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And the Men Who Flew Her…

WWII Naval aviators talk about flying the Hellcat

by Bill Coombes

Copyright © 1998 by the Confederate Air Force and Bill Coombes. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 23, Number 3, Fall, 1998 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

Looking at the glossy sea blue F6F on the ramp at CAF Headquarters, one is immediately aware of its size, especially relative to the North American SNJ that all Naval aviators flew first in their training. It is not difficult to image a newly minted Ensign coming out of advanced training in Corpus Christi or Pensacola in 1944 and seeing for the first time the fighter that would take him to the fleet and into the Pacific war.

A multitude of feelings, excitement, pride, perhaps a bit of apprehension, were part of the experience for hundreds of young men as they transitioned into the Hellcat in operational training units and then received assignment to fleet fighter squadrons.

Of course, many Hellcat pilots moved into the cockpit from the F6F’s older brother, the F4F Wildcat, and many were instructors who finally got an opportunity to fly fighters. Some even had experience in the Brewster Buffalo before getting a check-out in the big Grumman, and a few, especially later in the war, were dive-bomber pilots who would move into the newly created VBF squadrons, flying the Hellcat as a fighter-bomber.

For these men, and men with combat experience, the majority viewed the Hellcat in much the same way as they did the first girls they saw on liberty after Pre-Flight School: she might not be the slickest thing on the ramp but all of the equipment was there and the controls fell readily to hand. The fabulous F8F Bearcat was the ultimate Grumman-produced Navy fighter, but it was still being developed when the big Pacific offensives of 1944-45 began.

One of the men who flew the Buffalo and the Hellcat was Noel Mendoza, who began his naval aviation career as a Seaman Second Class in June of 1942. Mendoza flew the F2A in pre-operational flight training at NAS Opa Locka, Fla. in March of 1943.

"The F2A was the only other fighter I flew" during his naval career, and he said that it was under-powered, with a service ceiling of only 12,000 to 13,000 feet, and the airplane was a "very poor gunnery platform."

The Hellcat, by comparison "was a snap: smooth, easily trimmed, and very stable, especially in the landing circle around the carrier." Mendoza compares the SNJ to the Hellcat as "just the same as going from a Model T to a Corvette." One learned to "ease the throttle forward" and to "use all the right rudder one could exert" on take-off. Mendoza went on to join VF-8 on the USS Bunker Hill, where he was able to shoot down three Japanese airplanes, two Oscars and one Betty.

He got the Oscars on Sept. 13, 1944, over Los Negros in the central Philippines. At low level because of weather conditions, and with a 500 pound bomb still attached, Mendoza surprised both Oscars and quickly shot them down, then climbed back to altitude and made a dive-bombing run on an anti-aircraft site, scoring a direct hit. This mission, which Mendoza calls his most memorable, earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Of all the fighter squadrons that operated the F6F, one in particular stands out. This is VF-15, nicknamed "Fabled Fifteen" by others, and it holds the distinction of destroying the greatest number of enemy planes of any squadron in the Pacific. As a part of Air Group 15, commanded by Capt. David McCampbell, Fabled Fifteen, flying off the USS Essex, destroyed 313 enemy planes in the air and an equal number on the ground during their six and one-half month tour, including the highest victory score of any one day with 68.5 destroyed on June 19, 1944, during the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

McCampbell himself shot down seven on one day, and nine, with two probables, on another, while ending the war as the Navy’s all-time greatest ace with 34 aerial victories. Six of the men who flew with VF-15 graciously contributed their stories and shared their most memorable moments flying the Hellcat.

Capt. John Strane joined VF-15 in Atlantic City, New Jersey after almost two years as an instructor at NAS Pensacola. Strane had a few hours in the F4F before flying the Hellcat, something that convinced him he wanted to be a fighter pilot. When the opportunity came to join a new squadron just forming, Strane was eager for the opportunity.

"My initial impression of the Hellcat was that I was in a completely different ballpark than that of the SNJ or the Wildcat," he writes, "the tremendous power, the comfort of the cockpit, the ease of handling the plane thoroughout its entire flight envelope was unbelievable." The ruggedness of the "Iron Works" product was something he also admired. "It was not unusual to find 7.7 mm. rounds in the bottom of the fuselage after a plane returned from a mission," Strane related, having been deflected off the armor plate protecting the pilot and the fuel systems.

"I can’t say that the Hellcat had any disadvantages, except that it couldn’t turn with a Zero in a slow speed dogfight situation, and that is why we didn’t want to tangle with them on their terms." Strane learned this tactical doctrine well, flaming four Zekes on Oct. 25, 1944, and ending the tour with 13 victories to finish as one of the squadron’s 26 aces, the most of any Navy squadron.

Ralph Foltz came to VF-15 and the Hellcat in a very circuitous way, the first stop being NAS Kodiak, Alaska, where he joined the navy as a seaman second class. After the usual stops, primary, basic, instruments, advanced, "car quals" on Lake Michigan, Foltz joined the squadron at NAS Atlantic City like John Strane and 52 other aviators.

"I remember walking out to the flight line and looking up at the grinning monster to which I’d been assigned my first ‘fam flight. I’d been handed an F6F-3 handbook, but I don’t remember any supervision." His most vivid memory of those times were "12 plane formation loops, looking in from an outside position." He could have also described flying wing for McCampbell on June 19, 1944, in what was called later the Mariannas Turkey Shoot. McCampbell got five Judy dive bombers that day: Foltz got a Zero and a Judy. Foltz went on to become another of VF-15’s aces, getting five before VF-15 was rotated out of combat.

