From the author of Pacific Payback comes the gripping true story of the Cactus Air Force and how this rugged crew of Dive-Bombers helped save Guadalcanal and won the war.
November 1942: Japanese and American forces have been fighting for control of Guadalcanal, a small but pivotal island in Japan’s expansion through the South Pacific. Both sides have endured months of grueling battle under the worst circumstances: hellish jungles, meager rations, and tropical diseases, which have taken a severe mental and physical toll on the combatants. The Japanese call Guadalcanal Jigoku no Jima—Hell's Island.
Amid a seeming stalemate, a small group of U.S. Navy dive bombers are called upon to help determine the island's fate. The men have until recently been serving in their respective squadrons aboard the USS Lexington and the USS Yorktown, fighting in the thick of the Pacific War's aerial battles. Their skills have been honed to a fine edge, even as injury and death inexorably have depleted their ranks. When their carriers are lost, many of the men end up on the USS Enterprise. Battle damage to that carrier then forces them from their home at sea to operating from Henderson Field, a small dirt-and-gravel airstrip on Guadalcanal.
With some Marine and Army Air Force planes, they help form the Cactus Air Force, a motley assemblage of fliers tasked with holding the line while making dangerous flights from their jungle airfield. Pounded by daily Japanese air assaults, nightly warship bombardments, and sniper attacks from the jungle, pilots and gunners rarely last more than a few weeks before succumbing to tropical ailments, injury, exhaustion, and death. But when the Japanese launch a final offensive to take the island once and for all, these dive-bomber jocks answer the call of duty—and try to perform miracles in turning back an enemy warship armada, a host of fighter planes, and a convoy of troop transports.
A remarkable story of grit, guts, and heroism, The Battle for Hell's Island reveals how command of the South Pacific, and the outcome of the Pacific War, depended on control of a single dirt airstrip—and the small group of battle-weary aviators sent to protect it with their lives.
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|Age Range:||18 Years|
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“If you’re going to miss with your bomb, you might as well stay home and let a good pilot take your place.”
The sharp words still sizzled in Lieutenant Birney Strong’s mind as he looked at the perfect scene playing out before him. Fourteen thousand feet below on the blue Pacific surface were the distinctive flat lines of two Japanese aircraft carriers. Birney had a determined calm about him as he briefly eyed the thin white wakes streaming behind the gleaming yellow-hued hardwood flight decks far below his dive-bomber.
I couldn’t ask for a better setup, he thought. A dive-bomber pilot’s dream.
He had not felt as happy the night before as he sat in the carrier Enterprise’s wardroom. The ship’s air officer, Commander John Crommelin, had lectured his aviators about what he expected from them the following day. Birney puffed on his cigarette and gulped black coffee as the commander barked, “The Japs are determined to drive us out of the south Pacific. If they get through to Guadalcanal with their carriers tomorrow, the Japs will take it. If Guadalcanal falls, our lifeline to Australia will be menaced.”
Crommelin emphasized that his aviators were to concentrate on knocking out the enemy’s carriers. The comment about letting a good pilot take your place if necessary had particular harshness for Birney Strong that was not felt by the more junior aviators. Just two months before, he had sighted and reported a Japanese carrier force off the Solomon Islands. Instead of attacking, he had led his wingman home, a decision he had regretted for weeks. Crommelin had of course chastised Strong for his decision not to attack. Since that day, most of Strong’s squadron had been granted leave back to the States, but not Birney. He had been ordered right back out to the Pacific war zone to continue the fight for Guadalcanal. Now the third senior pilot of a new scout-bombing carrier squadron, he had one goal: to prove his valor to Commander Crommelin by blasting the next Japanese carrier he faced.
In his own mind, however, Birney had nothing to prove to himself. He had been involved in almost every major Pacific offensive since the start of World War II ten months ago. The handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed pilot had a swagger of confidence that he had earned. In February, he was one of the first pilots to attack Japanese shipping in the Gilbert Islands. In March, he had attacked Japanese shipping in the New Guinea harbors of Lae and Salamaua. In early May, he made three more attacks against Japanese ships in Tulagi Harbor in the Solomons. Strong dive-bombed the Japanese carrier Shoho three days later during the Coral Sea carrier battle and then used his SBD Dauntless dive-bomber like a fighter to battle Japanese Zero fighters attacking his own task force.
