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Naval Aviation Through the Decades: Lean Years and War

100 Years of Planes, Progress, and Personal Narratives: Part 4

The Great Depression of the 1930s hindered the development of naval aviation, but a few stalwart pioneers – Lt. John Henry “Jack” Towers among them – kept things going. Navy experts developed improved arresting gear, and the first flush-deck catapults were developed in 1934 to be later installed in new carriers. Ranger, the first U.S. Navy ship built from the keel up as an aircraft carrier, was commissioned in 1934. Next came Yorktown (CV 5) in 1937 and Enterprise (CV 6) in 1938. These were true aircraft carriers and naval aviation, finally, was regarded as an integral arm of U.S. naval power.

Japan was building as many aircraft carriers as the United States. The 14,700-ton USS Wasp (CV 7) and 20,000-ton USS Hornet (CV 8) were both in commission by October 1941. Discounting Langley, which was no longer a first-line warship, the Navy now had the seven carriers that would lead the fleet during the first year of America’s role in World War II.

Between June 1933 and June 1939, Towers filled a variety of billets ashore and afloat. He completed the senior course at the Naval War College in 1934 and commanded the Naval Air Station at San Diego. He served as skipper of Saratoga and then became assistant chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. On June 1, 1939, he was named chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics with the accompanying rank of rear admiral, becoming the first naval aviator to achieve flag rank.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II, Towers ran his bureau in a way that one observer called “stern and smart.” Under Towers, the Navy expanded from 2,000 to 10,000 aircraft within two years. Towers became commander of Naval Air Forces Pacific Fleet at three-star rank and directed the expansion of carrier forces at a time when the Navy had the largest fleet ever assembled in history. Towers later served as a representative of the United States at the surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri (BB 63).

Thanks to older men like Towers, younger men soon had the right aircraft to wage the war, but in the early days, the Navy, with its battleships lying on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, was forced to fight with the aircraft and ships it had. What it had were the handful of aircraft carriers built before the war.

The Pacific War included 20 surface engagements that were on a scale large enough to be called battles. None mattered more than the Battle of Midway, where Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers swarmed down on the same Japanese carriers that had mounted the Pearl Harbor attack. Rear Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, who had learned to fly just a few years earlier at age 52, was the brilliant American commander who orchestrated the unfolding air and carrier battles. The heavy fighting ultimately cost the USS Yorktown (CV 5) and nearly wiped out three torpedo squadrons, but sank four front-line Japanese flattops.

None of the torpedo squadrons suffered more than Torpedo Squadron 8, whose sole survivor of the attacks that day was Ensign George Gay. But the sacrifice of the torpedo squadrons, flying their obsolescent TBD-1 Devastators, pulled the Japanese combat air patrol down to low level and kept their carriers from launching or recovering aircraft as they took evasive action to avoid torpedoes. This allowed the SBD Dauntless dive bombers to dive unmolested to place their bombs on the flight decks, breaking the back of the Japanese fleet and changing the course of the war.

Lt. Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare and Lt. Cmdr. John S. “Jimmy” Thach pose for the press in front of O’Hare’s F4F Wildcat at NAS Kaneohe, Hawaii. National Archives photo

“Personally, I was just lucky,” Gay said later for a Naval History and Heritage Command oral history. “I’ve never understood why I was the only one that came back, but it turned out that way, and I want to be sure that the men that didn’t come back get the credit for the work that they did. They followed Cmdr. [John C.] Waldron [Torpedo 8’s commander] without batting an eye and I don’t feel like a lot of people have felt that we made mistakes and that Cmdr. Waldron got us into trouble. I don’t feel that way at all. I know that if I had it all to do over again, even knowing that the odds were going to be like they were, knowing him like I did know him, I’d follow him again through exactly the same thing because I trusted him very well. We did things that he wanted us to do not because he was our boss, but because we felt that if we did the things he wanted us to do then it was the right thing to do.

“The Zeros that day just caught us off balance. We were at a disadvantage all the way around.”

