28. En Route to Tokyo

"Mitscher directs history's boldest Naval operations."

On January 23, 1945, the Essex retired from the battle front to rendezvous with a tanker for refueling. The next day, the entire Task Group steamed toward Ulithi. Strikes and fighter sweeps were discontinued, but we launched the usual Combat Air Patrols and antisub searches. We dropped anchor on January 26 and remained in the lagoon until February 10, "replenishing in Berth 25." (1)

This replenishment was more than routine. Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, with his staff, was waiting in Ulithi to replace Admiral Halsey as Fleet Commander. The Third Fleet would now become the Fifth Fleet once more--and our Task Force would change from 38.3 to 58.3. (2)

Most of us liked being under the command of "Bull" Halsey--even though history shows that he made some mistakes--including leading us into that disastrous typhoon. As one historian stated: (2)

"Admiral Halsey, despite his shortcomings, which were few compared to his virtues, was liked by all and revered by the enlisted men of his fleet. Always approachable, always solicitous, always daring, he operated not in the spirit of 'Go!' but of 'Let's go!' He asked no man to face dangers that he would not face himself."

The change in the higher levels of command was not as important to me as the mail call with letters from home. Mother wrote that my brother Byron may now be in the Pacific. That was exciting news. My letter of January 31 provides the details of our reunion in Ulithi Lagoon:

"Dear Mother, Dad, and Walter,"
"…a few hours after your letter arrived, I saw a Baby Flat Top pull up and anchor beside our ship…. My hopes were confirmed by the Signal Bridge….It sure enough was the Kasaan Bay."
"I bummed a ride on a guard mail boat over to her and went aboard. Golly it was good to see Byron again. We talked for hours, exchanging sea stories and finally ended up in a discussion of ranches, horses, and future plans….
"Byron and I together can, by selling our war bonds and using my bank account, rustle up close to $2000 cash. With our present sea duty we can set aside $200 per month. We want to invest in land… maybe put some kind of a deal together to buy Lidy Hot Springs. Or, as a second choice, Blue Creek."
"Byron sure looks good since he made Chief. He really has a good deal now, even if he does kick a little… good food, good quarters…. Write soon."
"Lots of Love,

My flight log shows an 18-day break from flying duty--the longest since we joined fleet operations in the Pacific. This break gave the pilots and crew a chance to get in some R&R on Mog Mog and to stir up some new scuttlebutt. The latest rumor was, "We are headed for Tokyo!" Someone painted a sign on one of the gun mounts, "Tokyo or Bust," and we took some casual photos around the sign. Each of us had high hopes that, someday, these photos, showing "intrepid airmen" on the way to Japan to avenge our losses at Pearl Harbor would reach wives and sweethearts back home.

Lt Col W. A. Millington, taking seriously his assignment as Commander of Air Group Four, prepared an analysis of our operations for the period December 30, 1944, to January 26, 1945. He commented on the high number of operational losses for the Marines flying F4Us and made some specific recommendations to reduce these losses. He mentioned the serious weather problems. He recommended refinements in the positioning and communications system used by the Picket Destroyer. He suggested measures to minimize ship losses to kamikazes.

Millington also emphasized to the higher levels of command that our fighters should cease carrying bombs because of their vulnerability to Japanese fighters and because of the lack of training in glide-bombing tactics by fighter pilots. This concern was probably related to the fact that he and his fellow Marines flew F4Us, whereas the F6Fs were better adapted to a joint bomber/fighter mission. Another important recommendation by CAG-4 was to eliminate "pre-dawn" launches. Millington's report states: (3)

"…this group experienced considerable trouble with pre-dawn launches, and it is highly recommended that pre-dawn flights be cut down to only absolute requirements, if not eliminated entirely. In most cases pre-dawn rendezvous were rendered very difficult due to poor weather conditions, the fact that task groups were so close together as to make ship's lights confusing, and that mixed flights (VF and VT) have too high a speed differential. The majority of pre-dawn flights failed to accomplish more than they could have had they launched at dawn, and the attendant risks and pilot strain is not compensated for."

