The fighters are first. Their folding wings lock in place, their two thousand horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines rev and kick to life. Behind them the Avenger Torpedoes get in position, followed by the Helldiver bombers.
Arthur Singer Jr. sits in his plane. His parachute harness tight around his flying suit, the one he had the parachute riggers sew extra pockets on. The propeller blast blows into his open cockpit, the roar of dozens of engines on deck deafen him. The first plane goes, edging down the carrier till it takes to the sky. Singer watches the man on deck, waits for the signal. When he gets it, he speeds down the flight deck, the plane vibrates as it reaches take off speed. He opens the throttle, faster and faster, shaking and rattling till the rumble of the deck is gone and there is nothing around him but air and sea.
The Hellcat drops for moment -a feeling Singer’s felt dozens of times, but one that always gives him a thrill- then it climbs skyward. Singer is twenty-three and handsome. He’s a fighter pilot, an Ace. That means he’s cocky and aggressive with a killer’s instinct. He flamed his first zero off Saipan. He got two more over Rota when he was jumped by four Japanese fighters. The first exploded, the second trailed fire into the sea. On a Photo Recon over Ie Shima he met a squadron of Japanese bombers, he shot down four of them single-handedly.
Singer’s squadron is Fighter Group 15, a squadron of aces. They call themselves “Satan’s Playmates” but they’ll be remembered by another name: “The Fabled Fifteen”.
In ten minutes or so, the whole Air Group is launched. The planes claw higher and higher, till their ship, the USS Essex,looks like a pebble in a desert. They are joined by aircraft from other carriers, till the sky glitters with planes.
Below them is Task Force 38, spread out for miles in all directions. In the center, the most valuable ship, the Aircraft Carrier. Back in 1942, there might have been one or two Carriers but in October 1944 there are six or eight or twelve carriers, and that’s just one Task Force. One group of ships in the most powerful maritime force the earth has ever seen, the United States Navy. The planes climb until they reach twelve or fifteen thousand feet. The ships below grow smaller till they seem to sit motionless on the ocean. The Avengers form in diamonds of four planes, two in front, two split out on the side. Higher up, Helldivers separate into divisions of six planes, split in three plane V formations. On the very top, in Echelon fours, are the fighters, the Hellcats.
The planes circle and wait. Last night, October 24th, enemy ships were spotted. Now on the 25th, scout planes are out trying to find them again. Somewhere out there is the Japanese Navy. Destroyers, cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers, four of them. One of them is the last remaining carrier from the attack on Hawaii on December 7th, the Zuikaku. The Americans want the Zuikaku; they want to sink the last reminder of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese know what the sinking means for the Americans and they will use it against them. They form Zuikaku and her fellow carriers into their Northern Force. The Northern Force will steam toward Task Force 38 and the 3rd fleet of which she is part of. The Japanese carrier’s mission is not to win. Their mission is to get the American force to follow them. The Japanese know they have no chance, they know they are floating ghosts. If they meet the bombs and guns of the U.S. 3rd Fleet the Japanese will have succeeded. It means they drew the powerful force away from the weak American Invasion Fleet, and the carrier-less Japanese Central Force of battleships can move in and destroy the invasion force before it hits Leyte.
At 7:10 AM a scout plane relocates the Japanese ships. The Air Group heads to intercept. Singer knows what combat is like. He’s been in it for almost half a year. He knows how the blue sea gives ways to turquoise reefs, sandy beaches and lush jungle. He’ll go in first, with the fighters. They’ll clear the skies then strafe the ground, open the way for the bombers. If a pilot gets hit, and he’s lucky, it’s quick. He smashes into a pulp and burns to nothing when his plane hits the ground. If he’s not, it takes longer. He’ll trail smoke, losing fuel and oil pressure until he has to bail out or ditch in the ocean. Maybe he’ll be rescued, maybe he’ll be taken prisoner. Or maybe he’ll be alone, drifting for days under the sun with no shelter, living on hope; hope that holds out longer than survival rations or fresh water; hope that keeps a man going until he realizes it’s all a sham, and he disappears without a trace.
