New Britain and New Ireland, 13th February to 2nd May, 1944
It’s hard to imagine that in early 1944, when the United States was entering its third full year of war in the Pacific and had won battles at Midway, the Coral Sea, and Tawara; had virtually completed their victory in the Gilbert and Marshalls campaign as well as at Guadalcanal, that the Navy would, in only four weeks, assemble an untrained fighter squadron without attachment to any Air Group, and ship it for immediate action in the final phase of Operation Cartwheel. And yet, that’s what was asked of Fighting Squadron 34.
VF-34 comprised 45 pilots of whom just one had seen any combat and just two were rated as Class A pilots. None of the eighteen full Lieutenants, nor the two Junior Grade Lieutenants were combat trained. Of the twenty of the twenty five Ensigns were operationally trained, but only ten of those in F6F Hellcats; the remainder in F4F Wildcats or SBD Dauntless dive bombers. None of the pilots completed their pre-deployment Fighter Training Syllabus and only six of the forty-five had flown any night hours at all during the pre-deployment period.
Operation Cartwheel was General McArthur’s plan to neutralise the Japanese forward operating base on Rabaul which the Japanese had captured from Australian forces in February, 1942. Consisting of two major phases, the first being the invasion of the Solomons, and the second retaking New Guinea, New Britain and the Admiralty Islands. Its ultimate success would unlock the Southwestern Pacific route required to retake the Philippines.
Leaving San Diego by ship on 13 February the squadron steamed to Pearl Harbour where they disembarked and took air transport to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), arriving on the 23rd. As a “streamlined outfit” they were required to equip themselves at Santo with everything they needed, including their Grumman F6F-3 Hellcats. This mammoth task was completed in only a week with the assistance of CASU (Carrier Assistance Support Unit) TEN. On March 3rd they moved forward to Guadalcanal.
Their tour officially began on 7th March flying from Piva Yoke airfield on Bougainville but, in a clear indication that the enemy was still present and meant to do them harm, the following day the airfield was shelled damaging three of their aircraft and the squadron was forced to move south to Barakoma airfield on Vella Lavella Island. For the next few days operations flown from Barakoma were staged through Torokina airfield on Bougainville but this arrangement proved logistically unsatisfactory and the squadron moved a final time to Green Island (now Nissan Island) and made it their permanent base.
For the first few days the squadron worked up its operational efficiency and got to know the territory. They flew missions of B-25 bomber escort, SBD/TBF escort, combat air patrol (CAP) and “Dumbo”missions to spot downed airmen in the water. They did not however engage or even see any enemy aircraft. In fact, they did not engage in any air to air combat throughout their tour, nor did they see any enemy aircraft with which to engage; VF-34’s work was entirely ground attack strafing vehicles, coastal vessels and enemy facilities as and when they could find them.
The squadron’s task was defined as a simple search and destroy mission. While to their northwest the landings and occupation of the Admiralty Islands (February 1944) and Emirau Island (March 1944) went ahead with relatively little opposition, Japanese forces were still active and dangerous throughout the region and in particular on New Ireland; VF-34’s job was to seek out and destroy the enemy on land or sea.
With the move to Green Island completed by 20th March, the squadron began operations in earnest. On 20th and 21st they flew CAP over Green Island as a support measure related to the Emirau landings. Through the rest of the month they continued to fly escort for SBD and/or TBF squadrons or sweep sorties, looking for targets of opportunity. They also learned to respect the accuracy of Japanese return fire, culminating in their first loss. During an attack on a barge Ensign Driscoll took accurate return fire which forced him to ditch his Hellcat in a water landing. Even though he was seen to exit the aircraft and begin swimming away, a few minutes later he disappeared and was not seen again.
Ten days later on the 31st the squadron suffered its second casualty when Ensign Miller did not return from a barge sweep around New Ireland. His division, led by Lt. Yorstan was regrouping after an attack on some barges when Miller returned to the area. Ensign Miller did not return however, and no further sign was seen of him.
It’s a tragic truth that war can find any number of ways to kill people and only five days after the death of Miller the squadron suffered its third loss. Returning from what had been a successful sortie which claimed the destruction of two enemy trucks and some ground installations, Lt. Rose was killed in a landing accident at Green Island when his Hellcat collided with a TBF which had landed in the opposite direction in poor weather. Despite heroic efforts on the part of his wingman, Lt. Kukuk (for which he received a recommendation for the Navy Medal) and others to pull him from his burning aircraft, Lt. Rose died of his injuries a short time later in the base hospital.
