AMBUSH
by Eric Hammel

Copyright © 1999 by Eric Hammel



The first American strike bombers—seven Scouting-8 and eight Bombing-8 Dauntlesses under Scouting-8’s LCdr Gus Widhelm—did not begin launching until 0732, nearly twenty minutes after the first Japanese launch. Following the Dauntlesses were six Avengers under the Torpedo-6 commander, Lt Iceberg Parker. Last aloft were two divisions of Fighting-72 under the squadron commander, LCdr Mike Sanchez. This strike, under the overall command of Lieutenant Commander Widhelm, was vectored directly against the last-reported position of the Japanese carriers.

The next strike group began launching from the Enterprise at about 0750, nearly twenty minutes after Widhelm’s strike began launching. This force was led by Cdr Dick Gaines, the Air Group 10 commander, who was flying his own command Avenger. It consisted of just three Bombing-10 Dauntlesses flown by Scouting-10 pilots; seven Avengers under the Torpedo-10 commander, LCdr Jack Collett; and eight Wildcats under the Fighting-10 skipper, LCdr Jimmy Flatley.

There were several Avengers available aboard the Enterprise that could not be launched on this makeshift mission, because three Avenger aircrews were stuck aboard the plane-guard destroyers that had fished them out of the water during the night-landing fiasco. In addition, two Torpedo-10 crews were temporarily marooned aboard the Hornet, having been forced to stay overnight after ferrying two replacement TBFs over late the previous afternoon. The inconsequential showing by the Enterprise dive-bombers was the result of the requirements of both the morning search and maintaining antisubmarine patrols for the entire task force.

The Enterprise strike group, such as it was, took an extremely long time getting airborne. Torpedo-10’s Lt Doc Norton, who was one of the last in line, saw that each pilot ahead of him was stopping to read from a chalkboard held up by one of the flight-deck crewmen. When Norton’s turn came, he read, “Proceed without Hornet.” Norton, who took off a few minutes later, did not even see any Hornet aircraft, though that ship was starkly visible on the horizon.

Beginning at 0810, about forty minutes after Widhelm’s strike commenced launching, the Hornet Air Group commander, Cdr Walt Rodee, piloting his command Avenger, led off the second Hornet strike: nine Dauntlesses under Lt Johnny Lynch, the Bombing-8 exec; eight Avengers under Lt Ward Powell, the Torpedo-6 exec; and seven Fighting-72 Wildcats under Lt Warren Ford. This was the clean-up formation; it would strike what there was left to strike, carriers or surface warships.

The problem with the cobbled-together attack plan was that it was not cohesive. Both carriers initially launched the bombers and fighters they had available on the flight deck or at the ready and within easy reach on the hangar deck. Because each strike group was obliged to fly up to 200 miles to reach the Japanese—a circumstance was made worse by the need of the U.S. carriers to sail away from the Japanese during launches into the prevailing wind—forming the first Hornet and Enterprise groups into a single unit was deemed too demanding on fuel supplies. Moreover, there was no U.S. doctrine allowing the subordination of one air-group commander to another, nor the meshing of squadrons of one air group with like squadrons of another.

So, the U.S. strike groups went off as a stream of separate mixed units, each one composed of whatever aircraft happened to be available at the time of the launch. Indeed, each of the three strike groups lacked internal cohesion; each was itself strung out over distances of several miles.

Throughout 1942, the U.S. Navy had been working hard to develop types of formations that would cluster the bombers in such a way as to make them mutually supporting and to take full advantage of the forward- and rear-firing machine guns, but there was no doctrine for mixing dive-bombers and torpedo bombers in the same formation. Fighter-escort procedures were also relatively crude, but even the crude methods were obviated by the distance that had to be covered between each strike group’s lead and rear bombers. The Wildcat divisions—two to each strike group—tended to stay high because the Wildcats needed an initial altitude advantage to effectively combat faster-climbing Zeros. In the case of the two fighter divisions escorting the lead Hornet strike, one division had to fly cover with the higher Dauntlesses, while the other had to fly at only 2,000 feet with the Avengers. The mixed Enterprise strike planes all flew at roughly the same altitude, with the two fighter divisions split up to guard either flank just ahead of the bombers.