The American Air Group flies onward. On the horizon are small shapes that get larger with each passing minute. Long block-like objects, big and small, surrounding four flat ones, aircraft carriers. There are more shapes in the sky above, enemy planes. The Japanese fighters peel off and head for the American Air Group. They go for the Helldivers, dropping in from 9,000 feet above them. Machine gun and cannon fire racks the formation. The Hellcats rise to meet the Zeros, breaking them up.
Aerial Combat is not pleasant. It’s like a roller coaster, only there’s no rail and you’re going over two hundred miles an hour. Singer’s head snaps back and forth as he twists and dives. He downs a Zero, flame streaks from its engines as it falls. He sees another, making a rising turn, he shoots and pieces fly off it as it screams by. Singer doesn’t have time to chase it, his wingman spots four other Japanese and they go after them. Tracers fly under Singer’s wing. He snap rolls right, but the Zero is still with him, he twists and turns but the enemy follows his every move. Another Zero comes to join the hunt, sensing blood. For an instant, the second Zero passes before his sights and Singer lets off a long range deflection shot. Smoke pours from the Zero but Singer can’t watch, the first Zero is still stuck to his tail. The pilot is good, Singer can’t shake him. The nimble zero turns with the Hellcat, matching it move for move. The Japanese gunsight inches onto the American, it won’t take long before it passes him with enough lead to open fire on a moving target.
Singer slams his controls forward, his plane goes in a dive:7,000 feet, 6,000 feet, 5,000… The Zero follows, waiting to open up with its machines guns to get the range, then start with the large wing mounted twenty-millimeter cannons. The stick goes hard in Singer’s hand, the engine whines as momentum increases. The plane vibrates as it goes straight down towards the water. 4,000 feet, 3,600, 3,500, 3,400… at 3,000 feet Singer pulls out and jerks the stick right. The sudden change of direction yanks him in his seat. The windshield fogs up in the warmer lower altitude. Singer looks behind, above, to his right and left. Nothing. Maybe he lost the Zero in the dive, but he doesn’t think so. The pilot was too tenacious, too good. He looks again, all over, then he catches a glimpse of something moving through the thawing edges of his windshield. It’s the Zero. It comes head on, wings spitting fire. Singer pushes his trigger, the Hellcat vibrates as its machine guns empty their load. They catch the Zero as the two meet, the Japanese airplane explodes almost on top of him.
When October 25th is over, the Zuikaku is underwater. All three other carriers in the Japanese force, the Chiyoda, Zuiho and Chitose also sink. The last of the ships that were the pride of the Imperial Navy are below the waves. But they did their job. The lured the U.S. 3rd fleet away to attack them. Their loss allowed the Japanese a crack at the unguarded American Leyte Invasion Force, who by luck and determination held out with the loss of a carrier, two destroyers and a destroyer escort.
In their six month tour of duty VF-15, Satan’s Playmate’s, shot down 310 enemy planes in aerial combat, the highest scoring Fighter Squadron in US Naval history for a single deployment. Twenty-six of them became aces. Arthur Singer Jr. finished as a double ace with ten victories, one of only sixty-five men to reach that status in the entire U.S. Navy.
When peace came, Singer put the war behind him and moved on. He earned a PhD. and became a professor at San Diego State University. The man with a killer’s instinct for combat spent the rest of his life teaching education. He became a member of the Council for Exceptional Children and the California Faculty Association. When the Professor died in 2004 his obituary made no mention of Arthur Singer Jr., Ace pilot in the Navy’s premier fighter squadron. It made no mention of his air battles in the Marianas and the Philippines with the Fabled Fifteen. The obituary only made a brief note that “he served as a Naval Aviator in World War Two” then went on to the important things, what made Arthur Singer Jr. more proud of than his kills in the air: his academic accomplishments, his teaching and professorship, enriching lives rather than taking them.