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The Sweetheart of Okinawa: Kadena's Corsair squadrons

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- At 8 a.m. Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, the United States Tenth Army, comprised of U.S. Army and Marine Corps divisions, landed on the Hagushi beaches during Operation Iceberg, or the battle for Okinawa.

The U.S. assault divisions were met with little to no resistance. Within a few hours, the U.S. Army's 7th Infantry Division had taken their primary objective, Kadena airfield.

Called Naka Hikojo by the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force, the field was completed a short time prior to the U.S. amphibious landings. Kadena had a single runway constructed of crushed coral and measuring 1,500 meters in length. Engineers attached to the 7th Infantry Division reconditioned the runway, adding extra coral to allow for heavy fighters to operate from the newly captured airfield.

The first fighters arrive on Kadena

On April 9, the runway on Kadena was considered ready for fighter operations. Marine aviators were ordered to move from their carriers to Ruby Base, the allied code name for Kadena airfield.

Pilots from Marine Fighter Squadron, or VMF, 312, the "Checkerboarders," were the first to land their Vought F4U-1D Corsairs on the field. The squadron was soon followed by VMF-323's "The Death Rattlers," VMF-322's "Fighting Gamecocks" and a single night fighter squadron, VMF(N)-543's "Night Hawks," operating Grumman F6F(N) Hellcats.
The Marine corsair squadrons based on Kadena were assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 33; a second group, MAG-31, was located on Yontan Field just north of Kadena.

Kikusui attacks

The Marine Corps fighters on Kadena airfield's primary mission was air superiority and air defense. Fighters based on both Kadena and Yontan airfields conducted continuous combat air patrols to fend off the largest threat to the Fifth Fleet -- kamikaze, or suicide, attacks.

During the Japanese defense of the Ryukyus, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army Air Force would coordinate their efforts and launch mass kamikaze attacks, known as Kikusui attacks, against the fleet. A total of 10 Kikusui attacks were launched from April 6-June 22, 1945.

The first action for Kadena's aviators came during the second Kikusui attack on April 12. Pilots from VMF-312 intercepted 20 Japanese Zeros and four Jill dive bombers. The flight, led by Capt. Dan H. Johnson, shot down eight Zeros and damaged six more. The enemy formation turned back before reaching their intended target.

More than 185 Japanese aircraft participated in the raids between April 12-13, during which 17 kamikaze aircraft hit allied ships.

Not all of the enemy aircraft encountered over Okinawa were suicide aircraft; mass kamikaze attacks were usually escorted by fighters, and conventional sorties were flown against the allied invasion. Japanese ground forces down south shelled Kadena daily, while nighttime bombing sorties were flown against the field. Combat air patrols were launched from Kadena regardless of daily artillery fire.

On April 15-16, seven Corsairs from VMF-323 shot down two Jacks and two Zeros northwest of Ie Shima. On the same CAP, Lt. Dewey Durnford, a Corsair pilot, was caught off guard after he had intercepted a Japanese twin-engine bomber, and began firing on the enemy aircraft when it released a smaller aircraft. Over the radio Durnford said, "It's carrying a papoose!"

The aircraft in question was a Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka suicide aircraft. The action continued after dusk as Capt. James A. Ethridge from VMF(N)-543 shot down an enemy bomber over Kadena as it prepared to attack the field. However, Ethridge himself was nearly shot down after encountering friendly anti-aircraft fire.

On April 22, the Death Rattlers gained multiple aces within their ranks. Marines flying combat air patrol were vectored towards one of the U.S. Navy radar picket lines when they came upon 80 enemy fighters.

The Corsairs ripped into the enemy formations. Lt. Jerry O'Keefe of VMF-323 shot down five planes in a single action, making him an "ace in a day," with his last victim in flames attempting to ram his aircraft. The squadron's executive officer, Maj. Jefferson Dorroh, brought down six enemy fighters in less than 20 minutes during the action. The squadron commander of the Death Rattlers was a 25-year-old Maj. George Axtell, gaining all of his aerial kills on this one day, taking out six enemy aircraft.

For their action on April 22, all three Kadena pilots would earn the nation's second-highest award for valor, the Navy Cross.

The Japanese Imperial Army then launched an all-out counter offensive, in conjunction with a coordinated mass kamikaze attack launched from Kyushu. The airfield at Kadena was shelled at 2:25 a.m., destroying four tents and wounding one Marine.
The shelling did little to hinder fighter operations, and on that day one of Kadena's Corsair squadrons, VMF-323, set a new record for Marine fighter squadrons during the Okinawan campaign by bringing down 24 enemy aircraft.

An unusual kill

One story that highlighted the aggressiveness of fighter pilots on Kadena came on May 10, 1945, when a four ship of Corsairs from VMF-312 were vectored to intercept a Japanese twin engine reconnaissance plane, Nick.

As the enemy aircraft circled the harbor at 38,000 feet, they searched for targets of opportunity to coordinate future mass kamikaze attacks. Once the Marine aviators had a vapor trail in sight, the Corsairs of call sign RUBY-6 climbed to investigate.

Two of the pilots couldn't get their aircraft to climb higher than 36,000 feet and disengaged. Capt. Kenneth Reusser and wingman, Lt. Robert Klingman, pressed on, firing some of their ammunition to lighten their aircraft.

Reusser managed to damage the Japanese Nick with his six 50-caliber machine guns before running out of ammunition. Klingman, 50 feet behind the Nick, squeezed the trigger, only to find out his guns had frozen at high altitude. With no guns, he continued his attack, using his propeller to cut into the enemy aircraft's rudder and gunner's position.

Klingman made two more passes, destroying the Nick's stabilizer. The aircraft went into a spin, tearing off both wings before crashing into the ocean. Klingman's Corsair ran out of fuel on the way back to base, executing a dead stick landing back at Kadena.

As Klingman looked over his Corsair, the inspection revealed multiple bullet holes, pieces from the Japanese Nick found in the engine cowling, and a portion of the Corsair's propeller torn off. Both Klingman and Reusser earned the Navy Cross for their actions that day.

Conclusion

As Operation Iceberg progressed, Army Air Force B-24 Liberator heavy bombers and B-25 Mitchell medium bombers were stationed on Kadena, and P-47 Thunderbolt fighters were based on Ie Shima. During the 82-day battle, Kadena airfield grew in size, staging for Operation Downfall, or the invasion of mainland Japan.

Even though many close air support missions were flown, the primary mission for the Kadena-based Corsairs continued to be air superiority. A dozen Marines from the Death Rattlers and two Marine aviators from the Checkerboarders gained Ace status while flying from Kadena airfield.

The mass suicide raids launched against the fleet made it impossible to intercept every Kamikaze, but the Marines' efforts saved countless lives and the aircraft they flew would earn the nickname the "Sweetheart of Okinawa" for its contribution during Operation Iceberg.