Robert M. Coker 2015-08-26 01:45:30
America’s First Air Ace of WWII was a Reluctant Hero Less than two months after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy was in the South Pacific, looking to strike against the Japanese. Admiral Wilson Brown was in charge of Task Force 11, consisting of the carrier Lexington, the cruisers U. S.S. Minneapolis and U.S.S. Indianapolis, along with seven destroyers. Admiral Brown decided to attack Rabaul in an attempt to foil Japanese attempts to fortify the port. Believing that the Japanese fleet carriers were in the waters off the Dutch East Indies, he felt confident that TF11 could effectively attack with aircraft and bombard with surface ships. His plan was to pass east of the Solomons to a position where he could launch an attack from 150 miles northeast. With surprise on his side, he could eliminate any air resistance while it was still on the ground and have the bonus of sinking shipping vessels caught at anchor. Early on the morning of February 20, 3 Japanese reconnaissance planes were sent out to search sectors that reached out 500 miles east from Rabaul. At 1030, the Americans lost the element of surprise when one of the flying boats spotted TF11 at 460 miles northeast of Rabaul. Navy F4F Wildcats brought two of the elusive recon planes down in pillars of flame and black smoke. With surprise lost and too far out to launch an attack that day, Brown decided to scrap the strike.Instead, to salvage some purpose by feigning attack on Rabaul and there by divert the Japanese fleet from the East Indies, TF11 continued on course southwest directly towards Rabaul. Japanese command at Rabaul felt certain that the Americans would be bombing them the next morning if they didn’t act first. The 4th Air Group based at Vunakanau field outside Rabaul flew the new Mitsubishi G4M1 Type 1 twin engine medium bomber later code named by the allies as “Betty”. Very fast and with exceptional range, the Betty could carry a respectable 2,000 lb bomb load or one aerial torpedo. Defensive armament consisted of one 7.7mm Lewis gun (built under license!) Each in the glazed nose, dorsal and twin side blisters and a potent 20mm cannon in the tail. The Betty’s Achilles’ heel was the same issue that plagued all early Japanese aircraft: no self sealing fuel tanks and no crew armor. With the usual Japanese aircraft propensity to “flame” when hit with tracers, its Own crews later dubbed it the “Type 1 lighter”. Since no torpedoes had yet to arrive at Rabaul, at 1420 seventeen G4Ms took off, each loaded with bombs. A tropical storm forced the Japanese to split their formation to search for the Americans. Spotted on radar, the Lexington’s Fighter Direction Officer (FDO) vectored his Combat Air Patrol (CAP) Wildcats out to intercept an incoming strike force of nine planes. Engaging the bombers at approximately 1640 hours, the Wildcats began tearing into the Japanese with textbook gunnery passes.Three bombers fell in two minutes as the battle came into sight of the Lex.Lt. Edward “Butch” O’Hare and the remaining Wildcat and SBD (Scout Bomber, Douglas) crews sat on deck in their aircraft watching the trails of smoke as each bomber fell. Scrambling to launch all her fueled and loaded aircraft, Lexington turned up her screws to 30 knots and came about into the wind. The F4Fs led SBDs into the air. O’Hare in Wildcat #15 and his wingman Lt.(jg) Marion Dufilho in #4. Meanwhile, a fourth, then a fifth G4M fell to the Wildcats as the remaining bombers closed the gap on the fleeing carrier. Captain Sherman brilliantly anticipated the Japanese moves and maneuvered his huge ship to throw off their aim.Their lead bomber (and consequently, lead bombardier) shot down, the remaining bombers ineffectually dropped their bombs. The nearest explosion was 3,000 yards from the Lexington’s deck. Another Betty fell as the bombers tried to escape the murderous stings of the swarming fighters. The F4Fs chased the last three bombers as they split up and dove toward the water to gain speed. All were eventually caught and splashed. A dozen miles northeast of the Lexington at 15,000 feet, the other eight G4Ms broke out of scattered clouds to spot the American ships.These Japanese were amazed at their luck, for no fighters were visible anywhere to oppose them.. On the Lex, the FDO had a plot littered with contacts and no way to know which were his. At 1700 he realized that the new bogeys were bearing down on him. O’Hare and his wingman Dufilho were all he had in that sector so they were vectored to meet the new threat.The Wildcats turned into the bombers from above and began firing runs.Approaching from head on, the two