Preserving the Past – February 14, 1944

14-15 February 1944 History Channel Episode 7


This is D minus three day for our strike against Truk. Took some sun this morning. I am getting pink anyway. Had recognition and briefing on Truk this afternoon. At about 1500 C.I.C.* sent word down that a bogey had been picked up and was being chased by eight Belleau Wood fighters. In a few minutes we learned that it was or rather had been a “Betty” and was shot down in flames. The japs must know where we are now and we may see some game action tonight. The Yorktown has the night fighter duty but if business is good we may get off anyway. Tomorrow night is ours though and I think it will be even better. When our planes came up on the flight deck tonight we checked them all on auxiliary power. All four good with #12 excellent. Comdr Hamilton and Newman came down for a look and were dutifully impressed. To bed at 2200. Bruns + Poirier are standby.

* Combat Information Center

USS Belleau Wood CVL 24


USS Yorktown CV10


Commander Hamilton

Excerpt from this:

The Enterprise’s air officer, Commander Thomas J. Hamilton, also had his own ideas about if and/or when VF(N)-101 would fly, and he refused to allow Harmer’s planes off his flight deck. Communication between the two men collapsed. “The air department had about an 18-hour day,” Harmer remembered, “and if they had to launch night fighters it turned out to be a 24-hour day. They hated us. The air officer on the Enterprise couldn’t stand the sight of me. He would sneak into a corner and get physically ill when he saw me approaching. So I had a miserable first half of the tour.”

Daily, Harmer volunteered for combat air patrol (CAP) or rescue escort duty-anything that would get his planes airborne. In his view, the extreme hazards involved in night flying required “the greatest of flying skill and ceaseless practice.” To be proficient in making night interceptions, his pilots not only had to be good in their normal carrier aviation abilities but also had to possess “a definite desire and liking for this type of work.”

Eventually, Harmer secured some daytime rescue and CAP duties for his squadron. On one occasion during a strike against Guam, Harmer took off to fly a rescue combat air patrol for two OS2U Kingfishers that were picking up downed pilots. Arriving over them, he ended up “right in the middle” of a flight of Zeros returning from attacking the American fleet. While Harmer chased them away from one of the seaplanes, his inexperienced wingman, flying an F6F Hellcat, broke off to follow a Zero that was heading for the other OS2U on the water several miles away. Two Zeros pounced on the Hellcat, shooting it down, but Harmer and the OS2U he was protecting got back to the fleet safely.

Despite the daytime flights Harmer was getting in, his frustration at being barred from night operations finally compelled him to approach the task group’s commander, Rear Admiral John W. “Black Jack” Reeves Jr. “I’ve got to be launched at night in order to prove this gear,” he told Reeves, who replied, “We’ve got night fighters-we’ll use ’em.” Harmer recalled the admiral said:

He wouldn’t have any confidence in us unless he saw us work. And that’s what made the cruise for me. . . . When the Intrepid had the night duty and a bogey appeared on the radar screen, Reeves would call on the TBS and ask if they were going to launch and the answer was always “No,” so he would say “OK, I’ll launch mine.” So that’s how we got used.

Subsequently, Harmer got more cooperation from Commander Hamilton, and VF(N)-101 passed another milestone: night practice. Typically, one Corsair would launch around 0430, before day operations commenced. Night landings were a constant worry for Harmer, and his pilots who did not become competent at it were returned to Pearl Harbor. Those who remained, three pilots in addition to their commander, became adept at launching and landing with few reference lights.

The air officer, however, routinely overlit the flight deck. As Harmer recounted:

Too many lights rather than not enough was our problem on landing. By that I mean it was felt we needed some types of lights when we actually didn’t. When the carrier and several other ships were showing lights the danger to the fleet was increased, but our landings were not made easier. After we had convinced the fleet that we could land with a minimum of lights, we became of greater value because we could be used under more conditions without endangering the fleet.

Gradually, Harmer slipped Burgess into the Enterprise’s CIC for practice interceptions. This was usually brief, because when the carrier’s radar operators arrived they “chased Frank away from the scope and used it to work the day fighters.” As Harmer recorded in his journal, “Day fighters still come first on this ship (as perhaps they should), but I don’t think they know what they have in these night fighters.”

Corsair Night Fighters vs. Japanese Bombers

Harmer’s first night contact, much to his dismay, resulted in only a “probable.” The 19 February encounter could have been a “kill,” except that everything went wrong. For starters, Burgess brought Harmer’s Corsair in above the bogey, a Betty medium bomber, and he overshot the target. Eventually, he made visual contact and fired a short burst into the enemy plane’s right engine, which began to burn. Although the Betty was going down in a steep spiral, Harmer lost sight of it and was unable to confirm that it had crashed.

In early April off Truk, Harmer was in the ready room at sunset when he got a call that a downed pilot was off the southern end of the islands. It was turning dark, and Hamilton reluctantly scrambled two F4U-2s. “They didn’t want to launch us,” Harmer remembered, “but they did. We got lucky and found his life raft-I happened to fly right over him, and he shot a Verey pistol [flare] up at me. I circled until a submarine picked him up.”

Commander Newman

Excerpt from this:

Frustration on the Enterprise

Once at sea, Harmer quickly discovered that his enthusiasm for night fighters was not shared by many officers outside VF(N)-101. In fact, the squadron was less than welcomed by the Enterprise’s flight operations staff. At his first briefing, the air group commander, Commander Roscoe L. Newman, stated that night fighters, if used at all, would fly routine day strikes. Harmer was horrified. As he wrote in his diary: “Our planes are so much more vulnerable than normal F4Us and the kids just aren’t ready for day action. I believe I was sincere in recommending against it on the grounds that we may be too valuable to waste in day actions for which we are not well suited.”

Feel free to add comments or to suggest corrections on errors that I made transcribing.

Tomorrow, February 15, 1944…

14-15 February 1944 History Channel Episode 7

We went through the entire day…



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