“ALL FIGHTER PILOTS! MAN YOUR PLANES!”

by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

Copyright © 2014 by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

The radar screens in the combat information center (CIC), located high in the island of USS Essex, suddenly flickered with the ghostly green returns that identified the incoming Japanese air strike at 0950, October 24, 1944. Soon The radar screens in the combat information center (CIC), located high in the island of USS Essex, suddenly flickered with the ghostly green returns that identified the incoming Japanese air strike at 0950, October 24, 1944. Soon a second, and then a third, formation appeared on the screens, stacked up from one thousand to twenty-five thousand feet above the ocean.

On the flight deck, crews were pushing dive-bombers, torpedo bombers, and fighters into position for a second morning strike. A dark blue Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat with twenty-one victory flags beneath the cockpit was being fueled at the catapult.

“All fighter pilots! Man your planes! The second strike is canceled!” echoed across the flight deck.

Below decks, in the Fighting Squadron 15 ready room, pilots wondered what was happening. With most of the air group having been launched earlier on a major strike against the Japanese fleet, which had been found that morning in the Sibuyan Sea, there were not many defenders available to answer the call. The order to man planes was quickly followed by, “All except the air group commander. He is not, repeat not, to go.”

On the flight deck, crewmen began to push the lead Hellcat off the catapult and onto the deck-edge elevator to strike it below. Just as the elevator started its descent to the hangar deck, the word was passed, “Now hear this! Air group commander is to fly. Affirmative. Air group commander is to fly.”

Still not fully fueled, the Hellcat with the name “Minsi III” was pushed back into position as the pilots of Fighting 15 emerged onto the flight deck from their ready room below and manned their planes. In minutes, seven R-2800 engines coughed, then roared to life.

Air Group 15’s commanding officer, Commander David McCampbell, one of the leading aces in the Pacific Theater, had been forbidden to fly offensive fighter missions by no less than Rear Admiral Frederick C. “Ted” Sherman, commander of Task Group 38.3 of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s famed Third Fleet. As commander of the air group, McCampbell was informed that his skills were needed for leading the fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo bombers in attacks against Japanese forces. His status as a leading ace was considered embarrassing by higher commanders, who felt that he had been avoiding his responsibilities to the group while in pursuit of his individual score. Today, this minute, his skills as a fighter pilot were needed as never before for a defensive mission.

With only six other Hellcats ready for launch, McCampbell and his wingman, Lieutenant (j.g.) Roy Rushing, prepared to defend the task force. Essex turned into the wind in the Philippine Sea, one hundred and fifty miles east of Luzon and north of Samar.

The launch officer’s hand spun faster and faster above his head as McCampbell and Rushing advanced their throttles and stood on their brakes. And then the launch signal was given.

The two aircraft sped down the deck, one after the other, and lifted off, retracting their landing gear as they turned to the west and pulled up into a maximum-rate climb toward the building clouds in the sky above. Behind them, the next two Hellcats were already speeding down the deck as two more moved into launch position. The first wave of Japanese attackers was only twenty-two miles distant.

Following the direction of Lieutenant John Connally, the Essex fighter direction officer (FDO), the Hellcats strained for altitude among the halls formed by billowing cumulo-nimbus clouds over the blue Pacific. Soon the distant dots of the incoming enemy warplanes popped into view around the clouds and resolved themselves as dive-bombers protected by fighters.

Unaware that the other five Hellcats had fallen behind, McCampbell ordered them to take on the bombers while he and Rushing went for the escorting fighters. McCampbell and Rushing were right now the sole defense of the task force below.

Surprised by the appearance of the Americans, the leading enemy fighters turned away, which allowed the two Hellcats to climb on up to 30,000 feet. McCampbell studied the formation through binoculars and counted forty land-based fighters: Zekes, Tonys, Hamps, and Oscars, a strangely mixed formation of Imperial Army and Imperial Navy fighters in a formation of three “vees.” (Note: It was common throughout the war for American pilots to misidentify the similarly configured navy A6M Zero and the army Ki-43 Hayabusa, known as Oscar; Japanese army and navy aircraft seldom, if ever, flew in the same formation, leading to the conclusion these were all Zeros and the Imperial Army Ki-61 Tony fighters were misidentified, a common event in combat.)

When McCampbell radioed for help, Fighter Director Connally informed him, “There is none.”

As McCampbell banked into a dive, followed by Rushing, he lined up on one of the fighters at the end of the formation. The Hellcat’s six .50-caliber machine guns spat out thumb-size bullets. The aim of the navy’s gunnery champion of 1940 was true, and the Japanese fighter exploded. A second explosion marked Rushing’s victory.

A second overhead pass resulted in the explosion of McCampbell’s second target, a Hamp. (Note: The Hamp was a sub-type of the Zero).

