Ens. Darrell C. Bennett, VC-10, USS Gambier Bay, August 1944
The Composite Squadron 10 was established on September 23, 1943 and adopted the name Mallards. The unit served on board the carrier USS Gambier Bay from April 5 and after her sinking in the Battle off Samar on October 25, the unit operated from airfields in Leyte. In January 1945, VC-10 was reformed and prepared for further deployment, but this never happened and it was inactivated at the end of the war. Ens. Darrell Bennett was born in Hamburg, Iowa, on March 30, 1924 and entered the Navy as an air cadet on October 1, 1943. Ten months later he was sent on his first operational tour with the VC-10 aboard the USS Gambier Bay. On the day he arrived, he had his picture taken in front of the FM-2 with a painting of two girls on the port side of the engine cowling. The first was based on a painting called Patriotic Gal by the famous Antonio Vargas. It is not known who had the two girls painted on the aircraft, but the paintings already bore signs of modification and wear. It is possible that Bennett only had “Smokey’s” added to the inscription “Lucky Witch”, as the “Smokey” was his nickname. He fought heroic battles with VC-10 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf and narrowly escaped sinking with the USS Gambier Bay, which was shot up by Japanese cruisers at the Battle off Samar. Bennett survived the war and stayed in the Navy afterwards. He flew combat missions in Korea and later trained recruits. During his career, he rose to command Fleet Air Miramar. After retirement in 1965 he flew as a private pilot. He died in December 2020.
Lt. Leopold M. Ferko, VC-4, USS White Plains, November 1944
Leopold Martin Ferko was born to Slovak parents on January 29, 1915, in Great Falls, Montana. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, where he was also a star of the American football team there. He then taught math and English at San Francisco High School and also coached the local football team before signing up with the Navy and beginning flight training on February 3. He then continued as an instructor at Corpus Christi, Texas, before being transferred to Pearl Harbor in June 1943, where he embarked with the VC-4 on the USS White Plains. The unit consisted of 16 FM-2s and 12 TBM Avengers. During the three days of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, he scored all five of his kills, although the first two may have been his last. After shooting down two Oscars he was in fact attacked himself and his FM-2 took one hit after another before the attacking enemy was shot down by the Ens. Pool. Ferko then had to make an emergency landing at Tacloban due to a damaged elevator. There, the aircraft was repaired, and he was able to return in time to score three more kills. Leopold Ferko retired from the Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and died on May 16, 1992, in San Francisco. This FM-2 was the second one he used and the kill symbols were probably only on the right side. However, the decals also offer the option of placing the symbols on the left side.
BuNo. 55643, VC-69, USS Guadalcanal, spring/summer 1944
FM-2s played a significant role in the Atlantic, where the Composite Squadrons focused on support of anti-submarine missions as the German U-boats were a major threat to supply convoys. The Composite Squadrons operated from small Casablanca or Sangamon class escort carriers and consisted usually of the TBM Avengers and the FM-2 Wildcats. Smaller size of FM-2 suited better to the cramped conditions on board than the massive Hellcats. USS Gadalcanal was converted from the freighter Astrolabe Bay and entered service in September 1943. During her maiden voyage she destroyed three submarines. As a flagship of the Task Group 22.3 USS Guadalcanal added two more U-boats to her score on the second tour. More to it, the TG 22.3 managed to capture lightly damaged German submarine. After that tour the VC-8 was replaced by VC-69 in the fall. The unit was activated on July 1, 1943 and first was placed on board of USS Bogue from May to July 1944. During this cruise, pilots were credited with the destruction of the Japanese submarine I-52, which was on a secret mission to German-occupied Lorient, France. No further similar successes were recorded by this squadron aboard USS Guadalcanal, and the unit was inactivated on June 22, 1945. Her FM-2s bore the later Atlantic livery of Dark Gull Gray and white. The inner part of the propeller blades were painted white to lighten the appearance of the “dark hole” in the nose of the aircraft. The unit’s emblem was a wolf’s head with aviator’s goggles; VC-69 aircraft sported it on both sides of the nose.
