19. Forbidding Formosa

"Air Group Four Added Three Names to the List of MIAs"

Shake-down for the Marines

After the Pacific typhoon, the Essex moved into Berth 14 at Ulithi. Shore leave was authorized to Mog Mog Island in the late afternoon of December 25. Crewmen, as usual, were confined to the fenced-off area and beer was rationed. Officers were issued rum and coke, and someone broke out the dice for diversionary crap games.

That night we had a big fight at the dock between two or three air groups. Several of us ended up in the water. This was not the first or the last scrap between ship's personnel on Mog Mog. Usually no one knew who started the ruckus.

The Essex was underway again on the 30th and we spent New Years Eve, 1945 at sea "steaming in TG 38.3 en route to fueling rendezvous." (1) We were headed for a new target--Formosa. This would give us an opportunity to test out the new TBM-3cs that were delivered to the Essex from a jeep carrier.

By far the greatest new challenge now faced by AG-4 was to shake down the two new Marine Squadrons with F4U-1D Corsairs. The plane component for the Essex was now 36 Corsairs, 55 F6F-5 Hellcats, and 15 Avengers.

The few days that we spent en route to Formosa provided the only opportunity to expose the new Marine pilots to carrier operations. We lost the first Corsair on December 30. Lt T. J. Campion crashed on takeoff, caught fire as he hit, and never emerged from the wreckage. (2)

The next day we lost two more F4Us--one went in the drink as it cleared the flight deck and one spun in coming up the groove. One pilot was rescued, but Lt B. W. Bennett was never spotted after the crash. Lt Col Millington, Commander of VMF 124 admitted: "Numerous problems were experienced in the process of familiarizing the Marine pilots with carrier doctrine and procedure." (3)

Watching these Marines adjust to carrier operations made most of us wish we had the dive bombers back. VB-4, the "Top Hatters," left us in Ulithi as the Marines came aboard. The dive bombers were an integral part of our family. After the next series of strikes, even Millington stated, "It is believed that had VB-4 been aboard for this operation, damage to enemy shipping by this [air] group would have been higher." (3)

Formosa Airfields--January 3, 1945

The major purpose of the carrier-based air strikes on Formosa was to destroy ships or airfields that might be used to counter the upcoming invasion of Luzon by Allied forces.

Formosa was a new name added to our strike vocabulary. The Island was strategic to Japan as a source of valuable supplies and as a launch site for naval operations. The name of the Island was changed to Taiwan (Republic of China) when Chiang Kai-Shek and his followers were forced off the Chinese mainland by the Communists after WW II.

As viewed from the cockpit, Formosa was about 225 miles long and 60 - 80 miles wide. Threatening sea cliffs, forming vertical walls, faced the Pacific side. Rough, forested mountains, reaching heights of nearly 13,000 feet, would tend to negate the forced-landing option and would make any bailout dangerous. In the prestrike briefings we were advised that the "wild savages" called Saiban, because of their hate for the Japanese, might give downed airmen the only possible chance for evading capture and torture.

The weather was bad as the Essex moved into launch position on January 3. In spite of these overcast conditions, the carrier launched a predawn strike force of 8 Hellcats and 8 Avengers. (4)

"The proposed target was Kagi airfield which was providing strategic support for the Japanese operations in the Philippines."
"Upon departing base the flight encountered extremely adverse flying conditions, the overcast being solid from 700 feet to above 10,000 feet. In climbing through this overcast VF became separated from VT, and some VF and VT became separated from their divisions."

The only planes that emerged through the overcast for the rendezvous were 7 Hellcats and 4 Avengers--not a very effective strike group. Nevertheless, under Cdr Klinsmann's direction, the group attempted to spot Kagi Airfield through the occasional openings in the cloud cover.

The strike group finally noted an airfield that "VT insisted was not KAGI but KOKAN, while VF were just as insistent that the field was KAGI." (4)

"Commander Klinsmann's division acted as high cover while the other division, led by C. A. Shields, preceded the VT in their dives. Thereafter, the group commander's division strafed KOBI to the North."

This was another one of those frustrating days for Torpedo Four. Our planes were loaded with 100-pound fragmentation bombs.

