The WW2 Pacific Treasures of Kwajalein Lagoon by Dan Farnham Part 13: Searching for the lost Hellcats

Aircraft wrecks, Interviews, WW2, WW2 Pacific Treasures, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos, text and research submitted by Dan Farnham, used by permission

Design started in 1938 by the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation and the XF6F-1 was designed as the successor to the company’s earlier F4F ‘Wildcat’ fighter plane. A contract was signed with the U.S. Navy for the prototype on June 30, 1941, and after a number of improvements, the new plane would go on to become one of the iconic American-built naval fighters of World War II.

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F6F-3 Hellcat formation

The designation “F6F” stands for ”fighter, sixth fighter design from Grumman”, and the last ‘F’ was the letter assigned by the U.S. Navy to all aircraft built by Grumman. The F6F was given the name ‘Hellcat’. Production began in 1942 and ended in 1945, and in that short time frame a total of 12,272 Hellcats were built.

An introduction to the U.S. WW2 aircraft wrecks of Kwajalein Atoll by Dan Farnham – Part 9

Unlike other World War II fighters that went through a lengthy series of engine, airframe and armament changes, there were only two basic versions of the Hellcat during its entire lifetime: the F6F-3 and -5.

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F6F-3 onboard USS_Yorktown

The first major production version was the F6F-3. It was armed with three .50 caliber machine guns in each wing, and it could carry a single 150-gallon disposable drop tank on a center hard-point under the fuselage.

The WW2 Pacific Treasures of Kwajalein Lagoon by Dan Farnham PART 2 – Warrant Officer Nobuo Fujita, the only man who has bombed the continental US and the story of the E14Y1 floatplanes found in a shipwreck

Late production F6F-3’s also had had single bomb racks installed under each wing, inboard of the landing gear bays. This gave the plane a total bomb load in excess of 2,000 pounds. The F6F-3 was powered by a 2,000 horsepower engine, and it had a maximum speed of 376 miles per hour and a range of just over 1,000 miles.

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F6F-5N Hellcat

There were two night fighter versions of the F6F-3. The first was the F6F-3E which had a AN/APS-4 radar in a prominent housing on the right wing. The second night fighter version was the F6F-3N which had an improved AN/APS-6 radar.

F6F-3N night fighter Hellcats of VMF(N)-533 in the Marshall Islands, 1944.
F6F-3N night fighter Hellcats of VMF(N)-533 in the Marshall Islands, 1944.

The second major production version was the F6F-5. This was an improved version with a re-designed engine cowling, an integral bulletproof windscreen, new ailerons and strengthened tail surfaces, and other improvements. It was powered by a 2,200 horsepower engine, which gave it a maximum speed of 388 miles per hour, and it had a range of just over 1,500 miles.

Hellcat, an iconic WW2 fighter
Hellcat, an iconic WW2 fighter

The night fighter version of the “dash five”, designated as the F6F-5N, was fitted with the same AN/APS-6 radar as the F6F-3N. Some of these later night fighter versions were armed with two 20mm cannons and four.50 caliber machine guns, instead of the usual six .50 caliber machine guns.

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The Hellcat first saw combat action in September 1943. One of the nicknames given to it by some of its pilots during the war was the “Aluminum Tank”, because it could absorb unbelievable punishment and still bring a pilot back to base. Stories were told of Hellcats that were “mostly holes where the airplane used to be.”

F6F-3 Hellcats (at right) of VF-24 warm up on the deck of the USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24) in November 1943, at the start of the campaign to seize the Gilbert Islands.
F6F-3 Hellcats (at right) of VF-24 warm up on the deck of the USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24) in November 1943, at the start of the campaign to seize the Gilbert Islands.

Numerous books and articles have been written about this iconic American-built carrier fighter and its distinguished history in U.S. and British service. And it has also been featured in a number of movies and documentaries. For those reasons, from here on I will just focus on the operational history of the Hellcat as it relates to Kwajalein Atoll.

The WW2 Pacific Treasures of Kwajalein Lagoon by Dan Farnham PART 7 – Exploring the A6M2 Zero aircraft wreck of Roi island

Hellcats first saw action over Kwajalein Atoll on December 4, 1943. That was the date of a major carrier strike, intended as a softening-up attack in preparation for Operation Flintlock, the seizure of the atoll scheduled for late the following month.

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Hellcats F6F-3, May 1943

During Operation Flintlock, many Hellcats flew from the carriers which were assigned to the strike force. They rampaged all over the skies above the atoll, shooting down the few Japanese planes which managed to get airborne during the battle, strafing targets afloat and on various islands within the atoll, and generally doing everything they could to cause mayhem and chaos for the defending Japanese.

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On February 1st, at the height of the battle, four F6F-3 Hellcats from Navy Fighter Squadron 24 (VF-24), flying from the USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24), were assigned to strafe targets on Bigej Island.

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The four-plane section was led by Lieutenant H.W. Sours. As they made a strafing run on the island, Sours’ tracers caused an ammunition dump to blow up.

February 1, 1944: The ammunition dump on Bigej Island exploding. This Is the explosion which downed the Hellcat flown by Ensign John R. Clem. His plane crashed into the lagoon, just out of frame of this photo.
February 1, 1944: The ammunition dump on Bigej Island exploding. This Is the explosion which downed the Hellcat flown by Ensign John R. Clem. His plane crashed into the lagoon, just out of frame of this photo. CREDIT: Bill Remick/Kwajalein MIA Project 

His wingman, Ensign John R. Clem, was following close behind and was unable to avoid the explosion. At low altitude and high speed on the strafing run, Clem never had a chance- he was unable to avoid flying right into the explosion. The blast tore the tail and part of the right wing off his plane, and his crippled Hellcat spun into the lagoon at high speed, just off Bigej Island. A low-altitude search of the crash site by his fellow pilots showed no sign of him, and he was subsequently declared missing-in-action.

