Hamilton McWhorter - F6F Hellcat Ace (2024)

First F6F Hellcat Ace

By Stephen Sherman, Dec. 1999. Updated July 2, 2011.

Lt. Hamilton "Mac" McWhorter III was the first F6FHellcat ace of the US Navy. He attended the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech,before entering the Navy's flight program in August, 1941 and wascommissioned at Pensacola in Feb., 1942. He flew the F2A BrewsterBuffalo in training at Opa Locka, and sympathized with the Marines atMidway who had to go into combat with them.

The pilots of Fighting Nine carrier-qualified with the F4F Wildcatin 1942, on USS Long Island, the small carrier that had carriedthe first Marine fliers to Guadalcanal. The young Georgian first sawcombat with VF-9, flying the Wildcat from USS Ranger instrikes against Casablanca (as in the Bogart movie), where he did a lotof strafing, but met no aerial opponents (nor Rick Blaine).

On its return from North Africa, VF-9 was slated to convert to thenew F4Us in January 1943, but Vought hadn't produced enough to equipall the planned squadrons. So, Fighting Nine took delivery of theGrumman F6F-3 Hellcats that month, the first operational squadron to doso. Even Grumman's Hellcat program could only deliver a few planes aweek to the squadron at NAS Oceania, near Norfolk, Virginia. Thefighter was so new that there no pilot handbooks were available.Compared to the F4F, the roomy F6F was a big improvement: 60 mphfaster, a better rate of climb, and more ammo capacity.

VF-9 was assigned to and qualified in F6F's aboard Essex inFebruary, 1943, and deployed from Norfolk to the Pacific on Essexin May. Most pilots flew more than 50 hours in the new F6Fs. Manyaccumulated another 30 before entering combat, but 80 hours wasunusually low compared to later wartime standards when many pilots had300 hours in the Grummans before flying in combat.

That summer in Pearl Harbor, VF-9 got a new skipper, Lt. Cdr. PhilipH. Torrey, and went aboard USS Essex, the first of the newclass of fleet carriers that would win the naval war in the Pacific.They embarked on a "training raid" against Marcus Island in lateAugust, the first use of the Hellcat in combat. The Marcus raid wasfairly uneventful and no Japanese planes sortied to fight them.

In mid-September, 1943, the Navy put together, for the first time, atask force of six carriers, including Essex and its VF-9. Whenfour of these carriers struck Wake Island on October 5-6, the Hellcatssaw their first significant aerial combat. Half an hour before dawn onthe 5th, each of the four carriers launched three fighter divisions, 47Hellcats in all. When they were still 50 miles out from Wake, theJapanese radar detected them, and 27 Zeros intercepted. In the ensuingdogfight, Fighting Nine's skipper, Phil Torrey, shot down one Zero,then evaded two more by dodging in and out of clouds. Lt. Hadden, whilewatching a shared kill fall into the ocean, was jumped by two Zeros,and was lucky enough to make it back to Essex with most of hisengine oil emptied out through several 20mm holes. Lt. (jg) McWhorterdove into a gaggle of Zeros, when one serendipitously appeared in hisgunsight. He fired a short burst and exploded the Zero - his firstaerial victory.

The raid showed that the new Hellcats could more than hold its ownagainst the Zeros. They destroyed 22 of 34 aircraft at Wake, and 12American planes were lost - 6 to the Zeros and 6 to AA gunfire.

He destroyed two more Zeros in the Nov. 11 raid on Rabaul.(See Tom Blackburn's experiences onthat day.) Task Force 50.3 (Essex, Bunker Hill, and Independence)arrived in the Southwest Pacific on Nov. 5, 1943. They began to hear ofcasualties from the day's raid, so the fliers were a littleapprehensive when they learned of the follow-up planned for the 11th.The incomplete intelligence reports that were available did little toease their trepidation at attacking "Fortress Rabaul."

Just after dawn on Nov. 11, 1943, Essex, about 165 southeastof Rabaul, launched her strike planes, including McWhorter's VF-9 onescort. En route to the target, flying at 10,000 feet, a dozen Zerospicked them up and tried to lure the fighters away from their charges.While Blackburn recalled lots of "junk transmissions" coming from theF6F squadrons, McWhorter noted the "excellent radio discipline of ourgroup." (Funny how, whoever tells the story, it always seem to be"those other guys" who cluttered up the airwaves. - SS) The Essexstrike force reached Rabaul without difficulty. As they dove into theattack, no Zeros appeared, but the AA was pretty heavy.

The Jap warships were leaving the harbor at high speed and McWhorterwent after a cruiser, going into his strafing run off the cruiser'sstarboard beam. It seemed like every weapon on the ship was firing athim and he could actually see the eight inch shells coming at him. Whenhe was 2,500 feet out, he fired a four second burst at the open AA gunbatteries, then zoomed over the ship.

Heading back to the rendezvous point, he saw huge World War Onestyle dogfight going on, involving about a dozen Hellcats and over 30Zeros. He dove into the melee and shot up a Zero that was scoringheavily on another Hellcat. He saw the Zero flame, but couldn't tell ifthe Hellcat escaped. Suddenly he heard a sound "like when someonethrows a handful of large rocks on a galvanized tin roof." He snappedhis plane over into a split-S dive and instantly found another Zero inhis sights, which he quickly exploded with a short burst. This combatonly lasted about 45 seconds, long enough for McWhorter to claim twokills.