But U.S. Navy carrier squadrons were fortunate to have visionary leaders like Lt. Cmdr. John S. “Jimmy” Thach, skipper of Fighting Squadron 3, who developed tactics to counter the superiority of the Japanese Zero over the F4F Wildcat and take advantage of the Wildcat’s best qualities. Thach and an aggressive young fighter pilot in his squadron had sat at Thach’s kitchen table in Coronado, Calif., and with matchsticks developed the defensive fighter tactics credited with saving untold Navy fliers throughout the war. The young pilot was Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare, who received naval aviation’s first Medal of Honor when he was credited with shooting down five Japanese Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers on Feb. 20, 1942, saving the carrier Lexington from the attacking enemy aircraft.

While a handful of carriers and aircraft held the line, a new generation of naval aviators and aircraft were coming. One of those naval aviators was Cmdr. Hamilton “Mac” McWhorter III, and one of the planes was the Grumman F6F Hellcat.

“Imagine you’re in a metal shed and someone throws rocks against the outside,” said McWhorter. “That’s what it sounded like when machine gun fire ripped into my Hellcat.”

McWhorter was describing combat with Japan’s vaunted Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter in the Pacific while a Hellcat pilot in Fighter Squadron 9 (VF-9), operating from the USS Essex (CV 9). He was escorting bombers on a strike to Rabaul, New Britain, on Nov. 11, 1943, attempting to relieve pressure on the U.S. troops who’d just landed at nearby Bougainville. One hundred Zeros and 50 Hellcats were caught up in a furious battle. Said McWhorter: “When I heard slugs hitting my Hellcat, I wondered if this huge, sprawling dogfight was going to be the end of my brief Navy career.”

McWhorter was born in 1921 in Georgia. He was nine years old when his father arranged for him to have his first flight, in a Ford Tri-Motor. He attended college in Georgia, but his real satisfaction came from qualifying for naval aviator training. He piloted the “inadequate” – his word – Brewster F2A Buffalo in training.

McWhorter luckily flew the F4F Wildcat in Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, in November 1942. After that came his introduction to the big, robust Hellcat. With his heavily armed, highly maneuverable fighter, he was part of a task force that raided Wake Island on Oct. 5, 1943.

“That day, my squadron commander, Cmdr. Phil Torrey, commented that no one would, ever again, talk about the Zero being superior,” said McWhorter. “I dived into a formation of Zeros, lined up one in my gunsight, and fired a short burst. Later, they labeled me ‘One Slug’ McWhorter because I was frugal with the taxpayers’ .50-caliber bullets, but the real reason I didn’t fire a second burst was that the Zero blew up in my face.”

McWhorter described a subsequent mission to Rabaul:
“My division went in ahead of the torpedo planes. I got down 150 or 200 feet above the water and headed into a long line of Japanese warships – heavy cruisers, destroyers. I picked the biggest one, with a big, pagoda-like mast.

“As we drew closer, a cruiser opened up with her main batteries. I can testify that you can actually see an 8-inch shell coming toward you. If it looks like it’s going to hit you, you might even have time to move out of the way. I can still see the impact of my .50-caliber machine gun bullets hitting the Jap ship.

“When I was mast-high over the cruiser, I was flying through an incredible barrage while looking down at the faces of the Jap crew members. Some were looking at me, others shooting and scrambling for cover. I know my rounds hit some of them.” Minutes later, McWhorter shot down two Zeros.

“We went next to Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands, where VF-9 provided air support for the Marines. I shot down a Mitsubishi F1M ‘Pete’ floatplane near Tarawa on Nov. 18. The next day, again with only a little ammunition (86 rounds), I was credited with a Mitsubishi G4M ‘Betty’ twin-engined bomber. That made me the first air ace to get all of his kills in the F6F Hellcat.”

McWhorter eventually added five more aerial victories to his tally, becoming a 10-kill double ace. When he died in 2008, his wife, Louise, said in an interview, “He got to do everything he wanted to do and left us suddenly.” She added: “He was never satisfied with anything that didn’t involve flying.”

This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...