VMF-323 - Death Rattlers
Marine Fighting Squadron in WW2
By Stephen Sherman, Feb. 2001. Updated July 1, 2011.
Late in World War Two, when the Americans had fought their way to Okinawa, Marine Corps aviation seemed to have left its hardest fighting behind, in the Solomons. Then the Japanese began large-scale kamikaze raids on the U.S. forces on Okinawa. Suddenly the Marine fliers had more aerial combat than they had seen in over a year.
The most successful Marine Fighting squadron of 1945 was VMF-323, the "Death Rattlers," under the command of 23-year George Axtell. In a just a few weeks, they shot down 124.5 Japanese planes and counted a dozen aces.
First commissioned at Cherry Point, North Carolina in , the squadron moved to El Centro in January, 1944. Shortly, over 30 of its pilots were transferred out, and Major Axtell had to rebuild the squadron, now at Camp Pendleton.
They shipped out for Hawaii in July. After stints at Emirau, Espiritu Santo, and Manus, they boarded the escort carrier White Plains (CVE-66), bound for Okinawa. Among the replacement pilots that the squadron picked up at Espiritu were 2nd Lieutenants John Ruhsam and Bob Wade. 323 flew into Okinawa's Kadena airfield (code named Ruby Base) in early April, 1945 - for their first combat of World War 2.
Situated just 325 south of Kyushu, Okinawa had to be taken, in preparation for invasion of the Home Islands. After many delays, the largest amphibious assault of the Pacific War took place on April 1, 1945; half a million soldier and sailors, fifteen hundred Allied ships, and thousands of planes participated. While the ground forces slowly and bloodily worked their way into the Japanese stronghold on the southern part of the island, the Air Defense Command, under Brig. Gen. William J. Wallace, USMC, focused on the kamikaze threat.
Since late 1944, faced with overwhelming U.S. air power and a dwindling core of trained pilots, the Japanese turned more and more to their terrifyingly effective last-ditch weapon - the suicide bomber. Flown by pilots who only knew how to take off and dive into their target, the kamikazes destroyed more Allied shipping in the Pacific than had been sunk in the previous 3 years of war. To face this threat, General Wallace had three USAAF Fighter Groups (10 squadrons) and four Marine Air Groups (MAGs), comprising 15 squadrons. VMF-323 was part of MAG-33. Four of these 25 squadrons were specialized night-fighting outfits, such as Bruce Porter's VMF(N)-542. The air units also flew ground support missions, napalming and rocketing Japanese strongholds.
The kamikaze raids against Okinawa began on April 6-7, when 350 Japanes suicide planes attacked. Two days later, MAG-33 began operations from Kadena airfield. On April 12-13 came another kamikaze attack of 185 planes. John Ruhsam shot down a Zero that day, as did five other VMF-323 pilots. While the Japanese didn't directly hurt VMF-323, on take-off, a 323 pilot crashed into four other F4U's; .50 caliber ammo cooked off. Four men were killed and eight planes destroyed.
The Japs threw another 165 suicide planes at Okinawa on the 15th; again the Marine fliers of 323 did their part, dowing six raiders. Lt. Fred Zehring chased one into a hillside, but couldn't pull out himself and was killed. More kamikazes on the 16th. 60 miles north of Ie Shima, a 323 patrol knocked down 2 Hamps, 2 Jacks, and a Lily bomber. When Lt. Dewey Durnford saw his first baka (a small, manned rocket-powered craft carried up to within sight of its target by a bomber), he cried out, "It was carrying a papoose!"
Despite the successes by the Marine and Navy fliers, some kamikazes got through. On the 16th the destroyer Pringle was sunk and the carrier Intrepid damaged. The Navy's great ace Eugene Valencia and his "Mowing Machine" also achieved great success against the kamikazes.
April 22, 1945 was the biggest day in the Death Rattlers' WWII saga. Eighty kamikazes attacked the radar picket ships at dusk. Flying CAP, the pilots of 323 downed 23 (and 3/4!) enemy aircraft. Three of them "made ace" that evening: the Exec, Major Jefferson Dorroh - 6 kills, CO Major George Axtell - 5, and Lt. Jeremiah J. O'Keefe - 5. All this within half an hour!
April 28 - Bogeys!
April 28 brought yet another air raid against Okinawa. Jerry O'Keefe describes his flight that day in Eric Hammel's Aces in Combat: The American Aces Speak, Vol 5.
After the excitement and publicity of our unusual April 22 fight, I expected that aerial action would again become quiet. Our primary mission was to help protect the hundreds of ships that were unloading off Okinawa. Many of our missions consisted of picket duty, in which our Corsairs would be assigned to orbit over one of the U.S. Navy's radar picket destroyers stationed to the north of Okinawa.