As the two Hellcats zoomed up for a third overhead pass, McCampbell was amazed to look over his shoulder and see the Japanese formation bend to the right as all thirty-seven enemy fighters took up a defensive Lufbery circle.

McCampbell responded with two unsuccessful head-on attacks. As the two dark-blue Hellcats zoomed again for altitude, the Japanese formation broke and headed back toward Luzon. McCampbell dove and, from a distance of nine hundred feet, took out target number three. As well, Rushing’s second score exploded in flames.

The Japanese doggedly maintained their course, making no effort to combat the attacking duo.

On McCampbell’s next pass, gunfire coming from behind forced him to break off his attack. As he pulled up, he saw a Hellcat that was answering the call for help flash past, shooting too close to him. A few choice words over the radio straightened things out.

As the enemy steadfastly refused to engage, McCampbell realized he could relax and take his time with what was virtually a gunnery exercise. He even found time to engage his habit of turning off the oxygen and lighting a cigarette. As he considered the situation, he realized he still had most of his ammo.

The battle became more a gunnery flight than air combat as McCampbell focused on identifying his targets carefully and perfecting his gunnery passes. The next was a Zeke, which flamed for kill number four while Rushing scored his third. After several more passes, Rushing radioed he was out of ammo but would stay while McCampbell used up his.

At that point, McCampbell had downed seven. Two more passes scored two more kills as the enemy finally approached the security of their bases ashore.

McCampbell scanned his gauges and suddenly realized how low on fuel he was. The two Hellcats broke off and headed home.

McCampbell and Rushing arrived over the fleet to find Essex’s flight deck full of aircraft being spotted for the delayed second strike. He was so low on fuel that he had to put down on USS Langley, a light carrier in the task group. As he advanced his throttle to taxi out of the arresting wires, his engine died from fuel starvation.

Dave McCampbell had just shot down nine enemy planes and Roy Rushing six in one mission, an achievement unmatched in American aerial combat history. With this mission extending his score to thirty, McCampbell was now the leading U.S. Navy ace in the Pacific. By the end of the air group’s tour, he would be recognized as the U.S. Navy Ace of Aces, and he would be awarded the Medal of Honor for this mission. He was, however, now in big trouble with Admiral Ted Sherman, because no one had asked Sherman to change his order about McCampbell not flying fighter missions, and Sherman was of the opinion McCampbell had disobeyed a direct order. Nevertheless, in light of his accomplishment, the admiral let his air group commander off with a warning, “It’s all right this time, but don’t let it happen again.”

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Morris Markey, a correspondent who was aboard Essex for the entire tour, wrote of Air Group 15 in Liberty Magazine in 1945: “They went out to the Pacific war, a hundred young men. Seven months later only forty-five of them came home unhurt. But in those immortal seven months of naval history they became the undisputed champions of the Pacific Ocean areas. Indeed they inflicted on the enemy probably more damage and destruction than any other one hundred young men who have fought anywhere in this war. And the price they made the Japanese pay for their own losses is almost fantastic.”

The record of Air Group 15 speaks for itself: Fighting 15 scored 312 enemy aircraft destroyed, 33 probably destroyed, and 65 damaged in air combat, plus 348 destroyed, 161 probably destroyed, and 129 damaged in ground attacks. Twenty-six Fighting 15 pilots became aces, including their leader, who became the U.S. Navy’s Ace of Aces. Twenty-one squadron pilots were killed in action and one in an operational accident aboard their carrier. Bombing Squadron 15 and Torpedo Squadron 15 scored 174,300 tons of enemy shipping, including 37 cargo vessels sunk, 10 probably sunk, and 39 damaged. As well, Musashi, the world’s largest battleship, was sunk, along with one light aircraft carrier; one destroyer; one destroyer escort; two minesweepers; five escort ships; two motor torpedo boats; and Zuikaku, the last surviving carrier that participated in the Pearl Harbor attack. Incredibly, every pilot of Torpedo 15 was awarded the Navy Cross, the highest award for bravery after the Medal of Honor, during this tour of combat for valor in the face of the enemy by torpedoing an enemy ship under fire.

All of this took place between May 19 and November 14, 1944. No other American combat unit in any service came close to a similar score in such a short time period.

Air Group 15 participated in the two greatest naval battles in history, the First and Second battles of the Philippine Sea—also known also as the Marianas Turkey Shoot and the Battles of Leyte Gulf, which saw the end of Japanese naval power, as well as Halsey’s rampage across the Central Pacific that fall, which marked the high tide of the carrier war. On June 19, 1944, forever after known as the Marianas Turkey Shoot in the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, Fighting 15 shot down 68.5 attacking Japanese aircraft, a one-day record unmatched by any other American fighter squadron.

