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Air Group 15 of the USS Essex

by Morris Markey

Reprinted from:
Liberty Magazine, May 26, 1945

 

They went out to the Pacific war—a hundred young men. Seven months later only forty-five of them came home unhurt. But in those immortal seven months of naval history they had become the undisputed champions of the Pacific Ocean areas. Indeed they had inflicted on the enemy probably more damage and destruction than any other one hundred young men who have fought anywhere in this war. And the price they made the Japanese pay for their own losses is almost fantastic.

They were the pilots of Carrier Air Group 15.

Their ship was not only a "carrier of the Essex class": she was the Essex herself. It had been my great fortune to sail with this ship as correspondent for Liberty in the Marshall Islands campaign. For that flight, Carrier Air Group 9, then champion, was aboard. When I rejoined the ship for the campaign against Saipan, Guam, and all the stunning events to follow, Air Group 9 had gone home for the rest it had earned with six months of hard fighting, and a brand-new group had come aboard. Its number was 15. Naturally, I asked the captain of the Essex, Ralph Ofstie, what he thought of his new aviators.

Captain, now Rear Admiral Ofstie frowned heavily. "I had to give them hell," he said. "Last week I took them up for a little try-out raid on Marcus and Wake islands. By George, they thought they were winning the war then and there! Fifty planes damaged—they went in so low over the AA fire. They were just too damned eager." Then he smiled. "But they listened to me. They’ve steadied down now. You know, there’s something about the young fellows in this outfit that’s a little different. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they turn out to be the best group we’ve had out here."

It was a remarkable prophecy.

In the months to come, Air Group 15 was to figure heavily in twenty-three major engagements, including two full-scale naval battles. It was to destroy battleships, carriers, and troopships, and more airplanes than any other group had ever destroyed. It was to neutralize a dozen enemy bases, send scores of cargo ships to the bottom, destroy docks and dumps, gun emplacements and supply depots by the hundreds. It was to move twice as close to Japan as any other carrier group had ever been—to set the record for enemy aircraft shot down in a single day, produce the leading Navy ace of the war, and win glory and medals for all its survivors.

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But first let’s take a look at an air group and how it fights. Its equipment consists (in the figure the Navy prefers to use) of "more than 80" airplanes of three distinct types. First are the fighters—the fast single-seater Grumman Hellcats with heavy fire power from six machine-guns, and which may also carry rockets and small bombs. Next come the dive bombers—Curtiss Helldivers. Besides the pilot, these planes carry an enlisted-man rear-seat gunner. Their job is to lay a one-ton bomb load upon the target from a very steep diving angle, and to strafe with their machine guns at the same time. The third type is the torpedo bomber—the Grumman Avenger. It has two enlisted crewmen in addition to the pilot. It carries a ton of bombs, or depth charges, or aerial torpedoes, and like the Helldiver is designed for low-level attack.

Almost always these three plane types work together as a closely integrated team. Strategy and tactics for carrier-based planes had to be invented for this war, because carriers had never fought before. The methods, the practice had to be devised and tested under fire, but the terrific pummeling they have given the Japs proves their present excellence.

ag15_mccampbell_cockpit.jpg (27347 bytes)Air Group 15 was blessed from the outset with leaders of exceptional individual ability and, more important perhaps, a genuine feeling for co-operation. Without that, the vital teamwork simply could not be managed. The commanding officer was Commander David McCampbell, thirty-four years old, one-time captain of the Naval Academy swimming team, a sound executive yet a daring and resourceful fighting man. Within his seven-month tour of duty he not only led his own men, but more than once served as target co-ordinator for all the attacking planes of celebrated Task Force 58. In the process he became the Navy’s leading ace with thirty-eight enemy planes shot from the sky, nine of them on a single sortie.

There were three squadron leaders under McCampbell. Leader of the Helldivers was Commander James H. Mini, once an end on the Annapolis football team.

The Avenger squadron leader was Lieutenant Commander V. G. Lambert—Veegee to all of us at the mess table—a huge handsome fellow from Louisiana.