Only lightly damaged, McWhorter met up with the F6Fs and escortedthe strike planes back to Essex. Later that afternoon he flewan uneventful CAP over the carriers. In the evening, the torpedo-bomberand dive-bomber pilots, who usually had little use for "hot shot"fighter pilots, came into the ready room, laden with gifts for theirprotectors: cigarettes, gum, candy, etc.

While the number of American victory claims on the Rabaul raids wereoverstated, they unmistakably reduced the Japanese air strength - bothpilots and planes. The raids also showed that the powerful new carriertask forces could operate within the range of land-basedbombers. The next step was Tarawa in the Gilberts, where VF-9 wasassigned to tactical air support for the Marines. He made ace bydowning a Pete floatplane off Tarawa on November 18 and a Betty bomberthe next day. He only used 86 rounds to down the Betty, earning thenickname "One Slug."

The Americans secured Tarawa and Makin, and aerial combat in theGilberts tapered off by the end of November. In December, Essexparticipated in the Marshalls strikes that began on the 4th.

The next big action for VF-9 occurred on Jan. 29, 1944 when the newFast Carrier Task Force (12 carriers!) supported the amphibiousinvasion of Kwajalein in the Marshalls. Assigned to strafe the enemyairfield on Kwajalein's Roi islet, VF-9 launched 18 planes led by Lt.Cdr. Herb Houck. While Fighting Nine's orders instructed them to avoidcombat if possible, many of them were forced to engage. McWhorter shotdown two Hamps in this engagement.

Cdr. Phil Torrey 'fleeted up' to CAG-9, and Herb Houck replaced himas C.O. of VF-9 in time for the first great Truk raid of Feb. 19.McWhorter was escorting an SBD strike when he spotted the bogeys in thedistance. McWhorter led his wingman in for a closer look; the bogeysturned out to be Zeros that unaccountably hadn't fired on the Hellcats.McWhorter and his wingman got behind the enemy airplanes, and with histypical economical bursts, the 22 year-old Georgian downed two of them.Another Zero came up, which he also dispatched promptly. He was thefirst carrier pilot to become a double ace.

When VF-9's combat tour finished in March, 1944, McWhorter helped tore-organize VF-12 (formerly flying Corsairs) as a Hellcatsquadron, on the carrier Randolph. He took part in the firstcarrier raid against Tokyo on Feb. 16, 1945, downing a Zero.

His 12th and last victory came on May 13, when hedowned a Myrt recon plane. He was flying morning CAP over Task Force58, when he was vectored to to intercept a high bogey. The IJN C6N Myrtwas at 25,000 feet and going away. McWhorter got so close that when heflamed it, its oil got all over his Hellcat. As the Myrt exploded, twoparachutes popped out, each holding a modest size box. One young ensignhad to investigate and the box, apparently quite solid, smashed theleading edge of his wing. Later that same day, McWhorter led an escortmission for two Vought OS2U Kingfisher that had to rescue a couplepilots downed in Japan's Inland Sea. With some difficulty, and lots ofS-turns, the high-powered F6Fs kept pace with the slow Kingfishers. Asthey approached the area where the downed pilot had been reported, theplanes that had been circling above had to depart because of low fuel.In the sea below, a bright yellow dye marker guided the Kingfishers tothe downed pilots. As he made the pick-up, one of the OS2U pilots cuthis engine. From high above, McWhorter saw the prop stop, and hethought that this was not a good idea, being only 15 miles from a Japair base. But the rescue plane re-started in a couple minutes and tookoff safely. On the return flight the Kingfishers, now more heavilyloaded with humanity, flew even more slowly. By early afternoon, allhands were back on board Randolph.

By the time they landed, McWhorter had been aloft for over five anda half hours, his longest flight of the war. While five hour flightswere routine, what really hurt was the survival gear that some "sad*st"had decided should be packed right under the pilot's butt, with theemergency water can cutting into them. There was no room in the co*ckpitto avoid this literal 'pain in the butt'.

VF-12 left the combat zone for Hawaii in June, 1945. McWhorterstayed in the Navy, from which he retired in 1969. He was elected tothe Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame in 1989. (I was honored toreceive an e-mail from Cdr. McWhorter in December 2000. He noted somechanges to this article, and was kind enough to send me the photo atthe top. He just completed a book about his WW2 experiences, TheFirst Hellcat Ace, published by Eric Hammel'sPacifica Press in March 2001. - SS)


Hamilton McWhorter - F6F Hellcat Ace (1)

The First Hellcat Ace, by Hamilton McWhorter

Though he would object to being called such, HamiltonMcWhorter III's service to family and country make him a standout amongthe "Greatest Generation." A Georgia native whose family roots date tothe 1700s, Mac McWhorter was a naval aviation cadet undergoing trainingwhen Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941.After earning his Wings of Gold in early 1942, Ensign McWhorter wastrained as a fighter pilot in the F4F Wildcat. Initially assigned toVF-9, he saw first combat in November 1942 against Vichy French forcesin North Africa.

Upon its return to the United States, VF-9 became the firstunit to convert to the new Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter--the fighter theU.S. Navy would use to crush Japanese air power during the longoffensive from the Southwest Pacific to the shores of Japan.

From mid 1943, Hamilton McWhorter was constantly engaged inthe unforgiving and deadly aerial warfare that characterized thebattles against Imperial Japan. His fifth aerial victory, in November1943 off Tarawa Atoll, made him the first ace in the Hellcat, and sevensubsequent victories ensured his place in the annals of air-to-aircombat. "One Slug" McWhorter's combat service makes fascinatingreading.

Buy 'The First Hellcat Ace' from Amazon.com

Hamilton McWhorter - F6F Hellcat Ace (2024)
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