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One of the better-known squadron pilots was the Hollywood star Wayne Morris, who left a successful career in the movies to sign up as a naval aviator, even though at age twenty-seven he was considered “too old” for combat and was originally expected to fulfill a public relations role for recruiting. In fifty-seven missions, Morris scored seven victories and was brought home in three Hellcats so badly shot up that they were pushed overboard. Only Jimmy Stewart, who logged thirty-five missions over Germany as a bomber pilot, matched Morris as a for-real Hollywood “war hero.”

Other air groups were composed of similar young men who had undergone similar training and set similar scores during that training. None of the pilots assigned to any of the squadrons of Air Group 15 was considered elite in any way; they were fully representative of all naval aviators of the period. Their aircraft were no different from those used throughout the navy’s air arm.

What was it that set this group apart from all the others?

It’s said that timing is everything. Air Group 15’s timing was perfect: it might have remained aboard the USS Hornet in March 1944 but for the fact it was judged not ready for operations. Its replacement, Air Group 2, was the second-highest-scoring naval air group of the war, but it missed the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea when its tour was completed at the end of September 1944. “Fabled Fifteen” was the only fleet carrier air group to serve the entire period from the First Battle of the Philippine Sea through the Battles of Leyte Gulf, the high point of the Pacific War. (Three light carrier air groups also served this entire period). Thus, the group was presented with opportunities no other group saw. But still, in all those battles, other groups of similar background, with similar opportunities, took part. Regardless, Air Group 15 came out on top.

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If timing is everything, the ability to take advantage of such an opportunity when it presents itself is crucial. Vince Lombardi is famous for saying, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” A more accurate view is that the truth is leadership isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Without leadership, there is no winning. Air Group 15 was lucky in its leadership. Air Group Commander David McCampbell led by example, scoring thirty-four victories during the tour to become the U.S. Navy’s Ace of Aces and receive the Medal of Honor, an inspiration to his pilots and aircrew, who responded by matching his example. Every man of them, when later asked about their achievement, credited McCampbell as being their inspiration. Like many successful combat commanders, McCampbell’s initial career was not one that led others to expect great things. As with other outstanding leaders, such as John Thach, John Waldron, and Jimmy Flatley, McCampbell proved the inverse relationship between academic performance and combat performance. A 1933 graduate of Annapolis, where he led the Naval Academy’s swimming team to Amateur Athletic Union and National Collegiate Athletic Association championships in diving, and was asked to become a member of the United States Olympic Swimming Team at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics (which he was unable to do owing to his low academic standing), he graduated in the lower half of his class and was thus released from active duty upon graduation, due to the economic difficulties faced by the navy during the Great Depression. His entry in The Lucky Bag for the Class of 1933 makes interesting and insightful reading of his character, if read with later knowledge of his achievements:

“David McCampbell, West Palm Beach, Florida, “Dave” “Mac”. To attempt to describe this personage in the short space allotted here is a difficult task and must necessarily be sketchy. To begin with, Mac hails from Florida and has never been able to acclimate himself to the rigors of Maryland winters—or summers. He and the roommate have fought a four year battle over the question: ‘Shall the windows be open or closed?’ In academics Mac hasn’t always had the wind abaft the beam, so to speak, but in rough weather he proved himself to be a good sailor and one not easily lost in the academic sea. In athletic fields of endeavor, Mac has had little or no difficulty in maintaining his superiority over others. For four years he has been the navy’s foremost fancy diver, and for those who appreciate this most difficult and graceful art he has provided many hours of delightful entertainment. In fact, he so delighted the judges upon one occasion that they crowned him inter-collegiate champion. In addition to his diving, he has proven himself to be an outfielder of no mean ability. Mac’s heart is torn between two loves; one is Aphrodite, the other is Morpheus. Sometimes one has the upper hand, sometimes the other. He enjoys both to the fullest extent and is content with either. Mac will always find life enjoyable because he has an amiable disposition, because he is a gentleman, and because he is an optimist.”

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Following his inauspicious beginning as a commissioned officer, Ensign McCampbell was recalled to active duty in late 1934 and spent the years 1935 through 1937 as a junior officer aboard the heavy cruiser USS Portland. Having been interested in aviation since age nine, when an uncle gave him a ride in a Curtiss Jenny, and having become an aerial observer with the ship’s aviation detachment, he was accepted for flight training at the end of 1937 after trying four times and being failed for an eye condition due to the flight surgeon’s use of outdated equipment. With a different doctor and modern equipment, he passed the eye exam and was sent to Pensacola, from which he graduated fifth in his class and received his Wings of Gold in March 1938. That summer he reported to Fighting Squadron 4, the “Red Rippers,” aboard USS Ranger.

