The island of Leyte was one of the biggest islands in the Philippines. The U.S. invasion force was led by General Douglas MacArthur and included more than 200,000 men. The Japanese defenders numbered around 55,000. The battle continued until year-end. The total U.S. casualties were around 15,500 (3,500 KIA). The Japanese paid a much higher price, with 49,000 KIA, leaving only a few thousand survivors.
For the Leyte Island campaign, the U.S.S. Savo Island was assigned to ComCarDiv-27 (TU-77.4.2) under Rear Admiral Felix B. Stump. In supporting this invasion, VC-27 damaged or destroyed 94 ground targets. VC-27 lost three aircraft: 2 Wildcats flown by Ens August F. Uthoff and Ens R. A. Mayhew [KIA]; and an Avenger flown by Ens William R. Peden.
Following this action, the U.S.S. Savo Island was stationed to the northwest, east of Samar Island.
Softening up of the Japanese defenses prior to the Leyte invasion began on 16 October. A wind and rain storm of typhoon proportions prevented flying on the 17th, (and almost everyone was seasick!) but the next day VC-27 struck over the Visayan area furnishing CAP, ASP and reconnaissance searches. Torpedo bombers hit the Dulag airfield several times again during the day and gun emplacements at the town of San Ricardo while the fighters were strafing the landing beach area and artillery emplacements. Le Blanc's Flight Log Book shows the activity on the 18th and 19th: "Bombed and strafed Tacloban airstrip on Leyte Central, Philippines .... received flack in fuselage - no one hit .... coordinated attacks on central and eastern Leyte .... near miss for pilot ... "
The effects of the nasty weather were described by Ens. Blackwell "... During one of our flight operations, the TBM assigned to me was down for engine overhaul. The only plane available and not assigned to another pilot, was Cmdr. Jackson's, so I was told to use his plane on the flight. (A little background information - Cmdr. Jackson's aircrew kept his plane spotless. They waxed it down with Simonize paste wax after each flight to give it an extra knot or two airspeed.) Of course, being the junior Ensign I was extremely apprehensive and said to myself 'Why me?' On the return flight to the carrier the weather was stormy that resulted in the carrier deck being very unstable. So when I landed, the plane hit the flight deck hard, bounced and fortunately caught a cable, and then hit the barrier. The port landing carriage was damaged as it rolled into the catwalk. Additionally, the propeller was bent. Obviously, 1 was expecting to be called in for a tongue lashing and/or reprimand from Comdr. Jackson. But it never happened. I'II always remember him for that ... "
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Between 20 and 24 October VC-27 operated much like that in the Peleliu campaign. Le Blanc's Flight Log Book continues: "... Provided direct air support to MacArthur's troops ... coordinated attacks over Sun Pablo, Dulas and Ormoc airstrips ... set trucks on fire, bombed, strafed and fired rockets into heavy gun installations ... " The Log Book also shows that while training flights back in the states usually lasted less that two hours, combat flights were normally 3 1/2 to 4 hours long.
Aviation Machinist Mate 2/c Floyd "Dude" Norman's Log Book showed that on the 24th Lieutenant(jg) William R Peden, with Norman and Radioman S. Ziman aboard, were headed towards Subic Bay when they were jumped by two Jap fighters, a Nakajima Ki-43 "Hayabusa" (i.e.: peregrine falcon - code named "Oscar") and a "Zeke", but the crew succeeded in shooting down one of the planes and had a "probable" on the other. Combat of this sort began to take its toll on equipment and pilot's nerves. A couple of planes crashed on the carrier while landing and, on the 22nd, Lieutenant(jg) August F. Uthoff had an ocean landing with his FM-2 as a result of engine failure. The next day Peden and his crew shared the same fate after their TBM attempted to land on the Marcus Island with their engine was shot out. Fortunately Uthoff and Peden and his crew were immediately picked up by air-sea rescue craft.
The first contact with enemy planes by the fighters was made on 24 October. Initially four "Oscars " from the Japanese Fourth Air Army appeared over the Gulf and were intercepted by four "Wildcats" but the ensuing dogfight ended with the "Oscars" retreating by outrunning the "Wildcats" who could not keep up because of the drag of their wing tanks; there were no "kills" by either side. The "Wildcats," having broken off the pursuit, then intercepted a large group of Yokosuka PI Y twin-engine medium bombers (codenamed "Frances".) Lt. Elliott and his wing-man, Ensign Fred J. Moelter of Terre Haute, Indiana attacked with Elliott shooting down two of the planes immediately. Although they were flying without fighter cover, the Japs did not break formation and continued on their mission that was to bomb friendly surface forces in the Leyte Gulf. Elliott, realizing that one of the bombers was on a suicide dive on one of the American transports, tried aggressively to shoot it down but it was not to be; the plane crashed into one of the transports. Concerned that he might be a victim of the ship's anti-aircraft fire since he had followed the "Frances" all the way down, Elliott did a flip turn and succeeded in getting out of range before getting hit.
Lieutenant(jg) Frank Leighty and his wingman, Ensign William Pinson, the other two fighters involved in the dogfight mentioned above, tore into the "Frances" formation as well. Leighty picked off the lead bomber that crashed on the island. At this point, Pinson, who had jettisoned his wing tanks, was low on fuel and had to return to the Savo. Although he was alone, Leighty managed to pick off two more of the few remaining bombers plus one more probable before returning to the CVE.
At 1000 six "Wildcats" were launched for direct support work to the Leyte land forces. Before they arrived at their destination, however, they were diverted to head off an attack by ten "Zekes" and three Mitsubishi A6M3 "Zero-Sen " fighters (codenamed "Humps" - later called "Zeke" in several waves. And so it went for several hours, but before the day was over VC-27 pilots achieved their best hunting day of the war. Lt. Elliott was credited with three and one-half, Leighty with four, and Lieutenants Robert C. Ashcraft, George H. Davidson, Donald A. McPherson and John T. Ross each got one.["] Additionally, AMM 2/c Norman shot down a "Zeke" with his 50 caliber machine gun from his TBM ball-turret. It was a slaughter. Ensign Ralph A. Mayhew from Heber, Utah also shot down two, but had his engine cut-out while making a slow turn into the Savo's traffic circle. His FM-2 crashed on its back into the sea sinking immediately and, sadly, he drowned. This was the only American casualty of the day.
In fact, Ensign Mayhew crashed while doing a slow "victory roll". Unfortunately, his engine cut out (possibly because it was a gravity feed carburetor) and, to the horror of those watching, he crashed into the ocean. After this loss, the practice of making victory rolls was banned.