Friday, July 04, 2008

Gator Control: the VA-115 Arabs

My dad kept several old squadron mugs in the kitchen cabinet at home - some with his name and the squadron's insignia on them, others with a cartoon accompanied by an aphorism on the opposite side. The one that always stuck with me was titled, "VA-115 QA Gator Control" and showed a man with his dukes up ready to fight an alligator standing on his hind legs, also with his dukes up. The statement on the other side read: "OKIE - When you're up to your ass in alligators it's too late to drain the swamp." That sentiment encapsulates the worldview of the VA-115 (now the VFA-115). It's a perspective of constant vigilance - always on guard, ready to strap on the boots and roll up the sleeves to slug it out - imperative to protecting freedom and maintaining the peace. The squadron's official motto, "We cover the world, day and night," speaks to that same thing. Throughout its life, the VA-115 has been a first responder to many hairy places and events where an attack squadron was needed most: over Okinawa, Leyte Gulf, Inchon, Tachen Islands, North and South Vietnam, throughout the Western Pacific and over Iraq - everywhere, day and night. When the VA-115 was formed in October of 1942 (as the VT-11), just ten months after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was up to its ass in alligators and the squadron's job was to drain the swamp.

The first CO of VT-11, LCDR Frederick Ashworth, an Annapolis graduate, would go on to become Director of Operations for Project Alberta, the part of the Manhattan Project responsible for determining how to deliver the atom bomb. Ashworth was the weaponeer for the Boxcar, the B-29 that dropped Fat Boy on Nagasaki. Ashworth would retire from the Navy in 1968 as a Vice Admiral.
The aircraft assigned to the new squadron was the new Grumman TBM Avenger - a big barrel of a plane with a crew of three: a pilot, bombardier and tail gunner. The Avenger was a rugged and bulky gut fighting torpedo bomber that first saw service earlier in the summer at the Battle of Midway. There were only six Avengers ready for combat at that time, having just arrived to Midway Island three days before the battle as part of VT-8, a squadron stationed on the nearby USS Hornet. The carrier contingent, waiting on the Avengers, was still flying the antiquated 1935 Douglas TBD Devastator. The six Avengers, not having enough time to join the rest of the squadron on the Hornet, flew from the island towards the heart of the large Japanese fleet without essential fighter escort. Meanwhile the 15 Devastators from the Hornet approached towards the same target area some few minutes behind the Avengers. Only one Avenger, shot all to hell, managed to limp back to the island, while all of the Devastators were shot down. Incidentally, the only survivor of the 30 men that launched off the Hornet, Lt. George H. Gay Jr, who witnessed the sinking of three Japanese carriers while floating in the sea, would recuperate and later fly Avengers with the VT-11 during the Guadalcanal campaign. (Also of interest: Lt. Gay would accompany Mrs. Bradford D. Ripley, II, the sponsor of the USS Midway, while she christened the carrier weeks after the war ended in 1945.)

The Avenger continued to have a rough time in combat over the summer of 1942, suffering heavy losses while yielding light damage on the enemy, but much of this was due, not just to the inherent danger of the mission, but to the failings and limitations of the Mark 13 torpedo, which the Avenger dropped. The Mark 13 was unreliable and required the Avenger to fly at low level and at low speed (130 mph) before dropping it, essentially making the plane a sitting duck. Excepting the torpedo issues, which plagued the U.S. forces for the entire war, the Navy was able to adjust and utilize the Avenger to its potential. Because of the Avenger's payload capacity, excellent navigation and radar assets, and generous range, it was ideal for anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, spotting and mine laying. The Avenger could also easily be fitted with night capabilities and would often escort F-6Fs to intercept Japanese aircraft at night. In short, the Avenger was versatile and invaluable. Its main primary role, however, meant that it was inevitably vulnerable to heavy losses. The VT-11 would lose twenty-two aircraft over the course of two five-month deployments overseas flying all types of missions.

