airedales

 

THE AIREDALES OF FIGHTING 16

 

© Dale Burrier


Over fifty years ago, the Airedales were fighting the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Forces in the bloody skies over the
Pacific Ocean. What was an Airedale? Many of you think of the furry black and tan terrier with the beard and fierce spirit. Well, you're partly correct!

During the first years of World War II, United States Naval Aviators were known by many names. "Brown-Shoe-Aviator" referred to the brown oxfords worn only by the naval aviators, as the 'regular' naval officers wore black shoes. Then there were the Airedales.

 

 

I have not discovered the origin of this term, however, the use of 'Airedale' to describe naval aviators, flight crewmen and later, any flight deck crewmen who were part of carrier operations, appears as early as 1940. The "fighting navy" was made up of many different ships, and the aircraft carrier soon became the most important of them all. The Japanese knew of their strategic value, as did the United States. Each carrier ( referred to as the term "CV"; C= aircraft carrier, V= heavier than air aircraft ) had several types of squadrons aboard: VF= fighters, VB= bombers, VT= torpedo bombers, VFN= night fighters, etc.

 

 

The squadron this story is about, is 'Fighting Sixteen', (VF-16), the "Pistol Packin' Airedales". This squadron is the only one to use the caricature of a pistol-wielding Airedale as their insignia. The Airedale, by the way, has a bottle of 'XXX' hootch in his back pocket, flying helmet and goggles askew on his head, tongue sticking out, while motioning with his finger for some unlucky son of the rising sun to come his way. PURE Airedale, in my book!

 

Many of the pilots who served with this squadron earned their private pilots license under the government's Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. These young men, "college boys", and others, would enter the United States Navy and attend the Aviation Cadet Training Program at bases such as Pensacola Naval Air Station (NAS) in Florida. Typical primary training consisted of approximately ten hours of instructed flying in N3N 'Yellow Peril' biplanes, (they were painted yellow to aid in visibility, and the students were prone to all manner of accidents...) then the students were expected to solo.

 

 

The successful candidates then proceeded on to secondary training in heavier aircraft. Upon completion of this phase, the cadets were selected to train in either fighters, torpedo bombers, dive bombers, patrol aircraft or seaplanes. Many of the newly graduated pilots reported to Air Group Sixteen, at Quonset Point Naval Air Station, Providence, R.I., at the end of 1942.

 

 

Air Group Sixteen (AG-16) was the overall formation which contained Fighting Sixteen (VF-16), Bombing Sixteen (VB-16), Torpedo Sixteen (VT-16), and later, Night Fighting Sixteen (VFN-16). Air Group Sixteen was being assembled for training duty and to prepare to report aboard the USS Lexington. The Lexington (CV-16) was the sixteenth carrier hull to be laid down, and the second carrier of World War II to be named Lexington. The first Lexington had been sunk the previous year at Coral Sea.

 

It had been customary experience to keep the same numbers for air groups on their carriers, and Lexington was one of the last carriers to do so. Air Group Fourteen would be based aboard the USS Wasp, CV-14, and the USS Cowpens, CVL-25, had Air Group Twentyfive, for example. Later in the war, the air groups would be switched from carrier to carrier, and their numbers quickly became mixed around.

 

Many of the Airedales reported aboard Lexington in Boston in June,1943, along with Admiral Ernest King (of Lorain,Ohio) and General George Marshall. The Lexington sailed for Norfolk Naval Yard, where her departure for the Pacific was delayed by a rupture in fuel storage tanks containing aviation fuel! After repairing the tanks and rounding up 175,000 gallons of aviation fuel, the Lexington and the Airedales left Norfolk in May, 1943, for her shakedown cruise. During this time, the various squadrons practiced (again: practice, practice) their carrier operations. Lexington returned to Norfolk in early June for repairs & departed for the Pacific on July 22, 1943.

 

 

"Lady Lex" passed through the Panama Canal on her way to Pearl Harbour, Honolulu, Hawaii, where the aircrews spent the next two months training. ( They must have wondered if they'd ever get into the fray!)

 

The Airedales left Pearl Harbour in mid-September, headed for an attack on Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. Their first patrols produced no contact with Japanese aircraft. Not until raids on Wake Island on the fifth and sixth of October, did they taste their first aerial combat. At that time they joined up with the carriers Princeton, Belleau Wood, Cowpens, Independence, Essex and Yorktown to form Task Force 14.

Lexington departed Pearl Harbour on November 10, 1943, headed for the Marshall Islands. Routine air patrols were flown every day until strikes were scheduled against Tarawa, Mili and Makin Island. On Tuesday, November 23, the Airedales had their first big day.