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Historian John Lundstrom in his two excellent First Team books, has made much of pre-war gunnery training as being the “secret weapon” with which the U.S. Navy went on to win the air war in the Pacific. While the navy did provide superior gunnery training to that in the Army Air Corps (which didn’t provide any formal aerial gunnery training for fighter pilots at all until 1943), it wasn’t quite as uniformly good service-wide as Lundstrom has related, at least according to the testimony of Marine aviator Charles Older, who went on to become one of the first aces of the American Volunteer Group, popularly known as The Flying Tigers. In a 2002 interview, Older said that his first squadron commander was more interested in his ability to hold position in a “parade-ground” formation than any skill in hitting a target sleeve. On the other hand, the late Richard H. “Dick” Best, Jr., known to history as the man who sank the Akagi and thereby turned defeat into victory at the Battle of Midway, began his career as a section leader with Fighting 2, the famous “Flying Chiefs.” According to him, that unit held every aspect of naval flying important and considered it a mark of honor that every pilot in the squadron was considered a dead-eye shot in inter-squadron competitions. According to Best, the squadron commander, Lieutenant Commander Apollo Soucek, made gunnery training a top priority. Many of the enlisted pilots in that unit went on to become commissioned officers in World War II and took that commitment to their new squadrons with useful result.

Dave McCampbell was lucky that Fighting 4 was one of those units that considered gunnery important. As a young man growing up in Alabama and Florida, he had been introduced to hunting early, and was a crack shot when it came to ducks, perhaps the best early gunnery training a fighter pilot could have undergone. In 1940, McCampbell was one of the top three in the annual fleet gunnery competition. When he took command of Fighting 15 in September 1943, he initiated a strong program of daily aerial gunnery training, which paid off handsomely when the time came in 1944.

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Assigned to USS Wasp (CV-7) upon her commissioning in 1940 as assistant landing signal officer, McCampbell had the opportunity to experience command leadership while serving under Captain John W. “Black Jack” Reeves, Jr., considered one of the leading officers of his generation. (As a rear admiral, Reeves would command fast carrier task groups from early to mid 1944.)

In this period before the outbreak of war, Wasp was one of the most active aircraft carriers in the fleet. This afforded McCampbell the opportunity to gain extensive knowledge of carrier flight operations as part of the Neutrality Patrol, in which the U.S. Navy gave aid to the Royal Navy in the year before Pearl Harbor that was only narrowly “short of war.” In May 1941, Wasp participated in a futile hunt for the German battleship Bismarck, and in August 1941 she took part in what was later disclosed as a hunt for the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, then on a mid-Atlantic raiding mission. When Wasp crossed the Atlantic to participate in the resupply of Malta with fighters, LSO McCampbell played a leading role. He accompanied Wasp to the Pacific in the summer of 1942 and survived her sinking that September. Thus, by the time he moved up to command, Dave McCampbell possessed the kind of experience that was needed for wartime leadership.

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There is another element to leadership in any organization, and that is the leader’s personality. McCampbell was remembered by those who served with him before the war as a young officer who cut a wide swath socially, for which he gained the nickname “Dashing Dave.” As one of his friends later recalled to historian Barrett Tillman, “Dave and I were asked to leave every good restaurant in New York City!” This element of dash and verve, so well seen as a major aspect in the leadership of a man like General George S. Patton, Jr., has a strong influence on promoting a similar spirit of dash and verve among those who serve under such a leader.

McCampbell was also a different kind of commander of the air group (CAG) when he led Air Group 15. Traditionally, the job of the CAG was to lead the group, to coordinate strikes in combat. At the outset of the war and through the major carrier battles of 1942 and offensive combat in 1943 and early 1944, the CAG flew either a dive- or torpedo bomber. With the robust endurance and communications capability of such aircraft, it was felt he was better able to handle the tasks of leadership and coordination. McCampbell was one of the first CAGs to fly a fighter. He could point to the fact that the F6F-3 Hellcat had better endurance than the SB2C Helldiver that equipped the dive-bombing squadron, and range equal to that of the torpedo squadron’s TBM Avenger, with performance that allowed the commander to defend himself in combat. When McCampbell started building a score as a fighter pilot during the Marianas Turkey Shoot, he was widely criticized by both superiors and contemporaries for having come down with “Zero fever.” Admiral William Harrill, the original commander of Task Group 58.4, specifically told him to stop “carving notches” other than in self defense, because the group commander was supposed to be “a leader, not a shooter.” As related earlier, Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman, specifically ordered him to refrain from active combat when he assumed command of the Essex task group.

It is interesting to note that by the end of the Marianas Campaign, nearly all the CAGs in the Pacific Theater were flying Hellcats, and that by the end of the Philippines Campaign it was de rigueur that the CAG flew a fighter, a tradition that has been maintained in the navy during all the years since World War II.

