“Gear down… flaps down… hook down… what hook?!”
In May 1942, USS Wasp and the Royal Navy carrier HMS Eagle delivered a second batch of Spitfires to Malta as part of Operation Bowery. Launching the Spitfires on May 9, McCampbell participated in one of the more interesting small incidents of the war when one of the British fighters accidentally dropped its long-range tank an hour after leaving the ship. Unable to make Malta, the pilot elected to return to the task force. As McCampbell recalled, the pilot was given the choice of either ditching near the task force and being picked up, or attempting to land aboard. Despite his lack of a tail hook, he took the second option of coming aboard. Wasp’s flight deck was completely cleared of aircraft as the ship headed into the wind at maximum speed to land the fighter. “On his first approach, he was high and fast, which is natural for one not accustomed to landing aboard ship. Previously, I had told these pilots that if they ever saw me jump into the net by the LSO’s position, they should go around. So I did that and he pulled up and went around again. He was still high and fast on his second approach, but not as high and fast as before, so I cut him about five hundred feet back from the end of the flight deck. Usually I’d give the pilots a cut fifty or a hundred feet back. He took the cut, but he held off until he had gotten about halfway up the flight deck before he touched down and applied his hand brake. I didn’t think he was going to make it, but he did. He stopped just short of the bow, about six feet back. Later, it took me two paces from his nose to the end of the deck. When he climbed out, I congratulated him and speculated he must have a lot of flying time to pull that off, but he said no, he only had about 127 hours. So then I said he must have a lot of experience in Spitfires and he said he’d never flown one before. He’d never seen a carrier landing before. So that night, down in the wardroom, we gave him a pair of Navy Gold Wings.”
In these photos, P/O Jerry Smith brings his Spitfire Vc aboard Wasp and is congratulated on his successful landing by Wasp LSO LT David McCampbell.
(Excerpted from “Fabled Fifteen: The Pacific War Saga of Carrier Air Group 15”)
(As an aside, Jerry Smith flew at Malta with his brother Rod, who became a squadron leader and ace. Jerry was lost three weeks after arrival, last seen chasing a Ju-88. In 1990, historian Barrett Tillman was able to introduce Rod Smith to David McCampbell at that year’s American Fighter Aces Assn convention)
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