The rumors about Tokyo were soon verified. On February 10, the Task Force raised anchor and steamed out of Ulithi Lagoon. We were now under a new Commander, Vice Admiral Mark Mitscher. Under Mitscher, the Task Force was labeled TG 58.3 instead of 38.3, which was Admiral Halsey's command. Our carrier task group (CTG) consisted of the Essex, Bunker Hill, Cowpens, New Jersey, South Dakota, Pasadena, Astoria, Wilkes Barre, and 12 destroyers.

The day we raised anchor for Japan (Feb. 10), "A severe earthquake rocked Tokyo, followed almost immediately by a devastating raid by 90 B-29 bombers." (4) These B-29 raids were now occurring on a fairly regular basis, and the damage was extensive--mostly from the fires that followed the bomb blasts.

But B-29s could not do the same job as the Navy or Marine planes. These big bombers came in high, made the drop based upon bomb sight readings, and turned around for home. Our Avengers could pinpoint a target and hold into the dive until we were fairly sure of a hit or at least a destructive near-miss. The big guns fired at the B-29s--our nemesis was the 20s and 40s at close range.

In the next few days, as TG 58.3 moved into position for the Navy's first carrier-based strikes on the Japanese mainland since the Doolittle raid, our air group was launched for practice coordinated attacks, antisub patrols and CAPs. One of our Marines made a hard landing and wiped out another Corsair during these practices. By dawn of February 16, the Essex was approximately 125 miles southeast of Tokyo and ready for one of the most exciting Naval Air attacks of WW II.

For our first strikes on the Japanese homeland, Commander F. K. Upham moved into position as air group CO, replacing Marine Col Millington. Cdr Upham would serve as CAG-4 for the remainder of our time on the Essex.

Mawatari, Japan--February 16, 1945

The Essex launched Corsair and Hellcat fighter sweeps on the morning of February 16. But it was not until 1407 hours that the major strike group got off the flight deck. This group, under the leadership of Major Marshall of VMF 213, consisted of 8 F6Fs, 11 F4Us, and 13 TBMs. "We carried 18 100-pound GP bombs in each of the Avengers." (4)

Lt P. J. Davis was scheduled to lead Torpedo Four on this strike. He reported electrical trouble on the flight deck and turned the leadership over to Lt Trexler. The Torpedo Squadron Four tactical organization is as follows: (5)

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) Hastings, S. A.
Stephens, Page P. (**) Mocsary, Andy (Marge)
Landre, Vernon A. Statler, Charlie C.
Hopfinger, R. M. Wilson, F. W.
Thomas, Gerald W. (Jerry) Holloman, J. E.
Trexler, B. R. (Trex) Barr, C. W.
Bell, G. M. Pittman, R. R.
Ruth, Robert F. (Bob) McConnell, C. L.
Gray, L. C. Green, H. R.
Binder, Ed S. Jenkins, W. D.
Makibbin, G. D. (Mak) Campbell, R.
Cannady, W. H., Jr. Gerke, J. C.

We rendezvoused with 4 F6Fs and 9 TBMs from the USS Cowpens and proceeded toward Honshu, Japan--climbing at 140 knots indicated to 13,500 feet. (5)

"The late launch, and instructions from base to return by 1730(K) made impractical the flight to Ota, and upon request the base gave permission for the flight to attack an alternate target."
"Mawatari airfield was selected and F6Fs with rockets were ordered to precede VT in the attack and F4Us to remain above as high cover, and go down in a strafing run after F6Fs had recovered. Undoubtedly considerable damage was done to the hangars and other installations, as well as aircraft and equipment in the hangars."
"The bomb hits by the torpedo planes, observed by several of our fighters, were very accurate…."

Antiaircraft fire was extremely heavy during the attack. I saw many tracers floating harmlessly by my cockpit while I was in the run. I purposely went in hot, pushing over until I saw the needle go past the red mark. At this speed no Grumman or General Motors guarantees were in effect. Just as I pulled out of the dive, I heard an explosion. My hatch had been sucked out by an AA burst or from the high-G pullout. I tested the controls gingerly and found no damage. My crewman, Holloman, looked relieved when I glanced in the mirror.

But the flight was far from over. With no cockpit cover, we felt a new kind of chill, this one from the Japanese winter weather. I was shaking so badly by the time we made the 150-mile return trip to the Essex, that I barely had command of the controls.