The Torpedo Squadron Four tactical organization consisted of: (4)

Pilot Crew
Davis, P. J., Jr. (*) Schmolke, N. J.
Vogt, C. N. W. (Scott) Kelly, R. E.
Barnett, G. M. (Buck) (*) Christopher, C.
Walker, W. F. (Willie) (*) Zeimer, G. F.
Stephens, Page P. Mocsary, Andy (Marge)
Hewett, J. E. Shuman, L. P.
Thomas, Gerald W. (Jerry) Gress, Don H.
Montague, R. B.
Hopfinger, R. M. Yarman, A. W.

P. J.'s division went one way into the soup, and Page took our 4-plane division on a different path. P. J., Buck, and Willie did not reach the target and Scott Vogt got separated in the overcast, eventually joining a 7-plane Avenger group from the Ticonderoga.

The Ticonderoga group chose the harbor installations at Suo as an alternate target. (4)

"Lt (jg) Vogt dropped twelve 100-pound GP bombs on an oil storage at SUO, scoring hits."

Page led our division across Formosa toward Kagi airfield. However, the weather was so bad we couldn't find Kagi, so we bombed Kokan through a hole in the clouds. Our task was to crater the runway to prevent Japanese planes from taking off en route to Luzon. (4)

"All bombs were observed to hit on the large aiming point. In view of the small number of planes dropping, it is held unlikely that the object was totally achieved."

Antiaircraft fire was moderate as we went into the glide bombing attack. During the dive the hatch flew off the turret of one of the Avengers and tore a hole in the stabilizer.

After the run, Hoppy, Ed Hewett, and I joined up with Page below the clouds and climbed back through the mist on a southeasterly course. When we broke out on top we were surprised to see bursts of Ack Ack around us "which trailed fairly accurately, suggesting radar control or at least radar tracking." (4)

Radar-controlled AA fire was a new experience for us. Don Gress, in my turret, shouted "Ack Ack on our tail!," so I took evasive action. I had told Don earlier to alert me--especially if the bursts were close to our tail. The first bursts were usually behind the plane. Then they moved forward to the lethal position unless we took immediate violent maneuvers.

Commander Klinsmann had ordered all torpedo planes to return to base while his division made a strafing run on Kobi airfield. The CO then located Kagi, but the weather closed in before he could attack.

Effective with this strike, all Avengers were ordered to carry only one crew member instead of two. This change was made for three reasons:

  1. Japanese fighters seldom made underside runs, so the belly gunner was not needed;
  2. crew members in the belly were not protected from flak by armor plate; and
  3. radios were more sophisticated and did not require extra attention by the radioman.

With a one-man crew it was still necessary for the turret gunner to arm the bombs and set the intervalometer.

Makibbin and I continued to carry a second crewman designated as a photographer due to our special training at the aerial photo school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Fighter Sweeps--Formosa and Okinawa--January 3, 1945

The Essex launched two additional F6F fighter sweeps and one Marine F4U strike group on January 3. One of the Fighting Four groups was dispatched to Okinawa and the other two sweeps were sent over Formosa.

The first VF-4 sweep was launched at dawn with the Skipper, Lt Cdr K. G. Hammond, as leader. Because of the extreme weather conditions, Hammond's flight was forced to stay close to the deck for most of the 340-mile outward leg. Upon reaching Okinawa, Hammond split the flight into two parts and conducted simultaneous attacks on Naha and Yontan airfields. They burned at least 5 aircraft at Naha and seriously damaged two SDs off shore. Anti-aircraft fire was "intense." (5)

"Lt H. T. Houston was hit and compelled to make a water landing. He was observed in a life raft, and the group stayed over him until gasoline inadequacy forced its return to base. However, rescue facilities which investigated the area could find no trace of him, and it is believed he drifted to shore and was captured."

The next Hellcat sweep, led by Lt Keers, was sent over Formosa, but the weather was so bad only one plane got through to attack. This plane, piloted by Ensign Wright, got separated and joined up with an attack group from VF-44.

In addition to the two VF-4 sweeps, the Essex launched a fighter sweep of Marines in their new Corsairs. This was the first action for carrier-based Marines during WW II. Lt Col Millington led the group of seven F4Us over Formosa. (6)

"…to provide fighter cover for VT-4 torpedo bombers and strafe Kagi Airfield, destroying 10 t/e [aircraft] on the ground and one Nick or Fran airborne, credited to MILLINGTON. A train and other installations were also strafed."

