The Ship - All Hands - Decorations - Remembrance
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James Ramage of VB-10 continues:
We continued on a westerly course. Strike groups were passing us until we were all alone in the rear of some 227 aircraft. We had our game plan. I began to even out the fuel in my wing tanks by shifting tanks about every fifteen minutes. I did not want to have an asymmetrical load in the dive. Also, we had been warned that one wanted at least some fuel in each tank. A completely empty tank was considered more likely to explode because of residual vapor.
About two hours out (300 miles) I sighted a strike group off to our port in an attack situation. Beneath them I could see four oilers and several escorts. I broke radio silence calling to Lt. Van Eason, our torpedo element leader, "85 Sniper from 41 Sniper. We will not attack. The Charlie Victors (carriers) are dead ahead." I then opened up on VHF guard channel saying, "Unknown Strike Leader from 41 Sniper. The carriers are dead ahead. What are you trying to do? Sink their merchant marine?" The other strike group continued on with the attack in spite of the information that the Japanese carriers were the prime targets. I was exasperated. I later found out that their commander stated that his SB2Cs were low on fuel! Who wasn't?
Radio discipline was not good. I could hear all sorts of completely unwarranted transmissions from over the target area. Well, at least the Japanese carriers were located.
Shortly, our strike group was picked up by the Japanese combat air patrol. Cawley informed me that there were several Zeros on our port quarter, high. Each time they would commence a run on the base element, our Air Group Commander, "Killer" Kane, would nose into them with his F6Fs. The Japanese would break off the attack. They had decided to wait until our most vulnerable time, the point of roll into the attack. At that time the bomber and torpedo formation integrity would be broken as each pilot made his dive. Bombing Squadron Ten did not dive from an echelon. Rather, during the high speed run-in, the wingman gradually drifted back until the division leader rolled in. This preserved the "V" formation for as long as possible, permitting the gunners to concentrate on an attack from the rear from either side. It was standard procedure for the low fighter cover to strafe ahead of the base element, and the high cover to strafe behind. The fighters would proceed to the rendezvous point to provide cover for the aircraft of the base element as they rejoined and formed a defensive formation.
The Japanese fleet was easy to locate; there were black AA puffs over a wide area - also some colored detonations. Soon, I could make out two carriers below and to port. It was just as we had been briefed. I took the closest carrier and Bangs' division took the second carrier in the middle task group. Eason's torpedo planes split between the two. The TBFs carried four 500-lb general purpose bombs, while the SBDs each carried one 1000-lb bomb: half general purpose and half semi armor piercing.
As I rolled in, I had a fine view of the carrier. I split my dive brakes at about 10,000 feet. Shortly thereafter I could hear Cawley's twin thirties chattering; then I looked over to the right and within five feet of me, passing below, was a Zero. The dive brakes had thrown him off aim. My dive was a good, standard 70° attack. At about 5000 feet I opened up with my two 50-caliber machine guns. The tracers were going directly into the forward elevator. The carrier was steaming into the wind. Allowing for the wind and target motion, I moved the pipper to just ahead of the bow of the carrier, and released at 1800 feet.
My First Division plus Van Eason's five TBMs dove on Ryuho. Bang's six plane division, upon sighting a third carrier, split into two sections with Bang's diving on Hiyo and Grubiss' section attacking Junyo. There is still doubt about which section hit which carrier. All three carriers in CarDiv Two were covered. None returned to battle during the war. Hiyo was sunk, and the damaged Junyo and Ryuho were broken up two years after the war in a Japanese shipyard. You will note that other U.S. squadrons registered hits on Carrier Division 2 as well.
I pulled out, easing down to about 300 feet and was immediately taken under fire by all sorts of ships - battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. Cawley yelled into his mike, "Skipper, look back. She's burning from asshole to appetite!" About that time there was so much stuff being thrown up at us that I just couldn't look back. Cawley then began telling me to climb or descend, depending on where the AA was aimed. We pulled out to the eastward. As soon as I was clear of the Japanese outer screen, I started a gentle turn to the left. It was about 1930 and beginning to get dark. I shortly had six of my birds, then three more. Several Zeros were about to make a run on us, but Kane's fighters shot down four or five. After three orbits, I knew that we'd have to start back to the task force. As I gave the hand signal indicating that we were squared away on our return course, we began to pick up all sorts of stragglers. As soon as they picked up our heading they added throttle and left us. They weren't going to get stuck with the SBD's 150-knot cruise speed.