BuNo. 74626, VC-8, Lt.(jg) Harry N. O’Connor, USS Nehenta Bay, August 1945
Combined Squadron VC-8 operated aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nehenta Bay from May to September 1945. Prior to that, it had operated from the decks of USS Mission Bay and USS Guadalcanal. With USS Nehenta Bay, she left the Atlantic theater and moved to the Pacific. USS Nehenta Bay had been operating in the area since June 1944, when she joined with TF-51 aboard for offensive operations against the Marianas. Subsequently, from August 1944 to January 1945, she escorted and protected, with VC-11 aboard, tankers for refueling at sea, allowing for more efficient use of naval forces. She returned to the U.S. on February 19, 1945, for repairs at San Diego, and on May 9, already with VC-8 aboard, she arrived at Ulithi, where she prepared for attacks on Okinawa as part of Task Unit 52.1. She then protected tankers again from late June until early August, and after the fighting ceased, anchored at Pearl Harbor on September 24. There, VC-8 was inactivated on October 8. This aircraft, with Lt.(jg) O’Connor in the cockpit, crashed on landing on August 5, striking the aircraft on board. Two other FM-2s (BuNos. 75081 and 74508) were destroyed. The aircraft bore the identifying markings of the carrier and Task Unit, i.e., white fields on the ailerons (extending slightly into the wing) white aft under the horizontal tail surfaces, and twin yellow stripes on the wing and fuselage in front of the tail surfaces.
VC-80, USS Manila Bay, autumn 1944
Composite Squadron VC-80 was established on December 16, 1943 and, after embarking on USS Manila Bay, participated in the battles of Leyte and Luzon. The ship operated during the Battle of Leyte as part of Task Group TG 77.4.2 (call sign Taffy 2) of Rear Admiral Felix B. Stump and VC-80 contributed significantly to the success of American forces in the largest naval battle in history. Then, during the fighting in Lingayen Gulf, the USS Manila Bay was hit by a kamikaze attack at 1750 hours on January 5. It damaged her radar and communications equipment, caused a fire, and most importantly, cost the lives of 14 men. The resulting fire was quickly dealt with by firefighters, and some 24 hours later VC-80 aircraft were already beginning limited operations from her deck. The aircraft depicted bore the typical three-color Pacific livery, the markings complementing the symbol assigned to units operating from USS Manila Bay, a white chevron on the vertical tail surfaces.
Lt. O’Neill, VC-13, USS Tripoli, spring 1944
VC-13 was established on January 3, 1944 and on February 16 of that year embarked on the new escort carrier USS Tripoli. The ship suffered a fire shortly after her maiden cruise when an acetylene torch ignited fuel that was inadvertently dumped into the water on the starboard bow. Two seamen were killed. After repairs, USS Tripoli departed San Diego on January 31 for her new homeport in Norfolk, Virginia. She arrived there on February 16 and sailed for her first mission on March 15 as the flagship of Task Group 21.15, in which she was accompanied by five destroyers. The group patrolled west of Cape Verde, disrupting the refueling of German submarines. On April 19, an Avenger crew spotted German U-513 awaiting her “Milch Cow” (a refueling submarine). Subsequent attacks were unsuccessful, and the submarine escaped. VC-13 thus returned from the cruise without success and was replaced on board by VC-6 on April 29. New duty station of VC-13 was USS Anzio (formerly USS Coral Sea), which the squadron embarked on March 22 to engage in support of the invasion of Okinawa. The aircraft depicted here is from the Atlantic mission period. Lt. O’Neill had his photograph taken with this FM-2, but it was probably not his personal aircraft. Interesting is the white paint extending over the leading edges to the upper surfaces. On either side of the engine cowling was painted the squadron emblem, a black cat with its front paws in an obscene gesture. It might have blue or gray background. The decals offer both options.
VC-93, Lt.(jg) Robert Sullivan, USS Petrof Bay, Okinawa, April–May 1945
VC-93 was established on February 23, 1944 and its personnel was first to be trained aboard the USS Matanikau (from October 14, 1944). During its cruises off the Californian coast, this ship trained 1,332 pilots in the following months until June 1945. VC-93 replaced VC-76 aboard USS Petrof Bay on March 10, 1945 and sailed from Guam on March 21 to prepare for the Battle of Okinawa as part of Task Unit 52.1.2. VC-93 pilots supported the Marines first in the capture of the Kerama and Keise Shima archipelagos and then in the main operation on Okinawa. Beginning on April 13, the pilots then focused on neutralizing Japanese airfields on the Sakashima Archipelago, from which the Kamikaze pilots were taking off. By the end of their mission on May 26, VC-93 pilots had destroyed many enemy aircraft on the ground and shot down 17. Two of these kills were credited to Lt.(jg) Robert Sullivan. For her next mission, VC-93 sailed aboard USS Steamer Bay on June 10, 1945 and, as part of the 3rd Fleet, assisted in the neutralization of Japanese airfields in the Sakishima Gunto Archipelago beginning June 14. This was followed by a return to San Diego and the end of the war. VC-93 aircraft operating from aboard USS Perof Bay bore the distinguishing symbol of a four-leaf clover on the vertical tail surfaces and on the upper right and bottom left wing halves. The all-blue livery was complemented by a photographically documented symbol of Sullivan’s first kill on the right side below the cockpit. It is uncertain whether it was also on the port side.