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The opposing strike formations began passing one another at about 0830, when Gus Widhelm’s lead strike group was only sixty miles out from the Hornet. The low group of Wildcat-escorted Avengers actually passed directly beneath the larger Japanese formation. Widhelm and his pilots warily eyed LCdr Shigeharu Murata’s strike group, and Murata and his pilots reciprocated. Many individual gunners in both forces trained out their machine guns, but no one opened fire and none of the fighters broke formation to molest the enemy. Within minutes, the strike groups had passed one another other. Assuming the Japanese had warned their ships of their presence, and thus feeling no need to maintain radio silence, both Widhelm and Mike Sanchez radioed Task Force 61 that a large Japanese strike was inbound. Murata did the same; he radioed the Carrier Group that fifteen enemy bombers were inbound. High above the passing bomber formations, twenty-nine Zuikaku Zero pilots failed to spot the American aircraft.

Next up—about ten miles behind Widhelm, 5,000 feet lower, and somewhat to the east—was Dick Gaines’s smaller Enterprise strike group, which had been launched only twenty minutes earlier and which was only forty-five miles from the ship. The Enterprise group was still low and climbing very slowly to conserve fuel—except for Commander Gaines, who had more fuel aboard than the other pilots and who rapidly climbed far higher than anyone else. The Dauntlesses, which were the slowest of the three American aircraft types, had the lead so that the swifter Avengers could hold station on them. This required the Avengers—flying in newly contrived stepped-down diamond-shaped, four-plane defensive formations—to weave a little in order to keep from overrunning the straining SBDs in the long, slow climb. The two fighter divisions—LCdr Jimmy Flatley’s on the right and Lt(jg) John Leppla’s on the left—were weaving back and forth 1,000 feet above and just ahead of the bombers in an effort to match speed with the much slower Dauntlesses. Flatley and Leppla were both veterans of the Coral Sea. Indeed, both had won Navy Crosses in history’s first carrier-versus-carrier battle—Flatley for his superb fighter leadership and Leppla for being the most aggressive Dauntless pilot anyone could remember. (Leppla’s rearseatman at Coral Sea, also a Navy Cross holder, was ARM2 John Liska, who was returning home to the Enterprise at that very moment with Scouting-10’s Lt(jg) Doan Carmody.)

Few of the Enterprise strike aircraft had turned on their radios yet, the better to preserve radio silence. They were still climbing when Gus Widhelm and Mike Sanchez broadcast their warnings to Task Force 61—which intercepted neither message—and no one in any of the Enterprise aircraft heard the alert.

Lt Saneyasu Hidaka, leading nine Zuiho Zeros, was frustrated by the lack of orders from Lieutenant Commander Murata to attack the passing Hornet strikers, so he did not wait upon word from Murata when he spotted the climbing Enterprise force. Though bouncing the second wave of American bombers would deprive Murata’s force of close-in support, Hidaka apparently thought that a quick hit-and-run pass from 14,000 feet would leave him with plenty of time to rejoin the bombers before the attack on the American carriers commenced.

At 0840, Lieutenant Hidaka signed to the eight other Zuiho Zero pilots to follow him down in string formation against the American carrier bombers. After the Zeros had completed a descending 180-degree turn, the attack would be launched against the rear of the Enterprise formation and from out of the sun.

Hidaka’s attack completely surprised the Americans. Ironically, only moments before the Japanese struck, LCdr Jack Collett, in the lead Avenger, had wondered aloud about the total absence of chatter on the radio—radio silence was seldom perfectly maintained—and had asked ARM1 Tom Nelson whether the radio was functioning. Nelson indeed found that someone had turned the frequency selector from the torpedo channel, and he made the necessary change. But it was too late.

The first American warplane to be struck by the Japanese fighters was Collet’s. ARM1 Tom Nelson had just heard a bleat of “Bogeys!” over the radio and was cranking back his tunnel-mounted .30-caliber machine gun when he heard the throaty voice of the .50-caliber turret gun overhead. An instant later, the Avenger shivered right down her air frame and involuntarily fishtailed. Then the starboard wing went down a bit. Nelson realized that the torpedo bomber was gliding toward the ocean. A quick peek out the starboard porthole revealed a sick sort of look on the face of Lt(jg) Robert Oscar, the pilot of the TBF stepped off Collett’s starboard wing.

Oscar’s expression told Nelson that it was time to go. He was just beginning to move when he realized that smoke was pouring through the fuselage of the airplane. He grabbed the interphone mike and yelled into it to get Collett’s attention, but there was no answer. It looked more and more like the engine had been damaged or destroyed and the pilot had been injured or killed. By the time Nelson called to warn Collett, the latter had already exited the cockpit. Lt(jg) Raymond Wyllie, the pilot of the rear TBF in Collett’s division, saw the squadron commander climb out onto the right wing and jump. He was never seen again.