Many of those who served under McCampbell recalled in later years that having a CAG who was setting records in the air battles they were fighting that summer and fall of 1944 inspired them to put forth similar effort in their own assignments. “Leading from in front” has traditionally been the sign of a great combat leader, and the record of Air Group 15 in sinking more enemy tonnage and shooting down more enemy aircraft than any other U.S. Navy air group during the Pacific War demonstrates a second, and then a third, formation appeared on the screens, stacked up from one thousand to twenty-five thousand feet above the ocean.

On the flight deck, crews were pushing dive-bombers, torpedo bombers, and fighters into position for a second morning strike. A dark blue Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat with twenty-one victory flags beneath the cockpit was being fueled at the catapult.

“All fighter pilots! Man your planes! The second strike is canceled!” echoed across the flight deck.

Below decks, in the Fighting Squadron 15 ready room, pilots wondered what was happening. With most of the air group having been launched earlier on a major strike against the Japanese fleet, which had been found that morning in the Sibuyan Sea, there were not many defenders available to answer the call. The order to man planes was quickly followed by, “All except the air group commander. He is not, repeat not, to go.”

On the flight deck, crewmen began to push the lead Hellcat off the catapult and onto the deck-edge elevator to strike it below. Just as the elevator started its descent to the hangar deck, the word was passed, “Now hear this! Air group commander is to fly. Affirmative. Air group commander is to fly.”

Still not fully fueled, the Hellcat with the name “Minsi III” was pushed back into position as the pilots of Fighting 15 emerged onto the flight deck from their ready room below and manned their planes. In minutes, seven R-2800 engines coughed, then roared to life.

Air Group 15’s commanding officer, Commander David McCampbell, one of the leading aces in the Pacific Theater, had been forbidden to fly offensive fighter missions by no less than Rear Admiral Frederick C. “Ted” Sherman, commander of Task Group 38.3 of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s famed Third Fleet. As commander of the air group, McCampbell was informed that his skills were needed for leading the fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo bombers in attacks against Japanese forces. His status as a leading ace was considered embarrassing by higher commanders, who felt that he had been avoiding his responsibilities to the group while in pursuit of his individual score. Today, this minute, his skills as a fighter pilot were needed as never before for a defensive mission.

With only six other Hellcats ready for launch, McCampbell and his wingman, Lieutenant (j.g.) Roy Rushing, prepared to defend the task force. Essex turned into the wind in the Philippine Sea, one hundred and fifty miles east of Luzon and north of Samar.

The launch officer’s hand spun faster and faster above his head as McCampbell and Rushing advanced their throttles and stood on their brakes. And then the launch signal was given.

The two aircraft sped down the deck, one after the other, and lifted off, retracting their landing gear as they turned to the west and pulled up into a maximum-rate climb toward the building clouds in the sky above. Behind them, the next two Hellcats were already speeding down the deck as two more moved into launch position. The first wave of Japanese attackers was only twenty-two miles distant.

Following the direction of Lieutenant John Connally, the Essex fighter direction officer (FDO), the Hellcats strained for altitude among the halls formed by billowing cumulo-nimbus clouds over the blue Pacific. Soon the distant dots of the incoming enemy warplanes popped into view around the clouds and resolved themselves as dive-bombers protected by fighters.

Unaware that the other five Hellcats had fallen behind, McCampbell ordered them to take on the bombers while he and Rushing went for the escorting fighters. McCampbell and Rushing were right now the sole defense of the task force below.

Surprised by the appearance of the Americans, the leading enemy fighters turned away, which allowed the two Hellcats to climb on up to 30,000 feet. McCampbell studied the formation through binoculars and counted forty land-based fighters: Zekes, Tonys, Hamps, and Oscars, a strangely mixed formation of Imperial Army and Imperial Navy fighters in a formation of three “vees.” (Note: It was common throughout the war for American pilots to misidentify the similarly configured navy A6M Zero and the army Ki-43 Hayabusa, known as Oscar; Japanese army and navy aircraft seldom, if ever, flew in the same formation, leading to the conclusion these were all Zeros and the Imperial Army Ki-61 Tony fighters were misidentified, a common event in combat.)

When McCampbell radioed for help, Fighter Director Connally informed him, “There is none.”

As McCampbell banked into a dive, followed by Rushing, he lined up on one of the fighters at the end of the formation. The Hellcat’s six .50-caliber machine guns spat out thumb-size bullets. The aim of the navy’s gunnery champion of 1940 was true, and the Japanese fighter exploded. A second explosion marked Rushing’s victory.

A second overhead pass resulted in the explosion of McCampbell’s second target, a Hamp. (Note: The Hamp was a sub-type of the Zero).

As the two Hellcats zoomed up for a third overhead pass, McCampbell was amazed to look over his shoulder and see the Japanese formation bend to the right as all thirty-seven enemy fighters took up a defensive Lufbery circle.

