2. Origins of Torpedo Four

"He landed with his wheels sticking straight up in that cold, cold water."

Commissioned on the USS Ranger

In December 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor, the US Navy made the decision to form a torpedo squadron from the air group aboard the USS Ranger (CV-4). The formal commissioning of Torpedo Four took place on January 10, 1942, while the Ranger lay at anchor off the sunny isle of Bermuda. Thus, VT-4 achieved the distinction of being the first torpedo squadron commissioned at sea.

The Ranger was the first naval vessel designed and constructed as an aircraft carrier. She was commissioned June 4, 1934. The flight deck was narrow (109.5 feet), and the six stacks had to be folded down during air operations. With a maximum speed of 29.5 knots, it was difficult to launch fully loaded combat planes without additional wind over the bow. Planes were usually spotted on the fantail, leaving only about half of the 769 feet of overall flight deck to be used for launch. (1)

The first pilots for the new squadron came from Scouting Squadrons VS-41 and VS-42 and the old Torpedo Squadron Three. Lt Wally Sherrill was designated as commander. The five other pilots in the original Torpedo Four Squadron were Lt Harry Bridewell, Exec; Lt (jg) Jack Warfel; Ens Homer Hutcheson; Ens George Cuhna; and Ens Grady Owens. Among the crew were APs Bolt, Dickson, Labyak, Stockwell, Thomas, and Ball. Laws, Rushing, Lacy, Klingfield, Sanderson, Gray, and Chema were radiomen and turret gunners.

The new torpedo squadron was assigned Douglas "Devastators" (TBDs) "…that had been transferred from the training command. They were pretty decrepit." (2)

The Devastator was designed to carry an external torpedo or a bomb load for horizontal attacks. It had power-folding wings and a semiretractable landing gear. Although the Devastator was slow, it was easy to fly and generally popular with its crews. The AP in the second cockpit had access to dual controls. There was no doubt that the slow, lumbering TBD was a sitting duck for AA fire. The plane was destined to be replaced as soon as a more modern torpedo plane could be developed. During the battle of Midway in June of 1942, 39 of the 41 Devastators that attacked Japanese carriers were shot down. Photo: Douglas "Devastator."

From April 1942 to March 1943, the Ranger made four different runs to North Africa to ferry Curtis P-40 Warhawks to the combat zone. The Army pilots had never made a carrier takeoff, and the Ranger did not have a catapult at that time that could be adapted to Army aircraft.

"It scared the hell out of a lot of people… when they went off, they dropped out of sight for a while. We could listen for the engines and eventually they would come back up. Of all the flights, I don't know of a single loss (of P-40s) due to flying off the carrier." (3)

These cruises served as an opportunity for the air group to obtain valuable training. In addition, the dive bombers and torpedo planes provided necessary antisub coverage for the convoys.

After the second cruise to ferry P-40s to Africa, the Ranger air group became involved in "the most ambitious Naval operation yet conducted in the European-African theater." Simultaneous Anglo-American amphibious landings were scheduled for Morocco and Algeria in early November 1942 as OPERATION TORCH. Ranger planes joined air groups from the USS Suwanee (CVE-27), the USS Sangamon (CVE-26), and the USS Santee (CVE-24) to help neutralize hostile naval units and shore batteries in the Casablanca area. (1)

Nine planes from the Ranger, carrying 1000-pound bombs, attacked the French battleship Jean Bart, "and she was silenced." In the 60 assigned missions in North Africa, the Ranger air group demonstrated her capability as an attack force.

With the addition of a torpedo squadron, the Ranger air group now consisted of three squadrons: Fighting Four, flying F4F Wildcats; Bombing Four, flying SBD Dauntless dive bombers; and Torpedo Four, with TBD Devastators. In the many practice "coordinated attacks" on our own ships, it soon became apparent that a better torpedo plane was needed to increase the effectiveness of the strike force.