The pace of operations continued through early April with the squadron airborne and hunting for targets of opportunity almost every day, the tally of destroyed enemy assets included ammunition dumps, barges, tractors and trucks, a sawmill, small watercraft and suspected gunboats, cranes and docking machinery. All of these attacks were delivered by strafing, though in a few cases the pilots preceded their strafing runs by dropping their fuel tanks on the target first. The Japanese returned fire with great accuracy and the squadron operations log recorded damage sustained on almost every sortie, as well as the damage they inflicted; on the 10th April Lt. Lochridge’s Hellcat “Lolly” was damaged by small arms fire while attaching a pair of 60′ barges.
The latter half of April saw somewhat diminished activity as poor weather closed down action for much of the period. Nevertheless, the squadron’s tally continued to grow with targets including canoes, boats, barges, oil drums, boxes, docks and even a motorcycle with side car all claimed destroyed in strafing attacks. Some of these strafing attacks were very low indeed, even too low; on the 24th Ensign Richardson struck a tree during a low level strafing run and crashed into the sea just offshore; both he and his aircraft disappeared below the surface and he was reported as killed in action.
Three days before the end of their tour the squadron suffered its final and most tragic loss. On the 29th Lt. Knight and Lt. Shaw’s divisions were tasked with escorting TBF’s and SBD’s attacking two Japanese gunboats which had been sighted earlier in the vicinity of Lassul Bay. The vessels were sighted by the bombers off Cape Lambert, some way from their last reported position but nonetheless the bombers initiated their attack drawing heavy return fire. In an attempt to draw off or suppress the enemy fire, Lt. Knight dived with the second bomber, making two strafing runs. On the second run his aircraft was hit and he crashed into the ocean. Despite searching for twenty minutes, no trace of him was found. The War Diary describes how the loss unfolded in Point 6. below;
Another division, this time led by Lt. Dahlstrom continued the search but without luck. Upon return to base the VF-34 escorts learned that the two boats, which had been destroyed by the bombers in the attack, were in fact USN Motor Torpedo Boats. None of the pilots had recognised this, no signals or radio calls were seen or heard that would have identified them as such.
The squadron lost one more aircraft on their final day of operations when Ensign Pitts’ engine failed while on CAP above Green Island, twenty miles offshore. He was forced to bail out but was successfully recovered by a crash boat. The cause of the failure was deemed to have been contaminated fuel, a problem the squadron had faced for much of its tour; water had been found in the fuel storage tanks on more than one occasion.
In a tour lasting just fifty-five days the forty-five pilots of VF-34 flew a total of 1,165 sorties from Green Island and 177 from Bougainville. Each pilot averaged around twenty-five sorties, or more or less a sortie every other day. The squadron tallied sorties by pilot, though not their claims so we now only know how many for each pilot, as listed below;
Interestingly, we also know how much maintenance and spare parts were required to keep their thirty F6F-3’s available for an eight-week tour of duty because the War diary also includes the list of spare parts the squadron consumed during their tour.
The final section of the War Diary was reserved as a report on the poor quality of the ammunition used. In 827 combat sorties (as opposed to routine and training flights) they accumulated 1,447 gun stoppages! In a mission profile that was almost exclusively based on strafing ground targets this must have been incredibly frustrating. The War Diary calls into question the quality of the ammunition’s manufacture, as well as suspicion that the high temperatures the wings reached while the aircraft were on the ground may have also contributed.
The final comment (Point 6.) deals with the training they had received versus their experience; it’s interesting to note that the prevailing “high angle strafing run” was ditched for low altitude attacks for reasons of efficacy as well as safety.
VF-34 was disbanded immediately its tour ended. The designation VF-34 was used again a few weeks later in June, 1944 VF-53 was renamed VF-34 and took part in the final stages of the Pacific war aboard USS Monterey (CVL26); and then again for a third time when VF-20 worked its way through designations of VF-20, VF-9a, VF-91 and finally to become VF-34 in 1950.
