Bonin Islands

Lt. Cmd. Daniel. J. Wallace took command of Air Group 31 on June 29, 1944 and Task Group 58.2 left Kwajalean Atoll the following morning (June 30, 1944), enroute to the Bonin Islands and the 1st attack on Iwo Jima and its airfields.  The Bonin Island group is only 500 miles off of the coast of mainland Japan.  They are made up of around 30 islands, the largest of which are Iwo Jima which had 2 airfields holding 80 fighter aircraft and Chichi Jima which had a large garrison and a good harbor with a substantial naval base.

This would be the first deep penetration into the Japanese homeland and it would be met with some of the fiercest fighting by some of the finest Japanese pilots, equipped with the latest fighter aircraft that were as yet encountered. The pilots stationed at the airfields on Iwo Jima  would be defending the Japanese homeland as the Bonin Island group had been a part of Japan since 1875. Iwo Jima had been undergoing reinforcement by the Japanese since June 8th when Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi was put in charge of fortifying the island. By the time the US naval aircraft made their first assault on the morning of July 4th the Japanese were fully ready for them.

July 4, 1944:

The pilots of VF-31 were up at 0345 hours for breakfast and the briefing on the predawn patrol and strike on Iwo Jima and the Bonin Islands. Three divisions, consisting of twelve F6F Hellcat fighter aircraft were launched from the USS Cabot at 0500 hours:

Division 1: Lt. Cmd WallaceLt (jg) Nooy,  Lt. (jg) Wilson, and Lt. (jg) Hancock.
Division 2: Lt. MencinLt. (jg) Elezain, Lt. (jg) Loomis, and Ens. Osborne.
Division #: Lt. Anderson, Lt (jg) Duggins, Lt. (jg) McLaughlin

The twelve pilots of VF-31 were assigned to fly top cover at 15,000 feet while aircraft from the other squadrons went in and engaged any enemy aircraft that might be launched and to attacked the two airfields. The pilots of VF-31 saw the other fighter aircraft who were assigned to cover the 10,000 foot level mixing it up with Japanese fighter aircraft and noticed a flight of around 30 enemy fighter planes flying away from the action. Some of the pilots dropped down to engage the enemy aircraft that were just below them and it was not long afterwards that the pilots flying top cover were attacked from above by several Japanese Zero fighter aircraft.  The Japanese fighter pilots that appeared to be flying away form the conflict had circled back around and climbed up to an altitude of 20,000 feet in order to be above the pilots flying top cover. Once they were in a position above the US fighter pilots with the sun to their backs they dove into the 3 divisions of VF-31 and took them by surprise. The Japanese pilots that were defending Iwo Jima and engaged with VF-31 were some of the best fighter pilots that had been encountered up until that time and they held their own in the ensuing aerial combat.

Lt (jg) Wilson's account of this engagement:
"In that predawn attack, we ran into some of the best pilots the Japs ever put up against us, Until our Hellcats thinned them out, the Zeros outnumbered us and had the altitude advantage. During the fight, I engaged seven Zeros, damaged two and helped destroy another. But one of them finally got on my tail down close to the deck and got in plenty of good shots. My plane was badly damaged, and I was too low to bail out.  All I could do was sit and wait for the Jap to finish me off, but in the nick of time, two planes from my squadron came down and knocked off the Zero.  By some very strenuous operation, I managed to get the flying junk heap back to the Task Force where I bailed out and was immediately picked up by one of our destroyers. I learned later that my squadron commander, Lt. Cmdr. D. J. Wallace Jr. and Lt. James T. Anderson, were the pilots that drove the Zero away. Lt. Anderson shot him down shortly afterwards."

Executive Officer Lt. Mencin had this to say about this engagement:
"This was our toughest fight; we were out numbered, and the Jap pilots and planes were the best we ever encountered.  The Japs flew like something out of a circus, but the Hellcats were too much for them. While they were doing acrobatics, we were shooting. I set three afire and saw them crash, and probably got another while I saw it spinning down with his tail assembly broken up."

Lt. (jg) Nooy's account of the engagement:
"It was a pre dawn fighter sweep up in the Bonin Islands on Iwo Jima.  We ran into a real hot Jap outfit and had our hands full. Planes were being shot down all over the sky and I couldn't tell whether they were Japs or ours. I finally got separated and ended up fighting by myself on the deck. Finally I ran out of ammunition and started home. En route I picked up one of our boys shot up, Ens. Osborne, further on we found two lost pilots and brought them all home"

The strikes on Iwo Jima resulted in aerial victories for the following pilots:

Lt. (jg) Nooy:  4 Zeros shot down
Lt. Mencin:  3 Zeros shot down
Lt. McLaughlin:  1 Tony shot down
Lt. Anderson:  1 Zero shot down
Ens. Duggins:  1 Jill shot down
Ens. Osborne:  1 Zero shot down

The pre dawn air assault on Iwo Jima on the 4th of July would result in the first casualties for VF-31.  Three pilots would be lost on this mission.

Lt (jg) Haig G. Elezian, Jr.
Lt (jg) Frank Hancock
Lt (jg) Malcolm L. Loomis

A second mission was launched at 1000 hours and this time the airfields and ground installations were the target.  Air Group 31 bombed the airfields on Iwo Jima destroying fuel dumps, buildings and damaging a Minesweeper.  VF-31 also flew air cover for the Navy Cruisers which had moved in and were shelling the island installation with their heavy guns.  There was no fighter opposition but the AA was heavy.  All aircraft returned safely from this 2nd mission.

A 3rd mission over Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima was launched at 1500 hours.  Again ground targets were bombed. VF-31 pilots again flew top cover for the SDBs and SBCs that were diving on the airfield and surrounding buildings

Searches were conducted for the 3 missing pilots during both of the later missions but were not successful.

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