"During the fleet engagement on 19 June, Fighting Two was credited with 47 victories, including six by a former enlisted pilot, ENS "Spider" Webb."
The Hottest Fighter Squadron in the Pacific
The Third Fighting Two stood up on 1 June 1943 at Naval Air Station Atlantic City under the command of LCDR Bill Dean, a Naval Academy graduate. This new incarnation of Fighting Two was part of a numbered air group, unlike the Flying Chiefs who belonged to the LEXINGTON Air Group. Therefore the "Rippers" became the first World War II fighting squadron to bear the same designation as a previous unit in the war. They also deployed with several combat-experienced pilots from VF-6 and VF-10. VF-2 initially had eight FM-1s, General Motors-built Wildcats. Shortly thereafter, VF-2 received its first Grumman F6F-3 Hellcats. This would begin a fantastic sixty-year relationship between Grumman aircraft and Fighting Two. The Hellcat would become one of the most famous planes in World War II for its speed, maneuverability, and ruggedness. Fighting Two would be a big contributor to the Hellcat legend.
LCDR Dean's VF-2 spent months detached from its air group. VF-2 continued its training on the east coast until October 1943, when it headed west for San Francisco and then Hawaii. In Hawaii, its pilots participated in a Marine landing exercise, and so impressed the influential "Butch" O'Hare that he requested VF-2 replace VF-6 in his Air Group 6 on ENTERPRISE during the upcoming Gilberts campaign. From November 1943 to January 1944, VF-2 relieved VF-6 on ENTERPRISE. On board the "Big E," Fighting Two saw action in the invasion of the Gilbert Islands: Makin and Tarawa. The squadron also participated in raids against the Marshall Islands of Kwajalein, Ebeye, and Roi. CAG "Butch" O'Hare organized "bat teams" of one TBF Avenger and two F6Fs for night interceptions. O'Hare was killed on such a mission near the Gilberts on 26 November 1943 while flying with VF-2's ENS Skon. In December 1943, the "Big E" returned to Pearl Harbor where Fighting Two participated in many exercises until March of 1944. Rejoining CAG-2 aboard the new USS HORNET, Fighting Two began hunting in even more opportune skies. Limited combat occurred in late March, but in June Dean's squadron started producing aces in prodigious numbers.
11 June 1944: Strikes Against the Marinas
To keep the Japanese defenders off balance, Admiral Mitscher launched the first fighter sweep against the Marianas in the afternoon of 11 June 1944, instead of early morning on the invasion day, 12 June, as had been the American habit. At 1300, the carriers turned into the 14 knot wind and launched over 200 Hellcats. They were about 200 miles from their targets of Guam and Rota. LCDR Dean led his fliers over the Guam airfields when LTJG Howard Duff went down, a victim of AAA fire. Circling over his downed pilot, trying to guide in the SB2Cs to rescue him, Dean didn't see the 30 bandits that jumped his squadron from out of the high overcast. Warned by LTJG Wolf, Dean and his wingman, LTJG Park, "chandelled" into their attackers, got the advantage, and promptly downed three of them. Dean shot down another Zero a little later, while the alert Wolf claimed three. The planes of VF-2 involved in this mid-afternoon strike claimed 23 victories. Meanwhile HORNET's Combat Air Patrol (CAP) destroyed 3 Betty med ium bombers, and a second strike on Guam downed another 10 Japanese aircraft. By day's end, while only losing Duff's plane, Fighting Two had scored 37 victories.
In the next few days, they struck at the Bonin Islands and Iwo Jima to destroy any Japanese aircraft there that might be used to attack the Marines landing on Saipan. Here, LCDR Dean only sent out pilots without any victories so that they could catch up. They made the most of it as LT Barnard scored 5, LTJG Noble 3, LTJG Carroll 3, and four other pilots accounted for 6 more. On 18 June, many VF-2 pilots took part in extended searches that went out 380 miles with a 50 mile cross-leg. These searches pushed the limits of the Hellcats and the pilots: they took five or more hours, and the Hellcats carried a six-hour fuel supply. No one found the Japanese fleet.
19-20 June 1944: The Marinas Turkey Shoot
During the fleet engagement on 19 June, Fighting Two was credited with 47 victories, including six by a former enlisted pilot, ENS "Spider" Webb. Only one F6F was damaged beyond repair. "Spider" Webb downed six over Guam following his famous radio call "I've got 40 Japanese surrounded!" By dawn of 20 June, they knew that they had downed a huge number of the enemy's naval aircraft, but so far they hadn't found the carriers. About 1600, a contact was made. The Japanese were 200 miles to the west, a long round-trip flight, especially in the late afternoon. Admiral Mitscher ordered the strike; for maximum punch, even the Hellcats carried 500-pound bombs. Former Fighting Two pilot Connie Hargreaves, a minister's son, described his part in the mission in an article after the war:
The pilots of Fighting Two flew out to the sighting area, but no Japanese carriers. The CAG ordered them to press on, beyond the safe turn-around point. Just as the sun was setting they spotted the Japanese fleet. There was no aerial opposition, just heavy AAA. Bill Dean took his division in first, then Hargreaves' division commenced their dives. After release, they tried to form up, but the darkness was absolute: no moon, no city lights reflecting off the clouds, just their instruments and the running lights of other U.S. planes. The pilots joined up with any "friendly" fighter. As they flew back to the east, first the dive-bombers, then the torpedo bombers began to ditch as they ran out of fuel.
