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Hellcat pilot David McCampbell used his gunnery skills to achieve “ace in a day” status twice, earning the Medal of Honor and ultimately becoming the U.S. Navy’s ace of aces.

At 0950 hours on October 24, 1944, radar scopes in the combat information center high in the island of the carrier USS Essex flickered with the ghostly green returns that identified an incoming Japanese airstrike. Soon a second and then a third formation appeared on the screens, stacked up from 1,000 feet above the ocean to 25,000 feet.

Down on the flight deck, crews pushed SB2C-3 Helldiver dive bombers, TBM-1 Avenger torpedo bombers and F6F-5 Hellcat fighters into position for the second morning strike. A dark blue Hellcat with 21 victory flags beneath the cockpit, emblazoned with the name Minsi III in yellow letters, was being fueled at the catapult.

“All fighter pilots! Man your planes! The second strike is canceled!” echoed across the flight deck. Below decks in fighter squadron VF-15’s ready room, pilots wondered what was happening. Most of Air Group 15 had been launched earlier on a major strike against the Japanese fleet that had been discovered shortly after dawn in the Sibuyan Sea, so there were not many defenders available to answer the call. As the men filed out of the ready room, they heard another announcement: “All except the air group commander. He is not, repeat not, to go.”

Up on the flight deck, crewmen pushed the lead Hellcat off the catapult and over to the deck edge elevator, to strike it below. But just as the elevator started its descent to the hangar deck, further word was passed: “Now hear this! Air group commander is to fly. Affirmative, air group commander is to fly.” There was now not enough time to finish fueling the Hellcat as it was pushed back into position. The pilots of “Fighting 15” emerged onto the flight deck from their ready room below and manned the planes.

Air Group 15 Commander David McCampbell had been forbidden to fly offensive fighter missions by no less than Rear Adm. Frederick C. Sherman, commander of Task Group 38.3 of Admiral Halsey’s famed Third Fleet. Sherman had informed McCampbell that his skills were needed in marshaling the fighters, dive bombers and torpedo planes in attacks against the Japanese, and his status as a leading ace was considered embarrassing by higher command, who believed he was avoiding his responsibilities to the group in his pursuit of personal glory.

But today, this minute, his skills as a fighter pilot were needed as never before for a defensive mission.

With only six other Hellcats ready for launch, McCampbell and his wingman, Lt. (j.g.) Roy Rushing, climbed into their cockpits. Eight Pratt & Whitney R-2800s coughed, then roared to life. Essex turned into the wind in the Philippine Sea 150 miles east of Luzon and north of Samar. The launch officer’s hand spun faster and faster above his head as McCampbell and Rushing advanced their throttles and stood on their brakes. The launch signal was given. One after the other, the two aircraft sped down the deck and lifted off, retracting their landing gear as they turned west and pulled up into a maximum-rate climb toward building clouds. Behind them the next two Hellcats were already speeding down the deck as two more moved into launch position. The first wave of Japanese attackers was now only 22 miles distant.

Following the instructions of Lieutenant John Connally, Essex’s fighter direction officer, the Hellcats strained for altitude among the halls formed by billowing cumulonimbus clouds over the blue Pacific. One F6F turned back when its supercharger failed to engage. Soon the distant dots of the incoming enemy popped into view among the clouds and resolved themselves as dive bombers protected by fighters. McCampbell ordered the other five Hellcats to take on the bombers while he and Rushing went for the escorting fighters, unaware that the others had fallen behind. The pair was right now the sole defense of the task force below.

Surprised by the appearance of the Americans, the leading enemy fighters turned away, allowing the two Hellcats to climb up to 30,000 feet. McCampbell studied the formation through binoculars and counted 40 airplanes: Zekes, Tonys, Hamps and Oscars, a strange mix of Japanese army and navy fighters in a formation of three “Vs” (these were likely all misidentified Zekes). When he radioed for help, fighter director Connally replied, “There is none.”

Banking into a dive and followed by Rushing, McCampbell lined up on one of the fighters at the end of the formation. His Hellcat’s six .50-caliber machine guns spat out bullets, and the aim of the Navy’s gunnery champion of 1940 was true as the Japanese fighter exploded. A second explosion marked Rushing’s victory.

Another overhead pass resulted in the destruction of McCampbell’s second target, a Hamp. Then as the two zoomed up for a third pass, McCampbell looked over his shoulder and was amazed to see the Japanese formation bend to the right as all 37 enemy fighters took up a defensive Lufbery circle.