Conversion to the Grumman "Avenger"

The Ranger returned to Quonset Point, Rhode Island, in March 1942, where the first TBF (Grumman Avenger) was assigned to the squadron. April and May were spent with a Grumman factory representative working out the bugs in the new monstrosity.

Torpedo squadrons on the Enterprise (VT-6), the Yorktown (VT-3), and the Hornet (VT-8) received TBF-1s about the same time as did VT-4. A land-based contingent of Torpedo Eight made the first combat use of the new Avenger during the battle of Midway (June 23, 1942). In the same battle, the major portion of VT-8 was still flying TBDs from the Hornet. All of the carrier-based TBDs were shot down by the Japanese, and only one of the six land-based TBFs was able to limp back to the Midway airstrip.

Most VT-4 pilots were still flying the old TBDs until the end of July; then on September 8, 1942, "the squadron went aboard and qualified in deck landings in the TBF." (2)

The "Avenger" was the largest single-engine plane built for Navy combat duty early in WW II. The first TBFs designed by Grumman had a top speed of 271 mph and a ceiling of 22,400 feet. Defensive armaments consisted of one .50-caliber machine gun in the turret, a .30-caliber machine gun on the starboard side of the cowling fired by the pilot, and a .30-caliber machine gun in the belly set to fire aft. The large internal bomb bay had the capacity to carry one 2000-pound torpedo, two 1000-pound bombs, four 500-pound bombs, eighteen 100-pound bombs, or four depth charges. The wheels retracted outwardly, and the fully retractable tail hook was installed at the extreme rear of the fuselage. Photo: Grumman "Avenger."

Grumman eventually contracted the production of the Avenger to General Motors, and the TBF became known as the TBM. Also, improvements were soon made in performance and armaments, with two .50-caliber guns mounted in the wings to be fired by the pilot.

The Squadron had many shakedown problems in the first four months of operation with the TBFs. Lt Sherrill "creamed one of the first TBFs and we sent him to the hospital." (4) But, overall, the new planes were a vast improvement over the old TBDs.

Lt Cdr D. W. "Woot" Taylor took over as Skipper of VT-4 in December 1942. I was one of four new ensigns assigned to the squadron in February 1943. Bob Ruth, Felix Ward, Will Souza, and I had just completed dive bomber training. We were surprised to be shifted to a torpedo squadron, although we were well aware of the shortage of torpedo pilots.

At least the four of us were still together--dive bomber pilots converted to torpedo pilots by orders and not by training. Bob Ruth and I completed Elimination Base at Los Alamitos, California, at the same time. Bob was probably the smallest pilot in the Navy. He got into cadet training with the help of a pharmacist mate who obtained a waiver. Bob was an eighth of an inch too short to meet the Navy specs.

"I had never seen one of those TBF monsters until we got to Quonset Point,” Bob stated. Souza added, "When Bob came up to the Avenger to sign the 'yellow sheet,' the plane captain wouldn't give it to him. 'I'm looking for the pilot,' he said. Bob looked like a 16-year-old kid. He couldn't even get a drink at the bar without his ID." After the war, one of our crewmen Tony DeCenso stated, "Bob Ruth was the biggest damn pilot in the Navy!" (6)

Will Souza went through Elimination Base at Oakland, California. He joined Bob and me in cadet training at Corpus Christi in July 1942. Souza was very conscientious, but his sense of humor added a new dimension to the flying profession. We knew of his determination to get married as soon as Lyn and the Navy could coordinate their schedules. Just for fun I drew a cartoon of Souza showing the extra 5 knots of flying speed he would need to keep from "stalling out in the groove."

Felix Ward, the other member of our inner circle, was "All-Nav." He followed the regulations to the letter and recognized the appropriate ranking system. He had applied for the "Regular Navy" while most of us were content with "Reserve" classifications. Like Bob Ruth, he was small in stature. When he was not in the cockpit, he kept a pipe in his mouth. This gave him the appearance of a calm, mature officer. Felix, too, had a beautiful girl, Peggy, from the deep south, all picked out and ready for the marriage vows at the earliest possible date.