After extensive training at Pearl Harbor and Barbers Point, Hawaii, which began in November 1942, the squadron embarked on their first overseas combat deployment in February 1943. The tour would take the squadron to several different land bases: first, a detachment of six aircraft was sent to Kanton Island for anti-submarine patrols, then the squadron was stationed at Nandi in the Fiji Islands on 28 February 1943. On 17 April 1943, the VT-11 was moved to Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, where they would spend the long summer flying patrols, nighttime mine-laying missions, and general strike sorties - all geared towards the Solomon campaign. The squadron lost seven aircraft in the South Pacific while operating out of Nandi and Henderson Field.

By the end of the summer, the VT-11 was back in the states and training in Alameda, California. That training continued when they were stationed at Hilo, Hawaii in April 1944, where the squadron sank its first Japanese submarine while on an anti-submarine patrol on 5 May 1944.

Indicative of the squadron's devotion to its mission, the VT-11 unofficially called themselves Saufley's Satans in reference to Richard Caswell Saufley, who, as Naval Aviator #14, was an early pioneer in naval aviation that joined the Navy's flight school when it was established in Annapolis and later taught at the school after it had moved down to Pensacola, FL. Saufley set several altitude and endurance records as well as test the use of gyroscopes for delivering ordnance. He died at 31 years in a plane crash in 1916. The main training airstrip in Pensacola is named after him.

The VT-11 joined Air Wing Eleven (CVG-11) for its second deployment, which started on 29 September 1944. The unit found itself on the deck of the USS Hornet (CV-12) during operations on Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The Hornet was an extremely busy carrier at the time, going 18 months without pulling into a port and, during that time, making three rotations to accommodate three separate air wings. CVG-11 was the second air group in that rotation. Over a two-year period, CVG-11 wreaked havoc on Japanese land, sea and air forces - taking out over 600 aircraft, twenty-four destroyers, three cruisers and 200,000 pounds of merchant shipping. The VT-11 conducted the first daylight raids over Bougainville in New Guinea.

On 10 October 1944, the VT-11 participated in the first strikes against Japanese forces in Okinawa. Two weeks later, as a decisive naval confrontation neared at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, the VT-11 was one of the first in action, heading for the center of three elements in the Japanese fleet that were converging on the American 7th Fleet, which was protecting the invasion forces on the Philippine islands. While the Battle of Midway changed the momentum of the war, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history, finished the Japanese navy as a serious threat. However, victory for the Americans was achieved at considerable cost. The first kamikaze attacks of the war occurred during the battle at Leyte and helped sink two escort carriers and three destroyers. During the battle the Japanese lost four large carriers, three battleships, nine cruisers, eleven destroyers and over 500 aircraft. Of those, the VT-11 accounted for three cruisers and a hit on one battleship. During the battle, the Hornet was 340 miles from Leyte, well beyond the normal radius of activity for a carrier when the VT-11 launched, meaning that the missions were over five hours long. For their efforts, eight VT-11 pilots earned Naval Crosses, seven recipients for the first round of sorties, and an eighth for a sortie the next day, which accounted for the third Japanese cruiser.

The VT-11 continued support operations over Leyte and Luzon and other parts of the Philippines throughout the rest of 1944. The squadron CO, LCDR R. Denniston, Jr., was shot down over Manila Harbor on 13 November 1944. By December, the squadron was focusing its strikes on Luzon in preparation for the landings on Mindoro. A heavy storm struck the fleet in the middle of December, which delayed combat operations temporarily and cost the Americans three destroyers and four escort carriers.

In January, the Hornet entered the South China Sea, a first for U.S. forces since the outbreak of the war, and the VT-11 hit targets on Hong Kong, Formosa, the Ryukyus Islands and up and down French Indochina. They also continued strikes on Luzon in preparation for more landings.

By February 1945, the VT-11 was working its way back home. The Hornet dropped the squadron off at Ulithi in the Caroline Islands, along with the rest of Air Group 11, so that the ship could take on the next air wing. From there, the squadron hitched a ride to Hawaii on the escort carrier, the USS Kasaan Bay and from Hawaii the squadron boarded the seaplane tender, USS Curtiss, for transit back to the states. The squadron would not see combat again during the Pacific War.