That day, I was part of a flight of twelve Corsairs led by Major Axtell. I was in my usual place as the skipper's section leader and Bill Hood was flying on my wing. The weather was sunny and clear. Heading east at approximately 12,000 feet, I spotted five unidentified planes at about 8,000 to 10,000 feet. I called the rest of the flight that I saw five bogeys. I suspected they were Japanese, because the group was composed of five planes, instead of the usual four, eight,or twelve planes we usually had.
I asked Major Axtell to allow my section to investigate. With his approval, I began a slow turn to the south and began bearing down on the bogeys from above and behind.
O'Keefe and Hood got closer, armed their machine guns and positioned themselves at 5 o'clock and 7 o'clock to the bandits. The bandits were old Imperial Army fixed-gear Ki-27 Nates headed for a kamikaze run against the U.S. ships. Unaware of the Corsairs, the Japanese pilots made no move to evade. O'Keefe opened fire on the leader at 300 yards, hitting it around the cockpit. The Nate exploded. He streaked by the enemy in a shallow dive, pulled up and found a single plane diving for the ocean. He flew straight down on its tail and exploded it.
He later learned that Bill Hood had downed two and Axtell one.
May 4 - Counter-attack
After holding out in southern Okinawa, around Shuri Castle, for almost a month, General Ushijima ordered a counteroffensive for May 4. While well-planned, the ground atttack came to nothing, except the faster death of 5,000 Japanese soldiers. The coordinated kamikaze attack was more successful, killing 98 sailors on the destroyer Aaron Ward and sinking the Little, Luce, and Morison.
That morning Captain Joe McPhail was leading a 4-plane division, with 2nd Lt. Warren Bestwick on his wing. 2nd Lt. John Ruhsam led the second section, with 2nd Lt. Bob Wade on his wing. They had climbed into their slippery, cold Corsairs in the pre-dawn darkness, jostling gear and banging shins. They headed north, reported in to radar control, and climbed out. At 20,000 feet they found a lone Ki-27 Nate, which Ruhsam fired at and then promptly overran. Jojo McPhail flamed it. A good start, but when Bestwick's F4U started pouring black oily smoke, he returned to the field.
Working with a ground-based radar controller, Ruhsam swung around in wide descending turn when a Val appeared in front of him. At 800 feet he opened up and the Val's rear gunner fired back. Wade was occupied with a Val of his own. Ruhsam maneuvered below and behind his target, to avoid the rear gunner. He was so close, he had to drop back to 100 feet before he fired; when he did the Val instantly exploded in a ball of flame. Incredibly another crossed directly in front of him. All Ruhsam had to do was press the trigger button and watch the Val fly into the stream of bullets. Wade also shot down his Val. Ruhsam pounced on a Nate, which eluded him, only to fall victim to Wade's gunfire.
This was a new type of aerial combat - lots of targets flying slowly at low altitude that basically didn't fire back. Normal tactics of gaining altitude and speed to engage fiercely dangerous fighters didn't apply. In this situation, the Corsair pilots had to slow down and conserve ammunition - so impotent and plentiful were the kamikazes. Ruhsam and Wade continued pulling G's, twisting around, blasting the incoming Japanese planes whenever they could. Ruhsam chased on Val down to the wave tops, only to run out of ammunition. He considered ramming or chopping off his tail with his prop, but suddenly Wade's bullets sprayed the enemy. The Val pilot panicked and turned left, digging a wing into the water and flipping over into it.
Back at Kadena base, adrenalin still pumping, the pilots took stock. Wade and Ruhsam had downed four planes apiece. In a record-breaking day, the Death Rattlers had destroyed 24 (and 3/4!) Japanese airplanes.
After the first week of May, the large daytime kamikaze attacks diminished. Increasingly, the main aerial defensive problem was the nighttime bombers, which came over singly or in pairs. Nightfighting squadrons like Robert Baird's VMF(N)-533 and Bruce Porter's VMF(N)-542 took up the challenge.
VMF-323 began strikes against Japan in June, 1945 and moved to Awase airfield on July 15, where it continued operating until the war ended.
Post WarThe Death Rattlers also served in the Korean War, flying Corsairs on ground attack missions. Its lineage continues today in the USMC, with VMFA-323.
C.O. George Axtell made a career of the Corps, and rose to the rank of Lieutenant General.
- Aces in Combat: The American Aces Speak, Vol 5, by Eric Hammel - O'Keefe's story and many other WWII aces
- Aces Against Japan, Vol. II, by Eric Hammel - Ruhsam's and many other stories of WW2
- Corsair Aces of World War 2, by Mark Styling
- History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II, by Robert Sherrod, 1952
- 323 Death Rattlers Web Site (now defunct) - dedicated to VMF-323, VMA-323, VMF(AW)-323 and VMFA-323 from World War II to the present