General Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his promise to return to the Philippines when he waded ashore on Leyte Island on 20 October 1944. While U.S. troops fought their way inland, the Japanese naval high command set in motion a complex plan to snuff out the invasion. The result was the biggest fleet confrontation of World War II and the greatest naval engagement of the modern era—the sprawling four-day Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Aircraft played a crucial role in the battle, with U.S. Third and Seventh fleet aircraft carriers bringing an enormous amount of air power to the waters off Leyte. Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 38 embarked nearly 1,100 combat planes—fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes—on board 14 fast carriers, while Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague’s Task Group 77.4 escort carrier force added almost 450 more aircraft on board 16 “baby flattops.”
By far the most widely employed aircraft at Leyte Gulf was the Grumman-Eastern TBF/TBM Avenger. Some 400 of the torpedo bombers were embarked in the 30 flattops of all classes.
The biggest carrier aircraft of the war, the original Grumman TBF-1 first flew in August 1941. With a crew of pilot, turret gunner, and radioman, it was intended to replace the obsolescent Douglas TBD-1 Devastator. The Avenger’s first combat was from ashore during the June 1942 Battle of Midway; five of the six deployed were lost. However, by August that year, at Guadalcanal, TBFs had fully replaced TBDs and proved to be extraordinarily versatile. Avengers were effective at torpedo attack, level and glide bombing, antisubmarine warfare, and scouting.
Most of the Avengers engaged at Leyte were General Motors duplicates of the Grumman TBF. In 1942, when it became obvious that Grumman could not build enough Avengers while also producing fighters, the Navy contracted with GM’s Eastern Aircraft Division. Most of the nearly 10,000 Avengers produced were Eastern’s knockoffs, notably TBM-3s, delivered from early 1943.
The Avenger was remarkably easy to fly—a Grumman trademark—and pilots exclaimed, “You could lift a house with that huge wing.” Despite its size—a 54-foot span and nine tons fully loaded—the aircraft routinely operated safely from the smallest carriers in the U.S. inventory.
Typically, those ships—escort carriers (CVEs)—stored a dozen aerial torpedoes in their magazines, but their Avengers seldom had need of them. All that changed on 25 October 1944, when most of the bombers of the three “Taffy” escort carrier groups scrambled to load “fish” in place of bombs.
On board Taffy 3’s Gambier Bay (CVE-73), at least two TBMs were armed with torpedoes, but one was painfully short of fuel. Lieutenant (junior grade) William Gallagher’s plane had a mere 35 gallons on board, forcing a hard decision: divert to Taffy 2 for fuel or make an attack on the pursuing Japanese warships that would run his Avenger dry.
Bill Gallagher had already decided. Immediately after launch he banked to port, headed directly for the Japanese cruisers. His plane joined another Avenger and aimed at one of the sleek hunters. Circling nearby, his squadron commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Edward J. Huxtable, saw a hit on one of the cruisers. Whether Gallagher was responsible could not be known, but “courage and devotion” was far more than a catchphrase for the popular Bostonian. He ditched nearby, deploying a raft with his two crewmen—but they subsequently were lost at sea.1
Dive bombers were developed by the U.S. and Japanese navies in the 1920s and ’30s. Classified as scout bombers, they had a major advantage over horizontal bombers and torpedo planes: greater accuracy against a moving ship. However, “torpecker” advocates insisted: “If you want to let in water, use a torpedo. If you want to let in air, use a bomb.”
Nevertheless, before the war, the Navy saw a need to upgrade its dive-bomber capability and contracted with Curtiss for a replacement for the Douglas SBD Dauntless, future victor at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal battles. The SB2C looked promising—faster with an internal bomb bay—but suffered serious developmental problems, including tails that separated. Nicknamed “the Beast,” the Helldiver belatedly entered combat in November 1943 and fully replaced Dauntlesses on board ship the following summer.
All eight Essex-class carriers plus the USS Enterprise (CV-6) embarked SB2Cs at Leyte Gulf. The durable aircraft sustained remarkably little attrition: 37 of 262 engaged in the four-day battle.
Among the Beast’s missions was reconnaissance, a role filled to perfection by a Bombing Squadron 19 crew from the USS Lexington (CV-16) early on 25 October. Off Cape Engano, Lieutenant (junior grade) Stuart E. Crapser was returning from his 300-mile search when his back-seater received a strong radar contact. Aviation Radioman James F. Burns called out surface vessels—Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s Northern Force—several miles ahead.