Lieutenant Strong was a top-notch pilot who had racked up eight hundred flight hours since graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1937. His awards already included a Navy Cross, an honor second only to a Medal of Honor. He was good at what he did, and was not afraid to let others know of his confidence. He knew that some considered him to be arrogant. But the cocky scout pilot from Washington, DC, needed more than his impressive record to restore the goodwill of his air officer. Strong’s failure to attack the Japanese carrier in August off the Eastern Solomons was a personal mission to correct.
Now, on the morning of October 26, 1942, was his fresh chance. High above the Pacific, Birney Strong was leading one of the eight teams of SBDs on the early scout-strike mission. He was fired up and ready to make his bomb count. “I think you’ll find the yellowbellies are in your sector,” Birney told his squadron skipper before takeoff. “When you find them, call out loud.”
His skipper had indeed located the enemy and Strong moved in quickly with his wingman, Ensign Chuck Irvine. They soon spotted the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuiho emerging from under a layer of clouds far below their dive-bombers. “Uncle John” Crommelin’s speech the previous evening left little doubt in Birney’s mind. His mission was to turn back the Japanese carriers that threatened thousands of U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal and the course of America’s first Pacific offensive. Uncle John had made it clear that the aviators should “knock the sons of bitches off the face of the earth.”
Lieutenant Birney Strong of VS-5.
Birney glanced over to Irvine’s nearby SBD. He planned to dive on the nearest flattop, so he patted the top of his leather flight helmet. I’ve got it, Birney signaled to Ensign Irvine. Follow me.
Birney activated his dive flaps; Irvine instinctively slid his Dauntless away to allow the proper spacing interval. The pair nosed over two and three-quarter miles above their prey to begin the thirty-second plunge to the release point.
The teakwood deck of Zuiho grew closer by the second. The big red circle painted forward on the Japanese aircraft carrier’s flight deck looked like the bull’s-eye on a dartboard. Birney Strong had no intention of drawing the scorn of Commander Crommelin again. He would nail this bastard with his bomb or die trying.
“It’s All Exciting as Hell”
Damn my luck.
Warm salt spray hit Robert John Henry Weinzapfel’s face as he watched another dive-bomber hurtle forward down the teak-covered flight deck. It was not uncommon for off-duty sailors to gather topside in “Vulture’s Row” on the island superstructure to watch aircraft departing from and landing on their massive carrier. The seaborne airfield was only 90 feet wide but stretched 880 feet, nearly three football fields long. One by one, the blue-gray-colored warplanes roared skyward.
The smell of tropical flora was in the air and the Hawaiian Islands were breaking the horizon in the distance. The seas were rough. “The ship was rolling something awful, and a few of the boys furnished us with some thrills in taking off,” Weinzapfel wrote that night.1
He watched as some of his squadron’s junior pilots—Ensigns Tony Quigley, Marvin Haschke, Richard Neely, Jack Leppla, and Roy Hale—launched. Even Harry Wood, the newest pilot who had joined a month after Robert, was now en route to liberty on Oahu.
The date was October 18, 1941, and Ensign Weinzapfel looked on with envy as the planes soared away. After eighteen months in flight training, he was now grounded. He massaged the injured ear that had taken him off active flight duty and cursed his own poor luck.
His fellow pilots had lifted off from the deck of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier Lexington (CV-2). She and her sister Saratoga (CV-3) were the largest warships afloat, each nearly nine hundred feet in length and in service since 1927. Named for American Revolution battles, Lexington and Saratoga had been laid down on the hulls of battle cruisers, and each behemoth would displace fifty thousand tons when fully loaded. Many of their sailors had affectionately nicknamed the sibling flattops “Lady Lex” and “Sister Sara.” Each could operate ninety aircraft and sported only two aircraft elevators, as opposed to three on the newer carriers being built. By 1941, however, both carriers were effectively restricted to a single elevator, as neither used the smaller elevators at all during daylight operations.
As of late 1941, each Navy fleet carrier operated two dive-bomber squadrons. The carriers Ranger (CV-4) and Wasp (CV-7) were on duty in the Atlantic, handling neutrality patrols against Nazi U-boats. The Navy’s newest carrier, Hornet (CV-8), was nearing completion and would soon begin operating its own air group in early 1942. For the moment, most of the new pilots that made it to fleet duty were assigned to Lexington, Saratoga, Yorktown (CV-5), or Enterprise (CV-6).
Ensign Robert John Henry Weinzapfel of Lexington’s VS-2.
