VF-31, "The Flying Meataxes"
Nooy, Hawkins, Wirth, et al
By Stephen Sherman, Dec. 1999. Updated July 4, 2011.
VF-31, "The Flying Meataxes" destroyed 165 Japanese airplanes in aerial combat, tops among all CVL (light carrier) squadrons. They deployed with USS Cabot, CVL-28, from November, 1943 through September 1944.
The squadron was established on May 1, 1943, under command of Lt. Cdr. Robert A. Winston, and left San Diego NAS in November 1943, to take part in the havoc that the Fast Carrier Task Force wreaked upon the Japanese Navy in 1944.
A list of their raids reads like an inspection tour of Jap bases.
Kwajalein - Jan. 29, 1944.
Having conquered the Gilberts, the Fast Carrier Task Force turned its attention to the Marshalls in January 1944, with Kwajalein atoll first on the hit list. Cabot and Essex staged the first fighter sweep on Jan. 29. Lt. Cdr. Winston, a fighter pilot for eight years, led eleven F6Fs on this sweep, the "Meataxers" first combat. Three pilots missed the pre-dawn rendezvous, but Winston led his remaining planes to provide top cover for the Essex fighters, who were busy strafing down below. Herb Houck, VF-9 CO, radioed back that there was heavy overcast at 6,000 feet.
So Winston led his division in at 5,000 feet and sent the other VF-31 division to 25,000 feet. Winston and his wingman, Ens. Cornelius Nooy, joined up with a column of aircraft in the early morning gloom, only to find out they were Zeros.
After Winston fired at the tail-end Charlie, the Zeros turned and attacked the two Hellcat pilots, who only escaped by flying a tight Thach weave. One Zero came in too close and Winston got off a deflection shot that dropped him in the lagoon. After more maneuvering, the Grummans broke off and outran the Jap fighters.
(Nooy was also credited with a win on this mission.)
All but one of the "Meataxers'" planes returned to Cabot on this day. One damaged fighter had ditched; fortunately a destroyer rescued the pilot.
Truk - Feb. 16
Palau - Apr. 1
Pushing westward through the Pacific, the carrier task force (TF-58) struck Palau for two days, starting on March 31. Lt. Cdr. Winston's division of VF-31 had CAP on the evening of April 1, when the FDO vectored them onto a radar blip 75 miles out.
The four Hellcats investigated and found 9 Judy dive bombers flying in three V of V's. The lethal Grumman fighters made short work of the outclassed bombers: Winston splashed 3, Nooy also splashed 3, and the other Cabot pilots finished off the rest.
Cabot, along with the rest of TF-58, rested and refitted, at Majuro anchorage for a week in April.
Hollandia - Apr. 21
Truk - Apr. 29-30
The next time VF-31 faced enemy fighters, Lt. Nooy scored a triple, and Ray Hawkins got his first. Cabot was part of Task Group 58.2 - four carriers, two cruisers, one battleship, and nineteen destroyers. The carriers cruised in a diamond formation, with cruisers and battleship inside and the destroyers in a four-mile circle around the outside. All these supporting ships provided anti-submarine defense and an awesome amount of anti-aircraft fire.
Cabot was on the starboard point of the diamond, closest to Truk on this morning at 0530. The carrier was in Condition One, with four Hellcats idling on deck, two of them in the catapults, ready for launch in a matter of seconds. At 0545 word came from the CIC that 12 Jap torpedo bombers were approaching; Hawkins was catapulted off and almost immediately came face-to-face with a Kate. With a burst from his .50 caliber machines guns, he sent it into the drink. He turned around and followed the other enemy planes, right through the wall of flak being thrown up by the American ships. At such times the AA gunners forgot any aircraft recognition skills they had, and blasted away at anything in the sky. Hawkins spent an eternity in the two minutes it took him to pass through the fleet's gunfire. He was unhit, and all the Kates were accounted for, although no more by him that day.
Marianas/Tinian - June 11.
In this fighter sweep, they scored 13 aerial victories, paced by Lt.(jg) V.A. Rieger.
Marianas/Jap fleet - June 19
Like most Hellcat squadrons, the Meataxers scored heavily on this day, downing 28(?) enemy planes. John Wirth got four and Ray Hawkins got three.
Iwo Jima - July 3
Nooy had 4 kills, on his way to becoming the top CVL ace of the war, with 19 victories.
Bonin Islands - August
Palau - Sept. 6
Mindanao - Sept. 9
Began three weeks of operations in the Philippines
Visayas - Sept. 13
Another big day for the squadron, downing 25 Jap planes. Texan Lt.(jg) Ray "Hawk" Hawkins downed five Zeroes over Jap airfields on Negros, on his way to becoming the second ranking VF-31 ace, with 14.
Luzon - Sept. 21
This was VF-31's biggest day, scoring 29 kills. "Connie" Nooy was already an ace when he led his division in a raid on Clark Field, outside Manila. Attacked by a large number of enemy fighters, he kept the 500-lb. bomb in its rack, and shot down four of them, while he forced a fifth into the ground (2 Zeros, 2 Tojos, and a Tony). He then delivered his payload into a hangar at the former U.S. base, earning him his second Navy Cross. Hawkins shot down a Zero and three Ki-57 Topsy transports on the same raid.
Luzon - Sept. 22
This was the last day of combat for VF-31's Cabot tour, on which they downed 6 Vals, bringing their total for the tour to 145.
Having produced 14 aces in their tour, they rotated home at the end of September, and VF-29 replaced them on Cabot in time for the Leyte operations in October.
VF-31 returned to the war (briefly) in July, 1945, with USS Belleau Wood, another CVL, and saw three days of combat on this tour, adding another 20 kills, to bring their total to 165 aerial victories.
Born in Smithtown, NY in 1921, he graduated from Long Island High School in 1939. He enrolled in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in August, 1942, winning his wings in January, 1943. He joined VF-31 on its establishment in May, 1943. Despite missing all the action in the Marianas, he became the top-scoring CVL ace with 19 confirmed victories (15 with Cabot and 4 more during Fighting 31's second tour with Belleau Wood).
Lieutenant (jg) Arthur Ray Hawkins
Born in Zavalla, Texas on Dec. 12, 1922. Attended Lon Morris College. Enlisted in the Navy as a seaman 2nd class in May 1942. Trained at Dallas, Corpus Christi, and Opa Locka. After the war, he flew in the Korean War with VF-191. Spent 31 years in the Navy, retiring as a Captain in 1973.
- Air Group 31, covering both the fighter and torpedo squadrons
- Barrett Tillman, U.S. Navy Fighter Squadrons in World War II, Specialty Press, 1997
- Eric Hammel, Aces Against Japan, Vol. II: The American Aces Speak, Pacifica Press, 1996
Another fine addition to Eric Hammel's ace series. This one relates 38 stories, starting in December 1941 and continuing right through May 1945. USAAF, USN, and USMC fliers are included.
Some of my favorites are Frank Besby Holmes' account of the Yamamoto raid, Ray Hawkins' brief account of April 29, and Bob Maxwell's tale of being shot down over the Solomons, floating for days, and being rescued by the coastwatchers.