Minutes later, Crapser was looking at Japan’s last four deployable carriers. He quickly wrote an urgent contact report that Burns sent five times—three on medium high frequency and twice by very high frequency.
Reluctant to depart with fuel remaining, Crapser dove on one of the carriers. He recalled:
I climbed to 14,000 feet during which some AA shells were sent in our direction. . . . Burns threw out some aluminum strips called “window,” which were supposed to confuse gunfire radar. I observed one carrier head into the wind and launch some aircraft.
I was positioned for a dive out of the sun, and I pushed over at a 60 degree angle and dived without flaps. I “pickled off” my 1,000-pound bomb and felt the aircraft knocked into a spin to the right. I contemplated leaving the aircraft but was able to stop the spin, pull out, and head for some clouds below.
I reached the clouds, leveled off in them, and flew for some time southward. I noted that the upper surface of the wings was wrinkled and both ailerons were pointing up!2
Nonetheless, Crapser and Burns returned to “the Lex,” while Mitscher launched full deckloads against Ozawa. During the course of the day, all four Japanese carriers were destroyed.
Grumman’s F6F Hellcat won air supremacy over the Pacific. During almost two years of combat, the Long Island–bred feline clawed down thousands of enemy aircraft while clearing the skies of enemy aircraft over nearly every contested island. F6Fs were a vital part of the Central Pacific amphibious campaign.
At Leyte Gulf, 586 Hellcats flew from the fast carriers and 39 were with the escort carrier air groups. Thus, Hellcats accounted for 40 percent (625 of 1,529) of U.S. carrier planes entering the battle.
Leyte represented an aerial happy hunting ground for aggressive Hellcat pilots, with seven achieving “ace in a day” status. They were paced by the air group commander (CAG) from the Essex (CV-9), Commander David McCampbell, who already had turned the trick off Saipan in June. He recalled gunnery training in the F6F: “I practiced and practiced until I couldn’t get any better. On my last gunnery flight before leaving, I shot the tow cable in two.”3
Leading a scramble on 24 October, McCampbell and his wingman, Lieutenant (junior grade) Roy Rushing, got “the vector of vectors” from the fighter director, Lieutenant Commander John Connally, a future Secretary of the Navy. McCampbell and Rushing stalked the periphery of perhaps 80 Japanese planes and, during a 90-minute battle, claimed nine and six splashed, respectively. They pushed their fuel and ammunition to the limit, recovering with almost no .50 caliber remaining. McCampbell’s engine quit while taxiing out of the arresting gear.
The Navy’s ace of aces, McCampbell described the Hellcat as “a wonderful weapon of war. . . . No aircraft company can be more proud of the products produced, developed, and delivered than Grumman Aircraft of Bethpage, Long Island, and Pratt & Whitney engines of Hartford, Connecticut.”4
Meanwhile, Fighting Squadron (VF) 27 of the Princeton (CVL-23) claimed 36 kills that morning, and no pilots ever fought harder for their ship. Four gained ace status: Lieutenants James A. Shirley and Carl A. Brown, Lieutenant (junior grade) Eugene P. Townsend, and Ensign Thomas J. Conroy. But determined Japanese aircrews pressed through flak and fighters to inflict fatal damage on the “Sweet P,” which was abandoned and scuttled that evening. She was the only fast carrier to be lost after the USS Hornet (CV-8) went down at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands 24 months previously.
Finally, Guadalcanal veteran Lieutenant (junior grade) William J. Masoner of the Lexington notched six bombers on 24 October during a Luzon mission. Fourteen other VF-19 Hellcat pilots claimed 24 kills during the operation.
Over the Marianas, Philippines, Okinawa, and elsewhere, the Hellcat became that rara avis, a strategically significant fighter aircraft. The only others were the Mitsubishi A6M Zero during the first year of the Pacific war and the North American P-51 Mustang, which rescued U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) bombers from potential daylight oblivion over Europe.
With more than 5,200 credited aerial victories, Hellcats accounted for almost as many Japanese aircraft as all USAAF fighters in the Pacific and China-Burma-India theaters. In short, more than any other Allied type, the Hellcat destroyed Japanese air power. Along the way, it produced 306 fighter aces—the all-time U.S. record.
