What was to become the FIST of the FLEET was conceived on September 15, 1941, when the keel of the USS BUNKER HILL (CV-17) was laid. On January 1 1943, VT-17 was formed under the command of LCDR Frank W. “Silver Fox” Whitaker. In those previous fifteen months, the US Navy was busy recruiting, training, and purchasing the aircraft and thousands of items the squadron would need when the USS Bunker Hill was commissioned on May 24, 1943.
Note: CVG-17 was also formed on January 1, 1943. This air group became CVBG-17, then CVBG-5 in 1946 and redesignated CVG-6 in 1948. It became CVW-6 in 1963 and was disestablished on April 1, 1992. Numerical designation of air groups began in 1942, many numbered according to their assigned ship (CV-17 .. CVG-17) and each ship had a distinctive graphic design for its aircraft. Aircraft assigned to USS Bunker Hill were identified with a vertical arrow on the tail.
The “Fist of the Fleet” began as Torpedo Squadron 17 (VT-17) at NAS Norfolk (Virginia), initially assigned TBF-1 then TBM-1C aircraft as part of Air Group 17 (CVG-17). The TBM Avenger was the same as the Grumman designed TBF, but built by Eastern Aircraft, a division of General Motors. The squadron moved to NAAS Chincoteague (Virginia) for training, away from the flight activity and intense scrutiny at Norfolk (Virginia).
Trivia: According to Tom Blackburn, skipper of VF-17, LCDR Whitaker “begged, borrowed, or stole several airborne radars, which he used to develop foul-weather and night-attack techniques that eventually won fleetwide acceptance in early 1944″.
In September, 1943, USS Bunker Hill departed Norfolk for the Panama Canal. At that time, Air Group Seventeen was composed of VF-17 (F4U-1A), VB-17 (SB2C), and VT-17 (TBF-1). On arrival at Pearl Harbor, Tom Blackburn’s famous Jolly Rogers (VF-61 before disestablished in 1959) was shipped to the South Pacific and replaced by VG-18, flying F6F’s. Sometime prior to November 1944, part of VFN-76 joined the Air Group, flying radar-equipped F6F’s for night intercepts. Air Group Seventeen was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for combat operations between November 1, 1943 and February 23, 1944.
Note: This swap of squadrons was largely for logistical reasons and not because of poor carrier suitability. The F4U did have many problems when first introduced to the fleet, but these were largely corrected in the F4U-1A. Blackburn was (liven the option of transitioning his squadron to F6F’s and staying with USS Bunker Hill, or taking his Corsairs to Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides.
Trivia: Until the Battle of Midway (June 1942), carrier based VT squadrons flew the Douglas TBD Devastator, then quickly transitioned to TBM’s or TBF’s. VB squadrons flew SBD’s until the SB2C came to the fleet in 1943. VF squadrons had FzIF’s at the beginning of the war, transitioning to F6F’s or F41-J’s during 1943.
Note: A VT-8 detachment flew six TBF’s from Midway Island on June 4, 1942 at the beginning of the Battle of Midway. Only one returned. VT-8’s TBD’s, flying from USS Hornet (CV-8), had a miserly top-speed of 167 knots and all 15 aircraft were shot down.
Air Group Seventeen joined the new USS Hornet (CV-12) in February 1945. At this time, the Air Group had VF-17, VFB-17, VB-17, and VT-17. Air Group Seventeen was again awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for combat operations between February 18 1945 and July 10, 1945.
USS Hornet had two fighter squadrons/ At least one was probably equipped with F6F’s, which had two bomb racks and six rocket rails. Several squadrons flew the F4U (or FG) from carriers in 1945, but there is no record of a Corsair squadron operating from USS Hornet during WWII.
LCDR Frank W. Whitaker, Commanding Officer, January 1, 1943.
