Text: Jan Bobek
Illustration: Piotr Forkasiewicz
The worst moment of the war
Elbert Scott McCuskey was one of the most
prominent Wildcat pilots in the opening phase of the fighting in the Pacific. He distinguished himself during the Battles of the Coral
Sea and of Midway. Details of his biography
are included in the F4F-3 kit in the ProfiPACK
edition, which is being released in August.
Lt. (jg) McCuskey was assigned as a gunnery officer in the 2nd Division under VF-42
aboard the USS Yorktown. This carrier sent
several attack waves to Tulagi Island north
of Guadalcanal during May 4, 1942. The Japanese were landing there, and the Americans
assumed they had no fighter cover. Therefore, they sent torpedo and dive bombers
without fighter escort. The Wildcats were put
on hold to defend the carrier. The bombers
managed to sink the destroyer Kikuzuki, the
minesweeper Tama Maru, and the special
minesweepers Wa1 and Wa2. The air strike
was initially faced only by the crews of Mitsubishi F1M biplanes from floatplane tender
Kyiokawa Maru. The SBD crews managed to
shoot down two of them.
After 1300, four fighter pilots aboard Yorktown were ordered to man the aircraft. They
expected to taxi them to the hangar only.
Surprisingly, they were ordered to launch,
and from the chart they were shown before
takeoff, they learned only the course and distance to their destination, which was Tulagi.
The reason for sending them was the report
of enemy aircraft threatening the bombers.
The Wildcat pilots did not know the identities
of the others before takeoff, some aircraft
suffered radio malfunction, and one of them,
McCuskey, was in the cockpit essentially by
accident, having taken the place of another
pilot who had left to get a lunch.
The flight was led by Lt. (jg) Leonard, his
wingman was Ens. Basset. The other pair
was commanded by McCuskey and his
wingman was Ens. Adams. The pairs split
over the target. Leonard and Basset shot
down three F1Ms from Kamikawa Maru. They
had unexpected trouble in the dogfight, as
the aggressively flown biplanes got behind
F4Fs several times. McCuskey and Adams
attacked the damaged Tama Maru, which
sank two days later. Then all four pilots together attacked the destroyer Yūzuki. They
concentrated machine gun fire on the bridge,
torpedo tubes and engine room. They wounded twenty crew members and killed nine
others, including the skipper Lt. Cdr. Hirota
Tachibana. The destroyer had to return to
Shortland for repairs.
On the return flight, the Wildcat pilots encountered the lone Devastator from VT-5.
Due to low cloud cover and radio communication difficulties the flight was separated.
Leonard and Basset landed safely on Yorktown. But McCuskey had no radio communication with his wingman or the carrier.
In addition, the Devastator ran out of fuel
and its crew ditched. McCuskey feared he
would have to do the same. He hadn't kept
track of the takeoff time and the fuel gauge
couldn't be relied upon. He decided to make
an emergency landing on Guadalcanal. After
his wingman landed nearby, McCuskey had
“the worst moment of the war” as Adams
told him that he had been in contact with the
carrier the whole time, but McCuskey didn't understand his signals. With the help of
the natives they tried to damage the valuable aircraft from falling into enemy hands
and the destroyer USS Hammann rescued
them. Their efforts lasted during high tide
until dusk and became so complicated that
it may be considered fortunate that no one
Four days later, on May 8, 1942, McCuskey
was back in action, accompanying Devastators of VT-5 in the attack on Shōkaku.
He flew as wingman for Lt. (jg) Leonard.
In the other pair, Lt. (jg) Woollen flew with
Ens. Adams. The formation was attacked by
five Zeros from Shōkaku. The Americans,
however, managed to evade the fire by turning in the direction of the attacks. During
the fight, one of the Japanese pilots made
a chandelle and McCuskey peppered the
slowed, almost stationary Zero with fire that
hit the entire wing and cockpit. The plane did
not burn, and its guns fired continuously as
it was falling into the sea. PO2c Hisashi Ichinose, was apparently killed instantly. It was
the second Zero to be shot down by US Navy
and US Marine Corps pilots in World War II.
Wollen managed to shoot down one more
Zero, piloted by PO1c Takeo Miyazawa and
damaged another one. The torpedo planes
survided. And so, McCuskey made up for his
worst moment of the war.