11. Shakedown on the Essex

"Upon departure of VT, [ship] #1 burning; #2 damaged but under way; #3 dead in the water; #4 capsized and sinking…."

Transfer at Ulithi Lagoon

On November 17, 1944, the USS Bunker Hill returned to Ulithi for refueling and R&R for all personnel. Word spread like wildfire that the Bunker Hill was headed back to Pearl Harbor. This scuttlebutt turned out to be true.

The departure of the Bunker Hill raised the question about the fate of Air Group Four. We had already served in both theaters of war. Two cruises in combat zones were considered adequate for rotation back to the States. However, our assignment on the Bunker Hill had been brief and our combat losses minimal. Consequently, we were not surprised to receive orders to report aboard the Essex.

The USS Essex was the first of a new and powerful class of aircraft carriers to join the US fleet. It was built at Newport News, Virginia, and launched April 28, 1941. She passed through the Panama Canal and reported for duty to the Commander, US Pacific Fleet, on May 16, 1943. (1) Our previous ship, the Bunker Hill, was of the "Essex Class," so we knew what to expect in terms of quarters and air operations. These carriers carried a complement of approximately 3000 men.

The Logbook of the Essex states, "Nov. 18 - 21, 1944. Anchored in Berth 27, Ulithi Islands… replenishing." Air Group Four reported aboard as a part of that "replenishing." On November 21, 1944, I wrote to Mother and Dad:

"…I write every chance I get to send mail out, but that is rather infrequent. I hope you don't worry about me…. The censors have agreed to let me say we were in the Hawaiian Islands. Also that we are no longer on the Bunker Hill. Cannot give the name of the present carrier."

The USS Essex had already been labeled the "fightingest ship" in the Navy and Air Group 15 had an outstanding combat record. This air group, which boasted of "McCampbell's Heroes," had sustained heavy combat losses. The orders came: "Air Group Four will replace Air Group Fifteen on the Essex."

It was obvious that the Essex's crew did not believe that the new Air Group could come up to the standards of their old group--so we had to overcome some resentment. Our fighters were really under pressure: (2)

"Replacing Air Group Fifteen on the carrier was more of a job than it appeared at a casual glance, for Air Group Fifteen had set an all-time record at planes destroyed in the air--310. The seven planes to our credit by this time did not look very impressive. Consequently, there was an air of scorn about."

Cozy Cole, one of our VT-4 pilots, said he would have to take some credit for the poor reception we received when we went aboard the Essex. (3)

"When we were transferred to the Essex at Ulithi, they sent me and a couple of fighters to Falalop Island to pick up some replacement planes. That night we sat on the beach, watched the moon rise, and did away with the whole bottle. The fleet sortied at sunrise the next morning. We were ordered to fly aboard as soon as the ship could get into maneuvering position. The two fighters got aboard very quickly. I think I got more wave-offs that one morning than all the rest of the time I was in the Pacific. It was a rather poor introduction to ship's company for Torpedo Four."

The attitudes of ship's personnel about Air Group Four changed substantially after several combat missions and the advent of the kamikaze.

As the Essex left Ulithi on November 27, our Air Group was placed under the same pressure as we had experienced on the Bunker Hill--inadequate time for a proper shakedown. We had to work out flight schedules while the ship was en route back to the Philippines. During the shakedown and for several strikes thereafter, our Avengers carried two different identification markings. This led to some confusion by later historians, particularly those who researched the records of McCampbell's Heroes.

Japanese Subs Penetrate Ulithi

While the Essex was anchored in Ulithi and Air Group Four was getting bunk assignments, two Jap minisubs got through the submarine nets. One torpedoed the US tanker Mississinewa anchored near the Essex. The tanker exploded and burned in the show of a lifetime. Photo: Japanese Minisubs Torpedo Mississinewa.

It was very early in the morning (0550 hours), but I was on the flight deck preparing to take pictures of the squadron with the K-20 camera we had used on our last strike. At the time of the explosion I swung around and snapped several pictures of the action. I was excited since I was probably the only person in a position to record the first stages of the torpedo attack on film. When I rushed the camera to the darkroom to have the film developed, we discovered that there was no film in the camera. The K-20 would show a film advance even though it was empty. Pictures of the Mississinewa burning were taken a few minutes later from a nearby ship.

Our DDs and DEs got under way in Ulithi Lagoon to drop depth charges on the subs. Scuttlebutt was that both Jap subs were sunk and two dead crew members were picked up, but this report has not been verified. The date was November 19 or 20, 1944.

Strike on Santa Cruz

On November 25, 1944, the ship's records state, "Operating in TG 38.3 about 100 miles E of Luzon launching strikes against shipping and land targets in the Manila area."

Early in the morning the Essex launched the usual Combat Air Patrol and a morning fighter sweep against Clark Field on Luzon. Lykes Boykin led the VF sweep in the attack on Clark Field.

"As they rendezvoused after the attack, they were set on by a group of 18 TONYS, four of which were shot down. Boykin, Marn, Nicholson, and Carruthers were credited with the kills." (2)

The main strike group made preparations for an 0730 takeoff under the command of Otto Klinsmann. There were 18 TBMs and 21 2B2Cs and only 6 fighters scheduled for the strike. I recorded in my journal, (4)

"Two Helldivers went in the drink while VT-4 was turning up on the fantail (the VB-4 skipper, Lt Cdr Johnson, and Lt (jg) Deputy. Johnny and his gunner got out of the plane, but Dep was never picked up.)"

