VF-11 FIGHTING SUN DOWNERS OF WORLD WAR TWO
by Barrett Tillman
With two combat deployments, ashore and afloat, Fighting Squadron Eleven (VF-1 1) became one of the most notable Aviation units of World War Two. The squadron stood up at NAS North Island in August 1942, at the time of the Guadalcanal landing in the Solomon Islands. Though Fighting 11 couldn't know at the time, "Cactus" would become the unit's ultimate destination,
The first skipper was LCDR Charles R. Fenton, who had led VF-42 from the USS Yorktown (CV-5) in the early months of the Pacific war. Four of the six senior officers were Annapolis men, an unusual depth of experience. The X.O. and OPS officers were: LTs Clarence M. White and Raymond W. Vogel. Among Fenton's experienced aviators was LT (jg) William N. Leonard with four kills at Coral Sea and Midway, Two other combat experienced pilots
were Lt. Frank B. Quady and Lt. (jg) Walter J. Hiebert, both formerly of VF6
aboard Enterprise (CV6). Leonard would add two more kills to his score at Guadalcanal June 12, 1943 to become an ace.
Flying Grumman F4F-4 Wildcats, VF-11 soon made a name for itself as the Sun Downers. The name reflected the old navy term for hard work (toiling til sundown) as well as the newer prospect of downing Japanese "suns." Both proved apt. The logo was designed at Maui by William Leonard and Charles Stimpson and lasted until March 31, 1995. It was one of the most enduring insignias in U. S Naval History. Charles Stimpson ran his score up to 16 kills at war's end.
Air Group 11 sailed to Hawaii October 23, 1942, then to Fiji Islands Feb. for advance training. The USS Hornet (CV-8) was sunk October 26, 1942, which would have been the home of Air Group 11. VF-11 alit at Guadalcanal under LCDR Clarence M. White April 26, 1943. The first combat mission was logged 29th April as an escort mission to Munda, New Georgia in the Solomons.
The Sun Downers' first loss occurred on May 6, when ENS LeRoy Childs ditched en route to Munda and was not seen again. A month later LT Gordon Cady's division lost three planes, but no pilots, with Cady claiming two kills.
Fighting Eleven conducted two large combats in June. On June 12, Bill Leonard led four divisions against 36 Zekes near the Russell's, scoring 14-4 with no pilots lost. ENS Vernon E. Graham ran his score from zero to five: VF-11 first "in-house" ace in one flight.
Four days later, the Japanese launched a major strike against Guadalcanal and 17 Sun Downers claimed 31 victories against three pilots lost. The notable performers were LTJGs Charlie Stimpson and Jim Swope with four kills each. The Sun Downers' last combat at Cactus came on July 9, their tour ending on the 11th. In almost three months, V F-11 had claimed 55 kills with the loss of five pilots and 12 Wildcats to enemy action.
Upon return to the U.S., Gordon Cady assumed command of the squadron in September 1943. His new exec was LT Eugene Fairfax, formerly and OS2U pilot and a Naval graduate. Meanwhile, the Sun Downers exchanged Wildcats for Hellcats and began the training cycle that would culminate in another combat deployment.
In March 1944 the reorganized Air Group 11 went to Hawaii, continuing training on Maui and Hilo. Gordon Cady rolled out in August, with Gene Fairfax fleeting up to command the squadron. The next month the air group deployed separately, being reunited at Manus Harbor in the Admiralties. Seven Sun Downers remained from the Guadalcanal tour, including Stimpson who ran his score up to 16 kills and Swope who ran his score up to 9.66 kills.
CAG-11's new home was USS Hornet (CV-12) which sortied from Manus in early October. On the 10th Fairfax's men struck the Nansei Shoto group between Okinawa and Japan, sinking two ships and downing a Val while losing one pilot. Subsequent attacks against Formosa brought more aerial combat. On the 14th, the squadron lost five men against 19 kills: five by Charlie Stimpson who became VF-11's second ace in a day. The Hellcat pilots bounced back on the 16th claiming 12-0. Thus, Stimpson, Jim Swope and Henry White became the only Sun Downers to claim kills on both tours.
Attention turned to the Philippines in October, leading up to the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Hornet's task group was en route Ulitihi on October 24 when word arrived of the huge fleet engagement, and reversed course. The next day CVG-11 launched long-range strikes against the Japanese fleet, continuing to the 26th.
November 5 proved the biggest day of the cruise as large dogfights near Manila resulted in 29-1 claims. LT Jimmie Savage also reached the magical five figure. Swope's section leader, LT (jg) Blake Moranville, joined the club on November 19.
Following rest at Ulithi in late November, combat continued over the Philippines for the rest of the year. Then attention shifted to Formosa and Hong Kong in January. During that time, Fairfax and CAG Emmett Riera decided not to split VF-11 into fighter and and fighter-bomber units as many air groups did. Nobody wanted to break up a winning team.
On January 11, Task Force 38 steamed into the South China Sea for strikes against Japanese--occupied French Indochina. New ace Blake Moranville was shot down while strafing Tan Son Hnut Airfield and was picked by the Vichy French. He endured a lengthy overland adventure before fetching up at Kunming, China in April.
Meanwhile, the Sun Downers continued hitting Formosa and Hong Kong. On January 22 VF-11 flew its last mission of the war, striking targets on Okinawa. Fairfax's squadron claimed 103 aerial kills plus four destroyers or escorts sunk. Twenty pilots were lost, of whom Moranville and ENS Crehan were retrieved. In all, the Sun Downers were credited with 157 aerial victories in World War Two, producing seven aces. Gene Fairfax just missed the honor with four kills himself. Additionally, Bill Masoner, Bob Maxwell, and John Zink became aces with other squadrons. Bob Maxwell became the only ace with VF-51 with seven kills.
The Sun Downers continued their winning ways under a variety of identities: VF-11A in 1948 and VF-111 in 1956. Flying F9F Panthers, skipper Bill Amen scored the first jet-versus jet kill in history, over Korea in 1951. Later Sun Downers bagged two more MiGs while flying Crusaders and Phantoms in Vietnam.
Despite a near unique record compiled of 53 years and three wars, the Sun Downers were disestabllished March 31, 1995. The U.S. Navy, with no regard to history or traditions, ended the Sun Downers exceptional career while retaining other squadrons that had existed less than a decade. The one thing that cannot be taken away from the Sun Downers is their exceptional contribution to Navy Air. Although Mr. Tillman prepared this brief history, a few names have been added by Tim. The only living former CO of World War Two Sun Downers is retired RADM Eugene G. Fairfax who lives in Albuquerque, NM. The only living aces who were former Sun Downers are: retired RADM William N. Leonard who lives in Chester, VA. Ace Vernon E. Graham lives in Santa Maria, CA. Ace Robert S. "Bob" Maxwell lives in Columbia, SC. Ace John A. Zink, a retired oral surgeon, lives in Lima, OH.
This historical account was prepared by the well known historian Barrett Tillman. Kermit H. "Tim" Enander who was a Sun Downer with VF-11 1942,1943 is the current Secretary/Treasurer of the Sun Downers and Carrier Air Group Eleven Association is submitting this history to the Pensacola National Flight Log along with two photos of the squadron. (One taken at Guadalcanal June 17, 1943 and the group at Maui July, 1944) and the Sun Downer logo.