More excited chatter over the radio described the withering fire that was even now falling on Bonis and Buka; I later learned that the narrator was Lieutenant Commander “Jumpin’” Joe Clifton of VF-12 from the U.S.S. Saratoga. Clifton was a fine and respected pilot, but according to some, his chronic non-observance of radio silence bordered on the treasonable.
Then the voice of the FDO called: “Blue Devil One, this is Cocker Base. Many bogeys at angels one-five, heading one-four-zero. Vector three-one-zero, two-five miles. Proceed to intercept, buster.”
Bogeys! The message meant that a large number of unidentified aircraft had been spotted on radar, heading southeast at 15,000 feet, 25 miles away, north-northwest of our position; we were to set a course to intercept at top speed. Apparently, the Japanese had wasted no time in sending up a counterattack, probably from Rabaul. I banked left and pushed the throttle up to full combat power, rocking my wings to signal that we were changing course. My two divisions closed in tight, while Comeaux’s planes dropped back and climbed a thousand feet, spreading out to provide high cover. At most, we had five minutes before making contact.
I scanned the sky by drawing an imaginary sector, studying it quickly but thoroughly, then moving to an adjacent sector; without a methodical system for maintaining situational awareness, you were likely to miss spying a distant target. Comeaux was the undisputed master of this procedure, and once again, even though he was behind me, he was the one to call out, “Athos, bogeys at ten o’clock low.”
I saw them a split-second after his announcement: an ominous mass of dark shapes in the distance like a flock of huge crows, winging toward us some eight or nine thousand feet below. The sun had crawled far enough above the horizon to be behind us; there was a good chance the enemy pilots had not seen us yet. My heart slammed into overdrive and my fingers clutched the yoke in an iron grip. There were so many of them! I counted at least 20 divebombers—fixed-gear Aichi D3A “Vals”—escorted by as many Zeros flying above but slightly behind the formation. As we sped toward them, the lead Zero, still over a mile away, began to climb toward us with his wingmen glued to his tail. We had been spotted.
I pressed my throat mike and said, “Okay, they’ve seen us. Porthos, stay high and handle the fighters. Blue Flight, we’ll take the divebombers. High side runs to the left. Mr. Kinney, stay tight with me.”
“Roger that, Skipper,” came his voice.
I banked left and swung around the bomber formation, setting up a parallel course above them and to their right. This put us dangerously close to the Zeros, but we still had a fair altitude and speed advantage. I could see the Vals clearly now: dark green, broad-winged wasps with blood-red suns blazing on their wings and fuselages. Each divebomber carried two men—pilot and rear gunner—and I saw the lead plane’s gunner swivel his 7.7mm machine gun to draw a bead on me. I rolled inverted, then pulled back on the stick to complete a split-S maneuver, which sent me hurtling down at a 60-degree angle. Like the hand of a brutal giant, the force of six G’s crushed me into my seat, so I clenched my stomach and neck muscles to help keep the blood from rushing out of my head and causing my vision to go black.
I was barreling in now at 350 mph, so I chopped the throttle to keep from overshooting my mark. At 300 yards, I squeezed the trigger and watched my tracers arc toward the hazy blue ocean below, my Hellcat rattling and shaking with the recoil. Then, there was the Val, flying right into the tracer stream, its right wing and fuselage sparking and smoking as my .50 caliber bullets slammed home. I saw a piece of green metal go whirling into space: one of his ailerons, I thought; then I firewalled the throttle and pulled hard on the stick to zoom above him. Six G’s again pressed me into my seat and dimmed my vision; when my eyesight returned a few seconds later, I saw only empty blue sky as I climbed away fast and free. Looking back, I caught a glimpse of twin trails of white and black smoke, which meant my target was leaking coolant and probably burning oil.
I saw Kinney coming around just behind me, still holding tight even after my fast run on the Val. Vickers and Rodriguez now dove into the formation, each of them picking out targets just behind the leader. A huge ball of flame suddenly erupted from one of the divebombers, and a second later, José called in his calm, Spanish-tinged voice, “Splash one meatball.”
With Kinney trailing like a faithful hound, I sped back toward the formation to set up another run from the opposite side. The Val I had shot up still held its place, but it was smoking badly and its wings were wobbling erratically. This time, I didn’t split-S but nosed down to make a fast and hard final pass on him. Again, I saw the rear gunner taking aim at me, and a line of tracers flashed dangerously close to my cockpit. I held my fire to 300 yards; then, when the Val’s outline completely filled my gunsight, I squeezed the trigger. As the tracers struck home, one wing blew into the air and fluttered away like a lost feather, and the now-unrecognizable, blazing husk of the fuselage began spinning wildly toward the earth, trailing thick, black smoke.
I had just earned two bottles of scotch.
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