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Motivations for Fighting

A Friendly Bombardment

The Marianas Turkey Shoot


Alexander Vraciu was on a mission with a flight of 12 aircraft when he noticed five Zeros [Annotators Note: Mitsubishi A6M fighter aircraft, known as the Zero or Zeke]. One of the enemy planes was already shooting at them. He called out the enemy planes but nobody in his formation heard him. During the ensuing dogfight Vraciu saw a Hellcat [Annotators Note: US Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter aircraft] shoot down another Hellcat. Vraciu quickly shot down three Zeros. His third kill was a Zero that was on floats. After that kill he went after a fourth that kept ducking in and out of the clouds. Vraciu pulled up into the sun where the fourth Zero could not see him then dove down and shot it down too. Vraciu credits his being able to down those four enemy aircraft during the first Truk raid to having a good wing man. That mission was a 72 plane fighter sweep. They cleaned out the air but that night a Japanese bomber came over them and torpedoed the Intrepid [Annotators Note: USS Intrepid (CV-11)]. When the torpedo hit the Intrepid Vraciu was asleep in his bunk and was thrown out of it. The rudder was jammed and they had a tough time getting the carrier back to Pearl Harbor. After returning to Pearl Harbor they learned that their squadron, VF 6 [Annotators Note: Fighting Squadron 6 (VF 6)], was being sent back home. Vraciu volunteered to stay in theater. He had run into a friend of his who he had gone to school with who was serving in VF 16 [Annotators Note: Fighting Squadron 16 (VF 16)]. His friend asked if he would like to join VF 16. He did. Vraciu had his reasons for wanting to stay. First off he had not shot down the ten Betty bombers he had promised himself. He also knew that many fighter pilots never got back into combat after returning to the United States. VF 6 returned to the United States and Vraciu joined VF 16.


During the second Truk raid Alexander Vraciu was on a morning hop escorting bombers when they were attacked by a group of Zeros [Annotators Note: Mitsubishi A6M fighter aircraft, known as the Zero or Zeke]. Vraciu was able to shoot down two of the attacking aircraft. During the afternoon hop they were again escorting bombers. They were at about 10,000 feet when the skipper of the bomber squadron nosed over into his dive. Usually the fighters would dive with the bombers to split up the AA [Annotators Note: antiaircraft] fire. The bombers would bomb and the fighters would strafe. Vraciu went into his dive and was almost immediately hit by AA fire. The round shattered his plexiglass canopy and damaged some of the controls. He aborted his dive and turned for home. His wingman escorted him back. Vraciu was not permitted to land on the carrier. He was told to either bail out or make a water landing. Vraciu had already made a dead stick water landing five and a half weeks before when the engine of his plane quit while he was waiting to land. Now he had to do it again. Vraciu selected the spot where he wanted to put his plane down. He did not want to bail out because the waves were too strong. Vraciu was about to go in for his landing when all of a sudden the whole fleet made a turn and went in another direction. He tried again and landed next to a destroyer that picked him up quickly. Vraciu had to spend the night on the destroyer. The skipper had given Vraciu his sea cabin for the night. Since destroyers do not handle the rough seas as well as carriers do Vraciu decided to mess with Admiral Mitscher’s operations officer, Gus Widhelm. At the time Vraciu was flying from the Lexington [Annotators Note: USS Lexington (CV-16)] which was Mitscher’s flagship. He sent a message to the Lexington stating that if Widhelm did not get him off of the roller coaster he was on he would vote for MacArthur for president. Widhelm had his laugh too. His reply was that in order to conserve aircraft the destroyer skipper was to retain Vraciu until they got back to Ulithi. Vraciu was later transferred to the Lexington by high line. When he transferred over Widhelm was standing there waiting for him. Widhelm took him to the Admiral and told him that Vraciu had sent the message. They nicknamed Vraciu Grumman’s best customer after his second crash landing. He later had to bail out of a third Hellcat [Annotators Note: Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter aircraft] over the Philippines. Vraciu took part in several actions before they got to the Mariana Islands. During those strikes he destroyed 13 planes on the ground in two days. By the end of the war he totaled 21 enemy planes destroyed on the ground in addition to the 19 planes he got in the air.


