BLOOD OVER KWAJALEIN
by Eric Hammel
Copyright © 1996 by Eric Hammel
Ensign WENDY WENDORF, USN
VF-16 (USS Lexington)
Kwajalein Atoll--December 4, 1943
Edward George Wendorf was born on February 22, 1922, in the small central Texas town of West, about 80 miles south of Dallas. He was raised in West and attended school there until 1939, when he went off to the University Texas in Austin on a football scholarship. Between his freshman and sophomore years, Wendorf became interested in aviation. When a friend suggested that for just fifty dollars they could take the Civilian Pilot Training course at Hillsboro Junior College, which was just fifteen miles north of West, Wendorf agreed. At Hillsboro, the young men received all the necessary ground courses and about forty hours of flight time in Piper Cub and Taylorcraft airplanes. Upon completion, they were awarded private pilot's licenses.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Ed Wendorf enlisted in the Naval Aviation Cadet program with the stipulation that he would not enter pilot training until June 1, 1942, so he could complete his second year of college. In June, on schedule, the Navy assigned him to the Secondary Civilian Pilot Training center at Browning Field in Austin, where he trained in Waco biplanes. Upon completion of the course at Browning in September 1942, Cadet Wendorf was sent to the Navy's pre-flight school at Athens, Georgia. In December, he was assigned to the Naval Air Station, Dallas, for Primary Flight training. He then went on to Corpus Christi for Basic and Advanced flight training. He was commissioned an ensign and designated a Naval Aviator in June 1943.
After earning his wings, Ensign Wendorf was assigned to Lee Field in Jacksonville, Florida, to train in Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters with an operational training unit. Next he went to Glenview, Illinois, where he qualified for carriers aboard the converted lake steamer USS Sable. He then received orders to report to San Diego for further assignment, and after only one day in San Diego he was put aboard a ship bound for Pearl Harbor.
I reported and was assigned to Fighting-16, which was then at Kaneohe Naval Air Station. I was given an F6F Hellcat operations handbook on a Friday evening and told to be ready for a familiarization hop at 0800 the next morning. I was checked out as scheduled, and proceeded to fly formation and gunnery flights in the afternoon. I was given a carrier qualification bounce drill on Sunday morning.
The USS Lexington (CV-16) departed Pearl Harbor early on Monday morning. Ensign Edward "Tiger" Rucinski, another replacement, and I flew out to the ship and were carrier qualified with six landings apiece while en route to battle. Here I was, with fewer than 200 total flight hours and not even 10 hours in the F6F, and I was on my way to my first combat--the taking of Tarawa by the U.S. Marines. The time frame of this departure was mid-November 1944.
We were several days en route to the Tarawa area, and upon arriving Air Group 16 was assigned several responsibilities. First, we made several strikes against the facilities, aircraft, and defense systems in Tarawa Atoll prior to the amphibious assault at Betio by the Marines. Second, we patrolled the area between the beaches of Tarawa and islands to the north in order to intercept and prevent any attacks on the assault forces. And third, we occasionally were called upon to provide close air support--bombing and attacking any particular stronghold that was giving the Marines a problem. We provided the patrol and intercept services for a week or ten days, occasionally chasing a random bogey out of the area but not really seeing anything significant.
When the Marines had secured their beachhead at Tarawa, I guess it was decided to stage a hit-and-run attack on Kwajalein Atoll--particularly the airfield on Roi Island--to do whatever damage to aircraft and installations we could, and obtain some photographs of the beaches and defenses for use in the landings that were to be made there.
Upon joining the squadron, I had been assigned to fly wing on one of the division leaders, Lieutenant Jim "Alkie" Seybert. The nickname "Alkie" was short for Alcohol, perhaps referring to his earlier imbibing habits but certainly not reflecting his drinking during the time that I knew him. Jim was an outstanding pilot and a wonderful human being. We developed a very close bond during the ensuing months and vowed to protect each other's tail at all costs. Since we both survived the tour safely, we considered our accomplishment a success.
My big day arrived on December 4, 1943. We went into Kwajalein Atoll as a group with three levels of cover to protect the dive-bombers and torpedo bombers. We had low-level cover at 7,000 feet, mid-level cover at 12,000 feet, and high cover at 18,000 feet. Jim's division was assigned as mid-level cover. We arrived in the target area early in the morning, around 0700, and proceeded to sweep the area for enemy bogeys. Seeing no opposition in the air, we were directed to strafe Roi Airfield. Our main targets were parked aircraft, of which there were only a few, and the hangar areas.