I reported to Lt H. H. Hutcheson, Executive Officer of VT-4 on February 23, read the manual on the TBF Avenger, received a cockpit check-out, and flew the plane for the first time two days later. On March 9, I ferried my TBF from Quonset Point, Rhode Island, to Norfolk, Virginia, and reported for duty aboard the Ranger.

Three days later, Bob, Will, and I were temporarily dispatched to CASU-22 (Carrier Air Service Unit) where we served as test pilots for reconditioned Navy planes of all types. The three of us remained with CASU-22 until April. We had a great time checking out in most of the Navy's single engine planes. We took many unnecessary chances, including flying under two bridges in the Providence area. On one occasion we flew a three-plane formation under the Mt. Hope bridge--one plane under each span. Later, I flew a Grumman "Duck" under a bridge where the clearance became more and more questionable as I got closer to the point of no return.

All of these wild actions were "justified," because we were being trained as torpedo pilots--the most hazardous flying job in the Navy. Hedge-hopping was a necessary part of this training, and the civilian population around air bases "tolerated" these activities because the nation was at war. However, flying under bridges virtually stopped after a senior officer recorded the number of a plane "going under as he was driving over." The unlucky pilot was summarily charged and grounded.

CASU-22 pilots were also assigned various missions to ferry planes to other naval bases. On my second ferry hop from Quonset Point to Argentia, Newfoundland, to deliver a Grumman float plane, I was ordered back aboard the Ranger and reattached to VT-4. The Carrier was now operating out of Argentia and providing antisub escort duty for convoys crossing the North Atlantic.

While the Ranger was in Argentia, the air group practiced simulated attacks and field carrier landings. For field carrier landing practice (FCLP), we had our regular signal officer guide us in and give us the "cut" signal for the full-stall landing on a marked area on the airstrip. Photo: A typical practice torpedo attack.

We took pride in the "tail first" touchdown. On one of my practice landings, I took the cut okay, gave the plane full-throttle to take off again, but the engine responded only by coughing and power surges. My plane was airborne at the end of the runway but in bad trouble. Because of the terrain, I had to make a quick decision--either cut the throttle and land in the flat area beyond the runway or hope the plane would struggle over some low hills until I could position myself for another shot at the airfield. I chose to cut the throttle, switch off, and land wheels up. The plane's belly took a beating and one wing tip was slightly damaged, but the landing wasn't much harder than a routine carrier landing. I was called in for an investigation and cleared of "pilot error"--a condemnation no one wanted on their record. My TBF was "sold to the supply officer, NAS Argentia, for the total price of $1 and a new plane was issued to Torpedo Squadron Four." (7)

Torpedo Four was now a nine-plane squadron with 12 to 14 pilots, which allowed some opportunity for rotation of flight duty and shipboard assignments. Normally the Squadron had two additional nonflying officers for intelligence and personnel. A total backup crew of 90 men, including ship's personnel, was required to put each TBM into operation. (8)

Carrier Air Group Four attained another first when we were ordered to qualify for night flight operations. Because of the presence of German submarines, it was most important to keep the lights on the Carrier at a minimum. Cdr Ruddy, who had logged many hours of flight time, stated that he would make the first test flights. He gave instructions to the deck hands to place a few lights along the flight deck and a small floodlight on the Landing Signal Office (LSO). Then he took off, came around the groove, and made a perfect landing. Photo: Aerial view of carrier.

"Too many lights!" he stated. "Cut out about half, remove some of the clearance lights from the Island structure--a sub could spot the Carrier from miles away!"

Ruddy took off again, ordered another reduction in lighting, and then said, "Launch the other planes!" We did just that. It was a wild scene. Pilots couldn't line up in the groove. Some got aboard with blown tires or structural damage, but most of this first flight had to be vectored to land.