 

Lieutenant Commander Paul Buie, skipper of the Airedales, was leading 11 F6F-3 Hellcats of VF-16 between Makin Island in the Gilberts and Mili in the Marshalls. The "FDO", fighter direction officer, directed Buie to about 20 Zekes, the code name for the famous Mitsubishi A6M3c 'Zero' fighter, and they hammered the Japanese aircraft from out of the sun. The FDO called out, "Bogies, three-two-zero, angels twenty. Buster!" This meant that there were a lot of enemy aircraft on the radar (bogies), at a direction of three-hundred and twenty degrees true course from their position (three-two-zero), and at twenty thousand feet (add 1,000 to angels twenty). The term "buster" meant that they were really close. (There were a few other terms used such as "saunter"-no rush, "liner"-same as a buster, "bandit"-same as bogie, but having visual contact, and "gate"-push the throttle past the gate, the stop on the throttle quadrant, for emergency power.) Buie's favorite order was, "Go get 'em, Airedales!"

 

The final tally was 17 enemy aircraft shot down, with 4 probables. Buie scored twice, but Lieutenant (jg) Ralph Hanks was the top dog on this day. His total was five Zeros which made him the first "ace" in a Grumman Hellcat, and one of the first pilots to become "ace-in-a-day". Hanks' running battle lasted approximately five minutes!

 

The following day, Buie took the Airedales up again, and they shot down another 13 enemy aircraft, with 6 probables. Thirty enemy aircraft, ten probables, and only one Hellcat lost in two days.

 

On the return to Pearl Harbour, the Lexington was torpedoed by a Japanese aircraft late one night. The resultant explosion tore a 40 X 100 foot long hole in the hull, damaged the steering gear, and ruptured tanks on the side of the hull used to contain smoke for laying smoke screens. As great amounts of smoke poured from the tanks, the crew first thought the Lexington was seriously damaged. When the smoke cleared, the true extent of damage was realized, and the Lex proceeded directly to Pearl Harbour escorted by the cruiser USS Cleveland.

Repairs to the ship could not be accommodated at Pearl, so the Lexington was sent to Bremerton Naval Yard, Washington, and the Airedales had to remain in Hawaii. (Tough life) They thought that they might get to take short visits home, or go aboard another carrier to finish their tours.

 

Things did not work out that way, and they stayed at Pearl until the end of April, 1944, when the Lexington returned from Bremerton. On March 1, The Lexington steamed from Pearl Harbour to join up with Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher's famed Task Force 58, specifically TF 58.3, under command of Rear Admiral J. W. Reeves. The Lexington formed the line with the carriers Enterprise (CV-6), Princeton (CVL-23), and the San Jacinto (CVL-30, George Bush's ship).

 

US forces waded ashore on Hollandia, New Guinea, on April 22, 1944, and the carrier air groups began sorties over the area a few days before. When the Lexington arrived, the enemy opposition in the air was almost non-existant. Only 30 kills were claimed for all the air groups, combined. One Airedale, Lieutenant (jg) Francis Fleming, had 4.5 "kills" since the two day engagement in the previous November, and he had been itching to achieve 'ace' status for five months. (The 0.5 kill had been an enemy aircraft shared with another Hellcat pilot.) The mission on April 22, started out in an empty sky over New Guinea, but Fleming soon found a twin-engined 'Sally' bomber at tree-top level and promptly sent it into the jungle, below.

 

About this time, a well-known ace transferred to the Airedales from VF-6, (USS Intrepid) which had returned to the US. Alexander Vraciu had flown with VF-3, and VF-6 as wingman to the famed Edward 'Butch' O'Hare. He was almost a double 'ace' with nine aerial victories, four in one day during a raid on Truk, the previous February. When Vraciu landed aboard Lexington in April, 1944, his Hellcat displayed an "A" gasoline ration sticker on the windscreen! This ration sticker was displayed by wartime motorists on their automobile windshields and allowed them to purchase four gallons of gasoline per week. Trouble is, the Hellcat carried 250 gallons of fuel internally and an additional 150 gallons externally in a drop tank... On April 29, 1944, the air groups flew a second raid on Truk, and Alex bagged two more 'Zekes', raising his total to eleven.

 

Note that in mid-February, the Intrepid had been torpedoed by a Japanese 'Kate' torpedo bomber, and air group six was returned to the states. Alex requested a transfer to an operational air group, so he could STAY in combat!