Alkie put me in a right echelon to his Hellcat, gave me the Break signal, and peeled off to the left. I waited several seconds and commenced my own attack. I kept Alkie in sight but took a lateral spacing off to his right so that I could concentrate on my strafing targets and keep him in sight as well. I fired a few long bursts into a couple of aircraft on the hangar apron, then shifted my sights to an open hangar and fired a long burst into it. It was about this time that I experienced several jolts from antiaircraft shells that burst in close proximity to my airplane, so I jinked and juked (changed altitude and direction) several times to throw off their aim.
Alkie and I had agreed to rendezvous to the left, over the water, at 5,000 feet, but the AA was so intense that I had to break to the right. I was commencing my recovery when I spotted a lone Betty twin-engine bomber scooting low on the water. I don't know whether it had just taken off or was returning from another field. Anyway, I had to take off a lot of throttle as the speed from my dive was going to take me past him in a hurry.
I swung out to the right and then back in on the Betty. Then I fired a short burst from all six .50-caliber guns. The bullets went over the top of him, so I lowered my nose and sights, and fired a two long bursts into the bomber. It started disintegrating while trailing heavy smoke and commenced a slow diving turn to starboard until it crashed into the water.
I went to full throttle and started a slow climbing turn to port, looking for Alkie Seybert's F6F. As I climbed through about 7,000 feet, I spotted a flight of four aircraft high in the sun. I assumed they were friendly, because we had been pretty much observing radio silence and I hadn't heard any reports of enemy aircraft in the air. Little did I know that the jolts I had felt during my strafing run had been several actual hits in my fuselage by 37mm AA, which had knocked my radio out of commission.
I was unobserved by the pilots as I approached the flight of four aircraft from inside and underneath. As I neared the formation, I was shocked to see they all sported the red "meatball" of the Rising Sun and were actually a flight of four Zeros.
There was little I could do except slide out to the starboard side, line up the two outside aircraft, and open fire. The outside Zero exploded almost immediately, and the second one began to burn as it fell off to the right. By this time, evidently, the leader and other wingman had spotted me. When they broke in opposite directions, my only recourse was to follow one of them, and I selected the leader. However, he turned steeply to the port and I soon lost him.
Meanwhile, the other wingman had pulled around and was on my tail. As I turned sharply to the right, I saw a couple of bursts of tracers go over my head. I dove to try to lose him but he stayed close on my tail, so I executed a sharp pull-up. As I neared the top and began to drain off my speed, I decided to pull it on through and complete a loop. As I came over into the inverted position, I could see the Zero pulling through like mad, and I realized that he was going to be in an excellent position to rake me on the recovery. I decided to push forward on the stick and fly inverted for a couple of seconds. The Zero pilot was so intent on pulling inside me that I think the move surprised him. He lost sight of me and continued his pullout. After delaying my pullout a couple more seconds, I found him just about in my sights on the recovery. I was slightly out of range at first and had to add throttle to close before firing. I don't think he saw me until I opened fire, and by then it was too late. He soon began to burn and crashed into the sea.
It had been an exciting couple of minutes and resulted in four victories--the Betty and three Zeros. There were several engagements going on, so I decided to climb above the closest one, dive to get some speed advantage, and see if I could help pull an enemy aircraft off of someone's tail.
As I was climbing to get in the fray, I must admit that all my attention was directed above me and not to my rear. All of a sudden, I saw 7.7mm bullets and 20mm cannon shells ripping off pieces of my wing covering and some tracer fire going past me. My first reaction was to look to the rear and peek out from around my armor-plated setback. I just started to peek when a 7.7mm bullet came over my left shoulder, hit me in the temple above my left eye, and went through and out the front right side of my canopy. It felt like someone had hit me alongside the head with a two-by-four board. I was temporarily stunned and dazed, and I don't remember how long it took me to realize that I had been hit. My first thought then was to get the hell out of there.
We had been instructed that one of the best evasive maneuvers was to dive to terminal velocity--I think the Red Line maximum speed allowed was around 400 to 425 knots--and make a sharp turn to the right. This I did, and evidently it worked, because the Zero pilot did not elect to stay with me, for which I was most thankful.
As I pulled out from the high-speed dive, I noticed that blood was spurting and landing on my left hand, which was positioned on the throttle. I immediately placed my left hand on the artery leading to my wound and applied pressure. This seemed to stop most of the bleeding, but some blood was still running down my arm and onto my leg.
