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F6F Hellcat "Betsy II" 25839 Who Damaged This Hellcat?
Research by Justin Taylan

Attempts to reconstruct events of September 16, 1943 that lead to F6F 25839 being damaged by friendly aerial machine gun fire, and later forcing it to ditch. Luckily, the pilot was uninjured, but who was responsible for this incident? The combat reports from VF-38 specifically mention an friendly F4U hitting this fighter accidently, and that the plane was piloted by a famous pilot.  This is a very interesting incident, for a number of reason.  Firstly, it was indeed one of the first combat missions of the F6F Hellcat in theater, possibly supporting the idea that an Allied pilot might not recognize the aircraft. Secondly, there were many different types of aircraft flying this day, and a dogfight ensued that spanned many hundereds of miles and confusion.

Evidence

50 caliber Bullet holes are visible on the left side of the fuselage, behind the cockpit, and appear to be the only damage to the exterior of the aircraft.

The pilot of F6F 25839 is deceased since 1978. His wingman, Lt. (jg) Beaumont was alive in 1986, and might still be alive today. At present, we have been unable to locate him.

Facts in the Case

Summary of September 16, 1943

Japanese
A6M3 Zero, A6M2 Zero (204th Kōkūtai)
Ki-61 Tony (reported, none flying)
Allied
F6F Hellcat (first combat mission flown in theater)
F4U Corsair
P-40
SBD Dauntless
TBF Avenger

F4U Pilots Know To Have Flown the mission:

VMF-214 'The Black Sheep'
A total of 24 F4Us participate in the mission, one aborts.
A total of 11 victories and 8 probables are awared.

Major Stan Bailey (1 probable victory)
Bob Alexander (1 Zero victory)
Major Gregory 'Pappy' Boyington (5 Zeros claimed)
Lt. Don 'Mo' Fisher (2 Zero victories / Boyington's wingman)
Lt. Virgil Ray (1 probable victory)
Lt. John Begert (2 Zero victories)
Lt. Bill Case (1 probable victory)
Lt. McCartney (2 probable victories)
Lt. Chris Magee (1 probable victory)
Lt. Bob McClurg (1 Zero victory, also observed a Zero shoot down an F6F)
Lt. Ed Olander (1 probable victory)
Lt. Bruce Matheson (1 probable victory)
F4U 17127 Captain Ewing (Last seen attacking Zeros, first combat loss and MIA of VMF-214)
John Bolt
Buney Tucker
Lt. Paul 'Moon' Mullen
Lt. Tom Emrich
Lt. Denmark Groover, Jr.

Victory Claims & Actual Losses
American Side
VMF-214 11 victories, 8 probables
VF-38, VF-40 claimed 5 Zeros, 1 Tony, 1 probable
A total of 17 victories and 9 probables
One F4U is MIA, three F6Fs are lost including F6F 25839, two pilots rescued
Japanese Side
Japanese Records indicate 5 Zero were lost by the 204th Kōkūtai, one Zero by 201st Kōkūtai
Japanese claimed 4 fighters shot down, and 2 damaged, which was exagerated.

Boyingtons's Claims & Kills
The night before, he had a troubled sleep fearing failure because of insufficient pilots' preparation compared to the several months training of other units. During the mission, he claimed:

1) A6M3 Zero fired from behind at 150' cockpit aflame, rolled left plunged straight down hit the water 10 miles east of Ballale [Credit Awarded for this kill]

2) A6M3 Zero, fired from yards astern, blew up in front of him, he flew thru debris (minor damage / dents to his F4U)

Spotted a pair of F6Fs flying close formation and escorting the [TBF] bombers home, a Hamp began firing on the F6F, too close to the bombers to manuver. The Zero overshot the F6Fs, and pulled into a loop, Boyington attacked...

3) A6M3 Zero lost airspeed and Boyington fired at it, shooting it down in a flaming arch as it stalled.

4) A6M3 Zero fired on head-on and knocks off pieces of the cowling at 300 yards, left it streaming smoke, and watched the fighter in a slow glide for about 10 miles until it finally hit the water.

Fired on a Zero at 600 yards (1/3 mile), saw it smoking, but did not follow it because he was low on fuel and ammo. [Aside from mention in combat report, not claimed as vicotry or probable].

Comments by Researchers

Comments by Justin Taylan

I dove this wreck in September 2003. There is no doubt this plane was damaged by machine gun fire, according to mission reports, and damage visible the wreck.  If it was Boyington, is another question.  He did fly that mission, and in his reports mentions coming close to a pair of F6Fs, then making his 3rd kill that day.  There are examples of American friendly fire incidents, luckily this one was not fatal to the F6F pilot. Boyingtons' account of the day does talk about mis-identifying an F4U momentarily in the action, and following it.  But, for whatever reason, be it political or otherwise, we may never know who it was for sure.

Comments by Bruce Gamble

VMF-214 Records for September 16, 1943 - Nothing Mentioned
I did not leave out information [in my books The Black Sheep and Black Sheep One] regarding the events of September 16. I've heard rumors about Boyington being blamed for downing an F6F, but there's nothing mentioned in the VMF-214 paperwork. In my book "The Black Sheep,"

I covered the September 16 event beginning on page 200 and it goes on for 10 pages. I discussed claims vs. losses, and here is a notable excerpt (pp. 209-10):
"With so much confusion in the air, contention over specific claims was inevitable. In the case of the Black Sheep's first combat, an argument arose when a Navy pilot landed his F6F at Banika and complained that Greg Boyington had taken credit for some of his victories. George Britt became involved as the moderator."