When Air Group 15 arrived in the Pacific, the fighter squadron leader was Commander Charles W. Brewer. He was lost over Guam on the first day of the first battle of the Philippines sea, and was succeeded by Lieutenant commander James F. Rigg.

Carrier aircraft have six prime jobs to do. In the first five, which are offensive operations, the chief consideration is to get the bombers over the target and safely back to the ship, because the bombers have neither the speed nor the guns to defend themselves from attacking enemy planes. On the other hand, the fighters often join the offense, the attack itself.

On the offense, carrier planes bomb and strafe enemy positions not due for immediate attack but which might serve as reinforcement or aircraft staging points, as Air Group 15 did on the Bonin Islands, Formosa, and the Ryukyus. They prepare for immediate attack, as at Kwajalein, Saipan, Palau, and Leyte, knocking enemy planes out of the air and then raking planes on the ground, ruining air strips, destroying all sorts of installations, and hitting defense works which might endanger the landing forces. They fly air support for troops which have landed and engaged the enemy. They search out and destroy enemy naval units. And they hunt down cargo and supply ships and troopships in which he is bringing up reinforcements.

For all of these operations the pattern of actions is quite similar. Obviously not all the planes can leave the carrier or its immediate vicinity at the same time. So, a typical strike against a predetermined target is likely to consist of eighteen Helldivers and twelve Avengers, with perhaps sixteen Hellcat fighters to escort them. With A. G. 15, Dave McCampbell usually led the first strike himself, with Jim Mini in command of the bombers. The usual operation contemplates a series of strikes throughout the day, and the second would find Jim Rigg (Commander Brewer in the early days, of course) commanding the fighters, and Veegee Lambert directing the torpedo bombers.

The Hellcats are first off the deck. Then the Avengers. Then the Helldivers. Normally, with no emergency such as impending attack, a strike of this size would clear the deck in less than ten minutes—all planes airborne and circling for altitude and formation.

At perhaps 12,000 feet, and by this time well on the way toward a target maybe seventy to 100 miles away, the Helldivers go into tight formation of six planes to a division—each division split into two sections of three planes each flying in a V.

Somewhat lower and behind the Helldivers, the Avengers fly in divisions of four planes each in diamond-shaped formations.

High above them all the fighters fly an umbrella of protection from lurking Zeros and Tonys. Each fighter division consists of four planes flying in echelon (the French word for the steps of a staircase or ladder). But though the four planes move together in tight formation, they are really two sections of two planes each: leader and wing man.

The Navy avoids putting a single plane into a fight. A two-plane team has proved far more effective and has saved us losses beyond calculation.

The fighter pilot does not limit himself by any means to protecting the bombers from enemy air attack. Once the leader of the fighters sees the air free of enemy planes, he sends his planes into a vital attack on the target itself. Heavy fire power makes the Hellcat the most useful strafing plane we have. And so the fighters go in close over the target, on swift diving runs, to strafe out, if possible, the enemy troops manning antiaircraft guns. Especially in attacks on enemy vessels, combat teams consist of a fighter and a bomber. The fighter leads the way in, all guns going, and the bomber follows close behind, ready to release his bombs when his sights give him the target.

Often the bombers would be powerless to get in a hit on an enemy naval vessel without the fighters leading the way in, clearing the gun galleries of their defenders by killing them or driving them to cover.

The sixth job of the carrier planes is to defend the ship, the fleet against enemy airplanes. Such tactics were used on the morning of June 19, when the first battle of the Philippines sea opened suddenly with an assault in great force by carrier-borne airplanes from the Japanese fleet.

The Essex, with her surrounding screen of destroyers and cruisers, lay on the very western fringe of the fleet—closest to the point from which the enemy attack would come.

At 9:30 A.M. came the stunning words: "Large enemy air force approaching from the west. Distance approximately eighty-six miles."

The flight deck was crowded with planes, all fueled, all loaded with bombs and ammunition. Over the bull loud-speakers sounded the order: "Fighter planes launch to meet the enemy. All bombers launch to scramble!"

Within twenty minutes every plane was off the deck. The fighters were gaining altitude as they sped out to meet the attackers. The bombers, Helldivers and Avengers, were scrambling—getting the hell out of there.