Ensign Weinzapfel was one of twenty-one pilot officers assigned to Lexington’s Scouting Squadron Two (VS-2). The dark-haired, boyish-faced twenty-four-year-old from north Texas was a recent graduate of the Navy’s flight-training program. Born in the small town of Scotland, he was the oldest of eight children. As a youth, Robert and his devout Catholic family had moved a short distance from Windthorst, Texas, east to the rural town of Muenster when his father, Joseph, and business partner, John Meurer, started the Muenster State Bank there in 1923.
In school, Robert had excelled in both athletics and academics, and he graduated at the top of his class. Following college at St. Mary’s in San Antonio, he had gone to an Army Air Force recruiter to pursue his interest in aviation. He expressed some doubts, however, about his own ability to shoot down another plane in combat—thus taking someone else’s life—and the Army recruiter turned him down. Robert remained unfazed, conferred next with a Navy recruiter, and was accepted right away.
Ensign Weinzapfel’s elimination flight training began in April 1940 in naval trainers, first in San Antonio and soon migrating to Opa-Locka, Florida, by July. His first solo flight came on August 1, 1940, in an N3N-3 biplane naval trainer—nicknamed the “Yellow Peril” by pilots both for its bright color and for the high number of aviation cadets who washed out of flight training. In September, Robert had the thrill of flying again back in Texas, including his hometown of Muenster, where he gave short flights to his father and to siblings Joe, Henry, Thomas, and Juanita.
During early 1941, Weinzapfel flew the Stearman N2S biplane trainer at Pensacola Naval Air Station (NAS). He progressed in April to the next training level at NAS Miami, and in May was assigned to Scouting Squadron Three under Lieutenant Commander Robert C. Sutliff on board the carrier Saratoga. Weinzapfel’s training progressed on instrument flying, navigation, section tactics, and practice carrier landings. During June and July, he often swapped flying and riding rear seat with fellow trainees Horace Proulx, Bob Elder, Charlie Lane, Wesley Osmus, Leonard Thornhill, Corwin Morgan, and Jack Leppla as they became carrier-qualified.
John Arthur “Jack” Leppla, a Purdue University graduate from Lima, Ohio, became Weinzapfel’s best friend and roommate throughout flight training. Jack was of Mediterranean ancestry, with dark hair, bushy eyebrows, and a dark complexion. Aviation was in the Leppla blood. Jack’s brother Paul was an Army Air Force mechanic and his other brother, George, was flying Pan American Clipper planes in the Pacific Zone. Jack possessed an outgoing personality and competitive nature. During flight training at Pensacola, he fell back on his high school football abilities by playing on the NAS team. He narrowly escaped death in February 1941 when he and fellow trainee Ensign Robert F. Fenley’s naval trainers collided at fifteen hundred feet above Bayou Grande near Pensacola. Both ensigns jumped from their crippled planes in parachutes but Fenley drowned after splashing down.2
Weinzapfel and Leppla were inseparable during the fall of 1941. They had roomed together through flight training in both Pensacola and in Miami. When Saratoga moved to San Diego, they became roommates again there. Both pilots were reassigned from VS-3 and moved ashore to the North Island NAS at San Diego. That summer, Mrs. Leppla and Robert Weinzapfel’s parents paid their sons a visit. The young pilots took great pride in showing their parents around the air station and enjoyed a meal together.
Dauntless pilot Jack Leppla of Lexington’s Scouting Two, wearing his golden wings naval aviator insignia.
Leppla and Weinzapfel were reassigned from Scouting Three into VS-2 at North Island on August 13, 1941. The organization of their new Lexington Air Group was similar to what they had become accustomed to on Sister Sara. There was a fighter squadron, VF-2, and a torpedo squadron, VT-2, along with two dive-bomber squadrons flying the Douglas SBD. All of the Lexington airmen fell under the charge of Lieutenant Commander William Bowen Ault of Enterprise, Oregon. To young men like Weinzapfel and Leppla, Bill Ault was a fatherly figure at age forty-three. A 1922 Naval Academy graduate, Ault had flown in the aviation unit of the cruiser Cincinnati and with Patrol Squadron (VP) 10-S on the old aircraft tender Wright (AV-1). He had also served on the carriers Lexington, Enterprise, and Yorktown, before returning to Lexington in July 1941 to become her senior aviator. As the commander of the Lexington Air Group, Bill Ault was known by the moniker “CLAG” to his pilots.