Bill Cannady also lost a cockpit hatch in the Tokyo strike. "We pushed over at 12 - 13,000 feet. I threw the throttle to the fire wall and pulled rich mixture. I was the last guy down in the dive but that blast of cold air sure hastened my join up and return." (6)

Meanwhile our fighter squadrons had run into plenty of excitement with Jap planes. (4)

"…while the VF and VT were attacking the field, they were jumped by 2 TOJOS which attacked from a slightly higher altitude. In the ensuing brief dog fight, Ensign Fewell skillfully diverted one TOJO from his wingman's tail and got in two effective bursts which sent the enemy tumbling toward earth trailing heavy black smoke…."
"Ensign Dailey, meanwhile, engaged the other TOJO and succeeded in putting a burst into the ventral fuselage just abaft the cockpit before the enemy broke off the attack."
"…Lt Hendricks and Lt Barnett each flamed a ZEKE at the airfield. Ensign Peters probably destroyed an unidentified twin-engine aircraft and Ensign Zdancewicz probably destroyed a TOJO…."

During the various flights throughout the day, VF-4 pilots claimed 15 enemy plane kills, 3 probables, and 2 damaged. Confirmed kills were credited to C. J. Nicolini, J. P. Sikors, D. S. (Diz) Laird, Hal H. Avants, C. L. Martin, W. W. (Dub) Taylor, P. H. Gordon, T. J. Graham, W. C. Guyles, J. F. (Raider) Radford, W. C. (Dusty) Rhodes, W. G. Schulden, and Kinsey K. (KK) Fewell. (6)

The report on the loss of Dusty Rhodes is brief: "Taylor, Schulden, and Rhodes fell behind due to engine trouble in Rhodes' plane, and were attacked by about ten planes. In the ensuing scrap, Taylor downed three, and Schulden and Rhodes one each, but [Rhodes'] plane was smoking. As the three retired, Taylor and Schulden were kept busy by the harassing Zekes… and Dusty Rhodes disappeared. Nothing is known of his whereabouts."

Marine squadrons VMF 124 and VMF 213 were kept busy on this first day of strikes against Tokyo. The Corsairs flew CAP and combat sweeps over Japanese airfields. In the numerous dog fights with Japanese pilots, confirmed kills were credited as follows:

At noon, 8 Marines joined with a VF4 flight to attack a Japanese destroyer, leaving it dead in the water. This group also strafed an SO and an FTO. It was a busy day for the Essex air group.

The Navy made the headlines back in the States with these strikes on the Japanese homeland. "Tokyo Attacked By Fleet Planes; Navy's Might Is Thrown At Tokyo For First Time; Mitscher Directs History's Boldest Naval Operations." (7)

As might be expected, this great publicity for the Navy was partially countered by MacArthur's headquarters. On the same day we hit Tokyo, "American paratroopers landed on Corregidor Island, followed by the 34th Division infantrymen." But, it was not until March 2 that MacArthur himself returned to Corregidor. (8)

C. C. Statler, VT-4 crewman manning the turret for Vernon Landre, summarized the day's activities in his brief journal. (8)

"…Today we hit an airfield near Tokyo. I saw airborne enemy planes today for the first time --3 Zekes over the target. Sure was awful cold. Temperature on the ground was 23 degrees. 'Dusty' Rhodes went down today. 245 planes shot down and 160 destroyed on ground by whole task force. Our losses--32 planes."

Photo: Headlines Announce Tokyo Strike.

(1) USS Essex Ship's Log. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(2) Potter, E.B. 1976. "Nimitz.". Naval Institute Press.
(3) CAG-4. 1944. Comments and Recommendations on Air Operations for the Period 30 Dec. 1944 to 26 Jan. 1945. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(4) Goralski, Robert. 1981. World War II Almanac, 1931 - 1945. Perigee Books.
(5) Combat Reports, VF-4 and VT-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(6) Taped Interview with Bill Cannady, VT-4 Pilot.
(7) VF-4, The Red Rippers. A History of Fighting Four assembled by members of the Squadron in 1945. U.S. Navy.
(8) News Release, Raleigh, N.C. (no date established).
(9) Statler, C. C., VT-4 Crewman. Personal Journal.
(*) Downed: electrical trouble.
(**) Downed: insufficient time to load and warm up.

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