During 2017, we mark the 75th anniversaries of some truly momentous events in the history of U.S. Naval Aviation. During the epic battles fought in the first year of World War II in the Pacific, the large-scale application of naval air power was decisive, and the character of naval warfare was radically and permanently altered. The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942) was the first naval action fought entirely between aircraft carriers. The outcome of the battle was not decisive, but proved to be a strategic victory for the U.S., preventing a sea-based occupation of Port Moresby that would have threatened Allied supply lines to Australia. The Battle of Midway (June 4-7, 1942) was an overwhelming victory for U.S. forces, eliminating an imminent threat to the Hawaiian Islands and severely crippling Japan’s capability to conduct further carrier-based operations. Midway is often heralded as the “turning point” of World War II in the Pacific. The campaign for Guadalcanal and the Eastern Solomon Islands (beginning in August 1942) was the first major Allied offensive of the Pacific war and ultimately deprived Japan of bases that could threaten supply routes to Australia and New Zealand. It also enabled regular American land-based air operations against Japanese strongholds in the Southwest Pacific region. The outcome of these events put an end to Japanese expansion in the Pacific and set the stage for subsequent Allied offensives and the ultimate defeat of the Japanese Empire.
75 years later, it is difficult to comprehend the desperate situation confronted by American military leaders during the first six months of 1942. Japan entered the Pacific war with the most powerful naval aviation force in the world. It was equipped with ten aircraft carriers, each armed with a full complement of modern combat aircraft and weapons. Japanese navy pilots were dedicated, well trained and many had combat experience. In contrast, the U.S. Navy had only five aircraft carriers available for duty in the Pacific. Many of the Navy’s carrier-based aircraft were obsolete or suffered serious performance deficiencies relative to their Japanese adversaries. In the aftermath of the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan achieved an unbroken string of victories over allied forces in Southeast Asia and the Central Pacific, including invasion and occupation of Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines. The U.S. carrier Saratoga had been withdrawn from service in January to repair serious torpedo damage inflicted by a Japanese submarine. The crippled and badly outnumbered U.S. Navy had given a good account of itself at the Battle of the Coral Sea, but had suffered the loss of the carrier Lexington, leaving only three operational carriers to defend U.S. interests in the vast Pacific Ocean. One of these carriers, USS Yorktown, was seriously damaged at Coral Sea and required major emergency repairs to remain in the fight for the Battle of Midway..
In the face of these daunting challenges, America’s Navy had only two positive assets to rely upon. First, due to the diligent efforts of code-breakers and some clever deception by intelligence analysts, U.S. leaders gained crucial information on Japanese operational plans and were able to deploy their limited forces to maximum advantage. Second, those forces included an exceptionally capable group of professional naval officers with the skill, daring and determination to compensate for their numerical and qualitative disadvantages. The stakes could not have been higher and responsibility for the outcome fell squarely on their shoulders. To America’s good fortune, the young pilots and air crewmen of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps were up to the task. Despite the long odds, they went to war with what they had, took the fight to the enemy, and won. In memory of their truly magnificent service, self-sacrifice and ultimate victory, some of their individual contributions during the pivotal battles of 1942 are summarized below.
LCDR Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare, USN
Butch O’Hare was a fighter pilot assigned to VF-3 aboard USS Lexington, flying the F4F-3 Wildcat. On 20 February 1942, Lexington was operating in the waters off New Ireland. Dispatched to investigate a radar contact, O’Hare and his wingman intercepted a formation of eight land-based G4M “Betty” bombers closing for an attack on the Lexington. His wingman’s guns jammed, leaving O’Hare as the sole defender for the ship. Armed with only 450 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition, he managed to shoot down five of the enemy bombers and the others failed to hit Lexington. In this single action, he became the Navy’s first ace of the war. In recognition of his exploits during the engagement, O’Hare was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In August 1943, he returned to combat, flying the F6F-3 Hellcat. He achieved seven more aerial victories in the Hellcat and served as Air Group Commander aboard USS Enterprise. Unfortunately, Butch O’Hare did not live to see the victory that he fought so long and hard to achieve. He was killed in action on 26 November 1943.
LT John J. Powers, USN
Lt. John Powers flew the SBD-3 Dauntless dive bomber with VB-5 aboard USS Yorktown. He participated in 5 engagements with Japanese forces during the Battle of the Coral Sea from 4 to 8 May 1942. On 4 May, he made three attacks on enemy forces near Tulagi amid intense antiaircraft fire. He succeeded in sinking one enemy ship and severely damaged several others. On 7 May, he led an attack against the Japanese carrier Shoho. He dove to a low altitude, in the face of heavy antiaircraft fire, and hit a vital part of the ship causing extensive damage. The ship sank soon after. That evening, Lt. Powers gave a lecture to the squadron on dive bombing technique, advocating a low release point to assure accuracy. The next morning, he led his section in an attack on the Japanese fleet carrier Shokaku. Diving through bursting antiaircraft shells and enemy fighters, Lt. Powers courageously pressed home his attack, almost to the deck of an enemy carrier. He was last seen attempting recovery from his dive amid bomb fragments, smoke, flame and debris from the stricken vessel. Lt. Powers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
LT Stanley W. “Swede” Vejtasa, USN
Lt. Vejtasa saw his first combat action flying an SBD-3 Dauntless dive bomber with Scouting Squadron 5 (VS-5) operating from USS Yorktown. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, his formation was attacked by a superior force of Japanese A6M Zero fighters. Although the zero was nearly 80 mph faster than the Dauntless, Vejtasa exploited the maneuverability and ruggedness of the SBD to evade multiple attacks, shoot down three zeros and damage a fourth during the engagement. Lt. Vejtasa was also one of several Dauntless pilots to score a direct hit on the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho, which was sunk during the battle. Lt. Vejtasa later served as a fighter pilot with VF-10, flying the F4F-4 Wildcat from USS Enterprise. On 26 October 1942, while engaged in the Battle of Santa Cruz, “Swede” Vejtasa shot down two dive bombers and five torpedo bombers for a total of seven confirmed aerial victories during a single mission. Lt. Vejtasa was credited with 10.3 combat victories during the war and was awarded the Navy Cross three times during a period of five months.