On 25 June 1945, the squadron received its first official patch drawn by Walt Disney (shown to the right). Whether "Saufley's Satans" continued to be their name is doubtful, at least in any official sense, since that name does not appear in any squadron histories. On 15 November 1946, the VT-11 was re designated VA-12A (or Attack Squadron Twelve Able) and trained extensively with CVG-11 before embarking on 9 October 1947 on the newly built USS Valley Forge for a globe circling cruise, the first for a Navy Air Group. The significance of the cruise on the squadron's history is expressed in the motto the squadron would, in a few years, adopt: "We cover the world, day and night," and on the logo that would replace Disney's torpedo-slinging cherub. The cruise also planted the seeds for the squadron's nickname, "Arabs," because of the squadron's passage through the Suez Canal.

By 1948 the TBM Avengers were obsolete and in July, when the VA-12A received another squadron designation: the VA-115 (Atkron One One Five), they began a transition to the Douglas AD Skyraider. Instead of a crew of three, like the Avenger had, the Skyraider was a single seat affair, though it was not any smaller than the Avenger. For a single engine, single seat affair, the Skyraider was a big workhorse of a plane. As jet technology rapidly advanced throughout the late forties all the way into the 60s, the Navy retired and acquired aircraft at an astonishing rate to keep up with the advances. The piston engine Skyraider was so versatile and useful to the Navy that, while many jets would see service for just a few years, the sturdy prop remained in use for a quarter of a century filling various roles that jets were not yet ready to handle. The Skyraider could carry over four times as much ordnance as the the Avenger (in fact, it could carry its weight in bombs and as much as the large four engine B-17) and could fly that load faster and farther. The Skyraider could also remain stable at very slow speeds, which made it invaluable as a close ground support weapon since it could accurately concentrate fire on a small area for a long period of time. There was nothing flashy about the Skyraider; it was utilitarian and rugged. It is no surprise, then, that the VA-115 and the Skyraider would share a twenty-year history. That history would have more than its share of combat.

After the transition to the Skyraider was complete, the VA-115, along with CVG-11, deployed aboard the USS Philippine Sea in San Diego on 5 July, ten days after the N. Korean invasion of the South. The first stop was Hawaii, where the ship went through qualifications. Korea was the second stop, Point Oboe, which they reached by 5 August - around the time when the UN forces had formed the Pusan Perimeter and the first waves of reinforcements began to arrive. The Philippine Sea took over as the flagship for Task Force 77.

The VA-115 flew strikes in and around Inchon during the lead up to the amphibious invasion, then concentrated fire power deeper into enemy territory, knocking out transportation and communication lines, preventing the North Koreans from bringing in reinforcements. The VA-115 pounded enemy strongholds all during the push to Seoul and beyond to Wansan after the second amphibious landing.

While operating over Sinuiju, a town at the mouth of the Yalu River, the VA-115 encountered MiG-15s for the first time. When the rugged Korean terrain froze over and hordes of Chinese Communists crossed into Korea, the Americans were forced into a long desperate retreat from the Yalu River. With mechanized divisions and heavy equipment, the Americans were confined to the narrow mountain roads while the Chinese Communists, primarily infantry-based, were able to move more freely in the mountains, sniping and ambushing the retreating Americans. While the Eighth Army struggled with the 250 mile retreat, the longest in American history, the 1st and 7th Marines performed incredibly during their fighting retreat against a vastly larger force. The VA-115 provided close air support for the 7th Marines during a desperate battle near the Chosin Reservoir and all through their pullback, blasting a path through the frozen ground to Hungnam position using napalm, 20 mm cannons, bombs and missiles. Upon a successful strike, VA-115 pilots would hear the Marines' radio: "Thanks Arab, now the way is clear..." Apparently, the name Arab, though not the official moniker of the squadron, was already in common use. All in all, over a 150,000 military personnel and civilians were able to evacuate under the aerial umbrella the VA-115 helped to provide.

In late March 1951, the VA-115, along with CVG-11, transferred from the Philippine Sea to the Valley Forge, while the ships were in Yokosuka, for their return home. It had been an intense nine month cruise that saw little break in the action beyond stops for refueling, re-arming and repair. During that period, the VA-115 only enjoyed brief excursions to Sasebo or Yokosuka before having to return to Point Oboe for further combat missions. The Philippine Sea was putting up to 140 sorties a day during the cruise and was poised to continue operations after CVG-11 was exchanged for CVG-2.