McCampbell responded with two unsuccessful head-on attacks. As the two dark blue Hellcats zoomed again for altitude, the Japanese formation broke and headed back toward Luzon. McCampbell dived and from a distance of 900 feet took out target number three while Rushing’s second score exploded in flames. Doggedly, the Japanese maintained their course, making no effort to engage the attacking duo.

On his next pass, gunfire coming from behind forced McCampbell to break off his attack as he pulled up to see another Hellcat flash past that had answered the call for help. A few choice words over the radio straightened things out.

The enemy steadfastly refused to fight. McCampbell realized he could relax and take his time with what was virtually an exercise. He even found time to indulge his habit of smoking whenever possible, turning off the oxygen and lighting a cigarette. As he considered the situation, he realized he still had most of his ammo.

The battle became more a gunnery flight than air combat as McCampbell focused on identifying his targets carefully and perfecting his gunnery passes. The next was a Zeke, which he flamed for number four while Rushing scored his third. After three more passes, Rushing radioed he was out of ammo, but would stay while McCampbell used up his.

By that time McCampbell had downed a total of seven. Two more passes scored two more kills as the enemy planes finally approached their bases ashore. McCampbell scanned his gauges and suddenly realized how low on fuel he was. The two Hellcats broke off and headed home. Arriving over the fleet to find Essex’s flight deck full of aircraft being spotted for the delayed second strike, McCampbell was so low on fuel he had to put down on the light carrier Langley. As he advanced his throttle to taxi out of the arresting wires, his engine cut out from fuel starvation.

In one sortie, McCampbell had downed nine enemy aircraft and Rushing six, a feat unmatched in American aerial combat history. With this mission extending his score to 30, McCampbell was now the leading Navy ace in the Pacific. By the end of the air group’s tour, he would be recognized as the Navy’s ace of aces and receive the Medal of Honor for this mission. Right now, though, he was in big trouble with Admiral Sherman. As it turned out, no one had asked the admiral to change his orders forbidding McCampbell from flying fighter missions, and Sherman was of the opinion that the air group commander had disobeyed a direct order. In light of his accomplishment, however, the admiral let him off with a warning: “It’s all right this time, but don’t let it happen again.”

Morris Markey, a correspondent who was aboard Essex for the entire tour, wrote of Air Group 15 in Liberty Magazine in 1945: “They went out to the Pacific war, a hundred young men. Seven months later only forty-five of them came home unhurt. But in those immortal seven months of naval history they became the undisputed champions of the Pacific Ocean areas. Indeed they inflicted on the enemy probably more damage and destruction than any other one hundred young men who have fought anywhere in this war. And the price they made the Japanese pay for their own losses is almost fantastic.”

McCampbell’s early career, like those of many successful American combat commanders, did not lead others to expect great things from him. Like other outstanding WWII naval aviators such as John Thach, John Waldron and Jimmy Flatley, McCampbell proved the inverse relationship between academic performance and combat success. A graduate of the Annapolis class of 1933, he led the Naval Academy’s swimming team to Amateur Athletic Union and NCAA championships in diving, and was asked to become a member of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics (which he was unable to do, due to his lack of academic standing). In the bottom half of his class, he was released from active duty upon graduation after receiving his commission as an ensign.

Following that inauspicious beginning, McCampbell was recalled to active duty in late 1934 and spent 1935-37 aboard the heavy cruiser Portland. Interested in aviation since age 9, when an uncle had given him a ride in a Curtiss Jenny, he became an aerial observer with the ship’s aviation detachment. He was accepted for flight training at the end of 1937 after trying four times and being failed for an eye condition due to the flight surgeon’s use of outdated equipment. With a different doctor, he passed the eye exam and went to Pensacola, graduating fifth in his class and receiving his wings of gold in March 1938. He reported to VF-4, the “Red Rippers,” aboard the carrier Ranger.

McCampbell was lucky that VF-4 considered gunnery training important. Growing up in Alabama and Florida, he’d been introduced to hunting early, and was a crack shot when it came to ducks, perhaps the best early training a fighter pilot could have. In 1940 he was one of the top three in the fleet gunnery competition. This all paid off handsomely in 1944.