LCDR John S. “Jimmy” Thach, USN
Jimmy Thach was Commander of VF-3 aboard USS Lexington. He flew the F4F-3 Wildcat and was highly regarded by his peers as a skilled pilot, capable tactician and effective combat leader. He was a mentor to Butch O’Hare, who would become the Navy’s first Ace and a Medal of Honor recipient. Thach was known for developing the “Thach Weave” tactic which enabled U.S. pilots to hold their own against the more maneuverable A6M Zero fighter. On 4 June 1942, VF-3 flew from USS Yorktown during the Battle of Midway. Thach led a six-plane flight escorting torpedo bombers. Attacked by numerous Zero fighters, Thach and his wingman used the “Weave” to shoot down 4 enemy aircraft. Thach ultimately became an Ace with 6 victories. He served as an air combat instructor and strategist, devising the “Big Blue Blanket” system to counter Kamikaze attacks during the final stages of the war against Japan. Thach was awarded the Navy Cross. He retired with the rank of Admiral in 1967.
LCDR John C. Waldron, USN
John C. Waldron commanded the torpedo bomber squadron (VT-8) aboard USS Hornet. He was an aggressive and confident leader. On 4 June 1942, VT-8 launched from Hornet with orders to find and attack a large Japanese naval force headed for Midway. VT-8 was equipped with the obsolete Douglas TBD-1 Devastator. While searching for the enemy, they became separated from their fighter escort and were vulnerable to attack by Japanese Zeros. Waldron located the Japanese carrier Kaga and ordered his squadron to attack. Spotted by enemy patrol aircraft, they were intercepted by over 30 enemy fighters. VT-8s pilots pressed the attack, but each plane fell victim to the overwhelming defenses. Despite their best efforts, no torpedoes hit Kaga. All 15 of VT-8s aircraft were destroyed and 29 of 30 crewmen perished. The lone survivor, Ensign George Gay, was later rescued at sea. Although unsuccessful in the torpedo attack, VT-8s determined effort fully occupied the defending fighters at low-level, enabling SBD dive bombers from USS Enterprise to attack and sink Kaga from above. Lt. Commander Waldron was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his valiant leadership and self-sacrifice during the battle.
LCDR C. Wade McClusky, USN
LCDR McClusky was an accomplished naval aviator prior to World War II. He assumed command of VF-6 aboard USS Enterprise in April 1941 and was promoted to Air Group Commander a year later. During the Battle of Midway, he led his Air Group’s Scout Bombers in search of the enemy carriers. Running low on fuel near the end of the search, McClusky spotted a Japanese destroyer moving at flank speed. Concluding that the destroyer was likely steaming to re-join the Japanese main force, he turned to matched the destroyer’s heading. This tactical decision led him directly to the Japanese carriers Kaga and Akagi. He directed his dive bombers to attack and both of the Japanese ships received direct hits. Almost simultaneously, dive bombers from USS Yorktown arrived and attacked the carrier Soryu. Within a matter of minutes, all three ships were reduced to burning hulks. Admiral Nimitz stated that McClusky’s astute judgement “decided the fate of the task force and our forces at Midway”.
Maj. Joe Foss, USMC
Major Joe Foss was the leading Marine fighter ace of World War II. In October 1942, Foss arrived on Guadalcanal. He flew the F4F-4 Wildcat and served as Executive Officer for VMF-121. Their assigned task was to secure control of the air and success was pivotal to the campaign for Guadalcanal and the Eastern Solomon Islands. Foss was lead pilot for a flight of 8 Wildcats and they became known as Foss’s Flying Circus. During a three-month period of sustained combat, they shot down 72 enemy aircraft. Joe Foss was personally credited with 26 victories, matching the record of America’s top World War I Ace, Eddie Rickenbacker. Upon returning to the U.S. in March 1943, Joe Foss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Franklin Roosevelt. In February 1944, Foss returned to the Pacific Theater for another eight months of combat duty as Commander of VMF-115, equipped with the F4U Corsair.
In 1942, the pay for a young Navy Lieutenant with flying duties and less than three years of service was $200 per month, plus flight pay. It’s a safe bet that The United States of America has never realized a better return on the taxpayer’s investment in national defense! Although three quarters of a century have passed, it is fitting that we pay our respects to the fine young men that brought America its first victories in the epic struggle against the Japanese Empire. In the finest tradition of the United States Navy, they found a way to overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds against them through sheer determination, boundless ingenuity and remarkable courage under fire. They fought with distinction in a righteous endeavor to protect their homeland and preserve our way of life. Their exploits speak to the true greatness of “The Greatest Generation”.
Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Mr. Lonnie Ortega for contributing his fine aviation art as a tribute to the magnificent Naval Aviators of 1942. To see more of his work, visit the website at: http://www.lonnieortegaaviationart.com.