Once back in the states, the VA-115 continued training exercise while in southern California until they departed, again, aboard the Philippine Sea on 31 December 1951. After brief stops in Hawaii and Yokosuka, the ship was back at Point Oboe. From February to July 1952, the squadron focused strikes on North Korean rail transport as well as communication and industrial supply facilities. On 23 and 24 June, the VA-115 conducted the first attacks on N. Korean hydroelectric plants.

When the VA-115 left Korea the second time, in August 1952, they had flown 2,268 combat mission. For their efforts, they were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. The VA-115 began a third Korean tour in July 1953, this time aboard the USS Kearsarge, but as they were preparing to launch missions the ceasefire went into effect. The remainder of that cruise was spent patrolling the DMZ. The squadron enjoyed liberty at Sasebo, Yokosuka, Manila and Hong Kong before returning to the US. in February 1954.

The VA-115 was off again, with the Kearsarge, to the Western Pacific. Although there was no war in Korea, Cold War tensions with Red China were heating up again. During the Tachen Island evacuation in February 1955, the VA-115 flew cover to protect the KMT forces and Tachen civilians who had come under bombardment. Over 26,000 people were evacuated.

The VA-115 toured the Western Pacific on the USS Essex for one six month cruise, before joining the USS Shangri-La, a light carrier, for two cruises from 1958 to 1959 that culminated into 15 months at sea in the same waters. It was during the first cruise on the Shangri-La that Red Chinese began shelling the islands of Quemoy and Matsu in preparation of an invasion. The Seventh Fleet, which had responded to the Tachen Crisis in 1955, responded again. The show of force on behalf of the fleet, including the VA-115, deterred the Communist invasion.

During a nine month cruise in the Western Pacific on the USS Hancock, the squadron received the coveted Battle "E" Efficiency award, officially adopted the name "Arab", and acquired a new insignia, which reflected the squadron's legacy and mission - the sun and stars represent day and night, the horizon with the longitude and latitude lines is the earth, which shows that the squadron has been around the world, and the chevron is pointing to the time 1:15. Although there have been some alterations, this insignia has stayed intact and is currently in use by the squadron.

In August 1961, the VA-115 joined a skeleton crew on the East Coast to accompany the newly commissioned USS Kitty Hawk on its transfer voyage to the West coast. The voyage took the squadron through exercises in the Caribbean and around the Cape of Good Hope before delivering them to Miramar, California where the CVW-11 was to go through an eight month training cycle.

After the training, the air group rejoined the Kitty Hawk for another three cruises to the Western Pacific from September 1962 to June 1966, where the VA-115 would get two more Battle "E" awards for competitions at sea. During this time, while off of San Diego, the VA-115 participated in a demonstration of the Kitty Hawks firepower for President Kennedy. The second cruise, from October 1963 to July 1964 remains the longest peacetime cruise on record.

The final tour the VA-115 took with the Kitty Hawk would mark the first time combat tour since Korea. The Kitty Hawk operated in the Gulf of Tonkin for six months. The squadron flew over 8000 hours over 2051 sorties and dropping 7 million pounds of ordnance in North Vietnam. They flew close air support and armed reconnaissance both inland and at sea where they provided air cover to convoys. Because the Skyraider could move slow and low, the VA-115 also flew rescue combat air patrol where they would circle and protect downed pilots behind enemy lines until a rescue chopper could come an fish them out of the jungle.

Upon returning to Lemoore, California in June of 1966, the VA-115 left its long affiliation with CVW-11 to join CVW-5, which it would remain with for the next quarter century. From January to July 1967, the VA-115 went on its second Vietnam tour aboard the USS Hancock, flying many of the same types of missions it had flown with the Kitty Hawk. When the cruise ended and the squadron returned to Lemoore it was put on a rare inactive stand-down status, though it remained on the list of the Navy's active squadron status. The squadron was essentially disbanded while the VA-125 Rough Raiders assumed the administrative functions of the squadron.