I do have a photocopy of the handwritten war diary kept by the VMF-214 intel officer (1/LT Frank Walton). In it, all that is mentioned of the Navy fighters is that "a flight of F6Fs provided medium cover at 17,000."

I think VMF-214 may have been the only F4U squadron involved.  The only way to know is to check the MAG-11 and MAG-21 (VMF-121, VMF-221, VMF-223, VMF-234) war diaries at NARA.  The former was at Turtle Bay, the latter at Banika in the Russells.  There was some overlap between them as to who had operational/administrative control over various squadrons.  So those are two more documents to dig up in addition to the VF-38 combat reports that you indicated.  I can't think of any other pilots who might be considered "famous" on that mission.  It's just an odd definition for that time period.  As you suggest, maybe those comments were made later.  The case is certainly interesting.  It is true that a VMF-214 F4U attacked PT 126 only two weeks later, as it turns out), and the details are covered in The Black Sheep.

I'll try to help get to the bottom of this mystery (which is what I consider it at this stage), and it may take a few emails and searches to reach a conclusion. I have not seen the mission report from the VF squadron involved, nor have I read the debriefing. It would help me to have copies of those relevant pages.

"[The Navy F6F pilot] was mad as hell that Boyington claimed the same planes, but Boyington was very adamant that he was the one to get credit, and he got it. His story sounded more plausible. "Sour grapes," said Boyington, after the lieutenant commander stormed out of the operations hut."

That quote is from then-Maj. George F. Britt, who was MAG-21 Operations Officer at the time. It refers directly to the post-mission debriefings on Sept. 16, and he did not mention a brouhaha over someone claiming that Boyington accidentally shot down a Hellcat. When I interviewed Britt, he remembered that the Navy pilot was a LDCR, but couldn't recall his name. Britt was still sharp as a tack, however, and if there had been some question about Boyington shooting down a Hellcat by mistake, I'm sure Britt would have remembered being directly involved in the investigation or debriefing.

So that's one pretty solid piece of circumstantial evidence to refute the myth. If you can provide some information from the F6F pilot's side, I'd like to keep digging. Keep in mind that all of the findings will be circumstantial.

Did the F6F pilot really get a good look at the plane that shot him? How would he know that it was Boyington in a particular Corsair? More than twenty were in the air, and none had personal markings. National insignias and two- or three-digit modexs were the only markings. What if the Navy pilot was embarrassed over being shot down, and merely claimed he was the victim of friendly fire to save face?

Also, Boyington wasn't famous at the beginning of his tour with the Black Sheep. I would venture that there were plenty of other fighter pilots in the Solomons who had better recognition than Boyington at that time. Conversely, after Boyington did become famous/notorious, he was associated by default with all sorts of deeds that he wasn't remotely involved in. He had plenty of detractors who didn't like him or were jealous of his record. This is why there are so many myths surrounding his life.

Comments by Henry Sakaida
Boyington had two combats in September 1943 in which he made claims. One was September 16 and the other was the 27th. I have a microfilm of all USN losses in WWII. I checked both dates for F6F losses. None was lost on the 27th, but 4 were lost on September 16th when VF-38 joined with VMF-214 in combat around Ballale.

Of the four Hellcat losses, 3 pilots were saved. The survivors were:
F6F piloted by Lt(jg) Moore (ditched, rescued by coastwatcher Kennedy)
F6F 27769 (Lt(jg) Leland Baucom Cornell, also not killed);
F6F 25839: LtCdr John Howard Anderson (not killed, he claimed a Zeke damaged on Jan 24);
F6F 25940, Lt(jg) Wayne W Presley (seen to crash into sea, MIA);
F4U 17127 VMF-214 lost an F4U (Ewing)
TBF-1 Bu No unknown VMTB-233 (Lt E. A. Croker) at Ballale.
TBF-1 23909 VC-40 (Lt(jg) Rowland D Hahn) at Ballale. 

(other losses that same day in other parts of the Pacific)

VMF(N)-531 lost a PV-1N at Savo (Lt Miller). 
VB-9 lost an SBD-4 in the East Central Pacific (no name given)
VF-9 lost one Hellcat in the West Central Pacific, no name given)

So you will have to track down the suvivors' families to see if the friendly fire incident by Boyington is true. I checked the Tailhook Association Directory and none were listed; they could be deceased. Write to the National Archives and pull the mission report for VF-38. Contact Bruce Gamble and see if he had heard this rumor.

I have the report of VMF-214 as written verbatim by Bob McClurg. I'll make some photocopies to send to you. Boyington was credited with 5 victories that day, but he was overclaiming! VF-38 claimed 6 Zeroes and 4 damaged; the Blacksheeps claimed 11 Zeroes with 8 probables!!! The claims by RNZAF P-40s is unknown. The Japanese lost 6 or 7 in this fight.

 

Last Updated
February 18, 2014

 

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