THE WAKE RAID
by Cdr Hamilton McWhorter III with Jay A. Stout
Copyright © 2000 by Cdr Hamilton McWhorter III and Jay A. Stout
On September 30, 1944, we were at sea again, this time as part of Task Force 14.
It was the first time the Navy had ever put together six carriers for one operation. Along with the Yorktown, the Essex was joined by the new fleet carrier Lexington (CV-16) and the light carriers Independence (CVL-22), Belleau Wood (CVL-24), and Cowpens (CVL-25).
The target this time was Wake Island.
After repelling a determined attack on December 11, 1941, the American garrison on Wake Island had been captured by the Japanese on December 23, two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The valiant defense put up by the Marines, sailors, and civilians on the island had been a rallying point for America early in the war. The opportunity to take revenge was something we were looking forward to.
We launched our first strike early on the morning of October 5, 1943. One of the lessons we had learned from the Marcus Island raid was that predawn launches were too dangerous. The first aircraft on the Wake Island strike was sent airborne just at first light.
On this mission, the strike groups from both the Essex and the Yorktown—more than a hundred aircraft—rendezvoused about 150 miles from the island before proceeding on course. Once again, the TBFs and SBDs gathered in their protective boxes while the F6Fs rode herd in a weaving formation a thousand feet overhead.
We were just approaching the island when I looked down through the bomber formation and saw an Imperial Navy Zero fighter motoring along in the opposite direction about five hundred feet below the bombers. It was the first Japanese airplane I had ever seen in the air. The Zero was painted in the classic olive green color, with a black engine cowling and big red “meatballs” on the wings and fuselage.
It didn’t take me long to figure out what the enemy fighter was up to. Since he had not already pulled up and blasted the bombers from below, I was sure that—left unmolested—he was going to pull up into an Immelmann to get directly behind the bombers or me.
I immediately rolled into a hard right-hand turn. My plan was to meet him in a head-on firing pass. A head-on pass wasn’t the best move I could make, because I would be facing his two 20mm cannons, but it was better than having him on my tail.
I had gotten only about two-thirds of the way through my turn when I caught sight of him again. He had completed his Immelmann and was already level at my altitude—headed straight for me! And coming right at me from out of his engine cowling was a long stream of red tracers.
I was flabbergasted that the Zero had gotten through the Immelmann turn so quickly. In an instant I rolled further right, kicked right rudder and split-essed straight down and away at full throttle. This was my only way to escape; we knew there wasn’t a Zero made that could stay with the Hellcat in a dive.
Luckily, I wasn’t hit.
As I looked back over my shoulder I could see that the Zero hadn’t tried to follow me down. With my Hellcat screaming down toward the ocean at more than 400 miles an hour, the airstream rushing over my airplane was quite loud and the controls were noticeably stiff. I leveled out several thousand feet below the strike force. Using the energy of my airspeed, I kept the throttle full forward, checked again for the enemy fighter, and zoomed back up to rejoin the strike group.
My very first encounter with an enemy aircraft was over. I had almost found out the hard way just how maneuverable the Zero could be, and I had been lucky to end the engagement in a draw. We learned later that luring us away from our formations was a favorite trick of Japanese pilots. Using a single fighter they could usually sucker one or two of our planes away, then pounce on them with a large pack of fighters. I never purposely left formation again.
Wake Island, really three little islands, is shaped like a big V. I’m not sure why, but the decision was made to attack down the middle—from the open end to the point. The problem with this was, every Japanese soldier and sailor on that island had a shot at us. Their radar had warned them we were coming, and now a huge arc of white and yellow and red tracers reached up at us from each arm of the island. It was so thick that in the still-dim early morning light it looked solid!
Our dive-bombers tipped over into their dives, and we pushed over after them. A few seconds later we flashed past them, picking out targets as we plunged toward the airfield. The amount of antiaircraft fire was terrifying. It didn’t seem possible that anyone could fly through unscathed.
Mike Hadden led Jack Kitchen, Bud Gehoe, and me on a strafing run against one of the hangars on the airfield. It was satisfying to hear the booming chatter from my guns and see the tracers slam into the structure. As I lifted my airplane up to clear the hangar, I released the trigger and looked to my right before I turned. I was not only looking for antiaircraft fire and enemy fighters, but also checking to make sure I didn’t run into another Hellcat. This was a very real danger. Through the war many of our airplanes were lost because they collided over the target.
Amazed and thankful that I had not been hit, I pulled into a hard, climbing right turn and headed back toward our rendezvous point southeast of the island. As I passed through about eight thousand feet, I spotted a Zero almost at my eleven o’clock position. It was about two thousand feet above me, crossing from left to right, almost tail-on.
