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Essex-class Carriers, F6F Hellcats, and Rear Adm. Charles Pownall

First combat expectations met. . . and found wanting:

In August 1943, after 21 months of conducting a largely defensive war in the Pacific, Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) Adm. Chester Nimitz now had the means and the orders to go on the offensive. At anchorage in Pearl Harbor were the Essex (CV 9) and the Yorktown (CV 10), whose namesake had been sunk during the Battle of Midway, the first of the new larger, faster, heavier, and more powerful Essex-class fleet aircraft carriers. Together with them was the Independence (CVL 22), namesake of a new class of light carriers. And the Essex and Yorktown were armed with the latest generation of naval fighters from Grumman: the F6F Hellcat. To make the most out of these new weapons, Nimitz devised a new doctrine.

“The Essexes won the great Pacific battles that broke the Imperial Japanese Navy.”

—Norman Friedman, naval aviation historian

Previously, naval air doctrine called for each fleet carrier to operate independently. No more. To maximize striking power, Nimitz decided to group the Essex, Yorktown, and Independence into a single task force, Task Force 15, and conduct operations as an integral unit. Unfortunately, the man he tapped to be the first commander of this new fighting concept, Rear Adm. Charles A. “Baldy” Pownall, would prove to be anything but a fighting admiral.

Charles Pownall

Then-Capt. Charles Pownall (right) and Lord Louis Mountbatten aboard the USS Enterprise (CV 6), ca. 1941. Pownall commanded the Enterprise before World War II, but failed when put in command of Task Force 15 in 1943. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

A Naval Academy graduate (1910), Pownall earned the Navy Cross commanding a patrol vessel in World War I. He earned his wings in 1927 and in the interwar years served on the Saratoga, Lexington, Ranger, and Enterprise (commanding). At war’s outbreak he was Commander Patrol Plane Replacement Squadrons, Patrol Wings, Pacific Fleet; and in January 1942, Commander Fleet Air, West Coast, both shore commands. While Pownall had proved himself an excellent administrator, Task Force 15 was his first combat command in World War II.

The baptism of fire for Task Force 15 was the attack on the Japanese garrison and facilities on Marcus Island.

The baptism of fire for Task Force 15 was the attack on the Japanese garrison and facilities on Marcus Island. Located about 1,000 miles southeast of Tokyo, the coral atoll contained an airstrip, a weather station, an anchorage, anti-aircraft defenses, and a mixed Japanese Army and Navy garrison of about 2,700 men. On Aug. 23, 1943, the carriers and escorts of Task Force 15 weighed anchor for Marcus Island.

F6F Hellcats

F6F Hellcats line the deck of the USS Yorktown (CV 10) prior to launching for the raid against Marcus Island, Aug. 30, 1943. The raid marked the combat debut for the F6F Hellcat. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

At 4:15 a.m. on August 31, aircraft began taking off from the three carriers’ flight decks. As dawn broke over the atoll, Navy aircraft peeled off to attack. Caught by surprise, all the Japanese airplanes were destroyed on the ground. A total of four air strikes pounded the atoll. By mid-afternoon it was a smoking shambles, with approximately 80 percent of the facilities destroyed. The new carriers and doctrine had emphatically proven themselves. Though the Hellcat was little challenged in the action, its outstanding performance made the pilots eager to take on their Japanese aerial adversaries.

Though the Hellcat was little challenged in the action, its outstanding performance made the pilots eager to take on their Japanese aerial adversaries.

But even before the first bombs had landed, Pownall was taking counsel of his fears. His initial concern was Japanese submarines. Then, when the last raid was over, an attack by Japanese aircraft from Chichi and Iwo Jima, four hours flying time away, dominated his thoughts and caused him to order the task force to leave without conducting a search for the aviators of three Hellcats and one Avenger torpedo bomber the Japanese had shot down.

Marcus Island

Marcus Island shrouded in smoke after a strike by aircraft, including F6F Hellcats, from Task Force 15. National Archives photo

That decision caused Yorktown commander Capt. Joseph “Jocko” Clark to explode. “You’ve got the widest yellow streak up your back of any admiral I’ve ever seen in my life!” he shouted. “I don’t care if when I return to Pearl Harbor I don’t have a ship and I don’t have any command. You can make me a Seaman Second [Class] tomorrow. But this is my ship, and these are my boys out there, and I’m going to send out a search for them! Do I have your permission?” Permission was granted. Only after the search failed to find the downed airmen did the task force depart.

“Pownall was scared of his own shadow . . . a gutless wonder.”

—Lt. j.g. Robert Reynolds, USS Yorktown

Clark, who earned the Navy Cross, Silver Star, three Presidential Unit Citations, and other decorations, would go on to be one of the best carrier task group commanders in the war, retiring in 1953 with the rank of admiral.

F6F Hellcat

An F6F Hellcat piloted by Cmdr. James H. Flatley during the raid on Marcus Island, Aug. 31, 1943. While the Hellcat and the Essex-class carriers of Task Force 15 proved themselves, Rear Adm. Charles Pownall did not. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

In December, Pownall led a raid on the Marshall Islands marred with command controversy. In an after-action report, Nimitz’s air chief, Vice Adm. John Towers, wrote that Pownall was “overcautious in plans and operations. He worries intensely before and during operations. Lack of aggressiveness resented by subordinates.” Pownall was relieved and given a senior administrative post. Though he never again served in combat (retiring a vice admiral in 1949), Pownall made one important contribution to air operations: the recommendation that submarines be stationed off target islands to rescue downed fliers.

Though he never again served in combat (retiring a vice admiral in 1949), Pownall made one important contribution to air operations: the recommendation that submarines be stationed off target islands to rescue downed fliers.

The Essex-class carriers would be the most numerous class of capital ships built during the war, forming the backbone of the U.S. Navy’s combat strength in the war. The Hellcat would become one of the most successful fighters ever, destroying 5,223 enemy aircraft. Its 19:1 kill ratio (13:1 against the Zero) was the best of all piston-engined fighters.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...