 

In May, the Lexington returned to Pearl Harbour to make repairs and prepare for the upcomming campaign in the Marianas. The second week in June would prove to be pivotal in the war against the rising sun, as nearly 600 F6F Hellcats would participate in the 'First Battle of the Philippine Sea'. This battle in the skies over Guam, Tinian and Saipan would be the support for the invasion forces of Operation Forager. The Japanese Naval Air Forces would be virtually eliminated and the phrase, "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" would be coined to describe the lopsided victory by the Americans.

 

The United States Navy was fond of using alphabetical and numerical designations for it's ships, and the same was true for it's aircraft. The first letter in a designation for a particular aircraft stood for the type of use. An "F" meant 'fighter', "PB" was a 'patrol bomber', "SB" was a 'scouting bomber', "TB" was a 'torpedo bomber', etc. The following number, if any , was the design number. The following letter was the manufacturer abbreviation: "F" stood for the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, "J" was the North American Aircraft Corporation, "D" was the Douglas Aircraft Company, "U" was the Vought-Chance Aircraft Company, etc. The following numerical designation was the latest modification of that airframe. An "SBD-5" was the first 'scouting bomber produced by Douglas and was the fifth modification of that type. A "PB4Y" was the fourth patrol bomber produced by Consolidated and was the same as the Army B-24.

 

The F6F, was the sixth naval fighter design manufactured by Grumman, and was the brother to the stubby F4F Wildcat. Holding the line in the Pacific during the first years of the war, the Wildcat's primary shortcoming was lack of sufficient range to become an effective offensive weapon. The Hellcat brought to bear all of the qualities needed to defeat the Japanese fighters on a consistant basis. The F6F's increase in range, firepower, armour, speed and visibilty, over the old Wildcat, gave the Airedales an edge over their Imperial counterparts.

 

 

Towards the end of the first week in June, 1944, the Lady Lex set sail for Saipan, Tinian and Guam to rejoin Mitscher's Task Force 58. In preparation for Operation Forager, the invasion of the islands that make up part of the Marianas, aircraft from the Lexington and fourteen other carriers attacked Saipan on June 11 and 12. These attacks were carried through the next five days, with the invasion landings taking place on June 15. On that day, the Lexington fought off a fierce attack by Japanese torpedo planes based on Guam; although she emerged from the battle unscathed, she was reported sunk by Japanese propaganda for the third time in her career, earning the nickname 'The Blue Ghost'.

The Japanese wasted no time in confronting the American forces, for they considered the Marianas to be their rightful territory. The Japanese Mobile Fleet was commanded by Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, and consisted of nine fast carriers, five battleships, nine cruisers and twenty-three destroyers. The Imperial Navy had approximately 450 aircraft of which roughly half were Zekes, 100 Judy dive bombers, 90 Jill torpedo bombers and about forty Val and Kate dive bombers. The vast number of aircraft at Ozawa's disposal was mitigated by the fact that he had few experienced pilots as a resultant of substantial losses at Midway.

 

June 19 began with clear weather, "CAVU", ceiling and visabilty unlimited, an omen to the good fortune of the Airedales for the next two days. The Fighter Direction Officer, "FDO", aboard the Lexington directed fighters from the light carrier Monterey, to bogeys picked up on task force radar at about 0530. By 1030, pilots from VF-24 (Belleau Wood) and VF-15 (Essex) were scrapping with over sixty Japanese Zekes and numerous Jill torpedo bombers. Shortly, 50 Hellcats from seven other squadrons joined the fray. The score of the first fracas was 42 enemy aircraft destroyed, with a loss of 3 Hellcats.

 

The second attacking force of 110 Zekes, Judys and Jills was met by VF-15 approximately forty miles out from the task force at about 1140. Fifteen's 11 Hellcats were joined by 23 VF-16's Airedales, and immediately Commander Paul Buie flew into the enemy formations at full throttle, leaving Alexander Vraciu faltering behind with oil streaming out onto his windscreen and an ailing supercharger. Alex's supercharger would not switch to 'high blower', and feed more air to his engine at altitude and therefore increase the aircraft's performance (i.e., speed), plus, he could hardly see where he was going!

 

Alex reported the problem to the FDO aboard Lexington, and with several other poorly performing Hellcats, was ordered to orbit near the carrier. The six-fighter formation had circled for twenty-five minutes , when the FDO shouted, "Vector, 265!" The Airedales screamed to the west at 265 degrees for ten minutes, when the keen-sighted Vraciu spoted three specks in the sky ahead. Why was the FDO's directive so urgent? This can't be the aircraft he sent us out to! Suddenly, Alex saw the main body of Japanese aircraft, about fifty Zekes, Judys and

Jills. Now, the aircraft are less than twenty-five miles out and the Airedales had to act fast!

 

Vraciu racked his Hellcat into a tight left turn and reversed his course, lining up for a run on a Judy. Sensing a Hellcat on his left, he slapped the control stick to the right, and droped the nose down, passing below the enemy aircraft. Reversing his course again, Alex crept in behind another Judy. A quick burst from the six, fifty caliber machine guns, each capable of firing up to 600 rounds of half-inch, high velocity ammunition, tore the enemy aircraft apart. Alex turned away from the wreckage, checked his six, (looked to his rear, the "six o'clock" position, directly behind him) and lined up on two Judy dive bombers. Another quick burst, and a second Judy splashed into the sea. Slicing to the left, he quickly lined up on the third aircraft. Seeing the rear gunner firing at him, Vraciu returned fire, sending the third Judy into a fatal dive. Alex called to the FDO, "Too many! I don't think we can shoot 'em all down!" The running battle has taken Vraciu in too close to the task force ships and their anti-aircraft fire!

 

Another Judy dive bomber broke away, and Alex chased after it. He squeezed the trigger and his fourth Judy disintegrated, spinning wildly to the right. Vraciu crossed over to three more Judys on their initial bombing runs, while five-inch cannon shells flew up from the American ships, below. Alex homed in on the last Judy and let loose with a withering barrage. The Judy began to disintegrate, engine pieces shedding backwards over the bomber. Vraciu lined up on the second Judy in the flight and as he fired, the Japanese aircraft disappeared in a flash of light. "Musta hit the bomb.", Vraciu thought. Alex yanked back on the stick, and pulled out of a screaming dive, blood draining from his head. By that time, the first Judy in line was being picked apart by the American anti-aircraft gunners aboard the ships, below, so Alex leveled-off and left the battleships. Six Judy dive bombers in eight minutes, with a badly running Hellcat, oil smearing the canopy, the last two while flying through "friendly" anti-aircraft fire! Not bad for an Airedale who learned his trade under 'Butch' O'Hare!

 

The sky had been cleared of all enemy aircraft, and now Alex headed back to the Lexington. As he approached the outer perimeter of ships, jittery anti-aircraft gunners opened-up on his Hellcat! Is his "IFF" (Identification, Friend or Foe) radar is working properly? He racked the fighter around to avoid the fire and headed directly to the Lexington, offering unprintable epithets over the radio to the shipboard gunners!

 

 

Landing aboard the Lexington, Vraciu flashed six fingers to Admiral Mitscher on the bridge. Upon inspection of the oil-soaked fighter, deck crews found that Alex had flown the mission with his unfolded wings partially locked, and the aviation ordinancemen found that he had only used 360 of the 2400 rounds of fifty caliber ammunition!

 

By 1200, the Japanese forces had lost 161 aircraft and by the end of the nineteenth the total was up to 342. The Americans had lost 30 aircraft. The fighting on June 20, 1944 centered around the pursuit of Ozawa's forces and the sinking of his carrier Hiyo, while damaging the Junyo, Zuikaiku, Chiyoda and the Ryuho. His carriers, the Shokaku and the Taiho were sunk on the day before. Aircraft losses for the Japanese on June 20 were 65, for a grand total of 407. U.S. losses were 77, mostly due to nighttime carrier landing operational losses, for a grand total of 127.

 

The Japanese had suffered irreparable damage to their air forces, both Naval and island-based Army units. They had not fully recovered from Midway and the Solomons, and now they had lost most of the rest of their experienced pilots. The Airedales fared much better. The 24 pilots of VF-16 tallied 46 enemy aircraft, second only to VF-15 (68.5) aboard Essex.

 

August, 1944 saw Air Group Nineteen arrive aboard Lexington, and Air Group Sixteen returned to San Diego, via Pearl Harbour. They reported aboard the Bon Homme Richard (CV-31) in March, 1945, for their second tour of duty. This lasted a few months, until the Navy decided to base night-fighting units aboard the Richard. In June, 1945, Air Group Sixteen and the Airedales were transferred to the carrier Randolph in the Philippines, due to an unusual incident. The unlucky "Randy" had just been repaired following a kamakaze strike on her stern, when a pair of Army P-38 pilots decided to 'buzz' the carrier while she was at anchor at Leyte. One pilot misjudged his approach and crashed into the Randolph's flight deck. With no replacement carrier available, Air Group Twelve was returned to the United States.

This accident left the Randolph available for the Airedales!

 

Now the Airedales were back in the fray, led by Lieutenant Commander Charles S. Moffett. Since the Japanese had no air force to speak of, other than the kamakazes, the Hellcats turned to the ground-attack mode. Joining their brother Hell- divers, Avengers and Corsairs as 'fighter-bombers', the Airedales sailed to Japanese waters as part of Task Force 38 on July 1, 1945. The final two months of the war would be spent strafing and bombing ground targets around Tokyo, Honshu, Nagoya, Kobe and Hakodate. The Japanese aircraft were few, but the anti-aircraft fire was heavy and accurate. The Task Force lost approximately 150 aircraft alone to AA fire in the last 60 days.

 

The Randolph departed the Japanese Islands on the day before the surrender document was signed in Tokyo Bay, stopping at Pearl Harbour, and reaching Norfolk, Virginia in the first week of October, 1945. Air Group Sixteen was disbanded shortly thereafter.

It is interesting to note several events that took place during the existence of Air Group Sixteen. It was an Airedale, Lieutenant (jg) Z. W. Neff, who suggested that the air combat of June 19, 1944 was a real 'turkey shoot', which soon became the famous phrase for the battle.

Admiral Marc Mitscher, aboard the Lady Lex, made his famous move to save his late-arriving Hellcats, Avengers, Dauntlesses and Helldivers on June 20, 1944. The pilots, who had flown 250 miles from the targets back to their carriers, were trying to land in darkness on pitching carrier decks, with as little as 10 useable gallons of fuel remaining in their tanks. It took Mitscher little time to realize that if he were to save any of his pilots, at all, he would have to turn on the ships lights throughout the Task Force so that the returning pilots could see where to land. In spite of alerting enemy submarines to the presence of the ships in the Task Force, Mitscher undoubtedly saved the lives of many aircrew.

 

Alexander Vraciu would add one more Zeke to his score on the second day of the "Turkey Shoot" to raise his tally to 19 kills, before returning home with Air Group Sixteen. The six Judy torpedo bombers Alex shot down on June 19, 1944 would be written up in a recommendation for the Medal of Honor, among other actions, on June 26, 1944. Vraciu's 19 victories, 6 in one sortie, was a record at that time, and he was the leading Navy ace for three months in 1944. The recommendation was watered-down to a Navy Cross, to the bewilderment of this writer, and others, who regard Alex as a hero who undoubtedly saved the lives of many ship-board sailors!

 

 (Commander David McCampbell, skipper of VF-15, was awarded the Medal of Honor three months later for shooting down 9 bomb-laden Oscar fighters, flown by inexperienced Japanese pilots.) Alexander would end the war as the fourth ranked Navy ace.

Longtime Airedale Terrier owner and breeder, Lawrence Alexander of Florence, Alabama, has a relative who flew with the Airedales in Air Group Sixteen. Roland Nevil "Mack" McMackin, was a Dauntless (SBD) dive bomber pilot in Bombing Sixteen, aboard the Lexington from the day she left Boston in 1943. Mack flew many hazardous missions, and was shot down on a mission over Guam on July 4, 1944. Bombing Sixteen was one of the last two squadrons to fly the old SBD's in battle; all of the others had changed to the Curtiss SB2C Helldivers by mid 1944. Mack wrote his memoirs a few years ago, and was most gracious to send a copy to me several months ago. Mack's attention to detail concerning dates and ship movements, was an invaluable source of data used to fill in the blanks left open by the existing references.

 

 

Article originally published in the The American Airedale. Copyright by Dale Burrier Article reprinted with permission of the author. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission of the author is prohibited.

3/15/01 Addendum by Dale Burrier:

The Lexington is now a museum in
Corpus Christi, Texas. Judith Whipple, a friend of mine, is the curator there. She can answer any other questions you might have regarding "Fighting Sixteen", as they prefer to be called... Their website is: U. S. S. Lexington Aircraft Carrier Museum on the Bay in Corpus Christi, Texas

 

My jacket has the Airedale with the blue-striped jersey. This is what I had found early in 1990 when I got an image from a fellow at Pensacloa NAS. In 1998, I attended a reunion of Air Group Sixteen in Jacksonville, Florida. A fellow named Reed saw my jacket and said his Airedale had a red-striped jersey. He then showed me his scrapbook, which had one of the decals that they used on the sides of their planes... sure'nuff the jersey had red and white stripes. Another fellow overheard us and said his stripes were blue. They compared notes and found that they had served on two separate "Task Forces", or tours of duty. Task Force 58 was first and the jerseys had red stripes. Later Task Force 38 had the blue stripes.

 

   
 
Copyright 1998 by Patty Cannon all rights reserved