The Development of Night Fighters in World War II

By Colonel William C. Odell, U. S. Air Force (Retired)

Possessing neither the experience nor the proper equipment to combat enemy night operations, the hard-pressed Americans improvised with what they had. U. S. Army Air Forces pilots, flying Douglas-built A-20s, attempted to catch "May tag Charlie" with disappointing results. They achieved limited success using Lockheed P-38s in concert with ground-based searchlights and antiaircraft fire. The Navy lacked any equipment to offer to this effort. Drawing upon the RAF's experiences and the brief Army evaluations, the Navy began a crash course to build its night fighter program.

From the start, the Navy's requirements were fundamentally different, since Navy planes and equipment had to meet performance standards suitable for carrier use. While land-based air units could accept heavier aircraft which were large enough to accommodate an on-board radar operator, the Navy designed its program, Project Affirm, around single-seat, carrier-type fighters.

Work began on 18 April 1942 at the naval air station at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. The research effort was to experiment, develop, and evaluate all information relative to night fighting equipment and tactics. Project Affirm was headed by Commander W. E. G. Taylor, a reservist and former RAF Eagle Squadron member. Taylor had intimate knowledge of early British radar and had seen night fighting brought to its highest development in England.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose radiation laboratory had conducted extensive studies on radar propagation, provided invaluable assistance. It undertook the task of modifying or producing tailor-made electronic gear to meet the Navy's exacting specifications. Meanwhile, the Chance-Vought Corsair (F4U-I) was selected as the best available aircraft. When the first Corsairs were finally procured, experiments began to determine performance limits, devise tactics, and develop operational procedures.

On 10 April 1943, less than a year after Project Affirm was instituted, VF(N)-75 was commissioned as the first night fighter squadron of the U. S. Navy. Commanded by Lieutenant Commander William J. Widhelm, the squadron was composed of 18 pilots, six ground officers, and 30 enlisted men. The manning was largely experimental, too, with personnel gleaned from what was available; in 1943 spare people and spare parts were at a premium. Of the pilots, only five had any instrument flying experience. Three had checked out in Corsairs. Three were qualified only in the Grumman F4F Wildcat, a plane fast becoming obsolete. The balance had flown nothing more advanced than the North American SNJ, the workhorse trainer of all U. S. military flying schools.

Operational necessities reduced tile size of the original squadron almost before everyone got to know one another. Six pilots and aircraft and 11 enlisted men were detached and sent to the South Pacific on I August 1943. This group, still under Commander Widhelm, retained the VF(N)-75 designation and went into combat as a shore-based unit in the Solomons. Their primary mission was to clear the skies of "Washing Machine Charlie," and they were successful in short order. Lieutenant Hugh D. O'Neil, USNR, flying out of Munda, New Georgia, was vectored to the Japanese Betty bomber, which was promptly dispatched off Vella Lavella on Halloween night.

The continued successes of night fighters from VF(N)-75 and from a Marine squadron, VMFCN)-531, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Frank H. Schwable, soon caused a reduction in enemy attacks as more and more night-flying Japanese aircraft failed to return home. As shore-based U. S. night fighters proved their worth and the war turned in favor of the Allies, night fighting activity turned to the offensive.

On 25 August 1943, Project Affirm was divided into two parts. The development phase was moved to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, where it continued research and testing or' experimental and operational hardware. Pilot training was placed under a new organization, the Night Fighter Training Unit (NFTU), with Commander Taylor in charge. This unit was located at Naval Auxiliary Air Facility Charleston, Rhode Island, where night training could be carried on with minimal interference to daytime operations.

Project Affirm had verified that a qualified naval aviator needed more than ordinary flying skill to become a competent night fighter pilot. Desire and the ability of an individual to function effectively in an unconventional environment were equally important. Accustomed to full use of all one's senses, a psychological adjustment is necessary when one sense is impaired or denied. Some individuals experience panic ranging from mild to severe when subjected to extended periods of complete darkness. Severe claustrophobia can also occur. While the night flying trainees were not superhuman, it was clear that they had to possess certain attributes of stability and be highly motivated.

There was no question among the NFTU instructors that night fighter proficiency required constant practice and special flying techniques. It took very little to convince pilots learning to fly F6F Hellcats off carrier decks at night that they couldn't do it relying solely on instinct. Before climbing into a cockpit, night fighter trainees were taught to understand aircraft instruments, to fly by them, and to trust them.

A safe night approach to a flight deck showing only the minimal marker lights requires keen ability to use flight instruments precisely. Even more challenging is the need to maneuver an aircraft on instruments in order to follow exacting ground controlled instructions to complete interception of an unseen enemy target that is taking evasive action. These maneuvers involve abrupt changes in altitude, violent turns, and sudden fluctuations in airspeed.

Flight training commenced in Douglas SBD dive-bombers equipped with airborne radar. These served as flying classrooms in which the instructors could provide one-on-one training in night intercept work. The trainees then moved on to Hellcats in which they practiced ground controlled intercept moves on their own. They also completed an air schedule that included a series of heckler, zipper, and intruder missions.