The flight deck was the most dangerous place in the world for them. They would have been worse than useless in the big air battle that was moments away. Their job was to seek safety, to save their plane and themselves for another day, even by hours of aimless flying over the Pacific wastes. But Mini and Lambert had another idea, which they discussed by radio. They had to get away from the fleet, and their bomb bays were full. Why not pay a visit to the air strip at Guam, where the enemy hoped to land, refuel, and take on more bombs?

With no fighter protection whatever, these two squadron leaders took their bombers over Guam airfield. When they finished, the place was anything but inviting to whatever Japs managed to get there. At that point Mini and Lambert got word from the ship that they could return safely. They did, to find that McCampbell’s Hellcats had set a new record for carrier-based planes. The fighters of this one carrier had shot down sixty-seven enemy airplanes in one day. The previous record, set by A.G. 9 from this same Essex, had been fifty-four in a day, shot down at Rabaul on Armistice Day, 1943.

That was only the beginning, the first of scores of records which A.G. 15 was to pile up in its brilliant, devastating tour of duty in the Pacific. But not without cost. Remember, it is the fighter pilots who become aces. They are the men who shoot the Zeros out of the sky, and whose plane captains paint those little Jap flags on the cockpit cowling.

But as Charlie Brewer had said and Jim Rigg agreed, "I’d rather fight five battles in the air than make one strafing run." And they were the men who should know, because they did both those things.

"It’s not too bad up there in the air," Rigg said, "because you know you’ve got a tougher plane and you think you know your business better than those little guys. But when you’re boreing down into a target, you can’t maneuver, because you’ve got to hold a steady course and get your tracers in. That’s the only way you can have to aim your rockets. And that orange-colored stuff is pouring up at you from a man sitting solidly behind an anchored twenty-millimeter gun. He hasn’t got to fly an airplane and press his triggers at the same time. We get that sort of thing some of the time. The bombers get it all the time. I don’t envy them any."

The fact remains, however, that four out of every ten fighters in the group were lost. Mini lost one in every three of his Helldiver pilots, and Lambert about the same.

For the whole group, losses were: Pilots: 43 killed or missing and 12 wounded. Crewmen: 29 killed or missing, and 13 wounded. Of the planes, 77 were lost and 301 were damaged.

Of course new pilots and crews and new planes were ferried to the ship regularly so that the strength of the group remained about level.

For these losses what did Air Group 15 do in retaliation? In the air: 312 planes positively destroyed and 33 probably destroyed and 65 damaged.

On the ground: 348 planes positively destroyed, as photographs attested. Another 161 probably destroyed, and 129 damaged.

Nothing can hurt the Jap more than the destruction of his merchant marine. And in its seven months of duty the group sand thirty-seven cargo vessels, probably sank ten more, and damaged thirty-nine, each of more than 1,000 tons’ capacity and some of them very big ships indeed. The total tonnage of enemy merchant shipping positively sunk was 174,3000—the equivalent of about twenty-three American Liberty ships.

The most spectacular single adventure occurred off the east coast of Mindanao, when the Japanese were desperately trying to reinforce their garrisons in the Philippines. On this day a sweep of A.G. 15 planes sighted an enemy convoy of forty-two ships, large and small. This sweep alone sank eighteen of the enemy vessels, left five burning fiercely, nine dead in the water and trailing oil, seven hit, and three damaged but under way. Later in the morning, destroyers and light cruisers of the Essex task group sank many of the damaged ships.

It is hard to tally exactly the damage Air Group 15—or any other single air group—inflicted upon the enemy’s Navy, because rarely is a single air group engaged with elements of the enemy fleet. When the enemy’s columns are sighted, everything is thrown at them, and it is difficult to say where the credit belongs for a sinking.

But we do know that commander Mini himself, in his Helldiver, laid the first 1,0000-pound bomb for a perfect hit on the Japanese battleship Mushashi in the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, and that Mushashi sank very soon thereafter. We know, too, that the Helldivers and Avengers of A.G. 15, without aid from other carrier groups, sank one light enemy aircraft carrier, one destroyer, one destroyer escort, two minesweepers, five escort ships, and two motor torpedo boats. These were positives. They got solid hits on other positives: a heavy carrier of the Shokaku class, a light carrier of the Chitose class, and a carrier of the Nachi class.