Meanhile, Tom Nelson crawled into the radio compartment and pulled the locking pins on the hatch, which he kicked out into space. AM1 Steve Nadison was still in the turret, so Nelson had to get his attention and hand him his parachute. As he did, he realized that Nadison had balked at wearing even his parachute harness in the cramped turret. So, while all Nelson had to do was clip his emergency parachute to his harness, Nadison had to climb into his harness and then clip on the chute. It was a life-and-death difference. Nelson tarried for a moment to help Nadison into the harness, but it was too cramped in the radio compartment for so much frantic movement, and it was all the more difficult because the Avenger was turning out of control to the right. Evidently realizing that Nelson couldn’t help him, Nadison looked right into Nelson’s eyes and cocked his head, a signal for Nelson to give him room by bailing out. With that, Nelson clipped on his chute and stood in the hatchway. The slipstream was powerful, and the airplane was still accelerating as it dived in a tight right spiral toward the ocean. It took a real concentration of energy for Nelson to dive through the tiny hatchway, but he did. The last thing he saw in the Avenger was the altimeter, which showed a reading of 2,000 feet.

Tom Nelson instantly yanked the D-ring on his parachute pack, far too soon for inertia to overcome his momentum, which was the same as the falling airplane’s. The force of the pilot chute’s impact with the rushing air tore it away from the main chute and knocked Nelson out. When the radioman came to, he was floating beneath a beautiful white silk canopy. He saw a large burning fuel slick on the surface of the ocean about a quarter-mile away. This was certainly his airplane. He quickly looked around for more parachutes, but there was none. At that moment, a Zero made a firing pass on Nelson, and the chute was badly riddled. Never-theless, Nelson slipped into the water a moment later and ducked beneath the surface. The respite was short-lived; he had bluffed the Japanese pilot, but one of the parachute shroud lines had become entangled with the buckle of his flight suit. He was being dragged down by the sodden, heavy parachute when he found the tangle and pulled it free. He yanked the twin D-rings on his Mae West life jacket, but only one side automatically inflated. He blew the other side up by the mouth tube and discovered that it had a hole in it, which gave him something upon which he could focus his attention. He had no idea what to do next.

AMM3 Tom Powell, the turret gunner aboard Lt(jg) Robert Oscar’s TBF, located on the right wing of LCdr Jack Collett’s lead Avenger, was watching on the right side of the formation when the Zeros hit. This was his role in a new method of formation defense known as concentrated cone fire. All the turret gunners on the right watched and fired to the right, and all the turret gunners on the left watched and fired to the left. The area overhead and between the right and left airplanes was a free-fire zone. The tunnel gunners directed their attention and fire by the same method. From the first moment the Zeros broke out of the sun firing all their weapons, Powell was engaged up to his eyeballs in returning the fire. He never even noticed that the lead Avenger had fallen out of the formation.

During one sweeping firing pass by a Zero shotai, Powell thought he saw one of the enemy fighters explode in mid air, but his attention was instantly diverted elsewhere. A few moments later, during a fast peek over the side of the airplane, he definitely saw another Zero smoking as tracers from another Avenger passed all the way through it. The ensuing kill was credited to ARM3 Charles Shinneman, the turret gunner aboard Lt Tommy Thompson’s TBF, the lead plane in the stepped-down second torpedo element. Powell had no fewer than three Zeros in view at all times throughout the brief engagement.

The tail-end Avenger in the first section, piloted by Ens John Reed, was mortally hit by the second Zero shotai passing from ahead to astern. AMM3 Murray Glasser, the turret gunner, barely had time to fire a few bursts at the passing Zeros before the intercom crackled with Ensign Reed’s screams, “Bail out! Bail out!” At precisely that moment, Glasser realized that pieces of the airplane were flying back past the turret, and he thought he saw the tip of flames licking around his post. He instantly locked the turret and dropped into the large radio compartment.

The gunners’ chest parachutes, which were too large to wear in the confined turret and tunnel, were secured by large bungee cords to the bulkhead directly above the starboard hatch. Glasser was the first to get to them, and he threw one to the radioman-bombardier, RM3 Grant Harrison, who was sitting in the jump seat in front of the bombsight. It took Glasser another instant to realize that Harrison was already pushing the hatch open against the slipstream, though he did not have his parachute on. Glasser was about to say something to Harrison, but he saw that the radioman was glassy-eyed and realized that he had drifted off into a catatonic state.

