Late this afternoon a TBF landed aboard with only one wheel down, no flaps and elevator controls shot away. His attackers were two F6Fs from the Langley. This is the worst case of lack of recognition yet. There was no excuse. There hadn’t been an enemy plane in the air for two days. To make it worse, an army observer was in the TBF and was wounded. The pilot and radioman were also hit but not seriously. Tonight we had real bogies. The Lex shot Zombie (?) who failed to get radio contact for 3/4 of an hour. When he finally got the right switch turned on the bogies had gone. His radar was out anyway. I guess we look good by comparison if nothing more.
A lasting memorial to the USS Enterprise, this classic tale of the carrier that contributed more than any other single warship to the naval victory in the Pacific has remained a favorite World War II story for more than twenty-five years. The Big E participated in nearly every major engagement of the war against Japan and earned a total of twenty battle stars. The Halsey-Doolittle Raid; the Battles of Midway, Santa Cruz, Guadalcanal, the Philippine Sea, and Leyte Gulf; and the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa are all faithfully recorded from the viewpoint of the men who served her so well. The author, a naval aviator, focuses on the exploits of the famous ship’s air groups, capturing the reality of their encounters and provoking a range of emotions from readers.
This superb study of a great ship, her crew, and the action they saw has been called one of the finest pieces of naval writing to emerge from the war. What it is like inside the cockpit of a Dauntless dive bomber as it bores in on its target or the effort required to unstick the ship’s huge rudder when damaged by a bomb are just two of the nuggets Edward Stafford mined from the mountain of research and lengthy interviews he conducted to write the book. Literate and scholarly as well as highly dramatic, the book will appeal to historians and the general public alike.
TF 58 remained on station of Hollandia for four more days, but there was not much to do. Everything worthwhile had been bombed and strafed. There was no sign of the enemy except an occasional burst of AA. The command groups kept the troop command informed of movements of the soldiers and searched roads and trails for Japanese but found none. They were, in effect, performing the function of observers for the Army.
At 6:00 P.M. on the twenty-third, Enterprise came up into the wind to receive a single, wounded TBF. The plane came in sight escorted by two Hellcats from another carrier. One wheel dangled and the other was up and locked. The pilot reported that he could not use his flaps, and that his elevator control was poor, his right aileron not working and his air-speed and needle-ball indicators shot up. Lieutenant Hod Proulx brought him in but had to wave him off, and as the Avenger flew down the portside, climbing, the men on deck could see the holes on the tail, fuselage and wings. Hod could see that the pilot was covered with blood. The two strange F6Fs circled anxiously. Once more Hod’s paddles fluttered, crossing and uncrossing in gave the wave-off signal as the shot-up TBF went around again. It had been dangerously high and fast with the flaps not working. The third approach looked good except for that dangling single wheel. On the flight deck, hoses were led out, foam cans standing by, barriers up, a driver in the salvage crane, Doc Ridley and his corpsmen waiting beside the island. With a slash of his right paddle down and across his body to the left, Hod cut the Avenger, and it eased down under good control, hit on its one wheel and tail, caught the third wire, and then sagged down, dragging the wing tip and turning slightly right, the prop digging splinters out of the deck before it stopped.
Enterprise sailors, who were beginning to be complacent about the soft Hollandia operation, quickly lost their complacency at the sight of the three men being helped across the flight deck toward sick bay, soaked and spattered in their own blood, while plane handlers worked to get the riddled TBF clear of the landing area. Big, good-looking, twenty-four-year-old Lieutenant (j.g.) Cliff Largess, of Worcester, Massachusetts, and Holy Cross, the pilot, had dozens of cuts on his face, neck, upper body and left arm from flying glass and small pieces of metal. The most serious wound was in his right forearm and he had had to apply his own tourniquet there on the way home. Jim Spates, the radioman from Arkansas, hobbled between two shipmates, with a nasty bullet wound in his right heel. Second Lieutenant Pronel, the Army observer, was luckiest with minor cuts on hands and face.
Cliff had bombed, strafed and sunk a half-concealed barge at the west bank of Lake Sentani and dropped the rest of his bombs on barracks at Hollandia Field. He was heading out, low, over the same route that Woodie Hampton had taken earlier, from Hollandia across the jungle plain to Tanahmerah Bay, when a single fighter came up fast behind him and fired two short devastating bursts from dead astern.
That same afternoon, the skipper of the fighter squadron on another TF 58 carrier was flying Target Combat Air Patrol (TCAP) over Humboldt Bay, some twenty-five miles east of Tanahmerah. He was instructed to watch carefully for enemy planes trying to slip in from the land side to attack the troops and ships of the assault force. A few minutes later, the TCAP over Tanahmerah reported a single plane flying low over the field at Hollandia, and asked the FDO, “Do we have any friends there?” The FDO said “negat,” and notified the fighter skipper over Humboldt who was in a position for a dive at Hollandia. He took his Hellcat down through the haze and scattered clouds, circled once at 5,000 feet, and saw a single plane, low over the trees, headed out from Hollandia toward the ships in Tanahmerah Bay. He dived after it, coming up fast from dead astern, fired one short burst, then one more and then zoomed up with ice in his guts as he saw his target was a TBF.
