VC-66 (COMPOSITE SQUADRON SIXTY-SIX): JUNE 1943 - NOVEMBER 1944

VC-66 Narrative History - Part 2
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                 Part 2:  Moluccas IslandsWestern New Guinea

 

On 5 August 1944, the squadron was detached from NAS Kahului and flew its planes -7 TBM-1Cs and 14 FM-2s - to its next assignment - the USS FANSHAW BAY (CVE-70).  At the time, FANSHAW BAY was underway in a training area south of Oahu.  VC-66 now had a new CO.  It was their former XO - LT Gerald O. “Gerry” Trapp.   

 

The 5th through the 8th of August was spent training at sea with FANSHAW BAY, USS MARCUS ISLAND (CVE-77), and their destroyer escorts.  In addition to  flying anti-submarine patrol (ASP) and combat air patrol (CAP) sorties, the squadron flew simulated attacks against the ships.  On 6 August, one of the TBMs missed the arresting wire and crashed into the barrier while landing.  There were no injuries to personnel and only minor damage to the aircraft.  On the 7th, an FM crashed the barrier.  Again, no injuries to the pilot or shipboard personnel, but the “Wildcat” suffered “moderate” damage. 

 

At 0603 on the 8th, flight operations began for anti-submarine patrol and to help search for a pilot from another squadron who was lost during night carrier landing qualifications on the MARCUS ISLAND.  Flight ops were secured at 0921.  The lost pilot was not found.  In the afternoon, FANSHAW BAY returned to Pearl Harbor and moored at the Pearl City Peninsula where she remained for the next three days while taking on stores, gasoline, fuel oil, and ammunition – including large numbers of 100, 250, and 500 pound bombs.  VC-66 was about to take a long trip to the western Pacific.   

                                                  

On 12 August 1944, FANSHAW BAY got underway with the MARCUS ISLAND and their escorts as part of Task Group 32.4.   The initial destination was Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands approximately 3300 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor.  The ultimate objective was the Moluccas Islands, Dutch East Indies.  The Moluccas are approximately half way between the Philippine Islands and New Guinea - and approximately another 2400 miles beyond the Solomons.  Thus, the Task Group would be steaming almost 6000 miles to get to its objective.

 

The trip to the Solomons lasted from the 12th until the 24th of August.

While en route the squadron flew anti-submarine patrol sorties and made several simulated attacks on Task Group ships.  On the 22nd, 9 FMs were involved in a fighter scramble exercise.  While landing, one of the FMs missed the arresting wire and crashed into the barrier causing slight damage to the plane, but no injuries to personnel.  Also on the 22nd, the Task Group crossed the Equator requiring the traditional convening of King Neptune’s Royal Court and the initiation and transformation of all “pollywogs” into “shellbacks.” 

 

During the afternoon of 23 August, the winds were exceptionally light – only 2.5 miles per hour or less  – which may have contributed to two of the squadron’s planes missing the wire and crashing into the barrier as they tried to land - an FM and a TBM.  The FM suffered moderate damage while the TBM was only slightly damaged.  Neither crash landing resulted in any personnel injuries.

 

On 24 August after nearly two weeks of steaming, the Task Group reached the Solomons and anchored in Gavutu Harbor near Tulagi Island (among other things, Tulagi had been home to LTJG John F. Kennedy’s PT-109).  FANSHAW BAY spent much of the 25th refueling - taking on 360,000 gallons of fuel oil and 22,000 gallons of aviation gasoline - before leaving Tulagi in the evening to begin the transit to the next stop – the Admiralty Islands.  Three destroyer escorts – USS BUTLER (DE-339), USS RAYMOND (DE-341), and USS ROWELL (DE-403) - went with her.  There were no flight ops on the 26th and 27th because of light air.

 

On 28 August, VC-66 flew its aircraft - 11 TBMs and 14 FMs - from the FANSHAW BAY to Ponam Field, Manus Island, Admiralty Islands.  Ponam Field was a single airstrip that had been built by the Navy’s 78th Construction Battalion (Seabees) working day and night for 10 weeks earlier in 1944.  The squadron’s introduction to the Admiralties was a tough one.  While taking off in an FM for the flight to Ponam, ENS William J. “Bill” Johnson, one of the squadron’s newer pilots, was killed when his plane failed to develop enough power to gain altitude and crashed into the sea off FANSHAW BAY’s starboard bow.    

