Armistice Day Over Rabaul (By Walter J Drew)
The following is a story about World War II, written by my grandfather before his Alzheimer’s had advanced.
ARMISTICE DAY OVER RABAUL, 1943
By Walter J. Deptula-Drew ADC, CAC, USN (RET)
November 11, 1943 Aboard the USS Essex CV-9
0300 Reveille for the airmen of Air Group Nine
After a hasty “battle breakfast” of steak and eggs, we reported to the ready room for a briefing on the strike we were to engage in that day. This was going to be a significant attack. The target was multiple warships in the harbor at the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul on the Island of New Britain.
Rabaul, with its 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 my 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 Nine – commanded by LTCDR Philip Torrey flying the F6F Grumman Hellcats, Bombing Squadron Nine – commanded by LTCDR Arthur Decker flying the SBD Douglas Dauntless, and Torpedo Squadron Nine – commanded by LTCDR Donald White flying the TBF Avengers. 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 Bunker Hill CV-17, 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 ARM 2/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 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 ten 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 buoy in exchange for ice cream.
On the Rabaul strike, we were assigned our regular plane, 9-T-11. 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 X111 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 machine gun in the aft tunnel, the radio equipment, and all survival gear. All turret gunners preferred to fly in the plane for which they were responsible for maintenance – especially that of the turret machine gun.
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 to the water. We were now running into intense anti-aircraft fire ahead. CDR Emrick led the air 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 AMM2Cas 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 Emrick 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 beyond our wing tips, the distinctive 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 were 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 it 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 had 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 cruisers’ 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 toward 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’m unable to say which of the three torpedoes made the hit.
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 wing-mounted 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 chance running out of ammunition during another attack. Without the aid of the intercom radio, I yelled as loud as I could, “Andy, change the can.” Anderson immediately jumped up from his position at the 30-caliber machine gun position 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 our training in Norfolk and 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 for this was that these cans help 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 to 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 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 within Andy, because he made the entire maneuver in a matter of seconds, single-handedly.
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 other.
The first plane was directly behind my vertical stabilizer and in a zone where I could not fire at him with my electric trigger. (To avoid shooting into one’s own tail, sensors were attached to the turret which would cut out the electric trigger. The area six inches on either side of the vertical stabilizer was a “dead zone”.) As the Japanese fighter pilot pressed his attack, he began firing his 20-mm cannons. His attack from the rear may have been by design if he knew that I couldn’t fire at him if he flew directly behind my vertical stabilizer. His tracers were just missing us and he was getting closer.
What he didn’t know was 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, of course, was that you could shoot your tail off, since there was no automatic cutoff.
I maintained the fighter in my sight 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 and moved the turret so I could fire into the side of the cockpit. It was at that point that he made a sharp bank and a roll over and headed down toward the sea.
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’d broken off the attack until I suddenly became aware that an F6F Hellcat from VF-9, which had been ahead of us, upon seeing we were in trouble, came back to assist. When the Japanese pilot made the sharp bank 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 cleared of enemy fighter planes, to our surprise an SB2C Hell Diver from VB-17 pulled up on our wing in formation. He had been flying beneath us with a dead tail gunner slumped over in the seat. I assume he flew beneath us to take advantage of the turret defense provided by our plane. We eventually caught up to our squadron and upon approaching the task force, the VB-17 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 again.”
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 we were now assigned to aircraft 9-T-8, which was on the hangar deck. On the hangar deck, we were told by the Plane Captain that the previous pilot of his 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 aircraft on the flight deck was underway. Commander Emrick, the Air Group Commander was launched, along with the fighter squadron and some SBDs and Torpedo planes. During the launch, bogeys approaching the task force were picked up by radar. The launching continued until the enemy planes were in sight and anti-aircraft batteries commenced firing. At that time, flight operations were suspended and we cut our engine and sought our battle station in the Ward Room. 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 regroup 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 attack could be disastrous. Admiral Montgomery was irate at that suggestion, but accepted the situation and cancelled the attack. Many years later, I met retired Captain Emrick and asked why he had not retired as at least a Rear or Vice Admiral. He told me that it was this incident, when he opposed Montgomery’s order to take the second strike to 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 VF-9 pilot who shot down the plane that was attacking our TBF; and the other is the SB2C pilot from the Bunker Hill VB-17 who flew beneath us on the return from Rabaul, carrying the dead rear gunner.