McCampbell became a plankowner aboard Wasp on its commissioning in 1940, assigned as landing signal officer (LSO). When war came, the carrier went to England. In May 1942, Wasp and HMS Eagle delivered Spitfires to Malta as part of Operation Bowery. One of the Spits accidentally dropped its long-range tank an hour after launch. Unable to make Malta, the pilot, RAF Pilot Officer S.A. Smith, returned to the task force, where he was given the choice of ditching and being picked up or attempting to land aboard. Despite lacking a tailhook, he took the option of landing. Wasp’s flight deck was cleared as it headed into the wind at maximum speed. McCampbell recalled: “On his first approach, he was high and fast, which is natural for one not accustomed to landing aboard ship. On his second approach he was still high and fast, so I cut him about 500 feet back from the end of the flight deck. He took the cut, but he held off till he had gotten halfway up the flight deck before he touched down and applied his brake. I didn’t think he was going to make it, but he did. He stopped just short of the bow. Later, it took me two paces from his nose to the end of the deck. When he climbed out, I congratulated him and speculated he must have a lot of flying time to pull that off, but he said no, he only had about 127 hours. So then I said he must have a lot of experience in Spitfires, and he said he’d never flown one before. He’d never seen a carrier landing before. That night in the wardroom we gave him a pair of Navy wings.”

A young Landing Signal Officer (LSO) McCampbell, explains his signal flags to S.A. Smith after the RAF pilot’s carrier landing. (National Archives)
A young Landing Signal Officer (LSO) McCampbell, explains his signal flags to S.A. Smith after the RAF pilot’s carrier landing. (National Archives)

Wasp went to the Pacific in July 1942 to support the invasion of Guadalcanal, and was sunk by the Japanese submarine I-19 on September 15. After taking survivor’s leave, McCampbell was sent to Naval Air Station Jacksonville to train LSOs. Despite being out of fleet aviation for nearly three years, he was given command of VF-15 and stood up the squadron in August 1943.

McCampbell had difficulty getting back in the saddle. He had to qualify in gunnery with a 10-percent score firing at a towed sleeve. In two tries, he scored 8 percent on his best run. Lieutenants George Duncan and John Strane were determined he would remain their commander. On the next flight, each made sure his bullets were painted the same color as McCampbell’s. When the sleeve was examined, McCampbell’s score was 15 percent. Realizing what had happened, he decreed frequent gunnery training for everyone.

Air Group 15 got into trouble as soon as it deployed aboard Hornet, commanded by Miles Browning, known to his fellow officers as “the most intemperate man in the Navy.” By the time the carrier arrived in Hawaii, McCampbell had been promoted to replace the original CAG, whom Browning judged incompetent. After several accidents involving SB2Cs, Browning declared the group unready for combat, and Air Group 2 took its place aboard Hornet. Air Group 15 underwent six weeks’ intensive training, and was transferred to Essex at the end of April 1944. Arriving at Majuro in the Marshall Islands in mid-May, its airmen were “broken in” with strikes at Marcus and Wake islands.

McCampbell came close to being shot down only once, on his second mission against Marcus Island. He and wingman Ensign W.T. Burnham were both hit by flak, and Burnham ditched offshore. Warned by section leader Bert Morris that his belly tank was afire, McCampbell dropped it. “When I got back to the ship and prepared for landing, I found I couldn’t lower my wheels normally; I had to lower them using the emergency system and had to crank down the tailhook,” McCampbell recalled. “I had a little difficulty landing with one of the flaps shot up, but I did get aboard.”

On June 11, 1944, Task Force 58 arrived off the Marianas. McCampbell scored his first victory when a Zero dived on his division. As he recounted: “He pulled up in a high wingover on my port beam. I turned into him and fired a short burst from close up, not more than 250 yards. The Zeke turned over on its left wing. I followed and got in another short burst, then got on his tail and gave him another burst. The pilot made another wingover, but he was already going down. The plane fell off on the right wing and spiraled toward the sea. The Zeke hit the water without burning and sank. No pilot appeared.”

