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Bred to be an ace.

Hamilton McWhorter grew up with hair-raising stories about World War One dogfighters. Then came World War Two ...

LIEUTENANT HAMILTON "MAC" McWhorter spent the early part of his WWII navy flying career in fighters that were being handed their lunch by Japan's vaunted Mitsubishi A6M "Zero." He was the right pilot with the right stuff, but he lacked the right plane. Then came the Grumman Hellcat. "It was a long time before I saw one of them," McWhorter said. "When I did, I knew that aircraft and I were made for each other."

McWhorter seemed destined to be an ace from the start. Born on February 8, 1921, he had an ordinary upbringing in Athens, Georgia, but his middle-class father loved aviation. McWhorter was all of nine years old when his father arranged for his first flight, in a Ford TriMotor. Not long afterward, the young McWhorter found himself spellbound by a pair of navy fighters at an open house, "I'd read many of the stories of the aces of the Great War," he said. "I knew about the Red Baron. I knew about Eddie Rickenbacker. Probably even before I even saw a fighter plane, I wanted to fly one."

McWhorter attended college in Georgia, but he left his studies behind after he qualified for naval aviator training. He was in flight training when the Pearl Harbor attack came. When he finished, his first fighter was the Brewster F2A Buffalo, resembling a fire hydrant with wings, the product of a badly managed plane-making company in sharp decline.

The few Buffalos in the June 1942 Battle of Midway were outclassed by the Zero, but their US Marine Corps pilots fought valiantly. McWhorter found himself hoping he would never go into harm's way "in a fighter that was completely inadequate." After Midway, no American did.

While still stateside, McWhorter made the transition to the Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat as a member of Fighting Nine--squadron VF-9. The portly Wildcat bore the brunt of early fighting in the Battles of Wake Island (December 1941), the Coral Sea (May 1942), and Midway, but McWhorter still hadn't found his plane.

The Wildcat was an improvement over the hapless Buffalo. But, as McWhorter soon discovered, it had shortcomings, on land and in the air. On land, the narrowness of its landing gear made it difficult to handle when taxiing. In the air, it wasn't maneuverable enough in simulated air-to-air combat. "You caught a violent draft if you flew it with the cockpit open," McWhorter said. "And you had no provision for jettisoning that canopy in an emergency." Then there was the poor visibility. "The pilot's seat was too low," McWhorter complained. "It was not uncommon for a guy to sit on an extra parachute or even a telephone book in order to get his head to the proper height in the airplane." A particularly maddening problem was the tendency of the Wildcat's .50-caliber Browning M2 guns to jam for no apparent reason.

McWhorter fully expected to go to the Pacific when VF-9 embarked on the carrier USS Ranger (CV 4) in late 1942. To his surprise, he learned that he would see his first combat in Operation Torch, the Western Allies' invasion of North Africa in November 1942.

Instead of coming nose to nose with the Zero, McWhorter encountered Vichy French fighters--at a distance, and he never had a chance to test his Wildcat against them. He strafed military installations around Casablanca, while thinking of the recently released Humphrey Bogart movie. Other Wildcat pilots in Fighting Nine claimed a handful of aerial victories against Vichy French airmen at the controls of obsolete Curtiss Hawk 75s (known as P-36s when in US service).

AFTER VF-9 RETURNED from North Africa, it was based at Naval Air Station Oceana near Norfolk, Virginia. There, it was scheduled for a January 1943 upgrade to the new gull-wing F4U Corsair. But the Corsair was encountering technical glitches with its shipboard operations. So Fighting Nine took delivery of Grumman F6F-3 Hellcats. It was the first squadron to do so.

Grumman was manufacturing Hellcats at a furious rate--it built 12,275 between June 1942 and November 1945, the largest number of fighters ever produced at a single factory--but the navy was slow in making deliveries. Blue Hellcats were lined up at the Bethpage assembly plant on Long Island all the way to the horizon and beyond, but only half a dozen planes per week were being delivered.

"When I got mine it had what we would today call 'that new car smell,'" McWhorter said. "We received these new fighters so early they didn't yet have a pilot's operating manual to give us. We used mimeographed sheets."

McWhorter almost couldn't believe how formidable his new plane was. Compared to the Wildcat, the Hellcat offered a spacious and comfortable cockpit, 60 miles per hour greater airspeed, a faster rate of climb, and more ammunition capacity.

The Hellcat was built around the 2,000-horsepower Pratt and Whitney R-2800-10W Double Wasp 18-cylinder radial piston engine, driving a three-bladed, constant-speed propeller. It was a heavyweight at 15,413 pounds, more than twice the heft of the Zero's 6,945 pounds. It had six .50-caliber M2s with 400 rounds per gun.