Ground training was intensive and directed toward two practical purposes. It was designed to teach the students how to use radar and to convert their previously acquired knowledge as naval aviators to nighttime applications. All ground school work was night-oriented. Pilots learned to identify aircraft and ships, to work navigation problems, and to perform normal duties while wearing red-lensed goggles to simulate realistic conditions.

Emphasis was placed on functional electronics instruction through use of a radar-equipped Link trainer. In it, pilots gained experience in making split-second responses to GCI directions and interpreting visual indications shown on the cockpit scope. Each Link exercise ended with the gratifying report of a "splash." After the trainer hop, pilot and radar officer held a critique of the mock mission. GCI officers who directed this training also gave communications lectures,increasing the contact between both groups. Since success for the night fighter resulted only when the fighter director and pilot worked as a team, complete cooperation was essential.

The program encouraged night fighter trainees to fly as much as possible. The pilot who logged the most night flying hours each week was presented with a desk model of his Helical. Long weekend passes were held out as an incentive to log more hours.

Eventually the Night Fighter Training Unit was expanded into the Night Attack and Combat Training Unit (Atlantic). Its mission was enlarged to encompass night carrier landing training. To accomplish this, the air station at Charleston was converted into a close approximation of a carrier at sea. At sundown, activities came into full bloom. The entire station remained blacked-out through the night. Runway lights, aircraft wing tip lights, control tower illumination, ready rooms, and even heads were dimly lit to preserve pilots' night vision adaptation. Nothing was overlooked in the effort to duplicate the atmosphere of realistic carrier operations. A catapult for night launchings and deck arresting gear for recoveries were installed on one runway. Landing signal officers were assigned as instructors to conduct bounce drills and to give lectures on night landing techniques.

Having completed the course at Charleston, the night fighter pilot spent several days on an escort carrier off the Quonset Point area in order to complete carrier qualifications. He then shipped out to Naval Air Station Barbers Point, Hawaii, where Night Attack and Combat Training Unit (Pacific) provided the final operational polishing prior to posting to a fleet unit. Twenty-nine weeks of hard training had gone into the finished product: a first-class Navy night fighter pilot.

In January 1944, Navy night fighters flew combat missions from a carrier for the first time. Two squadrons, one equipped with Corsairs and the other with Hellcats, were assigned to four carriers. Although they maintained their own individual squadron identities, the first carrier-based Navy fighters were segmented into six-pilot detachments. For 12 consecutive nights these few pilots flew constantly in an intense and successful effort to evolve defensive tactics that would be compatible with fleet procedures.

Lieutenant Commander Richard E. Harmer, skipper of VF(N)-101, performed the first night interception of an enemy aircraft by a carrier-launched night fighter. Flying a Corsair, Harmer downed a Betty near the island of Truk. On succeeding nights, three more Japanese night intruders were "splashed." One gyrated down out of tile night sky in flames and in full view of the task force. The admiral promptly radioed a "well done" from the bridge of his flagship.

As more VF(N) units joined carrier forces, they extended their range and the number of missions so that the enemy was under attack virtually around-the-clock. The next step in the Navy's night fighter program was the night carrier. In August 1944, Night Air Group 41 (NAG-41), made up of specially-trained night fighter and torpedo units, went aboard the carrier Independence (CVL-22).

Led by Commander Turner F. Caldwell, NAG-41 made it to the fleet in time to participate in the Palau, Mindanao, and Luzon campaigns. By 1 October, the pilots were converted to full night status. Later that month, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the air group lent a hand when a large group of planes from other carriers went into the water as dusk approached. The night fighters deployed, sighted flashing lights on the water, and directed destroyers to the downed planes, earning the gratitude of the fleet.

How successful were night fighters compared with their daytime contemporaries? Squadron histories show that in the Pacific during the latter part of World War II, the groups racked up approximately equal scores. This is partly due to Japan's strategy of restricting air operations to small night raids. In Japan's last desperate effort to stave off American sea power, heavy attacks were mounted by kamikazes, usually under half-light conditions. With the advent of 24-hour patrols, the frequency of kamikaze raids dropped.

It was a grand, successful experiment—this mating of man with radar to make the fighter aircraft a more formidable weapon. In three short, violent years these men pushed aviation technology ahead by leaps and bounds. But their successes were not without cost. Among the many night fighters lost was a Medal of Honor recipient, Lieutenant Commander Edward H. "Butch" O'Hare, who was killed during night action at Tarawa on 27 November 1943. This small group of men who put their faith in unfamiliar electronic developments were truly aviation pioneers.

Colonel Odell commanded the Army's 420th and 547th Night Fighter Squadrons in World War II. His wartime service began in England in April 1942 as member of the 1st Pursuit Squadron (Night Fighter) of the Eighth Air Force. During his 23-year career he also served as commandant of the Air Force’sinstrument flying and all-weather interceptor schools. He is the author of 23 published novels, and has written many articles for professional and popular magazines. In 1957 he won the Air Force's annual short storycontest. He has also received the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Colonel Odell currently lives in Colorado Springs.



Conferences and Events

WEST 2019

Wed, 2019-02-13 - Fri, 2019-02-15

Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally? Wednesday, 13 February - Friday, 15 February...

2019 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

23 January - Book Talk

Wed, 2019-01-23

9 February - Presentation

Sat, 2019-02-09

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership