Fabled Fifteen: The Pacific Saga of Carrier Air Group 15
by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, Casemate, Havertown, Pa., 2014, $32.95
You might think of Air Group 15 as the fortunate culmination of a process that began with the first carrier battles of the Pacific War, which turned the tide in the Pacific in 1942, and continued with the introduction of an improved generation of U.S. Navy carrier planes in late 1943. When Air Group 15 replaced Air Group 9 aboard the first of a new generation of carriers, USS Essex, it embarked on a six-month tour of stunning successes. As Thomas McKelvey Cleaver makes clear at the outset of Fabled Fifteen, even the newest combat aircraft (which in the case of the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver were not necessarily viewed as welcome “improvements”) were of limited value without the human factor—the crash course of training and the forging of unit cohesion that preceded the fighting debut of “Satan’s Playmates,” as the pilots originally called themselves.
For the most part, Cleaver does an excellent job of weaving the stories of the airmen—from day-to-day affairs to a grueling succession of air battles—within the context of the Pacific offensive. Their tour included the largest carrier battle in history, in the Philippine Sea, and the largest sea battle in history, Leyte Gulf. The 310 enemy planes credited to VF-15’s Grumman F6F Hellcats included a one-day record of 68.5 during the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” of June 19, 1944, and the most downed in a single action by one pilot, nine on October 24 by the air group commander and U.S. Navy ace of aces David McCampbell, for which he received the Medal of Honor (see Cleaver’s “Relentless in Battle” in our July 2014 issue). The unit also boasted the youngest U.S. Navy ace, Clarence “Spike” Borley, and a Hollywood leading man who became a fighter ace for real, Bert DeWayne Morris. Among the group’s many achievements, it played a role in the sinking of the giant Japanese battleship Musashi, the light carriers Chitose and Zuiho, and Zuikaku, the last of the six fleet carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor. Fabled Fifteen is a nicely balanced history-within-context of an outstanding Navy outfit.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.