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detachments (10 and 11) were withdrawn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

(Det. 11).

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


INFO Eduard

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

CVLG(N)-41 group.

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.

November 2022