"All available fighter pilots! Man your planes!" boomed
the squawk box in Essex' ready room. The ship's radar had detected
three large groups of Japanese planes coming in.
David McCampbell, the CAG and the Navy's most famous living aviator,
considered this announcement. Earlier that morning, Admiral Sherman
himself had forbidden McCampbell from joining a dawn sortie. Given his
responsibilities as Commander of Essex' Air Group and his public
prominence as a top ace, McCampbell was too valuable. He decided that he
was indeed "available" and headed for his airplane, Minsi III. His
plane crew hurried to fuel Minsi III, which had not been scheduled
to fly that day. With the Hellcat only partially fuelled, the Flight
Officer ordered it off the flight deck - either into the air or below to
the hangar deck. McCampbell went up, leading Essex's last seven
fighters toward the Jap strike force.
He and Ens. Roy Rushing got out in front of the other Hellcats, putting
on all speed to intercept the Japs, then only 22 miles away. He directed
the other F6F's to get the bombers, while he and Rushing tackled the
fighters. Surprisingly, the enemy fighters turned, allowing McCampbell and
Rushing to gain altitude and a position behind them.
Seeing over 40 Japanese fighters, McCampbell radioed back to the
carrier for help. "Sorry, none available." The enemy planes spread out in
a typical formation of three V's. McCampbell picked out a Zero on the
extreme right and flamed it. Rushing also got one on this first pass.
Incredibly, there was no reaction from the Japs as they climbed back up to
regain altitude. The two Hellcat pilots dived back down on their quarry
for another pass; McCampbell blew up a second Zero. Now the gaggle of
Zeros, Tonys, Hamps, and Oscars reacted - by going into a Lufbery!
McCampbell made a couple of head-on passes against the formation, but
A strange interlude ensued as McCampbell and Rushing climbed back up
and circled, while the Japanese fighters continued to circle below.
McCampbell radioed again for help; one of the Hellcats that had been going
after the bombers headed his way. The Lufbery broke up and the planes
headed toward Luzon in a wide Vee. The two American fliers closed in again
on the formation. McCampbell opened up at 900 feet, and exploded his third
plane of the morning. Rushing shot down his second one.
Apparently low on fuel, the Japanese planes doggedly flew on,
maintaining formation. On his next firing pass, gunfire coming from behind
forced McCampbell to break off his attack and pull up. It was another
Hellcat shooting too close to him. A few choice words straightened things
out. Still the enemy planes didn't turn and mix it up.
McCampbell realized he could relax and take his time. This was
practically gunnery exercise. He could focus on identifying his targets
carefully. The next one was an Oscar. Again his six fifties roared and
blasted the Oscar's wing root. It flamed for number four. Rushing had
scored his third by this time. This continued for several more passes
until McCampbell had downed 7 and Rushing 6. Rushing radioed that he was
out of ammo, but he would stay on McCampbell's wing while the CAG used up
his remaining bullets.
Two more passes and two more kills. As the Jap planes approached the
security of their bases on Luzon, the two Americans' low fuel finally
ended the slaughter. The Hellcats broke off and headed for Essex. In one morning sortie, McCampbell had shot down nine enemy planes and
Rushing six, an unparalleled achievement in American fighter aviation.
Born on January 16, 1910, this Bessemer Alabama native's naval career
began with dismissal. Graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in
depression- era 1933, he was rewarded with an honourable discharge from a
Navy without funds. But in June 1934 McCampbell was called back and
commissioned. In 1936 his first assignment involving aircraft was gunnery
observer aboard U.S.S. Portland. In 1937, McCampbell's flying
career finally got off the ground at Pensacola Naval Air Station where he
reported for flight training. A year later, he was designated a Naval
Aviator and received his first flying assignment with Fighting Squadron 4
aboard the USS Ranger, CV-4 where he served two years.
Wasp was home from 1940 until she went to the bottom in 1942.
During that time were two hot runs to the Mediterranean delivering
Spitfires to Malta and support to the Guadalcanal campaign.
Wasp was sunk on Sept. 15, 1942 by a Japanese submarine,
McCampbell returned to the States to fit out a new squadron, Air Group 15,
aka "The Fabled Fifteen." In February 1943 through early 1944 the group
was aboard Essex steaming into history. One of the first squadrons
to equip with Grumman's new F6F Hellcats, they saw action in attacks on
Iwo Jima, Formosa,
the Marianas, Palau, Philippines, Nansei, Shotos and climaxed with the
Battle of the Philippine Sea (Marianas Turkey Shoot).
