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Wings of Gold: U.S. Navy Carrier Aircraft 1941-1945

F4F-4 Wildcat of VF-41 in 1942

In 1941 with war raging in Europe and with the Japanese continuing their war in China and occupying French Indo-China the United States rushed to build up its Naval Air Arm and the Arm Air Corps.  New models of aircraft of all types were being rushed into production to replace aircraft already known to be obsolescent.  The Navy brought aircraft already accepted into full production even as it planned more advanced models.  The events in Europe and Asia demonstrated that new fighter designs were needed quickly.

As 1940 dawned the standard fighter aircraft found on U.S. Navy carriers were the F2-A Brewster Buffalo, the Grumman F-3F biplane.  In February 1940 the Navy accepted its first F4F-3 Wildcat which in an earlier for had been rejected in favor of the Brewster Buffalo.  The new Grumman fighter was powered by a 1200 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 double row radial engine, mounted 4 .50 cal. Machine guns and was heavily armored.  It had a maximum speed of 331 mph range of 845 miles and ceiling of 39500 feet. This would serve it and its pilots well as they aircraft was incredibly tough, often amazing experienced Japanese pilots in their A6M2 Zeros in their ability to suffer heavy damage and remain in the air.  The plucky Wildcat would become the main line of defense in the Pacific against the advancing Japanese Imperial Navy in the months following Pearl Harbor.

The early F4F-3s were superseded by the F4F-4 model which incorporated folding wings, additional armor and an extra two machine guns.  This decreased its maximum speed to 320 mph, rate of climb and ceiling but nonetheless the aircraft gave a good account of itself in Navy and Marine Corps service.  F4F-3’s and F4F-4s served in the British Royal Navy where it was called the Martlet until the end of the war.  When Grumman closed out F4F production in 1943 to concentrate on its replacement the F6F Hellcat production was continued by General Motors and Eastern Aircraft as the FM1 and FM2 Wildcat. The FM1 was identical to the F4F-4 but armament was reduced to 4 machine guns and bomb racks for two 250 lb bombs or depth charges were added.  The FM2 was based on an updated version of the F4F and had a more powerful engine as well as a higher tail assembly to account for the increased torque of the engine.  These aircraft served aboard the tiny Escort Carriers and performed valiantly, especially in the Battle off Samar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  A total of 7860 Wildcats of all varieties were built.  They accounted for 1327 enemy aircraft shot down with the loss of only 191 Wildcats.

Aces Capt Joe Foss USMC and CAPT David McConnell USN both Medal of Honor Winners and CDR Jimmy Thatch (below)

The top aces who flew the Wildcat were all Marines, CAPT Joe Foss (26 victories) MAJ John Lucian Smith (19 victories) and MAJ Marion Carl (16 victories in the F4F and 2 in the F4U Corsair). Foss and Smith both won the Medal of Honor.  Foss would go on to become Governor of South Dakota and the first Commissioner of the American Football League in 1959. Smith retired as a Colonel in 1960 and Carl as a Major General.  Other distinguished F4F aces included LT Butch O’Hare, the first U.S. Navy ace and Medal of Honor winner and LCDR Jimmy Thatch who developed the highly successful “Thatch Weave” which enabled the U.S.pilots whose machines were slower and less maneuverable than the speedy and nimble Zeros to achieve good success against their Japanese foe.  Thatch retired as an Admiral in 1967.  O’Hare rose to become commander of the Enterprise Air Group and was killed in action in November 1943. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is named for this brave aviator.

F6F Hellcat

The Grumman F6F Hellcat took over front line fighter duties on the Fleet Carriers from the Wildcat in early 1943 and established itself as the dominant fighter in the Pacific Theater of Operations.  Although it had a resemblance to the F4F the F6F was a totally new design built on combat experience against the Japanese.  The aircraft was built around the powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine which produced 2000 hp.  The Hellcat mounted six .50 caliber machine guns and had a rate of climb of 3500 feet per minute and a 37300 ft operational ceiling.

Faster than the Zero and other Japanese fighters and piloted by more experienced pilots the Hellcats took a brutal toll of Japanese aircraft.  They accounted for more Japanese aircraft kills than any other with 5163 confirmed kills with a loss of 270 aircraft an overall 19:1 kill ratio. They were piloted by 305 Navy and Marine Corps aces including Meal of Honor winner Captain David McConnell the Navy’s Ace of Aces, and highest surviving United States ace of the war that scored all 34 of his victories in the Hellcat.  The greatest achievement of the Hellcats were when they swept the rebuilt Japanese Naval Air Arm from the skies in the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. By November 1945 12275 Hellcats had been built with 1263 going to the British Royal Navy. After the war the Hellcat was replaced by the F8F Bearcat as the primary fighter and served in a night fighter and trainer role until the 1950s.  The French Navy used the Hellcat in to provide heroic close air support to beleaguered French Soldiers in Indochina.