Glasser dived through the open hatchway and pulled his parachute’s D-ring. As the chute billowed above him, he saw a Zero knife straight into the water. Minutes later—he had lost track of time—he gently entered the water and climbed out of the encumbering parachute harness without any difficulty. When next he looked, the sky was empty and eerily quiet.

It took several seconds after the initial attack on the lead Avengers for the rear Zero shotai to strike Lt Doc Norton’s airplane, which was next- to-last in the rear Avenger formation. Both Norton’s plane and the rearmost, piloted by Lt(jg) Dick Batten, were riddled by 20mm cannon and 7.7mm machine-gun fire. Nevertheless, both of the turret gunners got rounds into one of the Zeros as it flashed on by from astern to ahead, and the Zero ignited like a torch just before it grazed Norton’s right wingtip. Though all the gunners probably got a piece of the destroyed Zero, the entire kill was credited to Batten’s tunnel gunner, AM2 Rex Holmgrin.

Batten’s Avenger was hit by the passing Zeros. A fire erupted in the hydraulics line controlling the port aileron, which stood straight up. Holmgrin yelled a warning to Batten, who responded, “Get ready to jump. I’ll put her in the water,” and then went on the open radio channel to say that he was on fire and setting down in the water. The burning TBF dropped out of formation, but the damaged aileron fell off the wing and the hydraulics fire burned itself out. The bomb bay doors could not be opened, and thus the torpedo—which was probably damaged, too—could not be jettisoned. Batten found he could keep the damaged Avenger flying, so he gingerly turned back toward Task Force 61, hoping to nurse it all the way home.

The first American fighters into the fray were John Leppla and his Fighting-10 Wildcat division—Ens Al Mead, Ens Dusty Rhodes, and Ens Chip Reding. All save Leppla were novices. Leppla flew directly into the oncoming Zeros. The four Wildcats instantly received hammer blows from hundreds of 20mm and 7.7mm rounds.

Chip Reding, Leppla’s second-section leader, saw only the rear Zero shotai as it closed on the Avengers. He immediately charged his guns and dropped his wing fuel tank. The transition from the drop tank to the main tank did not go well, however, and Reding temporarily lost air speed. In a second or two, the fuel-starved engine sputtered and died, and the Wildcat spiraled toward the ocean as Reding desperately tried to restart the engine.

Dusty Rhodes, Reding’s wingman and the division’s tail-end-Charlie, also had a problem with his wing tank. It stuck in place when he tried to jettison it, and a Japanese incendiary or tracer round set it aflame. Rhodes nevertheless stayed on station above Reding while the latter fluttered toward the sea and until he got his engine restarted. During those few bleak moments, oncoming Zeros riddled Rhodes’s canopy, shot out most of his instruments, and clipped his pushed-up goggles from his forehead—all without injuring him. Meanwhile, the wing tank continued to spew dangerous flames. As his engine restarted, Chip Reding distinctly saw two Avengers struck by Zeros diving from above and both sides, from directly out of the sun. He led Rhodes straight at the attackers, but other Japanese fighters intervened and pressed home their own attacks at such steep angles and in such quick succession that neither Reding nor Rhodes was able to get any of the Zeros in his reflector gunsight. At some point in the swirling fight, however, the fire in Rhodes’s wing tank went out, by then a small consolation.

John Leppla was gone. The last person to see him was Dusty Rhodes, who had looked back just once to see Leppla making a head-on run at one Zero with a second Zero clinging to his tail. A few moments later, Rhodes saw a partially deployed parachute streaming toward the water and thought it might be Leppla, but there was no way to be sure because by then several Avengers had been culled from the formation.

Long before Rhodes’s last sighting, and only an instant after the action got under way, Leppla’s wingman, Al Mead, had evacuated his disabled Wildcat. He safely parachuted into the water.

After a minute or two, Reding and Rhodes became separated. Each of their fighters had suffered severe damage. Rhodes had no instruments, and Reding’s electrical system was gone, which meant he could not use his radio or fire his guns. Each pilot instinctively looked around for the other, and they managed to get back together. They had been flying as a team for months and simply fell into a smoothly executed scissor weave, less as a means of suckering in Zeros—for neither Wildcat was able to fire its guns—than as a way of evading Zeros. Slowly, the two Wildcats were being pulverized. But neither pilot had yet been injured.

