Marianas Turkey Shoot
June 19, 1944:
Three divisions of 4 planes (12 aircraft total) from VF-31 were launched from the USS Cabot at 0800 hours to join other fighter aircraft from the 14 other aircraft carriers to fly CAP (Combat Air Patrol) over the task force and await the arrival of the Japanese panes that they knew would arrive at any day.
Around 0900 hours one division of VF-31 was ordered to assist pilots from another carrier who encountered enemy aircraft over Guam. This division was comprised of Lt.. Turner, his wingman Ens. Andrews, Lt. (jg) Conant, and Lt. (jg) Bowie. When they arrived they could not locate any friendly aircraft but were jumped by a group of 8 Japanese Zero fighter planes. In the ensuing dog fight over the Japanese airfield the pilots downed a total of 6 enemy aircraft
Lt. Turner downed 3 Zeros
Two of the F6F Hellcat fighter aircraft were so badly damaged that all 4 of the returning aircraft were taken aboard Cabot as soon as they returned. Once they were safely on board and below decks the remaining 8 aircraft that were still flying CAP were ordered to return so that they could be replaced in the air by 12 freshly fueled and piloted aircraft. Before any of the fighter aircraft could be launched General quarters sounded as radar had picked up the approaching group of several hundred Japanese aircraft approximately 100 miles in the distance. Only 11 aircraft of the second three divisions was launched while the 8 undamaged aircraft that returned were being refueled in the hanger deck below.
Racing to get the remaining aircraft into the air before the enemy planes got within range, each plane was launched as it was ready. First off of the deck was Lt. (jg) Nooy who did not try to gain altitude but flew across the water to avoid being shot down as the fleet had opened up on the arriving Japanese aircraft with massive AA fire. Second off of the catapult was Lt. Cmd. Winston who joined up with Nooy out of the range of the Task Force AA fire. They were later joined by the other 6 Hellcats to form up in two divisions once again.
Shortly after the second group of two divisions formed up they spotted a flight of, what appeared to be, 12 Japanese dive bombers. Upon approaching closer it was discovered that they were a flight of Dauntless SBDs that had been launched from one of the larger fleet carriers to get them off of the ship before the Japanese attacked. The group of 8 fighters were ordered back to guard the task force and did not locate any enemy aircraft during the remainder of their time in the air. They were brought back aboard Cabot and waited for the return of the first three divisions to return that were launched earlier and who had engaged the approaching enemy aircraft.
The 11 planes of the first three divisions of VF-31 had better luck as they were engaged with the approaching enemy even before the second group of fighters left the deck of the Cabot. At 1047 hours the 11 Hellcats dove into a flight of over 50 Zero fighter planes which kept them busy until they had downed 22 of them, combined with the 6 earlier in the day the total shoot down for VF-31 was 28 enemy aircraft without a single loss.
Lt. Stewart: downed 3
For the day, 395 Japanese aircraft were shot down and only 20 US aircraft were lost in combat: 6 F6Fs, 10 SB2Cs and 4 TBMs.
After all of the aircraft were recovered Task Force 58 set out in pursuit of the Japanese fleet which was around 800 miles distant. This was too far to launch an attack so the distance needed to be shortened before aircraft could be launched and return safely.
June 20, 1944:
Dawn brought no word of the whereabouts of the Japanese carrier fleet. The TBMs were spotted on the Cabot flight deck, their engines kept warmed up by the plane captains, fully loaded with armor piercing bombs, their fuel tanks were topped up every time the engines were shut down to ensure a full load of fuel would be in each aircraft at takeoff. The Japanese fleet was located at 1548 hours by scout planes about 400 miles due west of the task force and it was decided that an attack would be launched for a late evening raid rather than waiting for sunrise the next day. Many of the ships in the task force, especially the destroyers, were low on fuel and could not have continued to pursue for another day. The distance from the task force to the Japanese carrier fleet was at the very extreme operating range of the bomber and torpedo aircraft but it was decided that the opportunity to catch and destroy the remaining enemy carriers was worth the risk. All of the fighter aircraft of VF-31 were held back in reserve in case the Japanese launched a counter strike or if Japanese land based aircraft attacked.
The carriers came about to head east into the wind to launch the 204 aircraft that would make up the first assault. Cabot launched 4 TBM Avengers at 1605 hours. Once the last aircraft was off the decks the task force turned west again and proceeded at full speed to reduce the distance between the carriers and the target for the pilot's return. A second scheduled attack was canceled so that the task force could proceed on its westerly course to reduce the distance between the two fleets so only one strike group was launched to attack the Japanese fleet.
The 4 TBMs from Cabot did not circle to join up with other aircraft as was normal but immediately after launch set course for the Japanese carrier fleet, joining with TBMs from other carriers on route. At 1823 hours a radio report was heard "Ships ahead!". This first sighting turned out to be 2 oilers with 6 destroyers who were waiting to refuel. The main target of the attack group were to be the Japanese aircraft carriers so the oilers were passed over and the attack force continued west to keep looking for the main body of ships. A little over 20 minutes later at 1845 the main body of the Japanese fleet was spotted. It consisted of 3 groups of ships: In the main group were 2 Hayataka class fleet carriers, 1 light carrier, 2 Kongo class battleships, 4 heavy cruisers of the Tone and Mogami class, 4 light cruisers and 6 destroyers. The northern group of ships consisted of 1 Shokaku class carrier, 4 heavy cruisers and 6 destroyers. The third group of ships was about 60 miles further west and were not identified or attacked.