McCampbell responded with two unsuccessful head-on attacks. As the two dark-blue Hellcats zoomed again for altitude, the Japanese formation broke and headed back toward Luzon. McCampbell dove and, from a distance of nine hundred feet, took out target number three. As well, Rushing’s second score exploded in flames.

The Japanese doggedly maintained their course, making no effort to combat the attacking duo.

On McCampbell’s next pass, gunfire coming from behind forced him to break off his attack. As he pulled up, he saw a Hellcat that was answering the call for help flash past, shooting too close to him. A few choice words over the radio straightened things out.

As the enemy steadfastly refused to engage, McCampbell realized he could relax and take his time with what was virtually a gunnery exercise. He even found time to engage his habit of turning off the oxygen and lighting a cigarette. As he considered the situation, he realized he still had most of his ammo.

The battle became more a gunnery flight than air combat as McCampbell focused on identifying his targets carefully and perfecting his gunnery passes. The next was a Zeke, which flamed for kill number four while Rushing scored his third. After several more passes, Rushing radioed he was out of ammo but would stay while McCampbell used up his.

At that point, McCampbell had downed seven. Two more passes scored two more kills as the enemy finally approached the security of their bases ashore.

McCampbell scanned his gauges and suddenly realized how low on fuel he was. The two Hellcats broke off and headed home.

McCampbell and Rushing arrived over the fleet to find Essex’s flight deck full of aircraft being spotted for the delayed second strike. He was so low on fuel that he had to put down on USS Langley, a light carrier in the task group. As he advanced his throttle to taxi out of the arresting wires, his engine died from fuel starvation.

Dave McCampbell had just shot down nine enemy planes and Roy Rushing six in one mission, an achievement unmatched in American aerial combat history. With this mission extending his score to thirty, McCampbell was now the leading U.S. Navy ace in the Pacific. By the end of the air group’s tour, he would be recognized as the U.S. Navy Ace of Aces, and he would be awarded the Medal of Honor for this mission. He was, however, now in big trouble with Admiral Ted Sherman, because no one had asked Sherman to change his order about McCampbell not flying fighter missions, and Sherman was of the opinion McCampbell had disobeyed a direct order. Nevertheless, in light of his accomplishment, the admiral let his air group commander off with a warning, “It’s all right this time, but don’t let it happen again.”

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Morris Markey, a correspondent who was aboard Essex for the entire tour, wrote of Air Group 15 in Liberty Magazine in 1945: “They went out to the Pacific war, a hundred young men. Seven months later only forty-five of them came home unhurt. But in those immortal seven months of naval history they became the undisputed champions of the Pacific Ocean areas. Indeed they inflicted on the enemy probably more damage and destruction than any other one hundred young men who have fought anywhere in this war. And the price they made the Japanese pay for their own losses is almost fantastic.”

The record of Air Group 15 speaks for itself: Fighting 15 scored 312 enemy aircraft destroyed, 33 probably destroyed, and 65 damaged in air combat, plus 348 destroyed, 161 probably destroyed, and 129 damaged in ground attacks. Twenty-six Fighting 15 pilots became aces, including their leader, who became the U.S. Navy’s Ace of Aces. Twenty-one squadron pilots were killed in action and one in an operational accident aboard their carrier. Bombing Squadron 15 and Torpedo Squadron 15 scored 174,300 tons of enemy shipping, including 37 cargo vessels sunk, 10 probably sunk, and 39 damaged. As well, Musashi, the world’s largest battleship, was sunk, along with one light aircraft carrier; one destroyer; one destroyer escort; two minesweepers; five escort ships; two motor torpedo boats; and Zuikaku, the last surviving carrier that participated in the Pearl Harbor attack. Incredibly, every pilot of Torpedo 15 was awarded the Navy Cross, the highest award for bravery after the Medal of Honor, during this tour of combat for valor in the face of the enemy by torpedoing an enemy ship under fire.

All of this took place between May 19 and November 14, 1944. No other American combat unit in any service came close to a similar score in such a short time period.

Air Group 15 participated in the two greatest naval battles in history, the First and Second battles of the Philippine Sea—also known also as the Marianas Turkey Shoot and the Battles of Leyte Gulf, which saw the end of Japanese naval power, as well as Halsey’s rampage across the Central Pacific that fall, which marked the high tide of the carrier war. On June 19, 1944, forever after known as the Marianas Turkey Shoot in the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, Fighting 15 shot down 68.5 attacking Japanese aircraft, a one-day record unmatched by any other American fighter squadron.

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One of the better-known squadron pilots was the Hollywood star Wayne Morris, who left a successful career in the movies to sign up as a naval aviator, even though at age twenty-seven he was considered “too old” for combat and was originally expected to fulfill a public relations role for recruiting. In fifty-seven missions, Morris scored seven victories and was brought home in three Hellcats so badly shot up that they were pushed overboard. Only Jimmy Stewart, who logged thirty-five missions over Germany as a bomber pilot, matched Morris as a for-real Hollywood “war hero.”