On June 19, the day of the famous Marianas Turkey Shoot, McCampbell led two divisions of reinforcements for the combat air patrol. “We had altitude and speed; when we reached the enemy formation, six were able to make a high speed run, leaving four above for protection,” he said. “My first target was a Judy on the left flank, approximately halfway back in the formation. I intended to make the run on this plane, pass under it, retire across the formation and then hit a plane on the right flank with a low side attack. The plan was upset when the first one I fired at blew up practically in my face, and I made a pullout above the entire formation. I remember being unable to get to the other side fast enough, feeling as though every rear gunner was directing his fire at me.” McCampbell attacked a Judy on the right flank, which caught fire and fell away out of control as he dived below and zoomed ahead. “My efforts were directed at keeping as much speed as possible and working myself ahead into position for an attack on the leader.” He made a third pass from below and to the rear of a Judy, which was smoking as he pulled out and dived to regain speed. “After making my first pass on the leader with no visible damage observed, I decided it would be easier to concentrate on the port wingman than on the leader.” His next pass was from 7 o’clock high, and the wingman exploded. “Breaking away down and to the left placed me in a position for a run on the leader from 6 o’clock low; I continued to fire until he burned and spiraled down out of control.” With the last burst, his guns stopped, so he headed back to the carrier. He had just become Fighting 15’s first “ace in a day,” as well as the group’s leading ace, a position he maintained for the rest of the deployment.

Only once in aerial combat did McCampbell consider himself in danger from an enemy. During strikes on Cebu in the Philippines on September 13, 1944, he spotted a Nakajima Ki.27 Nate. He reported: “After a couple head-on runs at each other, I beat him to the turn sooner and worked onto his tail. He was easily overtaken and set afire and crashed out of control into the sea. While waiting for my division to rendezvous, I was attacked from above by a lone Nate that I did not see till it was too late to counter. After his pass he pulled up in front of me and I got in behind him but he was out of range by then. I dropped my belly tank and shifted to War Emergency Power and tried to climb up to him. He started a roll to make an overhead run on me. I split-essed and dived away into a cloud and lost him. The following points stand out: 1) Nate is even more maneuverable than Zeke. 2) Nate can outclimb F6F at 110-120 knots airspeed. 3) This ‘operational student,’ if he was such, will have no trouble completing the course.”

McCampbell’s fight illustrated that even an experienced pilot can put himself in danger when he doesn’t know the nature of the enemy he faces. McCampbell had gotten low and slow with an airplane he did not know was one of the most maneuverable Japanese army fighters ever produced; at that speed and altitude, his opponent could fly rings around him. Only the Nate’s light armament of two 7.7mm machine guns likely saved McCampbell from paying the ultimate price for his mistake.

Five “Fabled 15” pilots pose on August 27, 1944. From left: Lt. Cmdr. James F. Rigg, Commander McCampbell, Ensign Richard E. Fowler Jr., Lt. (j.g.) George R. Carr and Ensign Claude W. Plant. (National Archives)
Five “Fabled 15” pilots pose on August 27, 1944. From left: Lt. Cmdr. James F. Rigg, Commander McCampbell, Ensign Richard E. Fowler Jr., Lt. (j.g.) George R. Carr and Ensign Claude W. Plant. (National Archives)

By the time Air Group 15 was relieved by Air Group 4 and returned to the U.S. in November 1944, the airmen’s record spoke for itself: Fighting 15 logged 312 enemy aircraft destroyed, 33 probably destroyed and 65 damaged in air combat, with 348 destroyed, 161 probably destroyed and 129 damaged in ground attacks. Twenty-six of its pilots became aces, including their leader, the Navy’s ace of aces, with 34 victories. Twenty-one squadron pilots were killed in action and one in an operational accident. Bombing 15 and Torpedo 15 destroyed 174,300 tons of enemy shipping, including 37 cargo vessels sunk, 10 probably sunk and 39 damaged; additionally, Musashi, the world’s largest battleship, was sunk, along with a light aircraft carrier, a destroyer, a destroyer escort, two minesweepers, five escort ships, two motor torpedo boats and Zuikaku, the last surviving carrier that participated in the Pearl Harbor attack.

McCampbell subsequently held several staff positions in naval aviation, followed by assignment as the naval attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Argentina. He assumed command of the Essex-class carrier Bon Homme Richard in 1957. He finished his career as senior staff in the Bureau of Aeronautics at the Pentagon, and retired from the Navy in 1964. He died in West Palm Beach, Fla., on June 30, 1996. The Navy honored his service by commissioning the guided-missile destroyer McCampbell (DDG-85) in 2002. The ship’s motto, “Relentless in Battle,” is certainly an accurate reflection of its namesake’s combat career.

Thomas M. Cleaver is the author of Fabled Fifteen: The Pacific War Saga of Carrier Air Group 15, forthcoming from Casemate Publishers in September (and available now in e-book form). Further reading: Hellcat Aces of World War II and Clash of the Carriers: The True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II, both by Barrett Tillman; and The Battle of Leyte Gulf: 23-26 October 1944, by Thomas J. Cutler.