Commander Ault was tall and lean, with an easygoing personality. He was not one to direct from the tarmac, however. Ault jumped in his cockpit and participated alongside his newer pilots in simulated attacks as his air group became more seasoned at NAS North Island. The squadrons began receiving the new Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bomber during this training period. Each of the Lexington squadrons, Bombing Two and Scouting Two, was designed to operate eighteen SBDs, with a few spare pilots each to fill in for anyone sick or injured.
Weinzapfel practiced flying instrument training flights with fellow rookies Roy Hale and Tony Quigley, the young VS-2 pilots alternating between rear seat and pilot’s cockpits to help each other. Scouting Two was under Lieutenant Commander Robert Ellington Dixon, a 1927 academy graduate from the little Georgia town of Richland, south of Atlanta. Like Bill Ault, thirty-five-year-old Bob Dixon was quiet but confident in his own abilities. Dixon’s squadron was equally split between regular Naval Academy graduates and newly commissioned ensigns fresh from flight school. Six other officers had graduated from Annapolis: Edward Allen, Hoyt Mann, John “Pappy” Hunter, Thomas “Bobby” Edwards, Roy Hale, and Evan Peter “Pete” Aurand.
Some of the academy boys had no more flight time than VS-2’s younger ensigns. Lieutenant (j.g.) Pete Aurand had earned his golden wings only in February 1941, but it would be his second tour of duty on the carrier Lexington. He had served as a junior gunnery officer on the carrier during his mandatory two years of surface duty after graduating from the academy.
Born in New York City, Pete was the son of Major General Henry S. Aurand, head of the Army’s Sixth Service Command. An uncle and a cousin had joined the Navy, and Pete also found a calling for sea duty, although his younger brother followed in their father’s footsteps by graduating from West Point. Pete racked up various behavior demerits while at Annapolis but graduated in 1938 and eventually became part of Bob Dixon’s Scouting Two. “There was a distinction prewar between scouting squadrons and bomber squadrons, even though they had the same airplane,” he said later. “In the scouting squadron, you did air-to-air gunnery, dive-bombing, scouting, and so forth. The dive-bomber guys concentrated on bombing. I decided that the scouting squadron did everything: air-to-air gunnery and the whole bit. I asked for and got Scouting Squadron Two. If I knew then what I know now, I’d probably have asked for a fighter squadron, but it seemed to me that that was the best of all worlds.”3
Robert Weinzapfel, Jack Leppla, Pete Aurand, and the other new VS-2 pilots soon blended in with the older academy men. Dixon drilled his airmen on training and bombing practices until Lexington departed the West Coast on October 14, 1941, for Hawaii. Weinzapfel, an accomplished musician, stored his prized violin with some of Leppla’s buddies until his carrier could return to California. Three days before Lady Lex departed San Diego, Weinzapfel had gone through high-altitude dive-bombing practice with a head cold. “As a result, my left ear became sore and became infected,” he wrote. “After I spent a couple of days on the ground doctoring it, the doctor had to lance my eardrum.” When Lexington steamed into the Hawaiian Islands on October 18, he was a mere sightseer as Leppla and his other buddies launched ahead of the ship for Ford Island.4
Robert’s disappointment in being grounded was overcome when his automobile arrived in Hawaii the next week. He had purchased a Model A Ford in San Diego for the bargain price of forty-five dollars, then arranged to have it shipped by a cargo vessel to a PBY aviator buddy stationed in Honolulu who was entitled to a car. “I bought some paint and had my squadron painter put it on for me with his spray gun,” he related. Weinzapfel became quite popular among his VS-2 buddies, as he was the only one on Oahu with a vehicle.5
Lexington operated near the Hawaiian Islands during November. Weinzapfel was relieved when the flight surgeon returned him to flight status midmonth. During his ship’s stays in port, he purchased an 8mm movie camera and took up sport fishing with a spear gun. During the early days of December 1941, war with Japan was the furthest thing from his mind.
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Praise for Pacific Payback
“This heartfelt tribute to the SBD pilots and radiomen offers much new information and is a valuable contribution to the history of the Pacific War.”—John B. Lundstrom, author of The First Team
“In bringing this story to the public, Stephen Moore has done a service to the courageous fliers of Scouting Squadron Six and Bombing Squadron Six.”—John F. Wukovits, author of For Crew and Country and One Square Mile of Hell
“Deeply researched and well written, Pacific Payback is by far the most detailed account of USS Enterprise’s dive-bombers and their decisive role at the Battle of Midway.”—Jonathan Parshall, coauthor of Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway
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