Other air groups were composed of similar young men who had undergone similar training and set similar scores during that training. None of the pilots assigned to any of the squadrons of Air Group 15 was considered elite in any way; they were fully representative of all naval aviators of the period. Their aircraft were no different from those used throughout the navy’s air arm.

What was it that set this group apart from all the others?

It’s said that timing is everything. Air Group 15’s timing was perfect: it might have remained aboard the USS Hornet in March 1944 but for the fact it was judged not ready for operations. Its replacement, Air Group 2, was the second-highest-scoring naval air group of the war, but it missed the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea when its tour was completed at the end of September 1944. “Fabled Fifteen” was the only fleet carrier air group to serve the entire period from the First Battle of the Philippine Sea through the Battles of Leyte Gulf, the high point of the Pacific War. (Three light carrier air groups also served this entire period). Thus, the group was presented with opportunities no other group saw. But still, in all those battles, other groups of similar background, with similar opportunities, took part. Regardless, Air Group 15 came out on top.

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If timing is everything, the ability to take advantage of such an opportunity when it presents itself is crucial. Vince Lombardi is famous for saying, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” A more accurate view is that the truth is leadership isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Without leadership, there is no winning. Air Group 15 was lucky in its leadership. Air Group Commander David McCampbell led by example, scoring thirty-four victories during the tour to become the U.S. Navy’s Ace of Aces and receive the Medal of Honor, an inspiration to his pilots and aircrew, who responded by matching his example. Every man of them, when later asked about their achievement, credited McCampbell as being their inspiration. Like many successful combat commanders, McCampbell’s initial career was not one that led others to expect great things. As with other outstanding leaders, such as John Thach, John Waldron, and Jimmy Flatley, McCampbell proved the inverse relationship between academic performance and combat performance. A 1933 graduate of Annapolis, where he led the Naval Academy’s swimming team to Amateur Athletic Union and National Collegiate Athletic Association championships in diving, and was asked to become a member of the United States Olympic Swimming Team at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics (which he was unable to do owing to his low academic standing), he graduated in the lower half of his class and was thus released from active duty upon graduation, due to the economic difficulties faced by the navy during the Great Depression. His entry in The Lucky Bag for the Class of 1933 makes interesting and insightful reading of his character, if read with later knowledge of his achievements:

“David McCampbell, West Palm Beach, Florida, “Dave” “Mac”. To attempt to describe this personage in the short space allotted here is a difficult task and must necessarily be sketchy. To begin with, Mac hails from Florida and has never been able to acclimate himself to the rigors of Maryland winters—or summers. He and the roommate have fought a four year battle over the question: ‘Shall the windows be open or closed?’ In academics Mac hasn’t always had the wind abaft the beam, so to speak, but in rough weather he proved himself to be a good sailor and one not easily lost in the academic sea. In athletic fields of endeavor, Mac has had little or no difficulty in maintaining his superiority over others. For four years he has been the navy’s foremost fancy diver, and for those who appreciate this most difficult and graceful art he has provided many hours of delightful entertainment. In fact, he so delighted the judges upon one occasion that they crowned him inter-collegiate champion. In addition to his diving, he has proven himself to be an outfielder of no mean ability. Mac’s heart is torn between two loves; one is Aphrodite, the other is Morpheus. Sometimes one has the upper hand, sometimes the other. He enjoys both to the fullest extent and is content with either. Mac will always find life enjoyable because he has an amiable disposition, because he is a gentleman, and because he is an optimist.”

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Following his inauspicious beginning as a commissioned officer, Ensign McCampbell was recalled to active duty in late 1934 and spent the years 1935 through 1937 as a junior officer aboard the heavy cruiser USS Portland. Having been interested in aviation since age nine, when an uncle gave him a ride in a Curtiss Jenny, and having become an aerial observer with the ship’s aviation detachment, he was accepted for flight training at the end of 1937 after trying four times and being failed for an eye condition due to the flight surgeon’s use of outdated equipment. With a different doctor and modern equipment, he passed the eye exam and was sent to Pensacola, from which he graduated fifth in his class and received his Wings of Gold in March 1938. That summer he reported to Fighting Squadron 4, the “Red Rippers,” aboard USS Ranger.