USMC F4U-4 Corsair providing close air support

Flying alongside the F6F was the Vaught F4U Corsair. The Corsair first flew in 1940 and the Navy was slow to adopt it due to difficulties in carrier operations and negative reviews of Navy pilots.  However Marine Corps aviators flying the Corsair had great success and legendary aviators like MAJ Gregory “Pappy” Boyington and VMF-214 the Black Sheep.  The Navy would adopt the aircraft later in the war as the Corsair’s carrier operation deficiencies were remedied, but its real success was a land based aircraft operated by the Marines.  Likewise the first squadrons to operate the aircraft successfully from carriers were the Marine Corps VMF-124 and VMF-213.

Early F4U-1

The Corsair mounted the same Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine as the F6F but had a highly streamlined gull wing design as well as a turbo-charger which allowed it a top speed of 425 mph.  Later models such as the F4U-4 had a top speed of 445 mph. The F4F was armed with six .50 cal machine guns as well as rockets and a bomb load of 2000 pounds and the F4U-4 could carry 4000 pounds of ordnance.

Less than 10000 of the over 64000 combat sorties flown by F4Us were flown from carriers, the vast bulk of the sorties coming from land based Marine Corps squadrons.  The Corsair was often used as a fighter bomber where its capabilities to drop sizable amounts of ordinance including rockets, bombs and the nearly developed Napalm in a close air support role cemented the importance of Marine Air for future generations.  They were beloved by the Marine Corps and U.S. Army infantrymen in their brutal battles with the Japanese on many hellish island battlefields.  Corsairs accounted for 2140 confirmed kills during the war against a combat loss of 189 aircraft. The aircraft remained in production until 1952 with 12571 aircraft of all variants being built.  Many Japanese pilots considered the Corsair to be the best fighter of the war.

During the war many Corsairs served in the British Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Air Force with good success, and after the war the French Navy had success with them in a close air support role in Indochina and Algeria.  Following the war the Corsair remained in service for many years in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as well as the French Navy and other smaller navies and air forces until the 1960s.

The Douglas SBD Dive Bomber was arguably the most effective Naval dive bomber of World War II, and possibly the best single engine dive bomber of all time. Other aircraft may have been faster or carried a larger bomb load, but the SBD, which served at a time when the U.S. Navy did not have air superiority and battled seasoned Japanese pilots and aircrews, achieved remarkable results,

The SBD was developed from the Northrop BT-2, after Douglas took over Northrop. The first model of the Dauntless, the SBD-1 began operations with the U.S. Marine Corps In 1940, the SBD-2 with the U.S. Navy in 1941. The SBD-3 which included more armor for the crew, and self sealing fuel tanks began entering service in late 1941.

The SBD combined a heavy bomb load, excellent bombing optics, great defensive armament, rugged construction, excellent handling characteristics and maneuverability, and superb dive bombing capabilities. It became the workhorse of the U.S. Navy between 1941 and 1944, flying about 25% of all missions flown from Navy carriers during that time. SBDs sank or damaged six Japanese Aircraft carriers, one Japanese and one French battleship, 14 cruisers, 6 destroyers, and many other ships including transports and submarines. It was the Dauntless which turn the tide of the Pacific war when at Midway they sank the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu and the heavy cruiser Mikuma. The SBD also accounted for more enemy aircraft in aerial combat than were lost to enemy aircraft, an amazing accomplishment by any bomber of any type.

In late 1944 after the Battle Of the Philippine Sea the Dauntless was phased out of U.S. Navy squadrons by the SB2C Helldiver. Though the Helldiver was bigger, faster, and carried a higher bomb load, many pilots preferred the Dauntless due to its superior handling characteristics, especially at low speeds, essential to landing on a carrier. It is hard to believe that the United States would have prevailed in 1942 without the Dauntless.

It was used in combat by other allies, a variant, the A-24 Banshee was built for the U.S. Army Air Force. The French operates it from the carrier Arromanches in Indochina until 1949.

SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber above and at Midway below

TBF Avenger above and below

The TBF Avenger torpedo bomber was developed as a replacement for the TBD Devastator by in 1940 by Leroy Grumman of Grumman aircraft. Production began in 1941 and the first combat by the aircraft was at the Battle of Midway. During that battle, 6 aircraft from VT-6, based at Midway while the rest of the squadron flying TBD Devastators from the USS Hornet attacked the Japanese carrier strike force. All of the TBD were shot down, as well as 5 of the 6 TBFs.