Alexander Vraciu wanted to fly fighters. If he had not been given fighters when he was going through training at Corpus Christi he would have dropped out and gone to San Antonio and joined the US Army Air Corps. They could do that at that time. Vraciu was born in November 1918. He grew up building models and taking flights on planes at picnics. He grew up outside of Chicago and recalls seeing Italian aircraft flying over the area. When Vraciu saw what was going on in Europe he knew that the United States would be in it at some point. During his second semester of college he declared himself for the navy. He graduated college in June 1941 and returned home to East Chicago, Indiana and went to work for Inland Steel until being called up in October of 1941. Vraciu went through the Civilian Pilot Training Program, CPTP. Even before that he had gotten his private pilot's license between his junior and senior years of college at Ball State. In December 1941, he was in Glenview, Indiana and was at his uncle’s house on Sunday, 7 December 1941 when war broke out for the United States. Vraciu knew a war was coming. He knew that if he was going to do anything he was going to be a fighter pilot. Vraciu knew he would be a good fighter pilot. Vraciu first met Butch O'Hare when he joined his squadron. When the war broke out Vraciu was sent to Dallas to await the decision as to whether he would be sent to Corpus Christi or Pensacola. Vraciu qualified on Lake Michigan and was assigned to his first carrier squadron, which was O'Hare’s. Vraciu had two big motivations for wanting to fight. The first was Pearl Harbor. He wanted to get even and felt that it was a good thing for a fighter pilot to have a certain amount of hate in him. After he got his sixth bomber, a Judy, during the Marianas Turkey Shoot he looked around for any other enemy planes. He saw nothing but Hellcats and the wreckage of burning Japanese planes. He placed his hand over his heart and said to himself that this was his payback for Pearl Harbor. He kept that until O'Hare was lost. That became his second motivator. Vraciu volunteered a lot. He jokingly says it was because he was trying to win the war. Vraciu was in three different squadrons. In the last one he had two enemy contacts and those were on the ground. All he did was strafing in the Philippines.


Alexander Vraciu scored nine aerial victories during his first tour. His first kill was a Zero [Annotators Note: Mitsubishi A6M fighter aircraft, known as the Zero or Zeke] at Tarawa while flying with Butch O'Hare. Then he got a Betty [Annotators Note: Mitsubishi G4M bomber aircraft, known as the Betty] at Tarawa followed by three more Bettys during the second Kwajalein raid. During the first Truk raid he shot down four Zeros, one of which was a float plane Zero, bringing the total for his first combat tour to nine. Vraciu was assigned plane number 19 while training as a night fighter. Seven of his first nine were in this aircraft. Vraciu had nine kills with VF 6 [Annotators Note: Fighting Squadron 6 (VF 6)]. Then he joined VF 16 [Annotators Note: Fighting Squadron 16 (VF 16)] and on the second Truk raid he shot down two Zeros, bringing his total to 12. Vraciu learned that there would be a fleet engagement [Annotators Note: in the Mariana Islands]. While returning to the carrier after an escort mission Vraciu came across a Betty bomber. He raced the other guys in his squadron up to the Betty, got under it, and shot it down. Around the time of the landings on Saipan and Tinian, which Vraciu strafed, they would put 500 pound bombs on their Hellcats and use them as ground attack planes. Vraciu practiced bombing and skip bombing. He would volunteer to do bomb runs. After he missed a small boat with a bomb he started practicing skip bombing. During a strafing mission at Tanapag Harbor on Saipan, he made a good hit on the front part of the bow of a cargo ship and sunk it. He got a citation for shooting down the Betty and another for sinking the ship. They started getting closer to the Turkey Shoot [Annotators Note: the Battle of the Philippine Sea]. Widhelm [Annotators Note: Captain William J. Widhelm, also known as Gus] knew that something was going to happen. Two American submarines had located the Japanese fleet and got two of the enemy carriers. On one day Vraciu got six planes. The next day the air was dead. Finally a search plane found the Japanese. They were over 300 miles away. The Americans launched the strike anyway. Vraciu flew escort during this mission, now known as the Mission Beyond Darkness.


