Striking the Homeland
On February 16, 1945, we were practically within
spitting distance of Tokyo Bay. Positioned less than
100 miles from the Japanese Empire, our Hellcats
were loaded for bear as we carried a combination
of bombs and rockets. Although our target was an
army airfield, this one was special because it was
near the capital of Japan; it also was one of the first
missions to strike the Empire.
More than 55 Hellcats launched from our task
group, climbing to 18,000 feet, and I am sure we
all thought about what was waiting up ahead for
us on the relatively short flight inland. On this
mission, I followed the first wave of Hellcats that
had been sent ahead as flak suppressors. Nearing
the target, there was still plenty of sporadic flak
to welcome us as we pushed over and made
our bomb and rocket runs on the airfield. I was
somewhat dismayed that there was not a single
enemy fighter up trying to protect the homeland.
But that all changed after our bombs exploded and
our rockets found their mark. For a few seconds, I
was able to watch one of my 500-lb. bombs hit
dead center on a hangar before pulling up.
But as I pulled off the target and climbed back
to join the other Hellcats at our rendezvous
point, we spotted “bandits” turning above us.
There must have been eight Zeros circling above
like angry bees. They definitely had the drop on
us with their altitude advantage, and had this
been back in 1943 or mid-1944, those Japanese
pilots certainly would have given us a run for
our money. But now things were different and
the pilots much less experienced. For whatever
reason, they came down on us one at a time. It
was like shooting fish in a barrel as there were
so many Hellcats and Corsairs, all loaded and
cocked, swirling around on that mission as all
eight enemy fighters were shot down, one by one.
Four days later, on February 20, I had a front-row seat for the invasion of Iwo Jima. On that
mission, we worked with ground controllers as
they called out targets of opportunity for our
orbiting flights. With grid maps in hand, the
controllers gave us coordinates to the target. One
controller came on the radio with the location
of a Japanese tank. I checked in with him, and
after confirming it was, in fact, enemy armor, I
began my rocket run in on him. He was obviously
moving much slower than I was as I lined him up
and began unleashing the 5-inch HVAR rockets.
As I pulled up, I could already see he was burning
and received confirmation from the ground
controller that he was dead in his tracks.
Our squadron continued to pound the enemy
homeland with repeated trips to Tokyo, Iwo Jima,
Chichijima, and Okinawa. On every one of those
missions, I encountered flak or small-arms fire,
but never once did my Hellcat miss a beat. By the
time my tour was done, I had flown 38 missions
off of USS Wasp and never received a nick in
Our group departed Wasp in March 1945 as
we were sent home to retrain in the F4U Corsair
and then return to participate in the planned
invasion of Japan. A week after we left, the Wasp
took several 500-lb. bombs from Japanese dive-bombers and was knocked out of the war, limping
back to Washington for repairs. By the time VF-81
was ready to return to the fight, two B-29s sealed
the deal as the Japanese surrendered.
As far as I was concerned, the Hellcat not only
played a major role in the Pacific but also had a
long-term effect on me personally: Because it was
so tough, it kept me alive and let me lead what
turned out to be a terrific life.
A flight of F6F- 5 Hellcats
from NAS Sand Point,
Washington. Flying the lead
Hellcat is future test pilot Lt.
Scott Crossfield with Lt. (j.g.)
“Beads” Popp on his wing.
(Photo courtesy of Jack Cook)