Two F6Fs escorted the wounded Cliff Largess back to Enterprise and circled until they saw him safely aboard. That evening a message of regret and apology came to Air Group Ten and later a personal letter to Bill Martin explaining the circumstances and ending:
I feel considerably lower than a snake’s belly about the thing. … I humbly request that all of you, and particularly the pilot and crewmen concerned, accept my sincere apologies and regrets and assurance that such a thing won’t happen again even if we stand a chance of losing a shot. I would like to know the name of the pilot so that I can personally . . . apologize to him at the first opportunity.
And at Majuro in early May, in Torpedo Ten’s Ready Room Number Five that apology was made man to man, differences in rank and authority erased by the shared near-tragedy.
What a day – or rather, evening! I only left this little space for today because I didn’t expect much to happen. It turned out to be the most important day of the cruise. Namely because I got my first confirmed shoot down and because I think that night fighters are finally on their way to be recognized. I will include a copy of the action report which will cover the narrative of the event. Needless to say everyone feels much better now. Even though Bob Poirier, who was also in the air, had tough luck and never got a chance for a shoot down he still feels he got a lot of experience chasing that bogie around. Chris is just as delighted as though he shot the plane down himself and the rest of the pilots are really eager now. We may have some more business this cruise. Rumours are going around about another strike on Truk. To bed after a shot of Chris’ brandy at 0030.
By evening of the twenty-fourth the carriers had been tied to Hollandia long enough for the enemy to mount an organized attack. He scraped up from bis broken fields around the South Pacific some dozen torpedo-carrying Bettys, and detached two as pathfinders to locate and illuminate the U. S. ships for the others. But now detachments of specially configured night fighters, flown by specially trained pilots, were available in TF 58.
Before sunset, the familiar blobs of snooping bogies began to show on the Enterprise air-search radar. Lieutenant Commander Richard E. Harmer and a wingman were catapulted in their Corsair night fighters, but the Bettys stayed out of range until dark. Half an hour after the sun had set, Chick Harmer made radar contact on a single Betty thirty miles astern of the task group. At half a mile he saw the twin-engine, single-tail enemy plane silhouetted against what light was left in the western sky. It was in a steep left bank, the long, straight wing tilted up and a glow of exhaust under each nacelle. Visually and by watching the moving bug of light on his scope, Harmer followed, closing. From the stinger in the Betty’s tail, a string of red balloons flowed down and back at Harmer, and he returned the fire with a long burst of bis six 50s, moving off a little to the right to dodge the 20-millimeters while the snooper dived for the water. The night fighter S-turned to drop back and then followed. At 200 yards the tail gun opened up again with its big, red, 20-millimeter balloons. Dim, reddish-yellow tracers streamed out of the dorsal turret also this time, and Harmer again replied with his six 50s. A small red flare broke out behind the left engine and a moment later there was a heavy splash just behind the Betty, as the Japanese pilot jettisoned his torpedo. Cool and calm, Harmer added throttle and pulled up alongside and above the Betty to look it over. The big plane, with its five-man crew, was skimming the night sea, its port engine blazing now and leaving a heavy trail of smoke. The dorsal turret was still spraying its dim, rapid tracers around the sky but not touching the Corsair. Harmer dropped back, swung in astern, and fired another long burst, the converging white lines of his tracers chewing into the Betty’s wings and back. Dorsal and tail turrets fired back wildly. Harmer glanced at his altimeter and was startled to see that he had less than 100 feet. He had to nose over to get his bullets into the enemy. He nosed over and let go a short burst just as the Betty skidded into the sea, making a good landing. The F4U pulled up and circled. Harmer could see the whole plane intact and floating, but at the end of his second circle only the tail remained in sight. It was the first definite kill for an Enterprise night fighter.
Harmer’s teammate, Ensign Bob Poirer, made radar contact with the other snooper, and, although he never got within firing range, his persistence drove the enemy away. On his next vector, Harmer found the main enemy force flying in formation, apparently waiting for the two snoopers to locate their targets for them. He joined up, carefully choosing his first victim, but his guns, which had been jamming in the last action, jammed completely after a couple of seconds of fire into the belly of the nearest bomber, and he could not clear them again. The enemy plane slanted away flashing its lights, and Harmer could only disgustedly return to the ship. Deprived of their pathfinders, and worried and disorganized by the presence of a hostile plane in their own formation, the enemy attack group gave up and returned to base. By 8:00 P.M. the scopes were clear.