The original VF-34 disappeared then, as hastily as it was assembled. Whilst initially ill-trained for their task, required to equip themselves upon arrival in-theatre, they nonetheless achieved the results required of them. They developed their own localised tactics, gained and applied hard-won experience; they did what they were sent to do. And not without loss.
VF-34 was indeed at first glance an insignificant unit operating in a backwater theatre of operations, in an obscure part of the war; but I’d argue there’s no such thing. The work they did advanced the successful conclusion of Operation Cartwheel, it helped cement the removal of Rabaul as a Japanese base of operations and in so doing advanced the allies’ cause, and in doing that, helped advance the end of the war. Ultimate victory was the sum of those countless local successes achieved by anonymous units like VF-34, the first Fighting Squadron 34.
Eduard 1/48 Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat
Eduard’s 1/48 F6F-3 is a joy to work with, and the profiPack version even more so. This enhanced kit offering includes masks, resins wheels and PE, mostly for the cockpit. It’s shape is reasonably good as far as I know, though there is doubt about the so-called “grin” at the engine cowling. There are five markings options, and I chose Option D, a VF-34 aircraft flown by Lt. Lochridge off Nissan Island in 1944.
I began with the cockpit, as usual, and as usual I spent more time on it than I intended. And, as usual, I arrived at a result that was better than I’d hoped for. That was mostly down to the kit though, the PE is very nicely done and all I really did was paint the plastic parts and glue on the PE.
Construction of the main airframe is very straightforward and I was able to assemble the main components quite quickly. As their fit was so clean, I found that I would be able to essentially complete the fuselage, wings and stabilisers as separate components and leave final assembly as the last step before completion.
Painting began with some preshading; this was mostly for the benefit of the white undersides as the Non Specular Sea Blue would be too dark for it to be of any real benefit.
Painting and Markings
The image below is the reference image for the kit markings. A search around the interwebs quickly established that there was a great deal of confusion as to whether this image shows a VF-34 or VF-38 aircraft; whether it was based at Green Island (now Nissan Island) or Bougainville, or Henderson Field; whether it was pictured in 1943 or 1944.
After a few hours of digging through the US Archives I confirmed to my own satisfaction that Eduard is right (and a lot of the internet is wrong), this was a VF-34 Hellcat based on Green Island (now Nissan Island) in PNG during VF-34’s first iteration as a newly formed Squadron in early 1944. What proves it beyond any doubt is Lt. Lochridge’s name appearing in the roster of VF-34 pilots in the War Diary coupled with the statement in its opening points that none of the Lieutenants had any combat experience – this must have been his first posting, therefore he could not have been with VF-38 the previous year.
But what of the other photos? All other photos I’ve found of white-backed Hellcats in multiple searches show what must be VF-38 Hellcats based at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal. I base assertion this on a couple of things; the squadron aircraft markings are different and Guadalcanal had very different terrain. The reference pic above is taken on an atoll indicated by the typically flat coral white ground and abundance of palm trees. Guadalcanal was more mountainous and forested. See below;
Very different terrain. The second reason is the aircraft ID markings; while VF-38 clearly applied the same paint scheme to their Hellcats, the aircraft numbers were applied to the fin and cowling rather than the fuselage. This seems to have been consistent with every other pic I can find of VF-38’s Hellcats. Note also that VF-38 appear to have painted the forward cowling with a white band whereas VF-34 did not.
The reference photo of “lolly” therefore was taken between mid-March when the squadron moved to Green Island and 2nd May 1944 when its tour was complete. I believe that these were new Hellcats when assigned to VF-34 and their unusual theatre markings were locally applied recognition markings as it appears other squadrons also painted their Hellcats in a very similar manner. It’s possible the origin of the markings were an attempt to disguise the aircraft’s profile as it would appear in the air, perhaps to mislead the Japanese that they were Wildcats.
The image below shows the stages I went through on the fuselage. I used Tamiya White and Vallejo Model Air for the Intermediate Blue and the NSSB uppers.
First was the white, then a Blutack mask for the Intermediate Blue, then the same again for the NSSB. I used a mask as the demarcation is quite tight according to photos. See above where I had to correct the first application of NSSB because I didn’t bring it far enough down the fuselage sides the first time…
The reference photo looks to me like the white spine has been freshly painted so I decided to paint and texture the tri-colour before applying the final white uppers.
I did a little texturing on the NSSB and Int. Blue because I wanted to show some wear, some usage on the airframe.
