The Eleventh Fighter Squadron of the US Navy, known among those
in the know as VF-11 “Sundowners”, had already completed one operational tour. Its location – Guadalcanal – was a recommendation in itself.
Fifty five aerial victories between April and July of 1943 were evidence of the high potential of the personnel, promoted from novice to veteran in a very short time. After its return to the US in August, the unit continued to use its equipment until mid-October, when the last F4F’s were replaced by F6F’s. The Squadron and its 54 pilots, commanded by Commander Gene Fairfax, would not fight on Hellcats for another year.
For VF-11 the second tour really began just in early October, 1944. The unit’s whole personnel were then on board of the aircraft carrier USS “Hornet”. The pilots took over the equipment of the retiring VF-2. The markings of the battered F6F-3s, F6F-5s and F6F-5Ps weren’t changed. The “Sundowners” settled for adding their emblem to the fuselages and began preparing for another combat debut. A part of TF38, the “Hornet” left Manus (Northern Papua) and headed straight for its destination – Nansei Shoto Archipelago. The Japanese airbases scattered on its islands were used by the enemy as refueling stops between Honsiu and Okinawa islands. An inaugural operation carried out on October 10th completely surprised the enemy. Not one Japanese fighter took off to intercept 46 VF-11’s Hellcats; armed with bombs and missiles. The enemy airfields turned out to be empty, which allowed the Americans to attack secondary targets – ports and anchorages.
Five hundred – and thousand-pound bombs, as well as HVAR missiles, were used as intended to put two enemy ships out of commission. This was mainly due to the determination of Lt Jim Savage’s flight. Despite flying a reconnaissance F6F-5P, he led his men as close to the targets as possible; maneuvering among the dense fire of Japanese AA guns. It wasn’t entirely unsuccessful and managed to claim one of the Hellcats. Ensign Kenneth Chase and his plane were lost. Meanwhile another Ensign, George Lindesmith, won a victory during his patrol to the north of the battle site. The D3A2 Val dive bomber he sent in flames into the sea was the first plane shot down by VF-11 during their second tour.
An unusual mission took off from the “Hornet” on the next day (October 11th). The Hellcats, commanded by LtCdr Fairfax, were now escorting SB2C Helldiver bombers. Each one of them was accompanied by ten F6F’s. This time they encountered no enemy in the air. The moorings of the Japanese fleet, which were full of ships 24 hours earlier, were now almost abandoned. The empty airfields were assaulted with unspecified results. Afterwards the planes returned to their mother ship. That disappointment would be in some respects made up for next day, over Formosa (now Taiwan).
On October 12th, 1944 the “Hornet” and accompanying vessels of TF38 approached Formosa from the east. The first wave of VF-11’s attack sortied while it was still dark. The fighters loaded with bombs and missiles. Since the roadstead of the Hieto port, which had been chosen as the primary target, was empty, the “Sundowners” focused their efforts on nearby airfields. Unfortunately they were surrounded by a ring of efficient AA defenses. The wall of flak soon brought down its first victim – the victor from two days earlier, Ens. Lindesmith. The explosion of a three-inch caliber projectile under Hellcat’s wing disrupted plane’s flight path. The plane was momentarily overturned into a vertical position. The wingtip of the plane caught up with the ground. Tumbling and exploding. Burying the pilot in the wreckage.
Meanwhile a taking off Japanese fighter formation passed right next to the ball of fire. For a moment, the dying flames lit up the orange Hinomarus on the Oscars’ fuselages. This allowed the “Sundowners” to notice the danger. Some still had enough diving speed to easily place themselves behind a Ki-43’s green tail. Spitting fire from all of its machine guns, an F6F shot down one of the enemy planes just as it took off. The undercarriage dropped under the bullet-torn plane. The wreck’s velocity sent it, with the dead pilot inside, over the runway and into a swampy rice paddy. Another green-and-silver Oscar and a similarly-colored Ki-61 Tony managed to climb into the air. Not for long. During the first moments of its laborious climb, the Ki-43 was attacked by Fairfax’s XO, LtCdr Clements. Quickly throttling back, the pilot located his Hellcat just behind the Japanese. From such a perfect position he began firing one short burst after another. Not many were needed to start ripping the Oscar’s thin skin like a lace. After shedding a considerable amount of parts, the Ki-43 left behind one of its horizontal stabilizers. Still, the Japanese pilot followed persistently by the Hellcat, attempted a forced landing. It was unsuccessful and ended in a fatal crash.