Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, Fabled Fifteen: The Pacific War Saga of Carrier Air Group 15. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2014. 240 pp.
Review by LCDR Ethan Williams, USN
United States Air Force Academy
The 1944 combat performance of the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Air Group 15 (CVG-15) is impressive. Flying off of USS Essex (CV-9) during the battles of the Philippine Sea (the “Marianas Turkey Shoot”) and Leyte Gulf, CVG-15’s fighter squadron, VF-15 (“Fighting 15”), shot down 312 Japanese planes and destroyed an additional 348 planes on the ground. The air group’s bomber squadron, VB-15 (“Bombing 15”), and torpedo bomber squadron, VT-15 (“Torpedo 15”), sank over 174,000 tons of Japanese cargo shipping and helped sink both the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) battleship Musashi (sister ship of the famed Yamato) and carrier Zuikaku (the sole survivor of the six carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor), along with numerous other Japanese warships. Every pilot from VT-15 earned the Navy Cross and twenty-six VF-15 pilots became aces. The air group commander (CAG), Commander David McCampbell, was the navy’s leading ace in World War II with thirty-four kills and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Marianas and at Leyte.
The author’s interest in CVG-15 began as a teenager and grew when he served with some former CVG-15 and Essex officers during his own time in the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s. In the years since, he has interviewed many other CVG-15 and Essex veterans and published several books and articles on World War II air combat. In writing Fabled Fifteen, the author approaches the battles not from the strategic or operational level that so many other books do. Instead he places the reader in the cockpit with the pilots and aircrew of CVG-15 as they dogfight Zeros or dodge flak during their bomb runs on Japanese targets over the western Pacific.
One of the more interesting story lines in the book is the leadership development of McCampbell. Before his promotion to CAG, McCampbell served as VF-15’s first commanding officer. Once CAG, he continued to serve as the de facto leader of VF-15, undermining the authority of the squadron’s appointed commanding and executive officers (p. 69). During CVG-15’s early 1944 transit from Norfolk to Pearl Harbor on USS Hornet (CV-12), VB-15 lost over a dozen aircraft through mishaps, several of which were attributed to operating procedures established by the Hornet’s Captain. No evidence is presented that McCampbell challenged the Captain’s unsafe procedures. Upon arrival in Hawaii, CVG-15’s readiness was so low that CVG-2 was ordered to replace CVG-15 as Hornet’s air group (p. 69-70). Amazingly, McCampbell, the man who became the navy’s “Ace of Aces,” was not relieved. Once CVG-15 entered combat in the Marianas, McCampbell’s talent as fighter pilot truly emerged. His capability as combat air group commander, however, was lacking and in late August Task Group commander Rear Admiral Frederick Sherman counseled McCampbell on his performance as CAG. Sherman emphasized that the CAG’s duty was to lead and coordinate strikes, not to hunt for Zeros. McCampbell responded and effectively led strikes throughout the Leyte campaign, although he did continue to rack up aerial kills, including nine in a single day (p. 127-128).
The author’s writing is at its best when describing CVG-15’s combat actions. When describing the strategic and operational events surrounding CVG-15’s tactical actions, however, the author’s explanations and conclusions sometimes fall short. For example, the author attributes the Japanese Navy’s mindset for a single-stroke, decisive victory at Leyte Gulf to the Japanese sports of kendo and botaoshi practiced at the Japanese naval academy (p. 163). Perhaps a better explanation for the IJN’s decisive victory mindset is the IJN’s decades of study of the sea power theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan prior to the battle. The author also makes some other minor errors that may not be apparent to the general public, but stand out to the naval aviation enthusiast. The launching and recovering of aircraft every hour to an hour and a half is known today as “cyclic operations” or “cyclic ops,” not the “operation cycle” (p. 28). Today’s air wing commanders do not fly fighters (or strike-fighters as “fighters” are no longer in the fleet) out of a “de rigueur” tradition that began in 1944, but instead fly fighters because most come from a fighter background and are thoroughly experienced in strike warfare (p. 26). Finally, LT (later Rear Admiral) V.G. Lambert is not “the only non-Annapolis graduate to ever command a super carrier” (p. 210).
The most significant issue with this book is its lack of documentation. Despite the author’s substantial use of first person accounts and quotations throughout the book, there are no footnotes or endnotes to reveal the sources of those accounts. The bibliography is a scant two and a half pages and composed mainly of secondary sources, despite the fact that the Foreword, written by the son of McCampbell, touts the author’s “exhaustive research of official records…personal interviews and diaries written during the conflict” (p.7). No official records, personal interviews, or diaries appear in the bibliography, such as the diary of Petty Officer Alfred Graham that is referenced throughout the book.
Fabled Fifteen is a fast paced book that is told primarily through the first-hand accounts of the participants. Through his research and interviews, the author has preserved an important part of naval aviation history. It is unfortunate that he did not thoroughly document his sources. The general reader looking for an action packed story of World War II aerial combat will enjoy Fabled Fifteen. The scholar looking to do further research on CVG-15, the Marianas, or Leyte will be frustrated by the lack of documentation. There is a gap in the historical record with regards to CVG-15 that has only partially been filled. Perhaps in a second edition or follow-on work the author can further contribute to the historical record by better documenting what appears to be valuable research. For now, the reader is left wondering how much of the book is original scholarship and how much is synthesis of existing literature.