Fighting Squadron 9, USS Essex



"Just finding the aircraft carrier on the return trip - often in pelting rain and darkening sky, was sometimes more stressful than the combat itself. Combat was too busy for stress! Combat required instant decisions; finding the carrier demanded anxious hours. Each meant life."

Noel A.M. Gayler, Admiral, U.S. Navy (Retired)



The pilots of  Fighting Nine carrier-qualified with the F4F Wildcat in 1942, on USS Long Island, the small carrier that had carried the first Marine fliers to Guadalcanal.


On its return from North Africa, VF-9 was slated to convert to the new F4Us in January 1943, but Vought hadn't produced enough to equip all the planned squadrons. So, Fighting Nine took delivery of the Grumman F6F-3 Hellcats that month, the first operational squadron to do so. Even Grumman's Hellcat program could only deliver a few planes a week to the squadron at NAS Oceana, near Norfolk, Virginia. The fighter was so new that no pilot handbooks were available. Compared to the F4F, the roomy F6F was a big improvement: 60 mph faster, a better rate of climb, and more ammo capacity.


VF-9 was assigned to and qualified in F6F's aboard Essex in February, 1943, and deployed from Norfolk to the Pacific on Essex in May. Most pilots flew more than 50 hours in the new F6Fs. Many accumulated another 30 before entering combat, but 80 hours was unusually low compared to later wartime standards when many pilots had 300 hours in the Grummans before flying in combat.


That summer in Pearl Harbor, VF9 got a new skipper when Lt. Cdr. Philip H. Torrey relieved Lt. Cdr Jack Raby. They embarked on the Essex for a "training raid" against Marcus Island in late August, the first use of the Hellcat in combat. The Marcus raid was fairly uneventful and no Japanese planes sortied to fight them.


In mid-September, 1943, the Navy put together, for the first time, a task force of six carriers, including Essex and its VF-9. When four of these carriers struck Wake Island on October 5-6, the Hellcats saw their first significant aerial combat. Half an hour before dawn on the 5th, each of the four carriers launched three fighter divisions, 47 Hellcats in all. When they were still 50 miles out from Wake, the Japanese radar detected them, and 27 Zeros intercepted.


In the ensuing dogfight, Fighting Nine's skipper, Phil Torrey, shot down one Zero, then evaded two more by dodging in and out of clouds. Lt. Hadden, while watching a shared kill fall into the ocean, was jumped by two Zeros, and was lucky enough to make it back to Essex with most of his engine oil emptied out through several 20mm holes. Lt.jg McWhorter dove into a gaggle of Zeros, when one serendipitously appeared in his gunsight. He fired a short burst and exploded the Zero - his first aerial victory.


The raid showed that the new Hellcats could more than hold its own against the Zeros. They destroyed 22 of 34 aircraft at Wake, and 12 American planes were lost - 6 to the Zeros and 6 to AA gunfire.


Lt.jg McWhorter destroyed two more Zeros in the Nov. 11 raid on Rabaul. Task Force 50.3 (Essex, Bunker Hill, and Independence) arrived in the Southwest Pacific on Nov. 5, 1943. They began to hear of casualties from the day's raid, so the fliers were a little apprehensive when they learned of the follow-up planned for the 11th. The incomplete intelligence reports that were available did little to ease their trepidation at attacking "Fortress Rabaul."


Just after dawn on Nov. 11, 1943, Essex, about 165 miles southeast of Rabaul, launched her strike planes, including VF-9 on escort. En route to the target, flying at 10,000 feet, a dozen Zeros picked them up and tried to lure the fighters away from their charges. The Essex fighters stayed with their strike force and reached Rabaul without difficulty. As they dove into the attack, no Zeros appeared, but the AA was pretty heavy.


The Jap warships were leaving the harbor at high speed and Lt.jg McWhorter went after a cruiser, going into his strafing run off the cruiser's starboard beam. It seemed like every weapon on the ship was firing at him and he could actually see the eight inch shells coming at him. When he was 2,500 feet out, he fired a four second burst at the open AA gun batteries, then zoomed over the ship.


Heading back to the rendezvous point, he saw huge World War One style dogfight going on, involving about a dozen Hellcats and over 30 Zeros. He dove into the melee and shot up a Zero that was scoring heavily on another Hellcat. He saw the Zero flame, but couldn't tell if the Hellcat escaped. Suddenly he heard a sound "like when someone throws a handful of large rocks on a galvanized tin roof." He snapped his plane over into a split-S dive and instantly found another Zero in his sights, which he quickly exploded with a short burst. This combat only lasted about 45 seconds, long enough for McWhorter to claim two kills.