Don Gordon of VF-10 describes the attack:
When we arrived over the enemy carriers, there were no other attacks in progress and no ships burning. I saw some Zeros to our left, but I did not see them move toward us.
As Jig Dog started his dive, my division dove with him. We were starting from at least 1000 feet above, so we had some catching up to do. As we started down, we were approaching the red line and very steep, so we did a descending barrel roll to the left to flatten out. I fired all six fifties in a strafing run on the port catwalk of the carrier.
I saw the first two SBDs drop their bombs while I was in my strafing run. They both hit right smack against the fantail of the carrier. I recovered to the east, southeast below 1500 feet, and eased down to sea level. I picked up Jig Dog immediately. The AA did not seem to be aimed at my group. When I looked back, I saw another bomb explode in the center of the flight deck just aft of the small island.
As we departed at very low altitude, heading for home, I saw a Zero heading in the opposite direction about 500 feet above us. I pulled up with my wingman for an upside down overhead. It worked. My wingman fired when I did at about 200 feet from the Zero's belly. The Zero blew apart, and we completed our loop, through the debris, to rejoin the formation for a long ride home.
We picked up searchlights about sixty miles from home plate. I knew that we were on the proper heading, since the ZB signal had been strong for some time, but it was reassuring to see the lights. I had Enterprise boresighted. We came directly over the ship. From 2000 feet I could see the recognition lights on the forward end of the starboard catwalk.
It was just after 2100. We had lots of fuel, so I orbited over the Big E until about 2215. I broke the division for landing, but the deck was foul on my approach. I extended my pattern to the left and landed on Lexington at about 2230, along with my wingman and section leader. My number four landed on Enterprise. We had been in the air for over six hours.
"Jig-Dog" Ramage resumes the narrative:
I turned on my running lights. The accompanying planes followed suit. It was quite a parade. I'm sure that this was all of the U.S. aircraft remaining in the target area. We arrived last, were the last to leave, and certainly would be the last back to our carriers. It was really quite cozy. The Wright 1820 engine was purring along through a quiet, black sky. Cawley was telling me what he had seen, because being the leader of a dive bombing attack is not a good place to observe results. He said that he was eyeball to eyeball with the Jap who had tried to shoot us down. My gunner thought that he was trying to ram us. He described the barrage of AA fire both enroute to and also following our drop. I was glad that I only saw a part of it. I ran out of gas in the auxiliary tanks so that anything I had was in the main cell. Cawley went over his ditching checkoff list and said that he was all ready, just in case. As I looked at my fuel gauges and chartboard, I felt we would make it. At least we would be close to our carrier force. I told Cawley, "Don't sweat it."
At about 2030 started the most miserable case of radio and air discipline imaginable. It would have been all right if people with genuine emergencies sounded off, but it seemed like many just transmitted in panic. Cawley picked up the discrete Enterprise radar beacon response, and I corrected course slightly to starboard. There was total silence in the Sniper flight.
Apparently several strike groups decided to make water landings together, the flight leaders taking them in as a group. I wondered - were they really that low on fuel - or were they afraid of the air traffic around the carriers, or even the night landings? Not all of the air groups had emphasized night carrier operations as our former CAG, Roscoe Newman, had insisted.
At 2100 Cawley had a good heading for the Big E: the ZB/YE signals were in the correct sector. I figured we were about 30 miles out from Task Group 58.3 and could see the loom of lights dead ahead. The panic was getting worse in the air. No small blame for the panic must go to the excessive number of lights on the ships. And some cruiser was firing starshells into the air - just what you need with a couple hundred planes in the area. Our problem wasn't finding the force, that was a piece of cake. With everything, including destroyers, lighting up it became a real mess!