 

            On the 29th, the squadron launched 11 TBMs and 11 FMs from Ponam Field to make simulated attacks on the FANSHAW BAY while she was underway in a training area north of Manus Island.  The carriers and their escorts were now training in preparation for the invasion of Morotai Island - part of the Moluccas Islands. 

 

            Morotai was to be the final island invasion in the Dutch New Guinea area before the liberation of the Philippines - and the fulfillment of General MacArthur’s promise to the Philippine people that he and the Americans would return to drive the Japanese out.  Taking Morotai was considered necessary for the establishment of an American airbase that could support the Philippines invasion. 

 

            After the exercises of the 29th, the planes returned to Ponam Field where the squadron remained while the FANSHAW BAY at anchor in Seeadler Harbor, Manus Island, made minor repairs and took on stores, fuel oil, and aviation fuel.  On the morning of 4 September, the squadron flew 10 TBM-1Cs and 12 FM-2s back to the FANSHAW BAY.  As one of the FMs was landing, it missed the arresting wire and crashed into the barrier causing moderate damage to the plane, but no personnel injuries.  From 5 through 9 September, FANSHAW BAY remained at anchor in Seeadler Harbor, making final preparations for the Morotai invasion.

 

On 10 September, VC-66 got underway aboard FANSHAW BAY with Task Group 77.1 - 6 CVEs and 8 destroyer escorts - en route to the objective area east of Morotai Island.  The squadron’s mission was to provide air support for the invasion of Morotai and otherwise as needed.  From the 10th to the 13th, the squadron flew anti-submarine patrol and combat air patrol sorties.  The ships practiced anti-aircraft defense.  There were no flight operations on 14 September as the Task Group steamed toward its objective. 

 

15 September 1944 was D-Day for the invasion of Morotai.  FANSHAW BAY was on station 10 to 30 miles east of Morotai in company with the escort carriers USS SANGAMON (CVE-26), USS CHENANGO (CVE-28), USS SUWANEE (CVE-27), USS SANTEE (CVE-29), USS MIDWAY (CVE-63), and their 8 destroyer escorts.  This was a potent force with which to hit Morotai.  Flight operations began at 0516 and lasted all day - until 1900.  The TBMs flew air support over Morotai while the FMs flew combat air patrol sorties.  VC-66 “Avengers” dropped 4 tons of bombs on Gotalamo village on the south coast of Morotai.  In the meantime, U.S. troops landed on beaches adjacent to Japan’s Pitoe Airfield in the southern part of Morotai.  They quickly drove the Japanese defenders into the hills.  While returning to FANSHAW BAY, an FM missed the arresting cable and hit the barrier.  The plane suffered moderate damage, but neither the pilot nor any ship’s personnel were injured.  Two other FMs had to make emergency landings because of fuel line problems, but all in all, the invasion had gotten off to a good start.  By the end of the day, American troops had moved four and a half miles inland from the west beach and almost three miles inland from the southern coast.

 

The next day - 16 September was a long, hard day.  Flight operations began at 0515.  The TBMs again flew air support sorties over the Morotai landing area.  The FMs flew CAP sorties.  At 0653, while flying combat air patrol, LTJG Reynold “Rod” Rodriquez in an FM, made an overhead pass at a Japanese “Zero” fighter from approximately 1000 feet above the water.  Rodriquez was unable to pull out in time and was killed when his plane hit the water and exploded.  At 0655, FM pilot and Rodriquez’s VC-66 shipmate LTJG George W. “Brownie” Brown caught up with the Zero and shot it down 10 miles south of Cape Gila, Morotai.  The Zero burst into flames when it hit the water. 

 

At 0900, TBMs flying air support over the southern Morotai beaches were fired on by U.S. LSDs and destroyers.  Fortunately, the TBM crews suffered no casualties or damage to their planes from the friendly fire incident. 

