24 July, 2008

Profile 21 - 9 flown by Hamilton McWhorter

The Grumman Hellcat wasn't the fastest American fighter. Nor did the pilot enjoy great visibility. Even the machine's aesthetic qualities leave room for improvement.

However, with (what is reported to be) the highest serviceability rate of any American fighter, the second highest number of victories, a whopping 19:1 victory ratio over the enemy, and the legendary durability of its air-cooled engine,  the Hellcat may have been the best investment of allocated fighter resources in WW2. 

Hamilton McWhorter would agree, too. He was the first Hellcat pilot to make the coveted "ace" status of five victories and eventually achieved eleven victories in the airplane. However, enemy aircraft weren't the fighter's only target.

Hellcats were also used for additional fire support during attacks on Japanese island ports and bases.  Mac recalled such a mission - I believe late 1944 - where he took part in such an attack...

"As I approached the line of warships from about a mile or so out, at about 100 feet off the water, they all opened up with every AAA gun, including the main 8” batteries.  There were many, many muzzle flashes and smoke from stem to stern on each ship as they fired at me.  I can attest to the fact that you can see an 8” shell coming toward you - they spin slowly, leaving a thin trail of smoke and you have time to move out of the way, hoping they don’t explode as they pass nearby.”

Traveling at over 400 miles an hour, rushing into a hose of supersonic metal darts, danger’s threat is silenced by the hours of training and self discipline.  Hamilton squeezed the trigger, unleashing a spray of bullets from his Hellcat’s six .50 caliber machine guns.  Firing at a combined rate of 3,600 rounds per minute, the volley of bullets cut into the cruiser.

“I can still remember that in spite of the intense AAA fire I was flying through, I was amazed at the huge number of bright flashes as the API’s (every fifth round was an API armor-piercing bullet) hit on and around the open AAA batteries.  As I passed over the cruiser, about mast high, I looked down and saw the Japanese gunners looking at me!”

As a footnote, Mac passed away earlier this year.  In the words of his wife, "...he was a man who had only good to say about everyone."