finally kept its Hornet appointment. In September 1944, Commander Frederick R. Schrader’s squadrons relieved the long-service Air Group Two in the Essex-class carrier Hornet (CV-12), namesake of CVG-11’s original destination. Schrader enjoyed a superior reputation, having graduated 35th of 442 in the Naval Academy class of 1935. As CAG, he started out with 40 Hellcats, 25 Helldivers, and 18 Avengers, for a total 83 aircraft—more than the official 73 allotted.
Before deploying, the Sun Downers’ exec became CO. Lieutenant Commander Eugene Fairfax was a fearsome boxer from the class of ’39 who had pulled some strings to get out of floatplanes. His pugnacious nature reflected well in his role as the Hornet’s fighter skipper.
VB-11 was under Lieutenant Commander Lloyd A. Smith, a classmate of Schrader’s, while Lieutenant Commander Radcliffe Denniston Jr., a former aviation cadet and Coral Sea veteran, led the “torpeckers.” An incomplete survey of squadron rosters showed the aviators’ ages ranged from 19 to 28.
The Hornet, as part of Rear Admiral John McCain’s Task Group 38.1, launched the first Ryukyu strikes on 10 October, but three days later, CAG-11 “Fritz” Schrader fell to flak while strafing targets on Formosa. He was succeeded by Commander R. Emmett Riera, former skipper of the Enterprise’s VB-20. A well-regarded leader also from the class of ’35 and a Pearl Harbor survivor, he was an SB2C pilot who immediately proved himself in fighters. Subsequently, Hornet Captain Artie Doyle wrote: “Riera is really a joy. He’s a great group commander, all the pilots like him.”
On 14 October, VF-11 had two extremely hard-fought battles, scoring 18 kills against five pilots lost, the squadron’s worst day of the war. However, Charlie Stimpson continued proving himself one of the deadliest pilots afloat, with five confirmed and two probable “Zeke” kills.
From Leyte to Okinawa
The task group spent several days supporting General Douglas MacArthur’s Philippine landings on Leyte before turning to replenish at Ulithi. But on 24 October, an impending fleet engagement forced a recall as a powerful Japanese armada unexpectedly threatened U.S. forces. As Ed Wilson recalled, “We headed back at full speed with Hornet throbbing and shaking.”
The next day, the Hornet launched a maximum effort at extreme range—36 planes, including eight Avengers, from 340 miles out—striking the retiring Japanese fleet, with hits on a battleship and two cruisers. However, three Avengers were forced to make water landings, and a second strike’s eight TBMs landed ashore at Tacloban on Leyte. Torpedo 11 earned seven Navy Crosses that day.
More Philippine operations followed in November and December, most notably over Luzon and Mindoro. The Sun Downers had their best day of the cruise on 5 November, scoring 26 kills in two dogfights near Clark Field, Manila, for one loss. But on 13 November, Torpedo 11 lost its skipper of more than a year when “Pete” Denniston died with his crew over Manila Harbor. Denniston had received the Navy Cross for May 1942 attacks at Tulagi and Coral Sea while a Devastator pilot with VT-5.
In early November, Captain Doyle wrote:
My new group has really come into their own the past two days, and everyone on board is as pleased and as proud of them as of a new baby. They go around grinning from ear to ear for they’ve had a tough time and are hardworking boys. They were as green as grass, and it was a great strain taking care of them. What a pleasure it is now. They are better than the old group.
In December 1944, the Hornet transferred to Rear Admiral Gerald Bogan’s Task Group 38.2 with some internal leadership changes. Lieutenant Commander Edward J. “Bud” Kroeger, a Pearl Harbor veteran, assumed command of VB-11, while Naval Reserve Lieutenant W. J. Engman and later Lieutenant Commander John A. Fidel, a classmate of Fairfax’s, took over VT-11. The air group flew missions that month in support of landings on the Philippine island of Mindoro. Then on the 18th, the Third Fleet was savaged by “Halsey’s Typhoon,” but the Hornet weathered the storm.
In early 1945, Task Force 38 entered the South China Sea, the first Allied ships to turn a wake there since 1942. Off Japanese-occupied French Indochina on 12 January, the Hornet launched strikes against Cam Ranh Bay and a convoy off Qui Nhon. But a strafing mission to Saigon cost VF-11 Lieutenant (junior grade) Blake Moranville. A hot young Nebraska aviator, “Rabbit” Moranville had downed all six Japanese planes he engaged, but flak at Tan Son Nhut holed his engine. Thus began a ten-week journey taking him from French captivity to an overland trek with a Foreign Legion unit to a narrow escape from advancing Japanese at a place called Dien Bien Phu.
Meanwhile, the air group struck Formosa, Hong Kong, and China’s coast. Later in January, CVG-11 attacked ship and base facilities on Formosa, pulling more attention away from the U.S. landings at Luzon’s Lingayen Gulf. The air group’s last major operation was a return to Okinawa on 22 January. All told, it lost 44 personnel during the Hornet deployment, including 19 aircrewmen. At the end of its cruise, CVG-11 wrote off 86 planes, 103 percent of its original complement.
Eleven is a documentary about Carrier Air Group 11 as told by aviators who served in the celebrated unit during the Pacific war. For a limited time, members of the U.S. Naval Institute are invited to view the illuminating and evocative film, which can be viewed here.Not a member? Join the Naval Institute
Air Group Achievements
The Sun Downers established a perfect escort record, losing no bombers or torpedo planes to Japanese aircraft, while notching 103 victories. The air group also claimed 272 grounded planes destroyed and more than 100,000 tons of shipping sunk, with 100-plus vessels credited as damaged. The Hornet cruise produced four aces, with Charlie Stimpson running his total to 16, fifth highest in the Navy. Runner-up was Jim Swope with ten victories from Guadalcanal to Formosa.
Emmet Riera’s command was relieved by Air Group 17 at Ulithi on 1 February. Air Group 11 would be reformed in April, but plans for a third Pacific deployment ended with Japan’s surrender. The group received the Presidential Unit Citation for its wartime service.
Torpedo 11’s first CO ended the war in historic fashion, as Dick Ashworth was weaponeer on the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki in August 1945. Ashworth would retire as a vice admiral in 1968. Meanwhile, VT-11 survived to be redesignated VA-12A in 1946, then became the VA-115 Eagles in 1948. The squadron has been forward-based in Japan since 1973.
Bombing 11 retained its Pegasus identification, becoming VA-11A in the 1946 redesignations, then VA-114 until standing down in 1949. Subsequently, the Sun Downers became VF-111, scoring victories over Korea and Vietnam. However, the historic squadron was axed by a soulless Navy bureaucracy in 1995.
Today, Air Wing 11 continues a seven-decade tradition with more than 40 deployments on board 13 carriers, including three world cruises.
CAPT John A. Fidel, USN, obituary.
Kenneth M. Glass and Harold L. Buell, The Hornets and Their Heroic Men (North Port, FL: USS Hornet Club, 1992).
LCDR Weldon L. Hamilton, USN, U.S. Naval Academy Lucky Bag, 1928.
Roy Gordon, “Boy” von Tempsky, The Watumull Foundation Oral History Project.
Barrett Tillman, Sun Downers: VF-11 in World War II (St. Paul: Phalanx Publishing, 1993).
VB-11, Squadron Flight Log.
RADM Edwin M. Wilson, USN.