Grumman’s F4F Wildcat series owned a fighter monopoly on U.S. carrier decks well into 1943, but by then the Long Island firm was mass-producing new F6F Hellcats. Consequently, as with the Avenger, Eastern picked up the slack, building FM-1 versions of the F4F-4 and then switching to FM-2 “Wilder Wildcats,” production versions of the XF4F-8. Much of the FM-2’s enhanced performance came courtesy of a 1,350-horsepower Wright R-1820-56 engine, versus the F4F-4’s 1,200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1830-86. Throughout the war, FM-2s were the standard CVE fighter. In all, Eastern delivered more than 5,000 Wildcats.
While the Hellcat usually is credited with the best victory-loss ratio of U.S. fighters (19-to-1), the Wilder Wildcat easily outstripped it. From 1944 through 1945, CVE-based FM-2s achieved an astonishing 32-to-1 kill-loss ratio—420 victories against 13 known air-to-air losses. The reasons were varied, mainly involving the nature of escort carrier operations—usually defending task groups against relatively small numbers of Japanese bombers—and a simple, easily maintained fighter with optimum armament. In contrast to the six-gun F4F-4 Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, and F4U Corsair, the FM-2 employed only four .50 calibers. While the six-gun battery represented a 50 percent increase in firepower over the original F4F-3, it apparently produced slightly less lethality than the FM-2’s four guns.5
At least five FM-2 pilots rated as aces, paced by Composite Squadron (VC) 27’s Lieutenant Ralph E. Elliott with nine victories off the USS Savo Island (CVE-78). An extraordinarily tough dogfighter, he had earned the nickname “Tojo” while an instructor.
Two Wildcat pilots became aces in a day on 24 October. The VF-26 skipper, Lieutenant Commander Harold N. Funk, splashed five bandits during a morning mission, returned to the Santee (CVE-29), and then added another that afternoon.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Kenneth G. Hippe of VC-3, embarked on board Taffy 3’s Kalinin Bay (CVE-68), downed five Japanese Army Kawasaki Ki.48 “Lily” bombers during a 20-minute combat. He was leading his four-plane division at 10,000 feet when the radar controller vectored the Wildcats onto a single bogey. Hippe identified a Ki.48, which he quickly destroyed.
However, the victim was a decoy to divert attention from a large formation approaching from the west at a much higher altitude. As the Wildcats clawed for height, they counted 21 other Lilys flying a vee of vees formation. Gaining a perch, Hippe led his wingman in an overhead pass, then radioed that he intended to tail the bombers as long as ammunition lasted. In his only aerial combat, Hippe expended all 1,720 rounds in splashing five bombers, while his three pilots claimed seven more.6
Prolonged actions on 24 October produced the second-biggest day of air combat in U.S. history: 270 aerial victories credited by the fast carriers and the escort force. It was exceeded only by the Battle of the Philippine Sea’s Marianas Turkey Shoot four months previously. The combined total for 24 and 25 October was 341 shootdowns. Remarkably, the escort carriers accounted for nearly half the total, with 136 kills by their Wildcats and Hellcats.
After four days of intense combat (including the relatively mild 23 October), the carriers had lost 255 aircraft to all causes, including those that went down with the Princeton, Gambier Bay, and St. Lo (CVE-63). It was a sustainable attrition of about 16 percent, with replacements provided by the largely unappreciated Service Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, which included spare aircraft on board its CVEs. Avengers suffered the heaviest losses, with 93 written off, though proportionally that was slightly less than Wildcat attrition.
Perhaps 80 Avengers still survive today as warbirds, along with 25 Hellcats and about a dozen Helldivers. Meanwhile, Leyte Gulf veterans that now serve as museum ships are the Yorktown (CV-10), Intrepid (CV-11), Hornet (CV-12), and Lexington.
1. Author interview with CAPT Edward J. Huxtable, USN (Ret.), 1977.
2. Barrett Tillman, Helldiver Units of World War 2 (Oxford, UK: Osprey, 1997), 48–49.
3. CAPT David McCampbell, USN (Ret.) to author, 1978.
4. Barrett Tillman, Hellcat: The F6F in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979), ix.
5. Analysis of aerial victory credits in Frank Olynyk, U.S. Navy Credits for Destruction of Enemy Aircraft in Air-to-Air Combat World War 2 (Aurora, OH: privately published, 1982).
6. William N. Hess, America’s Aces in a Day (Forest Lakes, MN: Specialty Press, 1996), 140–41.