6. The Pacific Theater

"…minimal advice on evasive action against AA fire."

USS Long Island to Saipan--A New Command

Lt P. J. Davis, fresh out of instructor training, assumed the difficult position as Skipper of Torpedo Four on September 21, 1944. None of us had the confidence in P. J. that we had flying under "Woot" Taylor or Hutch. I believe P. J. knew this because he seemed confused in the leadership position. He had not asked for the command but happened to have the lowest serial number.

After I returned from one flight out of Hilo under P. J.'s leadership, I confronted him with the comment, "That was the most dangerous flight I have ever been on, including combat!" P. J. shrugged, but he could have chastised me for insubordination. On the flight P. J., in the lead with 18 planes flying on him, had changed the throttle setting many times, made sharp turns into the formation, and dodged in and out of severe cumulus clouds, which periodically obscured about half the planes. This erratic leadership made it difficult to avoid a midair collision. Nevertheless, Torpedo Four now had a new skipper, and he was the senior man in the squadron. A lousy time to be heading into combat with the Japanese!

With only a short training period under new command, the squadron was loaded aboard the USS Long Island and ferried to Saipan in the Marianas. We departed Pearl Harbor on October 22 and arrived in Saipan November 2, 1944. At this time Saipan was largely secured, but Tinian remained in Japanese hands. Our air group, while on shore, was subjected to periodic sniper fire and one bombing raid by Japanese planes. The sniper fire, even though it was in the distance, gave us a chill as we stood in the chow lines with the Marines still involved in mop-up operations.

I was lying on a canvas cot in a tent on Saipan when Jap bombers came over the island. As our shore-based antiaircraft fire started, I rolled onto the ground and under the canvas cot--great protection against the strafing and bomb blasts!

The damage to the facilities on Saipan was minimal. Evidently, Japanese air raids on the island were common. Saipan was first invaded by the 2nd and 4th Marine divisions on June 15, 1944, and supposedly secured on July 9. US Marine and Army casualties during the occupation of Saipan were over 14,000, with 3126 killed in action. The Japanese garrison of 27,000 was almost completely destroyed. (1)

Four months after the Island fell, American troops were still involved in mop-up operations. All of the Torpedo Four personnel survived the air raid and the remaining duty on the Island while awaiting an assignment to our aircraft carrier. We were pleased to see the USS Bunker Hill pull into Saipan Harbor on November 4, 1944.

Transfer to the USS Bunker Hill

Air Group Four's first tour of duty in the Pacific started as we transferred from Saipan to the USS Bunker Hill. This was our first experience on an Essex-class carrier. Launched on December 7, 1942, the Bunker Hill had been in the Pacific theater since November 1943 and had already established a reputation as a great fighting ship.

I was thrilled to be on the Bunker Hill--a great ship carrying a name important to American history. This assignment was the terminal point of months of operational training. It represented the ultimate challenge to a Naval aviator--carrier duty in the Pacific--an opportunity to have an impact on the Pacific War.

The Bunker Hill (CV-17) had a flight deck that was 103 feet longer (overall length 872 feet) and nearly 40 feet wider than the Ranger. These larger dimensions and a top speed of 33 knots increased the margin of safety for launch and recovery. With a complement of 100 planes and 3500 men, we were now attached to one of the best carriers in the fleet--a carrier that went on to earn the Presidential Unit Citation. Unfortunately, the Bunker Hill later took two kamikazes during the invasion of Okinawa, resulting in 346 dead, 43 missing, and 264 wounded. (2)

On November 5, 1944, the Bunker Hill log states that she was "underway for the Philippines" and a very brief shake-down cruise. Our carrier moved with Task Force 38.4 under Admiral Davidson to the combat zone. We would be operating side-by-side with the Carriers Enterprise, San Jacinto, and Monterey. Ulithi Lagoon would now serve as the base of operations.

The shake-down cruise of three days provided the first opportunity for Air Group Four to perform together on an Essex-class carrier. Cdr G. O. Klinsmann, formerly Skipper of VB-4, was designated as Air Group Commander. As he stated in a later report to his task force superiors: (3)

"…The group reported aboard with very little carrier experience since being reformed in May 1944; the entire air group never having been on board together. It was fortunate that about 40% of the pilots were carrier experienced. It was most opportune that the ship's schedule was such that the Coordinating Officer could and did make it possible for the group to have three days of operations prior to going into action. This short time was invaluable and from then on, only minor trouble was experienced."
"The group also reported aboard without an experienced signal officer… an experienced signal officer who knows the ability of each pilot in carrier operations will greatly relieve the additional mental hazard this condition creates, as well as expedite carrier operations…."

