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


INFO Eduard

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

was drowned.

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.

August 2022