The VA-115 was reactivated two and half years later in January 1970, assigned to Whidbey Island, Washington, and transitioned to its third aircraft: the Grumman A-6 Intruder.
The Intruder was the Navy's all-weather day and night medium attack plane. It had a crew of two: a pilot and a BN (bombardier/navigator), which allowed it to handle the most sophisticated precision guided ordnance. It was a sub-sonic jet with a top speed of 650 mph, well over twice the speed of the Skyraider, and was designed for low-level flight in adverse conditions. It could carry up to 18,ooo pounds of bombs, which it could deliver with great accuracy. The Intruder was also adept at flushing out SAM sites and destroying them. A slightly larger variant, the EA-6 Prowler, with two additional crew members, is still the Navy's primary electronic warfare aircraft (slated to be replaced by the EA-18G Growler in the near future).

Along with the new aircraft, the VA-115 received a new carrier assignment aboard the newly modernized USS Midway. After an initial cruise from April 1971 to November 1971, the VA-115, as part of the Midway's air wing, CVW-5, found itself back at Yankee Station flying combat sorties over Vietnam. They took part in Linebacker I, the escalated U.S. air campaign in the summer and fall of 1972 designed to stop the North Vietnamese offensive and bring the communist back to the negotiating table. For its performance, the squadron received a Presidential Unit Citation.

Directly after the ceasefire in Vietnam, while the U.S. was in an otherwise retreating pattern militarily, the VA-115 and the Midway embarked on a permanent forward deployment in Yokosuka, Japan, which allowed the U.S. to reduce its number of aircraft carriers while maintaining an adequate carrier presence in the Far East to meet its security obligations. The combination of the Midway and the VA-115 was a natural one because both saw themselves as the type of fighting force that preferred it on the front lines - defending the Far East as their home turf while other ships and squadron were visited the Western Pacific waters part time.

Being in Yokosuka meant that the VA-115 was a long way from the policy makers in the U.S. This, in many ways, left the ship and squadron to do what they wanted to do. In the mid seventies, when the Navy wanted the VA-115 to change its name from Arab to something else for reasons of cultural sensitivity, the squadron, at first, tried to oblige and suggested various alternatives with an Arab theme - names like Camel or Camel Jockeys - but the Navy insisted on the name Eagle Hill. The squadron refused to accept the change and till about 1978 continued to refer to themselves as the Arabs. Had the squadron been based in California or Washington, chances are their defiance would not have been so successful. But being along way from the U.S. also had its downside. During the same time the squadron was resisting its name change, there was some anxiety around the fact that it had been some time since the squadron had earned a Battle "E" unit citation. Part of the reason for this was that the VA-115 had spent three years on a active/in-active status, but the other reason is that they simply had not had an inspection in some time because they had been far away in the Western Pacific. When they did finally have an inspection, it was almost assured that they would not pass, which they didn't. In fact, the VA-115 would not win another Battle E until 1978. Regardless, the identification of the squadron as a sort of outcast that spent its time at the forefront of America's defenses was a source of pride.

When the Midway was in Yokosuka, the VA-115 was based at nearby Atsugi. When the ship pulled into Subic Bay, Philippines, the squadron operated out of the adjacent airbase at Cubi Point. From 1973 to 1991, the VA-115 went on no less than 43 cruises on the Midway, taking it all over the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean - including visits to Pusan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Karachi, Guam and other exotic locales.

During Operation EAGLE PULL and Operation FREQUENT WIND in April 1975, the VA-115 aircraft were moved to Cubi Point to make room on the Midway for the helicopters that were used to evacuate 2800 South Vietnamese when Saigon fell. For this operation, the VA-115 received the Navy Unit Commendation and the Armed Forces Expeditionary medal.

In addressing the tensions on the Korean peninsula, the VA-115 participated in a joint training exercise with S. Korean forces right off the DMZ line, evaluating the coordination and effectiveness of their defense posture. Not long after this exercise, called Operation TEAM SPIRIT, the VA-115 was back again in August 1976, after tensions had escalate after N. Korean soldiers brutally murdered two American officers and wounded nine others who were cutting down a poplar tree that was obstructing the view from a S. Korean checkpoint. Operation PAUL BUNYAN was a show of force involving the Army, Air Force and the Seventh Fleet aimed at backing up the second attempt to remove the tree.

The VA-115 and the Midway continued to engage in joint exercises with countries in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, including S. Korea (TEAM SPIRIT '76 and '78) Japan, Taiwan, Pakistan and Iran (MIDLINK '75 and '77). The squadron also participated in war games with the air wings of the Kitty Hawk and the Constellation.