"It was sturdy enough to survive against Japanese fighters armed with larger-bore cannons," said McWhorter, "and it had a better rate of climb and higher speed. It took off like it was homesick for that little cloud up there. Think about the simple act of getting into the air. The Wildcat had to be begged and coaxed during takeoffs. The Hellcat was solid, steady, and easy to keep straight going down the runway." McWhorter had found his plane.

One of the few pilots going into the new fighter with actual combat experience under his belt, McWhorter found the Hellcat to be uncommonly stable and "a beautiful gun platform." His practice gunnery scores went up immediately. He found the Hellcat more maneuverable than the Wildcat, too. "It probably had the biggest wing area of any American fighter," he said. "It would darn near land itself on the carrier without any help from the pilot."

In February 1943, McWhorter and his fellow VF-9 members went aboard the USS Essex (CV 9), the first of a new class of fast carriers that would dominate the rest of the Pacific war. The ship cast off at Norfolk in May and went through the Panama Canal. Her first combat in the Pacific was a strike on Japanese-held Wake Island on October 5, 1943.

What happened at Wake made it clear to McWhorter that the days of American fighter pilots being humiliated by Japanese Zeros had ended. "My squadron commander, Commander Phil Torrey, maneuvered behind a Zero and shot him down," McWhorter said. "The skipper said no one would ever again talk about the Zero being superior."

McWhorter had a similar experience. "I dived into a formation of Zeros, lined up one in my gunsight, and fired a short burst," he said. "Although they would later label me One Slug McWhorter because they said I was very frugal with the taxpayers' .50-caliber bullets, the real reason I didn't fire a second burst was that the Zero exploded in front of me. I'd scored my first air-to-air kill. I was told that at Wake we shot down 22 Japanese aircraft while losing six in air-to-air battle."

McWhorter and his fellow VF-9 Hellcat pilots would have plenty more opportunities to prove their mettle. The next stop in their Pacific journey came at Rabaul, at the island of New Britain, in what was then Australia's territory of New Guinea. The massive Japanese fortress at Rabaul was kept under siege by the Western Allies through the entire war.

On November 11, 1943, McWhorter and his shipmates flew their new Hellcats to escort new Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive-bombers in an Essex-launched strike on Rabaul's harbor. McWhorter knew that warships from Rabaul could threaten US troops on nearby Bougainville. "We were apprehensive," he said. "We were launched from 150 miles southeast of Rabaul, escorting our task force's Helldiver dive bombers and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers. We started toward Rabaul flying the standard cover, with the bombers in a box formation and us about 1,000 feet above them. The clouds topped at 10,000 feet, so we stayed above them. It would have been a beautiful experience in that high blue sky if the situation hadn't been so serious. We were approaching from 50 miles out when a dozen or so Zeros showed up. We got through that first batch of Zeros. My two kills that day came later, after I encountered what seemed to me the Imperial Japanese Navy."

Arriving over Rabaul, McWhorter looked down at long white streaks: the wakes of Japanese warships making speed out of Rabaul harbor in a column. Torrey gave the order to attack, and the Hellcats rolled in to dive at the ships, intending to strafe them ahead of the Avengers.

McWhorter leveled off at wave-cap altitude, following his own shadow. He was flying straight into a flotilla of Japanese cruisers and destroyers. He looked into his gunsight and maneuvered so that he was approaching the largest warship in front of him, which may have been the light cruiser Kiso. Every one of the ships was firing at the swarm of American carrier planes over Rabaul, but most didn't seem to see McWhorter's Hellcat skimming the waves.

"I can testify that you can actually see an eight-inch shell coming in your direction when a warship opens up with its heavy artillery," McWhorter said. "If it looks like it's going to hit you, you might actually have time to dodge it. I could also see my .50-caliber rounds hitting the Jap ship." (Every fifth round in the Hellcat's ammunition belts was a tracer that glowed like a firefly hurtling through the air.)

After watching sailors on deck scrambling for cover as he poured bursts into the cruiser, McWhorter pulled up and was instantly drawn into a "fur ball" (aviator slang for a huge, close-quarters dogfight). That's when he made a mistake, the biggest mistake a fighter pilot could make. He allowed the foe to get on his tail. Then he heard a metallic clanging: cannon shells ripping into the thin metal skin of his plane. He looked around and saw a pair of Zeros locked in on his six o'clock position, right on his tail. Most of the cannon shells were flying past him--fiery red balls, most missing him by only feet. "I spent a little time kicking myself for getting sandbagged and a long split-second deciding how to get out of there."

MCWHORTER HAD NEVER HAD an enemy fighter on his tail before, but he knew it wasn't supposed to work this way, "not if you wanted to come out alive," he said. He applied stick and rudder to throw his Hellcat into a violent turn, slipped away from the Japanese fighters, and turned to engage one of them. In a corner of his vision he saw a Hellcat tumbling, wing over wing, shedding fragments of steel. McWhorter was certain he was watching a fellow VF-9 pilot go down. It turned out to be Ensign Bob Capp, who failed to return to Essex that day.

More than 100 Zeros had engaged 50 Hellcats high over Rabaul's vast natural harbor. Now one crossed McWhorter's flight path at a distance of about 1,000 feet, crossing from the bottom of his windshield to the top. McWhorter was perfectly set up for an overhead, 90-degree deflection shot--not an easy shot to make. "I fired a short burst and got hits all along his fuselage," he said. "Suddenly, we were converging far too rapidly. He had inexplicably turned in my direction. On the verge of a mid-air collision, I had to pull up slightly to go over top of the Zero. As I did, I looked right down into his cockpit."

It was shocking to be almost face to face with a Japanese pilot. McWhorter was reminded that the Zero, unlike the Hellcat, had no armor plate protecting its cockpit. "I saw flames coming out from under the instrument panel inside the Zero's cockpit." The Japanese pilot was wearing no oxygen mask, and his face was frozen. The image would remain in McWhorter's memory long after the Zero exploded.

McWhorter started after another Zero, and a loud noise shook his plane. He looked around and, again, a pair of Zeros was right behind him. But there was also a Zero, again, crossing in front of him. McWhorter fired. The Zero blew up. He'd gotten his second and third aerial victories. McWhorter made his way out of the fight and recovered aboard Essex. There were bullet holes in each wing of his Hellcat and on both sides of the fuselage. They weren't from cannons. They were from machine guns, which the Zero also carried. Ironically, McWhorter was certain that the Zero that shot him up had F blocked the path of another Zero, preventing it from shooting him down. On that Rabaul strike, McWhorter's squadron was credited with downing 14 Zeros with a loss of one Hellcat pilot.

Having demonstrated that they could survive on the enemy's home turf, Essex and her air group went next to Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. The job there was to provide air cover for one of the war's hardest-fought amphibious invasions. On November 18, 1943, two days before marines went ashore on the atoll's Betio Pier, McWhorter shot down a Mitsubishi F1M "Pete" floatplane near Tarawa. The next day, McWhorter bagged a Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" twin-engine bomber, and again he had been frugal with his ammunition, using just 86 rounds. This fifth victory made McWhorter an ace--the navy's first ace to rack up all his kills in the Hellcat.

After a brief respite, Fighting Nine was back in battle on January 29, 1944, when fast carriers supported the invasion of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. McWhorter was part of a Hellcat formation that strafed the Japanese airfield at Roi inlet, led by Lieutenant Commander Herb Houck. McWhorter shot down two Zeros that day, got another kill a few days later, and shot down two more Zeros on February 19, 1944. He was now the first Hellcat pilot to be rated a double ace, with 10 aerial victories.

McWhorter went home from the war after VF-9 completed its combat service in March 1944, but he was back in action a year later with Fighting Twelve, or VF-12, aboard the USS Randolph (CV 15). Now he was piloting the model F6F-5 Hellcat, with a more powerful version of the R-2800 engine and other improvements over his earlier F6F-3. When VF-12 joined the Pacific war, the fast carrier force was taking the war to the Japanese home islands. On February 16, 1945, McWhorter claimed his 11th aerial victory, another Zero.

MUCH OF THE REMAINDER of McWhorter's war consisted of strafing airfields on the Japanese home islands. On May 13, 1945, a Nakajima C6N Saiun, or "Myrt," reconnaissance aircraft passed over the carrier force at 25,000 feet. McWhorter was in one of the Hellcats prowling on combat air patrol overhead. He shot down the Myrt, but pieces of the falling Japanese plane struck another Hellcat and knocked it out of the sky. McWhorter and his shipmates spent the rest of the day managing the rescue of the downed American. It was the last of McWhorter's 89 combat missions.

One of America's best known aces, McWhorter co-authored The First Hellcat Ace (2000) with Jay A. Stout and shared his experiences in Air Combat (2006) by Robert F. Dorr. Both books are now out of print. He appeared on the History Channel and often attended reunions and events promoting naval aviation. McWhorter died at El Cajon, California on April 12, 2008, survived by his wife, the former Louise Edel, whom he'd married in 1943.

ROBERT F. DORR, a US Air Force veteran who lives in Virginia, is a frequent contributor to America in WWII. He has written dozens of books on military aviation.
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Author:Dorr, Robert F.
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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