Ensign John R. Clem, Hellcat pilot who was killed in action at Kwajalein Atoll on February 1, 1944. This photo is from his U.S. Navy service file.
Ensign John R. Clem, Hellcat pilot who was killed in action at Kwajalein Atoll on February 1, 1944. This photo is from his U.S. Navy service file.

In October 2011, the wreckage of Ensign Clem’s plane was found by members of the Kingfisher Project (later re-named the Kwajalein MIA Project). The discovery came about after side-scan sonar work conducted in 2007, archival research, and exploratory diving in the area of the crash site. Enough of the wreckage was identifiable to confirm that the crash site had been found.

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Other pieces of wreckage could not be identified as to which part of the Hellcat they came from, due to the condition and subsequent marine growth over the years since the crash. Shortly afterward, we reported the discovery to the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

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Most of the Hellcats which flew over Kwajalein Atoll during the war were carrier-based fighters which participated in the attack on December 4, 1943, and Operation Flintlock. The only land-based Hellcats at the atoll during the war was a detachment of Marine Night Fighter Squadron 533, or VMF(N)-533.

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The squadron arrived at Eniwetok Atoll from Hawaii on May 6, 1944. VMF(N)-533 was initially equipped with F6F-3N night fighter versions, and the squadron eventually added F6F-5N’s to its inventory as well, doing much of the work themselves to convert standard F6F-5’s into night fighters.

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Beginning on July 16, 1944 VMF(N)-533 maintained a four-plane detachment at Roi Island. Planes and pilots were periodically rotated between Eniwetok and Roi, and this continued until May 1, 1945 when the detachment left Roi to re-join the rest of the squadron at Eniwetok. Six days later the squadron was moved to Saipan.

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A little over two months later, on July 31, a group of F6F-5 Hellcats departed from Roi Island on a ferry flight, although the destination is not clear from the information I currently have. One of them, BuNo 79895, was being flown by Ensign John Davis, and he was forced to turn back after 60 miles when the plane developed engine trouble.

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Davis didn’t quite make it back to the runway- at a distance of one and a half miles from Roi, he was forced to ditch his plane into the lagoon. Davis was rescued moments later, uninjured, while his Hellcat sank to the bottom.

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That Hellcat has not yet been found. But plans are being made to mount a search for it, possibly this year. Given that it was reported to have ditched a mile and a half off Roi, the search area should be fairly small, if the historical information is accurate.

And because it was a controlled ditching, rather than a high-speed, out-of-control crash, it should still be intact. Once we find it, I’ll have another article for this series documenting the discovery of that Hellcat.

F6F-3 Hellcat aircraft from VF-21 that had ditched in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego, CA, January 25, 1944. It was raised by the salvage team of the USS White Sands in Octobe,r 1970, and placed at NAS North Island, CA.
F6F-3 Hellcat aircraft from VF-21 that had ditched in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego, CA, January 25, 1944. It was raised by the salvage team of the USS White Sands in Octobe,r 1970, and placed at NAS North Island, CA. Dan Farnham is hoping to find Bu No 79895, flown by Ensign John Davis in Kwajalein.

After World War II was over, most Hellcats were quickly relegated to training and Reserve squadrons, although F6F-5Ns were retained as night fighters.

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The Hellcat’s final combat actions in U.S. service took place over Korea, when six radio-controlled F6F drones, each carrying a finless one-ton bomb, were sent one at a time against a North Korean bridge and a railway tunnel in August and September 1952.

Those missions were basically just proof-of-concept tests, functioning as little more than demonstrations rather than serious raids, and they did little damage to anything other than the Hellcats.

F6F-3 Hellcat aircraft from VF-21 that had ditched in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego, CA, January 25, 1944. It was raised by the salvage team of the USS White Sands in October 1970, and placed at NAS North Island, CA. Dan Farnham is hoping to find Bu No 79895, flown by Ensign John Davis in Kwajalein.
F6F-3 Hellcat aircraft from VF-21 that had ditched in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego, CA, January 25, 1944.
It was raised by the salvage team of the USS White Sands in October 1970, and placed at NAS North Island, CA.
Dan Farnham is hoping to find Bu No 79895, flown by Ensign John Davis in Kwajalein.

Hellcats were also used by the French Aeronavale’  until about 1955, and the Uruguayan Navy used them until the early 1960’s.

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In closing this installment, I’d like to give thanks to the staff of the Flying Heritage Combat and Armor Museum, in Seattle, Washington. At the time we were discovering the wreckage of the Ensign Clem’s Hellcat, the museum ‘s restoration team, led by Corey Graf, was in the process of restoring a F6F-5 Hellcat from the ground up. Their analysis of the photos we took of the wreckage proved instrumental in identifying some of the pieces, further confirming the identity of the plane wreck.

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A large number of Hellcats survive today in museums in the U.S. and England. And a few are still flying, making the rounds of the airshow circuits, helping preserve the history of the Hellcat and of the pilots who flew it during World War II. One of the examples flying today is the F6F-5 which was restored by the Flying Heritage Combat and Armor Museum, and it is an impressive sight both on the ground and in the air.