Eduard’s decals behaved beautifully, but their letters/numbers left a lot to be desired. I quite quickly realised that Eduard’s decal placement guide was hopelessly mismatched to their own decal ID’s. For example, the fuselage and wing insignia, marked 1 and 2 on the decal sheet respectively were switched on the placement guide such that the wing decals were indicated to the fuselage and visa versa. That was relatively easy to spot.
Worse though, were the stencils. The decal ID letters on the sheet were completely wrong, and as they’re impossible for my old eyes to read, even with my glasses, I had to take a picture of the decal sheet and blow it up to read them. Then, by cross referencing what they actually said with where they were supposed to be placed, I was able to work through the stencils too.
At the time Lt. Lochridge was photographed in “Lolly” I reckon his aircraft was relatively new, perhaps sometime in early April when the squadron was established and operating from Green Island. A key indicator for this is that the windscreen framing, indeed all of the canopy framing paint is unchipped…
…whereas this tends to be one of first place chipping begins (aside from the wing root, (which we can unfortunately not see). There’s also no chipping visible on the portion of the engine cowling we can see. There is however a general griminess and exhaust staining visible on #117 and #118 which blurs the demarcation between Int. Blue and NSSB all the way back to the aircraft number.
The white theatre marking on the spine of all visible aircraft appears newly applied though. Look at the contrast between the white fin and spine on #118 and the white under the port stabiliser and lower fuselage. Also of note that none of the aircraft visible in the photo are carrying auxiliary fuel tanks so I have left mine off; they did however carry them on operations as noted in the War Diary.
Based on the foregoing I finished my Hellcat as it appears above in the reference photo; used, dirty but not worn out or weathered to within an inch of its life. The airfield it operated from was a coral strip and so some level of wear will be evident of course; the wing roots would have had some wear and tear simply because of the crushed coral that would have inevitably been carried on the pilots and mechanic’s boots when climbing up on them. Likewise, the prop blast would have sent some of the coral into the leading edges and the prop blades themselves would have shown some level of wear. But eight weeks isn’t long enough to have significantly faded the paint on the wings so no patchwork-quilt-post-shading effect on this one.
I started the weathering using craft paints thinned with water and just a drop of Windex to break the surface tension.
While not one of my strengths, this time the panel wash came out quite well and I was happy with the result. I used a mix of black and beige to get a colour that would highlight the panels as they would have been on the real aircraft without the starkness of a black wash.
Hellcats became very dirty indeed on their undersides; see below two examples of just how dirty they became, particularly from gun residue on the wings.
I began the process of replicating this effect with my airbrush applying a very dilute dark grey and Nato Black mix.
Then, to replicate the liquid nature of the gun residue staining I brushed on some ground up chalks and wiped them back with a slightly damp cloth to produce a streaking effect. On the wing uppers I used ground buff coloured chalks to show some distress around the gun and ammo access covers as these would have seen some considerable traffic, even in a short tour such as VF-34’s.
With the major components more or less complete, I turned my attention to the peripheral elements and worked my way through them. The propeller was given a light weathering of a chipped leading edge as this was frequently seen on land-based Hellcats. The wheels – which were exquisitely moulded – were given a weathering which accented the tread pattern, again achieved with a light wash and chalks. I drilled out the exhausts which was painstaking and almost visible on the finished model! The undercarriage is very well done by Eduard – I simply followed the instructions, painted it all white and then weathered with a dark wash.
Lastly, I enhanced the exhaust staining on the fuselage with successive layers of thinned black, medium grey and then buff, with a final brush of chalks.
In the end, the final assembly was a bit of an anticlimax. All of the prep work in finishing the fuselage, stabilisers and wings separately paid dividends and I simply glued all the various bits on the fuselage and the model was complete. As mentioned earlier, I didn’t attach the fuel tank because the reference photo showed all visible aircraft without them, though as referenced earlier I know from reading the War Diary that they did use the fuel tanks, sometimes even as weapons. I used some fine wire for the whip antenna, there was no antenna wire on these aircraft.
References and Credits
- The Digital Public Library of the United States
- The National Archive Catalogue War Diary of Fighting Squadron 34
- ASISBIZ – A strange website with lots of good photos, even if they’re incorrectly captioned
- Wikipedia for background on Operation Cartwheel