22. The South China Sea

"The combined effect of the VT and VF attacks was devastating."

Task Force 38 Takes a Risk

After these last strikes on Formosa, Admiral "Bull" Halsey made the decision to take TF-38 into the South China Sea. This was a high-risk move, creating much discussion and wonderment among our pilots. The Admiral was evidently looking for a major part of the Japanese fleet, including two aircraft carriers. We were headed for Camranh Bay, Saigon, and Hong Kong. Robert Sherrod, Time magazine correspondent, came aboard the Essex to follow the action. Sherrod reported. (1)

"The venture into the South China Sea was as audacious as it was unlikely. Who ever heard of taking all your ships into a pond surrounded by kamikazes on four sides? If the enemy had a fanatical bone in his body, now was his chance to throw himself at his tormentor. If he was looking for targets here they were--11 carriers, 6 battleships, 13 cruisers and 48 destroyers, plus a night-carrier group (2 carriers), and, of all things, a fragile tanker force whose sinking would leave the whole fleet helpless."

Our task force moved through Bashi channel into the South China Sea at night on January 9. Admiral Halsey wrote that "…it is hard for me to realize that we slipped past the Japs." (2) As was his custom, Halsey flashed a message over the teletype to the Ready Room, where we were being briefed with maps and data on French Indo-China: "WE MAY HAVE A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY TOMORROW TO COMPLETELY ANNIHILATE AN IMPORTANT ENEMY FORCE. YOU ALL KNOW THAT IS WHAT I EXPECT OF YOU. GIVE THEM HELL. GOD BLESS YOU ALL. HALSEY." (1)

As TF-38 was moving into the South China Sea--a noteworthy event for the Navy--MacArthur's soldiers went ashore at Lingayen Gulf. The Army issued a big news release on January 10, 1945. (3) The 15 ships that were sunk by Halsey's planes while we were in the South China Sea did not command the attention of General MacArthur's accomplishments. This was another example of the effectiveness of the General's public relations staff.

Those of us on the flight line were not familiar with the intricacies of the decision-making process; nor were we in on the inside discussions or conflicts between the various levels of command. Through scuttlebutt, however, we heard about the differences of opinion between Admiral Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur. We also knew that each time the Navy made a major attack that might get publicity back home, General MacArthur countered with some kind of publicity stunt. MacArthur was always wading ashore, recapturing lost ground, or reporting other major victories to command the attention of the American press.

Within the Navy itself, we devised ways to complain about our circumstances and the lack of attention to the risks we were undertaking by the High Command. For example, one of our favorite songs was as follows:

They sent for MacArthur to go to Talagi
but General MacArthur said no.
He gave as the reason,
It wasn't the season,
Besides there was no USO.
Bless them all, bless them all.
Bless the long and the short and the tall.
Bless all the admirals in COMAIRSOPAC.
They don't give a damn if we never get back.
So, we're saying good-bye to them all….

And so on. This was one way to let off some steam after we returned from a strike. Someone also composed an apropos song about Navy pilots entitled, "I Wanted Wings." This was also a favorite.

I wanted wings till I got the goddamn things,
Now I don't want them anymore!
They taught me how to fly, then they sent me here to die,
I've had a belly full of war.
You can save those Zeros for the goddamn heroes,
Distinguished Flying Crosses do not compensate for losses.
Brother, I wanted wings till I got the goddamn things,
Now I don't want them anymore.
I'll take the dames, while the rest go down in flames,
I've no desire to be burned.
Air combat's called romance, but it's made me wet my pants,
I'm not a hero I have learned.
You can save those Mitsubishis for the goddamn sons of bitches,
Cause I'd rather date a woman than be shot down in a Grumman.
Brother, I wanted wings till I got the goddamn things,
Now I don't want them anymore.
I don't want to die in a goddamn PBY,
That's for the eagers, not for me.
I'll not trust my luck to be picked up by a Duck,
After I've crashed into the sea.
Oh, I'd rather be a bellhop than a flyer on a flat top,
With my hand around a bottle not around the goddamn throttle.
Brother, I wanted wings till I got the goddamn things,
Now I don't want them anymore!

Torpedo Drops in Saigon Harbor--January 12, 1945

There was very little time for singing songs or playing poker on the evening of January 11, 1945. After chow, we had to report for briefings, distribution of Chinese currency, and other last minute preparations. January 12 was to be the first carrier-based naval air strike against French Indo-China (South Vietnam).

