Rabaul, with it's protected Simpson Harbor, was
considered the "Pearl Harbor of the Pacific" to the Japanese. This heavily
fortified harbor was the main refueling and rearming facility in the southwestern
Pacific. Intelligence flights, flown over the harbor the previous day by
Marine pilots, reported many ships in the harbor - presumably preparing for
a major operation. Among the ships were a number of troop ships supported
by light and heavy Cruisers, and numerous Destroyers.
The entire Task force was to participate in this
massive strike. This included Air Group Nine, composed of Fighting squadron
VF9 - Commanded by LCDR. Philip Torrey with, LCDR. Arthur Decker leading
the VB9 bombers and flying the SBD5 Douglas Dauntless, and Torpedo Squadron
VT Nine - commanded by LTCDR. Donald White flying the TBF Avenger. Leading
the air group was Commander Paul E. Emrick flying a TBF Avenger. Air Group
Nine was to lead the first strike on Rabaul, immediately followed by Air
Group Seventeen from the USS Bunkerhill CV17, the other major carrier in
the task force 58.2.
Our plane was a TBF Avenger of Torpedo Squadron
Nine. The pilot was LTJG. Richard B. Zentmeyer of Hershey, Pennsylvania;
the radioman was ARM2/C Herbert C. Anderson of Savannah, Georgia; and I was
a turret gunner from Newark, New Jersey. It was just 10 days earlier that
this same crew had crashed at sea while taking off for for an anti-submarine
patrol in a TBF with four depth bombs. The plane sank so rapidly that the
three of us had to exit without the life raft. Fearing the depth charges
would explode we swam as fast as we could away from the plane. Fortunately
we were only in the water about 10 minutes before we were rescued by the
plane guard, USS Kidd DD661. After a medical examination and our clothes
dried, we were returned safely to Essex via breeches bouy in exchange for
On the Rabaul strike we were assigned our regular
plane, 9T11. The armament we carried was the 50-caliber ammunition for the
turret, the 30-caliber ammo for the rear stinger and synchronized nose gun,
and a Mark XIII Mod.1 aerial torpedo. We had the responsibility of the
maintenance of the equipment on our assigned plane, including the 50-caliber
machine gun in the turret, the 30-caliber in the aft tunnel, the radio equipment,
and all our survival gear. All turret gunners prefered to fly in the plane
for which they were responsible for maintenance - especially that of the
turret machine gun.
0600 Flight Quarters and begin to launch
Flight quarters had been sounded at 0600 and
the launch was begun. We were launched from the ship approximately 300 miles
from the island target. After the entire air group had rendezvoused into
formation, we headed for the target with Air Group CDR. Emrick in the lead.
We were in a constant climb until we reached and leveled off at 13,000 feet.
Upon approaching Rabaul the sky became thick with clouds and rainsqualls
all the way down to the water.. We were running into intense anti-aircraft
CDR. Emrick led the group in a gradual glide
to a lower altitude. Our section of three planes, led by LT. Byron Cooke,
with Ted Malikowski AOM1C and David Hord AMM2C crew, number two wingman Zentmeyer
and number three wingman LTJG. David King with Milt Ingram AMM2C and Cecil
McFall ARM2C as crew had been assigned to attack troop transport ships. When
the harbor was in sight between the clouds, we could see that the targets
to which we were assigned during our briefing aboard ship were not as we
had expected. Upon seeing a completely different picture. CDR. Emrick did
an immediate quick re-briefing and calmly assigned new targets to the various
squadrons. Our new assignment was a heavy cruiser.
The anti-aircraft fire was now getting dangerously
close and we were flying right into it.
With the re-briefing concluded, CDR. Emerick ordered
us to "Attack! Attack! Attack!" at which point all planes pushed over into
a steep dive to avoid the anti-aircraft fire. As we dove to rapidly lose
altitude,we were in heavy rainsqualls and clouds - visibility was zero.
Although we could not see past our wingtips, the
distintive whine of hellcats could be heard as they dove past us. When you
hear that type of whine in the air, you know those planes are very close.
Why there was no mid-air collisions is something I will never know. I have
asked other people that question, including our skipper, LTCDR. Don White,
and they could not explain either.
Inexplicably, when we broke out of the clouds
near the surface of the water all three planes of our section were within
sight of each other. The pilots tightened up the formation for the attack.