Only lightly damaged, McWhorter met up with the F6Fs and escorted the strike planes back to Essex. Later that afternoon he flew an uneventful CAP over the carriers. In the evening, the torpedo-bomber and dive-bomber pilots, who usually had little use for "hot shot" fighter pilots, came into the ready room, laden with gifts for their protectors: cigarettes, gum, and candy.


 The Rabaul raids unmistakably reduced the Japanese air strength (both pilots and planes). On Armistice Day 1943 VF9 set a record for the most planes shot down in one day -- fifty-four. The raids also showed that the powerful new carrier task forces could operate within the range of land-based bombers. The next action was supporting the invasion of Tarawa in the Gilberts, where VF9 was assigned to tactical air support for the Marines. Lt. jg McWhorter made ace by downing a Pete floatplane off Tarawa on November 18 and a Betty bomber the next day. He only used 86 rounds to down the Betty, earning the nickname "One Slug."


The Americans secured Tarawa and Makin, and aerial combat in the Gilberts tapered off by the end of November. In December, Essex participated in the Marshalls strikes that began on the 4th.


The next big action for VF-9 occurred on Jan. 29, 1944 when the new Fast Carrier Task Force (12 carriers!) supported the amphibious invasion of Kwajalein in the Marshalls. Assigned to strafe the enemy airfield on Kwajalein's Roi islet, VF-9 launched 18 planes led by Lt. Cdr. Herb Houck. While Fighting Nine's orders instructed them to avoid combat if possible, many of them were forced to engage. McWhorter shot down two Hamps in this engagement.


Cdr. Phil Torrey 'fleeted up' to CAG-9, and Herb Houck replaced him as C.O. of VF-9 in time for the first great Truk raid of  Feb. 16.


LT. jg McWhorter was on a Photographic Reconnaissance mission when he spotted a formation of three bogeys in the distance coming toward him. McWhorter turned toward the bogies and led his wingman in on a head-on run for a closer look; the bogeys turned out to be Zeros that unaccountably hadn't fired on the Hellcats. The 22 year-old Georgian, with his typical economical bursts, downed two of them in about five seconds. Another Zero was spotted a bit later, which he also dispatched promptly. He was the first carrier pilot to become a Hellcat double ace.


During this raid LT.jg Eugene Valencia became separated from his wingman, Lt. Bill Bonneau, and was attacked by several Zeroes. They chased him at length and fired repeatedly, but couldn't hit him. Figuring that their poor gunnery didn't threaten him too much, Valencia swung around to meet his attackers, and shot down three in short order. On his return to Essex, he exuded enthusiasm for the Hellcat, saying, "I love this airplane so much that if it could cook, I'd marry it."


When VF-9's combat tour Aboard ESSEX finished in March, 1944, Part of  VF9 helped to re-organize VF-12 (formerly flying Corsair F4Us) as a Hellcat squadron on the carrier RANDOLPH. The rest of the group went on to fly from USS LEXINGTON.


VF9/VF12, would remain in the combat area up through the Okinawa campaign and wouldn't start home until 7 June 1945. (That must be some kind of record.... R.S.) Airgroup Nine flew nearly the whole war, first over Northwest Africa, then in the 1943-44 Central Pacific offensive, and finally in the grim assaults against Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and in the skies over the Japanese homeland.


VF Nine would destroy, in the air, 251 enemy planes during its tour in the war. The 'only Hellcat squadron to exceed this record' was another Essex squadron, VF15 with 310. VF83, also flying from Essex, destroyed 228, 69 of those in one day; the record for air victories in one day.

ESSEX truly was "The Fightingest Ship in the Fleet, and VF9 earned the name "Fighting Nine"


Air Group Nine Engagements while attached to ESSEX.

Raid on Marcos Island
31 August 1943
Raid on Wake Island
5 - 6  October 1943
Raid on Rabaul
11 November 1943
Invasion of Tarawa, Gilbert Islands.
18 - 25 November 1943
Raid on Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands.
29 January 1944
Raid on Truk Atoll
16 - 17  February 1944
Raid on Saipan and Tinian, Marianas Islands.
22 February 1944


"The First Hellcat Ace", Cdr. Hamilton McWhorter III , with Jay A. Stout (Pacifica Military History)

"HELLCAT The F6F in World War II", Barrett Tillman (Naval Institute Press)