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USS Enterprise CV-6
The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War

Bat Girl: VF(N)-90 Insignia
VF(N)-90 Squadron Insignia, courtesy Frank Belcher, Jr.

Night Fighter Task Group Joins Fleet Under Admiral Gardner

by Rembert James, Associated Press War Correspondent - First of its kind in naval history, a complete new carrier task group operating exclusively at night has joined the Fleet in the Western Pacific to put Admiral McCain's fast carrier task force on a permanent twenty-four hour basis.
It is made up of two classes of fast carriers with full complement of escort ships. Volunteer pilots who have had extensive training flying entirely by instrument man specially adapted Navy Hellcat fighters and Avenger torpedo bombers on dusk to dawn Tomcat Trick patrols.
Commander of the new task group is Rear Admiral Matthias B. Gardner, wiry, dark-haired veteran of Pacific air wars and former Navy fighter pilot and stunt team leader.
"Our idea is to put fast carrier task forces on a full twenty-four hour basis," Gardner told correspondents. "It's impossible for any carrier to continually maintain an around the clock schedule[1]. People have to sleep sometime."
"It's our job to continue work of daytime carriers and let the Japanese get some sleep - if they can."
Night flying from carriers is NOT new, but there has never been anything like Admiral Gardner's new night carrier group devoted exclusively to after-dark operations. Effectiveness of night operations were shown conclusively in mid-December when Admiral McCain worked regular carriers day and night, keeping planes over Luzon's hundred airfields for sixty straight hours.
As a result, the Japanese were unable to use the fields and no enemy attack planes got within a hundred miles of the carrier task force standing off the Philippines.
Admiral Gardner said that the night fighters were prepared to do all of the operations entirely by instruments in pitch blackness, taking off from the carriers, navigating, finding and hitting the target, and then returning and landing.
"Sometimes they may have a moon to help, but they won't depend on that," Gardner said.
Although such operations offer difficulties, there are also advantages. Gardner pointed out that night planes will not need fighter cover being relatively invulnerable to enemy fighters and anti-aircraft due to darkness.
Torpedo planes particularly will have an advantage in being able to get closer to ships. Thus fewer planes will be necessary.
From the nature of the operations, mass attack is not practicable at night, Admiral Gardner pointed out, adding that the whole scheme of night operations is a succession of small attacks.
It was disclosed that night Hellcat pilots who operate the planes as fighter and bomber have been training seven months for this special job and that the torpedo pilots have been training since mid-September.
Life on a night carrier will be a strange one in the Navy, where everyone traditionally bounds up with early day reveille. On night carriers, pilots and aircrewmen will keep night watchmen's hours, rising in mid-afternoon after daylong sleep.
Admiral Gardner is regarded as being specially qualified to head the new group. He served as chief of staff for Admiral McCain in 1942 and later on the Enterprise, which had an excellent night flying outfit.

The Night Birds of the Big E
Arnold W. Olson ART 1/c VF(N)-90

From 7 December 1941 to 25 August 1942, the squadrons of Enterprise Air Group deployed in Enterprise CV-6 provided daylight raids and attacks on enemy aircraft, ships, and shore installations. Their combat record turned the course of the war in the Central Pacific, and extended to the Marshall, Wake, and Marcus Islands, Guadalcanal, and the Eastern Solomons in the South Pacific. They were followed in Enterprise by the squadrons of Air Group Ten deployed 16 October 1942 to 8 May 1943, and this period involved some of the most savage naval battles in the South Pacific. During the first 13 months of the war, Enterprise and her squadrons had been a major factor in nine battles in the Pacific. The ship had sustained major damage and casualties on several occasions from enemy air attacks.

The development of aviation radar was in its infancy and several naval commands urged its development for carrier-based aircraft. Training in night flying operations, specialized technicians for maintenance, and aircraft equipped with radar to provide "eyes in the night" were given high priority. On 16 October 1942, when VT-10 (Torpedo Squadron Ten) deployed in CV-6, they had the first carrier-based aircraft equipped with radar: a TBF with Type ASB-1. The Commanding Officer, LCDR J. A. Collett and his radioman, Tom Nelson, ARM 1/c, had received special training on this equipment at Ford Island prior to deployment in CV-6. On 26 October 1942, Enterprise, supporting the Guadalcanal campaign, became involved in a major carrier battle near Santa Cruz Island, and the radar-equipped TBF flown by LCDR Collett was shot down by enemy aircraft. Although the pilot and crew were reported KIA, Tom Nelson did survive and was ultimately captured the next day by a Japanese Destroyer and interned as a POW in Japan.

The Executive Officer of VS-l0 (Scouting Squadron Ten), LT William I. Martin, was very interested in the development of aviation radar. Torpedo Ten received a replacement TBF with ASB-l radar and LT Martin requested the opportunity to develop its potential for sector-search operations. The Ship's Radar Officer, LT Henry Loomis, volunteered to assist Martin in this project, and by 1 December 1942 they had 15 hours of experimental radar flying time. They recognized its capability as well as its limitations, but this was the seed that started the development of night-carrier operations. Improvements in new types of aviation radar were soon forthcoming from the engineers at MIT and the electronic industry.