VC-14, USS Hogatt Bay, November 1944
Composite Squadron 14 was established on October 12, 1943 and deactivated on October 1, 1945. Its history is associated solely with the escort carrier USS Hogatt Bay, which was commissioned on January 11, 1944 and, after a necessary test cruise and one transport mission to and from Pearl Harbor, took aboard VC-14’s equipment and personnel. Training flight operations followed from March 26, with the first landing aboard USS Hogatt Bay conducted by Captain William Vincent Saunders. The ship embarked on her first operational tour on May 1, 1944 and was assigned to Task Unit 16.14.6. VC-14 pilots subsequently conducted anti-submarine operations and air cover for destroyers in the Western Pacific area until late November. They were then replaced by VC-88 on board and VC-14 did not see further operational deployment. This Wildcat is shown here in its late service form on the USS Hogatt Bay. Of interest is the Judy inscription on the right side of the engine cowling, as well as the non-standard appearance of the ENCLOSURE RELEASE stencil on the right side below the windshield. The pilot’s name is difficult to read in the available photographs, it might be Lt.(jg) Newburn.
VC-27, Lt. Ralph Elliot, Jr., USS Savo Island, January 1945
Although the FM-2 Wildcats were the most powerful and most numerous version of this type, they were less frequently engaged in combat with enemy aircraft than the previous F4F-3s and F4F-4s. Nevertheless, ten pilots managed to achieve fighter ace status flying them, and the most successful squadron with the FM-2 in terms of kills was VC-27, called “The Saints”. Its pilots managed to shoot down a total of 61.5 enemy aircraft in aerial combat, making it the second most successful Wildcat squadron regardless of version or period. They were surpassed only by the VF-5 with 79 kills. VC-27 was established in May 1943 and operated from the escort carrier USS Savo Island from July 1944 to January 1945. During this time, she participated in five major operations, including the epic naval battle off Samar, where a small task force repelled a much stronger Japanese fleet. Under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Percival Jackson, pilots of VC-27 shot down more than twice as many enemies as any other composite squadron. The commander of the VF-27 fighter division, Lt. Ralph Elliott Jr., was the most successful ace on FM-2 with nine confirmed kills. In addition to its success in aerial combat, VC-27 also sank or destroyed 30 Japanese vessels and destroyed or damaged over 250 objects such as bridges, buildings, fuel or ammunition depots, vehicles, and the like. In March 1945, Ralph Elliott, Jr. took command of the entire squadron, but the war ended before VC-27 could rejoin the fighting. Elliott’s FM-2 was emblazoned with the inscription BALDY, documented on the right side, which also featured nine kill marks.
JV640, Sub-Lt W. Park, No. 881 Squadron FAA, HMS Pursuer, August 1944
The British Fleet Air Arm used Wildcat FM-2s under the designation Wildcat Mk. VI, as the Martlet name was dropped for the last F4F versions. The British Navy used these aircraft for similar duties as the American ones, i.e., for service on escort carriers, from whose decks they provided air cover for convoys and also operated against ground or surface targets. Under the Lend Lease program, 340 FM-2s were delivered to the FAA (220 in 1944 and the rest in 1945), and the first of these were received by No. 881 Sqn, which took part in the invasion of southern France in August 1944 aboard HMS Pursuer (Operation Dragoon). The unit also took part in actions off the coast of Norway before being rearmed with Grumman Hellcat Mk.II aircraft in March 1945. In total, FM-2s served with 22 FAA combat squadrons, with others assigned to non-combat squadrons as trainers. The JV640 aircraft sported a drawing of a tiny hare with a sword and a Viking shield on the right side of the engine cowl and had a non-standard rear-view mirror on the windshield.