Two of the TBMs from VT-31 flown by Lt. Wood and Lt. Russell attacked the Japanese light Shokaku class carrier Chiyoda in the northern group of ships, sitting it on fire. The other two of Cabot's TBMs flown by Lt. Smith and Ens. Jones attacked one of the Kongo class Battle ship in the main group. Ens. Jones is credited with striking this battleship with 3 bombs. After their successful attack the pilots and aircrew of the Cabot's TBMs joined up and settled in for the long flight back to the task force in the dark, leaning out their fuel mixture to squeeze out the last drop of gas so that they would make it back. On the way to the target the attack force had a tail wind which assisted them but on the return flight they were flying into a head wind which made for more fuel consumption. All the way back the radio was busy with messages from pilots saying that they were ditching their battle damaged aircraft or that they were running out of fuel and sitting down in groups of 3 and 4 planes so that they would be more easily spotted by rescue planes the next morning.
The first group of aircraft to return to the task force did not arrive until 2030 hours and attempted to make night landings without the aid of any lights on the carriers and many crashed on the decks, fowling them and slowing down the recovery. Admiral Mitscher realized that if the carriers would not turn on their lights that most of the returning aircraft would have to land in the sea in the dark. He gave the order at 2050 that all ships should turn on their search lights so that the pilots could easily find the task force. At 2058 another order was given that all planes should land on any carrier that they can find. Lt Russell and Lt. Wood landed safely back on the Cabot, Lt. Wood having less than 5 gallons of fuel in his last tank which would have given him less than 3 minutes flying time remaining. Seven more aircraft from other carriers were also taken aboard USS Cabot that night, including an SB2C from the Bunker Hill which had to be pushed over the side as they did not have folding wings and could not be taken below the small CVL carrier. Ens. Jones landed on the USS Bunker Hill but missed the arresting wires and his TBM crashed into the barrier and caught fire. He and his crew suffered burns as a result of the crash and fire. Ens. Smith ran so low on fuel that his TBM was forced to make a water landing among the ships of the task force. Ens Smith and his 2 crewmen, Arm1c. McGrath, and Amm3c Van Blaircum were picked up safely two hours after crashing by the Destroyer USS Hunt (DD-674) as they floated in their life raft. The Hunt returned the pilot and crew to the USS Cabot on June 22nd.
Of the 204 aircraft launched to attack the retreating Japanese carrier fleet, 70 had to ditch among the task force upon their return as they did not have sufficient fuel remaining to circle in the landing patterns for their turn to land. All told for the task force 80 aircraft were lost and 49 pilots and aircrewmen did not return. Many pilots and crew were rescued in the following days as they floated in the ocean.
June 21, 1944:
Because of the aircraft losses the night before when several of the planes from the larger fleet carriers had to land in the water, fighter squadrons of the CVLs (light carriers) were to accompany the dive bombers and torpedo planes to finish off the Japanese fleet. Three divisions of VF-31 were armed with 500 lb armor piercing bombs and readied on the Cabot flight deck for the trip to the injured Japanese fleet. By mid day it became apparent that the distance between Task Force 58 and the Japanese fleet was 100 miles further than the range of the carrier based aircraft. The attack was called off and the bombs removed and replaced by auxiliary fuel tanks. VF-31 was to join other fighter aircraft from the other carriers and search for downed pilots who had to ditch the night before. After an hour in the air the division was ordered to intercept a bogey approaching Task Force. First to spot the enemy Betty was Lt. (jg)Wilson who opened fire on it from above, Lt. Cmd. Winston also opened fire and set the left wing of the bomber on fire, Lt. (jg) Nooy also commenced fire and knocked off the right wing of the enemy aircraft, Lt. (jg) Hancock also got into the fray and more flames poured out of the bomber as it headed for the sea below. The division resumed searching for downed pilots for the remainder of the day. Lt. (jg) Wilson shot down another Betty the following day. These large twin engine Japanese bombers were used for long range reconnaissance to keep an eye on the location of the American Fleet.
From June 1 through June 23 Fighter Squadron 31 would destroy 45 enemy aircraft in aerial combat.
the USS Cabot along with the rest of Task Group 58.2 left Saipan on June 23rd to return to the newly established fleet anchorage located at Kwajalean Atoll for rearming. While passing Pagan Island on June 24th VF-31 and VT-31 dropped bombs on the airfield and installations on that Japanese held Island, making a shambles of everything there. Task Group 58.2 dropped anchor in Kwajalean Atoll on June 27th.
June 29, 1944:
On June 29th Lt. Cmd. Winston was detached from Air Group 31 to take up a position in the Navy Department in Washington with the rank of Commander. During the 6 months that VF-31 had been in combat under the command of Lt. Cmd. Winston they had shot down a total of 64 enemy aircraft without a single fighter pilot being lost.
Lieutenant Commander Daniel J. Wallace Jr, took command of Air Group 31 on June 29, 1944. and he would be their commanding officer until they were rotated out of active duty on October 4, 1944. He would stay with the squadron as its commanding officer until he was killed in a night fighter exercise off of Monterey Bay California on March 5, 1945..
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