Hargreaves began to question his navigation, but finally spotted the wakes of the American fleet below. Procedure called for the landings to be made in darkness, with only the dim blue deck lights and the LSO's paddles to guide the planes in. But not many pilots had actually made night carrier landings, and when a number of bombers crashed on landing, Mitscher gave his famous order to "turn on the lights." With a little more gas than some of the others, Hargreaves circled a little longer. When he got the "cut," he landed uneventfully, but was almost killed as the next plane landed poorly, missed Hargreaves' plane by inches, and knocked another onto a quad AA gun.
It was a somber night in HORNET's ready room as only six VF-2 pilots gathered there; but many others had landed on other carriers. Others were fished out of the water. It turned out that all of Hargreaves' gang were safe that night, but they lost five aircraft.
Five days later Fighting Two bettered its record by destroying 67 enemy planes in a one-day period during a sweep over Iwo Jima. One F6F was lost and one damaged beyond repair. LTJG Hargreaves shot down four on a single morning sortie; later that afternoon, on CAP, he got another to become an ace-in-a-day.
12 September 1944: ENS Tillar Shortens the War by Two Months
On the morning of 12 September 1944, Air Group 2 was bombing an island off Cebu; recently arrived ENS Thomas Cato Tillar of VF-2 took off from HORNET before dawn in his Hellcat. He became embroiled in a dogfight with three Japanese fighters, downed one of them, and was shot down himself. ENS Tillar ditched safely and clambered aboard his life raft. He had been slightly injured in the crash, but the sea was calm and he hoped for a prompt rescue. He found himself about 600 yards from the small island of Apid, which was about 10 miles from Leyte. Before long, some Filipinos in outriggers came to get him, communicating their friendliness by their gestures and their actions. They brought him to shore, where about 200 people were waiting. A young man who looked about eighteen introduced himself as "Sosa" and offered to interpret. The others had brought Tillar's gear ashore, stowing it in a shed labeled "APID WATER TANK." Sosa explained that the Americans had built the tank and that Apid was the name of the island. Tillar got on well with the locals, passing out razor blades, candy, and other things to the islanders, who had no use for the Japanese. Sosa surprised the downed ensign by showing him his Philippine Army papers, indicating him to be a PFC, age 26. He had been captured by the Japanese and imprisoned on Luzon. After escaping about eighteen months previously, he had been hiding out on Apid. At about 1500, much to Tillar's relief, they heard aircraft engines overhead. Tillar signaled with his mirror, but the planes flew on. Increasingly aware of his injured shoulder and his exhaustion, Tiller started to become frightened.
Heading back to the village, they heard more planes again: F6Fs flying low and slow. Tillar signaled frantically with mirror, tracer bullets and a Very gun. As the planes circled, an outrigger came ashore carrying a lieutenant of the Filipino guerillas. The officer wore civilian clothes, clean trousers, and a pink sport shirt. He told Tillar that he welcomed the presence of American carriers in the area and asked to be supplied with weapons and medical supplies. Distracted by the approach of a Curtiss SO2C rescue seaplane, Tillar asked the officer about the number of Japanese soldiers on the large islands in the area. "Only 15,000 on Cebu and none on Leyte." Thinking that this information might be of some modest use to U.S. intelligence officers, Tillar tried to remember the details. Meanwhile, the seaplane touched down on the water and taxied in. Tillar rafted out to be picked up by Mike Spinelli, pilot of the SO2C. As darkness closed in, they returned in the seaplane to the cruiser WICHITA, where a groggy Tillar was interviewed by Admiral Turner Joy. At first, he was almost incoherent; but when stimulated by a tumbler of whiskey that the Admiral ordered for him, he related all his experiences. Admiral Joy became very interested in the information about the slight Japanese troop strength in the central Philippines. Soon his exhaustion did Tillar in, and he staggered to a bunk and slept for 12 hours.
Meanwhile, Admiral Joy sent the information to Admiral Halsey. By the next day, 13 September, Halsey recommended that the proposed invasions of Yap and Mindanao be cancelled, in favor of a direct strike on Leyte - that much closer to Manila and to Tokyo. With General MacArthur's concurrence, Halsey's bold new plan went up the chain to General Marshall, President Roosevelt, and other top Allied planners, then in conference at Quebec. They agreed as well, and 5 weeks later, the Americans waded ashore on Leyte - two months earlier than in the original plans. Ensign Tillar didn't do it all by himself, but his report surely made the decision to accelerate the Leyte invasion much easier.
On 22 September 1944, VF-2 closed their victory log when "Spider" Webb downed a Tony over Manila. During the 1943-44 period, Fighting Two's box score was:
|Ships Destroyed||50,000 Tons|
|Enemy Planes Shot Down||216|
|Enemy Planes Destroyed on the Ground||245|
|Total Enemy Planes Destroyed||506|
|Planes Lost in Aerial Combat||3|
|Planes Lost to AA Fire||4|
|Total Combat Losses||7|