fighters allowed the flight of bombers to pass underneath then rolled over for an attack from the formation’s high right side. O’Hare bored in on the trailing righthand bomber and poured heavy .50 caliber slugs into its starboard engine nacelle. Immediately, smoke and oil spewed forth as the bomber lost speed and fell. Still bearing down, O’Hare switched his focus to the other trailing Betty in this “Vee” of three.Having “boomed”, right-to-left across the bomber formation, Butch pulled up to zoom around for another attack.As he looked back, it seemed that Dufilho had vanished. Dufilho’s guns had jammed, probably during the high G turn as they rolled over for the attack. Seething, he decided to stay out of his section leader’s way but followed him through the formation in at tempt to draw fire. After the first pass he pulled away and furiously tried to clear his guns. The left side Vee was actually a Vee of three but with another two more trailing behind and to the left.Butch now focused in on the trailing bomber on the left side. Firing until flame erupted, he adjusted his course toward the next bomber ahead as the first skidded and fell out. (This Betty actually made it back to Rabaul after the crew extinguished its fires.)Ripping into the next G4M off the left wing of the lead bomber, O’Hare expertly ignited its port engine, causing it to pull sharply left and fall into a dive. By now all the Japanese gunners were trying to kill their tormentor, but Butch continued. His highside attacks kept him out of the fire of the 20mm “stingers’ in the Betty’s tails. Pulling around again, for his third pass, O’Hare took aim on the lead bomber as the formation came into range of anti-aircraft fire from the ships below. Ignoring the shell- bursts, Butch fired so accurately, the port side engine of the lead bomber torqued free of its mountings and fell from the aircraft in a violent explosion.At one point, three flaming bombers were seen falling at once. As the lead plane dropped away, the remaining four bombers dropped their bombs. More accurate than the first flight of bombers, these bombs nonetheless missed, albeit by only 100 feet! Admiral Sherman had once again wrenched his huge flattop into violent evasive maneuvers that kept his ship undamaged. In the span of four minutes, O’Hare had actually shot down three bombers single handedly and severely damaged three others, one of which crashed within minutes of the mêlée. He was credited with five bombers destroyed and one damaged. Only two eventually were able to return to Rabaul. Another ditched in Simpson harbor but of the seventeen Bombers sent out that afternoon from Rabaul, only two survived. The lead bomber, whose engine was amputated, did not immediately crash. Its pilot managed to regain control for a suicide run against the Lexington. Despite a gallant and superhuman effort to manhandle the crippled bomber, he crashed 1500 yards off her port bow. The surviving Japanese reported optimistically that they had sunk one enemy cruiser or destroyer and had set an aircraft carrier on fire. They claimed eight Wildcats shot down. Upon examination of his F4F, only one bullet hole was found in O’Hare’s wing that disabled his airspeed indicator. Two Wildcats were lost that day. One pilot was killed and the other recovered after they caught 20mm fire from the Betty’s stingers. When he landed back on Lexington, deck crew climbed up on his wing to check on him. “I’m O.K. Just load those ammo belts and I’ll get back up. But first I want a drink of water. My throat feels swelled shut.” Advised that he wouldn’t be relaunched, he pulled himself, soaked through with sweat, from the cockpit.At first, it wasn’t understood that only Butch had thwarted the second wave.It wasn’t until later, after action reports were taken orally by Thatch that the full picture of the day’s events had emerged.Suddenly he was the center of attention; a place where he was most uncomfortable. Distinguished Flying Crosses and Navy Medals (second only to the Medal of Honor) were recommended for Butch and a number of other pilots, including his C.O., Jimmy Thatch. Butch turned to Thatch. “I don’t want a medal, the other officers in the squadron would have done the same thing and we all know it!” Thatch later described how Butch pleaded with him “for one whole evening not to recommend him” When the recommendations hit Washington, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Admiral King put Butch in for the Medal of Honor.In these early days of the war America needed a hero and here one was.It didn’t hurt that he was good looking and modest.
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