The day after the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot [Annotators Note: the Battle of the Philippine Sea] Alexander Vraciu was aboard his carrier [Annotators Note: the USS Lexington (CV-16)] waiting for the Japanese fleet to be located. They finally got the word to go and took off. There were nine fighters, three of which were in Vraciu’s division, and there were 15 SBDs [Annotatyors Note: Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers]. By that time only two ships still had SBDs [Annotators Note: the other dive bomber squadrons were equipped with the SB2C Helldiver]. After returning from the mission beyond darkness Vraciu had to land on another ship because he could not land on his own carrier. A pilot flying an SB2C refused a wave off and cracked up on the deck. When Vraciu saw what had happened on the Lexington he slid over and landed on the Enterprise [Annotators Note: USS Enterprise (CV-6)]. Seven of the fighter pilots in Vraciu's group who had survived the mission beyond darkness had all landed on different carriers.


Alexander Vraciu lost his wing man, Brockmeyer [Annotators Note: US Navy Ensign Homer Brockmeyer], out over the Japanese fleet. They escorted the bombers out over the enemy fleet. When they arrived they saw a huge cumulus cloud that went up all the way past 30,000 feet. Vraciu looked down and saw a TBM [Annotators Note: Grumman TBM or TBF Avenger torpedo bomber] on fire and watched as the crew bailed out. All three crewmen were later picked up. Then Vraciu looked down and saw a number of Zeros [Annotators Note: Mitsubishi A6M fighter aircraft, known as the Zero or Zeke] that suddenly surrounded them. They started a Thach Weave [Annotators Note: aerial combat maneuver developed by US Navy Admiral John Smith Thach] but the Japanese pulled off. They enemy pilots they were facing were very capable. During one pass Vraciu's wingman was hit. Vraciu got the plane that got his wingman. Vraciu did not have many probables. If he got behind an enemy plane he shot it down. Vraciu found himself all alone. He headed to the rendezvous area. He came across a TBM that had been shot up. The TBM pilot signaled to Vraciu that he would not be able to make it back to the fleet. Vraciu heard so many guys calling over the radio that they were going down that he turned his radio off. He climbed up and turned on his identification friend or foe, his IFF. All of a sudden he saw a search light. He thought he was heading for Yap but he kept going. The word went out over the radio to land at the nearest base. Vraciu wanted to land at his own but he saw the constant wave off on the Lexington [Annotators Note: the USS Lexington (CV-16)] so he ended up landing on the Enterprise [Annotators Note: USS Enterprise (CV-6)]. Vraciu landed on his first pass. When he parked his plane a deck crewman jumped up on his wing and told him that they had to get him off the deck as quickly as possible. When Vraciu got to the ready room he looked around and did not recognize anyone except maybe a guy from another squadron. Everybody was going different ways. Some guys even tried to land on destroyers. On the first day of the battle some planes made it to the battle and some did not. The skipper of Vraciu's unit never fired a shot. When Vraciu got back from the Turkey Shoot his skipper asked him how many he got. Vraciu told him that he had gotten six. His skipper congratulated him then told him that he was grounded until further notice and that he was to report to his ready room. Vraciu could not believe it. The skipper was angry because Vraciu had left him. Vraciu told the skipper that this was the second day that he had accused people of something before asking what had happened. The day before the skipper had asked a pilot if he was yellow after the pilot’s plane broke down and he was not able to fly a mission. Soon after the skipper sent him to the ready room Vraciu got a call from the fighter director who promised to take care of the situation. Later that day the skipper approached Vraciu with a bottle of booze and apologized to him. The fighter director had explained to him what had happened. Three days after the battle, Admiral Mitscher called Vraciu's squadron commander and asked if Vraciu would come up on deck to have his picture taken. That admiral wanted the picture for personal reasons and not for publication.