Because of the speed we attained during the dive, LTJG. Zentmeyer had to
lower the landing gear to slow the plane to the proper speed for our torpedo
run. The silhouette of our target, the heavy cruiser, was visible in a dense
rainsquall just ahead of us. The orange flames of the cruiser's heavy guns
were seen blasting at us in hope of creating water sprays that could possibly
bring us down.
We were now at the approximate speed for the torpedo
drop. Zentmeyer raised the landing gear, opened the bomb bay doors and proceeded
to jinx toward the cruiser for a broadside hit. At the correct distance he
dropped to 150 feet, leveled off and released the torpedo.
We continued directly towards the cruiser jinxing
as we approached, and flew over the deck of the ship. During the torpedo
run I maneuvered the turret as far forward as I could so that I could see
when we were over the ship. I strafed the gun mounts as we flew over, expending
about 80 or 90 rounds of 50-caliber ammunition. All three of the planes in
our section made successful torpedo drops. As we retired from the attack
I observed an explosion which indicated at least one hit on the cruiser,
but I am unable to say which of the three torpedoes made the hit.
"Andy Change the Can"
Our prime concern now was to find our way out
of the harbor and join up with our air group for the return flight to Essex.
The pilots were cautioned during their briefing before take-off, that the
area surrounding the harbor was very heavily fortified with anti-aircraft
positions, and if at all possible they should seek an escape route over water
rather than land. Zentmeyer made a couple of attempts to seek a channel to
the sea, only to find they were coves and dead ends. When he finally found
an exit channel we were considerably behind the rest of the squadron. Shortly
after leaving the harbor a Japanese fighter plane, identified as an "Oscar"
or "Zeke", made a run at us firing his 20-mm cannons. I returned fire with
the 50-caliber turret gun, and for some unknown reason he broke off his attack.
Sensing we were still in danger of additional
attacks by fighter planes and knowing I had expended 50-caliber ammunition
on the cruiser plus about 60-70 rounds on this fighter plane attack, I did
not want to run out of ammunition during another attack. Without the use
of the radio intercom I yelled to Andy as loud as I could "Andy, change the
can". Anderson immediately jumped up from his position at the 30-caliber
machine gun at the rear of the tunnel. He unstrapped the ammo can from the
bulkhead, caught the can that I had released from the turret, and slammed
the new can up the chute to the turret. Now with a full can of 50-caliber
ammo I felt a little more secure.
I digress for a moment to comment on this maneuver.
Anderson weighed about 120 pounds. All during
training in Norfolk and in numerous flights afterward, LTJG. Zentmeyer would
have us change the turret ammo can for drill. He would time us, and sad to
say our execution time was not very rapid. The main reason was that these
cans held 250 rounds of 50-caliber ammo and weighed over 60 pounds each.
One can was in the chute turret and the other was strapped to the bulkhead
on the side of the tunnel. Andy would have to unstrap the can from the bulkhead,
catch the can that I released from the turret and lift the new can into the
chute, slamming it back up into the turret.
He had no trouble unstrapping the can from the
bulkhead or catching the can that I released from the turret, but when it
came to hoisting the new can into into the turret chute he just couldn't
do it. I would have to climb out of the turret and help him lift the can
to the turret and slam it up the chute. This took considerable time and could
have disastrous consequences during actual combat. When the occasion to make
this exchange of cans presented itself as in this Rabaul incident, the adrenaline
must have really flowed in Andy, because he made the entire maneuver in a
matter of seconds, single-handedly.
"Bogies at Two O'Clock"
We were proceeding at full throttle in an effort
to join up with our squadron which was still a considerable distance ahead
of us when I heard LTJG Zentmeyer call over the intercom that there were
bogies at two o'clock. I swung my turret around to that position and observed
two "Oscars" or "Zekes" banking toward us to make an attack. They banked
to the rear of us and made their attack directly from our stern, one following
The first plane was directly behind my vertical
stabilyzer and in a zone where I could not fire at him with
my electrical trigger. (To avoid shooting into ones own tail,
sensors were attached to the turret which would cut out the electric
trigger.) The area six inches either side of the vertical
stabilizer was a "dead zone". As the
Japanese fighter pressed his attack he began firing his
20mm cannons. His attack from the rear may have been by design if he knew I
couldn't fire at him if he flew directly behind my verticle
stabilizer. His tracers were just missing us and he was getting closer.
It happens that, shortly before we'd left on this
last cruise, we had modified the turret firing system. We had attached a
cable to the back plate of the machine-gun and wound it through a series
of pulleys. On the end of the cable there was a ring that I slipped onto
my finger while holding the "dead-man" switch. With my ring finger I
could pull on the cable which would depress the back-plate and the gun would
fire manually. The danger was, of course, that you could shoot your tail
off since there was no automatic cutoff.