These ships were sunk with virtually all hands, but they were under attack by other air groups from other American carriers, and so A.G. 15 cannot claim full credit for them.

But one fact does stand out brilliantly: In the attack upon the northern column of the Japanese fleet at the height of the great October naval battle for the Philippines, the Helldivers of Mini’s command made seventy-five sorties and scored thirty direct hits on major enemy ships, i.e. battleships or large carriers, a record of marksmanship under heavy AA fire unparalleled in naval aviation history.

To Air Group 15 fell the honor of first attacking the Bonin Islands, and Iwo Jima, 600 miles from Tokyo. Also, the group was first to hit Mindanao, the Visayan Islands, Manila and Formosa and the Ryukyu Islands. When A.G. 15 attacked the Bonins, the Essex approached closer to Japan than any other U.S. surface vessel had come since the war began. Later, in November, the Essex and A.G. 15 were to come even closer when they first attacked Japanese bases on Okinawa where American troops have since landed.

It is quite safe to say that no other unit or element of the Navy saw quite as much action in the naval battle of October 24-25 off the Philippines as did the task group to which A.G. 15 was attached.

For this was the only carrier task group that participated in both days of the fighting.

You will remember that the Japanese sent forth three distinct columns of ships, two of them out of the east, in the effort to crush our landing operations at Leyte. A.G. 15 attacked the more northerly of these two columns in the Sibuyan bay on October 24.

A simple recital of the score on that day tells the story: Mini’s Helldivers, making two strikes from the carrier’s deck, scored ten hits on the brand-new battleship Mushashi, three on another battleship, and one on a heavy cruiser.

Lambert sortied with sixteen of his Avengers, which were armed with assorted bombs and a few torpedoes. He describes the action as follows: "Coming in through the most intense and accurate AA yet experienced, the squadron made three hits on one battleship, two hits on another battleship, and two hits each on two different heavy cruisers. In this action two planes were lost, but the pilot and turret gunner of one plane, Lieutenant (j.g.) W. F. Axtman and J.T. O’Donnell, were rescued by friendly forces after seeing the entire action from their rubber boat."

The day’s fighting had hardly ended before word came that the third Japanese column, big carriers with their escorts, was bearing do9wn rapidly from the north. The Essex and the ships of her disposition sailed northward through the night to meet the challenge.

During the next day three strikes were launched from the carrier’s decks. The score:

Mini’s Helldivers sank one medium carrier with eight hits, scored four hits on another medium carrier, contributed to the sinking of a large Shokaku-class carrier with eight hits, and laid eight more of them on a converted battleship with flight deck aft.

Lambert’s men made nine torpedo hits and four 1,0000-pound bomb hits on various ships of the enemy carrier force, contributing greatly to the sinking of four carriers. In addition, a battleship was hit and left seriously crippled.

Jim Mini did not lead his men into the second day of fighting. Late in the first day his plane was hit and severely damaged by AA fire from a Japanese cruiser. His controls were half shot away and his instruments were gone. Lieutenant (j.g.) Lauren E. Nelson, his wing man, shepherded him carefully back toward the carrier. Mini couldn’t make a deck landing, so he squashed down on the water. A destroyer rescued him and his gunner.

There was no way to get him back to the Essex during the full-speed run northward, but Mini had the fun of seeing his destroyer finish off a carrier that his planes had crippled.

Perhaps A.G. 15’s glorious record will be surpassed some day. When that time comes, you may be sure that McCampbell and Mini, Lambert and Rigg, and all the brave men who survived with them will be the first to lift cheers in honor of the new champions of the Pacific.

 

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SHOT DOWN OVER THE PACIFIC  - The true story of John Montgomery and Lieutenant Bill Rising of the Fabled Fifteen.

 

Article Contributed by Donna Burney, whose uncle Lieutenant (j.g.) Alfred "Fritz" Decesaro flew with the Fabled Fifteen, earning the Navy Cross and numerous other awards.

 

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