Alexander Vraciu and the other members of his squadron [Annotators Note: Fighting Squadron 16 (VF 16)] were in their ready room. It was known that this was going to be biggest fleet battle of all time. The Japanese had 300 to 400 planes. The American fleet had 15 carriers to the enemy’s nine. Vraciu’s skipper had nine kills. His friend Mark Bright [Annotators Note: US Navy Lieutenant (junior grade) Mark Kenneth Bright] also had nine kills. Vraciu had 11. Bright was killed by antiaircraft fire a few days before the Marianas Turkey Shoot [Annotators Note: the Battle of the Philippine Sea]. Vraciu had strong feelings about Bright. They were close friends. Vraciu was leading a flight in an attack on Guam. On the way in, Vraciu heard another pilot call out that Bright's plane had gone down. During this same raid Vraciu dove down so low on a gun emplacement that he blacked out. The tail on his aircraft had to be replaced when he got it back to the carrier. When Vraciu went into VF 16 he was made the leader of a division of four aircraft. On the day of the Turkey Shoot his division took off and was ordered to orbit one of the outer screens and await further instruction. He suddenly got a vector and took off. Vraciu’s aircraft had a high blower problem so he was not able to go higher than 20,000 feet. He flew to the given vector and saw numerous enemy aircraft and tally ho'ed them [Annotators Note: slang for letting friendly pilots know of a visual on enemy planes]. Vraciu was 2,000 feet above the enemy planes. When he saw that there was no top cover he started his attack. Vraciu aborted his attack on the first enemy plane because he almost collided with another plane. He climbed up and made another pass shooting down one enemy plane. On his next pass he got two more. He then started heading for a group of enemy dive bombers and torpedo planes. On the way he shot down his fourth enemy plane. When he caught up with the group of enemy planes he got his fifth. His sixth victory blew up with such force that Vraciu believes that he hit the enemy plane’s bomb. Vraciu then started chasing what he was hoping to make his seventh but the antiaircraft fire coming up from the friendly warships got it. Then the antiaircraft fire started focusing on him. He got on his radio and let out a string of words that succeeded in getting the friendly gunners to stop shooting. Vraciu landed and taxied up the deck and held up six fingers. When he got out of his plane there were people all over the place. While he was standing by the tail of his plane signing the yellow sheet a photographer took the famous photograph of him smiling and holding up six fingers. When the Lexington was turned over to the city of Corpus Christi Vraciu was asked to give a speech. When he did so he was approached by a guy who identified himself as being present when the image of Vraciu holding up six fingers was taken. At the same event he was approached by a retired chief who was there from Seattle who told him that he had packed the parachute Vraciu used when he had to bail out over the Philippines. The following day they flew out over the Japanese fleet. One estimate states that 216 planes were sent out after the Japanese fleet the day after the Turkey Shoot and about 100 of them were lost. Many of those had been ditched due to lack of fuel. Many of the pilots and air crews were rescued. Vraciu gives Barrett [Annotators Note: author Barrett Tillman] credit for the research he did on for his book.