With a quick dip of my right wing, I turned slightly to the right and closed from directly below and behind. It took only a moment or so to close the range to about three hundred feet. It felt like a week. Finally I lifted the nose of my F6F slightly and settled the pipper of my gunsight on the belly of the enemy fighter.
I fired a short burst—about one second—and the Zero exploded. Next, I banked hard left to clear the explosion and checked behind me for another enemy fighter. It would be a tragedy to shoot down a Zero and get bagged by his wingman.
The sky seemed clear of enemy fighters, so I turned back toward our rendezvous point. A short time later I spotted another Zero a half-mile or so ahead of me, going in the same direction in a shallow dive. I started down after him and was gaining slowly when a bright stream of red tracers flashed over my canopy from behind. Without thinking, I kicked my F6F into a hard snap roll to the right and dove away, straight down.
As I rolled and looked back over my shoulder, I was stunned to see another F6F, still well behind me and obviously far out of range of the Zero. Undeterred by the impossible distance, he continued to fire at the enemy fighter, his rounds falling harmlessly in a long arc into the ocean. I’m sure the idiot never even saw me. Thanks to his bungling, neither one of us got that Zero.
After one or two more strafing runs I flew to the rendezvous point, joined with the other Hellcats, and escorted the bombers back to the Essex. I was very excited about my first aerial victory and made my way around the ship to compare notes with other pilots. The new skipper, Phil Torrey, had gotten into a dogfight with three Zeros, shot down one, and escaped the other two by dodging into a bank of clouds. After our first strafing run Hadden and Kitchen had tangled with four Zeros and shared credit for shooting down one. Hadden’s plane was badly shot up, though, and he almost didn’t make it back. I found out later that I had missed being the first Hellcat pilot to shoot down a Zero by only a few minutes. That distinction probably belonged to Ensign Robert Duncan of VF-5 from the Yorktown. He had bagged two of the enemy fighters on the way into the target.
Overall, our Hellcats had performed masterfully against the Zero. VF-9’s sole loss was Ensign John McGann, who succumbed to an unknown cause. In air-to-air combat, it seemed obvious to us that the Zero, which would remain our primary adversary throughout the war, was starting to show its age against our newer fighter.
First flown in 1940, the Mitsubishi-manufactured A6M Type 0 fighter was arguably the world’s best fighter when it first flew combat later that same year in China. Powered by a Nakajima Sakae 21, 14-cylinder radial engine, which produced about 1,100 horsepower, the Zero was only respectably fast at 340 miles per hour. But it had other qualities that made it a superlative fighter.
Most notably, the Zero was exceedingly light. This lightness, combined with superb design and engineering, made for an exceptionally maneuverable airplane. All through the war there was not a single Allied airplane that could compete with the Zero in a turning fight. The lightweight design also gave the airplane an operating range that approached an almost unbelievable 1,300 miles. Indeed, early in the war land-based Zeros showed up in places so far from known bases that it was thought certain they had been carrier-launched.
Armed with a 20mm cannon in each wing and two 7.7mm cowl-mounted machine guns, the Zero packed a respectable punch. One technique the Zero pilots used with good effect was to range in and get hits with their machine guns, then open fire with the heavy-hitting 20mm cannon, which had only a small supply of ammunition.
The Zero’s long greenhouse canopy provided excellent all-round visibility, which was critical in the whirling, twisting gunfights in which the Zero excelled.
But all of these attributes came at a cost. Japanese pilots prized speed and maneuverability above all else, so the airplane’s manufacturers put little emphasis on protection. Without self-sealing fuel tanks and armor protection, the Zero was prone to catch fire and explode after absorbing only a short burst of gunfire. This was demonstrated for me by the Zero I had shot down. The thin aluminum skin and delicately engineered airframe could not withstand rough use in the same manner that the far heavier American designs could. Zeros were known to come apart in some maneuvers, even though they had not been fired on.
This elegant but somewhat flimsy design also made the Zero difficult to fly at high speeds, particularly in a dive. We learned later that because of the torque generated by its engine, combined with high airspeeds and a lack of boosted aileron controls, the Zero could not follow us in a high-speed right-hand turn; the Zero pilot could not physically move the controls quickly enough to follow us.
These shortcomings weren’t enough to keep the Zero from prevailing over most of the aircraft it encountered early in the war. But the inability of the Japanese to modify the airplane to meet our newer aircraft on equal terms, starting in 1943, heralded a long slide into obsolescence for the Zero.
During the rest of that day and the following day—October 6—I flew two more strikes against Wake Island. But the defending Japanese air contingent was nearly demolished, and I encountered no more enemy aircraft. And while the antiaircraft fire continued to be heavy, we lost no more aircraft. By the time we left Wake late on October 6, the enemy installations there were in a shambles.
On the return trip to Hawaii a memorial service was held for John McGann and two bomber crews. Unfortunately, these services became an increasingly common occurrence as the war heated up for VF-9 and the Essex.