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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
|22 February 1944
"The First Hellcat Ace", Cdr.
Hamilton McWhorter III , with Jay A. Stout (Pacifica Military
"HELLCAT The F6F in World War
II", Barrett Tillman (Naval Institute Press)