After the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot [Annotators Note: the Battle of the Philippine Sea] the action really slowed down for Alexander Vraciu. There was a lot of argument over whether the remnants of the Japanese fleet should have been pursued. Either way the enemy carriers were empty at that point. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf the carriers were used as bait. There were no planes. Vraciu could have gone back with the squadron but did not. He went all over the Pacific. After being shot down over the Philippines Vraciu was made a brevet major in the army. On the day he was shot down, Vraciu had gone in on a morning hop during which he burned up a handful of planes on the ground. That afternoon he went out and got a few more. The Japanese antiaircraft gunners shot down seven of the planes from Vraciu's carrier that day. Vraciu dove down very low on an enemy plane and burned it. He then leveled off to get another one when his plane was hit by ground fire. He pulled up to about 700 feet and opened his canopy. He started heading west. His carrier [Annotators Note: the USS Lexington (CV-16)] was west of his location but he knew he could not make it back to the ship. Vraciu threw everything out of his cockpit and headed for the hills. They had been told that if they could get to the hills the guerillas would take them to the west coast where they would be picked up by a friendly submarine. Vraciu later discovered that the submarine that was supposed to pick them up had been sunk by a Japanese submarine. Vraciu watched his oil pressure gauge. It was going down faster and faster. He got to the hills north of Clark Field. He stabilized the plane and crawled out onto the wing root. Vraciu had bailed out once before back in the States when the SNJ [Annotators Note: the SNJ is the navy variant of the North American Aviation T-6 Texan advanced trainer aircraft] he was flying was hit by another plane. He was at 4,000 feet over Lemon Grove, California when he told his passenger to jump. The young sailor with him bailed out while he tried to maintain control. When it became clear that he could not he went to bail out. He was thrown from the plane and parachuted down.


When Alexander Vraciu bailed out over the Philippines he was at about 300 or 400 feet when his parachute opened up. He hit the ground and when he stood up he saw a group of young men running toward him. Vraciu had heard stories of what the Japanese had done to American servicemen on Saipan so he had switched from the standard issue .38 caliber pistol to a .45 caliber pistol. He was determined to take as many of them as possible. When they got close to him they started yelling that they were Filipino. They quickly got Vraciu's flight suit and gear off of him and dressed him like a Filipino. Vraciu was taken up into the hills. He spent the first night on a sack of wheat. In the camp he was in was an American who had survived the Bataan Death March. There was also another pilot present who had been shot down a month before Vraciu. A number of funny events occurred while he was with this group. Even though he did not want to use up all of his ammunition Vraciu would take a shot at every Zero that flew over even though he knew he would not hit them. Vraciu was with the guerillas through Christmas and New Years. He was shot down on 14 December [Annotators Note: 14 December 1944] and did not get back to his squadron until the end of January.


Alexander Vraciu knew that the next time they saw air action it would be part of a landing somewhere. When his group was joined by a young ensign who had just been shot down the pilot verified that there was a landing about to take place at Lingayen Gulf. Vraciu was made a brevet major in the guerilla group. He later learned that he had also been made the group administration officer. They passed by the prison there and made their way through several little villages, the whole time ducking the Japanese. The villagers would bring them raw eggs and pineapples. On the journey north Vraciu learned that there were native populations who fought each other harder than they fought the Japanese. There were about eight Americans in the group. One of them was an Army Air Force pilot who had about ten victories in P-38s. He had crash landed and broke his back. He was picked up by the bad guerillas and turned over to the good guerillas. He survived the war and lives in California. When the last pilot was brought up to the group the Bataan survivor who was in charge of the group decided that he was going to send 150 guerillas up north to meet the Americans with all of the materials and information they had that would be helpful to the American forces. The man that was to lead the group had an attack of malaria. Vraciu had an attack of malaria while in Washington DC a year after the war. Vraciu asked if he could go along and was appointed to lead the group. The guerillas all called Vraciu major. They made their way to the north. At one small town an American lady who was married to a Filipino and the mayor of the town were taken to meet Vraciu. All of a sudden shots rang out. Vraciu did his best to make himself scarce. A young Filipino wearing a Japanese flight helmet and carrying a rifle ran up to Vraciu and pointed it at him. Vraciu told the boy to take him to the group’s leader. On their way down the hill more shots were fired and one of Vraciu's men ran out and cut him down. It angered Vraciu and he later lashed out verbally at the leader of the group they had run into. Vraciu was taken to the camp where the other group stayed. The camp was on a river bank. On the other side of the river there were Japanese troops. Vraciu was armed with a rifle in case the Japanese crossed the river.