Then Rhodes’s engine burned out and froze. He was at 2,500 feet. He put the nose down for speed and turned upwind preparatory to ditching. A Zero dead astern opened fire, and the 7.7mm bullets severed the rudder-control cable. By then, Rhodes was approaching 1,000 feet. It was time to leave. He threw back the remains of the Wildcat’s canopy, stood up, kicked the joystick right into the instrument panel, and yanked the D-ring on his parachute. The unfurling silk canopy neatly plucked Dusty Rhodes from his dead fighter and carried him gently to the sea, where he made a hard landing. When Rhodes next looked up, Chip Reding was zooming away with three Zeros glued to his tail.

Reding tried to stay over Rhodes, but the Zeros on his tail quickly drove him away. He dived toward the water and was below 100 feet before he was able to break away from the attackers. The strike group was long gone, and the Japanese seemed to be gone, too. Chip Reding turned the nose of his scrap-heap fighter toward the Enterprise’s last known position.

LCdr Jimmy Flatley’s division did not initially see the Zero attack nor Leppla’s response because Leppla’s division was weaving away from the main formation when the attack was sprung. By the time Flatley realized that his group was under attack, the relative position of Leppla’s division had shifted from the formation’s port vanguard to well astern. At the same moment, Flatley saw one Zero take position below and ahead of the TBFs.

As soon as Flatley saw the attack on the Avengers get under way, he turned into the main formation to harass the nearest Zero, which was by then well along in its approach from beneath the Avengers. Flatley executed a diving turn, came up with a full-deflection shot, and unleashed a stream of .50-caliber bullets. The Zero pulled up and turned away from the Avenger as Flatley recovered above and to the side to begin a second run. Flatley again got the Zero in his sights and instantly flicked the gun-button knob on his joystick while still at extreme range; a Zero hardly ever stayed put long enough for a perfect set-up. The gamble paid off: the Zero began smoking. A third, high-side, attack sent the Japanese fighter hurtling into the waves.

When Jimmy Flatley looked up for more targets, he saw that the Zeros were gone and that the group of Torpedo-10 Avengers had been reduced from eight to six. Leppla’s Wildcat division had vanished.

The score for this unforseen contest was four of nine Zeros downed by TBF gunners and F4F pilots, two of eight TBFs downed, and three of eight F4Fs downed. The human toll was four Japanese pilots lost, five American pilots and crewmen killed, and two Wildcat pilots and two Avenger crewmen in the water.

When the Zeros were gone—they made only the one sweeping pass—Doc Norton checked his riddled TBF for damage and discovered that he had no hydraulic power. This meant that the bomb-bay and .50-caliber turret were inoperable. The Avenger’s right aileron was flapping in the slipstream, its control cable severed, and there was a large hole in the right wing disturbingly close to the locking mechanism. A closer check of the right wing revealed that the red warning tab was projecting, a pretty fair indicator that the locking pin was not properly seated and that the folding wing might fold at any moment. Fortunately, no one aboard Norton’s plane had been injured.

Norton conducted a brief internal argument with himself. It was certain that Japanese carriers lay ahead, and getting Japanese carriers was what he was drawing pay to do. But the fact that the bomb-bay doors were locked tight by the disabled hydraulic system, and that the rear turret could not be worked at optimum performance for the same reason, militated against continuing. The clincher was that projecting wing-lock warning tab. There was a better-than-even chance that the right wing would fold back if Norton pulled too many negative gees, and doing so was a virtual certainty in a combat torpedo approach. So, Norton gave the section leader, Lt Tommy Thompson, the hand signal for “sick airplane” and gingerly peeled into a turn for home. By then, Lt(jg) Dick Batten had fallen out of the formation, and the two damaged TBFs joined up for the trip back to the Enterprise.

It naturally occurred to many of the six airmen aboard the returning Avengers that they were behind the Japanese strike group. All of them had an uneasy feeling about what they might find when next they saw Task Force 61. For their part, the Zuiho Zeros were done for the day. Four of nine had been shot down, and one or two others, possibly including Lieutenant Hidaka’s, were badly damaged. Feeling there was no way any of his Zeros could catch up with Lieutenant Commander Murata’s receding strikers, Hidaka turned for home with the four remaining Zeros of his squadron. The Zuiho Zeros had done much to blunt the power of the Enterprise strike group, but Lieutenant Hidaka’s rash decision to attack was going to bear bitter fruit when Murata’s force came within range of the Wildcats protecting Task Force 61.