A friendly submarine was positioned a few miles off the coast to rescue aviators who had been hit. I think the sub was off the northeast side of Kwajalein Atoll, but it stayed submerged until it was notified by someone that a flyer was down in the area. Since I was alone and had no radio due to the AA fire, there was no way to communicate with the sub.
I was bleeding quite profusely, so it was decision time! Would I retain consciousness long enough to ditch in the area of the sub, get in my raft, and take a chance on someone seeing me and notifying the sub of my location? Or would I last long enough to stay in the air for 45 minutes, to make it back to the ship? I considered my options for only a few moments and decided on the latter--return to the ship.
The correct compass heading for my return was around 45 degrees. As I attempted to take up this heading, I noticed that my Remote Indicating Compass (RMI) was inoperative--also due to that AA hit--and that the liquid compass was swinging through 30 to 40 degrees and thus extremely inaccurate. I decided to take a heading that bisected the north-south and east-west runways at Roi, line up on two clouds, and fly in that direction. When I would pass over one of the clouds used to line up the 45-degree heading, I would line up two more.
The weather was mostly clear, with scattered clouds and about four to five miles of visibility. I flew most of the way above the scattered clouds. After 45 minutes, I decided to let down below the overcast and commence an "expanding square" search until I spotted the Lexington. I had just completed two legs of the search when I spotted a carrier's wake. I felt tremendously relieved.
Unfortunately, the number on the fantail of the ship was "10"--that of our sister ship, the USS Yorktown. My wound had slowed to a trickle by then, but I was still losing blood and was therefore anxious to recover on any carrier.
As I flew by the Yorktown's island, I waggled my wings to indicate that I had no radio. As I did, I noticed that there were many TBFs, SBDs, and F6Fs turning up on deck, ready to launch for another strike at Kwajalein. The visibility was still four to five miles, so I looked all around for the Lexington, but I did not see her.
The people on the Yorktown understood my problem. They used white material of some sort to make an arrow pointing in a southerly direction, and also the number "12" to indicated the distance in miles to my carrier. I waggled my wings again to indicate that I understood the message, and then I turned to that heading and began looking for the Lex.
After only several minutes of flight, I picked up the wake of the ship. When I saw her, I noticed that the deck was clear and ready to accept aircraft. The ship immediately gave me a Prep Charlie in Morse code with an Aldis lamp, indicating that it was okay to begin my approach. Soon they transmitted a Charlie, also by Aldis lamp, meaning it was okay to land.
I turned downwind and began my approach. Much to my chagrin, I discovered that my tail-hook rail had been shot away and that I had no hydraulic pressure to lower my wheels or flaps. There was a compressed-air bottle to blow down the wheels in an emergency, and since I definitely considered this an emergency, I used it to lower my gear as I continued my approach. The deck was clear, but as I approached the ramp, I was given a Wave-off by the LSO. As I flew past, he gave me the signal that I needed to lower my tail hook and flaps. I waggled my wings again to indicate that I understood but that I was unable to do either.
I continued upwind and began another approach. I had opened my canopy and was trying to use both hands to fly the plane. The wind was blowing in my face and I could no longer hold the pressure point on my temple, which caused the wound to bleed freely. The flowing blood was completely obstructing the vision in my left eye. Believe me, is difficult enough to land on a carrier deck with both eyes functioning, but with only one eye, it was extremely difficult!
As I neared the ramp on my second approach, I noticed that there was a Hellcat crashed on deck in a wheels-up condition. As I learned later, it had taken several 20mm hits in the cockpit that severely wounded the pilot in the hand. The LSO had brought this F6F in on a straight-in approach, but the wounded pilot had been unable to lower his gear and flaps prior to the landing.
I was feeling okay except for the bleeding. I was not feeling faint or light-headed, and the wound above my eye was sort of numb. The caked blood was helping to stem some of the flow. Though I was not feeling much pain, I certainly did not relish the thought of circling while the deck crew cleaned up the deck crash. But I really had no other choice.
After I had circled for about fifteen minutes, they again gave me the Charlie signal to land. This time, realizing I had no tail hook or flaps, the deck crew had rigged the barrier across the flight deck. The barrier consisted of several strands of one- inch wire cabling that would stop the aircraft on its runout.
I made my second approach and soon discovered that I could not see well enough to make the trap unless I held my left hand to my temple to stop the flow of blood. I made the approach holding my temple with my left hand, flying the aircraft and making throttle adjustments, and eventually taking the Cut, all with my right hand. I landed successfully and slowed my roll to almost a stop before I struck the barrier and nosed up. It had been an ordeal, but I had survived.