The next morning Alexander Vraciu and the other guerillas headed north up the national highway. They took a bugler and carried three flags, the Filipino flag, the American flag, and the guerilla flag. Twelve of them were on horseback. Every now and then an American plane would fly over and they would wave at them so they would not shoot at them. Finally they came across a group of soldiers from an Illinois National Guard outfit. The guerillas were fed and Vraciu turned over the intelligence he had with him. Vraciu was put on a jeep and taken to meet with the general. He had dinner with General Butler that night. He ate almost a whole loaf of bread by himself. Vraciu eventually hitched a ride on a PBY [Annotators Note: Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat] that took him to Leyte Gulf. At Leyte Gulf he was put aboard an open boat that took him to Samar. From Samar he was taken by another PBY to Ulithi. Eventually he reported back aboard the Lexington [Annotators Note: the USS Lexington (CV-16)]. As soon as he got back he learned that his group, Air Group 20, was being relieved and sent back home. Vraciu knew that the F8F [Annotators Note: Grumman F8F Bearcat fighter aircraft] was coming out so he asked to be able to go ashore. He was given permission and went ashore on Guam. On Guam he requested and was given orders to remain in theater. His group commander gave him an unsatisfactory report for not wanting to return to the United States with the air group. Vraciu had the right to rebut the report and did so. When Vraciu got to Pearl Harbor he was told that he was not allowed to fly over Japanese controlled territory because he knew too much about the guerillas on the ground. He was sent back to the United States.


During one of his trips back to the United States Alexander Vraciu was offered the opportunity to fly the Zero [Annotators Note: Mitsubishi A6M fighter aircraft, known as the Zero or Zeke] that had been captured in Alaska [Annotators Note: the aircraft was found on the Aleutian island of Acutan]. When he returned to the United States he was promoted to lieutenant. He was the leading navy ace at the time. After returning to the United States he was assigned to duty in Washington DC for six years and two months before he picked another duty station. At the time they were helping the Air Force do their own reserve program. Vraciu was allowed to choose his next duty station so he took a plane and flew around to each of the potential places he could be assigned. By that time they had started getting Bearcats [Annotators Note: Grumman F8F Bearcat fighter aircraft]. He ended up picking Los Alamitos, near Los Angeles. He and his wife had three children while they were in Washington and another at Los Alamitos. Vraciu and his family were at Los Alamitos for three years. There he was a jet training officer. He was also a trust officer and an air intelligence officer. During this time the navy was augmenting some reserve officers into the regular navy. When Vraciu arrived at Los Alamitos he was a lieutenant commander. When he had left Washington DC for Los Alamitos the only thing he really wanted was to be in command of a jet squadron. The navy was only going to select two lieutenant commanders to command jet squadrons and Vraciu was one of them. The reserve program backed him 100 percent. By now Vraciu should have been a commander but had not had the required sea duty so he could not be promoted. Instead the navy sent him to the navy post graduate school. When he finished post graduate school he thought he would be given command of a jet squadron but was instead assigned to the USS Hornet (CV-12) as communications officer. Vraciu was sent through the necessary programs in San Diego. Vraciu was given a group of 12 ensigns. His battle station was on the bridge. Vraciu did not want the sea duty but did his job the best he could. It turned out that the Hornet got the navy E for excellence award for communications. Vraciu credits the ensigns he had working under him. Vraciu went on two cruises aboard the Hornet. After the second cruise the Hornet had to be taken to Bremerton, Washington to have an angled flight deck and a steam catapult installed. By this time the Hornet had a new skipper. Vraciu had to remain with the ship during the time it was in the yard so he and the skipper spent a lot of time together. While in Bremerton Vraciu got a call from a friend down in San Diego asking if he was interested in taking over a jet fighter squadron. If he was interested he would be taking over on that day. Vraciu accepted. His orders were cut very fast and Vraciu moved down to Coronado where he took over VF 51 [Annotators Note: Fighter Squadron 51 (VF 51)]. He led VF 51 for almost two years.

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