In April of 1979, the Midway cruised to the Gulf of Aden after fighting broke out in Yemen. They also maintained a presence when the Shah fell in Iran and anti-American demonstrations broke out and were back again when the embassy was seized. Six months later, the VA-115 was operating in South Korea after the massacre and several hundred people in the sixth largest city in S. Korea, Kwangju. They continued operations until the civil unrest caused by the massacre died down.

By 1978, the squadron had changed their name from Arabs to Eagles and transitioned from the A-6A and A-6B to the A-6E - the last significant variation of the Intruders. In the course of a couple of years, they received two Battle "E" awards, a CNO safety award and the CINCPACFLT Golden Anchor. In 1982 and 1983 the Midway became the first carrier to operate, over the course of two cruises full of heavy seas, fog and cold, in the Northern Pacific since World War II. During those years, the squadron also participated in the first two STARM missile exercises, which included the first live firing of the missile.

The Midway went through an update for most of 1986 and was back patrolling the Western Pacific in 1987. On 10 October 1990, the VA-115, after flying a series of missions protecting Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf, began flying combat missions during Operation DESERT STORM. They flew 456 sorties and dropped over 700,000 lbs of bombs on Iraqi targets and destroyed 12 Iraqi vessels.

The Midway left Yokosuka in August 1991 to sail back to the States for her retirement. The VA-115 transitioned to the USS Independence, which was replacing the Midway's spot as the Navy's forward based carrier. Aboard their new home, the VA-115 continued operating over Iraq during Operation SOUTHERN WATCH, where they enforced the No Fly Zone. During the operation, they flew 115 combat missions and earned a Meritorious Unit Commendation. They continued participating in SOUTHERN WATCH until 1994.
In 1996, the VA-115 was assigned a new home in Lemoore, California. They also began the transition to the F-18 Hornet and received a new designation, VFA-115. In 1997, the new VFA-115 Eagles were serving on the USS Abraham Lincoln and flying contingency operations around Taiwan. In June 1998, they were back in the Persian Gulf and participating in the ongoing Operation SOUTHERN WATCH. That same year, the VFA-115 became the first squadron to receive the brand new F/A-18 Super Hornet as well as the first to receive the Advanced Tactical FLIR (the latest in night vision).

In July 2002, during their first cruise flying the Super Hornet along with CVW-14, the squadron participated in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (as well as continuing flying sorties for SOUTHERN WATCH) flying 215 sorties and dropping 22 JDAMs on 14 targets. In 2003, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, the squadron dropped 380,000 lbs of ordnance and, as tankers, passed 3.5 million pounds of fuel to other aircraft. They received their sixth Navy Unit Commendation.

The squadron deployed on the USS John C. Stennis in May 2004 and participated in various excercises to develop a new fleet response plan. The squadron authored a comprehensive joint doctrine for maritime interdiction - now a primary training focus for West coast strike squadrons.

In January 2007, the VFA-115 deployed aboard their last carrier to date, the USS Ronald Reagan. Since April 2007, the squadron has been shore based in Lemoore, California participating in training exercises.

The squadron will turn 66 in October 2008. For most of that time, they have maintained a presence at the tip of the sword of U.S. naval defenses, like a sheepdog, always vigilant, ready to protect the sheep and prepared to drain the swamp before the U.S. finds itself up to its ass in alligators.

Much of the information came from Ralph Brannan's superb History Of VT-11/VA-12A/VA-115/VFA-115 (which was the basis for the CV-41 history on the squadron as well), The Dictionary of American Naval Aviation Squadrons, Volume One. A lot of useful information regarding the A-1 Skyraider can be found at The Official A-1 Skyraider site. Some of the WWII era information on losses came from Aviation Archaeology.
* * * * * * *
The USS Midway
The Tip of the Sword: A Brief History of the USS Midway
Gator Control: The VA-115
Aircraft of the USS Midway

On the Deck and In the Air, 1974-77
Pollywog to Shellback: Crossing the Line, 1975

Japan: A Forward-based Homefront
Home: Yokosuka and Nagai
Japan: Kamakura, Fuji and Izu areas
Ports of Call
Subic Bay
Hong Kong

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this.