Despite the inauspicious start the TBFs became one of the deadliest aircraft of the Second World War. They helped sink the largest Battleships ever constructed, the Japanese Musashi and Yamato, as well as many other warships and auxiliaries. They conducted bombing missions of land targets, and operated from Escort Carriers in Anti-Submarine Warfare operations and supporting invasions and shore operations. The Avenger was particularly effective in the ASW role and was credited with sinking about 30 German U-Boats and Japanese submarines during the war.

The TBF was the largest single engine aircraft of the war, only the P-47 Thunderbolt was anywhere close to its size. Despite this the TBF was able to operate from the smallest aircraft carriers. Powered by a 1900 HP Wright R-2600-20 Twin Cyclone 14 Cylinder radial engine it could cruise at over 30,000 feet at a top speed of 275 MPH while carrying 2,000 pounds of bombs or a Mark 13 Aerial Torpedo. They also carried racks for 5″ High Velocity Aircraft Rockets and depth charges.

After the war it served in a variety of roles in the U.S. Navy, Royal Navy, Canadian Navy, French Navy, and other militaries until the 1960s. In peacetime it was used for many years as a fire fighting aircraft in the United States and Canada.

LTjg. George H. W. Bush in the cockpit of his Avenger

The most famous man to pilot a TBF/TBM was LTjg George H. W. Bush, later the President of the United States whose aircraft was shot down over Chuchi Jima In 1944.

SB2C Helldiver above and in French Service below

The replacement for the Dauntless was the SB2C Curtiss Helldiver. The Helldiver was bigger and faster than the Dauntless but for its size it was underpowered, and had a shorter range that the beloved Dauntless. The Helldiver had very poor performance in flight, had unreliable electrical and hydraulic systems and frequently was poorly manufactured. The defects made it less than popular among the aircrews which had previously flown the Dauntless who came to call it the Beast. The problems would lead to a Congressional investigation headed by Senator Harry Truman. During the hearings Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air, Artemis Gates said: “When we needed the SB2C Helldiver neither we nor it was ready.”

The British Royal Navy and Australian Air Force evaluated the Helldiver and rejected it for service, cancelling their orders for it.

Despite the many flaws of the aircraft the superbly trained pilots and air crews made the most of it, sinking hundreds of Japanese ships and watercraft. From late 1944 until the end of the war it established a good combat record, though it never had to fight against the well trained Japanese pilots that the Dauntless aircrews had to face.

However, the Navy, and most air forces were moving away from the dive bomber as an attack aircraft. The U. S. Navy found that its F6F Hellcats, and F4U Corsairs could carry as heavy as payload in rockets and bombs as the Helldiver though the ordnance decreased their range. But even so the fighters were far better able to defend themselves against enemy fighter aircraft.

The aircraft served in the U. S. Navy and Naval Reserve until 1950. It also served in Greece where it was used in counter-insurgency (COIN) missions during the Greek Civil War, and by the French Navy during the Indochina campaign, including providing closer air support to French troops at Dien Bien Phu. The Italian Air Force was the last to operate the Helldiver, retiring it in 1959.

With the advent of rockets the dive bomber was replaced by single seat fighters and attack aircraft. The Helldiver was the last purpose built dive bomber. In the U.S. the Hellcat, Corsair, the postwar F8F Bearcat, the P-51 Mustang, and the P-47 Thunderbolt took over ground attack missions. The A4D Skyraider was designed as a ground attack aircraft, and eventually jet powered fighter-bombers would enter service.

These amazing aircraft and the men that flew them established a tradition of excellence that the Naval Aviators of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps continue today.

Peace

Padre Steve

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The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Sinking the Musashi

IJNS Musashi

This is the second in a series of articles about the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  The first article in the series is liked here and is entitled

The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Introduction and the Battle of Palawan Passage

Following the loss of Atago, Maya and Takao Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force had an uneventful rest of the day on the 23rd as his ships kept a watchful eye and ear for more US Navy submarines.  At about 0800 on 24 October the Center Force was spotted by 3 B-24 Liberator bombers which promptly reported them.

