The Atoll of Kwajalein is one of the largest Atolls in the Pacific with a large lagoon in its center. Kwajalein Atoll is one of several islands that make up the Marshall Islands group. The Atoll is made up of several islands which had been occupied and fortified by Japanese forces. The main concentration of Japanese forces were on the islands of Roi, Majuro, Namur, and Eniwetok (Eniwetok was later to become one of the fleet anchorages for the US pacific fleet).
January 29, 1944:
On the morning of January 29, 1944 Fighter squadron 31 was awakened at 0345 to get ready for their first combat action. 12 F6F Hellcats of VF-31 were launched from USS Cabot two hours before dawn, 3 divisions of 4 aircraft each, led by Lt. Cmd. Winston, Lt. Mulcahy, and Lt. Scales. In the darkness around 0600 hours some of the aircraft did not join up with the other planes of the squadron. On approaching the target area Commander Winston received orders from the strike leader to divide his squadron into 3 divisions. One to fly top cover at 10,000 feet, one to fly just above the cloud cover, and one to fly below the cloud cover at 5,000 feet.
Lieutenant Commander Winston led the low level division, which was made up of himself, Ens. Nooy (Winston's wingman), Ens. Wilson, and Ens. Hancock (Wilson's wingman)
First to see enemy fighters were the division led by Lt. Commander Winston who mistook a group of Zeros for Dauntless bombers. Approaching to within 100 yards, they noticed the red circle on the other planes wings. Winston opened fired upon the trailing Zero, missing his mark but breaking up the enemy fighters. Some of the other Zeros swung back and engaged Wilson and Hancock. Lt. Cmd. Winston jettisoned his drop tank but did not switch over to one of his internal fuel tanks, causing his engine to shut down. Nooy came past the slowing Winston and when he passed, Winston scored on one of the Zeros on Nooy's tail. Nooy succeeded in driving off the remaining Japanese fighters from his commander. Wilson and Hancock downed two of the remaining Zeros. Ens. Nooy's swift reactions are credited with saving his commanders life.
From Lt. Commander Winston's account of the events:
Lt. Scales led the middle division but they did not locate or engage any enemy fighters. After receiving radio communication from Commander Winston, he and the two other pilots of his division linked up with Lt. Commander Winston's division of four aircraft. The larger group came across two Zeros and Lt. Scales scored one victory during this engagement. Ens. Nooy is credited with downing the other Zero. Ens. Hancock became separated during the fighting as he had sustained damage to his aircraft in the earlier engagement.
Lt. Mulcahy lead the top division which consisted of himself and his wingman. Both pilots were jumped from above by a flight of five Zeros and they dove into the clouds below seeking cover from the pursuing planes. Exiting from the cloud cover Lt. Mulcahy found himself separated from his wingman and alone. He spotted the same five Zeros below him and descended to engage them once again, shooting down one of them in the ensuing fight. Lt Mulcahy's single handed attack of these 5 enemy fighter aircraft earned him his first Navy Cross.
The only pilot that did not land back aboard the Cabot was Ens. Frank Hancock who was the last pilot to return. Ens. Hancock had to ditch his plane next to USS Cabot when he could not lower the landing gear of his badly shot up aircraft. He was picked up unhurt by the destroyer USS Owen (DD 536).
Victories in this action were:
Lt. Cmd. Winston: 1 aerial victory and 2 probables
VF-31 had no losses of pilots and only one loss of a fighter aircraft in their 1st engagement.
VF-31 did not encounter any further enemy aircraft during the remainder of the Marshall Islands campaign, even though they flew CAP (Combat Air Patrol) daily. VF-31 flew ground support missions all during the invasion, supporting the ground troops with bombing and strafing attacks on ground targets on Roi and Namur.
After a week of engaging ground targets Cabot, along with the other ships in task group 58.2, proceeded to the fleet anchorage at Majuro Atoll. VF-31 had finished its job in the Marshall Islands campaign. While at Majuro they were joined by the remaining ships of task force 58 and were replenished with fuel, munitions, and replacement aircraft.
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