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Historian John Lundstrom in his two excellent First Team books, has made much of pre-war gunnery training as being the “secret weapon” with which the U.S. Navy went on to win the air war in the Pacific. While the navy did provide superior gunnery training to that in the Army Air Corps (which didn’t provide any formal aerial gunnery training for fighter pilots at all until 1943), it wasn’t quite as uniformly good service-wide as Lundstrom has related, at least according to the testimony of Marine aviator Charles Older, who went on to become one of the first aces of the American Volunteer Group, popularly known as The Flying Tigers. In a 2002 interview, Older said that his first squadron commander was more interested in his ability to hold position in a “parade-ground” formation than any skill in hitting a target sleeve. On the other hand, the late Richard H. “Dick” Best, Jr., known to history as the man who sank the Akagi and thereby turned defeat into victory at the Battle of Midway, began his career as a section leader with Fighting 2, the famous “Flying Chiefs.” According to him, that unit held every aspect of naval flying important and considered it a mark of honor that every pilot in the squadron was considered a dead-eye shot in inter-squadron competitions. According to Best, the squadron commander, Lieutenant Commander Apollo Soucek, made gunnery training a top priority. Many of the enlisted pilots in that unit went on to become commissioned officers in World War II and took that commitment to their new squadrons with useful result.

Dave McCampbell was lucky that Fighting 4 was one of those units that considered gunnery important. As a young man growing up in Alabama and Florida, he had been introduced to hunting early, and was a crack shot when it came to ducks, perhaps the best early gunnery training a fighter pilot could have undergone. In 1940, McCampbell was one of the top three in the annual fleet gunnery competition. When he took command of Fighting 15 in September 1943, he initiated a strong program of daily aerial gunnery training, which paid off handsomely when the time came in 1944.

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Assigned to USS Wasp (CV-7) upon her commissioning in 1940 as assistant landing signal officer, McCampbell had the opportunity to experience command leadership while serving under Captain John W. “Black Jack” Reeves, Jr., considered one of the leading officers of his generation. (As a rear admiral, Reeves would command fast carrier task groups from early to mid 1944.)

In this period before the outbreak of war, Wasp was one of the most active aircraft carriers in the fleet. This afforded McCampbell the opportunity to gain extensive knowledge of carrier flight operations as part of the Neutrality Patrol, in which the U.S. Navy gave aid to the Royal Navy in the year before Pearl Harbor that was only narrowly “short of war.” In May 1941, Wasp participated in a futile hunt for the German battleship Bismarck, and in August 1941 she took part in what was later disclosed as a hunt for the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, then on a mid-Atlantic raiding mission. When Wasp crossed the Atlantic to participate in the resupply of Malta with fighters, LSO McCampbell played a leading role. He accompanied Wasp to the Pacific in the summer of 1942 and survived her sinking that September. Thus, by the time he moved up to command, Dave McCampbell possessed the kind of experience that was needed for wartime leadership.

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There is another element to leadership in any organization, and that is the leader’s personality. McCampbell was remembered by those who served with him before the war as a young officer who cut a wide swath socially, for which he gained the nickname “Dashing Dave.” As one of his friends later recalled to historian Barrett Tillman, “Dave and I were asked to leave every good restaurant in New York City!” This element of dash and verve, so well seen as a major aspect in the leadership of a man like General George S. Patton, Jr., has a strong influence on promoting a similar spirit of dash and verve among those who serve under such a leader.

McCampbell was also a different kind of commander of the air group (CAG) when he led Air Group 15. Traditionally, the job of the CAG was to lead the group, to coordinate strikes in combat. At the outset of the war and through the major carrier battles of 1942 and offensive combat in 1943 and early 1944, the CAG flew either a dive- or torpedo bomber. With the robust endurance and communications capability of such aircraft, it was felt he was better able to handle the tasks of leadership and coordination. McCampbell was one of the first CAGs to fly a fighter. He could point to the fact that the F6F-3 Hellcat had better endurance than the SB2C Helldiver that equipped the dive-bombing squadron, and range equal to that of the torpedo squadron’s TBM Avenger, with performance that allowed the commander to defend himself in combat. When McCampbell started building a score as a fighter pilot during the Marianas Turkey Shoot, he was widely criticized by both superiors and contemporaries for having come down with “Zero fever.” Admiral William Harrill, the original commander of Task Group 58.4, specifically told him to stop “carving notches” other than in self defense, because the group commander was supposed to be “a leader, not a shooter.” As related earlier, Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman, specifically ordered him to refrain from active combat when he assumed command of the Essex task group.

It is interesting to note that by the end of the Marianas Campaign, nearly all the CAGs in the Pacific Theater were flying Hellcats, and that by the end of the Philippines Campaign it was de rigueur that the CAG flew a fighter, a tradition that has been maintained in the navy during all the years since World War II.

Many of those who served under McCampbell recalled in later years that having a CAG who was setting records in the air battles they were fighting that summer and fall of 1944 inspired them to put forth similar effort in their own assignments. “Leading from in front” has traditionally been the sign of a great combat leader, and the record of Air Group 15 in sinking more enemy tonnage and shooting down more enemy aircraft than any other U.S. Navy air group during the Pacific War demonstrates that McCampbell’s inspirational leadership did have effect.