TBF Avenger dropping its “fish” 19 would hit Musashi

One of the ships in the Center Force was the IJNS Musashi, sister ship of the mighty Yamato which was also in the force. The two battlewagons were the largest battleships ever built.  With a full load displacement of 72,800 tons and an armament of nine 18.1 inch guns, the largest battery ever mounted on a warship the two behemoths also had massive anti-aircraft batteries and the Japanese were counting on them leading the Center Force to a miraculous victory during the battle.  Admiral Kurita addressed his commanders prior to the battle:

“I know that many of you are strongly opposed to this assignment.  But the war situation is far more critical than any of you can possibly know.  Would it not be shameful to have the fleet remain intact while our nation perishes?  I believe that the Imperial General Headquarters is giving us a glorious opportunity.  Because I realize how very serious the war situation actually is, I am willing to accept even this ultimate assignment to storm into Leyte Gulf.  You must all remember that there are such things as miracles.”

Musashi or Yamato under attack October 24th 1944

At 1000 the Musashi’s radar picked up approaching aircraft.  These were from the USS Intrepid and the USS Cabot which were assigned to Rear Admiral Gerard Bogan’s Task Group 38.4. The anti-aircraft crews and damage control teams prepared as the ship’s bugle sounded the alarm.  As the aircraft came closer the main guns of the Musashi fired but ceased fire as the aircraft drew closer.  Helldiver dive bombers plunged downward at the ships of the Center Force and F6F Hellcat fighters unopposed by enemy fighters conducted strafing runs as TBF Avenger torpedo bombers dropped their deadly loads at the Musashi.  The big ship avoided two of the “fish” but a third struck causing little damage and the first wave few away.  Musashi reported that she had sustained a hit and continued on.  The Japanese sailors knew that this would not be the last attack.  Though Musashi had weathered the first strike the American fliers hit the battleships Nagato, Yamato and severely damaged the heavy cruiser Myōkō.

Musashi hit

At 1140 the Musashi’s radar picked up the next wave of attackers and at 1203.  These were from the Intrepid, Essex and Lexington.  Hitting the Center Force in two waves a half hour apart these aircraft delivered punishing blows on Musashi. She was hit by 3 torpedoes and 2 bombs. The torpedoes caused damage that caused a 5 degree list and was down six feet by the bow. The torpedo damage was concentrated midships and one torpedo flooded her number 4 engine room. One of the bombs hit an engine room and disabled her port inline propeller shaft.  With her speed reduced she proceeded on.

Musashi

Thirty minutes following this attack at about 1330 Musashi was attacked again by Helldivers and Avengers. She is hit by 4 1000 pound bombs and 4 torpedoes.  She was now so badly damage that she could no longer keep up with the fleet and dropped behind to fend for herself.  At 1350 this attack ends with her speed reduced to 20 knots and with her down 13 feet by the bow and nearly all of her trim and void tanks full. There is now little room for any more damage forward.

Separated from the fleet Musashi was now attacked by aircraft from the Enterprise, Cabot, Franklin and Intrepid that score hits with 11 bombs including the deadly 1000 pounders and 8 torpedoes.  During the course of these attacks which ended after 1530 Musashi sustained 19 torpedo and 17 bomb hits and taken 18 near hits close aboard. At 1620 her skipper Rear Admiral Toshihira Inoguchi began desperate damage control measures to control the increasing list which had reached 10 degrees to port.  Dead in the water she continued to list further and when the list reached 12 degrees at 1915 Inoguchi ordered preparations to abandon ship.  The surviving crew assembled on the deck, the battle flag and the Emperor’s portrait were removed.  Admiral Inoguchi gave his personal notebook to his Executive officer Captain Kenkichi Kato and directed then him to abandon ship. Admiral Inoguchi retired to his cabin and was not seen again.  At 1930 with the list now 30 degrees Captain Kato gave the order to abandon ship and soon with the list increasing further men began to slide across the decks being crushed in the process.  Panic broke out among the crew which had been assembled by divisions and Captain Kato ordered “every man for himself.”  At 1936 the ship capsized and port and went down by the bow sinking in 4,430 feet of water in the Visayan Sea at 13-07N, 122-32E.

The destroyers Kiyoshimo, Isokaze and Hamakaze rescued 1,376 survivors including Captain Kato, but 1,023 of Musashi’s 2,399 man crew were lost including her skipper, Rear Admiral Inoguchi who was promoted Vice Admiral, posthumously.

The rest of the Center Force under Kurita turned around to get out of range of the aircraft, passing the crippled Musashi as his force retreated. Kurita’s retreat was temporary and Kurita waited until 17:15 before turning around again to head for the San Bernardino Strait hoping to find it empty of American ships.  His force was still battle worthy because the majority of the 259 sorties were directed on Musashi and the Heavy Cruiser Myōkō which retired heavily damaged. The Southern Force which had also been hit by American carrier air strikes also continued its push toward Surigao Strait.  The Battle of Surigao Strait, the revenge of the Pearl Harbor Battleships will be the next article in this series.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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