By now we had received a transmission to land on any carrier available I wasn't about to lose the integrity of my formation, letting them mill around in confusion. At 2130 I brought the Sniper flight up the starboard side of Enterprise and broke the first section into the landing pattern. Cawley said, "Skipper, it looks like a crash on deck." I concurred, but knowing how fast Enterprise's flight deck crew worked, I hoped that by the time I came downwind, the deck would be clear. I could see our LSO, Hod Proulx, giving a slow wave-off signal. As we went up the port side I could see real trouble below on the flight deck, lights and a plane on its back.
At that time I called, "Sniper flight, our base has a foul deck. Pancake on any available base. This is 41 Sniper. Out."
I was flying in auto lean and did not go to high prop pitch for landing. We would need every ounce. By this time the noise had subsided, but there were still too many lights. I finally located what I believed to be a light carrier, but just as I was getting squared away on it, I looked dead ahead maybe two miles, and there was a big carrier. I was too high for a straight in, so I elected to make a normal carrier pass. Cawley advised me that we were alone in the pattern. The landing was smooth. As I taxied out of the gear, I was receiving frantic "wing fold" signals from each plane director. They didn't realize that SBD wings did not fold. I finally got into a parking spot forward of the barriers when a flight deck man jumped on my wing saying, "get the hell out of there!" It was obvious that he was afraid of a plane jumping the barrier. Cawley and I ran into the island structure. I asked, "What carrier?" "Yorktown," a crewman responded. My friend and squadron mate, LT (jg) Don "Hound Dog" Lewis, and gunner, John Mankin, met us. We hadn't seen them since the ready room six hours before. It was a long day!
No one seemed to know exactly what to do with us. In the ready room there was no debriefing. Really not much interest except great concern for their missing squadron mates. I guess I don't blame them, but hope that "visitors" on the Big E were better treated. We were finally taken down to the wardroom. I wasn't that hungry. There was no offer of medicinal spirits! It was very gloomy at 2300 in the Yorktown wardroom.
In a little while, Captain John Crommelin, Chief of Staff for RADM Ralph Davison, came in and sat down at the table. I was still pretty unhappy about the lack of radio and flight discipline, and told him so. He asked about results. I told him what my gunner had observed: one carrier burning and one apparently sinking. That was all that I could personally vouch for, and I really hadn't seen that. Crommelin said that there were reports of many more sinkings. I told him that I wasn't so sure about that. Perhaps Crommelin told someone that maybe I should be debriefed! A commander finally asked me about my flight. When I repeated what I knew, he said something about my not knowing how many hits Enterprise's group had made on the carriers. I didn't think it worthwhile to explain how you lead an attack, and how little the leader really sees. From the minute you sight the target, you are intent on getting in and setting your 18-20 planes up for a proper attack. You can't be concerned with sightseeing, nor deterred by enemy fighters or AA fire. My experience had been that once you commit the group, you get them on target and out as soon as you can. Jinking and flitting around the periphery is not conducive to a long and happy existence. Also, you screw up the dives by the rest of the attack group. I couldn't explain this to a debriefer who had not ever been shot at.
I was assigned a bunk in an empty two-man room of pilots who were missing on the raid. Sleep was impossible. I went through the sequence of the day's operation and could see no place where I had gone wrong. I was still unhappy. We should have done better.
I arose on June 21, wondering what lay ahead. I was advised that Lewis and I would be launched on a strike with the Yorktown group. Our SBDs could not keep up with the VB-1 SB2Cs, or if we did we'd run out of fuel. I wanted to go back to the Big E where I could organize my own attack. My log book shows a flight of 0.8 hours on 21 June: Yorktown to Enterprise. Upon landing I discovered that two of VF-10's F6Fs were missing, including CAG Kane (rescued), and only one of my 12 SBDs was missing (Bangs). My exec, Ira Hardman, had taken off earlier on a strike/search mission. If there was another strike, I would lead it, but the Japanese fleet was at least 400 miles away, hightailing it for home, streaming oil from the carriers still afloat. They had gotten away!