I maintained the fighter in my site as he continued
his attack, returning his fire with the electric trigger until the sensors
cut it off. I then pulled on the cable and fired manually, moving the turret
so that I was barely missing my tail. I could see the 50-caliber shells hitting
his engine and the side of his fuselage. Puffs of smoke were coming from
the engine and pieces of the plane were breaking off. When he was about 200
feet away I held the cable in a sustained burst of fire into the side of
the cockpit. He made a sharp bank and a roll over and headed down to the
The wingman followed the same attack maneuver,
which I again answered with heavy fire. He suddenly made a sharp left bank
exposing his entire belly. I didn't understand at the moment why he
had broken off his attack, until suddenly I became aware that an F6F Hellcat
from VF9 which had been ahead of us, upon seeing we were in trouble, came
back to assist. When the Japanese pilot made the sharp bank to the left and
exposed his belly the F6F planted six 50-caliber blasts into his underside
causing him to explode in a ball of flame.
When all the excitement was over and it looked
like the sky was clear of enemy fighter planes, to our surprise an SB2C Helldiver
from VB17 pulled up on our wing. He had been flying beneath us with his dead
tail gunner slumped over in the rear seat. I assume he was flying beneath
us to take advantage of the turret defense provided by our plane. We eventually
caught up with our squadron and upon approaching the task force, the VB17
pilot peeled off toward the Bunker Hill while we advanced toward Essex.
After we landed on the flight deck of the Essex,
Zentmeyer confided to me that when he saw the 20 MM tracers coming over his
wings, he pulled in his arms. He did this to take advantage of the armor
plate, which was right behind him. He could hear me firing from the turret
and didn't want to throw me off or create any maneuver that could hamper
my aim. I was also told to "Grab a sandwich - you're going back
Another strike was not in the original plan; however,
Rear Admiral Alfred E. Montgomery who was the flag in Essex felt that the
enemy was severely wounded and we should go back and inflict more damage
on him. As we were called to flight quarters and went to the flight deck
we found that another crew had already boarded our plane. We were told that
there had been a change and now we were assigned to aircraft 9T8, which was
on the hanger deck. On the hanger deck we were told by the plane captain
that the previous pilot of this plane had reported an engine problem. We
manned the plane, started the engine, and while waiting to be elevated to
the flight deck LTJG Zentmeyer radioed that he would check out the engine
before taking off.
The launching of the aircraft on the flight deck
was underway. Commander Emrick, the Air Group Commander was launched along
with the fighters and some SBDs and Torpedo planes. During the launch, bogies
approaching the task force were picked up by radar. The launching continued
until the enemy planes were in sight and the anti-aircraft batteries commenced
firing. At that time flight operations were suspended and we cut our engine
and sought our battle stations in the wardroom. There we were informed by
radio speaker of the progress of the air battle taking place over the task
force. The Japanese force was estimated to be about 150 planes. Our fighter
squadron shot down 129 planes that day and when it appeared that air opposition
was eliminated, Admiral Montgomery ordered CDR. Emrick to re-group and resume
the second strike on Rabaul.
CDR. Emrick advised the Admiral that because of
the air battle over the task force, the planes were low on fuel and ammunition
and to resume the strike would be disastrous. Admiral Montgomery was irate
at the suggestion but accepted the situation and canceled the raid. Many
years later, I met retired Captain Emrick, and asked why he had not retired
as, Rear, or Vice Admiral. He told me that it was this incident, opposing
Montgomery's orders to make the second strike on Rabaul that did him in.
I would like to pay tribute to Captain Paul E.
Emrick USN (RET) (deceased), whom I consider the finest Naval officer I have
ever known. If anyone should have attained flag rank, he would have been
among the best. I also want to commend him on his decision to counter Adm.
Montgomery's ill-advised order; A decision that surely resulted in many more
of us coming home than otherwise would have.
I would also like to know the identity of two
pilots, and what has become of them since Rabaul. One is the VF9 pilot who
shot down the plane that was attacking our TBF; And the other is the SBD2C
pilot from Bunker Hill who flew beneath us on the return from Rabaul. Anyone
knowing their identities or whereabouts - please contact me.
Walter J. Deptula-Drew ADC CAC, USN (RET)
20333 NE 34th Ct.
Sammamish WA 98074