One of these Helldivers went in the water as it cleared the flight deck due to power failure and it is believed that the other closed his flaps too soon after the takeoff and spun in. (5)

The torpedo planes, loaded with four 500-pound semi-armor-piercing bombs, under the command of Lt Davis, "proceeded to target employing a formation of four, four-plane divisions in stepped-down diamond." The tactical organization of VT-4 was as follows: (6)

Pilot Crew
Davis, P. J., Jr. Gray, R. F.
Schmolke, N. J.
Vogt, C. N. W. (Scott) Halvorson, Leo E.
Kelly, R. E.
Barnett, G. M. (Buck) Cohen, Joseph C.
Christopher, C.
Walker, W. F. (Willie) Hastings, S. A.
Zeimer, G. F.
Stephens, Page P. Beard, A.
Mocsary, Andy (Marge)
Landre, Vernon A. DeCenso, A. (Tony)
Statler, Charlie C.
Thomas, Gerald W. (Jerry) Holloman, J. E.
Gress, Don H.
Hopfinger, R. M. Wilson, F. W.
Yarman, A. W.
Trexler, B. R. (Trex) Barr, C. W.
Aldrich, J. W.
Bell, G. M. Tankard, A. J.
Pittman, R. R.
Ruth, Robert F. (Bob) (*) Ballard, J. F. (Forrest)
McConnell, C. L.
Gray, L. C. Ganley, J. E.
Mann, R. C.
Binder, Ed S. Jenkins, W. D.
Tranflaglia, A. B.
Deimel, H. J. Ely, C. L., Jr.
Leach, L. S.
Makibbin, G. D. (Mak) Montague, R. B.
Campbell, R.
Cannady, W. H., Jr. Supanich, J. J.
McGuire, E. A.
Zook, J. F. Thomas, L. E.
Baughman, P. J.
Pletts, D. C. (*) Switaneck, A. P., Jr.
Wood, L. E.

The target coordinator sighted a Japanese convoy just south of Santa Cruz and ordered Air Group Four to attack these ships. The fighters went in first, diving on a Destroyer Escort and firing rockets. Lt Lew Lepp's belly tank came off as he began the run, so he pulled out and was ordered to return to base. Lt Harris's rockets hit an LSM, setting it afire. The ship exploded and lost headway.

The 16 Helldivers from VB-4 rolled over from 10,000 feet and dived on the DE and 3 LSMs. Lt (jg) Hanson's bomb hit the stern of one LSM and Ensign F. W. Wilson hit another.

The first division of Avengers, led by our skipper, P. J. Davis, attacked one LSM. (5)

"…pushing over from 8000 feet, employing a glide angle of 40 - 45 degrees, with an average speed of approximately 300 knots of glide, releasing at 2500 feet, and pulling out at about 1800 feet. One hit forward by Lt Davis and a near miss forward by Lt (jg) Vogt were reported. Damage was not immediately observed, but ship was dead in water as aircraft retired."

Buck Barnett was leading the second section of P. J.'s division with Willie Walker on his wing. As Buck was pulling out of the run, his plane was hit by antiaircraft fire. Joseph Cohen, ARM3C, who was manning the belly gun, was wounded by shrapnel. The plane's controls were not damaged and Buck was able to fly the plane back to the Essex.

I was in the second division with P. P. Stephens in the lead. We pushed over on the Destroyer Escort. It was taking evasive action as the Jap gunners concentrated on the diving Avengers. We pulled out of the run at about 1000 feet. Surprisingly, none of us was hit.

"Ensign Hopfinger scored a direct hit on the bow of the ship. Damage was not immediately observed, but DE appeared to be burning as VT departed." (6)

"Trex" Trexler took the third division into a glide bombing attack on one of the LSMs. "Though several bombs hit close to target, no damage was observed or claimed." (6)

"The fourth division, led by Lt (jg) Binder, split its attack with two planes attacking the auxiliary transport and two planes attacking the LSM. Planes pushed over from 6000 feet and made individual rather than section runs. Dive angles employed varied from 35 - 50 degrees. Lt (jg) Binder straddled the bow of an LSM with two bombs. Debris was seen to fly from ship with the bomb explosions. Lt (jg) Makibbin scored a hit directly amidships on this same ship, which caused an explosion on board. The LSM capsized almost immediately after the attack. The two other VTs of this division, attacking another LSM, caused no apparent damage."
"Upon departure of VT, the convoy appeared to be in the following condition: #1 burning; #2 damaged but under way; #3 dead in water; #4 capsized and sinking. En route to base, pilots heard planes from subsequent attack group report all four ships sunk."
"One bomb was returned and one was jettisoned after the attack."

After the strike we rendezvoused about 5 miles east of the target at 5000 feet. When Landre, Hopfinger, and I joined up on Page Stephens, we again noticed Page's erratic flying pattern. We had finally become accustomed to this strange behavior. Page always had to use the "P" tube after an exciting strike. To operate the relief tube in a Grumman Avenger was always a challenge. There was no way you could fly straight and level while engaged in this activity.

Photo: Planes Crowd Deck of USS Essex.

Photo: Pilots and Crew Aboard USS Essex.

(1) The USS Essex: CV-9, U.S. Navy Publication.
(2) VF-4, The Red Rippers. A History of Fighting Four assembled by members of the Squadron in 1945. U.S. Navy.
(3) Taped Interview with Lloyd Cole, VT-4 Pilot.
(4) Thomas, Gerald W., VT-4 Pilot. Personal Journal.
(5) Combat Reports, VB-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(6) Combat Reports, VT-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(*) Did not take off.

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Torpedo Squadron Four: A Cockpit View of World War II
Copyright © 1990-2000 by Gerald W. Thomas