In February 1944, he was promoted to CAG (Commander - Air Group) of Air
Group Fifteen. That spring, they went to war aboard USS Essex CV-9.
McCampbell commanded the entire Essex air group -- bombers,
fighters, and torpedo planes. He was thirty-four years old. During their
tour of approximately seven months and more than 20,000 hours of
operations, this group destroyed more enemy planes (318 airborne and 348
on the ground) and sank more enemy ships (296,500 tons sunk, and more than
a half million tons damaged and/or probably sunk) than any other air group
in the Pacific war. Among the major combat ships sunk was the
Japanese battleship Musashi, three carriers and a heavy
cruiser. The Fabled Fifteen became one of the most highly decorated air
groups of the war.
McCampbell entered combat on May 19, 1944, leading a fighter sweep over
Marcus Island. Three weeks later on June 11, flying near Saipan, he saw a
lone Zero come out of the clouds. He turned towards the plane and fired
three bursts. The Zero went down streaming smoke, the first in long series
of successes for the CAG. He reacted coolly to his first aerial victory,
"I knew I could shoot him down and I did. That's all there was to it."
Marianas Turkey Shoot
As the Americans prepared for the invasion of Guam and Saipan, the
Carrier Task Force steamed west into the Philippine Sea. The desperate
Japanese battle plan called for them to launch their strike planes at the
U.S. ships, then refuel & re-arm on the Guam and Saipan airfields and hit
the American carriers again in a 'shuttle' operation. It didn't turn out
On June 19, the Japanese launched two large raids of Judys and Vals,
escorted by fighters. Other carrier air groups took care of the first
raid; Essex' Fabled Fifteen, under McCampbell went after the second
group of eighty planes. McCampbell started the slaughter at 11:39 by
exploding the first Aichi D4Y2 "Judy" dive bomber he spotted. As he darted
across to the other side of the enemy formation, evading a gantlet of
return fire, McCampbell quickly splashed a second Judy, sped toward the
front of the enemy formation to record a "probable" on a third, dispatched
the formation leader's left wingman with a staccato burst, downed the
leader with a steady stream of machine-gun bullets, then scored a final
kill on a diving enemy craft. In minutes McCampbell had logged five kills
and one probable.
There was a second air battle in the afternoon. After shooting down yet
another Zero (his sixth for the day!), he became separated from his flight
of eight and was returning alone to his carrier, the USS Essex. As
his Hellcat cruised at 6,000 feet past Guam's Orote Peninsula, he spotted
two Zeros attacking a Navy S0C seaplane picking up a downed pilot in the
water. Diving to the attack, McCampbell shot down one of the two Zeros.
Lt. Commander George Duncan, another VF-15 pilot, came upon the scene at
that time and got the other. It was McCampbell's seventh for the day
and his ninth in eight days of combat.
During the September 12-13 strikes on the Philippines, He shot down
five more planes, and learned about the capabilities of the 'Nate' - a
small, open-cockpit monoplane, slow and lightly armed, but highly
manoeuvrable, advanced trainer. McCampbell had bagged two Zeros early in
the day, and was heading alone toward a rendezvous when a Nate attacked
him from above. It pulled out of gun range without damaging McCampbell's
Hellcat, but McCampbell wanted the kill. He dropped his belly tank and put
on full WEP, but kept losing ground. The Nate's student-pilot saw his
advantage and began an overhead pass; but McCampbell dove for the deck. In
his after-action report he noted "1) Nate is even more manoeuvrable than
Zeke. 2) Nate can out-climb F6F at 110-120 knots airspeed. 3) This
'operational student', if he was such, will have no trouble completing the
course." By the end of September 1944, McCampbell had shot down nineteen
On October 24, during the Battle of Leyte
Gulf, McCampbell, assisted only by Roy Rushing, broke up a large group
of Japanese planes headed for Essex, as described above.
In one combat tour, David McCampbell shot down 34 Japanese aircraft. If
he had served a second tour, he may very well have exceeded Dick Bong's
total of 40. In recognition of his spectacular accomplishments: leading
"Fabled Fifteen," personally accounting for 34 planes, and for his mission
on October 24, McCampbell received the Congressional Medal of Honour,
presented to him by President Roosevelt.
McCampbell also received the Navy Cross, the Silver Star Medal, Legion
of Merit, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, McCampbell
served in the Navy until his retirement in 1964. Married four times, David
McCampbell must have had quite an eye for the ladies. He died in Florida
after a lengthy illness on June 30, 1996.