 

At 1447 on the 16th, VC-66 launched a special strike group of 7 TBMs and 8 FMs to provide air cover for a pilot from another squadron and another carrier who was in serious trouble.  ENS Harold Thompson of FIGHTER SQUADRON TWENTY-SIX (VF-26) flying from the SUWANEE had been shot down within a few hundred feet of Japanese held Wasile Bay, Halmahera Island - 12 miles south of Morotai.  Thompson was in a tough spot.  Halmahera was crawling with Japanese – 30,000 of them (by comparison, the soon to become famous island of Iwo Jima had a Japanese garrison of about 21,000).  The TBMs and FMs went to work bombing and strafing enemy gun positions.  They also destroyed a Japanese “Sally” bomber and 2 Zeroes in a dispersal area south of Lolobata, Halmahera.  The squadron’s planes dropped 3.75 tons of bombs.  They also laid down a covering smoke screen.  Anti-aircraft fire was heavy.  Thompson wounded in the hand and being shot at by the Japanese stayed in his life raft near a pier and beached Japanese boat that had been strafed by the covering planes as it tried to attack him.  Thompson was saved when two PT boats approaching within 50 feet of shore, dashed in and rescued him under heavy fire from the beach.  The skipper of one of the PT boats was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Several members of the PT boat crews were awarded Navy Crosses for the rescue.  Commander Task Unit 77.1.2 – Rear Admiral C.A.F. Sprague – gave VC-66 personnel “high praise” for their part in the rescue operation.

 

On 17 September, from 0543 until 1804, the squadron flew ASP and CAP sorties – some locally over the Task Group ships and some over the target area.  Sorties continued to last as long as four hours.  Squadron aircrews reported that the Japanese runways on Halmahera at Galela and Miti were still in good condition.  They also reported seeing at least 11 Japanese bombers and 2 fighters possibly operational.  In fact, earlier in the day Japanese planes had attacked American troops on Morotai.  Squadron aircrews also reported seeing 3 Japanese boats and 15 barges in Wasile Bay, Halmahera.        

 

Flight operations began on the 18th at 0526 with CAP and ASP sorties – and strikes against targets on Morotai.  The planes searched for a Japanese radar site and strafed two beached medium oilers.  While returning to FANSHAW BAY one of the FM’s tailhook missed the arresting cable.  The plane crashed into the barrier and overturned on top of another “Wildcat.”  Both fighters were seriously damaged, but luckily there were no injuries to the pilot or ship’s personnel.  Flight ops secured at 1829 with a total of 27 sorties for the day.

 

The action started early on 19 September.  FANSHAW BAY sounded General Quarters at 0348 and sent the crew to battle stations to defend against what was thought to be an incoming Japanese plane.  The “bogey” eventually faded from radar.  Flight operations began at 0527 with more ASP and CAP sorties.  The squadron also flew strike missions against Halmahera with its multiple Japanese air bases.  While having decided not to invade the heavily defended Halmahera, the Americans wanted to impede the enemy’s ability to use it to counter-attack the U.S. forces now on Morotai.  Accordingly, American planes hit Halmahera hard.  On the 19th, VC-66 strafed, fired rockets, and dropped 40 bombs on a wooden barracks area there.  All of the ordnance fell in the target area. 

 

While returning to the FANSHAW BAY in the afternoon of the 19th, an FM missed the arresting cable, crashed through the barrier, and overturned causing serious damage to the aircraft, but again no injuries to personnel.  Flight operations secured for the day at 1808 with a total of 29 sorties having been flown.  The ship went to General Quarters again in the evening at 1954 when ten to twelve “bogeys” were picked up on radar.  They were 39 miles away traveling at 250 miles per hour.  The “bogeys”  orbited, then changed course and faded from radar – to everyone on FANSHAW BAY’s relief.