On July 13, 1943 the squadron first assumed shipboard operations status aboard USS Bunker Hill (CV-17). On September 28, 1943 the squadron left San Diego under the command of LCDR Frank M. Whitaker for Pearl Harbor on its first cruise flying the TBM Avenger, a three seat torpedo bomber with a tail gunner. By November 11, 1943 the squadron engaged in it’s first combat at Rabaul in the Solomons while pushing Japanese forces back up the Indonesian chain of islands, also known as “the slot”, which the Japanese had invaded on their way to Australia. Between November 1943 and February 1944, the squadron saw action at Kavieng (Kawieng), Kawajalein, Eniwetok (where LCDR Whitaker was killed in a mid-air collision), Truk and Tinian Islands as they fought their way up the slot. After Eniwetok, Lt. G. N. Owens was the senior pilot in the squadron. In March 1944, VT-17 returned to NAS Alameda aboard USS Essex (CV-9).
Note: The USS Essex began combat operations on August 31, 1943. USS Essex had been completed with catapults, which were installed during this refit at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. She also received a new bridge and additional 40mm anti-aircraft mounts. She rejoined the war on May 8, 1944.
Lt. G. N. “Grady” Owens, Commanding Officer (acting)
Lt. John A. Martin, Commanding Officer (acting)
Note: the USS Bunker Hill continued flight operations with Air Group Eight. On May 11, 1945 USS Bunker Hill was hit by two kamikazes that left the ship with 635 casualties. The remaining crew steamed the ship to Pearl Harbor, then to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Repairs were completed in July and the ship had departed NAS Alameda for the war zone when Japan surrendered. Decommissioned in January 1947, USS Bunker Hill remained mothballed for 18 years. In 1965, the ship became a Naval Electronics Laboratory in San Diego, serving as a test-bed for research, development, and engineering programs.
On April 18, 1944, VT-17 left NAS Alameda onboard USS Hollandia (CVE-97) for Pearl Harbor and then on to NAS Hilo in Hawaii.
Note: Escort carriers (CVE’s), which wags said stood for Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable, served vital roles in the Atlantic and Pacific. Their thin-skin and slow speed (16 knots) meant they couldn’t operated with the Essex class carriers, but they managed to go in harm’s way during ASW and amphibious operations. Several were sunk or damaged during WWII. Marine F4U squadrons operated from CVE’s during the Okinawa campaign and again during the Korean War. The USS Annapolis (CVE-107) served as AGMR-1 (communications ship) from 1965 to 1969 during the Vietnam war. None survive as memorials.
LCDR William M. Romberger, Commanding Officer, May 2 1944
While operating out of Hilo, the squadron performed many pre-dawn simulated attacks on friendly shipping in the Hawaii area, which allowed the squadron to perfect their horizontal bombing tactics.
Note: VT-17 was probably assigned TBM-3’s for their second combat tour. These aircraft had 1900 horsepower engines instead of 700 horsepower, improved cockpit lighting, and some were equipped with radar.
On December 16, 1944, VT-17 left Hawaii onboard USS Nassau (CVE-16) enroute to Guam. After one month in Guam, the Air Group embarked for Ulithi in the USS Kasaan Bay (CVE-69). On February 1, 1945 the carrier reached Ulithi and Air Group Seventeen sortied aboard USS Hornet (CV-12). the next few days were spent briefing the flight crews on “Operation Tokyo”. VT-17’s first target was an island very close to Japan. Tokyo culled Hucijo Jima on February 16. The strike was a complete success and that afternoon another strike was sent over Hamarnatsu Airfield on the main island. Anti-aircraft “flak” was minimal and strafing by the squadron was rampant, inflicting extensive damage to the airfield and parked planes. For three days the task force haunted Honshu, hitting airfields such as Toyoliamshi, Kanaya and Chickijima, a “hot spot” of enemy anti-aircraft flak. Chickijima is where (President) George H. W. Bush was shot down. (He was flying a TBM Avenger.)
Note: Ulithi Atoll, in the western Carolines, was seized from the Japanese in the fall of 1944 then served as a naval base for the remainder of the war. Only 350 miles southwest of Guam and 1100 miles east of Manila, Ulithi was not totally immune from Japanese long-range bombers.
The squadron later learned that “Operation Tokyo” had been a diversionary tactic, a feint to keep Empire aircraft on the ground watching the home fires burn. The force then steamed for the primary operations objective, a little island in the Volcano Retto, 650 miles south of Tokyo. where amphibious units were already prepared to strike the island of Iwo Jima. Five support missions were launched to support the Iwo ground forces over a two day period.