After talking with the ship's exec, Tom Hamilton, I went to the flag bridge to brief RADM "Black Jack" Reeves on the strike. I told him that I didn't think the damage claims by the various groups were valid. We had been the last ones in the area and we hadn't seen the burning hulks as claimed. It turned out later that we had done better, thanks to our submarines that sank two carriers. In addition to the two that we claimed had sunk, there were three or four more pretty badly beaten up. And, of course, most of their aircraft were gone after the "Turkey Shoot" on 19 June, plus the seventy-odd that they lost on the 20th trying to defend their force.
When I told Reeves about the strike group bombing the oilers, he really flipped his lid. He asked me who it was; I told him. Fortunately for the strike leader, he was not from TG 58.3. He would have been relieved immediately.
Lt. Lou Bangs and gunner were returned by the rescuing destroyer. His views were about the same as mine. He had run out of gas in the groove to the carrier landing. That afternoon we went up to receive CAG Kane when he was highlined over from the destroyer that picked him up. He had black eyes under black eyes. He had been shot down by our own amphibious forces on 15 June, and had barely returned to get in on the strike. I said, "Killer, what the hell happened?" He responded, "Everyone was running out of gas, but I ran out of altitude." He had flown into the water! He picked up 13 more stitches in his head.
Japanese losses were three fleet carriers and two oilers sunk. Damaged were two heavy carriers, two light carriers and an oiler. Zuikaku, though heavily damaged, was repaired in time to be sunk along with Chiyoda (also damaged), Chitose and Zuiho on 25 October, north of the Philippines by our carrier planes. Junyo and Ryuho did not re-appear at that time, and were broken up after the war by the Japanese.
Only 35 of the original 430 aircraft remained on the carriers fleeing for the homeland. Counting land-based air, the Japanese lost 476 planes and 445 pilots. The pilot loss was critical. Heavy losses at Midway and the Guadalcanal campaign had never been replaced. The loss of the relatively untrained pilots in this battle left the few remaining carriers ineffective. We lost 36 pilots and 40 crewmen for a total of 76. The two day battle cost us 126 carrier planes.
Our aircraft losses during the attack on the Japanese fleet were heavy. We suffered only 17 combat losses, but the operational costs were high: 79. Almost all of these were due to fuel exhaustion. Although a 330 mile strike was beyond our combat radius, I have always felt that losses need not have been that great. Total losses of SB2Cs were 43 out of 51, or 84%. The venerable SBD with less range had losses of 4 out of 26, or 15%.
When our task group entered port in Eniwetok on 9 July, I was summoned by ADM Mitscher to visit him on his flagship, USS Lexington. While I had met him when he presented medals to us, I didn't know quite what to expect. As I entered his in-port cabin, he arose and came to the door to meet me. I remember those blue eyes looking at me. Right off I could feel the warmth that he had for his pilots. His first words were, "Tell your boys that they did a good job." We then proceeded to go into details about the strike. It became obvious that what he wanted was information on the relative performance of the two SBD squadrons - VB-10 and VB-16 - compared to the SB2C squadrons. He mentioned that we had more hits with far fewer losses. I mentioned that Air Group 10 was night qualified. I refrained from expressing some rather subjective views which I think were quite obvious to him. A discussion ensued about returning to the SBD as standard equipment for the bomber squadrons. I told the Admiral that so far as the pilots were concerned, there would be no difficulty. The staff pointed out the logistical problems, which were insurmountable in the forward area because of time. I left the cabin feeling that ADM Mitscher certainly knew aviation. It was a wonderful experience.
My feelings were similar to Admiral Mitscher's: "The enemy escaped. He had been hurt badly by one aggressive carrier strike at the one time he was within range. His fleet was not sunk." We were all disappointed.
This battle has been somewhat neglected by history. It was the biggest carrier battle of the war. A total of 24 carriers and 1861 aircraft were involved. Results were of greater consequence than we had thought. When the sun went down in the Philippine Sea on 20 June, it meant the end of Japanese aspirations in the Pacific. The two day battle had shorn the Japanese Navy of its most potent weapon: air power.