They removed me from the plane, placed me on a stretcher, and took me to the sickbay. My flight suit was drenched in blood, and blood had even run down my leg and into my left shoe, which squished during the few steps I took on my own. The flight surgeon later told me that he estimated I had lost nearly two quarts of blood.
I was sedated and remember little else about the next twenty-four hours. But as exciting as my day had been, it was not yet over.
The air groups made repeated attacks on Kwajalein during the day and then the task force withdrew to the east and took up a course to return to Pearl Harbor. As we withdrew, we came under attack by several Bettys, which tracked the carriers and attempted to launch aerial torpedoes our way. At approximately 2200, one of them was successful and the Lex took a hit below decks in the vicinity of the sickbay. I understand that several people were killed, including the corpsman who was holding a compress to my head to stop the bleeding, and that the compartment was partially flooded.
As I later learned, the gun captain of the 40mm mount just outside my bunkroom had heard that I was wounded, and came down to the sickbay to visit me just as the torpedo hit the ship. When he looked through the Plexiglas inspection window into the sickbay compartment, he saw that another wounded pilot and I were moving about in bed, so he entered and pulled us both out to safety. I understand that the compartment I was in eventually flooded completely. Had the gun captain not decided to come visit me at just that time, it is doubtful that anyone else would have noticed us and made the rescue.
What a day! It was filled with lots of luck. I'm sure I owe my good fortune to the intervention of Divine Providence--I prayed long and loud throughout the ordeal--and to a strong will to survive. I that I was just not ready to go that day--it was just not my time to go.
I was hospitalized for about a week at Pearl and then returned to the squadron. After I regained complete sight in my left eye, about a month, I returned to flight status and resumed my tour aboard the USS Lexington for another seven months. I returned to the States and was reassigned in July 1944.
Comparing the performance of the Hellcat versus the Zero, I feel that the Hellcat was by far the more durable of the two aircraft, due mainly to fact that the wing fuel tanks were self- sealing--a bullet or incendiary could pass through the wing tank, which would seal immediately without causing a fire or explosion--and because the pilot had a lead silhouette of armor protecting his backside.
On the other hand, the Zero was faster and more maneuverable, thanks to the weight-saving features of not having the self-sealing fuel tanks and the armor plating protecting the pilot. This I think this was a net disadvantage. A number of times in later fights I was outmaneuvered--the Zero turned inside me--and my plane was hit, but it was not disabled. By contrast, only a few rounds fired into the Zero usually resulted in the pilot being hit and the Zero crashing into the sea, or a fire starting and the airplane either burning or exploding.
As an example of the ruggedness of the Hellcat, the plane that I flew back the day I was shot had three 37mm holes, about seven 20mm holes, and more than 250 7.7mm bullet holes or small fragment holes from antiaircraft fire. Several of the smaller fragment holes were in the engine area, but the good old Pratt & Whitney continued to purr right down to the time that I nosed-up on deck.
The abilities and caliber of the Japanese pilots I engaged also declined tremendously with the progression of the war. I speak only for our experience in VF-16, but I would expect it to compare with that of other squadrons operating at the same time. Early in the war, around Kwajalein, the Japanese pilots were extremely tough, and our kill ratio was only about 5:1. Later, around Truk, Palau, and Hollandia, our ratio grew to about 12:1. And around the Mariannas, VF-16 shot down an estimated twenty- five to thirty Japanese aircraft during that one-day "Turkey Shoot"--without losing a single plane or pilot to enemy aircraft. I feel sure that this was due to the attrition of first-rate Japanese pilots and Japan's inability to train replacements in an orderly manner.
In addition to the Japanese aircraft he downed over Kwajalein on December 4, 1943, Ensign Wendy Wendorf shot down an Imperial Army Ki-61 Tony fighter over Truk on April 29, 1944, and a bomber in the Marianas on June 19, 1944.
Following a well-deserved home leave, Lieutenant (jg) Wendorf joined a group of six "nuggets"--recently designated and commissioned aviators--whom he shepherded through operational training and carrier qualifications before all were assigned to the escort carrier USS Savo Island. The ship and its composite squadron joined several similar units in Adak, Alaska, where they were preparing for the upcoming invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the war quickly ended.
After the war, Lieutenant Wendorf was given a commission in the Regular Navy. During the first of two back-to-back tours as a flight instructor at Pensacola, Wendorf became engaged to and soon married a Navy air traffic controller. He retired from the Navy in 1968 and worked for nearly two decades in the aircraft industry.