BOOK REVIEW: ‘Intrepid Aviators’

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INTREPID AVIATORS: THE TRUE STORY OF USS INTREPID’S TORPEDO SQUADRON 18 AND ITS EPIC CLASH WITH THE SUPERBATTLESHIP MUSASHI
By Gregory G. Fletcher
NAL Caliber, $26.95, 369 pages

“Intrepid Aviators” is an incredibly well-researched story. Its scope is awesome and the writing superb. Ostensibly, it covers the battle experiences of the USS Intrepid through September, October and November of 1944, but italso does much more. While focused on the Intrepid’s torpedo squadron, VT-18, and particularly the author’s father, Ensign Will Fletcher, the story also covers preliminary carrier support of the Marine landings on Peleliu, early carrier strikes against Japanese installations ranging from the Philippines to Okinawa and Formosa and back again to the Philippines in time to play a key role in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

A highlight of the tale is the role the Intrepid air group played in the sinking of the Japanese battleship Musashiand several other large ships as Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita attempted to transit the San Bernardino Strait in order to disrupt the American landing force at Leyte, the landing that fulfilled Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s promise, “I shall return.”

A second highlight is the narrative of Ensign Fletcher, downed in a follow-up torpedo attack against Kurita’s remaining ships, surviving and eventually escaping from the Philippine Island of Panay with the help of Filipino guerrillas.

While the stories of Peleliu, Leyte Gulf and San Bernardino havebeen told before, seldom have they been told from such an up-close and personal perspective. One easily can feel the intensity in the cockpit of an Avenger as it makes its torpedo run at 300 feet and a mere 120 knots against a twisting and turning battleship with all guns blazing. Likewise, one can feel the fear in the hearts of the Japanese sailors as they see the low-altitude Avengers and the diving Hellcats and Helldivers launching torpedoes, bombs and bullets at their ship, the pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Of special interest are the recollections of Musashi survivors and an analysis of how the great ship eventually was sunk. It was the VT-18 torpedoes that delivered the crucial blows, definitively determined by postwar analysis and depicted in an accompanying diagram.

During a later strike on the determined Japanese fleet, Ensign Fletcher was shot down. His two crewmen perished in the crash, but he survived to drift to a small uninhabited island in the Tablas Strait. From there he made his way for several miles on a makeshift bamboo raft to a village on a small inhabited island where he eventually met the Filipino guerrillas who later led him to be picked up by an American submarine for transport to Australia and home.

An especially interesting and most helpful section of the book is titled “Source Notes.” This is more than the usual citation of references; it’s a narrative summary, chapter by chapter, of whence came all the source information, much easier for the reader to follow than a tiresome listing of otherwise obscure references. This section itself is worth space on any naval library shelf.

The principal downside to the book is that at first it’s hard to get into. Much of the first third is a description of the training of naval aviators, particularly torpedo pilots and their accommodations aboard Intrepid. There is a temptation to put the book aside when the author gets into describing the arrangement of the junior officers’ bunkroom, the ready room and the wardroom. He frequently digresses. For example, he describes in detail the organization of Filipino guerrillas on Panay.

Despite those shortcomings, there are rewards aplenty. If the reader can resign himself to skimming through the first third, the rest of the book is as exciting as any novel. It’s well worth any shortcomings to get this personal perspective of a torpedo squadron in battle, especially VT-18, which won a total of 15 Navy Crosses, including one for Ensign Fletcher, during its time on the line in the fall of 1944.

Finally, as a postscript, as dedicated and heroic as those World War II torpedo crews were, it’s interesting to note that after the war, the Navy gave up on aerial launched torpedoes except for one used against a North Korean dam. The tactic was just too expensive in terms of both aircraft and personnel.

Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is the past president of the Naval Historical Foundation and the Association of Naval Aviation.

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