On one of these night flights, Ensign G. W. Wright of VT-4 stalled out making the final approach and went in on his back. Lt Hamrick stated it this way: (9)

"He landed with his wheels sticking straight up in that cold, cold water. We all thought that was all for G. W., but the tin cans pulled him out and got him to the hospital. That was the night I took off with my wings unlocked and wondered what the loud buzzing was."

One night Otto Klinsmann, who was the Skipper of Bombing Four, lectured to all of the pilots in the Ready Room on safe techniques for night operations. He summed up by saying, "Keep cool. Don't lose your orientation!"

Because I was not scheduled on the night Otto gave the lecture, I went up to the bridge to watch the operation. Otto was in the takeoff spot with his SBD. He revved up full throttle, received the takeoff signal, and started down the flight deck. It was an unusually dark night with no visible horizon. About the time Otto popped his flaps, the plane started bouncing off toward the starboard before it became airborne. It disappeared over the right side of the flight deck and plunged into the drink. A deck hand ran over to the catwalk and threw in a flare to mark the point for the trailing destroyer.

We brought Lt Cdr Klinsmann and his crewman back aboard the next morning. When he was asked what happened, he simply stated, "I lost my orientation."

On March 15, 1944, I recorded in my journal: "Weather foul. Night black as hell ceiling 700 feet…. Henry crashed into the Island. Plane burned but no casualties…. Planes remaining in the air were vectored to nearest land."

Thus, the training and experimentation continued until Air Group Four became night-qualified and ready for action.

In addition to requiring night qualifications for the Carrier Air Groups, the Navy made the decision to form more "Night Fighter" squadrons whose primary mission would be night attacks and searches. No one in VT-4 wanted anything to do with these assignments, but, sure enough, Buck Barnett was somehow selected. (10)

"I was home on a short leave. When I got back to Quonset Point, lo and behold, they had transferred me into this night squadron. I was assigned a fancy TBM with a large radar bulb way out on the wing. They sent a man with me to operate the radar, while I checked out how the blip and the plane worked. We went out and flew around the coast. The radar scope showed all the details. It was quite an experience."
"After we finished the run, I flew back to Quonset Point. You know how the runway extends into the ocean? I was hanging the plane on its prop--like any good Navy pilot is supposed to do--but I didn't count on that big radar out there. The wing fell off and the plane stalled in! I was in the drink!"
"We were only about 10 feet from shore, so we crawled out on the wing. My crewman pulled the rubber boat out. The fire trucks came out--sirens full on. I had hardly got my feet wet."
"The skipper of this night flying outfit called me in and said, 'If you don't want to stay with this night squadron, you don't have to.' I said 'I want back in Torpedo Four!' So that ended my night flying assignment."

We were all glad to have Buck back in VT-4--not only because he was a good pilot but, after all, he was in charge of one of our poker tables. We had become familiar with his bluff, "Call and raise, two-bits light!"

Photo: Between flights aboard the carrier.

Photo: Torpedo Squadron Four Insignia.

(1) Navy Department. 1946. History of the USS Ranger. Stencilled.
(2) Taped Interview with George Cuhna, VT-4 Pilot.
(3) Taped Interview with Whitey Muller, VT-4 Ranger Reunion Historian.
(4) Taped Interview with Charlie Barr, VT-4 Crewman.
(5) Taped Interview with W. S. Souza, VT-4 Pilot.
(6) Taped Interview with A. DeCenso, VT-4 Crewman.
(7) Thomas, Gerald W., VT-4 Pilot. Personal Journal.
(8) Tillman, Barrett. 1980. Avenger at War. Charles Scribner & Sons, New York.
(9) Taped Interview with H. H. Hamrick, VT-4 Executive Officer.
(10) Taped Interview with G. M. Barnett, VT-4 Pilot, 1989.

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