Just look at them: The Hellcat Flyboys of the United States Navy who flew the Grumman F6F Hellcat from aircraft carriers. This fabulous photo from World War II wonderfully captures the energy and essence of all young fighter pilots.
What is that essence so convincingly captured in the faces of these Hellcat Flyboys? First and foremost, that special quality reflects confidence, joy, and comradeship – the knowledge that they are part of an elite group that has qualified to fly and fight for the United States Navy in undoubtedly the most challenging arena of wartime aviation – carrier duty. These young men, barely beyond boyhood in many cases, have earned the right to further prove themselves in the aviation challenges that lie ahead. It is the opportunity to further test themselves that accounts for the joy and anticipation in their faces. The Hellcat Flyboys came from all across the United States of America and from diverse backgrounds to fly for the Navy and to serve the country in a venture that offered excitement and experiences far beyond any they could possibly have known back home in Des Moines, Iowa, or Biloxi, Mississippi, or Bakersfield, California. That scenario remains as true today as it did back then. These young aviators already realize that they had to be good – damn good, in order to qualify for Navy wings, but now they crave to test their limits in the brutal arena of combat to determine just how good they really are. Undoubtedly, in the photo above, there are at least three or four who survived the war and actually shot down opposing Japanese pilots in the process. Equally probable is the likelihood that at least three or four of these young men went down in rough seas never to be seen again. Not infrequently, they perished right on the carrier deck in plain sight of their shipmates after returning from a mission in a Hellcat shot full of holes or draining its last pint of fuel on landing approach. Here is a Hellcat from the USS Enterprise which crash-landed on 10 Nov. 1943. The catapult officer is climbing up the burning aircraft to successfully rescue the pilot. Note the ruptured belly fuel tank.
One thing is certain: self-confidence is a prime requisite for any fighter pilot, and even “controlled cockiness” is an asset…to a point. That characteristic confidence is on display with most flyers whose exploits I have studied. For some, the attitude is very low-key – like Clarence “Bud” Anderson in the Army Air Force who piloted a P-51 Mustang over Germany while chalking up sixteen plus victories, or “kills.” Others, like Chuck Yeager, who was also a Mustang ace in the war (five or more confirmed victories), come across as a bit more “gregarious.”
I spent some time at the Naval Air Test Station in Patuxent River, Maryland, in the late nineteen sixties. I had the opportunity to talk with some older Naval Aviators at that time. I came away from the experience with a clear picture of the “fighter- jock” mentality, an image amply supported since by much research and a library of books on aviation.
Despite the confidence and ability required to win Navy wings in the early years of the war, survival required an even greater ability, and, last but not least, considerable luck, as well. Some barely made it through; many did not.
F6F Hellcats On-Deck: Up-Front and Ready for a Mission
One Naval Aviator’s Very Distinguished Career
Not long ago, I came across the picture of a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, a Vietnam-era carrier-based fighter jet now displayed in an east-coast museum. I noticed the pilot’s name under the cockpit, LCDR LEW CHATHAM. Bells went off in my mind’s eye: I immediately recalled seeing Lew Chatham at nearby Moffett Field as one of the two “solo” pilots (#5) who flew with the 1963 edition of the Blue Angels. After that thrilling performance, I waited along the rope fence with many others to get the autographs of the entire team of six. Chatham signed as “Lt. Lew Chatham.” That small sheet of paper along with a team photo from the Navy and a picture of the group flying in formation was framed and hung in my room for several years until I finally gifted it to a young brother-in-law. This was the team picture:
Lt. Lew Chatham, 1963 Blue Angels Solo #5 (far right)
Curious after all those years, I visited the internet and discovered that Lt. Chatham retired as a Navy Admiral in 1987 after thirty-one years of service. As a Navy pilot of long standing he had 1,100 arrested carrier landings to his credit – 300 of them at night! My goodness, that record of survival reflects an incredible degree of “stick and rudder” skill, as they say.
Lew Chatham and the Navy Saga of John McCain
Furthermore, and very interesting: as strike-operations officer aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany in 1967, Chatham was one of the last to speak with a young Navy flyer by the name of John McCain who was leaving the pilot ready room for a dangerous mission over Hanoi, Vietnam. Chatham’s last words to McCain were, “You’d better be careful. We’re probably going to lose someone on this one.” The cocky pilot called back, “You don’t have to worry about me, Lew.”
History records that John McCain and his A-4 Skyhawk were shot out of the sky over Hanoi that very day by a missile. He was seriously hurt upon ejecting from the airplane, was captured by the North Vietnamese, and held captive in a grimy prison for several years. Enough said; the rest of the John McCain story is familiar to most everyone over the age of fifty.
From 1978 until 1980, Chatham commanded the nuclear-powered carrier, USS Kitty Hawk – his most challenging assignment. This was a guy who, like Chuck Yeager in the Air Force, had the “right stuff” – in spades, apparently. Remarkably, “it” seemed visible, even early-on.
I vividly recall the entire Blue Angels performance that day in 1963 at Moffett Field: the spectacle does tend to “stick” with one for a long time. As is always true of their performances, all team members of the Blue Angels radiate assurance and confidence as they walk through the formal preliminary of approaching the flight line and settling into the cockpits of their airplanes waiting in precise formation on the tarmac. I very distinctly recall seeing something special in the persona of Lt. Lew Chatham from San Antonio, Texas, that afternoon. Aside from the blond crew-cut, something else about his manner uniquely stood out, and that something else was what apparently carried him to the top echelons of the United States Navy. He, even more than the other five “Blues,” seemed to have arrived straight from central casting for the role of Navy Blue Angel.
My thanks and kudos to the Hellcat Flyboys and to Admiral Chatham for their Navy service: I only hope that, at the very least, most of those Hellcat Flyboys, like Admiral Chatham, survived their Navy experience and had a rewarding life after the War.