 

The next day, 20 September 1944, was a very tough day for VC-66.  Flight operations began as usual at or about 0525 with the usual combat air patrol and anti-submarine patrol sorties launched.  Strikes were also launched against targets on Morotai.  The strike group dropped 1.6 tons of bombs and fired 16 rockets in an area behind Gorango Beach, Morotai in preparation for landing radar equipment there.  At 1208, disaster struck.  Two of the squadron’s TBMs collided while on a mission near Morotai.  Four men died.  Pilot LTJG Francis J. M. “Moose” McCabe (from Brooklyn and had given the squadron its motto: “Dat’s Fo’ de Boids”), turret gunner Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class Robert L. “Nose” Keough, and radioman Aviation Radioman Second Class Hyram L. Shaffer went down with their plane.  Turret gunner Aviation Ordnanceman Third Class Manuel V. Calderon was unable to get out of the other “Avenger” before it crashed.  Pilot ENS Robert E. “Gizmo” Holley and radioman Aviation Radioman Second Class Roger L. Plouffe were able to bail out and parachuted into the water south of Morotai without injury.  They were picked up by Patrol Craft 1134. 

 

FANSHAW BAY went to General Quarters in the late afternoon of the 20th due to a “bogey” picked up by radar at 20 miles. This “bogey” also changed course and headed back toward the island before the combat air patrol planes could get to it.  Flight Quarters ended for the day at 1812 with a total of 29 sorties.

 

Notwithstanding the squadron’s previous day’s losses, the fighting on and over Morotai and Halmahera continued and missions were flown.  From 21 to 23 September, the squadron flew 71 air support, ASP, and CAP sorties.  On the 23rd, one of the TBMs crashed the restraining barrier while landing and demolished another TBM that had been spotted forward of the barrier.  The landing TBM’s damage while serious, was repairable.  The other TBM was wrecked. 

 

In the afternoon of the 23rd, FANSHAW BAY, MIDWAY, and the destroyers USS HARRISON (DD-573) and USS JOHN RODGERS (DD-574) detached from Task Group 77.1 and left the Morotai area to refuel at Mios Woendi, in the Schouten Islands just to the north of New Guinea.

 

The 24th was spent steaming toward Mios Woendi.  The squadron flew 12 CAP and ASP sorties.  The ships reached Mios Woendi Harbor in the morning of the 25th.  FANSHAW BAY moored alongside fleet oiler USS SALAMONIE (AO-26) and began taking on fuel oil and aviation gasoline.  Refueling completed, FANSHAW BAY, MIDWAY, and the escorting destroyers got underway for the return trip to Morotai at 0534 on 26 September.  The squadron flew ASP and CAP sorties on the way.

 

On 27 September, flight operations were suspended from 1100 – 1455 because of bad weather.  In the afternoon, two TBMs launched from FANSHAW BAY on a special mission.  One carried three VC-66 TBM pilots as passengers to be landed aboard the SANGAMON for the purpose of flying three replacement TBMs back to FANSHAW BAY to be used by the squadron.  The second TBM was launched with three VC-66 fighter pilots as passengers to land aboard the SANTEE and fly back with three replacement FMs.  In addition to the human casualties, the Moluccas IslandsWestern New Guinea operation had been hard on the squadron’s aircraft.

 

FANSHAW BAY was back on station east of Morotai Island on 28 September. Flight ops began at 0529.  The squadron flew CAP and ASP sorties  - as well as strikes against Galela air strip, Halmahera.  The strike aircraft dropped 3 tons of bombs  rendering the runway temporarily unserviceable.  They also strafed and damaged two Japanese single engine planes on the ground.  The strike against the air field at Galela had been launched because of intelligence received indicating that the Japanese were staging planes in the Philippines for possible counterattacks against U.S. forces on Morotai or Palau Island – and in fact, the Japanese did send planes against Morotai later in the day.  Back aboard FANSHAW BAY, one of the landing TBMs missed the arresting cable and crashed the barrier.  The plane sustained serious, but repairable damage.  There were no injuries to personnel.  Flight ops secured at 1756.  It had been a busy day with a total of 38 sorties.         