Dick Davis was another member of VF-15, but he joined the squadron from a pool of pilots while the Air Group was already embarked on the Essex. Davis flew in a division of four Hellcat led by Lt. Bert Morris, better known to the public in those days as the movie star Wayne Morris. Morris ended the war as "Hollywood’s" only bonafide ace, with seven confirmed kills. Davis flew his wing, but also had opportunities to score. "The Hellcat was not supposed to be any good against a Tony below 10,000 feet," Davis wrote, "but at 2,000 feet and after five gut-wrenching scissors with one I got him." Davis also attests to the Hellcat’s ability as a fighter-bomber.

"On one mission, to go after subs tied up in the harbor at Manila Bay, my division was loaded with six five-inch rockets. Our dive started at 15,000 feet and we were to fire the rockets between 1,000 and 1,500 feet to be effective. Just as I passed through 2,000 feet Bert yells ‘Barrage balloons!’ It was too late to do anything then but salvo the rockets and weave our way out of there." Strike photos later confirmed extensive damage to both submarines.

Davis also had first hand experience with the rugged qualities of the F6F. On one mission his entire right aileron was shot away, along with half of the right horizontal stabilizer and elevator. Yet he was able to fly 135 miles back to the Essex and land aboard safely.

Another member of Fifteen’s aces, Baynard Milton, demonstrated for the folks back home, and to himself, the strength of the Hellcat. Milton, who generously sent a copy of his unpublished slightly fictionalized memoir of his service, had his right landing gear completely shot away, leaving a hole big enough for a person to fall through. Other damage included partially destroyed flaps, limited aileron control, and leaking hydraulic fluid inside the cockpit.

Milton found that the plane would continue to fly by holding full right aileron and full right rudder: relaxing the controls caused the F6F to begin a left turn. Fighting cramps in his arm and leg, thankful that the "Prep Charlie" pattern to land aboard meant turning left, Milton flew more than 100 miles back to the Essex. With one gear down and minimal control, Milton’s Hellcat crash-landed, the right gear collapsing and the big fighter sliding down the deck. With more than one hundred holes of various sizes in addition to the hole in the wing, "Airedales" quickly determined that particular airplane beyond repair and it was pushed over the side.

Milton himself, after being detached from the air group and returning home to north Florida in the early spring of 1945, saw this particular landing replayed on the Movietone News at the local movie theater! Today it is a part of the usual footage of carrier aviation shown on Wings and the Discovery Channel.

New men joined VF-15 in January of 1945 as it reformed to go back to the Pacific for a second tour. Many of the original Fifteen had gone to other billets, but about a third became the nucleus for the "new" squadron. McCampbell had gone, but Strane and Davis, among others, remained. Among the "newbies" was Ensign Steve Lacie and Ensign George Coombes.

Lacie, who also was an instructor in SNJs at Pensacola prior to joining Fifteen, remembered the Hellcat as a "sturdy and stable" airplane, one in which, compared to the Wildcat that he flew in operational training, Lacie felt comfortable. The new VF-15 never made it to the combat zone for another tour, so Lacie’s most memorable moment in the F6 was a non-combat one. At NAS Los Alamitos, California, where Fifteen was stationed, Lacie related a target-towing episode in which the target "sleeve" and its several hundred feet of cable failed to release from his Hellcat. Upon contacting the tower, Lacie was instructed to land on the shorter east-west runway, but to come in "low and slow, so as not to overshoot."

Displaying superior airmanship, Lacie touched down as instructed, only to discover that the sleeve and cable had done a fine job of snagging the high power lines off the end of the approach end of the runway. The resulting power blackout for the neighborhood "precipitated numerous complaints" but left Lacie and the F6 unscarred.

Coombes’ first flight in the F6F was a big disappointment. As a new Ensign, Coombes reported to NAS Melbourne, Florida in September 1944 for operational training in war weary Hellcats from the fleet. "After studying the flight manuals we checked ourselves out in the F6," Coombes recalls, although there was "a blind cockpit check before we took to the skies behind a 2,000 horsepower Pratt and Whitney R-2800." After take-off on his first "fam flight," Coombes’ initial impression was that the airplane was easy enough to control, but really sluggish in the climb category.

"I finally got to a respectable altitude, leveled off and set cruise power, thumping the airspeed indicator as it was showing just 120 knots." After going through the take-off checklist again, and seeing three green landing lights showing on the panel, Coombes came to the realization that, although green meant OK, it also meant that the gear were still down and locked. After properly retracting the gear things changed dramatically, as the airplane performed as advertised. Coombes went on to a series of colorful adventures in the Hellcat but his feelings for the airplane are like all those who flew it: it was the right airplane, available at just the right time.

McCampbell, Morris, Strane, Mendoza, Foltz. Davis, Lacie, Milton, Coombes. "Where do we get such men?" muses Adm. Tarrant in James Michener’s classic novel of the naval air war in Korea. "Why is America lucky enough to have such men? They leave this tiny ship and fly against the enemy. Then they must seek the ship, lost somewhere on the sea. And when they find it, they have to land upon its pitching deck. Where do we get such men?" Such men as these, and Foss, and Vraciu, and Galer, and hundreds of others answered their country’s call during the most pivotal time of the twentieth century. To them we owe so much, and it is only fitting that we preserve, as a symbol of all their triumphs and tragedies, an airplane like the Grumman F6F Hellcat.

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