Cdr Klinsmann could also have said that Torpedo Four went into combat with a Skipper fresh out of instructor's training. In addition, "a typhoon was encountered on November 7, and throughout the action, flights were more or less hampered by high winds and heavy seas."

During the four-day training period ship's records show that Air Group Four lost two planes operationally and six ended up in the barrier. We were very lucky that no lives were lost.

Photo: Signal Officer "Sweating In" a Pilot.

Photo: Team Required to Put a TBM Aloft.

In spite of these problems, we had some darned good section leaders, and we knew each other's flight habits. Furthermore, landing on the flight deck of the Bunker Hill was a dream compared to trying to get aboard the old Ranger.

Tactics and ID Briefings

During our three-day shake-down cruise on the Bunker Hill, the pilots of VT-4 received the most in-depth briefing we had experienced since OPERATION LEADER. When we were not studying maps of the Philippines or discussing "coordinated attacks," we were required to attend ID movies showing all of the Japanese aircraft we might encounter.

The major deficiency in our briefings concerned how to avoid antiaircraft fire. We were provided only minimal advice on evasive action against Ack Ack. We knew we had little choice on the inbound run as we pressed home a torpedo attack or committed to a glide-bombing drop. However, we did have some options on target approach and we certainly should have received more advice on the escape, rendezvous, and return flights. It seemed that everyone had to "learn the hard way"--by combat experience. Cozy Cole put it this way: (4)

"I think it was the expediency of the moment--the war and all. The Navy was putting warm bodies in the planes without adequate experience. Some of us would not have made it through preliminary training in today's Navy. We had damn near no briefing. P. J. didn't have any background to help us. But why didn't they have some veterans of a couple of combat cruises talk to us?"

The concept of a coordinated attack, designed to permit maximum effectiveness of the dive bombers and torpedo planes, theoretically provided some diversion from enemy gunners. The whole idea was for the fighters to go in first, strafe the target to reduce Ack Ack, then the dive bombers and torpedo planes would attack amid the height of the confusion. However, there was never enough confusion to stop the 20s and 40s from concentrating on the Avengers locked in on a torpedo drop. "Fly straight and level, maintain your altitude, no skids, no turns--that's the only way the torpedo will hold its course toward the ship."

During simulated attacks when I was not scheduled for a flight, I watched the planes of Air Group Four make their runs on the Carrier. I positioned myself behind a 20-mm mount and followed the gunner's moves as he concentrated on an approaching torpedo plane. The pilot of the Avenger held steady for the drop, then started what he considered "good evasive tactics." He rolled his wings from side to side as he turned, but the plane was cumbersome. What the pilot conceived as sharp turns were actually very easy to follow by the ship's gunner with a slight side-to-side motion. However, any up and down movement of the plane created more problems for the gunner. After watching a few of these simulated attacks from the ship, I changed my mind about how to evade AA--radical up-and-down moves instead of rolling turns. These moves were hard on the crew, but they may have saved our lives in actual attacks.

After watching practice torpedo attacks from a position behind the ship's guns, I could easily visualize the heavy VT losses at Midway: (5)

The precedent established by VT-3, VT-6, VT-8, and other squadrons in the Pacific theater did not bode well for Torpedo Four. But we had a job to do, and to my knowledge, no one questioned the upcoming assignments. We were glad to be aboard the famous Bunker Hill. We all wanted to do our part to "beat the hell out of the Japs and head for Tokyo!"

Photo: Raising the Tail Hook.

Photo: The Takeoff.

Photo: Landing Training on "Field" Carrier Decks.

Photo: Pilot's View.

(1) Goralski, Robert. 1981. World War II Almanac, 1931 - 1945. Perigee Books.
(2) USS Bunker Hill Operational Records. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(3) Combat Reports, AG-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(4) Taped Interview with Lloyd Cole, VT-4 Pilot.
(5) Records from Admiral Nimitz Museum, Fredericksburg, Texas.

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