Unfortunately, 1st Lt Robert W. (Moon) Mullins was lost on this Formosa sweep. At last report he was in the clouds and apparently headed out to sea. He was officially listed as "missing in action."

Kagi, Formosa--January 4, 1945

In spite of the bad weather, the Essex launched a strike group at about 0700 hours on January 4. The assignment again was for the 12 Avengers, loaded with 100-pound GP bombs, to crater the airfield at Kagi. Eight Hellcats were to provide escort in case of enemy planes.

The strike group split into two groups and broke through the overcast at 8000 feet. They reassembled above the clouds and made a slow climb to 14,500 as they proceeded toward the target. (4)

"KAGI airfield was overcast and could not be located and Commander Klinsmann ordered VT to attack an airfield believed to be EIKO. VF remained as high cover during the attack and rendezvous, and escorted VT from the target area and returned as a target CAP."

The Torpedo Squadron Four tactical organization consisted of: (4)

Pilot Crew
Davis, P. J., Jr. Gray, R. F.
Hopkins, W. J., Jr. Coller, Stan W.
Souza, Will S. Sims, T. R.
Cole, L. A. (Cozy) Knox, N. H.
Binder, Ed S. Jenkins, W. D.
Deimel, H. J. Ely, C. L., Jr.
Makibbin, G. D. (Mak) Campbell, R.
Montague, R. B.
Cannady, W. H., Jr. Gerke, J. C.
Trexler, B. R. (Trex) (**) Barr, C. W.
Bell, G. M. (***) Ballard, J. F. (Forrest)
Gray, L. C. (****) Ganley, J. E.
Newell, E. A. (Ted) Lace, W. J.

Pilots reported that the Eiko airfield appeared to be in the final stages of construction, but serviceable at the time of the strike. VT-4 planes did a good job of cratering the runways and rendering damage to airport support facilities.

While the torpedo planes were returning to the Essex, Hendricks' fighters came into the same general area, and (5)

"…found an opening in the cloud cover through which to attack Tsuina airfield. Due to weather conditions, the group could not safely observe all of its results, but claims three aircraft probably destroyed and some buildings seriously damaged by bomb and rocket hits. No airborne planes were sighted."

The next major fighter sweep of the day consisted of 19 Hellcats led by Lt Cdr K. G. Hammond, the Skipper of VF-4. Five planes from this group had to return to the carrier due to "mechanical discrepancies." The remaining 14 headed for Okinawa--another assigned target for the Essex. The fighters made runs on Yontan and Naha airfields, reporting that "the operational aircraft observed the day before had been removed or concealed." (4) In addition, the strike group strafed two FWDs entering Nago Bay, and they caught fire. The Hellcats also seriously damaged two trawlers outside Naha.

The Marines saw their second day of action when Captain E. P. Hartsock led an 8-plane F4U sweep over central Formosa. "The area was covered with a solid, low overcast which they could not pierce, and no enemy planes were encountered." (6)

One of the Marine pilots, 1st Lt Donald R. Anderson, flying combat air patrol, crashed into the ocean and was not picked up, "…cause undetermined." (6)

At the end of the short shakedown and the first two days of combat in the Formosa-Okinawa area, Air Group Four could count relatively few successes. The weather had created more problems than the enemy. And we added five names to our list of MIAs--Marine Lts. T. J. Campion and B. W. Bennett, Navy Lt H. T. "Hubie" Houston, and Marine 1st Lts R. W. "Moon" Mullins and D. R. Anderson.

Photo: Bomb-Drop on Eiko Airfield, Formosa.

Photo: Typical Hanger Deck Scene.

(1) USS Essex Ship's Log. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(2) Sherrod, Robert Lee. 1952. History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. Combat Forces Press.
(3) CAG-4 Report on Air Operations 30 Dec. - 26 Jan., 1945. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(4) Combat Reports, VF-4 and VT-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(5) VF-4, The Red Rippers. A History of Fighting Four assembled by members of the Squadron in 1945. U.S. Navy.
(6) War Diary, VMF 124 and VMF 213. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(*) Did not attack targets.
(**) Returned to base.
(***) Downed, radio trouble.
(****) Downed, fouled flaps spreading wings.

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