General Quarters was sounded at 0655. Night fighters from the Enterprise and Independence were already out on a search for Jap ships along the Indo-China coast. (1) They reported no enemy shipping in the Camranh Bay area. In the meantime the Free French underground radioed that there was plenty of shipping in the Saigon River, including a Cruiser. The Ticonderoga's strike force found and sank a convoy composed of two large oilers, two medium oilers, and three destroyer escorts. (3)

The Essex launched Marine Corsairs for Combat Air Patrol over the Task Force early in the morning. Later in the day, VMF 124 and VMF 213 participated in fighter sweeps over Saigon and attacks on several airfields as well as shipping along the Saigon River.

The primary morning strike group launched from the Essex included 12 Hellcats, loaded with rockets and 1000-pound bombs, and 14 Avengers loaded with torpedoes. Our target was enemy shipping and shore installations along the Saigon River near Cap St. Jacques. Commander Klinsmann was designated as target coordinator.

"On the way to the target the flight observed planes from the USS Ticonderoga and other ships in the task force attacking a convoy between CAPE PADARAN and PT. KEGA. The group commander checked with the target coordinator and upon being informed that no help was needed, he continued on to the assigned area. Before arriving the flight had the report of the target CAP, and they were ordered to meet the incoming flight and strafed DEs and other ships firing while strike group delivered attacks." (3)

The twelve TBMs from VT-4 rendezvoused at 1000 feet and proceeded toward Saigon at 8000. We were led by P. J. Davis. The Torpedo Four tactical organization was: (4)

Pilot Crew
Davis, P. J., Jr. Gray, R. F.
Vogt, C. N. W. (Scott) Halvorson, Leo E.
Barnett, G. M. (Buck) Cohen, Joseph C.
Walker, W. F. (Willie) Hastings, S. A.
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.
Stephens, Page P. Beard, A.
Landre, Vernon A. (*) DeCenso, A. (Tony)
Thomas, Gerald W. (Jerry) Holloman, J. E.
Hopfinger, R. M. Yarman, A. W.
Ruth, Robert F. (Bob) McConnell, C. L.

As we approached the coast of Indo-China, we were directed to attack shipping at Cap St. Jacques.

"A convoy was intercepted which consisted of two FOX TARE BAKERS and one SUGAR ABLE preceded by several escort vessels… VT crossed Cap St. Jacques peninsula southeast to northwest then cut back for advantageous attack position initiating the attack from NNW to SSE."
"Torpedoes were dropped at 250 feet altitude, average speed of aircraft being 250 knots indicated. Dropping range was short but sufficient for torpedoes to arm. The first division attacked a FOX TARE BAKER (No. 1 on chart) and the torpedoes of Lt Davis, Lt (jg) Vogt, and Lt (jg) Barnett found their mark; the fourth torpedo hooked left." (3)

With Hoppy on my wing, I swung south in order to get a better torpedo run on a 10,000-ton tanker. Our approach was ideal in spite of the distraction of antiaircraft fire. I released my torpedo, turned to avoid the tanker, and flew directly over a Fox Tare Baker. I dipped up and down in evasive action. I could see the gunners on the ship shooting at me. Just as I cleared the ship, Holloman took a picture, and the ship exploded from someone else's torpedo.

"Holloman called to say that the tanker we had attacked also had exploded. "Turn back, turn back," he shouted, "Wow! I can get a good picture!" I turned only to find that the AA fire had intensified and I was now a lone target, so I told Holloman, "The heck with the pictures! We're headed out to sea!"

This was one of the best torpedo attacks for VT-4 of the entire war. We went in slow--around 250 knots--and dropped at about the right distance from the ships. All of our fish ran true, with only two missing good targets. The operations report, prepared after our return to the Essex states. (3)

"The torpedoes of Lt (jg) Thomas and Ensign Hopfinger struck the SUGAR ABLE, while the performance of a third torpedo fired at this ship was unobserved. The second FOX TARE BAKER received three torpedoes dropped by Lt (jg) Makibbin, Ensign Deimel, and Ensign Cannady; the performance of a fourth torpedo dropped on this ship was unobserved. Lt (jg) Binder, noting that all the larger vessels were under attack, proceeded southward a short distance and dropped on a DE scoring a hit. All of the ships attacked by VT were sunk…."
"During the attack VT were met with intense antiaircraft fire from the escort vessels and from the hills near the targets…."
"The combined effect of the VT and VF attacks was devastating. When the Essex planes retired, all ships had been sunk or beached…."

Photo: Strike on Saigon Harbor, Indo-China.

Photo: Torpedo Four News.

(1) Sherrod, Robert Lee. 1952. History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. Combat Forces Press.
(2) Admiral Halsey's Story. Cited by Sherrod.
(3) Combat Reports, AG-4. U.S. Navy Operations 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.
(*) Downed: empennage chewed up in spot.

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