Text: Richard Plos
Illustration: Petr Štěpánek
From dusk to dawn
Night fighters were a specifically trained
breed of pilots during World War II, and
this was doubly true of the naval ones.
One of those who took a keen interest
in this “discipline” within the US Navy was the
legendary Butch O'Hare, America’s first naval fighter ace. He was on a night mission
with his Hellcat F6F-3 when the disappeared
somewhere in the ocean off the Gilbert Islands on November 26, 1943. This was not
a standard night fighters deployment,
however, just a proving-ground operation
of “daylight” F6F-3s supported by Avenger
equipped with airborne radar.
The first actual deployment of night
fighters was preceded by Project Affirm,
under which the Navy had been testing
the use of AI radar installed on modified
F4U-2 Corsairs since 1942. Then in April
1943, VF(N)-75 was formed and deployed
with these aircraft from October 31 in the
Solomon Islands battles. They operated
from a land base, but in January 1944 two
detachments (10 and 11) were withdrawn
to form VF(N)-101, which moved aboard
USS Enterprise (Det. 10) and USS Interpid
Then, when the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CVL-22) was torpedoed and damaged on November 20, 1943, she sailed for
repairs to San Francisco, where she was
fitted with an additional catapult, and it was
decided that she would become the base of
a night air group. By July 3, 1944, she was
in the Hawaiian Islands, where she began
night operations training on August 24.
The fighter unit, VF(N)-75, was renamed
VF-41 on March 26, 1944, and rearmed from
Corsairs to F6F-5N Hellcats and replaced
CVLG-22 on board. Shortly thereafter, it was
reinstated as VF(N)-41 i.e. as night fighting
unit. Together with the torpedo VT(N)-41,
armed with TBF Avengers, they formed the
Training in Hawaii was completed after four
days, on August 29, 1944, when Independence sailed as part of Task Group 38 to take
part in Operation Palaus, which was intended to secure bases for the October attack
on the Philippines. Its mission was to provide night reconnaissance and patrol flights,
but since the enemy was not conducting any
night activity, the unit switched to day operations.
In the ranks of the VF(N)-41 was also
Lt. William E. “Bill” Henry, the most successful naval night fighter ace with 9.5 kills.
The unit joined the fighting on September
12, 1944, and the first success was shared
by Ens. George W. Obenour and Ens. Robert
W. Klock, who shot down one G4M Betty.
On the same day, “Bill” Henry also scored
his first fighter success, sharing one Dinah.
While this was his second success at the
time, he achieved the first one as a Dauntless pilot and member of VS-3 when he shot
down a Type 95 biplane on October 3, 1942.
William “Bill” Henry was a graduate of Junior College in his native Bakersfield. He
enlisted in the Navy in February 1940 as
an air cadet and was promoted to the rank
of Ensign on December 19 of that year.
He served with VS-3, operating from aboard
the USS Saratoga, from December 1940
to December 1942, earning the DFC and
Air Medal for his service. He then became a fighter pilot and served in the ranks
of VF(N)-75, with which he moved to Independence after reorganization of the unit.
He gradually added more success until
January 16, 1945, when he put a full stop
to VF(N)-41’s overall score by destroying
a Ki-43 Oscar. The unit scored 46 confirmed
kills, three probable and three damaged
while operating from USS Independence.
On the boxart by Petr Štěpánek, Lt. “Bill”
Henry prepares his Hellcat F6F-5N for
takeoff. There’s nothing strange about taking off in daylight. There wasn’t always
enough “work” for night fighters and so they
flew daytime missions. Sometimes the radar was removed, but the planes were then
unbalanced and harder to control. Henry
himself shot down only four of his victims
at night (three of them H8K Emily), the other
successes were achieved at dawn or dusk.
Henry earned a bachelor’s degree in
Aeronautical Engineering from the California
Institute of Technology in 1949 but continued
to serve. He was Exec of VF-3, then served
as CO of Section C of that unit at Valley Forge
until December 1, 1950. He was subsequently promoted to the rank of Commander and
retired on March 1, 1961. He died at the age of
75 on June 24, 1995, in Los Altos, California.