 

On 29 September, flight ops began at 0538 with more air support, ASP, and CAP sorties.  One TBM with two FM escorts was assigned to fly a photo reconnaissance mission over Halmahera’s airfields.  In addition to taking photos, the reconnaissance planes strafed and bombed anti-aircraft positions at Galela air strip.  During the reconnaissance mission, TBM gunner Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class James A. “Jim” Rathbun was hit by an anti-aircraft round that pierced the allegedly bullet proof steel seat in his turret.  In an effort to help his wounded gunner, pilot LT Martin J. “ Lucky” Stack flew to Morotai and landed on an unfinished American air strip.  LTJG George W. “Brownie” Brown flying one of the fighter escorts followed Stack and landed on Morotai as well.  Notwithstanding his pilot’s efforts to help him, Petty Officer Rathbun succumbed to his wound.  He was buried on Morotai. 

 

Stack, his radioman, and Brown were temporarily unable to take off due to the rough condition of the still under construction air strip.  They remained on Morotai overnight.  Meanwhile on FANSHAW BAY, an FM missed the landing cable and crashed the barrier.  While the plane sustained serious, but not irreparable damage, neither the pilot nor any of ship’s personnel were hurt.  Flight ops secured at 1808 after another long day of 38 sorties – and another VC-66 shipmate lost.

 

From 30 September to 2 October, the daily routine was much the same with FANSHAW BAY operating in an area 30 miles east of Morotai Island as part of Task Unit 77.1.2 - escort carriers FANSHAW BAY and MIDWAY plus destroyer escorts EVERSOLE, ROWELL, EDMONDS, AND SHELTON - in continuing support of the invasion.  Daily flight operations began around 0530 with the squadron flying more air support, anti-submarine patrol, and combat air patrol sorties.  On the 30th, after Army Engineers finished rolling an 800 foot strip of runway that was still under construction, LTJG Brown took off from Morotai and landed aboard FANSHAW BAY - and thus became the first pilot to land and take off from Morotai.  LT Stack and his radioman returned from Morotai in their TBM on the 1st.  On the 2nd, the squadron flew a strike mission against land based torpedo tubes at Galela, Halmahera.  During the three days, they had flown 89 more sorties.

 

On 3 October 1944, flight ops began at 0528.  During the day, the squadron flew a total of 37 ASP, CAP, and submarine Hunter-Killer sorties.  At 0806, TBM aircrews and FANSHAW BAY lookouts reported a torpedo wake visible on FANSHAW BAY’s port quarter.  The ship turned hard right, went to flank speed, and sounded General Quarters.  The torpedo, which had been fired by Japanese submarine RO-41, passed astern of FANSHAW BAY and just forward of MIDWAY before striking the stern of the USS SHELTON (DE-407) causing a large explosion and fire.  SHELTON sank and 13 men were killed.  210 survivors were rescued by the USS ROWELL (DE 403). 

 

On the evening of the 3rd, FANSHAW BAY and Task Unit 77.1.2 were detached from the Morotai operating area and set out for Seeadler Harbor, Manus Island, Admiralty Islands.  From 4 through 6 October, while en route to Manus Island, the squadron flew 40 ASP and CAP sorties over and around the ships. 

 

On 7 October 1944, flight operations began at 0423.  4 TBMs flew anti-submarine patrol.  At 0524, the remaining VC-66 aircraft were launched for transfer to Pityilu Island Field, in the Admiralty Islands.  Pityilu is a small island – three miles long and about one quarter mile wide - near Manus. The 140th U.S. Seabee Battalion built the airstrip after the island was taken from the Japanese.  With the fly off, VC-66 officially detached from FANSHAW BAY to await its replacement squadron and transport to Hawaii.                 

 

During its time aboard FANSHAW BAY, in addition to over 800 hours of training flights, VC-66 had flown 579 combat missions lasting 2109 hours against Morotai Island and the Japanese airfields at Galela, Miti, Kaoe, and Lolobata on Halmahera Island - as well as conducting reconnaissance flights in the strait of Molucca, and flying numerous anti-submarine and combat air patrol missions.  The squadron was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for “extraordinary heroism against enemy Japanese forces in the air, ashore, and afloat” during participation in the Western New Guinea operation from 15 September to 12 October 1944. 

 

Out of a roughly 60 man complement, the squadron lost 6 men during the Moluccas Islands - Western New Guinea action.  VC-66 had done its job well and the operation was a success – but it had been costly.

 

                     (Please See VC-66 Narrative History Part 3)

 

                                                

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