In November 1943, Air Group Six deployed in Enterprise with LCDR Edward H. "Butch" O'Hare as Commanding Officer. During the Makin Island campaign, enemy night air attacks on U.S. Fleet units were a major problem. CDR Tom Hamilton, CV-6 Air Officer, and O'Hare developed a tactic of using a TBF with radar to direct fighters against enemy aircraft. Unfortunately, O'Hare in his F6F Hellcat fighter, was shot down on 26 November 1943 and lost at sea. Previously, O'Hare had earned the Medal of Honor with his F4F Wildcat on 20 February 1942 while deployed with VF-3 in USS Lexington CV-2, in combat operations at New Britain in the South Pacific.

In January 1944, Air Group Ten began its second tour in CV-6, and LCDR Martin was now Commanding Officer of VT-10. The newest ASB radar was installed on his aircraft and he had trained his pilots and aircrewmen extensively in night flying operations. On 17 February 1944, during a fleet attack on enemy shipping and shore installations at Truk, VT-10 was given the opportunity for a night attack on enemy ships in the harbor, which were located in two anchorages. Although Martin had been grounded due to an accidental injury received aboard ship, he assigned LT V. Van Eason to lead 13 TBFs on this raid. Every pilot made at least one hit on enemy ships, and the damage inflicted was substantial. One plane failed to return and was presumed lost. Air Group Ten also had a detachment of F4U Corsair night fighters equipped with the new AIA radar. They were employed effectively in both day and night operations. This unit was known as VF(N)-101 and were part of the original VF(N)-75 squadron. Their C.O., LCDR Richard Harmer, is credited with the first radar-intercept splash of a bogey by a carrier-based night fighter, on 24 April 1944.

Air Group Twenty deployed in Enterprise from 16 August to 23 November 1944. Their TBMs had ASB radar. They also had a 4-plane detachment of F6F-3N Night Fighters from VF(N)-78 with AIA radar, and LT James Gray was their C.O. They were very effective on their missions during strikes against Saipan, and strikes at Nansei Shoto. This VF(N) detachment merged with VF-20 on 1 October 1944.

CDR William I. Martin (third from left) and NAG-90 Staff aboard Enterprise CV-6, 1945.

CDR William I. Martin returned as Air Group Commander of Night Air Group Ninety, which deployed 24 December 1944 in Enterprise, with X-Band radar on all their aircraft. The TBMs had APS-3 radar, and the F6F-5(N)s had APS-6 and -6A sets. CV-6 became a night carrier (CV(N)-6). Several of the TBMs were first carrier-based aircraft equipped with RCM (radar counter-measure) and ECM (electronic counter-measure) gear, which effectively located radar installations and made them inoperative by jamming procedures. In the next five months, this Air Group flew 1022 night sorties against enemy targets during operations for the capture of Luzon, strikes at enemy shipping and shore targets in the South China Sea, Formosa, Honshu (including Tokyo), Kyushu, Shikoku, the capture of Iwo Jima (19 February to 10 March 1945), and the capture of Okinawa.

It was a big day for Enterprise on 16 February 1945, when aircraft from NAG-90 joined aircraft from other Fifth Fleet carriers in a massive carrier strike on the Tokyo area. Enterprise had made it all the way through 18 battles, with two left to go: Iwo Jima and Okinawa. VF(N)-90 had 174 hours of continuous flight operations (a record in World War II) during the Iwo Jima campaign. TBMs made night attacks on enemy ships and shore installations in the Inland Sea. During the Okinawa campaign, NAG-90 made repeated raids on Kyushu and Shikoku airfields which neutralized much of the Kamikaze capability of these installations. Enterprise was damaged by Kamikaze attacks on three separate occasions during the Battle of Okinawa. The last attack, on 14 May 1945, caused severe damage, fire, and casualties. Major repairs were needed. Enterprise returned to Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Washington, on 6 June 1945. The combat career of USS Enterprise CV-6 had ended, but she had left a legacy in night carrier operations as well as a combat record including 20 battles, unsurpassed by any other ship in World War II.

William I. "Bill" Martin, a graduate of the Naval Academy in 1934, is given much of the credit for the development of night carrier tactics in World War II. After the war, he became a test pilot, Commanding Officer of USS Saipan CV-48, and Executive Assistant and Senior Aide to the Chief of Naval Operations. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1958, and to Vice Admiral in 1967. He was Commander of the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, and Deputy Commander of our Atlantic Fleet. He had 37 years of active service, and for many years he held a record of 440 night carrier landings during his career as a Naval Aviator.

Article Copyright © 2001 Arnold W. Olson; retired Public Affairs Officer, USS Enterprise CV-6 Association, and is used here with permission.

[1] Enterprise in fact operated continuous flight operations for 175 hours at Iwo Jima in February-March 1945.

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